Name a tropical holiday destination more iconic than Hawaii. Oahu, the capital of the Hawaiian islands and Maui are two of the most popular destinations in Hawaii and for good reason. To my surprise, my time in Oahu showed me a different side to the iconic Hawaiian vacation we’re all familiar with. Certainly its beloved beaches are gorgeous, but in my short time exploring I discovered Oahu’s excellent food scene influenced from both east and west (Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filippino and Thai), nature trails, historic culture, nightlife, street art, boutique hotels and more.
What To Do
Unlike the unspoiled smaller Hawaii islands, Oahu’s positioning is the perfect place to kick back while also getting the perks of a larger city. (As a New Yorker, you know I loved that!) The easiest way from the airport to the city center is through Speedi Shuttle. So often, when I get to a more remote, tropical location – it feels completely disconnected from modern conveniences. This is definitely not the case here! Here are some of the must-do activities I’d recommend first timer’s experience when exploring Oahu!
Take A Helicopter Tour
To get a completely new perspective of the island, take the Complete Island Oahu helicopter tour with Blue Hawaiian Helicopters. I loved seeing the epic landscapes unfurl below! It’s a total bucket list experience.
Book A Sunrise Photo Walk
Wake up for sunrise and join Oahu Photo Tours for a full day tour around the island, catching some of the most photogenic spots. There’s nothing like the crisp air of a new day and seeing the most loved spots of the island before the crowds settle in.
The Baydo-In Temple is a non-denominational temple nestled at the base of the Ko’olau Mountains in Valley of the Temples Memorial Park. Come for a meditative walk around its gorgeous koi ponds and some simple, solitary moments enjoying its endless beauty.
The Waikiki Aquarium on the end of the Waikiki Trolley line is one of the most popular tourist attractions to do! It’s actually perfectly situated next to a living coral reef, too.
Walk Along Kalakaua Ave
Kalakaua Avenue is where you’ll find tons of cool, boutiques, shops and malls edging right up to the beach. It’s a shopper’s Hawaiian paradise!
Kapi’olani Farmer’s Market
If you’ll be in Oahu during on a Saturday (or a Tuesday), check out the Kapi’olani Farmer’s Market! Hawaii’s agricultural industry has really zeroed in on the benefits of locally sourced foods – this is the place to try some of the freshest foods, local honey, coffee, fruits and flower bouquets!
Snorkle at Hanauma Bay
What’s a Hawaiian vacation without snorkling? Even if you’re not the most proficient swimmer, I’d highly recommend taking a dip and seeing the colorful, tropical fishes in Hanauma Bay. It’s so spectacularly beautiful!
Although it may be a bit touristy, the Dole Plantation is a must-do! The pineapple soft serve and everything else pinapple that you can imagine is lifechanging. Guinness calls it the world’s largest maze, and I couldn’t agree more. It’s a massive space! The plantation itself is beautful and you can take an express train to explore it.
Visit the Brooklyn of Oahu, Kaka’ako
This hip, up and coming neighborhood has a ton of street art murals. I loved soaking in all the unique art! Plus, this neighborhood is home to Paiko and the popular Avocado Toast Aussie cafe, Arvo.
Hike Diamond Head – Sandy Beach
Escape the crowded shores and head to Diamond Head, around the bend from Hanauma Bay and the Blowhole (a favorite of Pres Obama!). The south facing views are simply stunning.
Where To Eat
With a dynamic range of cultural influences, Oahu’s food scene is incredible. You’ll find flavors from all parts of the world, fresh fruits and drinks in incredibly designed spaces. Here are some of my favorite foodie discoveries in the city!
Beachhouse at the Moana
If you’re looking for an ocean front view with noshing on fresh seafood, look no further. Kona Lobster bisque, amazing Ahi tuna? Count me in!
This is a fun spot for drinks! The atmosphere is super lively on the beach. I’d imagine it would be a great spot to hang out with a gaggle of girlfriends over great cocktails!
Mahina & Suns
Located in the iconic Surfjack Hotel, Mahina & Suns does home cooking with a twist. All their dishes are inspired by the local food customs and use only the very best, fresh ingredients.
Steak Shack is just what it name states – a shack right on a stunning beach that serves the most delicious steak with rice for under $10! Can’t beat it.
Waiola Shave Ice
If there’s one place you MUST go in Oahu… it’s Waiola Shave Ice. It’s a MUST. The best shave ice on the island. There’s seriously nothing more refreshing!
Ono Seafood has the best poke in town! But heads up -they’re closed on Monday and Sunday… so plan accordingly.
Head over to Leonard’s for an incredible malasadas (Portugese fried doughnut). It’s the perfect treat to start your day with.
This artsy cafe celebrates the art of the local area while also serving up some delicious coffee from around the world, gelato and sweets!
Where To Stay
I obsess over lodgings that are committed to fun, luxurious or quirky details, while also giving visitors a cozy place to call their own. So, you can imagine my excitement when booking some of the coolest hotels filled with colorful island touches in well connected areas. Hotel Tonight is my go-to app to find these stellar places, as they always do a great job listing each establishment’s unique qualities – including its architectural beauty or how photogenic the spaces are.
Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club
A true homage to the Waikiki spirit, the Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club is a vintage-inspired, visionary hotel. From the mid-century architecture and art bedecking the walls, their creative take on a local “swim club” and their perfect location on the island – there’s no aesthetic like it. Each room is totally unique and absolutely vintage inspired, making you feel like you’re inside an episode of Mad Men. Their commitment to celebrating artists was an awesome bonus too. I also loved that each evening there was some kind of cool event going on within the space, including movie screenings. It really feels like a space both visitors and locals alike love to meet up in!
Alohilani Resort Waikiki Beach
The Alohilani Resort is an absolute serene oasis. The design of the interiors and exteriors are pristine, fresh and totally relaxing. Cabanas, shallow water pools, open air lobbies, steps from the shore… heaven, I tell you! There’s a reason it was named after the last queen monarch of the Hawaiian Kingdom. I could totally see honeymooners loving this space to call home for a few days!
Alohilani’s Longboard Club and daily scheduled activities also had me completely smitten. I loved coming to their space to grab a light bite – whether it was for something to get me going in the morning or an afternoon snack – as well as dabbling in their scheduled activities, like sunset yoga, live music, Lei making and exercise classes. Not to mention, the hotel also offers two restaurants by critically acclaimed chef, Morimoto.
Oahu showed me a new side to Hawaii‘s delightful culture… and I’m so grateful for it. I can’t wait to return again soon!
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