5 perfect days in Honolulu

January 02, 2024

5 perfect days in Honolulu

Sarah Etinas
By Sarah EtinasDec 20, 2023 • 17 minutes read
Waikiki beach and Diamond Head, Honolulu, Oahu
Image: Maridav/Getty Images

Golden shores, sunny skies, aloha spirit—Honolulu needs no introduction. But there’s so much more to this bustling coastal city than most people realize. Layered with the influence of its Filipino, Korean, Chinese, and Portuguese immigrants, Honolulu is bursting with international inspiration, which you’ll see as you wander through the city’s worldly shops and dine in its globally inspired restaurants. Add in all those famed beaches, blood-pumping hikes, and—of course—its rich Native Hawaiian culture, and there’s no question why Honolulu draws in millions of visitors every single year.

With five days to explore, there’s lots to cover—so we’ve got the low-down on the best places to go, plus valuable intel from the Tripadvisor community. What are you waiting for? Pack your bags—and your swimsuits—and get ready for an incredible island vacation.


Surfing at Waikiki Beach, in Honolulu
Image: Knut Robinson/Unsplash

MORNING: Hike Koko Head

Odds are, you’ll be jet lagged on your first full day in Honolulu (even if you’re coming from the West Coast), so why not take advantage of the early wake up time with a morning hike? Just 20 minutes outside Downtown Honolulu, the Koko Crater Trail—colloquially known as Koko Head—was originally built as a railroad track to transport people and supplies up the crater during World War II. When its transportation services were no longer needed, it was revamped into the hike that we know today.

The Koko Crater Trail is about 1.6 miles roundtrip, which doesn’t sound too bad until you take the nearly 1,000 feet of elevation gain into consideration. And let’s not forget the fact that you’ll be using those old railroad tracks as steps (so it’s basically a real-life, 1,048-step stairmaster workout). While the most experienced hikers can complete this trail in under half an hour, you’ll want to budget a solid two hours to account for the many, many breaks you’ll want to take to catch your breath.

By the end of your journey up this historic railroad track, you’ll feel like an absolute champion. And the epic views of Hanauma Bay, Hawaii Kai, and beyond definitely make all of that effort worth it.

With the grueling Koko Head hike to start your morning, it only makes sense that you’ll want to take things easy later in the day. You’re bound to be starving, so brunch at Heavenly Island Lifestyle is in order. The local eggs benedict with lilikoi (passion fruit) butter hollandaise sauce and Okinawa purple potato puts a fun local twist on a breakfast classic.

Travelers say: “The view to all sides on the top is worth the effort. Bring enough water, there is no water available.”—@buzanits

AFTERNOON: Soak up the sun

From Heavenly Island Lifestyle, you have two options. First, you can go to the iconic Waikiki Beach just half a mile away. While it’s totally fine to simply laze around the shore or take a quick dip in the ocean, consider spicing things up with a surf lesson from Stoke Drift Surf School. On the shore, they’ll teach you how to paddle out, pop up, and keep your balance before letting you test your skills on Waikiki Beach’s beginner-friendly waves.

Your second option—avoid the crowds and go to the nearby, yet under-the-radar Kaimana Beach instead. Only a mile from Waikiki Beach and under the shade of Diamond Head, this hidden shore is home to some epic snorkeling opportunities just 25-minutes from the shore. But be sure to bring your own snorkel gear, because there’s no place to rent at this particular spot.


  • This glass-bottom boat tour is the perfect introduction to Hawaiian sea life, as the captain and crew help spot green sea turtles, migrating whales, and dolphins. Unlike other catamaran cruises, this one lets you look underwater through clear magnifying port holes.
  • Experience one of Hawaii’s famous sunsets on a cocktail cruise along Waikiki’s coast. While you sail, keep your eyes peeled for dolphins and, from November to May, even humpback whales. You can also enjoy views of Waikiki landmarks like Diamond Head.
  • During Stoke Drift Surf School’s private 90-minute surfing lesson on Waikiki Beach, you can learn the basics or perfect your hang 10—instruction is tailored to your skill level. Bonus: The company guarantees that you’ll surf. If not, you get your money back.

EVENING: Shop your way down Kalakaua Avenue

Since Honolulu’s cool nature spots are best experienced in the sunshine, you’ll want to set aside your evenings for everything else. If you’re staying in the hub of Waikiki hotels, there’s a good chance that the bustling Kalakaua Avenue is nearby, making it the ideal place for a night-one stroll.

If there’s one place you have to shop, it’s at House of Mana Up at the Royal Hawaiian Center. This little shop is filled only with products from Hawaii businesses. Grab some pineapple caramels from Kauai Sweet Shoppe, an adorable lei-printed jumpsuit from Lexbreezy Hawaii, and island-inspired puzzles from Surf Shack Puzzles.

For dinner, make your way to the International Marketplace for Eating House 1849. Owned by world-renowned local chef Roy Yamaguchi, this upscale restaurant is known for its pan-Asian dishes. The wild boar-based 1849 hapa burger and butterfish kamameshi are both bursting with flavor.


People snorkeling at Hanauma Bay

Hanauma Bay

Image: Brandon Rosenblum/Getty Images

MORNING: Spend some time in Kailua

Just 30 minutes from Honolulu lies the artsy, laidback town of Kailua. Filled with galleries and handmade markets, hikes, and beaches, it’s a popular spot with tourists and locals alike.

First things first, if there’s a Kailua market happening, go to it. There’s the weekly Sunday Kailua Town Farmers Market at Adventist Health Castle Hospital, which is the place to get tropical fruits that can be hard to find—lilikoi (passion fruit), jackfruit, longan, papaya, and apple bananas are just the beginning.

The Lokahi Kailua Market also takes place Sunday mornings. While this market has a little bit of everything, it leans toward artsy creations. Find locally designed and printed cards from Bradley & Lily, hand-crafted shell jewelry from Treasure Hawaii, and hand-painted jean shorts from NALU Island Boutique. Plus, there’s always live music.

Then there’s my personal favorite, the Aloha Home Market. With its sporadic schedule, it can be challenging to visit, but if the timing works out, you’ll find yourself going home with loads of finds to make your house a bit more island-inspired. Don’t miss the monstera leaf paintings by Petals by Priya, the bird of paradise-bedecked totes and pouches from Renyu.co, and the flower-printed baby gear from Ava + Oliver (including the cutest flower-shaped sunnies).

If there’s no market on the day of your visit, dedicate your morning to a hike instead. The 1.7-mile Lanikai Pillbox hike is known for its epic views of the Mokulua Islands and Pacific Ocean, particularly at sunrise (although the views are fantastic at any time of day, so don’t feel like you need to wake up early).

That said, the Lanikai Pillbox hike can look a little bit intimidating at first—at the start, there’s a rope to help you climb up. But once you get past the initial steep section—which you probably won’t actually need the rope for—it’s smooth sailing from there. In 25 minutes, you’ll reach the Lanikai Pillbox, a graffiti-covered World War II bunker, for jaw-dropping views.

To round out your morning, treat yourself to a delicious meal at Kono’s. Known for its low-and-slow-cooked kalua pig, you can’t go wrong with any dish that features this ingredient. For a breakfast-esque option, try the Chun’s “bomber” (breakfast burrito), complete with both kalua pig and bacon. If you’re more in the mood for lunch, the kalua sliders with guava BBQ sauce can’t be missed.

Travelers say: “The Aloha Home Market is awesome! Super cool to check out a bunch of locally run small businesses selling quality art and home goods. The live music was also a great touch! Another perk was that the event is pet friendly, so lots of cute dogs to check out!”—@Jaso0569

AFTERNOON: Snorkel at Hanauma Bay

As the afternoon rolls around, drive down the Windward (eastern) Coast until you hit Hanauma Bay, just 30 minutes away. Officially known as Hanauma Bay State Park, this protected bay is one of the best places to snorkel on all of Oahu.

Your visit will start with a quick informational video on how to protect the reef. (Pro tip: Wear reef-safe sunscreenLittle Hands Hawaii is my personal favorite brand.) Then, you’ll either take a tram or walk your way down to the protected bay.

Once you reach the bay itself, you might be tempted to just dive right in. But there’s a bit of a strategy to Hanauma Bay. There are three “lagoons” (natural cutouts in the reef) that are the ideal place to snorkel (as opposed to trying to snorkel over the reef the whole time). All you have to do is find the closest one, grab your snorkel gear—or rent some—and dive in. Keep an eye out for turtles, parrotfish, octopi, and even the state fish known as the humuhumunukunukuapuaa‘a as you wander your way through the warm waters.

Note: To visit Hanauma Bay, tourists have to make reservations in advance. The limited time slots get snatched up quickly, so be sure to be on the Hanauma Bay reservation page right when tickets become available—two days prior at 7 a.m. HST.


  • Experience the wonder of Hanauma Bay on this tour that takes the stress and hassle out of the experience, with organized transportation and snorkel gear.
  • Learn about Hawaii’s history, biodiversity, and culture on this half-day small-group tour that introduces you to local secrets and island highlights such as Hanauma Bay, Lanai Lookout, and more.
  • One of the best ways to get around Oahu is by moped, because of its easy maneuverability. With this Hawaiian Style Moped Rental for the Day, you can zip around to top landmarks like Hanauma Bay, Diamond Head, and more.

EVENING: Experience a luau

One of the best ways to experience Native Hawaiian culture while in the islands is by going to a luau. It can be tough to find an authentic luau, especially in Honolulu, but luckily, there’s the Experience Nutridge Luau. This Native Hawaiian-owned and -operated luau is held at Puu Ualakaa Wayside Park, just 15 minutes outside of Downtown Honolulu. (Don’t worry—they offer paid transportation options from Waikiki if you don’t have a car.) And unlike other luau that welcome hundreds of people every night, Experience Nutridge Luau offers a more intimate experience, with about 50 to 70 guests.

Given the origins of luau, food is an important part of the event—and Experience Nutridge excels. Savor a combination of traditional Hawaiian and local island flavors with dishes like kalua pig (shredded pork), lau lau (meat-filled taro-leaf pockets), lilikoi (passion fruit) bars, and haupia (coconut pudding).

Then, there’s the entertainment. Watch hula dancing, gape in awe at fire dancing, and play traditional Hawaiian games like ‘o‘o ihe (spear throwing), all the while learning bits and pieces of Hawaiian history and legends. To top it all off, you’ll get to watch a stunning Honolulu sunset from your unobstructed hilltop location.


Hiking trail to Makapu’u Point Lighthouse
Makapu’u Point Lighthouse
Image: EJJohnsonPhotography/Getty Images

MORNING: Hike the Makapuu Lighthouse Trail

We’re starting day three with another hike, but, as always, it’s important to fuel up first. Moena Cafe in Koko Marina Center, an eatery known for its fun local twists on breakfast plates, is on the way. Go for a hearty short rib loco moco or savor the sweet banana chantilly pancakes. Then, you’ll be ready for your morning workout.

On the scale of how much effort you put in versus how great the views are, the Makapuu Lighthouse Trail is a 10/10. Located at the southeastern tip of the island, just 25 minutes from Downtown Honolulu, this paved, two-mile path is as easy as it gets on Oahu. With a bit of incline as the only obstacle, you’ll see everyone from babies in strollers to octogenarians tackling this trail. And if you find yourself needing a break, no biggie—just pause and take in the ocean views along the way. You might even spot a few whale spouts in the distance.

Once you reach the end of the trail, you’ll see the little lighthouse that the trail is named after. But it’s really the bright blue Pacific Ocean and the two little nearby islands–Rabbit Island and Kaohikaipu Island State Seabird Sanctuary–that will likely catch your attention. Snap a few pictures and hang out for a bit before heading back down.

If you’re more of a waterfall hike person, feel free to swap the Makapuu Lighthouse Trail with the Manoa Falls Trail. Both are similar levels of difficulty—just be aware of the potentially muddy conditions on the Manoa Falls hike.


  • Spend the morning out in nature as you explore Makapuu Lighthouse Trail. This easy hike is suitable for all ages and fitness levels, and takes you to the historic Lighthouse built in 1909. Look out for humpback whales in the winter months.
  • With this Diamond Head and Makapuu Lighthouse Half-Day Hiking Tour, you’ll be able to hike the highlights in just a short period of time. This experience also comes with a water bottle so you can stay hydrated during your hikes.
  • Start your morning off right with a hike on the east side of Oahu to the Makapuu Lighthouse Trail—probably the best place to watch the sunrise on Oahu. On a clear day, you might even see the neighboring islands of Molokai and Lanai.

AFTERNOON: Cool off at Makapuu Beach Park

Even though the Makapuu Lighthouse Trail is one of the easiest hikes on the island, you’ll still likely work up a bit of a sweat. Cool off at Makapuu Beach Park, a nearby cove-like beach.

There are actually two halves of this beach, each great for a specific type of beach-going. If you’re more of a laze-about, float-in-the-water beach goer, the closer half of Makapuu Beach Park (in relation to the parking lot) is for you. And if you’re more of an active beach goer—for example, if body surfing and bodyboarding are your thing–head to the further side of the beach for some of the larger (but not unruly) waves.

Depending on the time of year, the waves at Makapuu Beach Park can get rather large. It might not be safe to swim. There’s no lifeguard, so assess the situation carefully before entering the ocean.

Travelers say: “We came here after we hiked the Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail. Awesome fine sandy beach! We visited in February so the waves were wild…good for body surfing! Lots of parking spots, the grounds were well maintained, clean bathrooms/change rooms and there are also outdoor showers. Bring your supplies as there are no stores, restaurants or food carts here.”—@May_EXL

EVENING: Wander through South Shore Market

While shopping malls like Ala Moana Center take all of the glory, there are a couple of hidden shopping gems dotted throughout Honolulu, including South Shore Market.

Technically located in Kakaako’s Ward Village (and about 30 minutes from Makapuu Beach Park), South Shore Market is one specific level of shops and restaurants tucked between a T.J.Maxx, Nordstrom Rack, and Core Power Yoga. In the midst of all of these big-box stores, you’ll find the cutest local—and often handmade—brands.

MORI by Art+Flea showcases all sorts of goods by local artists, including botanic-bedecked canvas bags from Mistprint and SPAM can pins by Boz Schurr. The Jana Lam store is home to colorful, locally designed throw pillows and totes. And Keiko Jewelry has eye-catching golden opihi (limpets) rings and necklaces to round out any outfit.

There are a few food options at South Shore Market as well, including Off the Wall. This self-serve craft beer, wine, and cider spot doesn’t just have an amazing array of drinks; it also has some casual, yet tasty bites like the pork adobo tacos with pico de gallo and the house-made shrimp burger with chipotle aioli to go with your ice cold drink of choice.


Overhead view of coffee and pastries at Kona Coffee Purveyors
Kona Coffee Purveyors
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

MORNING: Take a scenic drive to the North Shore

Today we’re headed on a day trip to Oahu’s iconic North Shore. Known primarily for its massive waves and world-renowned surf competitions, this part of the island simply can’t be missed. Grab a quick breakfast at Kona Coffee Purveyors—get a flaky kouign amann pastry with your morning coffee—and head on out.

Instead of taking the highways the whole way there, head east on either Likelike Highway or H3 until you hit the Windward Coast. Then, drive up along the coastline—you’ll get to see untouched beaches and unending ocean views.

If you like, you can make a few stops along the way. Pick a shoreline at random and go for a quick swim or pull up to Kualoa Regional Park for a few pictures with the little island of Mokoli‘i off in the distance.

By the time lunch rolls around, you’ll find yourself officially on the North Shore—with some great food options, to boot. Kahuku Farms, a working farm with a to-go food stand and picnic tables, offers loads of farm fresh goodies. Try the veggie-laden “farm pizza” (tomato-eggplant bruschetta topped with mozzarella and basil-macadamia pesto), the locally grown acai bowl, and the lilikoi (passion fruit) butter mochi. Or if you’re looking for something a little more protein-focused, Ken’s Fresh Fish serves up some of the freshest seafood dishes on the North Shore. Their katsu-style ahi sandwich is a long-time local favorite.

Travelers say: “A visit to Kahuku Farms is a must! This is a terrific opportunity to learn about and see where a lot of the great, tasty fresh food consumed in Hawaii comes from. Be sure to add this to your Oahu itinerary!!! Kahuku Farms is easy to find - well marked and lots of parking - and the drive up the east coast of Oahu is fantastic, very scenic. This is on The Bus route if you’re not driving.”—@Sheri Alberta

AFTERNOON: Enjoy a little beach time

Continuing along Kamehameha Highway,you’ll pass loads of beautiful beaches, including Sunset Beach Park, Banzai Pipeline, Shark’s Cove, and Waimea Bay, just to start. While the number of beach options might seem overwhelming at first, the reality is that the parking situation (or bus stop locations, if you opt to take public transportation) will likely decide which one you go to. Once you find a spot at any of these beaches, claim it and then enjoy a few hours there.

As for what you can do at these stunning North Shore beaches, well, that all depends on the season (and the water conditions). In the winter, waves can be upwards of 30 feet high, so it’s best to stay out of the water and instead watch the pro surfers do their thing. But in the summer—and often into spring and early fall—the North Shore beach conditions can be great for swimming, snorkeling, and even cliff jumping.


  • This North Shore Circle Island Adventure includes snorkeling with the turtles and makes it easy to see top Oahu sights in just one day without having to spend any time planning.
  • On this guided North Shore tour, you’ll start with a short ATV ride to the top of a mountain. Then enjoy spectacular panoramic ocean and mountain views and the adrenaline rush of soaring from the top of Oahu’s longest ziplines.
  • Departing from Oahu’s North Shore, this cage dive allows you time in the water to (safely) view Galapagos sharks and sandbar sharks. In fact, you have a money-back guarantee to spot a shark.

EVENING: Dine and shop your way through Haleiwa

From Waimea Bay, it’s less than a 10-minute drive before you hit Haleiwa, an old-timey, Western-style town known for its art and surfing scenes. Snag some dinner—the casual, mushroom-heavy Max burger from Seven Brothers and the fancy coconut ginger catch plate from Stonefish Grill are both great options—or just stroll through the surf-inspired stores. Then, make the 45-minute drive back to Honolulu.


Group of friends aboard sunset boat cruise with Prince Kuhio Tours
Prince Kuhio Tours
Image: Suchi M/Tripadvisor

MORNING: Volunteer with Malama Maunalua

Your final day in Honolulu will undoubtedly be a memorable one. But before you get into the thick of things, get your morning fuel at Island Vintage Coffee. The Hawaiian honey latte and lilikoi (passion fruit) moana acai bowl will not only satisfy your taste buds, but also give you the energy you need for an active morning.

It’s important to remember that Hawaii’s natural beauty takes effort to preserve. For your last morning on the island, give back by volunteering with Malama Maunalua, a non-profit that works to remove the invasive species of seaweed in Honolulu’s Maunalua Bay, a quiet beach located just outside of the city. When left to grow rampant, these invasive seaweed species cause the bay to become murky and muddy, which isn’t great for humans or for marine life.

To resolve this issue, Malama Maunalua hosts a monthly “huki”–or “pulling”—a community event where volunteers can get together and pull out the invasive seaweed to keep the bay pristine. While it’s hard work, it’s also rewarding.

If the timing doesn’t line up, there’s likely another beach clean-up or plant restoration opportunity happening during your visit. And if you can’t find one, you can simply pick up some trash on the shore and do a mini beach clean-up on your own.


  • If you've already seen Oahu's sights from the ground level, embark on a thrilling adventure with a completely different view. This parasailing tour will have you soaring above the waters of Maunalua Bay for views of the Hawaii Kai coastline, Koko Head and the Ko’olau Mountain Range.
  • On this jet ski ride in Maunalua Bay, you’ll hop on a powerful Yamaha jet ski for 30 minutes of fun. Life jackets are included, and you can choose from a single or double ski for speeding through the turquoise waters.
  • For a private way to see the area, take a Hawaiian Cultural Tour through Honolulu and the Kaiwi Coast on a four-hour luxury SUV tour.

AFTERNOON: Eat your way through Kaimuki

Once you wrap up your volunteering, spend the afternoon in Kaimuki. Set 10 minutes away from Maunalua Bay, this old- school Honolulu neighborhood is filled with foodie finds. Devour Asian-inspired brunch plates like the breakfast bibimbap at Koko Head Café, grab yourself an Italian-inspired fun goat sub from E.A.R.L., or get a midday caffeine kick from The Curb Kaimuki. And if you’re looking for a sweet treat, a sugar-covered, donut-esque malasada from Pipeline Bakeshop & Creamery won’t disappoint.

Travelers say:“The Lilikoi and Haupia Bars are our absolute faves, but my local friends rave about the bomb cakes too. Warning - closes on Mondays and Tuesdays.”—@S G

EVENING: Finish off with a sunset dinner

Finish your trip off with a beautiful sunset dinner cruise with Prince Kuhio Tours. As you sail out from Kewalo Basin Harbor, take in incredible views of downtown Honolulu, Waikiki Beach, and Diamond Head—all as you dine on delicious chef-prepared plates, like lightly smoked beef short ribs with a red wine braising sauce and seared mahi mahi with a creamy Asian-inspired avocado sauce.

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