There are many ways to see the island of Oʻahu—take a guided tour, hitch a ride on a helicopter, or explore the coast by boat. These are all exciting options, but we prefer sightseeing by car. The reason? Well, you choose the route, you can linger as long as you want, and you can eat and shop along the way.
The island of Oʻahu is just the right size for taking a drive. It’s large enough that you will not run out of things to do and sights to see yet small enough that you can complete the drive in one day.
Chances are that although it’s possible to see all of the island’s postcard-worthy sights in one day, you won’t want to. You’ll meet a honu (turtle) and want to stay to play. You’ll discover a waterfall and decide to go for a swim. You’ll hike a mountain and find the view is a perfect background for a photoshoot of you and your someone special, and you’ll linger much longer than you intended. Nevertheless, here are our recommended stops for driving around Oʻahu in day.
Most visitors to Hawaiʻi stay in Waikīkī. This is most likely where you’ll be starting your day. Watch surfers paddling out for their morning session or catch a wave yourself at Waikīkī beach. You can also make the short, but the steep 0.8-mile hike up Diamond Head. The trail will lead you to old military bunkers, a lighthouse, and summit views of the ocean and Oʻahu’s Southern coast. Getting outdoors and into nature is a great way to start the day!
2. Hawaiʻi Kai and Waimānalo
The East side of the island is an outdoor lover’s playground with Sea Life Park and Hanauma Bay being two great options for those wanting to see, swim, and play with Hawaiian marine life. If this is a priority for you, plan on spending lots of time in East Oʻahu. There will be so much to see.
Another great way to start your road trip is with a short two-mile hike up to Makapu‘u Point lighthouse. You can save Waikīkī and Diamond Head for another day and head out early for a sunrise hike. From the vantage point at Makapuʻu, you’ll gain gorgeous views of the sun coming up over the blue horizon, the coastline, Rabbit Island, Molokaʻi, and even whales if you’re there between December and May.
The drive up the coast from Makapuʻu will take you through the town of Waimānalo. Roadside cafes and eateries make this a convenient and delicious place to stop for a bite to eat. Waimānalo is a hidden treasure. Many people don’t get the opportunity to experience this local haunt, but you can.
Not too far up the coast from Waimānalo is the trendy beach town of Kailua. If you want to see what everybody’s been talking about, venture through Kailua to check out Lanikai beach, hike up Lanikai pillboxes for a whimsical view of the offshore Mokulua Islands or sunbathe at Kailua beach. Both Lanikai and Kailua beaches have been winners of the prestigious #1 Beach in America title.
With many restaurants to choose from and lots of healthy options, Kailua is a great place to get a good meal. We recommend eating here before continuing your road trip, as dining options are limited along the stretch of road from Kailua to the North Shore.
4. Pali Lookout
Located just mauka (mountainside) of Kailua, there are two main reasons why you should check out Pali Lookout. One, you’ll see amazing views of the Koʻolau Mountain Range. Two, this pali (cliff) is the site of a major battle that took place in 1795. You’ll be able to stand where King Kamehameha I and his army defeated the Oʻahu forces before going on to unite all of the islands into one kingdom. The strong winds and crisp air here are refreshing.
Kāneʻohe, the next stop on our drive around Oʻahu, is known for its rich, lush green landscapes. These two gorgeous stops prove it. You may have caught glimpses of the Byodo-In Temple in various shows like Hawaii Five-O and Magnum P.I. But even if you have, you’ll still be in awe when you gaze upon the Japanese temple replica and its verdant surroundings. Hoʻomaluhia Botanical Gardens is another tropical treasure with acres of Native Hawaiian plants and jaw-dropping Koʻolau mountain views.
6. North Shore
Leaving Kāneʻohe destined for Oʻahu’s epic North Shore, you’re in for a scenic one-hour drive. You’ll see lush forests, beautiful bay views, and Oʻahu’s “country” side. You will pass the small offshore island called Chinaman’s Hat as well as Kualoa Ranch where many movies have been filmed. (We highly recommend you come back to spend a day here.) You will also pass the Polynesian Cultural Center. (This is a great place to experience a lūʻau. Maybe after your day at Kualoa?)
When you see the shrimp trucks serving up yummy plates of garlic shrimp, you’ve reached the North Shore country town of Kahuku. Travel a bit more and you’ll hit Haleʻiwa and the famous 7-mile miracle which is home to several white-sand beaches of miraculous beauty, starting with Sunset Beach and ending with Haleʻiwa Beach Park. Laniakea Beach where the honu are known to rest is located here. You can swim near the honu or watch them rest on the sandy shores but please don’t touch. Honu are endangered species. During the summer, the 7-mile miracle beaches are picture-perfect for sunbathing or sunset walks. During the winter, big swells roll in, and the dangerous surf becomes a playground for the world’s best watermen. Also along this 7-mile stretch is Waimea Valley where you can walk through a botanical garden, swim at a waterfall and participate in cultural activities.
Cool off with Matsumoto Shave Ice’s rainbow of tropical shave ice flavors. Matsumoto’s is “the shave ice place” on the North Shore. They do their toppings right and now they even have an edible cracker bowl imported from Japan. Mmm!
7. Ko ʻOlina
The North Shore of Oʻahu is a beautiful place to end the day, and the sunsets are just stunning. If you’ve made it this far, rest assured you’ve seen the best of Oʻahu. However, if you’ve made good time during your drive around Oʻahu, our last suggestion will be the icing on the cake. Ko ʻOlina on Oʻahu’s Westside is wild and gorgeous. An area boasting breathtaking beaches, golf, and water activities, some of Hawaiʻi’s best resorts are located here, like Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, and Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko ʻOlina. You can swim in one of the area’s four manmade lagoons, catch a traditional Hawaiian lūʻau at Paradise Cove or simply enjoy the sunset over the endless blue sea.
Your drive time back into Waikīkī from Ko ʻOlina will be about 45 minutes. From Haleʻiwa, the drive time back into Waikīkī is just under an hour.