How to Tour Honolulu and Oahu Like a Local

Get expert advice for Oahu's best beaches, hikes and food spots that are sure to leave your entire family with unforgettable memories.

Meet Yen Phan: She’s an adventurous spirit, who visited Hawaii six years ago. Though originally from Oakland, California, she instantly fell in love with the Rainbow State. “There’s just so much to do,” she says. “It’s so beautiful and amazing that I decided to move here.”

After moving to Hawaii, Yen eventually settled in the state’s capital city of Honolulu on the island of Oahu. Though a resident for several years, she still enjoys exploring the island like a tourist – a passion she’s turned into a part-time profession. Yen leads a variety of tours, ranging from a Hawaii Five-O tour to an Oahu paradise and adventure tour.

Ready to explore the area? Yen shares her favorite local experiences.

Where to Find Honolulu's Best Beaches

“If you’re traveling to Oahu, you’ll want to be in the water,” Yen says. Head to Waikiki, which is Honolulu’s neighborhood known for its beautiful white sand beaches and pristine, clean ocean water as well as a variety of shopping, dining and entertainment options. Oahu means “the gathering place,” and Waikiki is a spot where people come to gather, Yen explains.

For families, she suggests Ala Moana Beach Park and the adjacent beach at Magic Island. A rock barrier provides some protection from the surf at Magic Island Beach. However, Ala Moana’s swimming area is larger and its coral reef is more effective at blocking incoming waves, making it a safe spot for kids to swim. Located across from a shopping center, Ala Moana is easily accessible with lots of parking. On the weekends, it's filled with families barbecuing and celebrating. “It’s beautiful to be out in the morning,” says Yen. “I see people doing hula, tai chi and exercising.”

If you’re craving relaxation, drive 30 minutes northeast of Honolulu to one of Yen’s favorite spots: Lanikai Beach. Relax on the beach’s famous soft sand, which Yen says feels like powdered sugar.

Waikiki Beach

Where to Catch a Wave or Shoot an Arrow

During the winter season, drive about one hour northwest of Honolulu to the North Shore to watch the pros tackle big waves that can reach 30 feet or more, or learn to surf in Honolulu at places like Sunset Suzy’s Hawaiian Surf School in the summer months when the water is calmer. While you’re there with the kids, you may even spot a green sea turtle, which are known as “honu” in Hawaiian. “On a good day, there may be more than one on the beach. Most of the time, they're swimming in the waters,” says Yen.

Drive to the northeast side of the island and visit the Polynesian Cultural Center to explore its villages from six Pacific cultures, where there are “lots of fun family activities like shooting arrows and making leis and straw hats,” says Yen. She also suggests staying at the center through the evening for the luau dinner and fire dance show.

North Shore Sea Turtle

Where to Take a Hike

For family adventurers, Yen recommends two hikes that are both beautiful and manageable: Diamond Head in Honolulu and Lanikai Pillbox Trail in the city of Kailua. Though steep at some points, Yen says she sees people of all ages climb the extinct volcanic crater of Diamond Head. Just be sure to bring water, wear a hat and take your time on the 1.6 mile hike, she says. After reaching the summit, you may spot a humpback whale while taking in the panoramic view of Oahu’s South Shore.

If you want to make it a two-for-one outing, take a drive. “I always tell people to drive along the coast from Diamond Head toward Hawaii Kai, and along the coast on the southeast side to the Lanikai Pillbox Trail,” says Yen. “There are beautiful stops along the way and more beaches to visit.” The coastal drive to the Lanikai Pillbox Trail takes less than an hour. The trail is steep at the outset, but the first plateau offers “a beautiful view of the east side of the island, and the ocean there has amazing colors,” says Yen. The full hike takes one to one and-a-half hours.

Diamond Head

What to Eat

Yen highly suggests grabbing a shave ice while in Honolulu. Her favorite spot? Waiola Shave Ice. You may recognize the establishment from the CBS series “Hawaii Five-O,” in which Yen has appeared as an extra multiple times. “Some people compare shave ice to snow cones, but if you say it’s a snow cone here, locals will get offended,” she laughs. Though similar in shape to a snow cone, the shaves are much softer, Yen explains. While you’re at Waiola, grab an Obama’s rainbow shave ice – a cherry, lime and passion fruit treat in honor of Hawaii’s famous native son. 

Another local favorite is Hawaiian malasada, which Yen describes as akin to a Portuguese doughnut. Order one plain with sugar or cream filled with local flavors such as pineapple or guava. Yen also suggests trying musubi. This local dish looks like sushi but is made with Spam, a popular ingredient in Hawaii.

Shave Ice
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About the Author Yen Phan

Yen Phan

An Oahu local, Yen Phan provides four insider tours of Hawaii to travelers. Since moving to Hawaii in 2009, Yen's made it her job to constantly explore all the islands, take pictures, hike, scuba diving, surf, snorkel, camp and socialize. Yen's passion for travel is contagious and she loves sharing her knowledge of Hawaii and exploring the island with others. Learn more about Yen on her Vayable Guide Page.