Despite being the most isolated islands in the world I recently discovered that the Hawaiian archipelago has an overwhelming amount of places and outdoor activities to enjoy, keeping you busy for days on end.
Even Oahu, which is the most urbanized of them all (which is still not much) is full of opportunities that allow interaction between people and nature.
It's Hawaii’s most populous island. Compact and colorful, Oahu offers far more than what’s doable in a single trip.
Here, however, is this fantastic Oahu itinerary with the best attractions around the island, all of which can be done if you spend (at least) 3 days in Oahu – provided you’re ready for a packed itinerary. If you have one week, even better.
Bear in mind this itinerary assumes you’re based in downtown Honolulu.
I also recommend you first read my article on how to visit Hawaii on a budget, with plenty of tips that will save you money on tours, accommodation and transportation, and then come back to this article.
Day 1: Downtown Honolulu and Waikiki Beach
Hawaii’s capital is more than just its famed Waikiki Beach. Sure, this two mile stretch of summer excitement will likely take up much of your time in Hawaii, but at some point you really ought to dust off the sand and explore the city itself during your first day in Oahu.
Along with being the largest city anywhere in the Polynesian region, Honolulu is both lively and easy to get around.
Regular public transport, friendly locals and its status as the second safest city in the US make Honolulu a great base of operations for a family vacation.
USS Arizona Memorial
Your Honolulu itinerary starts at a memorial that not only serves as a good place to begin not only an exploration of the city, but also Hawaii’s complex history.
Don’t be surprised if chills run down your spine at the site of America’s first casualties of World War II. In the morning of December 7, 1941, the crew of the USS Arizona were sent scrambling by an air raid alarm. Barely, five minutes later, the battleship was pummeled by the first wave of Japanese bombers.
One of the shells hit the Arizona’s forward magazines, causing a massive explosion that rattled the nearby naval base at Pearl Harbor. The sinking of the USS Arizona killed over 2000 sailors, marines and civilians, representing both the start of the Pearl Harbor historic battle, and the first American deaths in the largest conflict in human history.
Today, the USS Arizona remains exactly where it sank beneath the waves in 1941. In 1962, a memorial complex was constructed over the sunken wreck.
Designed by Honolulu architect Alfred Preis, the memorial doesn’t touch the wreck itself, but nonetheless allows visitors to get as close as possible to the historic battleship.
At this point, you’re probably scratching your head as to how exactly you’re supposed to actually get to a shipwreck in the middle of the ocean.
The only way to get to the memorial is from the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center at Arizona Memorial Place in Honolulu. The center hosts its own museum, along with serving as a stop for regular boats that ferry visitors out to the USS Arizona wreck. The boats are operated by the navy, and are free.
Speaking of costs, visiting the entire USS Arizona Memorial shouldn’t cost you a cent. Along with the boat ride, a guided visit includes a short documentary on the USS Arizona, along with a visit to the memorial over the wreck.
In total, expect the whole experience to take around an hour and a half.
Tickets are free, and can be obtained from the visitor center on arrival. However, due to limited space on the boats, the wait can be pretty long – especially during peak season.
To ensure you get a spot, you can book as much as two months in advance. The booking can be made for free online at the official website. This attraction is highly recommended, representing one of the most important Pearl Harbor historic sites.
Pacific Aviation Museum
This museum devotes itself to the air war between the U.S. and Japan during World War II, and may not be suitable for young kids.
Opened in late 2006, it has lots of high-end Bush-era military museum technology, including subsonic explosion effects that simulate the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and flight simulators that allow you to spend 20 minutes in aerial combat as either a U.S. Navy Wildcat or a Japanese Zero.
Speaking of Zeroes, the museum has two: one displayed on a full scale replica of a Japanese aircraft carrier flight deck, and the other is a salvaged wreck that lay on the Hawaiian island of Ni'ihau for 65 years.
USS Bowfin Submarine Museum
One year after the Battle of Pearl Harbor dragged the USA into World War II, the USS Bowfin was launched from Hawaii. The submarine was immediately thrown into service in the war in the Pacific.
The sub’s first mission was a secret operation to transport supplies across open waters from Australia to guerrilla fighters in the Philippines.
For the rest of the war, the USS Bowfin participated in patrols across the Pacific, and today remains one of the best preserved American submarines of the era.
Located just next door to the USS Arizona Memorial Visitor Center, the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum allows visitors to explore both the submarine and its history, not to mention get a taste for the gritty, claustrophobic lives of World War II-era submarine crews. Tickets cost $15 for adults, and $7 for children.
National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific
A trip to the USS Arizona should definitely be followed by a solemn visit to the Punchbowl Cemetery.
Officially known as the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, this historic site gets its more commonly used name, the Punchbowl, due to its location in the intriguingly-shaped Punchbowl Crater.
The cemetery itself serves as the resting place of over 25,000 Americans who gave their lives in World War II, along with the Korean and Vietnamese wars.
No Oahu trip is complete without a visit here.
The last sightseeing stop of the day is perhaps the most decadent. Learn more about Hawaii’s fascinating history with a visit to the Iolani Palace. Between 1795 and 1893, Hawaii was ruled by a monarchy under two successive dynasties.
For much of this time, the spectacular ʻIolani Palace served as the royal residence, and the political heart of the Hawaiian Kingdom. After the overthrow of the last monarch of Hawaii, Queen Liliʻuokalani, the palace functioned as the headquarters of the provisional government, before becoming the islands’ state capitol building until 1978.
Today, the historic building serves as a museum, with exhibitions highlighting the story of the Hawaiian monarchy. It’s also the only royal palace anywhere in the United States.
The ʻIolani Palace is located in downtown Honolulu, and hosts regular cultural events.
After hitting up these sites, you should be approaching sundown. This is the perfect time to head over to Waikiki Beach to catch the sunset, or consider an Oahu tour from the beach.
There’s nowhere in particular to go, as Waikiki is best enjoyed with a rambling stroll that takes in the chaos of this wildly popular beach.
Live performances, food and endless opportunities for watersports await.
Once you start getting tired, one good target to aim for is Queen’s Beach, where regular nightly film screenings take place on a 1000-foot screen on the sand itself.
Otherwise, meander over to the Hilton Hawaiian Village for the Friday night fireworks.
Day 2: Eastern Oahu
For day two, you’ll be heading out of Honolulu along the Kalaniana’ole Highway, with your first stop being America’s favorite beach.
Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve
America has always loved Hanauma Bay so much it hurts – literally. Once reserved for Hawaiian royalty, in the boom years after World War II Hanauma Bay became something of a national sensation.
This glorious arc of white sand and turquoise waters enchanted holiday makers from the mainland. At the height of Hanauma mania, the beach was receiving in excess of 3 million visitors each year – and it came at a cost.
Years of neglect and overuse resulted in severe degradation of the shoreline and native ecosystem, resulting in Hanauma Bay’s once-prized reputation being tarnished. Things finally began to change in the early 1990s, when a major rehabilitation effort was undertaken.
Today, years of effort have paid off. The new Hanauma Bay has been restored to its ancient glory, not to mention adored with improvements such as the Marine Education Center.
Marine wildlife has bounced back, and the bay makes for some of the best snorkeling anywhere in Hawaii. Eels, octopuses and a myriad of tropical fish can all be seen.
While this is all good news, it’s worth noting that Hanauma Bay does impose some restrictions to ensure the beach never falls into neglect again.
- The parking lot has around 300 spaces, and once they’re taken no more vehicles are allowed in.
- Expect the lot to fill up anywhere between 8-10am.
- Parking costs only $1, though entry to the bay itself will cost you an additional $7.50.
- The beach is closed once a week (at the time of writing this was every Tuesday), to give the ecosystem a break from the constant flow of visitors.
- Snorkeling gear can be hired on the beach, but expect to pay a premium.
- Bring your own gear if you can.
To get to Hanauma Bay either take a private vehicle or from Waikiki you can ride the #22 all the way to the main entrance. The trip will take you around 45 minutes, depending on traffic.
If you’re in a rush to get there early, a cab will cost around $50 each way. However you get to Hanauma Bay, try your best to get in as early as possible. Along with the afore-mentioned visitor limits, the reality is that by midday the beach itself can feel more like a fairground than a tropical island paradise.
So if you’d actually like to savor your time at Hanauma Bay, aim to arrive as close as possible to 6am, when the beach opens. Be prepared to leave around lunchtime or mid-afternoon, depending on how well you tolerate crowds.
Lastly, don’t forget to bring reef safe sunscreen. Conventional sunscreens that include oxybenzone and octinoxate are banned throughout Hawaii, and this rule is taken somewhat seriously around Hanauma Bay.
After finishing up at Hanauma Bay around mid afternoon, you have two choices. Either return to Honolulu for one of Hawaii’s best hikes, or consider a side-trip northwards for some sightseeing and a beachside barbecue at Kualoa.
Diamond Head Hike
Oahu’s most popular hike rewards visitors with one of the island’s best panoramic views.
From the top, you can see everything from Waikiki to Koko Head and Waianae. On a clear day you can easily spend more time at the top gawking at the view than actually hiking.
In fact, Diamond Head has in the past been recognized for the world’s longest recorded land views – so needless to say, there’s a lot to see, and this is no coincidence.
This lookout was originally developed in 1908 to observe the coastline and approaches to Fort Rugur. For decades, the summit bristled with artillery and concrete bunkers, though today the most interesting sight is the big, gaping Diamond Head crater created by an eruption around 300,000 years ago.
As for the hike itself, it actually isn’t as challenging as it may initially appear. Starting from the eastern side, visitors walk through a tunnel directly into the crater, before starting the steep ascent to the summit.
The ascent features stretches of early-mid 20th Century fortifications, including a bunker near the top that opens out onto the lookout. In total, expect to spend around two hours getting to the summit and back.
Kualoa Regional Park
If you want to enjoy some of Hawaii’s natural scenery without breaking a sweat at Diamond Head, then consider heading out to Kualoa Regional Park for an afternoon.
Historically, Hawaiian chiefs brought children to this scenic beach to educate them about their language and culture.
Today, the park is Oahu’s most popular picnic spot. This slice of tropical tranquility features wide open areas with beach views, punctuated with palm trees and picnic tables.
Camping is possible, and walks around the park are both accessible and easy-going.
Apart from the white beaches and emerald mountains inland, there’s not much in terms of attractions here – with the notable exception of the nearby Mokoli'i Island.
More commonly known as Chinaman’s Hat, this pointy outcrop is just offshore, and makes for a nice backdrop to a weekend barbecue with the family.
While Kualoa is peaceful on land, be aware that the waters offshore are generally unfit for swimming. While they may look calm from the north shore, the shallow waters here can suddenly become pretty deep during high tide, when currents become unpredictable at best, outright dangerous at worst.
People have drowned here in the past while trying to swim to and from Chinaman’s Hat.
On the way home, consider tossing in a side-trip to the nearby Kualoa Ranch, which features family-friendly entertainment.
Day 3: Northern Oahu
For your final day, you’ll be heading out to the north of the island, bound for one of the best things to do in Oahu, the Polynesian Cultural Center.
After 3 days in Hawaii, you’re probably feeling a bit exhausted. Having said that, if you get up early, try starting the day in Honolulu with this fantastic hike.
Easy to get to and definitely worth the hike, Manoa Falls tumble 150 feet down a sheer rock face. Given its proximity to downtown Honolulu, you’ll likely be surprised by how wild this place gets.
The trail itself is well maintained, but winds through impenetrable jungle that only occasionally opens for stunning views of the island landscape beyond. It all looks just a tad prehistoric, and it’s easy to imagine a velociraptor or T-rex hiding among the chaotic undergrowth.
Indeed, this trail actually served as a set for a handful of scenes in 1993’s Jurassic Park. More recently, it was featured in a few episodes of the TV series Lost.
At the time of writing, this popular hiking trail had recently been closed for maintenance, so it may be worth double checking in advance before setting out for this rewarding half-day walk.
To reach the trail head, make your way to the end of Manoa Road, and look for the signs. A parking area is available, costing $5 a vehicle. Bring waterproof shoes and a light rain jacket, as this trail can get pretty muddy.
If you’re still on your feet after the hike, consider tossing in a side-trip to the nearby Lyon Arboretum and Botanical Garden. These pleasant gardens have a focus on the preservation of endangered, native Hawaiian flora.
After stretching your legs, it’s time to start the long drive northwards. Located just outside the northern town of Wahiawa, the Dole Plantation is a tribute to Hawaii’s historic pineapple industry.
Learn about Hawaii’s fruit economy while enjoying activities like the Pineapple Garden Maze, Pineapple Express Train and the plantation tour. It’s all light-hearted stuff, and makes for a solid half day that’s perfect for families.
From Waikiki it’s around a 40 minute drive, and public transport is available from the nearby town of Wahiawa. If you have the time, this plantation makes for a good side-trip to break up the drive out to the Polynesian Cultural Center.
In fact, if you’d like to break up the trip even further, consider a pit stop at the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum, located just outside Honolulu.
Polynesian Cultural Center
Expect to spend the bulk of your day here, and return home late and exhausted. Located in the picturesque little town of Laie, the Polynesian Cultural Center has been rated Hawaii’s #1 attraction by USA Today.
Indeed, this wildly popular theme park/living museum is definitely a well-executed affair, with regular shows and other live entertainment running like clockwork from dawn till dusk.
Spread over 42 acres, the park is divided into six villages, each representing a Polynesian culture.
A full trip through the park feels like a tour of the Pacific, from New Zealand to Samoa, Tahiti to Tonga and, of course, Hawaii itself. Each village feels authentic and respectful, not to mention lively with music and traditional performances.
The real highlight comes after dark though, when over 100 Polynesian performers assemble for a spectacular fire and dance show. This show isn’t only a wonderful way to end a day at the cultural center, but arguably Hawaii’s top experience.
Oahu in 1 Day: the Oahu Grand Circle Island Tour
While the idea of being on a bus tour for ten hours might be daunting, the truth is that you are not on the bus for that amount of time as there are many stops along the way. And if you want to see a lot but don't have much time, your options are limited to just one: the Grand Circle Island Tour
The tour begins at about 8 am, the bus picking you up from wherever you’re staying at then head east towards Diamond Head.
The first stop is at Hanauma Bay, where you have 15 minutes to get off the bus and take a few pictures before hopping back on and making it to the next stop, a blowhole set in a beautiful location.
Right besides it is Sandy Beach, a famous beach among bodyboarders because of the powerful waves that break right on the shore (caution if you decide to swim here on your own later on- necks do snap quite often).
The bus then continues heading north and going inland towards Nu’uanu Pali lookout, up in the mountains. We had not been here and found out that it can be quite chilly up here- be warned! The views are impressive as are the mountains, steep and high, cut by the constant trade winds that hit the island.
The next stop is Byodo-In temple, a replica of a 900 year old temple in Kyoto (Japan) built to commemorate the 100 anniversary of the first Japanese settlers. This was one of the most interesting new places we visited in the tour.
Set in a beautiful location and surrounded by ponds it immediately reminded me of my visit to Japan, bringing back fond memories and reminding me how traditional Japanese culture can bring me (and maybe you) to a state of harmony and peace in the blink of an eye.
Lunch break comes shortly after, at Kualoa ranch. You can choose from a simple but assorted buffet (13 USD p/p with discount given by the tour)or eat at will.
Right after you are taken on a train-car to a lookout where you can enjoy some views of the bay. Kualoa Ranch is, by the way, an area that deserves some time in its own if possible: it is here that movies and TV shows like LOST or Jurassic Park were filmed because of the dramatic landscapes and lush vegetation.
Coming from the mountains you are then taken to the North Shore and have a brief stop at Sunset Beach where you can take some pictures.
The bus does not stop at Turtle Bay before it or Waimea Bay after, yet these are beaches I highly recommend you visit on your own too, as well as Shark’s Cove (Turtle Bay is the best place where to swim with sea turtles for free!).
Before heading back to Waikiki there is a final stop at Dole pineapple plantation.
Pineapples used to be Hawaii’s main export, and Dole plantation was the largest in the islands.
The company now grows them elsewhere in the world, but the history explained by the driver and the slicing techniques explained on location might deserve a stops as there is no entrance fee.
There's a nice souvenir shop here, and it's the last stop before heading back to Waikiki.
At 68 usd/ passenger the 12 hour tour takes you to most of the interesting spots to be visited in Oahu. It is a great way of getting an overview of what there is to see and then head back independently -Hanauma Bay, Turtle Bay, Waimea Bay to name a few – and a comfortable trip for the elderly.
It can be a bit expensive if traveling with several children, but there are occasional promotions that can save a good chunk of money. We did get to see places that we had not visited on our own and probably would not have seen otherwise, and this was refreshing.
As you've seen, a three day Oahu itinerary can mean non stop activity while you're here, meaning that if you have more time you'll probably enjoy it more.
Of all the things to do in Oahu I recommend you do not miss:
- Walking along Waikiki Beach (free)
- Visiting Pearl Harbor (free)
- Try surfing in Waikiki (free)
- Make your way to Diamond Head (free)
- Snorkel in Hanauma Bay (cheap)
And if you want to spend a little money on some tours and activities my top recommendations are:
- Swimming with dolphins (you can read my review)
- Swimming with turtles (I explain where to do it free here)
- Swimming with sharks (in a cage).
Finally, if you made it all the way to the bottom of this post I want to recommend you next jump to my post on how to visit Hawaii on a budget, with plenty of tips that will save you money on tours, transportation and accommodation in Oahu.
Plan Your Oahu Trip
Accommodation in Oahu
Booking.com has over 500 hotels in Oahu including apartments and resorts. You get free cancellation on most rooms and a best price guarantee. Check prices.
Flights to Oahu
Skyscanner is a comparison website that searches millions of flights. Once you find your best deal, book directly through the airline (no extra fees). It’s an all in one flights, hotel and car hire search engine app and makes it easier for you to find the best travel deals!
Rental Cars in Oahu
RentalCars.com is the world’s biggest car rental booking service that compares all the major brands like Hertz, Avis, and Alamo. Check prices for Honolulu airport.
RV Rentals Hawaii:
Outdoorsy is the largest RV rental marketplace on the planet. They offer ease, flexibility and some unique and cool campervans for your Oahu road trip. Find your RV rentals for Oahu here.
Tours in Oahu
Get Your Guide offers small group tours and activities in Oahu including tickets to the popular Oahu attractions.
One of my favorite things to visit on the islands is the Oahu Volcanoes National Park. It is amazing, especially with the caves that go into the volcanoes and how their massive shape rises out of the water and island. I also like going over to Hilo for the coffee farms!
Hey, I missed the volcanoes park …yet another reason to go back! Thanks for stopping by 🙂
I would love to go to Hawaii, I actually thought about going there to bartend for a bit but was turned off by the high prices
Well it actually isn’t that bad! Sharing a room in an apartment makes it that much more affordable …
Oh man, these photos are stunning. I’ve never been to Hawaii, but my husband and I are both dying to go. We’re HUGE Lost fans, and it was filmed there, so I also really want to go on a Lost tour 🙂
Ranch Kualoa is where you want to head to then Emily!
So beautiful! I love Hawaii but have only been to Maui. And yes, I’ve learned to love day trips. 🙂
Maui, that’s on my to do list because I know I’ll be back!
That’s an ambitious amount of activities in just one day, but with such beautiful surroundings I can understand the desire of wanting to see and do it all!
I did the circle island tour earlier this year as well. There were 7 of us though, so we rented a limo — it was cheaper than paying the bus fare. What a great day! 🙂
Yup, if there’s more than two of you renting a car does become cheaper. Glad you had a blast too!
I haven’t been there, but I would like to go someday. So beautiful…
beautiful pics and sounds like a great tour – don’t know if I could do the 12 hour thing very often – but I would to experience this!
I have the same feeling. It is my first 12+ hour bus tour, but I am glad I joined it because I saw a lot!
I used to live on Oahu, and visited many of those places. I can’t believe you did them all in one day!
That’s a lot of stuff to see, but if you don’t have a lot of time on the island, I’m sure you got a pretty good feel for it.
Did you see the permanent ambulance they station at Sandy’s Beach? Those waves are rough!
I know, there was a lot to see but it was a good way of seeing the temple, the lookout and the Dole plantation, which I would have not visited if it had been up to me. Probably would have skipped Kualoa ranch too…good thing we didn’t!
Good lord a 12 hour tour? I’m not sure I could last that long with the same people lol. I would love to head to Hawaii one day but it is totally not within my budget any time soon. It looks like you had an amazing time!
I know, 12 hours a a big bunch of them! But despite the length I did enjoy it!
I tend to stay away from tours- the first two I went on had small children and I had requested to be put in a group that did not, which made for some bad times. I am not sure I could handle a 12/15 hour tour with kids. That said, this tour looks very nice, and I agree with Stephanie- I try not to do tours of things I could do on my own. Glad you enjoyed and your photos are gorgeous! I love Hawaii.
That’s the good thing about this one: as a traveler who stays away from tours that do what I can do on my own, this one takes you too all the places worth seeing in Oahu if you only have one day, or cannot do it on your own (age). We had been in Oahu for a week by the time we did it, and had yet missed several places (we even drove past one without knowing!) this tour took us to! These tours are not for everybody, but for those who like them they are certainly among the best you can find.
I usually do not do day tours unless the tour includes some really great stuff that I would have trouble fitting in and learning about on my own.
I agree, and this turned out to be one of those!
gorgeous pics!! I’ve never been to Hawaii … hope one day I can make it and see some of this beauty!
You’ll love it, like almost everybody does!