Aloha, fellow Oahu adventurers!
Have you ever had just a few days to explore paradise and felt the pressure to make every second count? I’ve been there. My boyfriend and I are seasoned Oahu regulars, always seeking out the most jaw-dropping beaches, mesmerizing waterfalls, unforgettable sunsets, thrilling jungle hikes, and vibrant Polynesian cultural experiences. So trust me when I say: I got you covered.
You see, squeezing all the magic of Oahu into just three days can feel like an impossible task – but fear not! With this foolproof itinerary in hand (crafted from years of extensive research and countless visits), you’ll be well on your way to experiencing an exotic getaway that will leave your friends green with envy… without spending a fortune or falling for tourist traps.
Together, we’ll dive into my personal favorites – those hidden gems that only true locals know about. Each spot on my list has been tried and tested by yours truly, ensuring you’re getting nothing but the best of what Oahu has to offer.
Warning: Once you experience the wonders of this island paradise with my guidance, you may find yourself concocting elaborate schemes to extend your vacation indefinitely (don’t say I didn’t warn ya!).
So let’s waste no more time – grab your sunscreen and shades because adventure awaits!
Day 1: Enjoy the Authentic Waikiki
Get started right away on your first day. I prefer to stay in Waikiki and it is known for the beaches. All the Waikiki beach parks are great for swimming, but some are better than others. Also, get your vacation started with some tasty food.
1. Queens Beach – a great place for a first swim
All the beaches of Waikiki beach are beautiful. This beach is a great place to start because it’s a white sand beach with a great entrance into the water. Perfect for swimming, entry-level snorkeling, and paddling. You can take your first lesson right on this beach. You can spend a good 2 hours here, and it’s a public beach, so it’s free.
It is kid-friendly, clean, and calm. If you haven’t checked into your hotel yet, there are showers and bathrooms nearby. Two volleyball nets are close by as well. There is a long cement pier perfect for taking pictures, enjoying the sights, or snorkeling next. It’s a nice place to watch the sunset if you are nearby on your way home.
2. Grab breakfast or lunch at Tropics Bar & Grill
Breakfast is served until 10:30 am and lunch is from 11:00 am to 4:30 pm. So it’s a perfect stop regardless of when your plane arrives or you finish checking in. It’s located in the Hilton Hawaiian Village and has a breathtaking view of the ocean and beach, with palm trees intertwined. It’s also very close to the lagoon and Duke Kahanamoku Beach so it’s an easy stop before, or after swimming.
Both the staff and menu are super accommodating, so it’s a great place to eat if you have dietary restrictions and are looking for vegetarian or gluten-free food. (I have none, but I still love the food here!). The portions are large and the prices for breakfast and lunch are reasonable (a little expensive for dinner). My favorites here are the seared Ahi Salad with pickled ginger, Crab BLT sandwich, and Myer lemon strawberry shortcake. They also have great one-of-a-kind cocktails. Try the tropical sea breeze, all the pineapple is locally sourced.
3. Duke Kahanamoku Beach in front of Hilton Hawaiian Village
After your amazing meal at Tropics Bar & Grill move down to the beach and enjoy the sandy shore of Duke Kahanamoku Beach. Here you will find the beautiful lagoon adjacent which is free and open to the public. This is a clean, well-kept beach and has a gradual entrance into the water perfect for swimming.
The beach is part of the famous Waikiki beach, so it’s fine white sand, perfect for swimming, and right in front of the Hilton Hawaiian Village. Surprisingly, this beach is less crowded than most. Take some time and read on this beautiful beach. If you are close by on Friday night, make sure to stop in for the 10 to 15-minute firework show. The Hilton is famous for it, and all of Waikiki attends.
4. Grab lunch at locally famous Duke’s Waikiki
This restaurant is close to the beach and has a nice view. If you are driving you can find parking at the Ohana East Hotel. Lunch is served until 3 pm but you should make reservations online a couple of days ahead. The atmosphere is modern and the staff is professional. They serve sustainable and locally sourced food and the menu is huge.
A good choice is a buffet that includes a salad bar, fresh fish, teriyaki chicken, kalua pork, and more. The price is really good for the deal but if you are not a fan, they have a sandwich and burger menu and a kids menu for lunch. If you are happy with the food (and you will be), check out taco Tuesday and the prime rib buffet on Thursdays. They have some affordable and tasty options.
The drink menu includes cocktails like the coconut mojito, and Mai Tai and they have a large wine list by the glass or bottle.
5. Evening walk at the Kuhio Beach or (The Ponds)
This is another great beach with the characteristic Waikiki sand. It’s a super place to take a walk or evening swim or enjoy a sunset. It has two huge cement walls fencing on either side which protects the guests from the open water. I like this beach for the view. But it’s a great and safe place to swim, snorkel or try other watersports. It’s also a good spot for children, and it has nice facilities. The water is clean and there is a shallow end. And it’s the site of three well-known statues and public artworks. You can easily relax here for an hour or two. The beach is public.
6. Treat yourself to a great dinner at d.k Steak House (Marriott Resort & Spa)
On the first night, everyone should treat themselves to a nice dinner. This restaurant has a beautiful beach view and is a great choice if you are not a big fish lover. They serve dry-aged beef & locally sourced vegetables. It’s a traditional American steakhouse with small modern additions. The portions are good and the food is delicious (as you would expect at a Marriott Resort restaurant).
Make reservations online and take a look at the dine-in and takeout menus. My favorite is the Paniolo Rub Served with grilled onions and creamed corn or try a combination of steak and lobster. Whatever you choose you will have a high-quality meal (and leave stuffed!)
Day 2: Head to the windward coast
Everyone should make a day trip to the windward coast. It has some of the best natural beauty on the island and you can experience the best and most authentic Luau.
1. Byodo-In Temple – take a morning tour
The best morning stop is the Byodo-In Temple and from here you can make your way back. Plan to spend 1 hour here. The surroundings are jungle-like as the temple is positioned at the foot of the Ko’olau Mountains in the Valley of the Temples Memorial Park. Everything is well maintained and there is much to see. It is surrounded by lavish green rainforests and misty mountains.
You don’t need to be religious to enjoy this space because they have multiple statues and animals to see. Enjoy the large koi pond that is visited by turtles, ducks,s, and swans. Ring the huge bell in front of the temple before entering (for longevity and prosperity). And best of all see the huge Buddha statue inside. There are many more small statues scattered around. Choose to meditate or just have a short tour.
2. Grab breakfast and strawberry crepes at Kaneohe Pancake House
After the temple do not miss out on having breakfast at the pancake house. It’s close to the Hoomaluhia Botanical Gardens and has a great menu. They are part of a local chain and have great service with large portions. So eat with the locals.
Working hours are 6:30 am to 2:00 pm every day. You can choose from many types of French toast, crepes, omelets, waffles, and pancakes. My favorites are the strawberry crepes and the ones with lemon and sour cream. For savory meals try the Portuguese sausage and eggs. The prices are lower than in most places.
3. Stop by the most beautiful beach on the island at Kailua Beach Park
This beach has some of the clearest blue water in Hawaii. It’s covered with fine white sand and has all the facilities needed for a great visit (bathrooms, showers, tables, beach volleyball courts, BBQ pits). The beach is large and wide making it spacious and not overcrowded. It has a gradual entrance into the water and a shallow area. It’s great for swimmers and snorkelers especially. Some shade is available for those wishing to just lay down and absorb the view.
There are several parking lots, so no stress about parking. And the lifeguards are friendly and up for a chat about the area or any other help you need. The beach is close to downtown Kailua, so you can stop in at the local restaurants or shops on your way back.
4. Hoomaluhia Botanical Gardens
This destination was made famous by incredible Instagram pictures in a tropical jungle. But it’s much more than that. If you don’t wish to walk about the 400-acre botanical garden (the largest in the state), you can do a 20 to 30-minute drive version. Stop by and enjoy the sites, because a lot of the plants are labeled.
For those looking to do a couple of the trails or have a nice picnic by the lake (and ducks), park at the visitor center. You can download a map of the garden to make sure you are on the right path. For any questions, you can turn to the friendly staff. This activity is free, but please be respectful.
5. Kaneohe Sandbar – snorkeling and swimming in the middle of the ocean
The sandbar at low tide is quite large and made of fine white sand as you would picture in paradise. Visit during low tide, and the water will be up to your ankles. Locals kayak out or even swim, but the safest option is a 4 to 6-hour boat outing. Taking a tour will assure you have a safe trip, all the equipment you need for snorkeling and hanging out in a dry place to leave your belongings, and some protection from the sun. Most also offer a burger lunch for the price.
This is a great couple’s activity or family outing. Some people even barbeque out here. I recommend the all-inclusive catamaran cruise by Kaneohe Bay Ocean Sports. They have morning and afternoon outings and you can book online. They offer a live musical performance, complimentary beverages, donuts, snorkeling, paddle boarding, and a floating platform, it’s about $150.00 for adults. Another good option is Turtle Watching & Snorkeling Tour from Captain Bruce.
6. Polynesian Cultural Center – Best and most authentic Luau
Choose the super ambassador luau package and enjoy 3 to 8 hours at the Polynesian Cultural Center. They are authentic, and fun and have a lot to offer to visitors with their great service. You will get a private guided tour through 6 island villages with lots of hands-on activities, music, and dance. There is a lei and canoe ride included.
For the luau, you will enjoy the platinum level seating at the Breath of Life show. There is also a great buffet with lots of meal options. This package also includes a free preselected digital photo and smoothie. Check out their options for transportation to and from Waikiki (at extra charge). Everything here is set among beautiful waterfalls and lush jungle forests.
Day 3: Experience the best of Honolulu
As the main hub of Hawaii, Honolulu has so much to offer including cultural events, hikes, Perl Harbor exhibits, and more. Try to do as many of these activities as you can, they are all well worth it.
1. Manoa Falls Trail – A beautiful trail and waterfall
Don’t miss out on this relatively easy hike (walk) that takes 1 to 2 hours to do the round trip. It’s only a roundtrip distance of 1.6 miles and the trail is a part of the Honolulu Makau Trail System. This is a beautiful jungle trail made famous by several movies and TV shows. You can find glimpses in Jurassic Park, Catching Fire and the TV show Lost. No need to pay for a tour, you can do the trail for free and even find parking close by. Check the weather conditions because rainfall it can get muddy.
At the end of the trail, you will enjoy a 150-foot waterfall. It’s my favorite waterfall on the island. It has a great swimming hole, but it’s discouraged to swim here due to the dangers of rocks falling and water bacteria. Still, some dare to do it. Bathrooms are available in two locations.
2. Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum – vintage plains and bullet holes
Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum is a non-profit with a great collection of exhibits. Most are related to the Perl Harbor attack and World War II. They have great information and displays appropriate for all ages. You can grab tickets online. General Admission gives you full access to over 50 aircraft and all exhibits in two huge hangars.
Free shuttles take you there every 15 minutes (from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. daily) from the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center. While there enjoy the short flight simulation and old jets. Stop by the store for authentic model plains, books, and toys. Or grab food at the restaurant serving rice bowls, burgers, and salads. The restaurant serves food from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.). This is a family-friendly activity.
3. Grab lunch at Sophie’s Gourmet Hawaiian Pizzeria – the most underrated food on Oahu
This place is decorated with funky surfboards and beach details. But they serve gourmet upscale tasting pizza everyone will love. They have a nice view of the harbor, but the best view is of the rich pizzas.
Try to experiment with their less traditional toppings. Some suggestions include Guava-infused dough, Zesty Sriracha Red sauce, Dry-aged Goat cheese, and Thai Curry-Spiced Chicken. The menu is gluten-free and veggie-friendly. This is a hardy large meal for fraction of the cost. The staff is friendly, and no reservations are needed. If you feel crowded, get the food to go and sit at the beach or dock.
4. Bishop Museum – The best and largest collection of Polynesian artifacts
The museum is the Hawaii State Museum of Natural and Cultural History with the largest collection of Polynesian artifacts in the world. The collection was started in the 18 hundreds and continues to grow. Now they have 3 full stories of exhibits spanning all of history. There is so much to see, everyone including children will enjoy it. Make sure to buy tickets online. Your time at the museum won’t be limited, to working hours.
My top exhibits are the Surfing in Hawai’i exhibit, the tradition and meaning of tattoos through time modern street art exhibit, and the history and culture of Polynesian boats. While here don’t miss out on their great programs in the planetarium. They have multiple shows each day that last 45 minutes. The best two are the Ngā Tohunga Whakatere: The Navigators and Way Finders. Grab some food here if you get hungry, because they have a nice (reasonably priced) snack bar and souvenir shop.
5. Experience the best beach at Magic Island (Ala Moana Beach)
If you are looking to enjoy some more time at the beach laying in the sand or just looking out into the ocean visit Ala Moana Beach and Magic Island Beach. This area is very clean and a favorite of the locals. It consists of a long manmade peninsula next to the Ala Wai Yacht Harbor. It has everything including a sandy beach, a green spacious park, bathrooms, and an exotic lagoon.
You can watch the sunset from here with a great ocean view and city. On Friday nights it’s a prime spot to watch the Hilton fireworks, or even take a swim (no big waves here, just calm blue water!) It’s an easy place to get exercise with a half-mile look along the paved walkway. Beginners will love to snorkel here.
6. Pacific Star Sunset Buffet & Show Cruise abroad to the star of Honolulu
The Star of Honolulu is an agency located at Pier 8 near the Aloha Tower Marketplace. They have an excellent Sunset Buffet & Show Cruise available at a value. It’s a huge safe boat with panoramic views, 4 floors of walk-around decks, and a 60-foot high observation deck. No need to worry about sea sickness here. It’s large enough so you can take a private walk and spend some time enjoying the city lights and sunset away from other people. For additional romance, there is music on board that takes requests.
The dinner is excellent and freshly prepared regardless of what package you choose (buffet, casual, or deluxe) and includes my favorites like baked Misoyaki BBQ Chicken, fish with coconut curry sauce, green tea tiramisu, and coconut cake. Cruise times are from 5:30 to 7:30 pm except for Friday nights, when they extend the tour for 1 hour to watch the fireworks off the boat.
Oahu is an island paradise with a huge and diverse vacation offer. You can spend your time in the famous jungles, and powdery white sand beaches or touring the cultural and exotic spots.
Whatever your preference or budget, my itinerary makes sure you don’t miss out on the best this island has to offer.
I have brought you some great restaurants (some kept secret), hikes, beaches, and more.
All you need to do is follow my advice or pick and choose your favorites.
Whatever you decide, please share our article with your friends. Your support is important to us.
Last Updated on April 6, 2023 by Brigitte