One of the first things you’re going to want to consider when planning your trip to the island of Oahu is how long you want to visit for.
Having visited the island multiple times over the past decade both as a couple, with elderly parents and with young children we know that how long you need is going to vary significantly depending on your interests.
That being said, we think that five days is enough in Oahu for the majority of people visiting the island. This gives you enough time to travel to the North Shore (once or twice), explore Waikiki and even visit popular attractions such as Diamond Head and Hanauma Bay.
While you can spend fewer than five days in Oahu your experience may feel rushed and you may miss out on some of the most popular and iconic experiences that the island has to offer.
Where To Stay In Oahu
In our opinion, the best place to stay in Oahu is in Waikiki. This is the most populated area on the island of Oahu, stretching 2 miles long and 0.5 miles wide.
Here you’ll find one of the most famous beaches in the world (Waikiki Beach), alongside an extensive range of shopping centres, stores, cafés and restaurants.
If you’re you choose to spend more than one week in Oahu and have a particular interest in surfing, snorkelling and / or hiking then it may be worth looking into a split-stay in both Waikiki and the North Shore. This will prevent you from wanting to drive to / from Waikiki to the North Shore upwards of three times during your trip and instead allow you to spend more time exploring.
Waikiki also has the largest range of accommodation options on the island. With something to suit all budgets and styles.
Personally, during our most recent visit to Oahu, we opted for a condo, since it gave us more space when travelling with a baby and allowed us to save money by cooking. Some of the best condos in Waikiki include;
During our most recent visit to Oahu, we stayed in a condo at the Waikiki Banyan which we booked through Vrbo.
Alternatively, there are a number of luxury hotels in the region including;
All of these hotels offer a range of amenities, including on-site restaurants, swimming pools, and fitness centres. Other amenities that popular, luxury hotels in the area offer include; private beach access, cabana rentals and both group and private surfing and sup lessons.
Waikiki is approximately 12 miles from Honolulu Airport (the main airport that serves the islands of Oahu) as such it typically takes around 20 – 30 minutes to get from the airport to your accommodation in the area.
While Waikiki is a practical base location when visiting Oahu, the island has so much more to offer. As such, we’d highly encourage you to spend some of your five days in Oahu travelling around the island.
Travelling Around Oahu
The island of Oahu is just under 600 square miles. As such exploring the island can easily be done in one to three days depending on your interests.
Travelling around the island of Oahu is best done by travelling east out of Waikiki (avoiding the H2) and up along the coast to the North Shore.
There is no ring road, around the island of Oahu and instead, once you reach the North Shore you’ll have to take the H2 back down through the centre of the island to Waikiki.
As such if you want to travel to the likes of Kaʻena Point State Park or Maili then you’ll have to turn around and come back the way you came which significantly increases your travel time.
Sadly, this isn’t the only thing that can significantly increase your travel time when exploring Oahu as the island is subject to terrible traffic, especially on the H1 heading in and out of Waikiki.
Traffic is typically the worst between Monday and Friday and starts as early as 5am all the way through until lunch and then again from 3pm until roughly 7pm with people heading in and out of the surrounding areas for work.
To minimise potential delays we highly recommended planning your driving route in advance and allowing for extra time wherever possible.
There are four freeways on the island of Oahu;
This is the main east-west highway and is just over 27 miles long connecting Honolulu to the central part of the island.
This highway is a key thoroughfare for both locals and visitors, connecting major residential, commercial, and tourist areas and is often subject to the worst traffic on the island.
This is a major north-south highway that runs for roughly 23 miles from Pearl City in the central part of the island to Waipahu, near the western coast.
This freeway provides access to some of Oahu’s top attractions such as the Pearl Harbor, the Dole Plantation, and the Waikele Premium Outlets shopping centre.
This is a limited-access toll road that runs from the Halawa Interchange in Aiea to the Kaneohe Interchange in Kaneohe.
This provides a direct route for travellers heading from the central part of the island to the windward side.
This is a short, limited-access toll road that runs from the H1 Freeway near the city of Pearl City to the H2 Freeway in the central part of the island.
This highway provides a convenient route for travellers heading from the central part of the island to the North Shore.
Oahu Transport Options
Depending on your personal circumstances and interests there are a number of ways you can explore the island of Oahu.
Renting A Car
In our opinion renting a car is the best and easiest way to explore the island of Oahu as it gives you the freedom to travel at your own pace and see the sights that interest you the most.
However, sadly the cost of renting a car has increased significantly in recent years. This combined with the high parking costs in Waikiki (often starting at $35 per night) can leave hiring a car out of budget for many.
During our most recent trip to Oahu, we combated this by opting for a condo with parking included and using Turo, a peer-to-peer car rental platform.
Turo is incredibly flexible and as such, we were able to rent a car for just a select number of days during our trip when we knew we’d be using it the most (for the remainder of our trip we explored Waikiki on foot and took an Uber from the airport).
Better still, the cost of the vehicle was significantly cheaper (per day) when compared to mainstream car rental services.
Taxis & Ride-Share
Taxis and ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft are widely available in Oahu. However, services are significantly more limited in more remote areas of the North Shore.
As such we personally only opted to use taxi services when travelling to / from the airport and across Waikiki and used a rental car to drive to / from Waikiki to the North Shore.
The city of Honolulu operates an efficient public transportation system that includes buses, trolleys, and shuttles.
This is a budget-friendly option for getting around Waikiki, however, much like the taxi services, public transport is limited when exploring the regions outside of this area and therefore would not be suitable for visiting the North Shore, the Dole Plantation, the Polynesian Cultural Center etc.
If you don’t have long in Oahu (three or four days) then a dedicated bus tour of the island, visiting the most popular sights may be the best option.
This highly-rated bus tour lasts seven hours and covers Oahu’s natural wonders, cultural sites, surfing spots, and shopping meccas.
Things To Do In Oahu
Oahu boasts an incredible range of tourist attractions and activities. However, not everything is going to be suitable for everyone.
We’ve listed an estimated visit time next to each of these attractions to give you an idea of how long most people spend here on average.
From this, you should be able to get a better understanding of whether or not spending longer than five nights in Oahu may be worthwhile for you.
Popular Tourist Attractions
Oahu is home to a range of popular tourist attractions that appeal to the vast majority of visitors to the island. They include;
⏰ Average Time Spent: 2 to 4 Hours
This historic site is of the most popular, and incredible things to experience on the island of Oahu.
Entry into the historical site is free and tickets are not required. However, to visit the USS Arizona Memorial you will need a timed ticket.
These tickets are free and can be obtained online. We recommend getting your ticket at least two weeks in advance since popular times reach capacity very quickly.
The USS Arizona Memorial honours the 1,177 sailors and Marines who lost their lives during the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
⏰ Average Time Spent: 2 to 4 Hours
Waikiki is a bustling neighbourhood that is home to an extensive range of high-end hotels, restaurants, and luxury shops. Not to mention one of the most famous beaches in the world.
You’ll want to spend a couple of hours walking the streets here to get a feel for Hawaii’s more metropolitan lifestyle.
If you’re staying in Waikiki (which we highly recommend that you do) then this can be done over a couple of mornings and evenings in between trips to major attractions further afield.
⏰ Average Time Spent: 4 to 6 Hours
When you picture Hawaii, you picture Oahu’s North Shore. This laid-back region of the island is known for its famous surfing beaches that are perfect for catching a wave or relaxing on the sand.
Even if you’re not a fan of surfing or sunbathing I’d highly recommend visiting this part of Oahu as you’ll find several incredible food trucks serving some of the most amazing food as well as a number of independent stores selling unique gifts from Hawaii.
⏰ Average Time Spent: 3 to 6 Hours
Kualoa Ranch is a 4,000-acre working cattle ranch which has been in operation for more than 160 years.
However, this is no ordinary ranch as in addition to its picturesque setting, this ranch is famous for its association with Hollywood, having been used as a filming location for numerous movies and TV shows over the years.
The ranch offers a range of activities including both horse riding and ATV tours. However, the most popular is the movie site tour, which takes visitors on a guided tour of the ranch’s various filming locations.
Visitors can see where scenes from movies such as Jurassic Park, Jumanji, and Godzilla were filmed, as well as TV shows such as Lost and Hawaii Five-0.
Polynesian Cultural Center
⏰ Average Time Spent: 3 to 6 Hours
The Polynesian Cultural Center is a living museum located on the northeastern shore of Oahu, dedicated to preserving and showcasing the cultures of Polynesia, which includes Hawaii, Samoa, Tahiti, Tonga, Fiji, and Aotearoa (New Zealand).
The centre spans over 42 acres and features eight simulated villages where visitors can learn about the cultures, traditions, and lifestyles of each island through demonstrations, hands-on activities, and performances.
Oahu benefits from lots of evening activities and The Polynesian Cultural Center is no different, offering a traditional Hawaiian feast called Ali’i Luau, and a nighttime show called “Ha: Breath of Life,” which showcases Polynesian dance, music, and fire knife performances.
The Polynesian Cultural Center is a very popular attraction in Oahu and a great destination for families, history buffs, and anyone interested in learning about the fascinating cultures of the Pacific.
⏰ Average Time Spent: 2 to 3 Hours
The only royal palace in the United States, Iolani Palace served as the official residence of the Hawaiian monarchy from 1882 until 1893 when the monarchy was overthrown.
Today, the palace is open to the public for tours, and visitors can explore the ornate interior, including the throne room, reception room, and private quarters of King Kalakaua and Queen Liliuokalani.
⏰ Average Time Spent: 3 to 5 Hours
Hanauma Bay is a stunning marine conservation area located on the southeastern coast of Oahu. The bay is formed within a volcanic cone and is home to a diverse range of marine life and tropical fish species.
Access to Hanauma Bay is limited with tickets being sold two days in advance of your visit and selling out within a matter of minutes.
However, don’t let the hassle of trying to get tickets here put you off visiting, as Hanauma Bay is incredible and is one of our personal favourite things to do on the island of Oahu.
While snorkelling and swimming are the most popular activities here, you can also sunbathe or picnic on the beach, take a guided reef walk or explore the hiking trails that offer breathtaking views of the bay and surrounding areas.
⏰ Average Time Spent: 2 Hours
The Bishop Museum is a museum in Honolulu with exhibits focusing on the culture, history, and natural environment of Hawaii and the Pacific region.
The museum’s collections include over 25 million items, including artefacts, documents, photographs, and specimens as well as exhibits on the ancient Hawaiian civilization, and the geological and ecological history of the islands.
Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design
⏰ Average Time Spent: 2 Hours
The Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design is a museum located in Honolulu that features exhibits on Islamic art, culture, and design.
The museum was created by Doris Duke, an American philanthropist and collector, who was inspired by her travels to the Middle East and South Asia.
The museum’s collections include over 4,000 objects, including Islamic art, textiles, ceramics, furniture, and architectural elements.
The exhibits focus on the cultural and artistic traditions of the Islamic world, including the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa.
Visit One (Or More) Of The Islands Popular Beaches
⏰ Average Time Spent: 1 to 4 Hours (per beach)
The island of Oahu is home to some incredible beaches. The most popular of these include;
- Waikiki Beach
- Lanikai Beach
- Kailua Beach
- Sunset Beach
- Pipeline Beach
- Waimea Bay Beach Park
- Ala Moana Beach Park
- Waimanalo Beach
- Sandy Beach Park
Hike One of Oahu’s Popular Trails
⏰ Average Time Spent: 1 to 4 Hours (per hike)
Oahu is incredibly popular with hikers and offers a range of beginner, intermediate and advanced trails. Some of the most popular include;
- Diamond Head State Monument
- Koko Head Crater Trail
- Manoa Falls Trail
- Lanikai Pillbox Hike
- Makapu’u Point Lighthouse Trail
- Aiea Loop Trail
- Wiliwilinui Ridge Trail
- Olomana Three Peaks Trail
- Pu’u Ma’eli’eli Trail
- Stairway to Heaven (Haiku Stairs)
How We Spend 5 Days In Oahu
We think that five days is the perfect amount of time for most first-time visitors to experience the vast majority of what the island of Oahu has to offer – but what do those days look like?
Day One – Hanauma Bay, Iolani Palace & Diamond Head State Monument
On your first day in Oahu, waking up early due to the change in time zones is highly likely.
However, you can take advantage of this early start by heading out early to Hanauma Bay, one of the best snorkelling spots on the island.
Entry to Hanauma Bay is limited and tickets must be purchased two days in advance. They sell out quickly, so planning in advance (and setting alarms) is going to be necessary to secure a spot.
If you manage to get the first timed entry into Hanuma Bay at 7am then you can spend roughly four hours swimming and snorkelling here before leaving for lunch and exploring more of what Oahu has to offer.
11 miles west of Hanauma Bay back in the direction of Waikiki is Iolani Palace.
Iolani Palace is the only royal palace in the United States, making it a unique and historically significant destination.
The palace was built in 1882 during the reign of King Kalakaua and was the official residence of the Hawaiian monarchs until 1893 when the monarchy was overthrown.
Today, it is a National Historic Landmark and serves as a museum that provides visitors with a glimpse into Hawaii’s rich history and culture. Its ornate decor, beautiful architecture, and fascinating exhibits make it a must-visit destination for anyone interested in Hawaiian history and culture.
After an afternoon exploring Iolani Palace the heat and humidity should have reduced significantly. As such hiking Diamond Head State Monument should be significantly easier (when compared to over lunchtime and in the early afternoon).
Diamond Head State Monument, one of the most popular hikes on Oahu, is located just a fifteen-minute drive from Waikiki.
However, much like Hanauma Bay entry into the Diamond Head State Monument is limited and tickets for a timeslot must be purchased in advance.
While the ticket availability is significantly higher than Hanauma Bay, we still recommend reserving a time at least five days in advance of your planned hike date to avoid disappointment.
Day Two – North Shore
On your second day in Oahu, it’s time to take a road trip to explore the beautiful North Shore.
Known for its stunning beaches, epic waves, and delicious food trucks, the North Shore is the perfect place to experience the laid-back, bohemian vibe of Oahu.
One of the main draws of the North Shore is its beautiful beaches. Whether you want to swim, sunbathe, or surf, there’s a beach on the North Shore that’s perfect for you.
Some of the most popular beaches include;
- Waimea Bay Beach Park
- Sunset Beach
- Pipeline Beach
These beaches are not only beautiful but also offer some of the best surf spots in the world, with waves that can reach up to 30 feet during the winter months.
Another reason to visit the North Shore is the food trucks.
This area is home to some of the best food trucks in Hawaii, serving up everything from classic Hawaiian plate lunches to fresh shrimp and fish tacos.
Some of the most popular food trucks include;
- Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck
- Pupukea Grill
- Shark’s Cove Grill
Day Three – Polynesian Cultural Center & Kualoa Ranch
On your third day in Oahu, you’ll also be heading north, this time to the Polynesian Cultural Center which is dedicated to celebrating the cultures of Polynesia.
Here, you can take part in cultural activities such as;
- Hula dancing
- Spear throwing
- Coconut husking
- Traditional Polynesian crafts
Alongside this, the Polynesian Cultural Center also offers a variety of shows, including a canoe pageant and a spectacular evening show featuring fire knife dancing.
After a morning of cultural exploration, it’s just a short drive to Kualoa Ranch for an afternoon of outdoor adventures.
Kualoa Ranch is a working 4,000-acre site which is known for its stunning natural beauty, rich history and filmography, having served as a filming location for numerous popular films and TV shows.
As such, it’s no surprise that this is one of the best places for families visiting Oahu, offering a wide range of activities including;
- Horseback riding
- ATV tours
- Movie site tours
All of which offer a unique perspective on the island’s natural beauty and film history.
Day Four – Pearl Harbor & Waikiki Shopping
Begin your fourth day in Oahu by exploring one of the most famous historical sites on the island; the Pearl Harbor National Memorial.
This site includes;
- USS Arizona Memorial
- USS Bowfin Submarine Museum
- Pacific Aviation Museum
However, entry into the USS Arizona Memorial is only permitted with a timed entry ticket.
Tickets to the memorial are free, but do sell out. As such we highly recommend reserving your spot at least two weeks in advance of your trip.
The sites here offer a detailed insight into the events of World War II and the important role that Hawaii played in the war.
It’s a fascinating and highly interactive experience, so we recommend allocating plenty of time to your visit.
In the afternoon, we recommend taking it easy and heading to downtown Waikiki to explore, shop and dine.
The majority of stores and shopping malls in this area are within walking distance of one another and easy to navigate between.
Waikiki is home to a range of high-end luxurious stores including;
- Tiffany & Co.
Alongside this, you’ll also find plenty of mainstream stores such as;
- Hot Topic
When it comes to eating out in Waikiki, the neighbourhood has a lot to offer. Some of our favourite places include;
Duke’s: This oceanfront restaurant is named after Duke Kahanamoku, the legendary Hawaiian surfer and Olympian. Duke’s is known for its fresh seafood and tropical cocktails and offers live music every evening.
Hula Grill: Located on the second floor of the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort, this restaurant offers stunning views of the ocean and Diamond Head.
The Pig and the Lady: This Vietnamese-inspired restaurant is located in the heart of Chinatown and offers a unique fusion of traditional Vietnamese cuisine with modern, creative twists.
Roy’s Waikiki: This upscale restaurant is the flagship location of Chef Roy Yamaguchi’s Hawaiian fusion cuisine. The menu features a mix of Hawaiian and Asian flavours, with an emphasis on fresh seafood.
Arancino at The Kahala: This Italian restaurant is located in the Kahala Hotel & Resort and offers traditional Italian dishes made with fresh, locally sourced ingredients.
House Without A Key: This oceanfront restaurant is located at the Halekulani Hotel and offers a range of Pacific Rim and Hawaiian-inspired dishes.
Day Five – Beach Relaxation, Surfing, Snorkelling & Hiking
Your last day in Oahu can be spent enjoying some of the island’s best activities.
During the last day of our most recent trip to Oahu, we based ourselves on Waikiki Beach, just a short walk from where we were staying.
However, throughout the day we took turns playing with our son on the beach and taking part in activities that the island offered that best suited our interests.
That meant that in the morning, Helen went on a group snorkelling trip to see sea turtles at a cleaning station just off the coast.
This was an incredible two-hour experience that included all the snorkelling equipment, drinks, snacks and an informative guide.
Then in the afternoon, I (Cora) went off for a two-hour group surf lesson on Kūhiō Beach (next to Waikiki Beach).
Depending on your time, budget and preferences we also recommend finishing this day with an incredible Oahu dinner cruise.
There are a number of companies that offer this cruise. Typically it lasts between 2 – 3 hours and can include the cruise alone, cocktails or even a three-course dinner and show – again, depending on your budget and preferences.
How Much Does It Cost To Visit Oahu (Per Day)
The longer you spend in Oahu, the more your trip to Hawaii is going to cost. As such when deciding how long to spend on the island it’s worth considering the budget you have for your trip.
Of course, the amount you spend in Oahu is also going to vary dramatically depending on your interests, the time of year you’re travelling, the level of luxury you require and who you’re travelling with.
However, as a guideline, we recommend budgeting roughly $250 per person, per day for adults and $125 per person, per day for children.
If you’re travelling solo and looking for a hotel room, then you’ll likely be looking at closer to $400 – $450 per person since you’ll not be splitting the room with someone else.
This does not include flights but does include things such as a hire car, accommodation, food and activities.
Given this, a couple would want to budget $500 per person, per day for the trip (on average). This makes;
- 2 days – $1,000
- 3 days – $1,500
- 4 days – $2,000
- 5 days – $2,500
- 6 days – $3,000
- 7 days – $3,500
As a result, choosing to spend 5 days in Oahu instead of 7 days is likely to help you save $1,000 ($500 each) – again, on average.
Oahu Travel Planning Guide
🏥 Should I Buy Travel Insurance for a Trip to Oahu?
Yes, you should definitely buy travel insurance for any vacation to Oahu. Basic travel insurance coverage with Safety Wing averages between $5 – $10 per day and offers peace of mind.
🚘 Do I Need to Rent a Car for a Trip to Oahu?
I would recommend hiring a car for a trip to Oahu. Even if it’s only for a couple of days of your vacation. I personally use Discover Cars to find the best car rental deals.
However, if you are on a tight budget or you don’t plan to explore much of the island then you, then you may want to consider comparing the cost and convenience of Uber and rental cars in Oahu instead.
🏨 Where to Stay in Oahu?
The vast majority of accommodation in Oahu is located in Waikiki. If you enjoy shopping, then you may want to stay further north by the Ala Moana Shopping Mall.
Alternatively, if you’re looking to spend your vacation at the beach, then consider staying as close to Waikiki Beach as possible.