O’ahu, which means The Gathering Place, is the commercial, residential, and industrial center of Hawai’i. The state capital of Hawai’i, Honolulu, is on O’ahu.
O’ahu is the most developed and populated island. 908,000 people (70% of the population of the state of Hawai’i) call the city and county of Honolulu home. Hotel accommodations are centralized in Waikiki, the tourist center of Hawai’i.
Waikiki offers hotels, restaurants, shopping, a sandy beach, and battalions of tourists, some of whom never leave Waikiki. If you plan to stay in a hotel, I highly recommend staying at the southern end of Waikiki, near Kapahulu Avenue and the Honolulu Zoo. That area is quieter and near the zoo, the excellent small aquarium Waikiki Aquarium, and San Souci/Kaimana, a small and calm swimming beach next to the New Otani Hotel. It is easier to enter/leave Waikiki from the southern end to explore the rest of the island. Condos are also available in Waikiki and selected other parts of the island. The advantage of a condo is having a kitchen to prepare some meals – a great way to save money.
Some visitors choose to bypass O’ahu entirely and go straight to the neighbor islands for a more “authentic” Hawaiian experience. I grew up on O’ahu, and I enjoy its urban attractions very much. The fine small art museums are worth a visit. Culinary options on O’ahu have exploded in recent years. And O’ahu is also the only island with any real nightlife to speak of.
Even hiking options in Honolulu are wonderful and accessible, and O’ahu boasts many lovely white-sand beaches, good for swimming, snorkeling, and surfing.
Some highlights of natural attractions in or near Honolulu:
- Lyon Arboreteum or Manoa Falls State Park
- Foster Botanical Garden
- Snorkeling/swimming at Hana’uma Bay – famous for tropical fish. Parking fee and viewing of a brief educational film required; these measures help to fund and protect the park, which is a national marine sanctuary.
- Hiking Honolulu
- The beautiful sandy beaches of the Southeastern shore: Makapu’u and Sandy’s, for boogie boarders and surfers; Waimanalo; Kailua Beach, where you can rent kayaks.
- Walking tour of Historic Downtown Honolulu, including I’olani Palace, Mission Houses Museum, and a stop at Isamu Noguchi’s deceptively lovely sculpture “Skygate”
- Visit Honolulu’s Chinatown and have dim sum or noodles.
- Try Hawaiian food at Ono’s Hawaiian Foods. For dessert, don’t miss haupia, or head out for malasadas (Portuguese doughnuts) at Leonard’s Bakery.
- Get shave ice at Waiola Shave Ice, a favorite stop for locals, and the best shave ice on the island.
- Ala Moana Beach Park – great urban park & beach, nice place to have a picnic – and Ala Moana Shopping Center – mostly high end shops
- Take a morning to visit Kapi’olani Community College Farmer’s Market for a smorgasbord of flavors and people.
- Historical attractions: Pearl Harbor WWII Memorial; Bishop Museum (a Hawaiian history museum)
- Check out the Honolulu culinary scene
In your O’ahu itinerary, include a one-day driving tour to the Northshore of O’ahu:
- Waimea Falls Park and Waimea Valley
- Waimea Beach – famous and beautiful swimming beach in spring/summer, surfing beach in fall/winter, good place to watch the surf or to snap photos
- Visit the Kahuku shrimp trucks for lunch
- Stop in Hale’iwa town for shave ice and shopping