32 Ultimate Things to Do in Oahu

  • 32 Ultimate Things to Do in Oahu

    Get the most out of your Hawaii vacation with our best-of-the-island list.

    To fully appreciate the multi-faceted paradise that is Hawai’i would take a lifetime–but that doesn’t mean its mystical, fragrant beauty can’t be experienced in a week. The most populous of the eight Hawai’i islands, Oahu is a good place to start. From the crashing surf breaks of the North Shore to the tangy sweetness of the Lilikoi fruit gracing menus, majestic volcano ranges, and azure-hued bays where Hawaiian sea turtle, manta rays, dolphins, and monk seals happily inhabit, there is much to love about this idyllic urban island.

    Courtesy of Outrigger Waikiki Beach

  • Swim With the Fish at Hanauma Bay

    WHERE: Hawaii Kai

    Spoiler alert: You’re going to have to stay up past midnight to snag a reservation to enter, but the effort will be worth it. Once a recreational area of Hawaii’s royalty, Oahu’s pristine Hanauma Bay allows just 720 people in daily and remains one of the best snorkeling spots. Thanks to a nine-month closure in 2020, the water is once again crystal clear, and larger, tropical fish have returned. With a deep outer reef and a shallow inner reef for protection, expect to see honu (turtles), moray eels, parrotfish, and surgeonfish swimming about. Bring your sunshade, food and drinks, snorkel/mask, and use only reef-safe sunscreen. Take note the bay is open Wednesday through Sunday from 6:45 a.m. to 4 p.m. and online reservations are required.

    G Ward Fahey/Shutterstock

  • Hike Kaena Point and Spot Some Monk Seals

    WHERE: Waialua

    There are many reasons to hike Kaena Point–we recommend starting from the Mokuleia side along the North Shore–but a big draw is the chance to spot Hawaiian monk seals. With only about 1,400 of them left, this endangered species can be a little on the shy side, but if you take the coastal trail, there might be a couple lazing in the hot sun. Take note to keep at least 150 feet away and avoid disturbing them with loud noises or any sudden movements. If you don’t spot any don’t worry, because this scenic, mostly flat hike is home to a dune ecosystem and an array of native bird life. Mostly though, you’ll be distracted by the roaring surf and stunning views of the Waianae Coast as you hike to the westernmost point of the island. If you start early enough, continue to Yokohama Bay and back (7.6 miles), or if you plan it right and have a vehicle waiting on the other end, linger and enjoy a well-earned sunset dip at this pristine white-sand beach. Do bring lots of water, a hat, and sunscreen as the hike is unshaded.

    Allen.G/Shutterstock

  • Feast on Some Local Favorites

    WHERE: Various Locations

    Food will be a big part of your Oahu experience, and for good reason. Hawaiian cuisine is made up of five distinct cuisines reflecting the diversity of the island’s inhabitants. To make the food hunt a lot easier, these are some top local picks.

    Haupia : A traditional Hawaiian dessert of coconut pudding at Ted’s Bakery, they combine the creamy coconut goodness with whipped cream and chocolate custard cream for one heavenly mouthful.

    Moco Loco : There’s something extra special about The Highway Inn‘s comfort dish of rice with hamburger patties and fried eggs doused in a rich brown gravy. Warning: You’ll likely slip into a food coma post-meal.

    Malasadas : There are donuts and then there are malasadas from at Leonard’s Bakery. A deep-fried, sugar-coated eggy-donut filled with all sorts of goodness from mango to macadamia and the tangy-sweet lilikoi.

    Kalua Pig : The secret to Helena’s Hawaiian Food trademark dish is they cook it traditionally in an imu (underground oven), which explains its unique juicy flavor. It’s one of the reasons they were awarded a James Beard Foundation’s Regional Classics award in 2000.

    Spam Musubi : You’ll see musubi’s (sushi rice with a protein held together by seaweed) available everywhere, but it’s the spam version that’s a popular favorite of locals. At Mana Musubi, they offer four types of rice and 35 different variations–from salmon flake, spicy tuna, and konbu.

    Roast Pork and Poke Bowl : Opened in 1949, Alicia’s Market is a family-run Hawai’i general store known for its roast meats and poke bar (they stock over 15 varieties) so this combination is the best of both worlds.

    Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock

  • Snorkel at Shark's Cove

    WHERE: Pupukea

    Few experiences will rival a snorkeling session at Shark’s Cove. Home to an amazing array of marine life, you’ll spot everything from butterflyfish and parrotfish to wrasse and turtles within this small rocky bay, and sometimes while you’re only knee-deep in water. A word of caution though, as it is between the big wave surf spots of Waimea Bay and the Banzai Pipeline, check the surf report (look for Pupukea Beach Park) to ensure there’s no huge swell on the day, or you’ll risk getting swept out with the tide. Reef shoes, a mask, and a snorkel are recommended and if you have little ones, the tide pools will keep them occupied.

    Benny Marty/Shutterstock

  • Drink Your Fill of Kona Coffee

    WHERE: Waikiki

    When there’s good Kona coffee to be enjoyed, you’ll be forgiven for cheating on your regular Starbucks order. On Oahu, there are many coffee shops offering a taste of this specialty bean only grown on the slopes of two volcanoes on Hawaii’s Big Island. At Honolulu Coffee Experience Center, you can learn all about the farm-to-cup process and have a first-hand look at their in-house roaster, which may be in action while you’re there sipping on your cappuccino. While tours and tastings are currently on hold, you can bring home a bag of their Peaberry or Kona Estate Blend to enjoy. For a more cafe-style setting, grab a seat at Kona Coffee Purveyors and order up a cortado with a side serving of their buttery kouign amanns in creative flavors like pumpkin and black sesame. If you’re planning to re-create the experience at home, they’ve got four 100% Kona Coffee variations for sale.

    Theodore Trimmer/Shutterstock

  • Trawl the Farmer's Markets

    WHERE: Various Locations

    A great way to experience local culture and support small business owners is at a farmer’s market–in Oahu there are four for exploring. Running from Thursday to Sunday in neighborhoods like Kailua, Haleiwa, Kaka’ako, and Pearlridge, they’re organized by FarmLovers Markets (check their website for details/timings) and attract an eclectic mix of vendors selling everything from local delicacies to farm-to-table ingredients, chilled beach threads to island-inspired skincare. If transportation isn’t an issue, make a beeline for the Thursday market at Haleiwa in the beautiful Waimea Valley and combine it with a visit to Waimea Falls Park. And definitely go hungry as there’s a rotating list of vendors selling everything from fresh ceviche, Kona coffee, wood-fired pizzas, and local grub from enterprising young chefs.

    Theodore Trimmer/Shutterstock

  • Catch the Sunset at Three Tables

    WHERE: Pupukea

    There’s no shortage of dramatic sunset spots, but catching one at Three Tables beach on the North Shore is pretty special. A popular spot for snorkeling and turtle sightings between May and September, come dusk, the sun setting over the three flat sections of reef that appear at low tide is quite something.

    Leigh Anne Meeks/Shutterstock

  • Mural Hunt in Kaka'ako

    WHERE: Kaka’ako

    What was once an area known for salt making and fishpond farming is now Oahu’s hippest neighborhood–much of that thanks to the colorful murals that adorn its streets. The handiwork of POW! WOW!, a network of local and global artists, they’ve organized the week-long mural art festival in Kaka’ako since 2010. The art changes, so to track down the unique works you can either wander the streets at random, popping into the stores and restaurants at SALT that catch your fancy, or download the map for easier navigation. Keep an eye out for Big Island artist Kai’ili Kaulukukui’s marine-inspired murals that illustrate compromised marine species and the delicate female portraits by Hawaiian artist Hula.

    Charlene Fang

  • Watch a Hula Performance

    WHERE: Various Locations

    Oahu resident and travel writer Paul Theroux describes the mesmerizing hula as “aloha in action.” A graceful art form that is imbued with layers of symbolism re-telling the rich history and rituals of the native Hawaiians. Depending on where you catch a performance, there are two forms, the hula kahiko, often referred to as traditional hula, and the hula’auana, which combines the traditional form with western influence. More elaborate performances are put on at Paradise Cove as part of a luau, or at the Polynesian Cultural Center. However, there are also free performances at the Royal Hawaiian Center‘s Royal Grove on Fridays. For private events, Ring of Fire has a roster of award-winning hula talents and other Polynesian entertainers.

    CathyRL/Shutterstock

  • Catch the Surf but Mind Your Manners

    WHERE: Various Locations

    This being Hawaii, surfing will be on the bucket list. To get a feel for the surf conditions, head to Old Man’s Oahu in Waikiki and get in line to test the deep water and long break. White Plains’ beach is another option with fewer surfers out on the water and clear signage designating swimming and surfing areas. If you need lessons, this is also a place to get tutelage from seasoned professionals. Regardless of where you choose to start, surf etiquette applies. Wait your turn in the line-up and avoid dropping in, accidentally or not. If you clock an older surfer, hang nearby and wait for their cues.

    Related Story: 10 Best Surfing Spots in the U.S.

    Shane Myers Photography/Shutterstock

  • Pay Your Respects at Pearl Harbor

    WHERE: Pearl Harbor

    Whether you’re interested in WWII or aviation, no visit to Oahu is complete without a visit to Pearl Harbor. A multi-venue attraction (free and paid) you can easily spend a full day here soaking in the “date which will live in infamy.” If you’re short on time, organize your tickets to the USS Arizona Memorial beforehand. The total experience takes about 75 minutes, including a short boat ride out to the floating memorial where you can pay your respects and peer down at where the sunken hull of the USS Arizona still rests. Other separate, and independently-run WWII museums nearby are the Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum, the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum, and the restored Battleship Missouri Memorial, where the Japanese forces surrendered to the Allies in 1945.

    Courtesy of Pearl Harbor National Memorial

  • Take a Kayak out to the Mokes

    WHERE: Kailua Beach

    Paddling out to The Mokes (Nā Mokulua) is a great way to enjoy both Kailua and Lanikai beach and be out on the water. Located a mile and a half off Kailua beach, getting there will take roughly 30-45 minutes depending on the conditions. Once there, the twin-peaked Moku Nui, a bird sanctuary, is a prime spot to spot the Great Frigatebird or Red-footed Booby, and if you’re lucky, there’ll be a few Kailua locals surfing the breaks between Moku Nui and Moku Iki. En-route back, take it a little slower and enjoy the sight of the sun setting behind the lush Koʻolau mountain range and dormant volcanoes–it’s one for the memory books. Do check weather conditions before heading out or check in with Kailua Beach Adventures who offers guided excursions.

    Charlene Fang

  • Lace-up Your Hiking Shoes

    WHERE: Various Locations

    For visitors who prefer epic sky-top views to the feeling of sand between their toes, Oahu does not disappoint. One of the more challenging hikes is the Ka’au Crater Hike, a steep jungle trek with three waterfalls that reaches the edge of a crater 2,500 feet up. This hike is not for beginners and will take at least four to six hours to complete. For sunrise lovers, the Lanikai Pillbox Trail (Kaiwa Ridge) is a short hike that can be timed to catch the sunrise overlooking the picturesque Lanikai beach. Other options to consider are the fairly steep Diamond Head Crater Hike and the Makapuu Lighthouse Trail where you might spot whales in the distance.

     

    travellife18/Shutterstock

  • Admire Oahu From Above

    WHERE: Various Locations

    What better way to overcome your fear of heights than an open-door helicopter ride or co-piloting a trike while admiring Oahu from above. Rainbow Helicopters‘ Path to Pali passage flies over Waikiki Beach with close-ups of the majestic Diamond Head crater and Hanauma Bay, before ending with a flyover of the USS Arizona Memorial. Over on the North Shore, Paradise Air Hawaii‘s trikes are essentially a “handglider with a big engine” that tours guests around Kaena Point, over the Dole Plantation, and some waterfalls. Choose to either sit back and enjoy the ride or, if you’re up for it, the pilot will hand over the controls so you can co-pilot as they instruct you on what to do–although we’ll suggest handing back the controls for a smooth landing.

    Related Story: Long Weekend in Hawaii…from the East Coast

    Fotoaray/Shutterstock

  • Dive With Sharks

    WHERE: Haleiwa

    Combining adventure and shark awareness, this adrenaline-raising experience will bring you within staring-contest distance of Galapagos and Sandbar sharks–but from the safety of a large floating cage equipped with poly glass windows. The opportunity to watch these majestic creatures glide through the water will give you a newfound appreciation for a fast-declining species that’s essential for a healthy ocean.

    RugliG/Shutterstock

  • Visit the Lesser-Known Beaches

    WHERE: Various Locations

    There are certain beaches in Oahu that get consistent top billing, but with it comes the crowds (and lack of parking). With 125 beaches, though, you’re not short on options. A Waikiki alternative is Ala Moana Beach Park where the water is calmer, there’s half a mile of golden-white sand, and a high chance of spotting honu (turtles) swimming in the water. Kailua and Lanikai are worth visiting, but they can get crowded. For a quieter beach day, nearby Kalama beach offers the same pristine water and a stunning 180-degree view of the entire crescent of Kailua Bay. Ko’olina’s four lagoons are certainly pretty and kid-friendly but they come with restrictions (no non-rented SUP, no kayaks) and a limited amount of parking. A local favorite Pokai Bay offers calm water year-round with the southern end of the bay near the breakwater being the most kid-friendly. For beginner surfers, this is also a spot to try standing up in calmer conditions.

    Charlene Fang

  • Delve Into Hawaii's Rich History

    WHERE: Downtown

    Hawaii’s storied history deserves a portion of your vacation time. A tour of the Iolani Palace, the only royal residence in the U.S., is a must, and the 90-minute White Glove Tour led by the palace historian includes a visit to the attic where selected artifacts can be admired up close and in hand. While you’re there, be sure to ascend the Grand Staircase. One of the world’s largest freestanding koa wood structures, previously, this was only available during special events. After your tour, there are several historic Honolulu sights nearby, including the Kamehameha statue standing in front of Ali’iolani Hale, Honolulu Hale, and Bishop Museum.

    Christian Mueller/Shutterstock

  • Buy and Support Local

    WHERE: Waikiki

    From locally sourced chocolate and brewed kombucha to reef-safe, organic sunscreen and soy candles made with natural Hawaiian scents, House of ManaUp at the Royal Hawaiian Center is a treasure trove of homegrown brands spanning art, clothing, books, and more. Each brand on the shop floor represents some form of Hawaii culture and/or native ingredients and artisans are graduates of Mana Up’s six-month accelerator program–so a purchase isn’t just buying a bit of aloha home, it also supports Hawaii’s growing entrepreneur industry and helps elevate the brand of Hawaii.

     

    Courtesy of House of Mana Up

  • Do Chase Waterfalls

    WHERE: Various Locations

    You won’t have to travel too far from Waikiki to get to the breathtaking Manoa Falls and its 150-foot tall waterfall. If the lush jungle setting looks familiar, it’s because Jurassic Park and Lost were filmed there. Another popular waterfall is the two-tiered Likeke Falls located below the Pali Lookout point. A quick hike that can be done en-route/back from Waimanalo or Kailua Beach, do park on the road before the gate to Ko’olau Golf Club or risk getting a ticket.

    segawa7/Shutterstock

  • Find Zen at Byodo-in-Temple

    WHERE: Kaneohe

    Away from the hustle of Waikiki, most visitors to Byodo-in-Temple go for its blissfully quiet setting and to admire the 1960s replica of an 11th-century Japanese Buddhist phoenix temple with a nine-foot-tall, gold plated Buddha. Slow down and stroll the grounds as you admire the ornate temple, wild peacocks, and koi fish, or, if cemeteries are your thing, hike past graves of Japanese, Vietnamese, Chinese, Laotian, and Cambodian individuals.

    Shane Myers Photography/Shutterstock

  • Get Your Hands Dirty at Kualoa Ranch

    WHERE: Kaneohe

    Kualoa Ranch is often visited for its 2.5 hour Jurassic Adventure Tour, a lesser-known offering is their Malama ka Aina Tour, a two-hour experience that focuses on Mālama ʻĀina (care for the land). A hands-on activity that involves thatching of traditional Hawaiian hale (grass huts), planting of taro, and learning about medicinal plants that make teas and tinctures, it’ll bring a newfound appreciation of Hawaii’s fertile land and what it offers our daily lives.

    pepelopez7/Shutterstock

  • Head North for the Day

    WHERE: Haleiwa

    Offering a more laid-back vibe to Waikiki, you could easily spend a few days exploring the North Shore, from the historic town of Haleiwa to checking out the cliff-jumping and surf action at Waimea Beach. There’s horse riding on the beach, spotting turtles at Laniakea Beach, and eating your way through the food trucks that dot the North Shore (Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck and Impossibles Pizza is a must). And let’s not forget the big wave beaches like Banzai Pipeline, Sunset Beach, and Laie Point which you could spend a whole day on.

    SvetlanaSF/Shutterstock

  • Enjoy Mai Tais and Music

    WHERE: Waikiki and Ala Moana

    Music is very much a part of life in Hawaii. Sitting back at Duke’s Waikiki on a Sunday with a Mai Tai in hand, listening to the tunes of Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter Harry Kapono as the sun sets over Waikiki Beach is as lovely as it sounds. If getting a spot at Duke’s is mission impossible, decamp over to Merriman’s at Auahi Street (just over the road from Ala Moana Beach Park) where they have nightly live music and a full food and drink menu. Don’t leave without trying the iconic Merriman’s Mai Tai with its house-made lilikoi syrup foam.

    Eric Broder Van Dyke/Dreamstime

  • Do the Dole Maze

    WHERE: Wahiawa

    While it is no longer the largest (or hardest) maze in the world, it is one of the prettiest, stretching over three acres and decorated with 14,000 colorful Hawaiian plants like heliconia, hibiscus, and panax. It’ll take about 40 minutes to complete the eight stations scattered around this labyrinth where–you guessed it–a huge pineapple forms the center. As one of the few official permanent botanical mazes in America, this is certainly worth a pit-stop and, if nothing else, there’s the Insta-famous Dole Whip sold at the visitor center.

    f4 Luftbilder/Shutterstock

  • Explore the Hoʻomaluhia Botanical Garden

    WHERE: Kaneohe

    Chances are you’ve already caught sight of this lush botanical garden on Instagram, with its palm-lined entrance. Spread across 400 acres, this “peaceful refuge” with its dramatic mountain backdrop can be explored on foot or as part of a scenic drive. Opened in 1982, it features floral and fauna from tropical regions like Sri Lanka, Melanesia, Hawaii, Polynesia, and Africa grouped geographically and has a large man-made lake perfect for a picnic or just to relax and enjoy the views.

    Shane Myers Photography/Shutterstock

  • Get a Crash Course in Polynesian Culture

    WHERE: Laie

    Founded in 1963, the Polynesian Cultural Center remains one of the top attractions for visitors to the island. The center features six Polynesian “islands” like Fiji, Hawaii, and Tahiti, each showcasing the lifestyles and traditions of their unique heritage. The award-winning Ali’i Lu’au remains a big draw for its Hawaiian luau food (Kalua pork prepared traditionally, lomi-lomi salmon) paired with hula and fire dancing performances. If pressed to choose just one, get tickets for the Hā: Breath of Life show featuring over 100 Polynesian performers.

    Michael Gordon/Shutterstock

  • Spot the Kailua Bird Man

    WHERE: Kailua Beach

    If you’re lucky enough to spot Rick Gardner a.k.a. the Kailua Bird Man taking a stroll along Kailua Beach, you’re in for quite the show. The Windward resident conducts a flock of 20-30 pigeons along Kailua’s shoreline as he feeds, instructs, and plays with his feathered buddies. Look for the flock of pigeons soaring to the sky, swooping down to the water surface, or the gaggle of kids that follow him.

    Marisa Papen

  • Join a Sound Bath at Ala Moana Beach Park

    WHERE: Ala Moana Beach Park

    Friday evenings at Ala Moana Beach Park have taken on a new frequency thanks to sound healer Kaori Isomura, who started this initiative to spread aloha to the community. She conducts an hour-long performance using seven crystal bowls perfectly timed to end with the fiery sunset. Her location varies between Magic Lagoon and Ala Moana Beach Park (near the L&L BBQ) but she posts her exact location through Instagram the day of.

    segawa7/Shutterstock

  • Embrace the Aloha

    WHERE: Various Locations

    More than just a cheesy saying on a fridge magnet, the spirit of aloha is a law that was made official in 1986. While it’s more symbolic than an enforceable regulation, you’ll experience it everywhere. With friendly greetings and shakas, an extra generous serving of poke, strangers warning you of jellyfish, or a strong ocean swell, the island’s residents take great pride in extending friendship and kindness. Don’t be surprised if at the end of your trip, what remains aren’t the memories of stunning sunsets or delicious Hawaiian food but the warmth and love extended by mere strangers. Mahalo!

    Christian Mueller/Shutterstock

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