Figuring out where to stay in Oahu is key to getting the most out of your trip to Hawaii’s most iconic island. While you can’t go wrong with any part of this beautiful place, we’ve made a guide to the locations and hotels that will make your stay a vacation to remember.
Why You Should Visit Oahu in 2023
Oahu is where most tourists start their journey to Hawaii, and with good reason. There’s plenty to see and do here, from iconic sites to natural wonders.
Some historians speculate that Oahu means “the gathering place,” which makes sense given Oahu’s modern society — Hawaii’s most populous island and home to its capital, today it is a gathering place for tourists and locals alike.
Oahu started out as a relatively minor kingdom of its own before it was conquered into the larger kingdom of Hawaii. In 1845, King Kamehameha III moved his capital to Honolulu, which began Oahu’s upward rise.
The island’s importance grew with the arrival of European colonizers (legend has it that Oahu was the first island sighted by Europeans, although not the first one they landed on). American authorities based many of their operations in Oahu, especially after Pearl Harbor.
Today, Oahu is a haven for visitors, especially people from the mainland United States. Millions of visitors stay on the island each year, coming to see the beautiful beaches, lush tropical inlands, and glimpses of Hawaii history.
Oahu is also a prime luxury and shopping destination with many shops and resorts. Many of the most popular destinations in Hawaii that you’ve heard of, from Pearl Harbor to Waikiki Beach, are actually on Oahu.
Even though the island is less than 600 square miles large, it packs plenty of attractions, including countless gorgeous beaches, into a small area.
The 5 Best Areas in Oahu
If you’d rather make your own Hawaii experience instead of following the crowds of tourists, there are also plenty of areas on Oahu to explore that are still off the beaten path. These include:
- Waikiki: Best for first-time visitors
- Diamond Head: Best for nature
- The Windward Coast: Best for off-the-beaten-path stays
- The North Shore: Best for surfing
- Honolulu: Best for an urban feel
No trip to Hawaii is complete without a visit to Waikiki. This beach is technically a district within Honolulu, but deserves a section of its own, thanks to its popularity with visitors.
People have been drawn by the allure of Waikiki for a long time. During the kingdom of Hawaii, the royal family frequently came to this gorgeous stretch along Honolulu’s south shore. The first hotel was built in 1901 and the rest, as they say, is history.
Most people coming to Waikiki aren’t coming for the area’s history as a playground for royalty, but to be treated like royalty themselves—and they’ll find it.
With luxury resorts, world-class shopping, restaurants for all palates and budgets, and entertainment of every kind, Waikiki is a tourist’s paradise. Thanks to the abundance of accommodation of all kinds, it’s also surprisingly affordable.
Of course, the main draw in Waikiki is the beach itself. Waikiki Beach is only the most famous of the district’s six, equally gorgeous, beaches.
Whether you want to partake in Oahu’s famous surf culture or just splash around with your family, a day at one of Waikiki’s beaches is a day well-spent. There’s so much to do in Waikiki that many travelers only see this district and nothing else.
However, Oahu has so many other places to explore—places that are far less crowded and where you’ll spend less time stuck in traffic. If this is not your first time in Hawaii or you know that you prefer a quieter pace of life on vacation, look elsewhere.
Things to Do
- Check out the surf culture (and the statue to a legend) on Duke Kahanamoku Beach
- Go down Kalakaua Avenue to shop for souvenirs, dine out, or just people-watch
- Take the family to the Honolulu Zoo or the Waikiki Aquarium
- See Waikiki from the water on an outrigger canoe ride
- Check out daily cultural programming and shops at the Royal Hawaiian Center
Where to Eat
- Have brunch at The Cream Pot, which claims to have invented the souffle pancake
- Eat sushi at the only non-Japanese outpost of iconic chain Katsumidori
- Have a traditional Hawaiian specialty dessert at Island Vintage Shave Ice
- Check out one of the iconic steakhouses such as STRIPSTEAK Waikiki
- Grab a quick poke bowl before hitting the beach at Maguro Spot
Waikiki Budget Hotels
- Imperial Hawaii Resort. It’s surprisingly easy to find resorts on a budget in Waikiki, and the Imperial Hawaii Resort is one option. Amenities include suites with kitchenettes, a swimming pool, and even beach towels.
- Waikiki Central Hotel. Waikiki Central Hotel is more affordable than many competitors thanks to the lack of resort fees. Other perks include patios, air conditioning, and free toiletries in every room.
Waikiki Mid-Range Hotels
- Coconut Waikiki Hotel. Enjoy great amenities for an affordable price at the Coconut Waikiki Hotel. Amenities include an outdoor pool, BBQ area, and gourmet coffee in each room.
- Halepuna Waikiki by Halekulani. The Halepuna Waikiki is a luxury boutique hotel in a great location. Enjoy great amenities such as a deep-soaking tub in every room, a fitness center, and the Urban Oasis, all in a well-designed environment equipped with art from the Honolulu Museum.
Waikiki Luxury Hotels
- The Ritz-Carlton Residences. To really feel like luxury, stay at the Ritz-Carlton Residences, one of the most luxurious resorts on the entire island. Amenities include two infinity pools, a spa, several restaurants, and meeting spaces for business travelers.
- Trump International Hotel Waikiki. For luxury right by the beach, stay at the Trump International. Amenities include an outdoor pool, a full-service spa, and a marble bath in each room.
2. Diamond Head
Located just on the eastern side of Waikiki, Diamond Head might as well be a different planet. Diamond Head is technically the name of the distinctive, ridge-shaped crater that dominates the island’s shoreline.
The collapsed tuff cone also lent its name to the area surrounding the state park. Obviously the most popular thing to do in Diamond Head is to hike up the mountain. Although it’s not the most challenging peak by any means, it still offers gorgeous views of Oahu.
Besides the hike to the top, the rest of the area also has plenty of walking routes, parks, and green spaces. Although Diamond Head is a wonderful natural paradise, staying here doesn’t mean giving up on creature comforts.
The hedonistic attractions of Waikiki are just a short drive away from Diamond Head. If you have a car, you can easily go the other direction and check out some of the more isolated viewpoints on southern Oahu.
Diamond Head is also a better option than Waikiki for budget travelers. You’re still only a few minutes’ drive away from the beach, but rooms here are far more affordable. There is a good mix of budget hotels and luxury hotels that still cost far less than Waikiki.
However, if you’re looking for a truly off-the-beaten-path destination, Diamond Head is not what you’re looking for. The area is close enough to Waikiki that it gets plenty of day-trippers, which makes for very crowded roads.
Things to Do
- Hike Diamond Head Crater and get a spectacular view of the island
- Work out in the beachfront Kapiolani Park outdoor gym
- Walk down to Waikiki for a taste of the action (and walk back to your room when you’re tired of the hassle)
- Do a day trip to the Manoa Falls and hike up to the waterfalls
Where to Eat
- Enjoy great Asian fusion post-hike at The Surfing Pig
- Get a taste of Hawaii’s Japanese community at Tonkatsu Tamafuji
- Check out one of Honolulu’s most exciting Vietnamese restaurants at The Pig & the Lady
- Enjoy brunch right by Diamond Head Park at Café Morey’s
Diamond Head Budget Hotels
- Diamond Head Beach Queen Studio. One of the benefits of staying in Diamond Beach is that you have access to more types of accommodation, not just hotels. If your family wants a bit more space and amenities such as a kitchenette and washing machine that make you feel at home, check out the Diamond Head Beach Queen Studio with a beachfront view.
- Kaimana Beach Hotel. The surprisingly affordable Kaimana Beach Hotel has great views of the beach and Diamond Head crater. Other reasons to stay here include the private beach, complimentary amenities, and lanai.
Diamond Head Mid-Range Hotels
- Breezy Studio at Diamond Head Beach Hotel. Another apartment offering a more affordable stay for families, this accommodation includes a TV, air conditioning, and a great location.
- Park Shore Waikiki. While technically within the district of Waikiki, this hotel is on the quieter, Diamond Head side. Amenities include great views, on-site restaurants, and beachfront entertainment.
Diamond Head Luxury Hotels
- Lotus Honolulu at Diamond Head. The luxurious Lotus Honolulu tucked away in Diamond Head feels as if you’re on a private tropical getaway while still close to the attractions of Waikiki. Amenities include cable TV, balconies or patios in every room, and great views.
- Queen Kapiolani Hotel. Although technically in Waikiki, this luxury resort is on the quieter side of the district and has great views of Diamond Head. Other amenities include lobby shops, a tour desk, and even beach chairs.
3. The Windward Coast
Oahu’s stunning Windward Coast is along the eastern shore of the island. Although it’s just a 30-minute drive away from the touristy bustle of Waikiki, as you drive east, you may feel as if you’re landing on a totally different world.
Instead of fighting through the crowds to get to yet another overcrowded beach or packed luxury shop, you’ll get to explore pristine beaches, stunning vistas, and mountains covered in tropical vegetation at your leisure. Staying on the Windward Coast is a great way to get into nature.
Whether you prefer hiking or surfing or getting up close and personal with some turtles, there’s plenty to do. There’s also plenty of culture to explore on this side of the island.
Instead of packing into hotel auditoriums or attractions designed for tourists, take in low-key Hawaiian beach towns where you can enjoy the slower pace of life that’s made Hawaii such a famous destination for years.
Oahu’s Windward Coast is also a center for native Hawaiian life and culture. The stunning natural beauty and charming towns of Oahu’s Windward Coast make it a great destination for nature lovers and people looking for a unique, off-the-beaten-path experience.
However, if you’re looking for exciting nightlife and plenty of action, you’re better off staying in Waikiki or the surrounding areas.
Things to Do
- Swim on Lanikai Beach, often voted one of the best beaches in the world
- Take a spiritual break at the Valley of the Temples
- Take in the views at Nu’uanu Pali Lookout point
- Walk to Mokoli’I Island during low tide
- Check out the laid-back towns such as Kaneohe
Where to Eat
- Chow down traditional Hawaiian-style at the Waiahole Poi Factory
- Have dinner with a view at Haleiwa Joe’s at Haiku Gardens
- Grab something sweet at Crepes No Ka ‘Oi
- Rub elbows with the locals at He’eia Kea Pier General Store and Deli
Windward Shore Budget Hotels
- Paradise Palms B&B. The best options for budget accommodation on the Windward side are often B&Bs like the Paradise Palms. Amenities include free private parking, a patio, and continental breakfast.
- Manoa Valley Inn. The charming, family-owned Manoa Valley Inn perches on the border between Honolulu and Windward Oahu. Enjoy complimentary breakfast in the garden.
Windward Shore Mid-Range Hotels
- Waimanalo Beach Cottages. Feel as if this slice of paradise is your own at the Waimanalo Beach Cottages. Rent your own charming cottage just steps away from the beach with full amenities, including a balcony.
- Regency on Beachwalk. Another option for renting an entire home on vacation, the Regency on Beachwalk series offers easy access to the windward side of Hawaii while staying close to Honolulu.
Windward Shore Luxury Hotels
- Paradise Bay Resort. The Windward Shore doesn’t have as many luxury resorts as the Waikiki side, which makes Paradise Bay stand out even more. Amenities include an outdoor pool, hot tub, rooms with kitchenettes, and stunning views.
- Kahala Hotel & Resort. While technically still in Honolulu, the Kahala Resort is close to stunning Kailua Beach. Amenities include a spa, sauna, outdoor pool, and more.
4. The North Shore
Oahu’s North Shore is a year-round beach destination. In the summer, locals and families alike flock to the pristine sand beaches and crystal-clear waters to swim.
Even on an island full of natural beauty, the North Shore manages to stand out. You can even swim with sea turtles if you want to get personal with Hawaii’s wildlife. However, the North Shore really shows its unique colors in the winter.
Then, the winds pick up, the waves grow to the size of buildings, and the world’s surfing community descends on the sleepy beach towns.
If you’re passionate about surfing or just want to take in surfer culture, a visit to the North Shore is a must. While the North Shore has a lively cultural life of its own, it doesn’t have the thumping nightlife of Waikiki or Honolulu, which might put off some travelers.
While the North Shore is a great place to take the family in the summer, in the winter the waves are too much to manage for children so stick to Waikiki or one of the quieter shores.
Things to Do
- Surf (or watch other daredevils brave the waves) at the Banzai Pipeline
- In the summer, splash around in the pristine waters of Waimea Beach
- Get a taste for local life and honor native Hawaiians at the Polynesian Cultural Center
- Check out inland trails such as the Ehukai Pillbox Hike, which passes WWII-era bunkers
Where to Eat
- Grab a quick, healthy bite at Haleiwa Bowls
- Check out the vibrant food truck scene like Aji Limo, which serves Japanese-Peruvian fusion
- Enjoy delicious lunch at Sprout Sandwich Shop
North Shore Budget Hotels
- Backpackers Vacation Inn and Plantation Village. This is one of the better inns on the North Shore backpacker circuit. Amenities include a great beachfront location, free parking, and a community of backpackers.
- Kalani Hawaii Private Lodging. The best places to stay on the North Shore are often private apartments such as the Kalani Hawaii, which offers gorgeous décor, a great location, and even surfboard storage.
North Shore Mid-Range Hotels
- Mokule’ia Beach Houses at Owen’s Retreat. For a homey feel on vacation, stay at the Mokule’ia Beach Houses. Each house includes BBQ facilities, a patio, and access to water sports facilities.
- Beach Side Studio by Shark’s Cove. This gorgeous private apartment offers easy access to local outdoor activities and has a balcony with a view.
North Shore Luxury Hotels
- Turtle Bay Resort. The North Shore caters more to the backpacker scene than to luxury travelers, but the Turtle Bay Resort is a great place to stay if you like creature comforts. Amenities include ocean views, two golf courses, and snorkeling with turtles.
- Courtyard by Marriott Oahu North Shore. The Courtyard by Marriott is a more intimate resort that still has plenty of amenities such as a fitness center, lagoon-style pool, and fresh décor.
When most people visit Honolulu, they make a beeline straight for Waikiki and ignore the rest of town. That’s a shame because Hawaii’s capital is full of vibrant culture and history, as well as attractions that are major tourist draws.
Honolulu has been the capital of Hawaii since 1850, when Kamehameha III made it the capital of the Hawaiian kingdom. The city still has sites paying tribute to the old Hawaiian kingdom.
For more recent history, check out some of the many sites paying tribute to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Honolulu also has plenty of cultural attractions.
Check out the art at some of Honolulu’s many museums, take in Hawaii’s status as a cultural melting pot with a walk through Chinatown, or indulge in some consumer culture at Ala Moana, a massive outdoor shopping center.
Honolulu also makes a great base for exploring the rest of the island. However, if you were looking for a relaxing tropical getaway, the hustle and bustle of the city might be too much for you.
Things to Do
- Check out a somber piece of history at the Pearl Harbor Historic Sites
- Learn more about the Hawaiian royal family at Iolani Palace, the only royal palace on US soil
- Take a day trip out of Honolulu to Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve
- Shop until you drop at Ala Moana, the world’s largest outdoor shopping center
- Take in some culture at one of Honolulu’s many museums, such as the Bishop Museum
Where to Eat
- Indulge in malasadas, Hawaiian donuts, at Leonard’s Bakery
- Have a fresh poke bowl at Maguro Brothers
- Stop by Chinatown for excellent restaurants such as the bun-focused Royal Kitchen
- Have the best mai tais at gastropub Merriman’s
Honolulu Budget Hotels
- The Equus. This lowkey hotel on Ala Moana boulevard is close to Ala Moana Regional Park. Amenities include evening entertainment and a pool for a very affordable price.
- Hosteling International Honolulu. The ultimate choice for budget travel, the Hosteling International Honolulu, right near the university, is a great place to meet like-minded travelers. Amenities include kitchens, TVs, and free parking.
Honolulu Mid-Range Hotels
- Ala Moana Hotel. For a laid-back beach vibe that’s more relaxed (and affordable) than Waikiki, stay at Ala Moana Hotel. Amenities include a pool deck, gorgeous lobby, and proximity to Ala Moana shopping center.
- The Modern Honolulu. The sleek space of The Modern Honolulu is close enough to Waikiki that you’re part of the action but removed enough that you’re not bothered by the bustle. Amenities include gorgeous rooms, an on-site restaurant, and a great location.
Honolulu Luxury Hotels
- Pagoda Hotel. Located near the Hawaii Convention Center, the Pagoda Hotel is a favorite with business travelers. Amenities include a sun terrace, on-site restaurant, and swimming pool.
- Prince Waikiki. Don’t be fooled by the name, this resort by the bridge connecting Ala Moana and Waikiki is a quieter option away from Waikiki’s bustle. Amenities include a full-service spa, several dining options, and an activity desk.
So, Where Should You Stay in Oahu?
Oahu is a tourist mecca for good reason, as its pristine beaches, thumping Honolulu nightlife, and charming beach towns will show.
Whether you choose to make it a surfing holiday on the North Shore or stay close to all the action in Waikiki, you’ll have a wonderful stay on the jewel of Hawaii’s crown!