7 Day Oahu Itinerary For First-Timers To Hawaii
7 Day Oahu Itinerary For First-Timers To Hawaii was originally published in December 2020
It’s December and I know a lot of people are itching for a tropical escape to break up the long winter season in the northern hemisphere. With this 7 day Oahu itinerary you’ll be able to plan the perfect Hawaiian trip to help you beat the typical winter blues that set in around this time.
I’ve been to Oahu so many times over the years that I’ve lost count, seeing that I live in Alaska and am no stranger to hopping a last-minute cheap flight to our faraway neighbor to the south. Oahu is actually an easy destination with a well connected public bus system and a very developed tourist infrastructure.
With that said, Oahu can feel over-touristed. But not to fear, this 7 day Oahu itinerary includes many off the beaten path destinations in Oahu in addition to well-known favorites to get a good mix.
Hawaii, in general, can also be quite expensive, however, there are budget-friendly ways to visit the most popular Hawaiian island, take it from me- the queen of cheap.
Getting Around In Oahu
The two main ways to get around on Oahu are by rental car and by public bus. Both have advantages and disadvantages, which I can attest to as I’ve used both to transport myself around Oahu.
Obviously, renting a car gives you the most freedom to move around as you wish in Oahu. It’s also somewhat faster getting around than taking the bus.
I will state this, it’s cheaper to rent a car from the Honolulu Airport than it is to rent a car in Honolulu proper or Waikiki. So if you plan to rent a car for the entirety of your trip, I recommend picking it up on arrival from the airport.
One downside to having a car while in Oahu is that most hotels in Honolulu and Waikiki (where you’ll most likely be staying) charge a daily rate for parking that typically costs $25-30 per day. You’ll want to factor this in addition to that screaming deal you got on a rental car from the airport, which makes things quickly add up. On occasion, you can find accommodation that offers free parking, though these typically aren’t the norm.
If you don’t need a rental car for every day you’re in Oahu, I recommend renting a car for the days you need it from a car rental agency within walking distance of your accommodation in Honolulu or Waikiki. Pick it up in the morning and drop it back off in the evening, which will allow you to skirt those pesky hotel parking fees. Shop rental car prices on Expedia, Skyscanner, and rentalcars.com.
Heading to Maui too? See why you need to add the Hana Highway to your itinerary
Oahu’s public bus system is called TheBus. It has a surprisingly good network and can get you to many of the attractions around Oahu.
The island of Oahu has horrific traffic, due to the dense population. Home to nearly one million, you can imagine the roads of Oahu can be incredibly busy. One positive of using TheBus is that you can kick back and hang out if you get stuck in a traffic jam, rather than being behind the wheel yourself. The only disadvantage of using TheBus over renting a car is that it can take a bit longer to get where you’re going as you will be making stops along the way.
The other advantage of using TheBus is that it’s cheap. A one-way fare between two points anywhere in Oahu is only $2.75. You can also purchase a daily pass for unlimited use in a 24 hour period for only $5.50 per person.
For those that will be staying in Oahu for a longer period, you can purchase an unlimited month-long TheBus pass for $70.00 from 7-Eleven stores and Times Supermarkets around the island.
Where To Stay In Oahu
A real budget-buster for visitors to Oahu are accommodation costs. Being one of the most sought-after destinations in the world, hotels in Hawaii can get fairly expensive especially during the high season months of December-February.
Not to fear, several hostels have opened their doors in Oahu, helping bring costs down for budget travelers, as well as companies like Airbnb that allow people to rent out their apartments, homes, and rooms.
Another trick to scoring on cheaper rooms is to visit in the off-season. Oahu is nowhere near as popular in the summer months, though July and August can bring in some families taking advantage of summer break from schools. I’ve found May and September to be my favorite months, as prices are cheap, and generally, most kids and college students are in school, which both help to reduce the crowds.
I recommend selecting a hotel in Waikiki for most first-time visitors to Oahu so that you’re close to all the action in the evenings. For those wanting a quieter experience, head toward the north or east of Oahu.
Best Accommodation In Waikiki
- Budget: Polynesian Hostel Beach Club offers form beds, semi-private rooms (share a bathroom), and fully private rooms with ensuite bathrooms. Especially for solo travelers, Polynesian Hostel is one of the cheapest options in Waikiki. Conveniently located near Kuhio Beach Park. Snag a bed on booking.com and Hostelworld.
- Mid-range: VIVE Hotel Waikiki is the perfect middle-range option, located about 7 minute’s walk away from Waikiki Beach and 5 minutes from the massive International Marketplace. Check rates on booking.com and hotels.com.
- Lux: The Royal Hawaiian is the historic pink hotel right on Waikiki Beach, a true landmark, constructed in 1927. My Grandmother used to tell me stories of her times in Hawaii in the 1960’s staying in a hut-style bungalow right next to the Royal Hawaiian. Compare rates on booking.com and hotels.com
7 Day Oahu Itinerary
Day 1: Relax on Waikiki Beach
You’ve probably earned it as Hawaii is geographically one of the most isolated places on Earth, located practically smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. What I’m getting at here is that many of you will likely have had a long travel day to get here unless you’re coming from the North American west coast or Alaska with our convenient direct flights of about 5 hours.
Take today to dig your toes into the sands of Waikiki Beach, as the waves crash on the shore. My favorite place to head is Kuhio Beach as it’s usually much more chill than other parts of uber-famous Waikiki.
For a bit more action, another favorite stretch of mine is Duke Paoa Kahanamoku Beach, which is right in front of Fort DeRussy Beach Park.
Day 2: Central Oahu + Leeward Coast
The Leeward (west) coast of Oahu isn’t exactly the most popular among tourists as very few visitors venture west of Central Oahu’s Pearl Harbor.
Of course, a visit to Pearl Harbor is a must for first-time visitors to Oahu, especially WWII Asiatic-Pacific Theatre buffs. Pearl Harbor is now a memorial to the 1941 attacks that formally entered the US into battle in World War II the following day.
Following your visit to Pearl Harbor, take the remainder of your day to explore the Leeward Coast of Oahu.
If you’re itching to take a hike, head to the beautiful Waianae Coast and stretch your legs on the Ka’ena Point trail to take in the lush verdant views of the coastal mountains and the Pacific blues lapping below. The hike is fairly easy, taking place on an old railroad bed. Depending on your fitness level it should take you 1-3 hours to complete the 6 mile hike, but don’t feel obligated to do the entire thing, you can always just take on the first bit.
Another possible destination to visit is the Kaneana Cave, the remnants of an old lava tube and is a sacred site. This is not a maintained site so do take caution getting to the cave, and bring a flashlight if you plan to go inside.
Another option, if you’ll be visiting on a Saturday or Sunday is to take the 90 minute Ewa Train that runs from Ewa to Kahe Beach Park. This short train tour tells the stories of the Ewa Sugarcane Train, sugarcane plantations, and other historical points of interest along the way. A ticket for the train costs $15 per person.
Day 3: Oahu North Shore
The North Shore of Oahu is my second-favorite region of Oahu, so I recommend dedicating at least a day of your trip to it (though, if you have a longer trip, I would plan to spend a bit more time here). If you’re visiting in the months of December-February a cool experience is to watch big wave surfers take on the monstrous waves that pummel Oahu’s North Shore.
If you’re keen for a hike, I’d recommend starting your North Shore day trip with a morning hike to Ehukai Pillbox. The hike good way to get a taste of the North Shore’s varied terrain, and from the top offers sweeping views of the Bonzi Pipeline below. Plan for it to take about 30 minutes to reach the top.
No visit to Oahu’s North Shore would be complete without a visit to the historic surf town of Hale’iwa. A bit of a hub for Oahu’s North Shore there are plenty of things to do in adorable Hale’iwa. I recommend grabbing an acai bowl over at Haleiwa Bowls, or some tacos at Killer Tacos, especially after the Ehukai Pillbox Hike.
Continuing along the Kamehameha Highway take the rest of your time to explore some of the favorites of Waimea Bay, including the famed Banzai Pipeline, and Sunset Beach. These beaches are known for their major surf, so take care getting in and out of the water here.
If you’re moving a little faster-paced, or you have more time of the North Shore other points of interest include Turtle Bay, Kahana Bay, and the Dole Pineapple Plantation.
Day 4: Inland Oahu
Take a break today from the beaches of Oahu and use this day to explore Inland Oahu. There are heaps of things to do at the heart of Oahu.
One of my favorite spots to head in the earlier part of the day is Manoa Falls. The trailhead is pretty easy to reach, located about 15 minutes drive from Honolulu. Expect to need 1-2 hours to make the trek and enjoy the waterfall.
In all the hike is about 1.7 miles roundtrip and takes you through the verdant rainforest to Manoa Falls. Some rate the trail as difficult, but in my opinion, it was quite easy, the only dangers I noticed were some slippery areas of the trail due. Unfortunately at the time of writing (December 2020) the Manoa Falls trail is temporarily closed for maintenance but should be re-opening soon, check here for updates.
After Manoa Falls, head back down to Honolulu to get on the Pali Highway (HI-61) that cuts across the eastern part of Oahu from southwest to northeast. There are several scenic pull-offs along this route, one of my favorites being the Pali Lookout from where you can continue on a hike along the Pali Notches Trail. If you’re feeling adventurous, you could opt to take on the hike to Likeke Falls, the Maunawili Falls Trail, or the Piliwale Ridge Trail.
Day 5: South Oahu
Use today to explore the south coast of Oahu. I recommend getting an early start today and summiting near-to-Waikiki Diamond Head Crater for views in the best morning light and before it gets too warm (the trails have been temporarily closed due to Covid-19, but check here for updates on re-opening). Set aside about 1-2 hours to complete the 1.8 mile hike.
Next, it’s off to Hanauma Bay to get up close with the reef and the aquatic wildlife that inhabit the area. Hanauma Bay is a gorgeous bay located on the south coast of Oahu near Koko Head. From the parking lot, you’ll get to enjoy a spectacular walk to the bay from which you can snorkel and get to know the reef a bit better. You do need to watch a video before entering the park and pay a $12 fee per person and there are snorkels available for rent (Hanauma Bay is closed until further notice due to Covid-19, however, check here for updates on re-opening).
After you’ve gotten a taste of what underwater Oahu has to offer, it’s time to head further east across the south coast to Makapu’u. Makapu’u is home to a lighthouse with a paved walking path that heads up to a lookout that gives arguably some of the best views over the island, including a panorama over the south coast and the Windward Coast (this is my favorite viewpoint of Oahu!). The walk is about 2.5 miles roundtrip and don’t forget to bring water as it can get quite warm in the afternoon.
From the Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail, you can take a turn off the paved path to access the Makapu’u Tide Pools below. This is one of the coolest spots on the island, and honestly, if you skip Diamond Head in the morning, I thoroughly recommend heading to the Makapu’u Tidepools instead for the best sunrise spot in Oahu. Do be careful as things can get dangerous at the tidepools, and check the weather before you go as large swells can turn a visit to the tidepools into a deadly one.
Alan Davis & Pele’s Chair
Finally, spend your last bit of today at Alan Davis Beach and Pele’s Chair. This is a bit off the beaten path, but worth the trek to get out there. Make sure to bring plenty of water with you.
You can access Alan Davis from the Makapu’u Lighthouse parking lot, but instead of following the paved path up, you’ll follow the sandy Kaiwi Shoreline Trail to reach Pele’s Chair and Alan Davis Beach (you can’t miss Pele’s Chair, trust me). The Kaiwi Shoreline Trail also continues westward from Alan Davis to Sandy Dunes Beach, so you can optionally start the hike from there too.
Day 6: Windward Oahu
Saving the best for last, we’re finally onto my absolute favorite part of Oahu, the Windward Coast, in my opinion, home to the best beaches Oahu has to offer (not that they aren’t all pretty, but damn).
Get an early start and head toward my favorite part of Oahu, the Windward Coast. First on the agenda, Waimanalo Bay. Waimanalo Bay is home to beautiful powdery white sands and crystal clear water.
Make sure to take a stroll along the beach, taking in the gorgeous sceneries of the mountains in the distance, the ocean, and Rabbit Island out there in bay.
Kailua & Lanikai
Next, head toward my favorite kick-off spot on Oahu’s Windward Coast, Kailua. This is where you’ll find gorgeous white sandy beaches and perfect turquoise waters.
Take some time to truly enjoy Kailua (honestly don’t feel bad if you don’t even move elsewhere throughout the day, trust me, it’s that good). Make sure and take a long stroll down the beach from Kailua to check out Lanikai Beach as well. If you’re looking to get in a hike here, I definitely recommend the Lanikai Pillbox Trail as the views are absolutely insane from the top.
Kualoa Ranch & Beach Park
If you find a way to peel yourself from Kailua and Lanikai (no judgment if you don’t), continue up the Leeward Coast. Continue onto Kualoa Ranch and Beach Park to see the famous mountains that you’ll probably recognize from the Jurassic Park films from the 1990s. You can a decent chunk of the afternoon hanging out at Kualoa Beach Park, which I typically find to be pretty chill, though if you’re short on a time a quick visit is easy to execute. You’ll have perfect views over to Mokoli’i Island right offshore.
If you’re wanting to pick up a delicious souvenir to take home with you, you can head down the road to the Macadamia Nut Farm to sample different flavors on offer and pick up a bag (or 5).
Finally, continue onto Crouching Lion if you have the time. It’s another great stop if you’re up for a trek is Crouching Lion that offers sweeping views over Kahana Bay. Crouching Lion Hike is short and sweet at under 0.5 miles round trip, but it is steep, and finding the access point can be a bit tricky, but the views are well worth the hassle.
If you opt to do today in reverse, heading to Crouching Island in the morning at sunrise is a good way to start your day for perfect lighting as you summit. Alternatively, sunset is nice up here too.
Day 7: Waikiki & Depart Home
Since this is the final day of your 7 day Oahu itinerary, I recommend spending it close to your accommodation, getting a last dose of vitamin D before you have to bid the Hawaiian islands aloha to depart home. If you need to do any shopping or last-minute souvenir purchases you can do that today as well.
Though, if you do have the itch to go anywhere today, I recommend re-visiting any Oahu favorites (I tend to spend my last day on Oahu in the Kailua-Lanikai area myself).
Best Restaurants in Waikiki
- Ramen Nakamura: Ramen Nakamura is what got me hooked on ramen years ago. I was in Honolulu for a wedding and two friends drug me in and I can’t visit Oahu without eating here since then. It’s tiny, so if there’s a line out the door don’t be surprised (and also it’s well worth the wait).
- Musubi Cafe Iyasume: If you’re visiting Hawaii, you must try musubi- the Hawaiian spin on Japanese sushi. It can be topped with several different types of meat and whatnot, though traditionally the topper is grilled spam (don’t turn up your nose! Spam isn’t the healthiest but being a kid from Alaska I love a good piece of fried or grilled spam. Musubi Cafe Iyasume is renowned for serving up some of the best, though if you’re looking to grab some on the fly you usually can pick it up at any mom-and-pop shop.
- Orchids: If you have a Sunday morning in Oahu, the Orchid Sunday Brunch is to die for. Orchids is a gorgeous ocean-front restaurant that serves up high-end fare, so plan for a spendy bill.
- Roy’s Restaurant: Chef Roy Yamaguchi, who is largely credited for creating Hawaiian-fusion cuisine, blending French techniques with Pacific-Rim flavors. He has several restaurants in Hawaii now, but I recommend stopping into Roy’s in Waikiki.
Oahu Packing List
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