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Where to Stay in Oahu: Waikiki or Not?

Oahu (pronounced oh-ah-who) is by far Hawaii’s most populated and most visited island and it’s home to the state’s capital, Honolulu, and its major tourist hub, Waikiki. Waikiki (a beachfront neighborhood in Honolulu) is home to about 95% of the island’s hotel rooms, so naturally, it’s where most visitors end up staying. But it’s certainly not the only place to stay on Oahu.

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For being a relatively small island, Oahu is surprisingly diverse. You’ve got the big city feel of Honolulu and Waikiki, the quiet “country” of the north shore, the smaller beach towns on the windward side, and the resort community of Ko’olina on the west side. 

Side Note: Oahu is the main island in the Hawaiian Island chain, but it’s not what’s referred to as the “Big Island.” It’s actually one of the smaller (and oldest)  islands in the chain. The “Big Island” (home to Kona and Hilo) is officially called “Hawaii” island. 

In this post, lookout for two things: 1) I’ll give you the lowdown on each part of the island so you’ll be able to figure out where you want to stay in general and 2) I’ll give you specific recommendations on hotels and resorts in those areas. 

Now here’s the deal…I am not going to recommend every single resort or hotel on Oahu to you. There are a LOT, and It won’t be helpful. There are a lot of good places to stay and your budget and circumstances may make you lean in a certain direction. So if you have your eye on a certain place and I don’t recommend it here, it’s not necessarily a bad place to stay. I’m just really picky about where I like to stay and what I recommend. 

So I’m going to break down the island, make recommendations by area of the island and then I’ll give you a rundown of my favorites.

Also, my specific recommendations in this post are for HOTELS AND RESORTS only. If you’re looking for a condo (even a condo-tel/condo resort), you want this post

Final Note (and a big favor to ask): If you find my blog and info AT ALL helpful, the absolute best thing you can do to help me out is to click through the links in this post to book your hotels. I make a small commission on your bookings and if you’re going to book a hotel anyways, it’s a WIN WIN. Thanks so much!

Alright then…the first big question!

Where to stay on Oahu? Waikiki or not?

Most people end up staying in Waikiki by default (it’s where by FAR the majority of hotels and accommodations on Oahu are). There are more flights to Oahu than the other islands and Honolulu is a recognizable US city so many people just think…“it’s popular for a reason…it must be where you’re supposed to go.”

Don’t get me wrong, Waikiki Beach is BEAUTIFUL and it definitely has its attractions, but a lot of people (usually ones who don’t do their research before their trip) end up disappointed because it’s not what they expected Hawaii to be like. So to help you decide if staying in Waikiki is right for you or not, read on…

Why You Might Like Waikiki

Here’s why many people like staying in Waikiki:

First things first, Waikiki Beach is seriously STUNNING. The view down Waikiki with Diamond Head in the background is probably the most iconic view in Hawaii and it’s one that many people grow up imagining. The water is calm, warm, clear, and blue. The sand is soft and white. Palm trees are swaying. There are views for days. You get the picture. 

Some of the most legendary hotels in Hawaii are on Waikiki Beach. It’s Hawaii’s oldest resort area so there’s a lot of history. The Moana Surfrider (built in 1901) was Hawaii’s first hotel and it’s still a major draw today. And the Royal Hawaiian, nicknamed the “Pink Palace of the Pacific” and made famous by Hollywood in the 1960s is everything you associate “old Hawaii” with. 

You can find cheap hotels. A lot of them. Just like any major city, the more hotel rooms there are, the more competitive prices are.

You can get around without a car. Shuttles/Taxis/Ubers are a dime a dozen from the Honolulu airport to Waikiki and most visitors tend to stay in Waikiki/Honolulu and not venture out to the rest of the island much (or only on excursions). Oahu also has a decent bus system and there are frequent tourist oriented trolleys that have good coverage of Waikiki and certain places in Honolulu. Since parking at hotels can run you up to $40/day, not absolutely having to have a car is attractive. 

Waikiki is pretty densely populated with attractions. There are ton of museums, historic and cultural sites, the zoo, aquarium, etc. as well as companies that pick up for excursions like snorkeling, ziplining, luaus, ATV tours, etc making it central station for activities and entertainment on Oahu. 

There’s a LOT of shopping. From luxury designer brands at the Ala Moana to major chain stores at the Royal Hawaiian Center, to cheap souvenir outlets everywhere, Waikiki is a shopper’s paradise.

There are a ton of restaurants. You’ll find major chains (Cheesecake Factory, Hard Rock Café, etc.) and pricey resort restaurants as well as local joints (as you venture away from Waikiki into Honolulu). Honolulu is also something of a foodie’s paradise (especially if you love Asian cuisines) if you’re willing to venture off the beaten path. 

Where to Stay in Oahu

Why You Might NOT Like Waikiki

Now, a few reasons you may not like Waikiki:

It’s very crowded. Like…very, very crowded. There are over a million people that live on Oahu PLUS droves of tourists and they all seem to concentrate in Waikiki and Honolulu. On the beach, you’ll be shoulder to shoulder with fellow sun worshipers. 

Even the nice beachfront resorts are crowded. Also, for the price I don’t generally find the nicest places in Waikiki to be as nice as comparable resorts in other parts of Hawaii. 

There’s soooo much traffic! You’d expect traffic in the city, but even if you have a car and you’re willing to get out and explore the rest of the island, there just always seems to be traffic everywhere. And I guess you really shouldn’t be surprised with over a million people on a small island. 

There’s so much to see on the island besides Waikiki (the truly beautiful parts!) and getting around by bus isn’t too convenient. Which means you’ll need to rent a car and fight traffic all the time. Plus, if you do rent a car, most resorts charge about $40/day for you to park it. 

You may come home feeling like you’ve had more of a city vacation instead of an island vacation. Most people expect Hawaii to feel like an island getaway. And it certainly can. But that’s not at all the vibe in Waikiki. It’s tall buildings, endless shopping, traffic, people everywhere, and all of the trappings of a tourist destination (timeshare pitches, cheap souvenir shops, etc.). 

Where to Stay in Honolulu & Waikiki

If you’ve weighed it all out and decided that staying in Waikiki is right for you, here’s where I recommend: 

Where to Stay in Oahu

The Royal Hawaiian: This iconic Waikiki resort (nicknamed the “pink palace of the Pacific”) has been featured in movies since the 1960s. Its style speaks of a bygone era but it’s still high on modern luxuries. It’s right in the heart of Waikiki so if you want to see and do it all while staying at some of the coolest digs in Waikiki, this is your spot. If it’s in the budget, definitely book the Mailani Tower. It’s the newly renovated “luxury” tower and it has much more modern and updated rooms (not to mention ah-mazing views) than the older wing.

Check pricing and read reviews here.

Where to Stay in Oahu

Moana Surfrider: The oldest hotel on Waikiki, the Moana Surfrider has been around since 1901 and sits directly on Waikiki beach. No trip to Waikiki is complete until you’ve sipped a mai tai on the lanai here.

Check pricing and read reviews here.

Where to Stay in Oahu

Sheraton Waikiki: This relaxed beach resort right on Waikiki Beach has great amenities including three restaurants, an infinity pool (plus another pool with waterslide), and spa. It’s also right in the middle of Waikiki’s famous shopping district.

Book your stay at the Sheraton Waikiki here.

The Laylow: This is probably my favorite “off beach” place to stay in Waikiki. It’s cute and trendy (hey, I appreciate a good Instagram aesthetic) but very upscale and is “almost” in the budget category.

Check pricing and read reviews here.

Where to Stay in Oahu

Halekulani Hotel: Honolulu’s most luxurious hotel is located in the heart of Waikiki. You’ll have amazing views of Diamond head from the beach, pool, restaurants, and guest rooms. Some of Waikiki’s most sought after dining is also located here (Orchids and House without a Key).

Check pricing and read reviews here.

Where to Stay in Oahu

Kahala Hotel & Resort: The Kahala Hotel is perfect for those wanting a beach resort with a lot of amenities and relatively close to Waikiki but more on the quiet side. Located on the southside (between Diamond head and Hanauma Bay), it’s close to many popular Waikiki/Honolulu sites but still very removed.

Check pricing and read reviews here.

Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort: If you like being right in the middle of the madness, the Outrigger is pretty much ground zero in Waikiki. It’s hopping and there’s always something going on. It’s also home to the famous Duke’s Waikiki Restaurant and Beach Bar as well as a couple of other restaurants.

Check pricing and read reviews here.

Where to Stay in Oahu

The Modern Honolulu: While not beachfront, The Modern Honolulu is a super trendy waterfront hotel (located on the Ala Wai Harbor) with a great location in Honolulu. It’s not a budget hotel, but it’s getting to be an increasingly popular place to stay.

Check pricing and read reviews here.

The Surfjack Hotel: The Surfjack Hotel is one of Waikiki’s most popular places to stay. It’s a mid-priced boutique resort that plays up 1960s Hawaiian beach culture.

Check pricing and read reviews here.

Kaimana Beach Hotel: Recently under new ownership, this legacy property has been undergoing renovations to make it one of the more sought after hotels on Waikiki. Located at the quieter end of Waikiki, it’s definitely a spot to check out (especially if you can get one of the newly renovated suites). Great on property restaurant as well.

Check pricing and read reviews here.

Shoreline Hotel Waikiki: About a six minute walk from the beach and less than a mile from the Honolulu Zoo, the Shoreline Hotel has a rooftop pool and a casual café. AND IT’S SO CUTE Y’ALL!

Check pricing and read reviews here.

Where to Stay in Oahu

Hilton Hawaiian Village: Here’s the deal…this 22-acre sprawling resort is practically its own city with its own shopping and dining complex right on the edge of Waikiki and its sheer size and brand name awareness makes it one of the most “recommended” places to stay in Waikiki…BUT I just don’t love it. The resort has its own lagoon that is nice, and it’s a bit removed from the main drag of Waikiki which makes it seem less hectic, but I think a lot of people confuse how nice it is with how big it is. It’s fine and you may love it, but I just don’t think it’s the be all end all place that many suggest. Nevertheless, it is so popular that I wanted to at least mention it here so you didn’t think I just forgot ; ) Pricing starts at $180/night (but goes waaaaay up from there so triple check all those upgrades and fees).

Check pricing and read reviews here.

Where to Stay Outside of Waikiki

Options for places to stay outside of Waikiki are a little limited, but here’s the general breakdown:

Kailua & Lanikai: A mostly residential area on the windward (east) side of the island. Known for having a more community feel and some of the most beautiful beaches in Hawaii. 

North Shore: Called the “country” by locals, the north shore is famous for big wave surfing and the culture that’s developed around that.  

Ko’olina: A resort community on the west side that feels more like Maui (Wailea at least). 

More details below…

Where to Stay in Kailua and Lanikai

Located on the windward side of the island (a 20-30 minute drive east of Waikiki), Kailua (and neighboring Lanikai) is a quaint little beach town that’s home to some of the prettiest beaches in Hawaii. This part of the island is one of the major areas that people “in the know” or people who like to travel more off the beaten path/more locally tend to zero in on. And for good reason. 1) the aforementioned beautiful beaches, 2) the local community feel, and 3) the escape from Waikiki.

But it’s not perfect (what ever is?). Here’s the rundown on Kailua…it’s been “discovered.” What used to be an honest to goodness local community is now slowly turning into what many locals disparagingly call a little “California.” Mixed in among the local breakfast joints and surf shops, you’ll now find a Target and Whole Foods. And building is on the rise. Now, as a visitor this isn’t likely to bother you (for me personally, having a Target and Whole Foods nearby is a huge plus), BUT it’s caused quite a bit of strain on the local community in recent years. 

The rise in popularity of sites like Airbnb resulted in a lot of property being bought by wealthy folks from the mainland (or internationally) and being rented out as short term vacation rentals to visitors. In addition to creating a bit of a housing crisis (it becomes much harder for local families to afford to be able to stay in the area), it also changes the community (i.e. more businesses and amenities catered towards tourists and less towards residents). 

What does that mean for you? To get this problem under control (it’s been a problem in many parts of Oahu and not just Kailua), they’ve really cracked down on illegal vacation rentals (which have been estimated to be as many as 10,000 on Oahu). 

It was always illegal to rent a house on a site like Airbnb or Vrbo that didn’t have a permit (the majority of them), but now they’re enforcing it. As the renter, you won’t get fined if the owner gets caught, but you will be left with no place to stay on short notice. So the short of it is…there are a lot fewer rentals to choose from now which means that the legal ones (those with permits) might be more expensive than you’re expecting (on par with hotel/resort prices). 

Vacation Rentals in Kailua & Lanikai: I think the best place to book vacation rentals in Kailua and Lanikai is on Vrbo. You can filter by price, bedrooms, etc. to find exactly what you’re looking for.

One last thing about staying on this part of the island…you shouldn’t be discouraged from staying here after reading this post (it is seriously such an awesome place to stay…if you do it legally!!) BUT just be extra careful to be aware of your surroundings and know that not everyone around you is on vacation. Imagine stopping by the local market/deli to grab breakfast on your way to drop the kids off at school and not being able to park because all of the tourists have used the few spots as beach parking. It’s stuff like that that sets the local community a bit on edge sometimes. It should go without saying, but when you’re staying in a neighborhood you’re not staying in a resort and not everyone is there to cater to you on your vacation. But that’s what makes it a more local experience!

Read about my favorite things to do in Kailua (and the windward coast) here.

Where to Stay on Oahu’s North Shore

Oahu’s north shore is famous for its big waves and surf culture. Towns that are sleepy during the summer grow in size during the winter months as surfers from all over the world come to surf some of the world’s best waves. The north shore is actually home to the “triple crown” of surfing in December and January. Locals call this stretch of Oahu the “country” (as opposed to Honolulu which is “town”) and you won’t find a Target or Costco up here. But you will find gorgeous beaches (only swimmable in the summer), and picturesque little surf towns. 

The north shore is probably the most popular area to stay for travelers who want to get out of Waikiki or see the “real Hawaii.” It’s not as centralized as Kailua, Lanikai, and Waimanalo on the windward side and besides a smattering of communities (most notably Haleiwa) it really does feel like the country. Chickens and horses abound. 

Read about my favorite things to do on Oahu’s north shore here.

Hotelwise, there’s only a couple of places to stay on the north shore:

Best Hotels on Oahu’s North Shore

Where to Stay in Oahu

Turtle Bay Resort: If the noise and crowds of Waikiki aren’t your thing, escape to Turtle Bay Resort on the north shore. It’s isolated location ensures a quiet and peaceful vacation but the resort offers plenty of amenities. It’s also in the heart of Oahu’s north shore with it’s famous surf breaks, food trucks, and snorkeling spots. It’s also conveniently located for getting to Hanalei, the Polynesian Culture Center, and Kualoa Ranch and it’s only about 45 minutes from Waikiki. They’re due to reopen from a very extensive renovation soon so the property should be in tip top shape.

Check pricing and read reviews here.

Courtyard by Marriott Oahu North Shore: Located in Laie (just a quick walk to the Polynesian Cultural Center), this relaxed hotel is the perfect basecamp to explore the north shore. It’s just seven miles from the Turtle Bay Resort and has an indoor pool and hot tub as well as casual restaurant.

Check pricing and read reviews here.

Side Note: If you’re looking for a rental car for your trip, I LOVE Discount Hawaii Car Rentals. They’re seriously the only company I ever use. They’ll give you the very best prices, you don’t have to reserve with a credit card or pay until you show up, you can cancel and re-book anytime if you find a better rate, and they usually have a special that adds additional drivers for no fee. It’s a no brainer. Click here to check rates for your trip.

RELATED: 15 Things to Do on Oahu

31 Things to Do in Waikiki & Honolulu

The Best Oahu Itinerary

Where to Eat on Oahu

Oahu Travel Tips: What to Know Before You Go

Where to Stay in Ko Olina

This resort community on the west side feels a world away from Waikiki, but very much like a vacation spot instead of the more “local” Kailua and north shore. I have a sneaky feeling that when most people think of a Maui vacation this is the vibe they’re thinking of. Large resorts with every amenity you can think of, expertly manicured grounds, picturesque beaches that are perfect for swimming, snorkeling, and sunbathing, and plenty of restaurants and shops within walking distance. Did I mention the faint sounds of ukulele music and palm trees blowing in the breeze? That’s pretty much Ko’olina. 

There are a few large resorts (Disney’s Aulani, the Four Seasons, and Marriott Beach Club), a golf course, marina, and a small shopping center with some restaurants, tennis, a couple of luaus. The town of Kapolei is also nearby which has conveniences like Target, Costco, a movie theater, a small waterpark, and quite a few restaurants. 

The only downside of staying in Ko’olina is how remote it is from the rest of the island (but that honestly could be a good thing). You really don’t feel like you’re on Oahu when you’re put in Ko’olina. You definitely need a car if you’re planning to get out and explore other parts of the island. There are a couple of rental car locations at some of the resorts if you decide you just want to rent one for the day. 

Read my full guide to Ko’olina here.

Best Hotels in Ko’olina

Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa: If ever there was a resort made for families in Hawaii, it’s Aulani. Of course, Disney and kids go together like pb&j, but Aulani is really something special. Yes, it’s a sprawling mega resort with every kind of activity and amenity you could ask for, but the attention to detail in the architecture, design, and landscape manage to make it feel intimate and charming. I’d say it’s the most “Hawaiian” resort you’ll find in Hawaii. Read all about my last stay at Aulani here.

Check pricing and read reviews here.

Four Seasons Oahu: Nothing says luxury like the Four Seasons so if you’re looking to splurge on your honeymoon (or you just expect a high level of quality and service), you won’t be disappointed with the Four Seasons. It’s located in the upscale resort community of Ko’olina on the west side and is situated on a perfectly calm little lagoon next to Disney’s Aulani resort. You’ll get seclusion while still only being 30 minutes or so from Waikiki.

Check pricing and read reviews here.

Where to Stay in Oahu

Marriott Ko’olina Beach Club: If you’re looking for a relaxed beach vacation away from the hustle and bustle of Waikiki, the Marriott’s Ko’olina Beach Club is the perfect spot. It’s situated on a perfect little lagoon perfect for kiddos who want to swim in the ocean. In addition to guest rooms, families can book one and two bedroom villas so you’ll really have room to spread out. The grounds of the resort are lovely and there’s so much going on that you probably won’t want to ever leave.

Check pricing and read reviews here.

My Favorite Places to Stay on Oahu

Well…for me, it depends what I’m coming to Oahu for. When I’m coming to site see, I usually like to stay in Waikiki. It’s just easier and there are more budget friendly options which is important to me if I’m not going to be spending much time in the room or even at the hotel. In Waikiki (if budget isn’t the #1 factor), I like the Royal Hawaiian (specifically the Mailani Tower). If I’m trying to keep costs low, I really like the Laylow, the Surfjack, and the Shoreline (probably in that order) all of which are affordable but very cute. 

Now…if I’m coming to Oahu to VACATION (as in spend time laying at the pool/beach, bumming around the resort, and just doing general vacation like things) then I head out to Ko’olina to stay at Disney’s Aulani Resort or the Four Seasons. They’re my two favorite places on the island and they’re right next to each other. If you don’t have kids, you may not like Aulani (unless you’re a big Disney fan like me!) but it’s pretty much perfection. But so is the Four Seasons. If deciding between those two resorts is your biggest problem, your vacation is going to be just fine. 

My perfect Oahu vacation would probably be a split stay doing the first part in Waikiki (the Laylow, Royal Hawaiian, or the Surfjack) to sightsee and explore and then the second part in Ko’olina at Aulani or the Four Seasons to relax.

Where I Like to Stay on Oahu

For luxury: Four Seasons Oahu or Royal Hawaiian (Mailani Tower)

Luxury for less: The Laylow or The Modern Honolulu

Family Fun: Disney’s Aulani Resort

On a budget: The Surfjack or Shoreline Hotel

Oahu Vacation Rentals & Condos

If a resort/hotel isn’t what you’re looking for, you want more amenities, or you’re not finding anything in your price range, YOU MUST READ THIS POST. It’s a roundup of the best condo complexes on Oahu that’s well organized so you can find exactly what you’re looking for.

Oahu Hotel Reviews

Staying at Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa








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