Known as the ‘gathering place’, Oahu is far more populated than Hawaii’s other islands. Yet, outside the capital, Honolulu, pineapple and coffee plantations still blanket parts of the island, while pleated, jungle-coated mountain ridges rise steeply from the ocean.
In just a few days, you can unwrap Oahu through its major sights and the islanders’ way of life. Visiting Pearl Harbor gives you an insight into the events and impacts of the Japanese bombing on the US naval base. On Wakiki Beach, you can take a surfing lesson or watch surfing pros off the island’s north shore. And, exploring Oahu with a local guide helps you see the island when it’s at ease, away from the main haunts. Your guide will tailor the day to your interests, from hiking up volcanic formations to browsing shops and galleries.
Many trips to Hawaii begin in the archipelago’s capital, Honolulu (‘sheltered bay’). Here, high-rises stand tall behind a curve of golden sand and an unruly scattering of palm trees — it feels as though Manhattan has gone on holiday.
While you’re probably not in Hawaii for the city, there are several museums and galleries you could explore, such as the Honolulu Museum of Art, and the Bishop Museum, which is full of natural history specimens and Hawaiian cultural relics.
You can also stroll through some of the five botanical gardens in and around the city. The oldest, Foster Botanical Garden, was planted in the 1850s and offers free guided and self-guided tours.
The district of Waikiki is known for its nightlife, its surf culture, and its beach, which is lined with cafes, shops and restaurants. We can arrange for you to join a surfing lesson here in a small group led by an experienced instructor.
Your lesson eases you in with a 20-minute demonstration on the sand, where you’ll practise techniques such as paddling, turning the board and positioning yourself to standing.
Then, you wade waist deep into the water. Your instructor will help you to stand up on your board as you work on your technique, before you’re free to practise on your own.
Waikiki Beach is set against the backdrop of Diamond Head, a volcanic tuff cone left behind by a now-extinct volcanic vent, and a present-day state monument. Its crinkled sides rise 232 m (762 ft) to form a crater right on the shoreline.
You can hike up Diamond Head, entering the middle of the crater via a tunnel from the east side before ascending a further 170 m (560 ft). While it might look like a tough climb, people with a reasonable fitness level can reach the summit in about an hour.
The hike could form part of a day-long guided tour of the island. A local guide will tailor the day to your interests, while filling you in on Oahu’s history, wildlife, geology and culture.
As well as hiking Diamond Head, you could snorkel in the sheltered waters of Hanauma Bay and visit historic Haleiwa, an old sugar-plantation town whose buildings preserve its original character, where time can be spent browsing its bohemian shops and galleries.
We also recommend heading to Oahu’s North Shore, where the full power of the ocean is unleashed. This is where serious surfing takes place, and from Waimea Bay Beach you can watch with bated breath as surfers battle the water, their bodies appearing terrifyingly flimsy against the pummelling waves.
Visiting Pearl Harbor
Franklin D. Roosevelt described the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in the early hours of 7th December 1941 as ‘a date which will live in infamy’. The aerial ambush resulted in 2,403 US fatalities as ships were sunk while sailors slept, and it sparked the USA’s involvement in World War II.
You can start to appreciate the scale and significance of the attack at the USS Arizona Memorial. The site (which itself looks like some futuristic vessel) rests on the water over the submerged wreckage of the USS Arizona battleship — one of four sunk during the onslaught (the other three were raised and returned to service).
After boarding a boat from Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, you follow a floating walkway into the main memorial. Large open windows allow you to look over the wreck in its shallow grave. A sobering silence descends as people acknowledge that the remains of many who lost their lives are still on board.
Exhibitions and displays inside tell you more about the events leading up to the attack, what happened on the day and how it affected people on both sides. A large memorial plaque lists the names of the fallen.
Close by is the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park. This fleet attack submarine was launched the year after the bombing and embarked on nine war patrols between 1942 and 1945.
Stepping aboard gives you a sense of how confined conditions were for the crew, who were often submerged for months at a time. You’ll see battle flags, medals and other war memorabilia, while outside are exhibits and the Waterfront Memorial, dedicated to the crews of the 52 submarines sunk during the war.
Best time to visit Oahu
Hawaii is a year-round destination, but it’s busiest during December and January, when people want a winter escape, as well as the school summer break. To avoid the crowds, visit in spring (April to June) or autumn (September to November), when temperatures are still warm.
Suggested Oahu itinerary
This sample itinerary will give you an idea of what is possible when you travel in Oahu, and showcases routes we know work particularly well. Treat this as inspiration, because your trip will be created uniquely by one of our specialists.
Map of Oahu
Places & hotels on the map
Accommodation choices for Oahu
We’ve selected a range of accommodation options for when you visit Oahu. Our choices usually come recommended for their character, facilities and service or location. Our specialists always aim to suggest properties that match your preferences.
Ideas for experiencing Oahu
Our specialists seek out authentic ways to get to know the places that could feature in your trip. These activities reflect some of the experiences they've most enjoyed while visiting Oahu, and which use the best local guides.