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The Best Oahu 3 Day Itinerary For First Timers

Planning a 3-day trip to Oahu and need an itinerary? I’ve got you covered! Oahu, home to the popular city of Honolulu, is the most visited of the Hawaiian islands. Parts of it can be touristy (lookin at you, Waikiki) but once you get outside of that, there are so many beautiful nature spots to enjoy! Use my Oahu 3 day itinerary to plan some great hikes, epic nature spots, and fun things to do for your first time in Oahu.

3 day oahu itinerary

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Oahu Trip Overview

  • PTO/Vacation Days Needed: 1-2
  • Cost: $$
  • Airport to Fly Into: HNL

Oahu 3 Day Itinerary Overview

First Day:

  • Kailua Beach
  • Lanikai Pillbox Hike
  • Byodo-In Temple
  • Nuuana Pali Lookout

Second Day:

  • Leahi Health
  • Ho-omaluhia Botanical Garden
  • Crouching Lion Hike
  • Waiahole Poi

Third Day:

  • Diamond Head Hike
  • Makapuu Beach
  • China Walls for Sunset

How to Get to Oahu

To get to Oahu, you’ll want to catch a flight into Honolulu Airport (HNL). The flight is a little under 6 hours nonstop from LAX.

3 day oahu itinerary

Once you land, make sure you rent a car so that you can drive around the island and see all the spots I mention in this 3-day Oahu itinerary. If you’re renting from a traditional car rental, make sure you quickly head to the car rental section of the airport once you land. The line to rent your car can be super long and slow sometimes! Another good option would be to check out Turo instead to avoid the car rental line at the airport.

When to Visit Oahu?

3 days in oahu hawaii

Oahu is a year-round destination. Any time of year is great to visit weather-wise! However, if you want to avoid the crowds (and get cheaper rates on lodging), I recommend going between April-June or September-December which is the shoulder season.

The Best Place to Stay in Oahu

There are two main areas to choose from when looking for lodging in Oahu: Waikiki/Honolulu area and The North Shore. Hawaii lodging can be expensive. You likely won’t be spending much time in your hotel room anyways since there’s so much to explore, so at the end of the day, I recommend looking for one of the more affordable options.

Where to Stay in Waikiki

Waikiki is definitely a touristy area of Honolulu. You’ll see a lot of families with kids and vacationers that want to sit by their resort pool all day (no shame in that, but that’s not the kind of Oahu itinerary I have for you here!). There’s also a main street with lots of bars, restaurants and shops.

where to stay in oahu
view from our balcony at Aqua Palms Waikiki

I opted to stay in Waikiki because they offer the most options for lodging (including the most affordable options).

I stayed at the Aqua Palms Waikiki and definitely recommend this if you’re looking for a mid-tier budget option. The rooms were nice and clean and had balconies, great Wi-Fi and a desk to work both in your room and in the lobby.

If you have a bigger budget to work with, I highly recommend the Royal Hawaiian. This iconic, pink, historic, 5-star hotel is decorated in Hawaiian style and has a great pool.

Where to Stay in the North Shore

The North Shore is best for surfers or nature-lovers who want to stay in a more low-key setting. There are not many bars or restaurants out here, but it’s a great place to sit back and relax and enjoy the views and the solitude. Hands down the most popular (for good reason!) place to stay in The North Shore is Turtle Bay Resort. The resort is set on 5 miles of secluded shoreline and has many hiking and biking trails nearby as well. It’s also the filming location of the movie “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”!

Oahu 3 Day Itinerary

Day 1

Lanikai Pillbox Hike

3 day oahu itinerary

After you land, get your rental car, and check in, it’s time to stretch your legs and go for a short hike! The Lanikai Pillbox Hike (also known as the Kaiwa Ridge Trail) is a 1.6-mile hike with 613 feet of elevation gain that leads you up to an old WWII bunker with an amazing view. The hike is exposed the whole way, so make sure you wear sunscreen and bring water. Along the way (and at the top) you’re rewarded with views of the Mokulua Islands, Lanikai Beach and Kailua Beach.

It’s about a 45-minute drive here from Waikiki. Parking can be a bit difficult – there is no trailhead parking lot. Your best bet is to street park in one of the neighborhoods at Kailua Beach and then walk about 0.5 miles or so to the start of the trail.

Kailua Beach

After you finish your hike, it’s time to relax at the beach! Kailua Beach is right near the base of the pillbox hike (and likely where you parked your car). I recommend packing a sandwich or some snacks, sit on the sand, jump in the ocean, and enjoy the views for a bit.

oahu 3 day itinerary

Byodo-In Temple

Next up on your Oahu 3 day itinerary is a spot that will make you feel like you’ve been transported to Japan! The Byodo-In temple is truly incredible. This scenic Buddhist temple is about a 25-minute drive from Kailua Beach. The Byodo-In Temple is a replica of the Byodo-In temple in Japan, and was built in 1968 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Japanese immigrants coming to Hawaii. It costs $5 to enter, and it’s open from 8:30am – 4:30pm daily.

3 days in oahu hawaii

You don’t need to carve out a ton of time here, it’s I think we ended up spending about 30-is minutes just walking around the grounds, admiring the peaceful energy and the amazing surrounding scenery. It’s beautiful!

Nuuana Pali Lookout

best things to do in oahu hawaii

On your way back to your hotel, make sure to stop by the Nuuana Pali Lookout, located above the tunnels of the Pali Highway, for an amazing view of the Windward Coast. It’s known for strong tradewinds, so it’s likely to be super windy. You can drive pretty much right up to it. Not only is this stop great for an aerial view of Oahu, but it also has historical significance. “Pali” means “cliff” in Hawaiian, and the lookout point is the location of the Battle of Nuʻuanu in 1795.

Day 2

Breakfast/Lunch at Leahi Health

Kick off your second day in Oahu with some healthy & delicious food. We absolutely loved the smoothies and salads at Leahi Health. It’s around a 10 minute drive from the heart of Waikiki. This spot is vegan but even if you’re not vegan (I’m not!) you will love it here.

Ho-omaluhia Botanical Garden

The Ho-omaluhia Botanical Garden is a must-see on your Oahu 3 day itinerary. It’s about a 40 minute drive from Waikiki. I don’t normally seek out botanical gardens when I travel, but this one is special! It’s seriously epic. Right when you drive through the entrance, it feels like you’ve been transported to a scene in Jurassic Park. In fact, some Jurassic Park scenes were filmed here.

It’s free to enter, and the park is open every day from 9am – 4pm. There are several different stops throughout the park where you can get out of your car, walk around a loop trail, and check out the views and the lush plants & trees. There’s also a scenic lake at one of the stops as well. The whole park is gorgeous!

Crouching Lion Hike

oahu 3 day itinerary

This was my favorite hike we did in our 3 day Oahu itinerary! It’s about a 45-minute drive from the botanical gardens, located on the northern windward side of the island. If you look on AllTrails, it will say the hike is “closed”, but many people still do this short & steep hike to the epic viewpoint anyways.

  • Miles: 0.5
  • Elevation Gain: 300 feet
  • Time: About 1 hour

If you put “Crouching Lion Hike” in you Google Maps, it should take you pretty much right there. You park on the street and then cross the street to where the trailhead begins. The start of the trail is located between a “Do Not Pass” sign and a telephone pole. Check out this blog post for more in-depth details about the hike before you go!

Even though this hike is short, it’s a steep one! The trail will have you basically climbing uphill, ducking under roots and branches to get to the top. I definitely don’t recommend hiking this trail if it’s raining, or if it has just rained.

Once you get to the top, the views of Kahana Bay and the surrounding area are incredible! After your hike, check out the beach right there at Kahana Bay. It’s beautiful!

Waiahole Poi

As you make your way back to Waikiki after your full day of exploring this beautiful island, you will come across Waiahole Poi. I recommend stopping here for a snack! This low-key takeaway spot on the side of the road is a perfect place to try some traditional Hawaiian comfort food. They also have delicious coconut ice cream!

Day 3

Diamond Head Hike

Kick off your last day of your 3 day Oahu itinerary with a hike! The popular Diamond Head Crater hike is a great option, and the trailhead is just a 15-minute drive from Waikiki.

  • Miles: 1.9
  • Elevation Gain: 515 feet
  • Type: Out & Back
  • Duration: About 1-1.5 hours

Hiking along this extinct volcano is one of the most popular things to do in Oahu. The 360-degree views from the top are amazing! The trail is very well maintained, with sidewalks and informative plaques guiding the way at some points.

Makapuu Beach

oahu 3 day itinerary

On your last day of your 3 day Oahu itinerary – it’s time to sit back and relax! Head to Makapuu Beach, which is about a 30-minute drive from Waikiki. This beach is stunning. It’s tucked in a little cove and feels like you’ve found a secret spot. There were only a few other people here when I visited. It’s known to be a great place to go bodysurfing. I did not get in the water, but thoroughly enjoyed the views and the vibes from this beach. There’s also the famous Makapuu Lighthouse perched up on the rocks that you can see from here (which is another hike you can do, if you want!)

Sunset at China Walls

best sunset spot in oahu

One of the most special memories of my 3-day Oahu trip was watching the sunset at China Walls. I discovered this spot in my research looking for the best place to watch the sunset in Oahu, and went to go check it out. It was such a cool experience! There were a lot of people there, but the crowd was mostly locals and it was very much a community-feel. You park in a residential neighborhood and walk over to the access point for China Walls. This leads you out to a big flat rock, which is actually more like the top of a small cliff jutting out over the ocean. Bring a blanket and some wine, sit down on top of the rock, and enjoy the sunset!

oahu 3 day itinerary

The most unique part of this experience is watching the surfers right below you. When a wave comes, the water level rises to basically the height of the cliff (don’t get too close to the edge or you’ll get splashed!) and you get to see the surfer paddling from right under you. Some people also jump off the cliffs into the ocean!

It’s hard to put it into words, and honestly the pictures don’t quite do it justice – but you have to go see for yourself! It’s awesome.

If You Have More Time….

If you have a longer trip than the 3 day Oahu itinerary, I recommend doing some island hopping! Oahu is amazing, but I definitely also recommend checking out Kauai, especially if you love nature and hiking. The flight from Oahu to Kauai is only 25 minutes! Check out my 3-Day Kauai Itinerary to plan your extended Hawaii trip.

Check out my post: Backpacking the Napali Coast: The Ultimate Guide to the Kalalau Trail for details on this amazing bucket-list backpacking hike in Kauai that you should do while you are in the area!


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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Debbie

    Disappointing no comment to visit Pearl Harbor, sacred ground for all who lost lives. Remember our Veterans.

  2. Erika Bruns

    Having lived in Hawaii for years, I’m now planning a trip back with newcomers, and I found this itinerary valuable. I thought it was a great mix between some “hole in the wall” spots and others that are worth the touristy areas. Thank you for adding historically relevant landmarks. Perhaps another blog could be offered centered around respecting Hawai’i as a tourist and ways to support cultural preservation. Take care and thanks again!

    1. Lauren Wilson

      I’m so happy to hear that, especially coming from someone who used to live there!

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