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3 Days on Oahu: The Perfect Itinerary for Hawaii’s ‘Gathering Place’

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Each of the Hawaiian islands has a nickname. From Hawaii (“the Big Island”) to Kauai (“the Garden Island”) and even tiny, privately-owned Ni’ihau has a nickname (“the Forbidden Island”). But do you know the nickname for Oahu, the island most people visit in Hawaii, and home to the capital city of Oahu? Oahu is known as “the Gathering Place,” dating back to times when different chiefs would meet on the island to discuss the governing of their lands. Today, this is a poignant name since so many people make their first (or perhaps only, bucket list) trip to Oahu when visiting Hawaii.

I’ve been fortunate to visit Oahu several times in my life; my parents first brought me from Alaska to Oahu as a child, and I remember strolling the International Market and purchasing beloved Hawaii souvenirs. Since then I’ve visited all of the other islands too, over the years. Mr. V and I decided to plan a final Hawaii trip before moving to the Midwest; we decided we needed to go with the classic: Oahu.

In this post, you’ll find my guide to visiting Oahu, based on my recent visit as well as a few other tips I’ve learned from visiting Hawaii in the past few years. You’ll discover the best things to do on Oahu, and how to make the most of your time if you only have 3 days on Oahu. Yes, it is possible to visit for just a long weekend, but it helps to have a guide of what to do (and what to skip) and how to make it all fit. This guide for 3 days on Oahu will show you how – so let’s dive in! (Okay, that’s the only Hawaii-ish pun, I swear…)

Oahu Travel Tips

3 days on Oahu, Hawaii - Aloha Street Art

Before jumping into my suggestions for what to do on Oahu and how to put together a great three-day Oahu itinerary, I want to cover a few important travel logistics and tips.

How to Get to Oahu

As you’ve probably guessed, you can’t exactly take a ferry from the Mainland (continental U.S.) to Oahu. (You can, however, take a cruise from the west coast of North America to Hawaii, such as with Royal Caribbean, Princess, and Norwegian.)

Most people don’t do that though – they fly. A number of carriers fly to Honolulu airport on Oahu several times daily: Hawaiian Airlines is the flagship carrier of the Hawaiian Islands; you can also find direct flights from various cities on the Mainland with Alaska, Delta, American, United, and Southwest. In 2021, we flew Hawaiian direct from SFO to HNL (Honolulu) in about 4.5 hours each way.

How to Get Around Oahu

Oahu is a big island – not The Big Island, mind you –, but big enough that you’ll need a car to get around if you want to explore beyond Waikiki/Honolulu. The best option is to rent a car in advance. Or, you can try one of the car-sharing options like Turo or Hui (a local Hawaiian service; they recommend reserving a car 5-7 days in advance).

If you decide to spend all 3 days on Oahu in Honolulu, you can get around on foot, using the bike share program (Biki bikes), using the bus (called “The Bus“), or ride-sharing with Uber (we tried Lyft and it was cheaper but had way fewer drivers so we ended up waiting forever!).

What to Pack for Oahu

Oahu has basically the same climate as the other Hawaiian islands; I recommend checking my Hawaii packing list to ensure you have everything you need.

The 13 Best Things to Do on Oahu

Okay in writing this section, I’m not suggesting that there are only 13 great things to do on Oahu. There is literally a lifetime of experiences and adventures you can have on Hawaii’s most populated and most visited island. But if you’re short on time and only have 3 days on Oahu, we’ve got to narrow it down a bit. So here are some of the top ideas to get you inspired. As you’ll see in the following section, you can squeeze most of these into a short trip if you want to!

Sunbathe on Waikiki Beach

3 days on Oahu, Hawaii - Waikiki Beach

I’ll be honest: with only three days, most people will read this one and stop here. Soaking it all in on Oahu’s most famous – and arguably Hawaii’s most picturesque – beach is a more than enticing enough way to spend three days, right?!

So yes, if you’re visiting Oahu for three days, you should definitely plan to spend at least some time sunbathing or swimming at Waikiki Beach (or one of the neighboring beaches along this same stretch).

Pro-Tip: Pre-arrange a beach umbrella and loungers from Duke’s Lagoon from 8am to 4pm for $50. They set up right in front of the Hilton Hawaiian Village and give you a reserved front row seat to the beach! To save, you can also book a beach chair from 5pm to sunset for $10 from one of the vendors at the south end of Duke Paoa Kahanamoku Beach.

Explore Honolulu

There’s more to Honolulu than just Waikiki, its most popular touristic neighborhood. In fact, some of the best local spots can be found when you escape the crowds on the beaches and in the shops restaurants along Kalākaua Avenue.

With only 3 days in Oahu, you might not be able to explore many other neighborhoods, but the Chinatown district near downtown Honolulu is a must. Here you’ll find the great restaurants and bars in town (though there are a few in other parts of the city, including near Waikiki), and can learn a bit more about what local life is like in the Hawaiian capital.

Attend a Luau

3 days on Oahu, Hawaii - Luau

Jumping back to a touristy option, if it’s your first trip to Hawaii, you should definitely consider attending a luau. These semi-cultural events are usually offered in conjunction with dinner. Accordingly, they command a high that price that tourists are willing to pay. At a luau, you’ll learn more about Hawaiian culture (packaged up nicely for tourist consumption) and try some Hawaiian food (if they have poi on the menu, go for it!). It’s a good way to pack in a bit of cultural experience without getting too far out of your comfort zone.

Visit the Bishop Museum

I’ll admit it: I’m becoming a museum nerd as I get older! Increasingly, I love visiting museums to get a better understanding for the place I’m visiting – its history and context.

The Bishop Museum in Honolulu is the place for that; it’s formally named The Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum or the Hawaiʻi State Museum of Natural and Cultural History. Inside you’ll discover incredible galleries about Hawaiian history and culture dating back to the Polynesian wayfarers who first settled the Hawaiian islands. Honestly, you could easily spend an entire day here – making it a great rainy day activity on Oahu.

Hike Up Lē’ahi (Diamond Head)

Since it’s likely you’re based in Honolulu (specifically Waikiki) for a three-day trip to Oahu, you can easily access the volcanic remnant that dominates the landscape. Lē’ahi (more commonly known as Diamond Head) is an easy 60- to 90-minute hike from the parking area; Mr. V and I actually rode bikes to the entrance gate and hiked Lē’ahi in about 2 hours. From the top of Lē’ahi, you’ll have incredible views of Waikiki and the surrounding area of the island.

Go Snorkeling at Haunama Bay

3 days on Oahu, Hawaii - Snorkeling

You can certainly go snorkeling along the popular beaches in Waikiki. But, if you want the best experience, it’s worth renting a car and heading away from the ultra-popular spots. That’s not to say that Hanauma Bay isn’t popular – because it is – but it gets fewer visitors for simply being further from everyone’s hotel than the beach.

At Hanauma Bay, you can snorkel over an incredible reef, and spot tons of fish, urchins, and possibly even reef sharks and Honu (Hawaiian sea turtles). It’s a great day trip from Honolulu (or half-day, if you only have 3 days on Oahu).

Visit Pearl Harbor

Here’s another one that requires a rental car; Pearl Harbor is a National Memorial and National Cemetery dedicated to the service people who lost their lives in the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack.

The actual site is comprised of several locations you can reach by bus, but the most common is the USS Arizona memorial. You can explore the site to learn more about the historic setting that lead to the Japanese attack on America (and start of World War II), then take a ferry to the memorial building over the ship’s final resting place in Pearl Harbor.

Visit the North Shore

While you have that rental car, consider making the journey a little further, to Oahu’s north shore. This is the famed spot for the best surfing on the island, and draws a distinctly different crowd of tourists than southern beaches.

Here you’ll find transplants and long-term travelers living the dream and catching a few waves. There are also incredible beaches here too, as well as fantastic food trucks and other holes-in-the-wall that dot the North Shore serving everything from poke and poi to grilled shrimp and shave ice.

Visit the Dole Plantation

On your way back from the North Shore, you might be up for a quick stop at the Dole Plantation. It’s the birthplace of the idea that Hawaii should be synonymous with pineapples. This huge industrial site has a ton of Disney-esque attractions and serves up the Dole Whip (frozen pineapple treat) that Disney made famous. It’s definitely touristy, but the sweet treats make up for it.

Road Trip Around Oahu

3 days on Oahu, Hawaii - Road Trip

For another option, why not do all of these car trips on a single trip! You can easily spend a day driving around Oahu to visit several of these sites like Hanauma Bay for a morning snorkel, followed by lunch on the North Shore, and a visit to the Dole Plantation in the afternoon. I’ve got a whole guide for road tripping around Oahu coming soon, so I’ll add the link here once it’s done!

Try Parasailing, Surfing, or Scuba Diving

There’s no time like vacation to shake things up a bit, so use your three-day trip to Oahu as a chance to get your adrenaline pumping and try something new. Maybe that’s parasailing, which Mr. V and I did together for the first time on our recent trip. We went with Hawaiian Parasail which was affordable and super easy to walk to from the north end of the beaches in Waikiki.

You could also try surfing; there are breaks of every skill level available if you want to give it a try. There are a number of surf schools where you can book a lesson, too. For a more adventurous option, you could even try scuba. A few operators out of Honolulu will give you a quick course and short dive to try it out.

I’m always one for trying new experiences while I travel, and Oahu has no shortage of options there, especially if they involve water!

Eat Local Foods & Treats

No matter where you go or what you do on Oahu for your three-day trip, be sure to eat local where you can! Every chain restaurant you can imagine has a location in Waikiki… But, a little bit of extra work will reward your tastebuds and show you that it’s not just the beaches that make Oahu memorable. For some inspiration, consider these spots I loved:

  • Fresh Catch in Pearl City, home to arguably the best spicy ahi poke I’ve ever had. We brought back a bottle of their poke sauce as a souvenir!
  • Pūpūkea, a North Shore food truck with fabulous poke and other bowls.
  • 8 Fat Fat 8, a local dive restaurant/bar with incredible Hawaiian/Chinese food that would make Bourdain a happy man.
  • Lucky Belly, a Chinatown spot we had for dinner on my birthday, with creative cocktails and delicious ramen.
  • Hau Tree, a chic spot in the shadow of Lē’ahi worthy of a multi-course meal.
  • Matsumoto’s Shave Ice, located in Haleiwa on the North Shore; it’s credited as the place that put Hawaiian shave ice on the map.

Drink Local

I’ve always been a fan of sampling local spirits, craft beer, and lately, I’ve been all about tiki culture. Just like with local food, the liquid flavors can really teach you about a place. Here are some watering holes I highly recommend trying a drink on Oahu:

There are loads of other great places too though, both local watering holes and craft cocktail joints.

A Perfect itinerary for 3 Days on Oahu

With that list in mind, you might be curious how I’d put this all together into a three-day Oahu itinerary. First, assuming you arrive on “Day 0” in the afternoon and are jet-lagged (so don’t do much) and leave on “Day 4” in the morning for a midday flight, here’s how I’d spend 3 days on Oahu:

Day 1: Soak up the Sun & Explore Honolulu

To start out, your 3 days in Oahu, you simply have to go to the beach on your first day. You don’t have to spend the whole day there though, so maybe put in a few hours (with plenty of sunscreen!) and take a dip or two in the ocean before lunch.

In the afternoon, you could set out on foot or use Biki bikes to explore more of Waikiki and Honolulu. In the evening, I recommend riding the bus or a bike up to Chinatown for dinner (my suggestion: Lucky Belly) and drinks (my suggestion: Skull & Crown Trading Co.)

(Following our trip, Mr. V said this day was his ideal day: start at the beach, add in an activity or two in the afternoon. This was also how we spent my 34th birthday in Hawaii!)

Day 2: Explore the Island

Today’s the day to rent a car, if you’re only renting it for one day. You can choose to do any number of the activities I mentioned above outside Oahu, but I’d suggest:

  • Start by circling the island up to the North Shore
  • Have lunch at Pūpūkea Grill and shave ice for dessert at Matsumoto’s
  • Head south through the central highlands of Oahu
  • Spend the afternoon at Pearl Harbor, learning about this pivotal chapter of American history
  • End with dinner at Fresh Catch in Pearl City

This is a perfect way to explore more of Oahu beyond Honolulu even though you don’t have a ton of time on your trip.

Day 3: Hike Lē’ahi, Beach Time & A Little Adrenaline

For your final full day in Oahu, I recommend starting early. Hiking Lē’ahi (Diamond Head) in the morning is a great way to start the day and beats the heat (and crowds) that turn up as the sun rises higher in the sky.

After that, you could relax at the beach the rest of the day and/or add on something more adventurous. Maybe start by reserving a beach umbrella and loungers, then see if you feel up for a parasailing ride or surf lesson in the afternoon.

What to Do on a Rainy Day on Oahu

If it happens to rain while you’re in Hawaii, I’m sorry! While small rain showers (called ‘trade rains’ due to the trade winds) are pretty common in Hawaii, it does sometimes happen that more substantial rain comes through to spoil your beach day. Here’s what I would suggest if that happens and you need to know what to do on a rainy Oahu day:

  1. Bishop Museum – Easily accessed by Uber from Waikiki
  2. Pearl Harbor – Accessible by Uber or Bus if you don’t have a rental car, most of the exhibits are open-air but some are covered/enclosed.
  3. The North Shore – Sometimes rainy days make for great surf and you might see incredible surfing.
  4. Road trip around Oahu – If you’re going to be stuck indoors, it might as well be in a car seeing the sights of the island.
  5. Go Snorkeling – If you’re going to get wet, why not take advantage of that time to do some snorkeling at Haunama Bay?

These are just some ideas for a rainy day if it happens – but I’m wishing you clear skies!

Where to Stay on Oahu

If you only have 3 days on Oahu, I recommend staying in Waikiki, as it’s close to most of the main attractions (especially if you don’t plan to rent a car and explore beyond Honolulu). There is literally every hotel brand you can think of in Waikiki, but after my visit, I feel comfortable recommending:

There are also tons of vacation rentals. We stayed at this Airbnb, which was a decent option, and here are a few others I like the look of:

But in the event none of these are right for your budget or style, there are literally so many other options to choose from. With enough advance planning you can certainly find something that will make your Oahu trip perfect.

And with that, you have everything you need to plan an incredible trip for 3 days on Oahu (or longer, if you have the time!). Have any questions about visiting Oahu or my three-day Oahu itinerary? Let me know in the comments!

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