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Oahu isn’t the biggest Hawaiian island, but it is the most popular to visit. It’s home to Honolulu, the state’s capital, which probably accounts for the vast majority of those tourists, and it’s also where most of the people who live in Hawaii actually call home as well. The island’s nickname is “The Gathering Place,” and with the big crowds it attracts you’ll find it lives up to that name.

Oahu’s biggest city, Honolulu, is great if you’re looking for some of the best nightlife and shopping the islands have to offer – but it’s also a big city, so you’ve got to prepare yourself for how busy it is. You can base yourself in Honolulu for the convenience and visit other areas on Oahu to get away from the crowds and traffic, or you can get out of the city as quickly as possible and focus your time on the smaller towns and more secluded beaches.

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Getting to Honolulu, Oahu

In addition to being the capital, Honolulu is also where you’ll find the islands’ largest international airport – Honolulu International Airport. This is the main entry point for most travelers, although more and more people are opting to fly directly into smaller airports on one of the other islands to avoid Oahu’s crowds. If your best option is to fly to Honolulu but you don’t want to limit yourself to one island, don’t worry – there are lots of inter-island flights each day connecting the different airports.

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Quick search for flights to Honolulu, Oahu (HNL) from Maui (OGG), San Francisco (SFO), and Los Angeles (LAX):

Some of the points of interest on Oahu are:

  • Waikiki – These famous beaches are some of the most popular on the islands, and with good reason. There’s a well-established tourist infrastructure here, and the beaches themselves are just plain gorgeous (albeit crowded).
  • North Shore – Even if you’re not a surfer, this is where you’ll want to come to watch the pros in action. Winter is when you’ll see the biggest waves – some of the biggest on earth, actually – and if you’re daring you can even try them yourself.
  • Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie – The top paid tourist attraction in the entire island chain, this is where you’ll go to check out not just native Hawaiian culture but learn more about many Polynesian cultures. There are tons of shows, including a famous luau, a stage production that runs almost daily, and a dance presentation which is set on boats.
  • USS Arizona National Memorial – Commemorating the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 which prompted the United States to join World War II, the USS Arizona Memorial is a sobering monument, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the island’s most popular tourist stops.
  • Diamond Head State Park – This volcanic mountain overlooking Waikiki is where you’ll need to be to get those postcard views of the beaches. It’s a popular and relatively easy hike to the top.
  • Valley of the Temples – On the eastern side of Oahu, this park is the final resting place of thousands of Hawaiians from many different religions, including Buddhism and Shintoism. But perhaps more significant to tourists is the replica of a 12th century Japanese Buddhist temple (called Byodo-in) within the park.
  • Dole Plantation – Perhaps fun for the kids (or any adults who just really love pineapple), this is something of an amusement park, featuring a miniature train ride and what’s billed as the world’s largest maze.

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Where to Stay

Most of the hotels on Oahu are going to be in around Honolulu, and they’re not going to be cheap. There are some smaller operations, including guest houses and B&Bs, in less busy parts of the island. Possibly the best news for budget travelers to Oahu is that this is the only island with any public transportation to speak of – The Bus is an excellent network of buses which will get you just about anywhere all over the island.

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Map of Oahu and Honolulu

Here’s an interactive map of the island of Oahu. You can also turn on the satellite view (top right corner of the map) in order to get an idea of the mountains and terrain or zoom in and out as needed.