With vibrant Honolulu as its anchor, the third-largest Hawaiian island is home to a diverse population, which spreads from the big city to far-flung surf towns. Use this list of the best places to eat, drink, stay, and play, to discover the joys of O‘ahu.

By Caroline McKenzie
November 28, 2017

Called “The Gathering Place,” O'ahu is home to Honolulu (Hawaii’s largest city and capital) and two-thirds of the state’s population. With an exciting mix of natural beauty and history, this island offers stunning vistas and fascinating culture at every turn. Sip a Mai Tai at a swanky bar in Honolulu’s Chinatown, soak up American history at the Pearl Harbor Memorial, or take a surfing lesson on Waikiki Beach.

Linny Morris

The Best Beaches

Waikiki: Yes, when on O‘ahu, hit Waikiki—if for saying you’ve done it, for no other reason. But once anointed, head out to discover some of the island’s greatest strands of sand.

Lanikai Beach, on O‘ahu’s windward side, beckons with soft white sand and blue-as-can-be waters. During a full moon, it’s also a stunning place to watch the moon rise over the neighboring Nā Mokulua islets. (You can miss the crowds by planning a weekday visit.)

Waimanalo Beach: Forty-five miles east of Honolulu is unspoiled Waimanalo Beach. Grab a smoothie at Ai Love Nalo for the ride over and enjoy the three-mile expanse of white sand and towering ironwood trees once you arrive.

Pupukea Beach Park: The rocky coastline at the 80-acre Pupukea Beach Park has tide pools brimming with fish and shells. And compared to Hanauma Bay, a popular snorkeling site on the opposite end of the island, this north shore gem is usually sparsely populated.

Kitschy as it is, world-famous Waikīkī is still full of authentic treasures. White fairy terns twirl in the sea breezes above high rises and luxe boutiques. Barefoot surfers cross Kalakaua Avenue fresh from the water.

M Swiet Productions/Getty Images

The Best Things to Do

Visit Pearl Harbor: Pearl Harbor is an O‘ahu can’t-miss. For a rich history lesson, book the WWII Pearl Harbor Heroes Tour through Polynesian Adventures, which will give you access to the Pearl Harbor Memorial, USS Arizona, USS Bowfin, Pacific Aviation Museum, and Battleship Missouri.

Tour Iolani Palace: Immerse yourself in Hawaii’s past and tour Iolani Palace in downtown Honolulu. As you walk through the opulent rooms, you’ll not only view a grand home that was ahead of its time (the first Hawaiian residence to have a telephone or electric lights), but also witness to some of the most important moments in Hawaiian history, including the imprisonment of Queen Liliuokalani.

Take a Surfing Lesson: Mark surfing off your Hawaii bucket list with a lesson from Honolulu’s Star Beachboys. For more than 40 years these skilled instructors have been transforming landlubbers into wave lovers. Surfing not your thing? The Star Beachboys also offer guided canoe rides for a tamer approach to Waikiki’s stunning waters. (Look for their yellow tent in front of the famed Duke Kahanamoku statue.)

standing room only at The Pig & The Lady
Photo: Jessica Sample

The Best Restaurants and Bars

Tchin Tchin! Bar, Honolulu: The handsome Tchin Tchin! Bar in Honolulu’s Chinatown has a rooftop patio complete with a verdant vertical garden and views of the city skyline. Go for the Pisco Punch and enjoy small plates to keep your stamina up. 

Ed Kenney's Restaurants, Honolulu: Whether you opt for TownKaimuki SuperetteMud Hen Water, or the new Mahina & Sun's, dining at one of chef Ed Kenney’s acclaimed restaurants is a must. The Honolulu native has revamped the area food scene with restaurants that are equal parts hip and laid back and, above all, with food that’s delicious and sustainable.

Koko Head Café, Honolulu: Brunch fanatics will want to linger at Chef Lee Anne Wong’s Koko Head Café. The island-style brunch house is Oahu’s hottest morning meal ticket. While every dish is a winner, the favorite for many is the Chicky and Eggs, a combo of Japanese-style fried jidori chicken, French-style scrambled eggs, house-made pickles, and maple-infused tabasco sauce.

The Pig & The Lady, Honolulu: Less than three years ago, The Pig & The Lady was a humble pop-up restaurant. Now it’s at the center of Oahu’s hot food scene, serving inventive dishes with Vietnamese influence. Groups of eight or more should treat themselves to Chef Andrew Le’s “Primal Feast Special”—a multi-course meal that includes oysters, porchetta, and grilled Kauai shrimp, plus a bounty of savory sides.

The Best Places to Shop

Echo & Atlas, Honolulu: Honolulu is an upscale retail paradise, but it’s also teeming with equally stylish local shops such as Echo & Atlas. The retailer carries everything from tabletop goods to vintage jewelry, all handpicked by interior designer-turned-shop owner Julianne Thomas McGee.

To learn about Honolulu’s vintage-fueled Polynesian Pop scene, go here.

Aloha Superette, Kailua: Kailua’s Aloha Superette is a groovy little store brimming with Hawaii essentials like bikinis and surfboards—many made by area designers. The colorful retail space also frequently doubles as a venue for art galleries, book signings, and live music

Number 808 Boutique, Haleiwa: Located on the North Shore, Number 808 Boutique is the ultimate non-souvenir, souvenir shop. There you can purchase items with Hawaiian flair (jute totes, breezy tunics) sans a town name plastered across them. And, ok, if you’re really hankering for a souvenir t-shirt, they do have vintage Hawaii tees that are decidedly cooler than a new release.

The Modern Honolulu's Sunrise Pool
Courtesy of The Modern Honolulu

The Best Hotels and Resorts

Two hotels in Honolulu are leading the boutique-nostalgia wave. Opened in 2016, the Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club has an old-school Hawaii vibe (koa-wood furniture, framed vintage Hawaiian postcards) and a cheeky swimming pool with “Wish You Were Here” tiled along the bottom (for the ultimate Instagram backdrop). Joining the Surfjack is the dreamy, midcentury-mod, LayLow, part of Marriott's Autograph Collection. With ukuleles in every room and just a five-minute walk from Waikiki Beach, it’s everything you need.

With striking views and tranquil white rooms, The Modern Honolulu is a hidden gem. Make your daily commute between the Sunrise Pool (surrounded by aged-teak decking and a canopy of autograph trees) and the Sunset Pool (encircled in white sand and daybeds with oversize batik pillows).

Want to opt for the classic? With its legendary pink façade, The Royal Hawaiian can’t help but be a Honolulu landmark. When it opened in 1927 it was the first luxury hotel on Waikiki Beach and helped establish the area as a sought-after destination. Though dozens of high-end properties now line the prized shoreline, the Royal Hawaiian remains the pink standard bearer.

For accommodations on Oahu’s quieter North Shore, consider Ke Iki Bungalows. Featuring 11 private abodes and one-and-a-half acres of beachfront, it has all the allure of a boutique property but zero pretension. It’s also a short drive (less than two miles) to the Banzai Pipeline and Waimea Valley waterfalls. For a peak resort experience on the North Shore, join the fun at Turtle Bay Resort, with its incredible menu of activities (and facilities), buzzy pool, and gorgeously redone Beach Cottages.