With all the sand sprinkled around Honolulu, it's pretty much guaranteed that you'll be spending time on the beach. Some beaches are ideal for little ones. Some are playgrounds for surfers. Some are meant for adventurers only. And some are so popular you'll need to reserve a spot on the sand ahead of time.

With such a wide variety of beaches to choose from, the only question is how do you choose where to park your beach umbrella? Don't worry – we’ve narrowed the list down to some of the best stretches of sand on O‘ahu's south shore. The good news is that all of Hawaii's beaches are public, so no matter what your budget is you'll have beach access no matter which piece of paradise is calling your name.

So, pack your swimsuit, pick up some reef-safe sunscreen and see how many beaches you can squeeze into one vacation! Here are our favorite Honolulu beaches.

Kaimana Beach, Oahu, Hawaii
Begin your trip at Waikiki admiring the resort-lined Kaimana Beach © Shutterstock / sam chik

The best beach in Waikiki: Kaimana Beach

Begin your trip at Waikiki, home to a string of stunning resort-backed beaches. If your budget stretches to it, book an ocean-front suite at the Kaimana Beach Hotel, a boutique beach-side getaway with a bold boho vibe. Since it’s one of the only Waikiki hotels that sits right on the sand, it makes a great home base.

Originally called Sans Souci, meaning "without cares," Kaimana Beach scores major points for being one of Waikiki's quietest beaches. Plenty of people who come here to enjoy the sand are resort guests, but the beach is public and open to all. It's easy to while away the days lounging, but when you want activity, the shallow reef is a dream for snorkelers and there’s a surf break that's ideal for beginners.

Guests at the Kaimana Beach Hotel can sign up to SUP or surf classes with local legend Kai Sallas, and explore the shoreline on complimentary Electra cruiser bikes. Other ways to pass the time include sunset yoga classes with Diamond Head as a backdrop, and lessons in making lei garlands and coconut hats. If you’ve worked up an appetite, lunch or dinner at the Kaimana Beach Hotel's Hau Tree Lanai restaurant is a no-brainer. Order a specialty cocktail and gaze at the ocean from the open-air terrace, where generations of travelers have stopped to admire the view, one of the best in Hawaii.

Get more travel inspiration, tips and exclusive offers sent straight to your inbox with our weekly newsletter.
Kahala Beach, O‘ahu
Kahala Beach has the best photoshoot opportunities on O‘ahu © Shutterstock / ChristopherMYa

The best beach for a photoshoot: Kahala Beach

While most any beach on the island will make a stellar backdrop for photos, Kahala Beach at Wai'alae Beach Park is the pick of the sands, according to Hawaii-based photographer, Natalie Schulte. “The waters are protected by a reef, so there aren't usually any waves," she says. "And the view of Hanauma Ridge and Koko Head in the distance is really stunning.”

It’s an added bonus that the beach is located in the family-friendly Waialae-Kahala neighborhood which doesn't get too crowded in its tucked-away location. When it comes to photos, getting up early will give you soft, golden-hour lighting, ensuring that colors are not washed out like they would be at midday. And, of course, the hour before sunset is so beautiful it's worth planning your entire day around.

Beach and palms at Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve
A perfect piece of Hawaii at Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve © John Seaton Callahan / Getty Images

The best beach for snorkeling: Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve

About a 30-minute drive from Honolulu, hidden away inside Hanauma Bay State Park, Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is one of the city's best day trip ideas. It was named as a protected area in 1967, in part for the excellent snorkeling right off the beach. The word for bay in Hawaiian is hana and the uma part describes the curves of an outrigger canoe – an apt description for this lovely crescent of sand.

You'll spot the reefs as soon as you reach the bay. It’s common to find turtles, triggerfish and parrot fish munching happily on seaweed in the shallow waters. If you're super lucky, you might even meet a Hawaiian monk seal. As you explore, be careful not to touch or step on the coral; this is a fragile ecosystem.

The park is closed Mondays and Tuesdays, you will need to make reservations ahead of time to visit, and all visitors are required to watch a 9-minute orientation video on arrival. Snorkel gear is available for rent and there are lockers, so you can stow valuables while you swim. Note that parking is cash only.

Read more: The best things to do in Hawaii you probably didn't know about

Humpback whale swimming
Humpback whales regularly pass close to shore in O‘ahu © M Swiet Productions / Getty Images

The best beach for whale-watchingHalona Beach Cove

Also known as Eternity Beach, this little nook of a beach flanked by impressive sea cliffs is so pretty, it’s often used as a backdrop for wedding photos. If you visit during whale season (December to May), the lookout at Halona Blowhole is a great spot to scan the ocean for passing humpback whales. On a clear day you can see as far as the islands of Lāna‘i and Moloka‘i.

When the water is calm, Halona Beach Cove can be a good swimming spot, but don't go out if the surf is rough; there are no lifeguards on this beach. As with most any beach on O‘ahu, there’s a good chance you’ll spot honu (green sea turtles) in the waters here. Don’t get too close, though; it’s illegal to pet, chase or ride these endangered creatures.

Halona Beach Cove has a small parking lot nearby, but it's almost always full by noon. A nearby alternative is Makapuʻu Beach Park, which has more space and similarly stellar ocean views and the Koʻolau mountains as a backdrop.

Sandy Beach Park, Honolulu
Enjoying the waves at Sandy Beach Park, Honolulu © Shutterstock / Phillip B. Espinasse

The best beach for bodyboarding: Sandy Beach Park

As well as the golden sands suggested by its name, Sandy Beach Park is washed by a constant shore break that attracts a continuous stream of bodyboarders. It's a great place to catch a wave but this is a beach for experienced boarders; if you've never tried bodyboarding before, it’s probably better to stick to the sand. At low tide, sharp lava rocks dot the shallows, the ocean floor drops off quickly, and it's easy to get toppled over by the tricky shore break (hence the local nickname, "break-neck beach").

Beach at Magic Island from above
The protected crescent of sand at Magic Island © NickMasa / Shutterstock

The most family-friendly beach in Honolulu: Magic Island Lagoon

Inside Ala Moana Regional Park is Magic Island Lagoon, a stunning swimming spot protected by large sea walls. The 30-acre park sits between Honolulu and Waikiki, and it's an ideal place for keiki (kids) to frolic, with showers, restrooms and lifeguards. Kids will love the white sand, and there's also a biking trail and wide-open grassy areas for games. For grown-ups, the waters beyond the sea wall are known for scuba diving, fishing and bodyboarding.

You may also like:
Things to do in Honolulu without spending a dime
The best time to visit Honolulu
Getting around Honolulu

This article was first published October 2021 and updated March 2022

Explore related stories

Middle Tavoro Waterfalls in Bouma National Heritage Park on Taveuni Island, Fiji. Kayaking in Tahiti


Fiji or Tahiti: which South Pacific paradise has the edge?

Jun 28, 2023 • 6 min read