Traveling to Oahu? Check out this insider’s guide on fun things to do on Oahu with kids and families. I grew up on Oahu and go back every year with my family, and I’ll share my favorite spots to visit and places to avoid.
Want an insider’s guide to traveling to Oahu with kids? I grew up on Oahu and take my family there every year, so I’ll give you the low-down on what to visit and what to avoid. There are a lot of tourist traps, and I want you to experience the authentic Oahu, which is my favorite island. There’s so much to do but you can also opt out of the hustle and bustle and just relax too. Oahu has so much to offer.
I love visiting my hometown and showing my kids all my favorite eateries, old hangouts and activities. We spent a lot of time visiting family and friends, as well as embarking on new adventures. There really is so much to do on Oahu with kids.
I know so many of you have planned or want to plan a trip to Oahu with the family, so I’ve got ideas on what to do and what to skip. Want to go cheap (or better yet free)? No problem. I’ve got you covered. Looking for eco-friendly or natural options on food and activities for the kids? I’ve got options for you.
Must Do on Oahu with Kids
1. Drive to the North Shore.
Oahu with kids means plenty of splashing around! Check out famous surf spots such as Waimea Bay and Pipeline. In the summer, these spots are relatively flat and can be great swimming spots (with the exception of Pipeline). Be sure to bring an underwater camera with video capabilities so you can capture fun moments while in the water. There are a lot of food trucks like Giovanni’s shrimp (a little expensive in my opinion) and Opal’s (which is now a Thai restaurant in the Haleiwa shopping center and so worth the trip).
You can also do this half day shark dive at the North Shore for a close encounter with sharks… don’t worry it’s safe. It’s an amazing way to see sharks in their natural habitat. You may even see sea turtles and whales too.
Another favorite is this zipline and farm tour on the North Shore. It’s hands-down one of my family’s favorite zipline courses. You get amazing views of the North Shore and learn a lot about Hawaiian farm life and the history of the islands. Kids must be at least 7 years old to zipline.
2. Book a room outside of Waikiki.
When booking a vacation in Oahu with kids, don’t be afraid to get a vacation rental in the North Shore, Kailua/Lanikai, Hawaii Kai and other areas. You’ll be able to experience Oahu in a different way that isn’t the tourist trap of Waikiki. I usually book vacation rentals on VRBO.com and HomeAway.com. I’ve always had a great experience with my rentals. I suggest reading rental reviews and asking for rental agreements in advance so you know what to expect. One of my favorite hotel properties on Oahu is Turtle Bay on the North Shore.
3. Drive around the island.
My favorite driving spots are from Waikiki through Diamond Head and Hawaii Kai to Kailua. This route showcases the gorgeous scenery on Oahu. Stop by the Blow Hole by Sandy’s beach. Another great drive is to start (or continue) from Kailua through Kualoa Ranch to Laie and then the North Shore. You’ll get a glimpse of the country on Oahu and can even just pull over and hang out at a semi-secluded beach all day. I feel like I’m on another island for that drive. Other than gas, it’s free to drive around the island and stop along scenic routes.
If you want a guide tour around the island with a stop at my fave locations like the Pali Lookout, Chinaman’s Hat, Halona Blow Hole, Diamond Head, Sandy’s Beach and even the Byodo-In Temple (part of the Valley of Temples in #15), this is an Oahu all-day bus tour that you’ll love.
4. Visit Kualoa Ranch.
This is a must-visit for every family, especially if you are going to Oahu with kids! There’s so much to do: ATV rides, movie set tour (Jurassic Park and Lost was filmed here), zipline, foodie tour, and so much more. It’s one of the most scenic places on Oahu, so be ready to take lots of photos. There’s even a beach across the street if you want to swim or have a picnic. You’ll have a close-up view of the iconic Chinamen’s Hat, a small island just off the coast.
5. Eat shave ice.
Visit Oahu with kids means you have to eat at well-known spots such as Matsumoto’s (on the North Shore) or Waiola Shave Ice (in town, near Waikiki). Waiola is Obama’s favorite shave ice spot and they even have a trio of flavors named in his honor: cherry, lime and passion fruit. Try it with condensed milk – it sounds weird, but it’s so delicious.
Looking for an all-natural alternative? Try Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha in Aina Haina (about 15 minutes from Waikiki). They make all their own syrups from natural ingredients – there’s no artificial colors or flavors. It’s a great way to enjoy a Hawaiian pastime without spending a fortune.
6. Meander through Waikiki.
It’s not for everyone, but Waikiki can be a fun spot to meander, shop and people watch. Shops are open late and street performers come out a night. It can be busy, but it’s fun to walk through with the kids. International Marketplace is full of knick knacks and collectibles. My sons loved opening an oyster to get their first pearl. If you’re not into crowds, you may want to skip this.
Or if you don’t like the shops, enjoy the scenery. Right at the edge of Waikiki is Kapiolani Park. Take in a concert at Waikiki Shell, visit the Honolulu Zoo or just swing on one of the vines of a banyan tree. You can even have a picnic and fly a kite for an affordable, fun afternoon in Oahu with kids.
Nearby Waikiki is one of the largest shopping malls in North America. Ala Moana is shopper’s paradise with brands brands like Neiman Marcus, Macy’s, Nordstroms, and island favorites too like Long’s Drugs (like CVS but the local version where you can stock up on chocolate macadamia nut candies for friends and family).
It does get really busy so if a big shopping mall isn’t your jam, check out Kahala Mall – just about 15 minutes east of Waikiki. It’s a smaller shopping mall but indoors so there’s AC and a collection of shops and restaurants. There’s a Whole Foods here so you can shop for organic groceries and get a healthy lunch to go too.
On Fridays, Hilton Hawaiian Village has a fireworks show at sunset. We like to bring our boogie boards and play around in the lagoon and even bring food for a picnic on the beach while we watch the free fireworks show. It’s open to anyone – not just Hilton guests. Park in the Ala Wai Boat Harbor parking lot and then just walk over the lagoon. You can even rent paddle boards at the lagoon activities desk – again you don’t have to be a guest of the hotel. Another option is to do this sunset fireworks dinner cruise.
7. Go surfing.
Throughout Waikiki, there are stands for surfboard, SUP (stand up paddleboard) and boogie board rentals. Get a surf lesson from one of the beach boys at the stands and learn to surf. Waikiki is a great spot to learn and full of beginners, its the perfect novice surfing spot if you’re in Oahu with kids. I regularly take my kids out to tandem surf or boogie board in the gentle waves of Waikiki.
Here’s a great group surf lesson for Waikiki that’ll teach you the basics and get you a lesson, surfboard and a chance to surf in the iconic Waikiki. This is where I personally learned to surf and it’s a great spot for beginners and kids.
8. Feast on local food.
Oahu is foodie heaven and it has such a variety of delicious dishes! It’ll please even the fussiest of palates, especially if you are visiting Oahu with kids! It’s a mecca of Asian and Pacific Island cuisines – especially Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Hawaiian and Asian fusion. We love local plate lunches. Kalua pig is a gluten-free pork dish that’s similar to carnitas. While I normally don’t eat spam my husband and son enjoy spam musubi when we visit home… the best one is actually at 7-11. The one dish you don’t want to miss is poke. It’s a traditional Hawaiian dish of raw fish with Maui onions, Hawaiian salt and other spices. It’s so good and really nothing in the mainland is quite like the poke in Hawaii. The best place to get poke is actually at local supermarkets like Times Supermarket or Tanioka’s. Find it in the deli section and ask for a poke bowl, which is served up with rice.
The great thing about Hawaii is that even at fine dining restaurants you can show up in a t-shirt and slippers (flip flops) and no one will give it a second thought. Plus, they’re kid friendly and allergen friendly too. Try Alan Wong’s or Roy’s for a splurge or low-cost local favorite’s like Shokudo for local Japanese cuisine. If you can find a local Bubbie’s Ice Cream Shop stop in for mochi ice cream. It’s way better than ANYTHING you’ve ever had and has been made in Hawaii for 20 years.
Another favorite that isn’t gluten-free but I like to include for my friends who can enjoy them is Portuguese malasadas (get them at Leonard’s Malasadas).
Check out the local farmers markets (I love the one in Diamond Head on Saturdays). Get fresh local produce, meat, seafood, snacks and other goodies straight from Hawaii farms.
9. Take a trolley ride.
Sightseeing around Oahu with kids couldn’t be more fun! Trolley rides are a great way to sightsee Oahu. Choose from scenic to historical (great way to see Hawaiian historical and royalty sites such as Iolani Palace) to shopping tours. Last December, I took a nighttime trolley tour through Honolulu City of Lights that blasted fun 80s music while my kids rode and danced along in their seats. The kids had so much fun.
You can get hop on, hop off trolley passes for 1, 4 or 7 days and explore the island on the trolley. You’ll be able to visit sites like Diamond Head (my fave beach spot), Pearl Harbor, Sea Life Park, Waikiki, Bishop Museum and more from open air trolleys and double deckers.
10. Check out the Honolulu Zoo.
I live in San Diego and have visited the San Diego Zoo many times. While San Diego Zoo is vast with a lot of exhibits, I also find it commercialized. Double-decker bus tours, shops and merchandise – it’s all just too much for me.
Tucked away at the end of Waikiki, the Honolulu Zoo is a total gem. It’s small, charming yet really hands-on for kids. Honolulu Zoo is more laid-back. It’s lush and green – in fact, there’s a lot of green space to run around and an amazing children’s playground with peacock and peahen residents roaming around. The playground is worth the admission to hang out for the day – just $14 for adults and $6 for kids (ages 3-12) or you can get a family annual pass for just $55. Plus, you can bring your own food. Volunteers are around the park with cool, fun artifacts such as animal bones, skins and other exhibits for kids to touch and experience.
11.Visiting Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona.
Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona is a historic landmark that shouldn’t be missed to learn about Hawaii’s role in World War II. But definitely plan ahead because if you don’t buy tickets ahead of time you usually won’t be able to get see all the sights if you walk up to the counter the same day. This is a fantastic Pearl Harbor group tour that includes a boat tour around the USS Arizona and a complimentary drive to Punchbowl National Memorial Cemetary and downtown Honolulu.
12. Learn about Hawaiian culture.
Make a visit to Bishop Museum that’s centrally located on Oahu. It’s the largest museum in the state of Hawaii and THE place to learn about the history, arts and culture of the Hawaiian people. History and science buffs will love this place. It houses the largest collection of Polynesian cultural and scientific artifacts. There’s also a planetarium on campus. It’s just $19.95 for adults and $14.95 for kids and featuring real exhibits and artifacts from Hawaiian culture.
Another favorite that’s a bit more kitschy but still fun is the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie (on the North Shore). The focus is on the Pacific Islands in general, like Fiji, Tahiti, and Samoa. The Ha: Breath of Life performance is absolutely stunning – complete with a fire dance show. My family prefers the dinner and show option at Polynesian Cultural Center to traditional luaus. You could literally spend the whole day here and end with the dinner and show. There are a ton of activities for the whole family. I definitely recommend getting tickets for the Polynesian Cultural Center in advance with the dinner and show option.
13. Take a hike.
From Manoa Valley to Diamond Head crater to Makapuu point, there are no shortage of nature hikes for all ages and fitness levels on Oahu. Don’t forget to bring a reusable water bottle, snacks, sunscreen, light jacket and comfortable shoes. Most hiking trails are free but a few might charge for parking.
I like the easy Manoa Valley hike – it’s about 2-3 miles total and there’s a waterfall at the end. It’s an easy hike even with little kids. My youngest was 4 when he first did that hike and he had no problems. You could put a baby or child in a wrap or baby carrier and do the hike too.
Diamond Head Crater is another fantastic hike that’s a bit longer and but the views of the island are breathtaking. I’d recommend kids 5 and up on this hike as the staircase to get to the top is a bit more intense.
14. Walk on the beach.
Even if you’re more of a land-lover, there’s still so much to enjoy on the beach on Oahu. You can watch the ocean waves, collect sea shells or observe marine life. My boys loved checking out marine animals and making a mini aquarium for a day (they returned all sea animals back to the ocean). Beaches in Hawaii are free and accessible to the public.
Some of my favorite beaches:
- Waikiki Beach – there are so many spots but I really like San Souci beach (more secluded) at the end of Waikiki, Canoe’s by the Duke Kahanamoku statue, and lagoon area near Hilton Hawaiian Village.
- Diamond Head beach is one of our favorites
- Halona Blowhole – there’s a cute little beach spot near the blowhole that you can visit
- Kailua Beach
- Turtle Bay
- Haleiwa Beach
- Waimea Beach
- Pupukea Beach
15. Visit Valley of the Temples.
This is one of my favorite spots on Oahu. Set in the lush scenery of the Koolau Mountains in the background that looks like something out of a painting, Valley of Temples is a memorial park where thousands of Hawaii residents are buried. It’s free to visit.
What makes this place unique is the gorgeous setting and the fact that the burial grounds of Buddhists, Shinto, Protestant and Catholic religions all co-exist in one area. It’s so Hawaii. Plus, there’s a replica of the Byodo-In temple that is just amazing.
Think Twice Before Going
Shelling out money for a luau.
Personally, I think luaus are a waste of money. If you’re looking to try Hawaiian cuisine, try a plate lunch at a mom and pop restaurant instead. Before we had gluten allergies, we loved going to Zippy’s. I admit it’s not the healthiest choice, but it’ll certainly a bargain compared to a $40+ per person luau.
Snorkeling at Hanauma Bay.
This used to be a fave snorkel spot but it’s become really crowded with tourists and parking is really limited. If you make it there early, then by all means go for it but it’s not the only spot to snorkel on the island. I prefer San Souci Beach in Waikiki for an easy snorkel in Honolulu or Shark’s Cove at Pupukea Beach on the North Shore. Here’s a great list of snorkel spots on Oahu.
Taking in a Splash at Wet ‘n Wild Hawaii.
Often referred to as Hawaii Adventure Water Park, the admission prices are expensive at $46.99 per person – and that includes anyone over 42 inches. My boys are 6 and 8, and I had to pay full admission. For just the three of us, that’s nearly $150. The day that we went, the park was overrun with people and kids shoving to get on slides. The food is expensive as well and nothing but junk food – yet they won’t let you bring in outside food. I’ve been to the Wet ‘n Wild in San Diego, and it’s a much better deal (which I can usually get through Groupon) and they allow outside food. Plus, you’re in Hawaii. Enjoy the local beaches instead of the water park. I recommend skipping this one.
Doing Disney in Hawaii.
The Disney Aulani Resort in Koolina is a popular hotel and vacation spot, but honestly it’s so far from anything else on the island that I don’t think it’s worth it. I’d pick North Shore, Kailua and even Waikiki over this area. There isn’t much to do and I find the hotel, restaurants and amenities to be too pricey for me.
Got picks for Oahu that I didn’t cover? Let me know.
For Tops Tips for Visiting Oahu with Kids
- Planning for extra time is exactly the opposite of what many of us do when traveling alone! But make sure to leave plenty of time when travelling to the airport and when on Oahu.
- In addition to lodging and flights, items you can book ahead of time include private and public transportation, sightseeing tours, private guides, and tickets for museums, theme parks, and other attractions. Book as many as you’re sure you will need ahead of time and you will have more time to relax and enjoy your destination when you get there.
- Having a few small and easily transportable snacks with you at all times can keep everyone happy until you can refuel.
- Ask for child discounts. You never know unless you ask. Businesses are often willing to give us a discount for kids.
- If you’re already familiar with surfing, buy a foam longboard from Costco to use on your trip. It’s cheaper than renting a surfboard for the week, and you can sell it on Craigslist when you’re done. Craigslist is a great place to buy used surfboards and boogie boards too.
- Ziplines are not only super fun but a great way to take in some breathtaking views.
- Make a visit to Bishop Museum that’s centrally located on Oahu. It’s the largest museum in the state of Hawaii and THE place to learn about the history, arts and culture of the Hawaiian people.
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Photo credit: Bigstockphotos.com / Maridav, Jeff Whyte Photography