3 Days on Oahu: The Perfect Island Itinerary

17 November 2015

My year living in Honolulu was short, character-building, and enlightening. I learned a lot about myself, my travel style, and what I want out of life. I also learned a lot about Hawaii.

A day when I didn't have to work included going to Chinatown to stock up on fresh produce, tidying up my apartment that over looked the royal palace, and then heading to the beach to swim with sea turtles. In the evenings there would be pineapple rain (when it's raining lightly but still sunny so everything looks golden) which would then fade into vibrant sunsets that changed every single night.

Sunset in Honolulu, Hawaii

I got to see Hawaii at its most stunning beyond just the guide books because I got to live it. Now I'm offering up my tips on how to get the most out of a vacation to Oahu with only three days. The sites, foods, and activities I selected for this itinerary were chosen for several reasons including a) easily accessible even without a car b) completely free or worth the cost c) of great historical value and d) unique to Hawaii. 

Below are the things I think would genuinely make for the best trip to Oahu that will cross off many of the must-see sites as well as some things only locals know about.

The Ultimate Guide to Oahu

Day One: Historical Honolulu

I'm a firm believer that whenever I visit a new place that I should learn some history to get some perspective. So, I recommend taking a quick minute to tour the city before hitting the beach.

Pearl Harbor | Honolulu, Hawaii

1//Start your morning with a trip to Pearl Harbor. I've already written about the top four things to do at Pearl Harbor so click over there for a more comprehensive break down on what to see and how to get tickets. Though there are many things to see at this naval base, the Arizona Memorial is the highlight so you should at least make time for this monument to show your respect to those who have served in the military. It's best to go first thing in the morning when there are still tickets.

Chinatown in Honolulu, Hawaii

2// In the mid-morning, make your way over to Chinatown in downtown Honolulu. During my travels I've been to a lot of Chinatowns (and, you know, lived in China) and many of them are just kind of meh but the one you'll find in Hawaii is so next level. I had a friend from China visit me in Honolulu and even she said "This place is so legit! I feel like I'm back home!"

Chinatown in Honolulu, Hawaii

In Honolulu's Chinatown you can go to traditional, open air markets and also visit Kuan Yin Buddhist temple but I especially love this part of town for dining options! My favorite place for dim sum was Golden Palace Seafood Restaurant (110 N King St) because the food was cheap, delicious, and made me feel like I was actually in China. Locals also love The Pig and the Lady (83 N King St), a trendy, Vietnamese-fusion restaurant.

Iolani Palace | Honolulu, Hawaii

3//Once you've had lunch, walk down the street to see the beautiful I'olani Palace (364 S King St). It's a stunning relic of Hawaii's history and the only royal palace on US soil. I've written a longer history of the palace here before. Just across the street is the famous statue of King Kamehameha and next to that is Kawaiahaʻo Church (i.e. the Westminster Abbey of the Hawaiian royal family).

Honolulu, Hawaii

4// Ok, I've had you running all over Honolulu so now you can finally head over to Waikiki and just relax on the beach; I understand that this is a vacation after all. I considered not including Waikiki on this list, because, honestly, it's just packed with tourists but I gotta be real- sometimes you just wanna sit on a beach with a mai tai and this is the place to do it. 

Sunset in Waikiki

Day 2: North Shore 
Haleiwa | North Shore Hawaii

My beloved North Shore is a great escape to experience old Hawaii and definitely warrants an entire day of travel. I've already written about the top things to do on this part of the Oahu which ranges from Hale'iwa to Waimea to Kahuku but here are a couple more things to nosh on if you have the time between surfing, snorkeling with sea turtles, and swimming in waterfalls:

Haleiwa, Hawaii

5// Get some grindz! Like, you don't understand. It's so hard to pick my favorite food from Hawaii because they're are so many unique and delicious things to try. One thing I see becoming popular here on the mainland are acai bowls which can be picked up at Hale'iwa Bowls (66-082 Kamehameha Hwy). It's kind of like frozen yogurt but way healthier cause it's topped with granola and all those healthy bits and bobs.

Just down the street you can try Hula Dogs (66-230 Kamehameha Hwy). I've tried explaining these to people but it's so hard to convey how delicious they are. Imagine a hot dog but it's not on a regular bun- it's more like a tube. Oh, and the bun is made from taro and bacon. And instead of your typical toppings you add tropical relishes like pineapple or coconut and the mustards are all fruit based as well. Ugh, I miss these so much!

Finally, the North Shore is a great place to pick up some poke (pronounced poh-kay) from a food truck. Poke is a generic term so you wanna go for the ahi poke which is tuna. Yes, it's raw fish but the sesame oil and soy sauce marinade it amazing. You'll quickly get over any reservations once you try it. 

Day 3: Honolulu with out the crowds
Manoa Falls Hike | Honolulu, Hawaii

6// Getting back to Honolulu, start your morning with a scenic hike. It's hard to choose but if you only have time for one hike I would pick Manoa Falls. The jungle is lush beyond belief and at one point it becomes a thick bamboo grove. At the end of this easy hike you come to a towering waterfall which you can swim in.

Second place for must-do hike would be Diamond Head. The dormant volcano is not exactly a scenic hike but it does offer great views of Waikiki at the end.

Manoa Falls Hike | Honolulu, Hawaii

7// Just one valley over from Manoa Falls is Mu Ryang Sa Temple. This Korean Buddhist temple (2420 Halelaau Pl) is breathtakingly beautiful and so under the radar that many locals don't even know about it. If you've never been to Asia before, this would be an awesome way to experience it right here in America. Enjoy the zen atmosphere in this tranquil temple, all while viewing the skyscrapers of Waikiki in the distance.

Mu Ryang Sa Buddhist Temple | Honolulu, Hawaii
Mu Ryang Sa Buddhist Temple | Honolulu, Hawaii

8// For lunch, head back into the city and hit up the iconic Rainbow Drive Inn (3308 Kanaina Ave) for a loco moco. This meal really embodies Hawaiian food to me; a mash up of East and West, a loco moco is a plate of rice with a hamburger patty and fried egg on top and then smothered in gravy. You also have to get mac salad on the side. It's not the most photogenic meal you'll have in Hawaii but it sure is ono (delicious).

Rainbow Drive In | Honolulu, Hawaii

9//So, after spending time on Waikiki beach you're probably ready for something a bit more secluded. Head over to the South Shore (a stunning, winding, ocean road from Honolulu) to swim at Halona Cove (8699 HI-72). It's right next to a major tourist spot- Halona blowhole- and has a parking lot conveniently located right next to it so I don't know why this beach is almost always empty. It's pure tropical paradise and even has an ancient lava tube that leads to Koko Head (a dormant volcano).

Halona Cove, Hawaii
Photo Source
10// There are a lot of luaus on Oahu but easily the best is the Big Kahuna Luau. Before I went to this luau, I would have said don't waste your time in Hawaii on something so kitschy. Now I say spend your evening at this luau and you will not regret it! The views are breath taking, the food is top notch island fare, the venue is a beautiful, historical macadamia nut plantation, there are several cultural activities before the show, and the atmosphere is as warm and inviting as if you were at an old friend's home. The show is dazzling and I can't believe more people haven't caught wind of this luau!
Photo Source
If you still have time, consider...
Swimming with dolphins in Hawaii

+Swimming with dolphins in the wild. This is definitely out of the way as there isn't much else on the west side of Oahu for tourists.

+Movie buffs, should check out Kualoa Ranch on the Windward side of Oahu where such things as Jurassic Park, Hawaii 5-0, Lost, and 50 First Dates were filmed. Plus, the sheer cliffs are just gorgeous.

+ Grab some Dole Whip from Dole Plantation on the way up to the North Shore. This is no regular ice cream!

+If you have a fourth day, I would consider doing some island hopping! Depending on when you visit Hawaii, a round trip flight to another island can run around 100 USD. There's kind of a monopoly, though (there's only two airlines that fly between islands and there are no ferries) so the price can sometimes be way more than that. But if you have the time and the funds, I would definitely recommend a trip to Big Island to see some volcanoes and see another side to Hawaii other than Oahu.

What's on your Hawaii to-do list?

3 Days on Oahu; The Perfect Island Itinerary

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  1. Wow that bamboo hike looks awesome!

    1. It truly is! Super easy to access from the city, though.

  2. Swimming with dolphins would be so cool!

    1. Yes, it really was amazing. It's on the far side of the island though,