Family Guide to Oahu, Hawaii
After receiving a flood of emails, DMs, and comments on Facebook about Oahu tips/tricks, I decided I would sit down and pour my Oahu travel tips into this blog post. In this comprehensive guide, you’ll find information about the best Oahu beaches, Oahu family resorts, the top attractions in Oahu, best hikes in Oahu, and more!
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Should I Rent a Car?
This is one of the top questions I get here at Marcie in Mommyland and it all depends on what you plan to do on your Oahu vacation. Are you planning to go on scenic hikes, smaller beaches, and particular restaurants? Or, is the goal to relax poolside at your resort with the occasional trip to an activity or attraction?
Personally, our family always rents a car. We like the freedom to make pit stops and detours. I like to pick up snacks and drinks at Costco to save money on Oahu. Our kids usually nap on long drives, so we time our activities to allow them ample car nap opportunities.
If you aren’t planning to rent a car, I recommend this Waikiki Trolley Pass. Kids will love zipping around Waikiki in this open air trolley. This pass also includes some top Oahu attractions.
It’s an easy way to get to Pearl Harbor, Hanauma Bay, Diamond Head, Bishop Museum and more without worrying about driving or parking!
We’ve also used Uber on Oahu, which is a great way to go if you are planning on staying in the Waikiki area. And check to see if your Oahu activities offer shuttle service from your hotel.
Best Oahu Beach for Families
Oahu really has something for everyone in terms of beaches. Since we travel to Hawaii a lot with our little kids, I’m always looking to see which beaches are best for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
There’s a reason this beach has been named one of the Top Ten Beaches in the World. The sand is unbelievably soft and the water is gentle enough for little ones. It’s up in Kailua, so it’s perfect if you are staying up there.
We like to have breakfast at Cinnamon’s in Kailua before heading over here to play!
I first heard about Baby Makapu`u from an Oahu photographer. She said it’s such a great spot for family photos because kids love to play in the tide pools. If your kids like to play in the sand or explore in the water, this is an awesome spot for that.
LAGOONS AT KO OLINA (NEAR AULANI)
Another Oahu photographer told us about this gem when we said we were staying at Aulani earlier this year. There are 4 lagoons with calm water for families to play in. Plus, there’s a lawn for picnics and running around.
Insider Tip: One of my readers recommends Lagoon #4. There is shade under the trees and it’s the only lagoon with free parking!
ALA MOANA BEACH PARK
This is a convenient beach if you are staying in Waikiki, but don’t want to go to Waikiki Beach. It’s across from the Ala Moana shopping center. That makes it easy to grab lunch in the food court and eat it at the beach. Or, head there to get shave ice after a day of playing in the sand and water!
Personally, our family LOVES Waikiki Beach. Yes, it can get really crowded if you walk out to the popular spots. But, that’s because it’s such a great beach for just about everyone. We like to play in the calm water and people watch.
Best Oahu Attractions
When people ask me which Hawaiian island they should visit, I always recommend Oahu if they want to see a lot of attractions. Oahu really has something for everyone! If you think you’re going to visit a lot of Oahu attractions, look into the Go Oahu Card. It can save you a lot of money!
Pearl Harbor is definitely one of the top tourist attractions on Oahu. But, I think people don’t realize it’s a lot more than the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial. In fact, it’s home to our favorite airplane museum, the Pacific Aviation Museum. And kids will love exploring the U.S.S. Missouri!
If you aren’t renting a car, a family-friendly option is this Private Pearl Harbor Tour where they pick you up from your hotel. They even have infant car seats available.
One of the top things to do on Oahu is visiting the Polynesian Cultural Center up at the North Shore. The drive up from Honolulu/Waikiki is really scenic.
Once you get there, they have a Hukilau Village with adorable shops and restaurants set up to look like Hawaii during it’s “golden age.” But, the real treat is the park itself.
They have different “villages” set up to showcase many Polynesian cultures. Here’s where you can learn Polynesian dancing, crafts, and food preparation. Plus, they have lots of presentations and performances throughout the day. It’s a great way to get a hands-on cultural experience on Oahu!
This is the #1 museum in Hawaii, and for good reason! It’s an awesome place to learn about Hawaiian culture, see a planetarium show, and experience a live lava demonstration!
If you come on the weekends, your kids will be awed by the 15-foot walking roaring Tyrannosaurus Rex! And fans of Disney’s Moana will appreciate learning all about wayfinders and how they traveled from Tahiti to reach the Hawaiian Islands.
So, this is a fun attraction IF you know what to expect. They have a little train and a little scavenger hunt/maze. And a few photo ops. You can also get Dole Whip here, which is pretty awesome! But, for our family, it’s an attraction we usually skip.
If you have any Jurrassic Park or Lost fans in your family, you may want to explore Kualoa Ranch. They have a movie sites tour, jungle expedition tour, and tropical garden tour.
Activities in Oahu
Oahu is a good island to visit if you like doing stuff, especially Oahu activities for families! If you are visiting Oahu with kids, I’d suggest doing one activity a day so you still have plenty of time to rest and relax!
BEST HIKES IN OAHU
Even though I don’t normally like hiking, I’ve found that hiking in Hawaii always delivers an amazing view! One of the most popular Oahu hikes is climbing Diamond Head. There’s a nominal fee and it’s something the whole family can do. I’d suggest getting there early in the morning before the tour buses!
And if you just want an easy, kid-friendly hike on Oahu without worrying about getting lost, sign up for a guided Oahu Waterfall and Rainforest Hike to see the famous Manoa Falls.
But, don’t plan on hiking Stairway to Heaven on Oahu, which is the most famous Oahu hike. Not only is it very difficult, it’s now illegal and you can be fined $1000. There is a back way, but personally, I wouldn’t risk it.
Stay dry while seeing sea life with a ride on the Atlantis Submarine Adventure, perfect for babies, toddlers and kids of all ages. And what kid doesn’t want to swim with dolphins and sea turtles in the wild? If you’d like to snorkel, Hanauma Bay is one of the best places for beginner snorkelers to see incredible tropical sea life!
If you are leaving the kids behind, this Oahu Submarine Scooter Adventure is a unique way for adults to see sea turtles and tropical fish while riding on an electric underwater scooter! Or do an Oahu Shark Dive!
OAHU THEME PARKS
Wet ‘n Wild Hawaii Water Park is a big hit, especially in the summer months! If you are renting an AirBnB, VRBO, or staying in a hotel without a pool, this is a fun treat for your family!
They have water slides, a kids water playground, a lazy river, and so much more! You can even rent a cabana for the day. It was actually just named “Best Family Attraction” from Best of Honolulu Magazine.
OAHU BOAT RIDES
My family LOVES doing boat rides in Hawaii! I personally don’t enjoy swimming, so I like boat rides like this Dolphin Watching Cruise where I can stay dry! Oh, and dinner cruises in Hawaii are amazing since you can watch the sun set across the ocean! And this glass bottom boat ride has been on my Oahu bucket list because it’s perfect for kids!
But, my husband and kids like to go in the water. So, we usually try to do a snorkel cruise, like this Leeward Coast Half-Day Snorkel Cruise to see dolphins.
A small part of current Hawaiian culture that a lot of people don’t know about is the Paniolo, or Hawaiian cowboy. If you have little kids ages 2-7, you can take them for a pony ride on the North Shore.
And if your kids are 8 and older, you can do a 90 minute horseback ride near the Polynesian Cultural Center. If you’re traveling with kids age 10 and older, they can ride a horse at the picturesque Kualoa Ranch!
Or if you’re looking for a romantic kid-free activity, why not ride a horse on the beach?
SHOPPING AT ALA MOANA
Did you know the world’s largest shopping center was here in Hawaii? Ala Moana Center features more than 350 shops and restaurants. While some say it’s just high-end shopping (it’s not), I think there’s a store for everyone.
Besides big names you’ll find in malls across America, you can also find smaller stores like Hawaiian Island Creations, Honolulu Cookie Company, Malie (they have the BEST organic skincare line,) and tons of Hawaiian dining and shave ice spots!
They even have a Target here with Hawaiian clothing items and souvenirs! Oh, and their Disney Store has Hawaii-specific items you can’t find other places.
Even if you aren’t a shopper, you might like participating in authentic hula lessons, storytelling, and cultural activities available through their Hula with Aloha program run by an award winning Kumu Hula. And they have a pretty new play area for kids that recently opened!
GOLFING ON OAHU
Oahu has some gorgeous golf courses. We played at Ko`olau Golf Club right before President Obama several years ago (and I lost SO many balls on that course!) An easier Oahu golf course is the Hawaii Kai Championship Golf Course in East Oahu.
Best Oahu Luau
No trip to Oahu is complete without going to a Hawaiian luau. But, choosing the best Oahu luau option for your family really depends on what you want out of the experience.
In fact, I wrote a whole blog post about how you can choose the right luau for your family. For my family, we like the cultural component and are willing to travel a bit for a cooler experience.
It just so happens that my two favorite Oahu luaus don’t serve alcohol. I think their shows are spectacular and they are so kid-friendly.
This is the newest luau on Oahu. I love it because it’s a small luau, so it’s perfect for families who don’t like huge crowds. They have a lot of cool activities before the luau.
My favorite is their Kava Ceremony, which is something you don’t see everyday. And there are lots of opportunities for kids to get involved in this authentic Polynesian experience.
The luau at Polynesian Cultural Center is fantastic! We like to spend the whole day at PCC and then end with the luau and Ha: The Breath of Life.
This is a great option for families because you get the traditional luau PLUS a dramatic theatrical show that talks about voyaging to new islands. If you have any Moana fans in your family, it’s a must do activity on Oahu!
Best Food on Oahu
If you’re a frequent Marcie in Mommyland reader, you know I love Hawaiian food! When people say they didn’t like the food in Hawaii, I always think it’s because they don’t know where to go. So, here’s my cheat sheet for you:
We discovered Kaka`ako Kitchen many years ago after doing an Oahu boat ride. We asked the crew where we should eat and several of them told us about this Hawaiian plate lunch restaurant. Now, we always make at least one stop here.
They have generous services of Hawaiian food like beef stew, loco moco, shoyu chicken, etc. But, they also have yummy salads and wraps. Something for everyone and it all packs well!
If you want the full Hawaiian-style plate lunch experience, look no further than Rainbow Drive-In. The menu changes slightly from day to day, but everything we’ve tried has been really tasty.
I love their beef stew, fried saimin, loco moco, and macaroni salad. You can eat there (it’s not very scenic,) or pick up to take to the beach. And the serving size is large enough to share with kids.
If you are in Kailua, you absolutely have to have breakfast/lunch at Cinnamon’s. They are known for their pancakes, especially their signature guava chiffon (where you can order with ICE CREAM!) These are my favorite pancakes in the entire world!
My husband likes to get their loco moco (sometimes available over fried rice.) Their menu is a good mix of traditional diner items as well as Hawaiian versions of these dishes. They also have a location at the Ilikai Hotel in Waikiki, but I haven’t been there yet so can’t comment on it.
So, I have a few favorite shave ice spots. If you are heading to Haleiwa on the North Shore, you HAVE to stop at Matsumoto’s Shave Ice. It’s kind of like a rite of passage. The town of Haleiwa is adorable and perfect for Instagram shots.
While not in the most picturesque place, Waiola Shave Ice in Honolulu is where President Obama takes his family when he goes home to visit!
Another favorite is Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha. We’ve been going here for years, but the just opened a shop at Ala Moana Center. They use real fruit and the flavor is incredible!
On our last trip, my mom discovered Island Vintage Shave Ice. They have a few locations, but we ate at the one at Ala Moana. Their shave ice is not only tasty, but it’s BEAUTIFUL! Like fresh cut up fruit on top and my 4 year old had to fight her for the spoon!
And if you are staying at Disney’s Aulani, splurge for the Mickey Ears on your shave ice!
My mother-in-law discovered this Chinese restaurant at Ala Moana Center on one of her many trips to Oahu. She always finds Chinese food where ever she travels!
But, this is an awesome restaurant for taro buns! They are light, flaky, and oh-so-tasty! We actually ordered a box of them and brought them up to Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa on our last trip! They were the ultimate breakfast item and afternoon snack!
Second only to shave ice, malasadas are a popular treat on Oahu! Leonard’s Bakery is famous for their Portuguese donuts. I like mine with cinnamon and sugar, but they also can fill them with custards of various flavors. Plus, you can get other baked goods there like cookies.
They are best eaten hot, as they are fried dough. But, I’ve had luck reheating them in the toaster oven when I bring a box home. And make sure to check out their custard filled malasadas!
I worked with Honolulu Cookie Company on my last trip to Oahu and I just happened to ask their public relations contact for food recommendations. She told me about Musubi Cafe and it’s now my favorite place to eat in Waikiki!
It’s like the size of a walk-in closet but they have so many different types of musubi, which is similar to sushi. The most popular musubi in Hawaii is Spam musubi. But, they have something for everyone, including one with BACON!
Each one is individually wrapped, so they are an easy breakfast on the go or you can pack them in your beach bag. I like to stock up so we have something to eat when we first wake up before we head out for a bigger breakfast. They are the perfect size (and price) for little kids, too!
No really, hear me out! We always make a stop at Costco to pick up several containers of their fresh poke!
They also sell giant bags of Hawaiian potato chips, tubs of Hawaiian cookies, and all kinds of interesting snacks only found in Hawaii Costco stores. And during the holidays, they sell huge tubs of Botan rice candy and tons of Hawaiian gift items.
I always make a stop at Costco to bring back Hawaiian snack items. ALWAYS.
Best Oahu Hotels & Resorts
When you’re searching for the best resorts in Oahu for families, there are several factors to consider. Do you want something in Waikiki where you can walk to restaurants and shops? Or would you like an Oahu family resort with on-site restaurants and several swimming pools?
We just stayed at Aulani Resort in February and we’re already trying to figure out when we can go back! It’s a lovely resort with touches of Hawaiian culture and Disney magic.
I have several blog posts about Aulani Resort that goes in to detail about why it’s my favorite resort in Hawaii. Even if you don’t stay here, consider coming up to do a Disney Character Breakfast or Dinner!
Did you watch the original Hawaii Five-O? This is the hotel featured in the opening credits. It’s right at the edge of Waikiki Beach. What’s cool about The Ilikai is that it’s a mix of hotel rooms and condos, making it ideal for families.
We stayed here with extended family over Christmas many years ago and it was nice to walk just a few minutes to Ala Moana Center, the largest outdoor shopping mall. Plus, we were able to cook dinner in the condo a few nights and make hot breakfasts.
While I’ve never stayed here, it’s been on my bucket list since I was 14 years old. It’s called the “Pink Palace” because it’s a gorgeous pink building that stands out in the prime area of Waikiki.
It’s a spendy, luxury hotel that would be the ultimate Hawaiian babymoon spot! I follow their Instagram page because it’s one of the most photographed hotels in Hawaii!
If you want to stay up on the North Shore, this is the place to do it. For families, they have a kiddie pool, children’s menus and you can arrange to have a pony party! They have nightly entertainment. In fact, Jack Johnson was there playing a show when my friend went last year!
If you’re looking for a place near Waikiki that’s affordable, quiet, and close to shopping and restaurants, the Waikiki Courtyard Marriott is a hidden treasure.
We stayed here on our recent trip to Oahu and it was so easy to explore Waikiki and Oahu. Plus, it’s an easy walk to Starbucks and Musubi Cafe! You can read about my experience at the Waikiki Courtyard Marriott with kids.
Oahu Family Photography
My final piece of advice for planning a Hawaiian family vacation is to hire an Oahu photographer. You can read all about my reasons in my post Family Photos on Oahu is a Smart Idea. Basically, it’s a great opportunity to get nice photos of everyone looking happy and relaxed in a beautiful setting.
Flood your Facebook and Instagram with high-quality vacation pics and get that ultimate Christmas card photo!
Blog Posts about Oahu
How To Choose The Best Oahu Luau
Is the Disney Aulani Character Breakfast on Oahu Worth the Price?
Aulani Tips to Maximize 2 Nights at Disney Aulani Resort in Hawaii
Polynesian Cultural Center Offers Family Activities on Oahu
Toa Luau is Oahu’s Newest Family-Friendly Luau
Why Courtyard by Marriott Waikiki Beach is One of the Best Hotels in Waikiki for Families
Honolulu Cookie Company Features Pineapple Shaped Cookies