Oahu Itinerary: How to Plan the Perfect 3 Days on Oahu Hawaii

Oahu Itinerary: How to Plan the Perfect 3 Days on Oahu Hawaii

From calm golden sunsets reflecting off the Pacific to giant waves crashing violently into the sea, the island of Oahu is a story of contrasts. The most visited of the Hawaiian islands, thanks to its gateway international airport, Oahu is home to the capital of Honolulu, where high rises, shops and hotels fill the popular Waikiki neighborhood. But just a few miles away on the North Shore and Windward Coast, small towns still retain some of the local charm and culture that too often gets washed away in tourist hubs.

If you’re wondering what there is to do here besides beach days and luaus, this three-day Oahu itinerary covers most of the coastline of the island, with ideas for road trips and where to hike, snorkel or just stop and enjoy the scenery.

Use it to flesh out a short stay on Oahu, or mix it with some relaxing days on the sand in between adventures. We’ve noted where some of the prettiest, most popular or quietest beaches are along the way.

Since it’s not possible to drive a full circle around the island – the road ends at Kaena Point on the west and north sides – this Oahu itinerary is broken down into three areas. You could easily stay in Honolulu and make day trips to explore different sections if you want to have a home base. Driving routes are based on departing from and returning to Honolulu or Waikiki, but can be adapted if you’re staying somewhere else on Oahu. 


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Oahu Itinerary

Day 1 Honolulu and Waikiki Attractions

Though it’s the most touristy and crowded area of Oahu, there are tons of attractions and activities in Honolulu and Waikiki, including perhaps the most popular hike on the island (with views that are worth it) and of course, Pearl Harbor. If you only have three days, you can squeeze both of these into one, but if you’re staying for longer or don’t enjoy hiking, consider devoting more of your day to the various museums and historic sites around Pearl Harbor.

Start your day with a hike at Diamond Head State Monument, a volcanic crater with an old military defense post at the top. The trail to the summit is only 1.6 miles round trip, but with an elevation gain of 560 feet, you’ll be doing a bit of moderately strenuous uphill walking and stair climbing. The payoff is a panoramic view of downtown Honolulu and several miles of the surrounding shoreline that often shows up on postcards, plus glimpses of a picture-perfect lighthouse.   

There’s a small charge to park at the monument (right in the middle of the crater) or a per person fee for walk-ups. The monument is open 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., but go first thing in the morning to avoid the crowds, especially during the busy season. The park has restrooms, picnic areas and concessions at the base.


Lunchtime: Restaurant 604 is convenient to the Pearl Harbor Historic Sites and has waterfront dining with a menu of American and island favorites (like loco moco and kalua pork).


No trip to Oahu would be complete without visiting the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, home to the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center and the USS Arizona Memorial, which sits over the sunken battleship. You’ll want to set aside at least 2 to 3 hours here to tour the museums and join the free 75-minute USS Arizona program, which involves an informational video and a boat ride out to the monument. The visitor center and USS Arizona Memorial are free, but the memorial requires a timed ticket, available online 60 days ahead of time (for a small convenience fee). If you haven’t reserved a spot before your visit, walk-in tickets are available the day of, but you’ll need to arrive early to secure one. The visitor center is open 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.

If you have extra time, you can also visit the Battleship Missouri and Pacific Aviation Museum on Ford Island and the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park, collectively known as the Pearl Harbor Historic Sites. Admission can be purchased at the visitor center.

Though it’s the most crowded spot on the island, Waikiki Beach boasts a picture-perfect sunset you must see at least once. The west-facing swath of sand has uninterrupted views of the Pacific, with palm trees lining the shores and boats bobbing in the waves. The area is bustling with activity, from surf lessons to live music, so it’ll be easy to kill some time if you arrive early. The sun sets at around 7:15 p.m. at the summer solstice and around 5:55 p.m. at the winter solstice.

Extra time? Other popular attractions in the Honolulu area include the Ala Moana Center (a large, open-air shopping mall), Waikiki Aquarium, Honolulu Zoo, Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii, Punchbowl Crater (site of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific) and an assortment of golf courses.

Day 2 – North Shore Road Trip

Today’s Oahu road trip traces the North Shore and Windward Coast, where you’ll find far fewer crowds than in the Honolulu area. In one day, you can drive this 100-mile path with some beach hopping, but you might have to cherry-pick between the longer activities like the hike, Waimea Valley and the Polynesian Cultural Center if you don’t want to feel rushed.

Depart early from Honolulu for your drive north through the farmlands and mountain views of the center of the island, to stretches of empty beachfront and the northwest terminus of the highway at Kaena Point. If you want to do some hiking, the Kaena Point Trail is a 3.5-mile, out-and-back path from the end of the road to the remote western point of the island inaccessible to vehicles.  

There is no fee for Kaena Point State Park here, but also no facilities or water along the trail. The park is open during daylight hours. After Kaena Point, the trail continues south along the western coast of the island toward Keawaula Beach, but if you hike this way, you’ll be 50 road miles away from where you left your car, so you’ll have to hike the whole trail in reverse.

From Kaena, backtrack towards Haleiwa, where you’ll meet up with the Kamehameha Highway for a clockwise route around the island for the rest of the day. Historic Haleiwa is a great lunch stop (or brunch if you skipped the hike), with lots of food trucks and locally owned art galleries, surf shops and boutiques.


Coffee break: Haleiwa’s Coffee Gallery makes a mean “Mocha Freeze,” a combo of espresso, vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce that will fuel you up for the rest of your North Shore road trip.  


The next major point of interest, just 4 miles east, is Waimea Bay, where you’ll find a large and popular sandy beach with a big rock people like to jump off of. Across the road, the Waimea Valley preservation has botanical gardens, a waterfall you can swim in and cultural tours of the religious sites. There's an entrance fee for this attraction.

Between Waimea Bay and the northern tip of the island, you find endless stretches of sandy beaches known for their big surf, most notably the Banzai Pipeline, where annual competitions are held. If you have some time, stop at Sunset Beach along here to watch the surfers doing their thing, especially in winter when the swells are large and the pros come out.

Next up is Turtle Bay Resort, which you can drive by if you’re short on time. The huge hotel complex on a calm bay has public beach access and parking, as well as restaurants, a spa and a golf course.


Dinner stop: The North Shore is known for its shrimp trucks, and you’ll find a few options around the prawn and shrimp farms of Kahuku. We tried Fumi’s Kahuku Shrimp and the fruit smoothie shop next to it and give both a thumbs up.


You can pop by the Polynesian Cultural Center for the evening on your way toward the Windward Coast. While the paid attractions and demonstrations around the Island Villages here close by early evening, the Hukilau Marketplace and its food kiosks, shops and Polynesian Football Hall of Fame are open late. There’s also a luau and evening show, but you’ll have to reserve tickets ahead of time and arrive early for the dinner seatings.

The return path will take you along the Windward Coast, past plenty of quiet beaches and a few intriguing sites you’ll visit in the daylight tomorrow. Around Kaneohe, you can hop on either the Likelike or Pali Highway to cut through mountain tunnels on the way back to the Honolulu area.

Extra time? The Dole Plantation is on your way to the North Shore but doesn’t open until mid-morning, so you’ll get a late start if you do the tour here. You can take a peek at parts of the property before it opens, though. Oahu is a popular filming site for TV shows and movies, and you can plot out a path to see locations for your favorites on the North Shore, like the survivor's beach and the Others camp from “Lost.”
 

Day 3 – Southeast and Windward Coast Road Trip

Heading east from Waikiki, you’ll drive along the southeast shoreline and the Windward Coast today, taking advantage of white-sand beaches, snorkeling spots and an array of both water and land activities available at parks and preserves. The suggested path is about 65 road miles with a little bit of backtracking to cover sites you drove by but probably missed the day before.

Wake up bright and early for your first visit, the Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, a popular snorkeling spot full of coral and all sorts of colorful marine life. Many tourists book the shuttle service here from the Waikiki area, and parking (for a small fee) is extremely limited, so arriving early is essential if you plan to drive. The park opens at 6 a.m., and the admission fee is typically waived until 7 a.m., as is the otherwise mandatory video at the education center, which tells you not to touch or walk on the coral, amongst other things. Since preservation is essential to the wellbeing of the resident species, the bay is closed on Tuesdays so the fish can eat in peace. Be prepared to pay extra for things like lockers, a shuttle to and from the beach (walking is free), and snorkel gear (you can bring your own).

If you want to do some hiking on this coast, the Makapuu Point Lighthouse Trail is a 2-mile, round-trip hike along the Kaiwi State Scenic Shoreline that takes roughly 2 hours to walk. The route follows an old access road towards a red-roofed lighthouse (the same one you can catch glimpses of on the Diamond Head hike from day 1). From the elevated trail you’ll be able to see the offshore islands and, if you’re lucky, humpback whales during migration season (November-May).


Picnic lunch: With so many pretty beach parks on your drive, why not make a picnic lunch to enjoy on the sand? There are a couple of grocery stores in Kailua and Kaneohe where you can grab supplies.


The beaches you’ll encounter along the Windward Coast are ideal for swimming and kayaking, thanks to calm waters. Lanikai Beach offers soft, white sand and fantastic views of the Mokulua Islands State Seabird Sanctuary, a couple of offshore islets full of Hawaiian birdlife. Neighboring Kailua Bay has a long stretch of sand with mountain views and beachside parks with facilities. Just a few miles up the road, the large Kaneohe Bay has a huge sandbar and a triangular islet known as Chinaman’s Hat that you can paddle out to. He’eia State Park and Kualoa Regional Park are both on the bay.

One of the most popular destinations on the Windward Coast, Kualoa Ranch is the place to go if you’re into active adventures or movie history. The 4,000-acre nature reserve and cattle ranch is a popular filming site for movies and tv shows, thanks to its scenic and diverse landscape that includes wide valleys, mountain cliffs and sandy beaches. All sorts of tours are offered here, from ziplining and ATV rides to guided excursions tracing filming sites for “Jurassic Park,” “Godzilla” and more. Experiences need to be booked ahead of time and most are offered in the morning to mid-afternoon, so you might have to head here straight from Hanauma Bay if your reservation is early. The two locales are only 30 miles apart, though.

When you finish up on the Windward Coast, head south back towards Kaneohe, where you’ll take the Pali Highway through the Ko’olau range. If it’s still light out, you can pull over at the Nu’uanu Pali Lookout for a panoramic view of the coastline you’ve been driving.

Extra time? Byodo-In Temple near Kaneohe Bay is a nice restful stop with picturesque grounds featuring a replica Japanese temple. If you skip Kualoa Ranch, you might have time to drive a little further north to Ahupua’a ‘O Kahana State Park, where you’ll find hiking trails in a landscape stretching from sea to mountains. The Polynesian Cultural Center from day 2 is also just 12 miles north of Kualoa Ranch, so if you skipped it before, you can incorporate it here.

Have you been to Oahu? What is your favorite Oahu activity?

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