Planning the Perfect Oahu Itinerary

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So, you’re headed to Hawaii and, specifically, the island of Oahu. Now, it’s time to figure out exactly what to do while you’re there. Or, maybe you’re still trying to figure out which Hawaiian island(s) to visit and how long to spend there. Don’t fret, I’m here to help you plan your Oahu itinerary, regardless of how much time you have.

First, why the island of Oahu? We chose to spend most of our first visit to Hawaii on Oahu because of its diversity. You’ll find great shopping and dining in and around the tourist hub of Waikiki. There’s a ton of history at places like Pearl Harbor and Iolani Palace. To learn about the culture, you can visit the Polynesian Cultural Center. And if you love natural features, you can explore Diamond Head State Monument, Waimea Valley and countless beaches, waterfalls and mountains. 

Waikiki Beach should definitely be a stop on your Oahu itinerary.
A banyan at Waikiki

Basically, Oahu has a little bit of everything. It’s also fairly easy to get to, as Honolulu is the major airport in the state. In my article on the best places to go on Oahu, I outlined all the different attractions that you’ll find in and around Honolulu. In this article, I’ll help you figure out how to organize all that into the perfect Oahu itinerary.

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How Many Days to Spend on Oahu

One of the most-asked questions I see on social media is how long to spend in Hawaii. Unfortunately, there is no right answer that works for everyone. We all have different likes and dislikes, travel styles and constraints we’re working with.

Duke Kahanamoku statue at Waikiki.
A statue at Waikiki Beach is dedicated to Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, the Olympic champion and father of international surfing.

If you’re retired or otherwise not working, you might only be constrained by how long your money will last. Others will have limited time off work and have to fit your vacation into the time you have. Or maybe you’re visiting Hawaii on a work trip and just want to make the most of the little bit of free time that you have.

So, how much time should you spend? I think the ideal amount of time to spend on Oahu is about one week. But, if you’ve only got one or two days, you should still go and make the most of it. And, if you’ve got two or three weeks, I think you’ll still find plenty of ways to fill in your Oahu itinerary.

One Day Oahu Itinerary

  • Visit Pearl Harbor National Memorial OR take a hike at Diamond Head State Monument
  • Drive a loop around the entire island, making quick stops at beaches and overlooks as time allows
  • Enjoy sunset at Waikiki Beach

First of all, I want to say that I don’t think one day on Oahu is nearly enough time to see all that the island has to offer. But, I do understand that there are circumstances where that might be all the time you have.

A beach on the North Shore of Oahu.
North Shore of Oahu

To make the most of that one day, I would spend about half the day driving around the entire island. You can drive a circle of the whole island in about three hours, depending on traffic. Of course, you’ll probably want to stop in a few places, so I’d suggest you budget 4-5 hours. That will give you time to stop to take pictures of the rugged coast or enjoy a short walk along the beach.

Exhibits at Pearl Harbor National Memorial.
Pearl Harbor National Memorial has extensive exhibits on the attack.

How should you spend the rest of your day? That really depends on your preferences. Personally, I would spend the rest of the day visiting Pearl Harbor. The attack on Pearl Harbor was a major world event. Taking a few hours to visit the Pearl Harbor National Memorial and, if you can get tickets, a tour of the USS Arizona Memorial is well worth your time. 

Read more about visiting Pearl Harbor

If you prefer to do something slightly more active, you could take a hike at Diamond Head State Monument (reservations required), which is one of Hawaii’s most recognizable landmarks. For those who just want to relax on the beach, then you could spend some time sunbathing, swimming or surfing. Waikiki Beach is a great place to do this. From there, you can at least enjoy the views of Diamond Head rising dramatically over the Honolulu skyline. 

At Waikiki, you’re also within walking distance of some of the best restaurants and shopping in all of Hawaii. And Waikiki Beach makes a perfect spot for watching the sunset.

Waikiki at Sunset
Sunset on Christmas Day on Waikiki

Two Days on Oahu

  • Day 1
    • Visit Pearl Harbor National Memorial
    • Walk around Waikiki and relax on Waikiki Beach
  • Day 2
    • Take a hike at Diamond Head State Monument OR Waimea Valley
    • Drive a loop around the entire island, making quick stops at beaches and overlooks as time allows

With two full days on Oahu, I would spend the first day in and around Honolulu. Start your day at Pearl Harbor, as it gets more crowded later in the day. I would budget at least a couple of hours of your day for this site. Those with a specific interest in military history can easily spend a full day touring the Pearl Harbor National Memorial, operated by the National Park Service, and the other attractions that are operated independently. 

After that, head back towards downtown and enjoy a stroll around Waikiki, which is the main tourist hub of Honolulu. Be sure to pop into the iconic ABC Store for some souvenirs, snacks, or other goodies. Check out the wide variety of restaurants and designer shops. And enjoy some time on Waikiki Beach, which is a fantastic place to enjoy the sunset.

Start your second day with a visit to Diamond Head State Monument (advance reservations required), a circular volcanic crater whose walls rise 560 feet above the crater floor. Take in the vast crater from the bottom, then hike the 0.6-mile (one-way) trail to the top of the crater walls. 

Hiking at Diamond Head State Monument.
Diamond Head views

The trail is partially paved, passes through a lighted tunnel and involves climbing about 150 steps to reach the summit. While the hike is not super easy, it is doable for anyone with average mobility, if you take your time. At the summit, you’ll have unobstructed views of the crater and the shoreline. 

Following your hike, drive east along Highway 72 to see the rugged southeast coast of Oahu, enjoying several overlooks along the way. Following the coastal road around the island. Stop at any of the beaches or small towns as time allows. 

The southeast cost of Oahu.
The rugged coast of southeast Oahu near the Halona Blowhole.

If the moderately-strenuous hike up Diamond Head is not for you, or if you can’t get tickets, go instead to Waimea Valley, along the North Shore, which has a mostly flat, paved 3/4-mile trail through a botanical garden to a waterfall. 

Three or Four Day Day Oahu Itinerary

With 3-4 days on Oahu, you have time to add in a few more attractions. Or, you can simply enjoy a little more time relaxing on the beach with a mai tai.

I suggest adding the following attractions to the two-day Oahu itinerary outlined above: 

  • See above for Day 1 and Day 2
  • Day 3
    • Take a tour of Iolani Palace
    • Relax at the beach of your choice
    • Enjoy a traditional Hawaiian luau
  • Day 4
    • Visit the Dole Plantation OR Polynesian Cultural Center
    • Enjoy the beaches, small towns and food trucks along the North Shore

Day 3

Enjoy a lazy morning at your hotel, then spend about 2 hours taking a tour of Iolani Palace. This iconic Hawaii landmark is located in downtown Honolulu, about 10-15 minutes north of Waikiki. Iolani Palace was the center of political and social life for about 10 years until the monarchy was overthrown in 1893. It’s a great look into the history and culture of Hawaii. 

Iolani Palace in Honolulu, HI.
The exterior of the Iolani Palace

Spend the afternoon hanging out on the beach, then clean up for a traditional Hawaiian luau. We highly recommend the Experience Nutridge luau, which is held at the Nutridge Estate. This small, family-style luau is conveniently located just outside Honolulu and absolutely felt like we were at a backyard luau rather than a production.

Dancers at Nutridge Luau
Dancers at Nutridge Estate performing traditional Hawaiian dances.

Yes, there are tons of options for luaus on Oahu. But we cannot say enough good things about the Experience Nutridge luau. The hosts and performers to welcoming, there was a good balance of information and entertainment and the food and drinks were absolutely divine. Finally, the sunset views over Honolulu can’t be beaten. 

Read my full review of the Experience Nutridge luau 

Day 4

For your fourth day on Oahu, head back to the North Shore for one of Hawaii’s top attractions: the Dole Plantation or the Polynesian Cultural Center. While you could do both in one day, it would make for a very long day, so I’d probably just choose whichever one interests you more.

The Dole Plantation on Oahu.
Dole Plantation

On the northwest side of the island, you can easily spend about half a day at the Dole Plantation. It’s a bit of a tourist trap, but it’s also a great way to learn about the history of the pineapple industry in Hawaii. And, of course, you simply must enjoy some Dole Whip while you’re there. 

If you’d rather learn about culture than pineapple, visit the Polynesian Cultural Center. Located on the northeast side of the island, this is a great place to learn about the culture of all six Polynesian islands. Though the center is a bit like a theme park without roller coasters, it’s the perfect place to learn about the nuances of the various Polynesian cultures. 

Read Grant’s full review of the Polynesian Cultural Center

A demonstration at the Polynesian Cultural Center
A demonstration at the Polynesian Cultural Center

Spend the rest of the day along the North Shore. You can grab lunch or a snack at one of the food trucks in Halawei or Kahuku. Spend more time soaking up some sun or catching some waves at end of the numerous beaches. Or simply enjoy the drive and warm ocean breezes.

One Week on Oahu

I think one week (5-7 days) is just about the perfect amount of time for your Oahu itinerary. With a full week, you can see most of the major sights and have time to relax a bit more. We, too, are guilty of feeling like we need a vacation after our vacation because we tried to cram too many things into too little time. And, yes, visiting Hawaii is neither easy nor inexpensive. But, if there is one place that tempts you to slow down and relax, it’s Hawaii.

Waikiki Beach
Sunset on Christmas Day on Waikiki

So, don’t be afraid to schedule a morning or afternoon, or even a full day, to just do nothing. Sleep in (once your body adjusts to the time change). Enjoy the hotel pool. Lounge around on the beach. It’s ok… it’s your vacation!

The Perfect 7-Day Oahu Itinerary

Day 1 – Spend an entire day at Pearl Harbor. Do your best to secure tickets to the USS Arizona Memorial ahead of time (check recreation.gov for current ticket information). Check out the exhibits, watch the informational film and tour some of the other sites, including the Battleship Missouri Memorial, Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum and the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum.

Overlooking Oahu from Diamond Head.
View from the military installation at Diamond Head

Day 2 – Take a hike to the top of Diamond Head State Monument and enjoy a relaxing drive around the southeastern side of the island. Be sure to check out the Spitting Caves (tucked away in a residential neighborhood) and Halona Blowhole, along with a few other turnouts along Hwy 72 that offer spectacular coastal views.

Day 3 – Start your day by taking in the serenity of Waikiki Beach before it’s flooded with tourists. Then, drive over to Iolani Palace and take a docent-led or self-guided audio tour of the only royal residence in the United States. Spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing on the beach or by the pool, then end your day with a luau.

Sunset at Nutridge Luau on Oahu
Sunset at the Experience Nutridge luau.

Day 4 – Spend the day exploring the North Shore. Stroll through the small town of Halawei, where you’ll find a food truck court and several small restaurants and shops. Take an easy walk through Waimea Valley, enjoying the plethora of native plants along the trail. Finally, look for sea turtles at Laniakea Beach. In fact, this beach is known as “Turtle Beach” for its abundance of sea turtles.

Day 5 – Enjoy a relaxing morning at the hotel or on the beach. Then, spend the afternoon at Polynesian Cultural Center. On your way there, stop at the Byodo-In Temple, a non-practicing Buddhist temple that is a replica of one in Uji, Japan. I promise you don’t have to be Buddhist to appreciate the architecture and solemnness of this sight.

Snorkeling on Oahu
Bonnie snorkeling

Day 6 – Spend your morning snorkeling at any of the many wonderful beaches around Oahu. If needed, you can rent gear from Snorkel Bob’s by the day or even the week. In the winter, we enjoyed snorkeling at Sans Souci Beach but there are plenty of good snorkeling locations around Oahu. If interested, check out the Honolulu Zoo or take a tour at Kualoa Ranch, a private nature reserve that has been featured in many movies and TV shows. 

Day 7 – Enjoy one last day on the beach or make up lost time due to a rainy day or another unexpected event. 

Final Thoughts on Your Oahu Itinerary

Of course, how you organize your Oahu itinerary will depend on many different factors. I recognize that we all have different interests and travel styles. Grant and I generally try to visit the most popular attractions, as long as they appeal to us. We also try to find the hidden gems that speak to our particular interests.

I know that what works for us doesn’t work for everyone. And that’s ok. I don’t expect you to follow this Oahu itinerary exactly. But hopefully, it will help you decide where you want to go and how you want to fit those puzzle pieces together. 

Waikiki Beach
Waikiki at night

For more information on each of these attractions, check out my article on the best places to go on Oahu. There, I’ve provided more details on each of the various sites and included some of our recommendations for where to eat.

Whatever you choose to do on the island of Oahu, we hope that you have a safe and enjoyable vacation!

Visiting Maui also? Check out our article on driving the road to Hana.

Travel Resources
What do you use to find a flight?

We use Skyscanner to find deals on flights. Skyscanner has a great interface and compares tons of airlines for the best pricing and routing. That said, it does not always have every airline and some airlines will have better deals on their website. Still, Skyscanner is a great place to start.
Click here to search for a flight.

What do you use to find a hotel?

We typically stay at Hilton properties, so we use the Hilton website. You can find good Hilton Honors discounts or AAA discounts for a hotel there. We make great use of our free night certificates from our Hilton Honors American Express.
Click here to book a Hilton property.

If there are no Hilton properties available, we use TripAdvisor to read reviews and book the hotel. We find we can get the best price that way.
Click here to search for a hotel.

What if I need more space than I can get at a hotel?

We use Vrbo for the times when we have rented a cabin for a weekend getaway, like this cabin in Townsend, TN, or needed to rent a house for a large family vacation. We had a great experience with them in terms of refunding deposits when COVID hit and will continue to use them.
Click here to search for a vacation rental.

Who do you use for rental cars?

As a general rule, we book with Hertz for rental cars. We have had nothing but good experiences with them. Plus, we really like unlimited mileage and not worrying about crossing state lines. We have even rented from Hertz overseas in both Slovenia and Croatia.
Click here to book a rental car.

How about booking a cruise?

We have found some amazing prices booking a cruise through Cruise Direct. We have saved a lot of money on our cruises compared to what we found elsewhere, making a last-minute Bahamas cruise even cheaper.
Click here to book a cruise.

What if I want to rent an RV?

We highly recommend Outdoorsy for RV rentals. We rented a camper van for a week to visit Rocky Mountain National Park for the elk rut and Custer State Park for the Buffalo Round-Up and had a blast. The program was easy to use and we really enjoyed the freedom of having a camper van for that trip.
Click here to rent an RV.

What do you use for booking tours?

We don’t often book tours. Typically, we like to do stuff on our own. That said, there are some experiences you just can’t have any other way. So, when we do want to book a tour, we always check Viatour first.
Click here to book a tour.

Do you use anything to get discounts on the road?

We make extensive use of both Good Sam and AAA on the road. Good Sam is normally regarded as a discount card for RVers at campgrounds and Camping World but anyone can use the 5 cents off a gallon at the pump at both Pilot and Flying J.
Click here to get a Good Sam membership.

We have had AAA as long as we have been married and it has more than paid for itself in discounts at hotels, aside from the peace of mind of having roadside assistance. Add in paper maps and the ability to get an international driver’s license and it is more than worth it for any traveler out there.
Click here to get a AAA membership.

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