When you picture Hawaii, you likely envision many of Oahu’s beautiful landmarks: Waikiki with Diamond Head in the distance, tropical rainforests with tall waterfalls, and pineapples growing in a sunny botanical garden.
You probably come to Oahu to see many of these iconic sights, but you’ll likely find yourself creating memories at some of its lesser-known locales as well.
Today, we’re exploring some of the best things to do in Oahu, from the most popular attractions to the fun experiences found off the beaten path. So come along and discover your next Hawaii adventure.
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SWIM WITH THE FISH AT HANAUMA BAY
Want to see Hawaii’s fish up close? Hanauma Bay is one of Oahu’s best snorkeling spots and one of the top things to do in Oahu. The nature preserve is home to an abundance of tropical fish and valuable coral reefs.
The beach became so popular that visitors now must take special measures to enjoy its pristine waters. This includes making a reservation in advance, paying an admission fee, and watching a short informational video before entering.
The extra steps help control crowds and protect marine life at Hanauma Bay.
If you’re looking for free things to do or want a snorkel spot that doesn’t require as much foreplanning, consider visiting Shark’s Cove on Oahu’s North Shore. The small cove and tide pools make this a great place to explore if the water is calm.
Shark’s Cove is in Pupukea, near many great food trucks and shave ice stands.
SHOP, SUNBATHE, AND SIGHTSEE AT WAIKIKI BEACH
It’s the ultimate Hawaii postcard experience: a laid-back, sun-kissed day at Waikiki Beach. There’s a reason the neighborhood has become so iconic – the water here is turquoise and incredibly calm, the shopping is unmatched, and the people watching will keep you endlessly entertained.
You can take a surf lesson or paddle an outrigger canoe. If you prefer to stay closer to shore, hit the water in the calm ocean pools or sunbathe on the pristine sand. And then sip a Mai Tai as you watch the sunset over Diamond Head.
Waikiki Beach is made of several stretches of sand, including the Royal Hawaiian and Duke Kahanamoku beaches. As for shopping, there’s something for everyone here: global luxury brands, local retailers, and endless souvenir shops.
Waikiki Beach is a Honolulu neighborhood on Oahu’s south shore. There are fun things to do for a family vacation, romantic getaway, or spring-break style trip. A visit here is highly recommended!
While you’re in Oahu, here are some other amazing adventures you may enjoy!
- See the turtles on a Turtle Canyons Snorkel Excursion. Take advantage of the rare opportunity to snorkel alongside endangered Hawaiian green sea turtles and colorful reef fish at the Turtle Canyons off of the Waikiki coast.
- Get close to sharks during a Shark Cage Dive. Join a shark cruise on the North Shore of Oahu, then choose between watching the action from the boat’s deck or enter the shark cage and get up close to these magnificent sea creatures.
- Swim with dolphins during a Catamaran Cruise. Board a spacious 40-passenger catamaran boat to cruise the West Coast of O’ahu and search for wild dolphins. Admire the ocean and mountain views as you keep your eyes out for these and other majestic sea creatures.
BECOME A BEACH BUM IN KAILUA
No Oahu vacation is complete without a classic beach day. Even the most active visitors become blissful beach bums when they visit the world’s most beautiful beaches in Kailua.
Lanikai Beach is repeatedly ranked as one of the best beaches in the world, and once you’re here, you’ll see why. Calm blue water and soft white sand make this a fun and beautiful place to swim with kids, paddle out to an islet, or sunbathe on the shore.
Not far from Lanikai Beach is Kailua Beach, a hub for watersports and one of the best spots to spend a day. Boogie board on the shore breaks, kayak into the distance, stand up paddleboard in the calm surf, or ride in an outrigger canoe.
Lanikai and Kailua beaches are located in the town of Kailua, a peaceful neighborhood with great shopping and dining.
Read more: Best Resorts in Oahu for Families
TAKE A SCENIC HIKE
There are hikes, and then there are hikes on Oahu. Whether you explore the deep jungles or set off on a well-marked path, you’re sure to discover unforgettable beauty while taking on some of the best hikes in the world. .
MAKAPU’U POINT LIGHTHOUSE TRAIL
Makapu’u Point Lighthouse Trail is probably the most popular hike on Oahu. The paved pathway will lead you to a scenic overlook, and in the winter months, you can likely see humpback whales breaching in the water.
Oahu’s Lighthouse Trail Hike is less than two miles round trip. It’s located off Kalanianaole Highway in Honolulu.
DIAMOND HEAD CRATER
Another popular hike on Oahu is Diamond Head Crater. You’ll see Diamond Head in the distance as you spend time in Waikiki Beach, but it’s also worth the trip out to the landmark so you can hike to its summit and take in its panoramic views.
Make your Diamond Head Crater hike reservation online through the state park website. It’s about a 1.5-mile loop and is located in Honolulu, just east of Waikiki Beach.
KOKO CRATER TRAIL
If you want a unique hiking experience on Oahu, ascend the Koko Head Stairs, a series of railroad ties that lead you up to an overlook featuring incredible island and ocean views. This is a fairly strenuous, 1.5-mile hike in Honolulu, not far from Hanauma Bay.
The Koko Crater Trail is a good thing to do instead of the Haiku Stairs hike, which is closed down.
TAKE IN THE VIEWS AT NU’UANU PALI LOOKOUT
Nu’uanu Pali Lookout is a quick and easy stop that will allow you to catch an amazing view, stand in a place rich with history, and experience some of Oahu’s strongest winds.
In 1795, Nu’uanu was the site of King Kamehameha’s final battle as he conquered the Hawaiian Islands and brought them under one rule. Many soldiers fell to their death from these tall, looming cliffs.
Today the Nu’uanu Pali Lookout marks the site of this fateful fight and offers visitors the chance to look out over the Koolau Mountains and Oahu coastline as the island’s fierce winds whip through the clearing.
You’ll spend a short time at this easy-to-access site. The lookout is a great stop along the Pali Highway as you head to either North Shore or Kailua Town.
RETURN TO NATURE AT WAIMEA VALLEY
Waimea Valley boasts one of the most accessible waterfall adventures on the island, and exploring the area allows you to immerse yourself in nature and history.
An entrance fee controls crowds at the private park and helps maintain the paved paths and botanical gardens. The park also provides the required life jackets to swim at the falls and a changing area.
The Valley is also home to the Toa Luau, an inviting and relaxed Hawaiian luau that offers a classic dinner show and a unique daytime option.
Waimea Valley is located in North Shore Oahu and is wheelchair and stroller-friendly. This beautiful hiking area is one of the prettiest places on the island.
MOVE THROUGH THE JUNGLE AT MANOA FALLS TRAIL
You don’t have to venture outside of Honolulu to see one of the island’s prettiest waterfalls. Manoa Falls is a relatively easy hike that leads to a 100-foot-high cascade.
This area is distinctly tropical – there are eucalyptus and banyan trees, lush green shrubbery, and a glistening stream along the mile-long trail. Though you’ll only be a short drive from Waikiki, you’ll feel like you’re in a completely different world.
Manoa Falls was a shooting location for Jurassic Park, The Hunger Games, and Lost, so you might recognize some of the sights here.
There’s a pay parking lot at Manoa Falls, and you’ll find it easily if you use your GPS.
IMMERSE YOURSELF AT THE POLYNESIAN CULTURAL CENTER
Part of enjoying the magic of Hawaii is understanding the history and culture that makes it such a special place. If you want to learn about Polynesian and Hawaiian Culture, the Polynesian Cultural Center should top your itinerary.
This well-maintained theme park features exhibits and performances that will take you through six Polynesian nations and thousands of years worth of history.
During the day, visitors can walk through the villages, taking in the demonstrations and shops. Then at night, the grounds become the site for an incredible luau.
The Polynesian Cultural Center offers an array of ticketing options to work for all kinds of visitors. You can get a day pass to the villages, a luau ticket that grants you daytime village access, or the Super Ambassador Tour, which includes upgraded luau seating, a private guided tour of the villages, and multiple lei greetings.
LEARN ABOUT HAWAIIAN HISTORY AT IOLANI PALACE
Did you know that Oahu is home to the only official royal palace in the United States? Iolani Palace is an icon for Hawaiian National Identity and a chance to learn about the islands’ unique culture and history.
Pro Tip: You can book a general admission ticket to the 18th century palace, which was once the official residence of Hawaii’s Monarchy. But a better way to experience the palace is by booking a docent-led tour.
Iolani Palace is located in Downtown Honolulu at the corner of King and Richard Streets.
…AND THEN LEARN EVEN MORE AT THE BISHOP MUSEUM
Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop was the last direct descendant of the royal Kamehameha Family. After her death, her widower established the Bishop Museum in her honor. He created it as a place to store her many heirlooms and cultural objects, and it has since grown to become the largest museum in Hawaii.
The grounds are gorgeous, the exhibits are remarkable, and you shouldn’t miss the chance to learn more about Hawaiian history. This is a great thing to do early in your vacation so you can carry your new knowledge with you through the rest of your sightseeing.
The Bishop Museum on Bernice Street in Honolulu. It aims to celebrate and perpetuate the culture and values of Hawaiian people, just as Princess Pauahi strived to do during her lifetime.
WATCH BIG WAVE SURFERS
North Shore Oahu has become synonymous with big-wave surfing, and if you’re visiting the island during the winter months, you must catch these expert surfers in action.
Waimea Bay, Ehukai Beach, and Sunset Beach are three of the top surfing sites. So head over to Waimea town, check out the cute shops and eating spots, and stand in awe at these world famous waves. Exploring Oahu’s North Shore is one of our favorite things to do in Hawaii.
In the summer, these beaches become calm and are some of the best places to swim and snorkel. Check with lifeguards about beach conditions, and always err on the side of caution.
…THEN TAKE ON A (SMALLER) WAVE YOURSELF
If you want a small taste of Oahu surf culture from beyond the shore, head over to Waikiki, where you can book a surf lesson in the area’s beginner-friendly waves. Reserve a spot in a group surf school or hire a private instructor.
Lessons typically run for one to two hours, and many schools guarantee you’ll stand up and ride a wave.
If surfing doesn’t seem like the right water sport for you, rent a stand-up paddle board or book a spot on an outrigger canoe. The calm waters of Waikiki are a great practice field for many water activities.
FIND YOUR FAVORITE ADVENTURE AT KUALOA RANCH
Kualoa Ranch is a 4000-acre privately-owned nature reserve tucked away in the Oahu countryside, and it’s an incredible place to explore. Some of the island’s most popular tours happen at Kualoa Ranch.
On this one site, you can go horseback riding through a working cattle ranch, see Jurassic Park filming locations, zip line through a lush valley, have a quiet beach day, or tour an ancient Hawaiian fish pond.
The ultimate destination for outdoor explorers, Kualoa Ranch is also a wedding venue and sprawling farm. It’s located in Kaneohe, on the windward coast of Oahu.
No matter what fun activities you choose at Kualoa, you’ll gain a better understanding of Hawaiian culture, agriculture, and land stewardship.
WALK THROUGH HISTORY AT PEARL HARBOR
Many people travel to Hawaii just to see the Pearl Harbor National Memorial. It’s a U.S. National Park Service site that commemorates the fateful World War II attack. It also explores the broader role of Hawaii and the Pacific in the U.S. Military.
For the best experience at Pearl Harbor, plan ahead. The most noteworthy site there is the USS Arizona Memorial, which serves as a gravesite for a thousand men who perished when Japanese forces bombed the island.
But your visit can extend beyond the USS Arizona, as there are several other historical sites to see in the area. The Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum is a hangar that features vintage aircraft, and the USS Missouri marks the place where World War II Officially ended.
Pearl Harbor is also a working Naval Station, so it’s neat to see the fleets and workers as you explore the historic sites.
Get Your Guide offers a Pearl Harbor tour that includes a visit to the USS Arizona and other noteworthy historical sites.
TASTE FRESH PINEAPPLE AT THE DOLE PLANTATION
The Dole Plantation on Oahu is basically a pineapple theme park, so if you’re a fan of these tropical fruits, this is a must-do activity
Take a train tour of the plantation and see what life was like when pineapple was a significant Hawaii export. Visit their gift shop for a classic Dole Whip, ice cream, tropical treats, and unique souvenirs. Or get lost in their massive pineapple-shaped maze.
It’s a kitschy place, but really pretty, especially when crowds are low and the gardens are peaceful. The Dole Pineapple Plantation is located in Wahiawa, directly off Kamehameha Highway. It’s a great spot for families or anyone interested in learning more about pineapples.
EAT AN AUTHENTIC POKE BOWL
You’ve probably seen poke restaurants pop up in your home city, but these mainland creations bear little resemblance to their authentic Hawaii namesake.
Hawaii poke is simple: cubed, marinated raw fish (usually Ahi tuna) scooped atop steamed rice. And you’ll have a hard time finding any dedicated poke restaurants like the ones that have taken over street corners across the U.S.
Instead, you’ll get your poke bowl to-go from a grocery store or fish market, so it’s the perfect lunch to take to a scenic picnic.
If you can’t get on board for raw fish, most poke counters will also offer fully cooked Kim chee Shrimp, Tako (octopus), or crab.
PLAY WITH DOLPHINS AT SEA LIFE PARK
Sea Life Park is a super kid-friendly, popular attraction that the entire family will enjoy. The highlight of the park is its dolphin show, though visitors find themselves drawn to a number of the other exhibits as well.
You won’t be swimming with the sharks, but it feel like it when you visit Hawaiian Shark Cave. Get a closer look at a Hawaiian Monk Seal, reef sharks, Green Sea Turtles, and penguins. Upgrade your admission to include unique encounters, like petting a dolphin or meeting a manta ray.
Sea Life Park presents the Ka Moana luau on their grounds, and tickets to the luau also grant your daytime admission to the park.
The park is in Waimanalo on Kalanianaʻole Hwy.
SHOP IN PARADISE AT ALA MOANA CENTER
With nearly 300 stores and 80 dining options, there is something for everybody at Ala Moana Center. This Honolulu mega-mall is the world’s largest open-air shopping center, and shopaholics could easily spend the day perusing its department stores, global brands, local boutiques, and souvenir shops.
A day here will give you a break from the sand and sun, but it still holds a strong sense of place. So it will still feel like you’re experiencing something you can only find in Hawaii.
If shopping isn’t your thing, head across the street to Ala Moana Beach Park. It offers a vast shaded lawn, a half-mile stretch of sand, and calm clear waters.
Ala Moana Center and Beach Park is a short distance from many Waikiki hotels.
SNAP AN INSTA-WORTHY SHOT AT HO’OMALUHIA BOTANICAL GARDEN
You’ve likely seen the entrance of Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden on your Instagram feed. Palm trees line a quiet, narrow road, and the Koolau Mountains stand tall as the backdrop.
The IG-famous shot has drawn an influx of visitors to the beautiful park, but these days they’ve prohibited parking and photographing along the entrance road. Instead, you’ll be guided into the garden, where even more incredible photo opportunities await.
But there’s more to do at Ho’omaluhia than pose for photos. There’s a peaceful lake, overnight campgrounds, scenic picnic tables, and inspiring walking trails.
Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden is a county-owned park located in Kaneohe. It features an abundance of trees and plants representing tropical regions around the globe.
SEE ALL OF OAHU DURING A HELICOPTER TOUR
If you want to see the best views of Oahu, one of the most unique and best ways to do it is on a helicopter tour.
How else can you see Waikiki, North Shore, the Koolau Mountains, Pearl Harbor, and the windward coast, all in about an hour? Oahu is a big island, and helicopters will help you cover a lot of ground in a little bit of time.
For the ultimate experience, book a private, doors-off tour, or choose a shared excursion for a lower price. No matter how you choose to enjoy your helicopter tour, it’s sure to be a core memory and the ultimate bragging rights.
Get Your Guide offers a great helicopter tour of some of Oahu’s most secluded areas!
SET SAIL ON A BOAT TOUR
While you’re in Oahu, you’ll almost always have the Pacific Ocean within view. But to truly appreciate the beauty of the sea, you should book a boat tour.
There are endless options for your voyaging adventure. You can take a day trip that includes snorkeling, shark cage diving, or seasonal whale watching. Or go out at sunset to enjoy a relaxing cocktail cruise featuring live music and incredible island views.
A boat is also the perfect place to watch the Hilton Hawaiian Village Friday Night Firework show, so consider booking a night trip dedicated to firework viewing.
Large catamarans will give you space to stretch out and take in the sights, while Zodiac raft boats will zip you across the water to your destination. Whether you want to spend hours on the water or take a quick sail, there’s an Oahu boat tour for you.
Get Your Guide offers an amazing Waikiki sunset and cocktail cruise. See a spectacular sunset and city lights views as you enjoy a cocktail aboard Majestic, Hawaii’s only full-service bar and lounge on the sea.
ENJOY A SUNSET SHOW AT PARADISE COVE LUAU
Most Oahu visitors dream of attending a luau. Is this on your Oahu bucket list? Paradise Cove has much of what you likely envision: a private beachside setting, swaying palm trees, a delicious buffet dinner, world-class Polynesian entertainment, and lots of tropical cocktails.
Paradise Cove Luau is in the upscale resort area of Ko Olina. It lies somewhere in the middle as far as kitschiness goes – they do invite people to try their hand at hula and snap souvenir photos with incredibly attractive entertainers. But the peaceful setting, well-organized service, and spacious grounds will make it feel like a special occasion for any guest.
Paradise Cove may be one of the most popular luaus on the island of Oahu, but it’s certainly not the only choice. Nutridge Estate presents a small, intimate luau where you really feel a part of a backyard celebration, while the Polynesian Cultural Center offers an array of ticketing options to work with all kinds of guests.
Hawaii’s luaus are popular tourist attractions and a great way to better appreciate Polynesian culture.
Want to visit one of the most scenic places in Oahu? Make plans to visit the Byodo-In Temple, a non-practicing Buddhist temple that was built in 1968. Located right at the bottom of the Ko’olau Mountains in the Valley of the Temples Memorial Park, Byodo-In Temple is open to visitors.
This Japanese Buddhist temple is a replica of Japan’s Byodo-in Temple in Uji, Kyoto. For a small fee, you can visit the gardens, the area surrounding the temple, and the temple itself. It will be hard to believe you’re still in Hawaii.
Please note, you will be required to remove your shoes before entering the temple.
MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP TO HAWAII
- YOUR HAWAII VACATION
- HONOLULU: 22 Absolutely Amazing Things To Do In Honolulu
- WATERFALL HIKES: 13 Spectacular Waterfall Hikes Oahu Has To Offer
- HAWAII BEACHES: 14 Best Beaches In Hawaii For Fun In The Sun
- WAIKIKI: 24 Best Things To Do In Waikiki You’re Gonna Love
WHERE TO STAY IN OAHU
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