The Aloha spirit, ideal temperatures year-round, amazing beaches, and incredible natural scenery– it’s no wonder Hawaii is known as paradise. If you’ve committed to vacationing in Hawaii, chances are you’re planning on checking out Oahu.
If you’re looking for recommendations on things to do in Hawaii or just searching for general tips to make your first time in Hawaii better, I can help. Being from California, situated so close to the islands, I’ve been to the Hawaiian islands a total of six times thus far. I absolutely love the island of Oahu for its liveliness, good food, adventurous opportunities, and general lack of mosquitos (for the most part). And I’m sure you will too!
This post reveals my top Oahu tips for first-timers. I hope this post prepares you well and helps you make the most of your trip while saving you some money as well.
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WHEN TO GO TO HAWAII
Honestly, I’d argue that it’s always a good time to go to Hawaii. It’s actually warm and sunny year-round, though there might be rain in the forecast some days. In the summer, the weather in Hawaii is warm, dry, and hot. In the winter, it’s warm and slightly more humid.
During the winter months (December to February), people flock to the islands to escape the cold of their hometowns and to get a bit of sun instead. Peak season runs from December to April. Throughout the rest of the year, things slow down a bit with a second spike during the summer months.
Having said that, the “best time to visit” is between September to November when getting there is a bit cheaper and the temperatures aren’t quite as hot or humid.
LODGING AND TRANSPORTATION IN HAWAII
Avoid peak season where hotel rooms and flights will be at their most expensive. Keep an eye out for cheaper flights and discounted hotel rooms in late January, February, May, September, and October.
I highly recommend renting a car. If you plan on exploring parts of the island outside of Waikiki, a car is absolutely necessary and you will not regret the decision of renting one. Even if you are staying in Waikiki, without a car, you’ll be pretty much confined to that area. That will make for one heck of a mediocre vacation in Hawaii because the best parts of Oahu are outside of the Honolulu area.
Be practical with the car rental. Everyone dreams of driving a convertible or a jeep with the top down in Hawaii which is great and all, but remember that the weather is tropical and rain can come down at any moment. Check the weather before you head out. If you’ve rented a convertible, be sure to put the hood back on before leaving.
Uber, Lyft, and taxis are available in Hawaii, but these options will be more expensive than renting a car, especially if you plan to move around a lot. Since cell phone service could be limited in the more rural areas, rideshare transportation may not be the most reliable option here.
WHERE TO STAY
Staying in Honolulu/Waikiki can be a good idea for first-timers, as it puts you close to plenty of introductory things to do, places to eat and shop, and tourist attractions. If you’d rather get off the beaten path a little, I would actually recommend staying in an Airbnb or hotel on any part of the island other than Waikiki. Waikiki is beautiful but very developed, has an impersonal city feel, and is, in my opinion, the least scenic.
My favorite part of the island to stay is in Kailua, located on the East Shore. Lanikai Beach, named one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, is located on the Eastern part of the island, too.
Best lodging/transportation combination: Rent a car + rent an Airbnb in a neighborhood with driveway parking or street parking outside of Waikiki.
WHAT TO PACK FOR OAHU, HAWAII
Bring a lightweight jacket. The weather is quite variable depending on what part of the island you’re on. Depending on when you go, one side of the island can be sunny while the other side sees fog and rain. Nights sometimes get cold, as do hiking summits. Better yet, go with a lightweight rain jacket to cover all your bases.
Sunscreen is a must. Even if you don’t normally wear sunscreen outdoors, I implore you to wear sunscreen, especially during your first few days in Hawaii. If you do burn easily make sure to also pack some aloe vera gel.
Don’t forget the bug spray. When you are packing for Hawaii in general, you need to get yourself some mosquito repellent with a high DEET percentage. This may not be as necessary on Oahu compared to some of the other less developed islands, but it’s good to have it just in case. Just remember to pack it in your checked luggage so it doesn’t get taken away at the airport.
Bring hiking boots / water shoes if you plan to do outdoor activities. If you have one that serves as both, even better. Having some sort of protection from the many rocky shores as well as decent traction on muddy trails and wet rocks on hikes is very crucial for outdoor adventures in Hawaii.
THINGS TO DO IN OAHU: ESSENTIAL TIPS
You must have closed-toed shoes (strapped on sandals will not do). Don’t forget to pack them.
The main (and arguably the best) snorkeling venue on Oahu is Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve.
Avoid touching the coral reef with your body parts. If you don’t you might get cut up on the reef. Highly recommend carrying some bandaids with you just in case.
Your normal sunscreen can really damage the reefs. You’ll need to buy special sunscreen, which can be purchased onsite at larger snorkel areas.
Bring your own snorkel gear if you already own this. It’ll save you money on rentals, which average $15-25 per person for the combo of mask and fins. If not, consider investing in a snorkel set you can call your own.
If your snorkel mask starts fogging up, ask the staff to apply some of their anti-fog spray. Otherwise, spit directly into your mask, wait a few seconds, and rinse it out. No more fogging!
Bring water shoes. These are good for getting wet and providing protection. All the best snorkel spots are in rocky, coral areas which means you can really scratch up the soles of your feet if you’re not careful.
For an easy and relatively short sunrise hike, do the Lanikai Pillbox hike or the Diamond Head hike. It is very early but amazing. Definitely bring water.
Other hikes for first-timers: Makapu’u Lighthouse was a pretty good hike for any level of hiking experience. If you feel daring, there’s a more advanced hike down to a natural pool when you get nearer to the top.
Koko Head is a very popular one for the more athletic bunch and will definitely give you sore, wobbly legs by the end of it. I’ve also seen the sunrise from here, which is also pretty spectacular.
Bring coverups to protect you from the sun, because the sun is strong in Hawaii. Having said that, sunscreen is a must.
Best calm beaches for wading, swimming, chilling out: Lanikai Beach and Kailua Beach (East Shore).
Best beaches for surfing: North Shore.
Tip: When traveling with children, avoid beaching at the North Shore. Even if you’re just looking for a calm beach to relax at, avoid beaching at the North Shore. Waves tend to be prime for surfing, which means impossible for swimming and lounging. Unless you like to sit on the sand and watch the waves crash vigorously. Also, definitely avoid Sandy’s Beach if you’re looking to swim.
FINDING FREE THINGS TO DO IN OAHU
For the most part, beaching and hiking are your best bet for enjoying Hawaii without dipping into your pocket, especially since Hawaii is known for its abundance of beautiful beaches and lush tropical greenery.
See if there are any festivals and events going on that week you’ll be visiting.
The Royal Hawaiian Center offers free cultural programming for both visitors and locals. Classes and demonstrations include things like hula dancing, lei making, ukulele, Hawaiian massage, Hawaiian quilting and more.
Walk around Waikiki. It’s a long stretch of beach, eating, and shopping but it’s very, very busy. If visiting Hawaii for the first time, you should visit the Waikiki area. It’s fun, there’s always something going on and the walk to the lookout on Diamond Head is well worth it. However, allocate some time to check out other areas with more charm and culture, such as Kailua and the North Shore.
PAID ATTRACTIONS IN OAHU
Book activities through a discount activity center. Many activity booking agencies will “split” their commission with you, giving themselves a smaller commission to get your business, and you get a 10% discount or more on activities. Many online booking companies offer slightly discounted helicopter tours, guided kayak trips, luaus, surf lessons, dinner cruises, etc. Use google and compare prices before booking.
Pearl Harbor is probably going to take a full morning due to there being frequent lines, so take this into consideration when planning out your day.
When picking a luau, consider The Polynesian Cultural Center. It’s a cultural park that brings to life the spirit of Polynesia through its six Polynesian villages. For the same price as some other luau’s that only come with dinner, packages at PCC include admission to the park with demonstrations and activities, luau dinner, and a 1.5-hour cultural show at the end (with firing dancing and everything).
WHAT TO EAT IN OAHU
You don’t have to spend a fortune in order to have a good meal in Hawaii. Be very open to eating at lunch trucks, it’s part of the culture there! Remember to carry some cash with you, as some of the food trucks in the North Shore are cash only.
Steer clear of restaurants in tourist-heavy areas like Waikiki and instead do as the locals do. Get some fast food at Zippy’s or Rainbow Drive-In. You must try the chili rice, and this is someone who really doesn’t enjoy traditional chili… must!
Plate lunches and poke bowls are the way to go.
Head to one of the many Foodland supermarkets around the island and pick up some beach picnic foods. Perfectly delicious prepared foods, including many varieties of poke, are available at reduced prices in supermarkets throughout the islands.
When on Oahu, you’re going to come across garlic shrimp. Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck or Fumi’s Kahuku Shrimp in the North Shore are great options for first-timers.
Are you even in Hawaii if you’re not eating shave ice? For dessert any time of the day, get yourself some Hawaiian shave ice. Waiola, Matsumoto and Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha are three of the most popular options. Be sure to get extra toppings such as mochi/rice balls, condensed milk, or ice cream.
If you’re in Honolulu the last Friday of the month, don’t miss the Eat the Street food truck gathering. Held from 5 to 10 p.m. at 1011 Ala Moana Blvd.
SHOPPING FOR SOUVENIRS IN OAHU
If you’re looking to save money, bypass the malls in Waikiki and tourist-centric surf shops and instead, shop like a local.
Check out the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet on Saturdays. Open on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet is bargain central for cheap souvenirs and Hawaiian shirts.
Walmart and Don Quijote are two great places to pick up discounted souvenirs like chocolate-covered mac nuts, Kona coffee, shortbread cookies, li hing candies, aloha shirts, lotions, tote bags, etc.
You can nab some unique, locally made items to bring home if you happen to be in Honolulu on the third Saturday of the summer months. Honolulu Night Market is a great place to stock up on clothing and jewelry crafted by local designers, as well as to enjoy art, entertainment, and food.
Looking for other unique souvenirs to bring home? How about some cans of specially-flavored Spam? Hawaiians consume the most Spam out of any US state – more than 7 million tins a year. You can find so many varieties and flavors of this stuff, it’s no joke!