Neighborhoods and Districts of Oahu: An Overview

Oahu is the third largest island in Hawaii and the 20th in the entire United States. It has a total land area of 596.7 square miles and a shoreline that stretches 227 miles. The island is bordered by the Waianae Range on the West, and on the East side is the Koolau Range. What lies between the so-called mountain ranges, which are actually remains of two dormant shield volcanoes, is a valley which comprises Oahu Plain. As if it hasn't been said often enough, the Hawaiian island of Oahu showcases the interplay of stark contrasts. From the cultural fusion of the East and West to the picturesque natural wonders that stand out against the metropolitan landscape, Oahu is indeed one-of-a-kind. Much of the island's unique identity is attributed to the island's geology itself, with the grand display of powdery white sand beaches, jagged cliffs, volcanic craters, and lush rainforests all in one place. It's as if God made Oahu on His most creative day. Oahu beaches may be categorized by regions consisting of the North, East, South, and West shores. In general, however, the entire island of Oahu may be divided into six main districts: Waikiki, Honolulu, North Shore, Windward, Leeward, and Central Oahu.

Honolulu is the capital of the Hawaiian state, and has been regarded as the seat of power since the time of 19th century monarchs in Hawaii. Waikiki is best known for Waikiki Beach, which is regarded as one of the best beaches around the world. In fact, millions of visitors come to Waikiki Beach every year. The North Shore is popular among surfers and water sports enthusiasts. Here, you'll find the Waimea Bay, Sunset Beach, and the Banzai Pipeline, where the waves can be dangerous for the inexperienced surfer during the winter months. On the Windward side is where you will find the Diamond Head which gives Oahu its distinct identity. The volcanic cone now serves as a US state monument. It used to be known among native Hawaiians as Leahi, but the British seafarers who came to Oahu in the 19th century thought that the calcite crystals found on the cone were diamonds, so they named it Diamond Head. Then there's Leeward and Central Oahu with its historical landmarks that make Oahu a top tourist destination. This side of Oahu is where Pearl Harbor is located.


If Oahu accounts for about 75% of Hawaii's total population, then that means a large share of that population took up residence at Honolulu, the state capital and also the most densely populated area in Hawaii according to census data. Honolulu has been so aptly named, because the English translation of its name is "sheltered bay" or "place of shelter." It is a consolidated city and county, the only one with such status in the entire island of Hawaii. It is home to the famous volcanic cones Diamond Head, Koko Head, and Punchbowl. It is also the cradle of Oahu's art, culture, and history, where you'll find the Iolani Palace, the only restored royal palace in the United States and the former seat of power in Hawaii. In the old days, ancient Hawaiian monarchs lived and ruled the kingdom of Hawaii from Honolulu.

You'll find the hustle and bustle of city life at Downtown Honolulu. Today, the neighborhood is not only Hawaii's center of governance, but its financial and commercial hub, as well. As such, the tallest buildings in the state can be found here. Aloha Tower's height was recently surpassed by the First Hawaiian Center at 438 feet. Downtown Honolulu would not be complete without Chinatown, where a smorgasbord of experience awaits the visitors. Experience the sights, sounds, and taste of China right in Hawaii, with the profusion of historic sites, shops, restaurants, and bars. Every first Friday of the month, Chinatown erupts into an amazing display of cultural performances, exotic dishes, and arts and crafts exhibits. If a spiritual and historic journey is what you're craving for, head for River Street. Kick off your shoes and enter the peaceful haven at Izumo Taishakyo Mission Shrine. Just a stone's throw away is the Kuan Yin Temple, with the jade green tile roof upturned at the corners to drive away evil spirits. Kuan Yin is the Buddhist goddess of mercy, to whom people with petitions offer a pomelo fruit as a way of making a plea.

All the sightseeing and soul-searching will surely take its toll on your tummy, so you might want to check out one more neighborhood in Honolulu that's best known for its hodgepodge of cuisines. At Kapahulu, indulge in exotic and local dishes (of course, the distinctions mainly depend on where you're from), from Polynesian to Mediterranean. Sample the malasadas, which is a cross between a custard cake and a hole-less donut, at Leonard's Bakery right on Kapahulu Avenue, and once you've had enough, check out the rest of Kapahulu for antique stuff. Did you know that a $4000 Aloha shirt is displayed in nearby Bailey's Antiques?


Its name means "spouting fresh water," referring to the springs and streams that replenish what used to be Waikiki's wetlands. Situated on the South Shore of the island, it is bordered by the Diamond Head on the eastern side and the Ala Wai Canal on the northern and western sides. The canal was actually built to drain the former wetlands. Now, Waikiki is more of a tropical metropolis. It looks like a jigsaw puzzle made of pieces of the Manhattan cityscape and a white sand beach put together.

In the 1800s, Waikiki served as the haven of Hawaiian royalty, and they enjoyed the same turquoise waters that regular tourists do today. Because Waikiki's waters are relatively shallow within some distance, it is ideal for those who are just trying their hands—and knees—at surfing. The neighborhood is a fusion of modernity and tradition. In Waikiki, you'll find modern establishments, such as the Hilton Hawaiian Village, Hyatt Regency, Sheraton, and the Halekulani hotel, as well as early 20th century hotels, such as the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and Moana Surfrider Hotel, all under the same Aloha sky.

North Shore

This side of Oahu is a surfing destination with a country feel. The shoreline that stretches 7 miles is populated by the best surfers in the world especially during the winter months, when waves are made even more formidable. Apart from the Banzai Pipeline, Sunset Beach, and Waimea Bay, the North Shore is also known for the rustic town of Haleiwa. It is famous for the remains of Oahu's plantation history, art galleries, and the best hamburgers, as well as Thai and Mexican food, in Hawaii. Pack it in at Kua Aina Burger and then head to Matsumoto's Shave Ice for a dessert of finely shaved ice smothered in ice cream, syrups, and azuki beans. On this side of Oahu, you'll also find the Polynesian Cultural Center, where you can enjoy canoeing at the lagoon during the day. At night, be mesmerized by hundreds of performers at the Horizons show. They will amaze you with their Samoan fire knife dances. The largest wildlife refuge in Oahu is also within the area. The James Campbell Nature Wildlife Refuge is a temporary sanctuary for migratory birds from Alaska, Asia, and New Zealand. It is also home to the endangered Hawaiian stilt, coot, moorhen, and duck.

Windward, Leeward, and Central Oahu

The eastern shore of Oahu is where awe-inspiring nature meets resort environment meets cityscape. Windward Oahu consists mostly of peaceful suburbs and a panoramic view of the Koolau Range (ko'olau, in fact, is a Hawaiian term for 'windward"). You can maximize your enjoyment of the area's pristine beaches and calm surroundings by renting a cottage. If it seems too much for your budget, check in at bed and breakfast inns that Oahu is also known for. Leeward and Central Oahu is home to historic Pearl Harbor, Aloha Stadium, and the Dole pineapple plantation. The battleship Missouri, which is symbolic of the Japanese surrender and the end of WWII, is docked close to the remains of battleship Arizona, which serves as the resting place of more than a thousand of its crew members that went down with it in the 1941 bombing.

If Pearl Harbor makes you a bit too nostalgic for comfort, lose yourself in the Dole Plantation maze, which made a name for itself in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's largest maze. Or, you can go for a game of golf at Ko Olina. Revisit the past of real Hawaii and see Waipahu's Plantation Village. Hawaii's unique culture is attributed to the colorful combination of diverse ethnic groups from China, Portugal, Japan, Puerto Rico, Korea, Russia, and the Philippines, who came to Hawaii during its glorious plantation days as sugar and pineapple plantation workers. If these places don't seem enough for you, drop by at Aloha Stadium, Hawaii's biggest flea market. With the size of that place, you are sure to encounter amazing finds and great buys that will keep your spirit going "Aloha-ha-ha."