Home > Best Places to Stay in Oahu
Updated: December 16, 2020
The Best Areas to Stay in Oahu
Oahu is the most cosmopolitan of the Hawaiian Islands, with over one-third of all Hawaiians living in the state’s capital Honolulu. Knowns as the Gathering Place, Oahu offers a heady blend of urban life (trendy dining and nightlife, vibrant art and culture, glittering skyscrapers, and shopping) and natural wonders (white-sand beaches, legendary surfing, and a dormant volcano). Many of Hawaii’s Best Hotels and Best Family Hotels are on Oahu, mostly in Honolulu, excellent accommodations are plentiful all around the island.
Honolulu, on Oahu’s South Shore, is the state of Hawaii’s only metropolis. Honolulu is particularly packed with wonderful hotels, the island’s best restaurants and bars, art and heritage museums, bustling Waikiki Beach, and volcano hiking on Diamond Head at the city’s south end. Nothing is far away in Oahu, though. In just a 45-minute drive, you’ll reach the rural North Shore, best known for surfing and a quiet, laid-back vibe. This is where to find the iconic surf spots Banzai Pipeline and Waimea Bay, both just a few kilometers northeast of the main town Hale’iwa. Sunny and dry, the Leeward Coast of Oahu is on the west side of the island. Home to the luxury resort area Ko Olina on its south end, the Leeward Coast offers a pristine stretch of beaches with calm waters, great snorkeling, hiking, local markets, and a farmers’ market. On the east side of Oahu, the Windward Coast is more relaxed than Honolulu but not as sleepy as the North Shore. There is no luxury lodging here, mostly charming beachfront B&Bs, but there is a host of outdoor activities from beaches (of course) to zip-lining, plus a Japanese temple and a scenic lighthouse. Central Oahu is the fifth of the island’s main areas. Though home to historic Pearl Harbor, the most visited site monument in Hawaii, there are not many hotels in the area. It is mostly occupied by various U.S. military installations and the international airport.
The Best Places to Stay in Oahu
- Best Luxury Hotels in Oahu
Halekulani • Moana Surfrider, A Westin Resort • The Modern Honolulu
- Best Family Hotels in Oahu
Turtle Bay Resort • Aulani, a Disney Resort &Spa • Moana Surfrider, A Westin Resort
- Best Boutique Hotels in Oahu
The Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club • Shoreline Hotel Waikiki • Coconut Waikiki Hotel
- Best Cheap Hotels in Oahu
The Equus • VIVE Hotel Waikiki
Best Areas in Oahu for…
- Best Beaches in Oahu: Honolulu, North Shore, Leeward Coast, Windward Coast
Oahu is completely encircled with gorgeous white and gold-sand beaches, but each region it typified by a different beach style. Honolulu has the busiest beaches with the most amenities from dining to hotels to water sports centers. The most famous is Waikiki, which is further divided into six smaller beaches. Most of Honolulu’s beaches boast soft sand and moderate waves buffered by a reef, though there are a few rocky patches near the east end of Waikiki and beyond, close to Diamond Head. The North Shore is home to Oahu’s most famous surfing beaches with enormous waves in the winter months which flatten out in the summer. Waimea Bay, Sunset Beach, Banzai Pipeline, and Ehukai Beach host tons of international surf competitions in the winter months. The Leeward Coast has several rugged, natural beaches to the north and gentle beaches and lagoons in the south end at Ko Olina. The Windward Coast is studded with beaches offering a range of activities: gentle waves and great amenities at Kailua Beach, tide pools and bodysurfing at Makapu’u Beach, kayaking and paddle boarding at Kualoa and much more.
- Best Places for Sightseeing in Oahu: Honolulu, Windward Coast
Though Honolulu is Hawaii’s largest city, it is fairly compact, making it easy to get around on foot or by bus. This is the perfect home base for visiting some of Oahu’s best attractions, including ‘Iolani Palace (the only official royal residence in the U.S.), the Bishop Museum (Hawaiian, Polynesian, and natural history), shopping at Ala Moana Center (the world’s largest outdoor market), hiking Diamond Head (a dormant volcano), plus a zoo, aquarium, bustling beaches of Waikiki, and easy access to Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial just a few kilometers west of the city. The Windward Coast requires a car to visit but offers wonderful historic and natural attractions, including the Makapu’u Lighthouse (hiking, sunrises, tide pools), Byodo-In Temple (small Japanese Buddhist temple in the jungle), Kualoa Ranch (adventure park and Hollywood film location), plus wonderful beaches, botanical gardens, waterfalls, and more.
- Best Places for Families in Oahu: Honolulu, Windward Coast, Leeward Coast, North Shore
With a wide selection of kid-friendly hotels, gentle surf, soft sand, shopping, cultural and historic attractions, water activities, and casual dining, Honolulu offers an ideal setting for a family vacation on Oahu. Opt for one of the central beachfront neighborhoods like Ala Moana or Waikiki and be just steps away from world-class beaches and urban conveniences. Plus there’s a free fireworks show every Friday night at Hilton Hawaiian Village. Families with young children should consider staying in Ko Olina on the Leeward Coast; resorts here boast sunny beaches with gentle waves, shallow lagoons for wading and learning to swim, stunning pools with food and drink service, and kids’ clubs with activities. Active families with older kids will enjoy the Windward Coast with its mix of adventure parks, hiking trails, varied beaches, and water sports. Finally, the North Shore has a charming, small-town, family-friendly vibe with great surfing and swimming beaches, paddleboarding in the river of Haleiwa, and watching the sea turtles at Laniakea Beach.
- Most Romantic Places in Oahu: Honolulu, Leeward Coast
Honolulu is the honeymoon capital of the island. Beachfront hotels south of Sand Island offer direct sunset views over the ocean, many with balconies ideal for private dining and most with blissful pools with food and drink service. Stay at the north side of Waikiki for a vibrant beach scene and Friday night fireworks, head toward Kaimuki and Kapahulu for a local vibe and the city’s trendiest restaurants and bars, or get close to nature at Diamond Head State Monument, a dormant volcano with lush greenery, hiking trail, and panoramic views. For a more low-key vacation, base yourselves on the Leeward Coast at Ko Olina. Spend the day exploring the rustic coastline with secluded beaches, hike the Waianae Range to swim beneath remote waterfalls, hit up the farmers’ market or even take a farm tour. Back at the resort, lounge poolside, beachside, or in one of seven lagoons, enjoy fine meals, hand-crafted cocktails, and extravagant rooms and suites.
- Best Places for Food Nightlife in Oahu: Honolulu
Hands down, Honolulu is the best place on Oahu for dining and nightlife. The Kaimuki and Kapahulu areas, in particular, are home to exciting farm-to-table restaurants and eclectic fare. Downtown offers the best in fine dining and craft cocktails. Waikiki and Ala Moana host the bulk of the city’s bars and nightclubs, ranging from upscale cocktail lounges to casual sports bars.
- Best Places for a Local Vibe in Oahu: Honolulu, North Shore, Windward Coast
Most Hawaiians live in Honolulu, which makes it the most “local” area in the state. The beachfront zones of Ala Moana, Waikiki, and Diamond Head are almost entirely devoted to tourism, but the inland neighborhoods and the beach areas just outside of the tourist hotspots cater more to a local crowd. Some of the best areas off the tourist track include Kaimuki, Kapahulu, and Downtown, though there are few options for accommodations in these neighborhoods. The North Shore is another wonderfully authentic area with a string of charming surf towns (Hale’iwa is the largest) along the coast with a laid-back vibe, art galleries, and casual food (look for the shrimp trucks). The Windward Coasts offers a similar, mellow vibe but is more active than the North Shore. Kailua is the main town here with three farmers markets, a bit of nightlife, two amazing beaches, and great hiking.
- Safest Areas of Oahu
Oahu in particular and Hawaii in general are among the safest places in the U.S. with a very low incidence of violent crime. However, there is a higher than average rate of theft, mostly in the form of burglarizing rental cars and purse snatching. As in any major city, don’t leave valuables in your car, be aware of your surroundings, and after dark, stick to busy, well-lit areas. Other safe areas in Oahu are the North Shore, Windward Coast, and the south end of the Leeward Coast.
- Unsafe Areas of Oahu
Again, Oahu is a very safe area overall, but there are certain areas where it’s good to be extra cautious with your valuables, such as Waikiki. Very populated and well-lit, but tourists are easy to spot and often carry cash, expensive cameras, and phones with their map screens open. Another area to look out for is the northern part of the Leeward Coast; the main town here, Waianae, in particular, has a higher rate of burglary and theft, and travelers stand out like a sore thumb here. It’s an incredible area to visit, but it’s better to stay overnight in a different area.
The Best Places in Oahu for Tourists
Honolulu takes up the majority of real estate on Hawaii’s South Shore, with its metro area extending from the airport in the west about 30 km across to Makapu’u Point, where the Windward Coast begins. Honolulu is divided into several neighborhoods, each with its own distinct style; from west to east, the best neighborhoods for travelers include Downtown (historic and government center), Ala Moana (white sand beach and the largest outdoor shopping mall in the world), Waikiki (busy beaches, lively nightlife, plentiful dining, and high-rise hotels), Kaimuki and Kapahulu (adjoining neighborhoods with great restaurants and a local vibe), and Diamond Head (national park with a volcano, quieter beaches, and near the zoo). The hub of island life, Honolulu is the most convenient area of Oahu, near dazzling beaches, great food, historic sites, and filled with a variety of hotels to suit any budget. This is the best area to stay for those who prefer not to rent a car and drive. The city is served by a reliable, affordable bus system connecting the neighborhoods to each other and with farther-flung destinations, including Pearl Harbor and Hale’iwa. One-way tickets cost $2.75, while full-day, unlimited passes cost $5.50; children 5 years old and younger ride free.
2. North Shore
For most of the year, the North Shore is a low-key alternative to the buzzing South Shore and Honolulu, with quaint small towns, nature preserves, waterfalls, and dozens of white and golden sand beaches ideal for swimming, snorkeling, and diving. The North Shore stretches across the top one-third or so of Oahu, just north of the Dole Plantation, with its western end at Ka’ena Point State Park and its eastern end at Kahana Bay. Hale’iwa, the largest town here, boasts a handful of art galleries, a surf museum, standup paddleboarding on the ‘Anahulu River, and dueling shave ice shops, Matsumoto’s and Aoki’s. Fascinating heritage sites on the North Shore include the Polynesian Cultural Center and Puu O Mahaka State Monument. Laniakea Beach is known as a gathering place for sea turtles, while Hale’iwa offers shark diving tours – with or without a cage. Though spring, summer, and fall are relatively quiet in the North Shore, the winter months bring the giant waves, and with the waves come the surfers, especially to Waimea Bay, the Banzai Pipeline, and Sunset Beach. From November through January (give or take, depending on the size of the swells), the North Shore gets absolutely packed for some of the world’s biggest surfing competitions, including the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing and The Eddie Big Wave Invitational. Winter waves heights range from 9 to 15-meters on average but have on rare occasions topped 20 meters.
3. Leeward Coast
Oahu’s Leeward Coast sits on the west side of the island. Shielded from the prevailing winds by the Wai’anae Mountains, the Leeward Coast is the sunniest, driest part of Oahu. Until recent years, this area was largely undeveloped, a string of remote beaches and local farms leading up the coast to a dead end at Ka’ena Point State Park, where the North Shore begins. The Leeward Coast is still the least commercial area of Oahu, with the exception of the luxury resort area Ko Olina in the south end with a cluster of 5-star hotels, a golf course, marina, seven lagoons (one is pictured above), and a mile and a half of white beaches. A few restaurants and a new mall have popped up near Ko Olina, but the northern expanse still offers rugged natural beauty, secluded beaches, and excellent hiking. Visit the main town here, Wai’anae, on Tuesday or Saturday mornings or Thursday afternoons to check out the local farmers’ market for beautiful produce, local fare, and handmade crafts.
4. Windward Coast
The Windward Coast sits on the eastern side of Oahu and is just a little cooler and greener than the rest of the island. A perfect mix of funky beach towns, pristine beaches, sunrise hikes, and cultural attractions – more active than the North Shore and Leeward Coast, but not as hectic as Honolulu on the South Shore. From south to north, some of the Windward Coast’s best-loved spots are Makapu’u (with a lighthouse, hiking trail, tide pools, and a popular bodysurfing beach), Waimanalo Beach (gentler waves, good for beginners), Lanikai Beach (consistently rated among the world’s best), Kailua (the main town on this side of Oahu; great beaches, 3 farmers’ markets, local food, and fun bars), Byodo-In Temple (small Japanese temple with gardens), and Kualoa Ranch (adventure park with ziplining, film locations, ATVs, and more). Inland, there are several mountain hiking trails with waterfalls, botanical gardens, and scenic vistas, including the Nu’uanu Pali Lookout.