The 15 Best Things to Do in Oahu

by Jack Cheng
Things to do in Oahu

As the most populous island, Oahu is known locally as “The Gathering Place.” Here, the bright lights of Hawaii’s capital city, Honolulu, are contrasted by pristine tropical fauna, miles of stellar beaches, and scenic hiking trails winding through volcanic craters and rocky hillsides.

From hiking shoes to surfboards, Oahu is where city meets country. Once the vacation spot for Hawaii’s kings and queens, and the dazzling stage of the king of rock and roll, Honolulu is a dash of bright lights, palm trees, tossed alongside the snarl of the concrete jungle.

The island’s North Shore is synonymous with the ultimate surfing Mecca, and where the world’s largest surfing competitions are held every year. From historic landmarks like the Pearl Harbor museums to natural wonders like Diamond Head Monument, Oahu was shaped by both its inhabitants and forces of nature.

1.  Explore Honolulu:

Explore the city’s downtown core, and visit world-class art museums and Iolani Palace. Get lost in the markets of Chinatown, and discover your new favourite Shanghai-style eateries and Thai restaurants. Visit Waikiki, and surf the waves like the locals, or shop-till-you-drop at the largest outdoor mall in the world at the Ala Moana Center.

Oahu Honolulu

Follow the scenic trails north of the city to untouched forest reserves, and the graceful Moana Falls. With an endless itinerary of things to do, Honolulu is a fascinating first stop for those visiting Hawaii, and one worth many repeat visits.

2. Waikiki:

If you are wondering where all the action is after landing in Honolulu, you needn’t go far. Always bustling with surfers, sunbathers and live music, this south shore neighbourhood in Honolulu was frequented by Hawaiian royalty long before high-rise condos and five-star resorts studded its three-kilometre-long (almost two miles) beach.

Oahu Waikiki Beach

You’ll never run out of things to do in this oceanfront urban centre. From watching the golden sunset to surfing, swimming, parasailing, or visiting the aquarium and zoo, Waikiki is one inclusive stop for quick outings in the city.

3. Night out in Oahu:

At night, the dazzling lights from open-air bars, ritzy nightclubs, and trendy pubs speckle Waikiki’s lively boardwalk.

Stroll down Kalakaua Avenue, and you’ll find anything from contemporary sushi bars to fine-dining restaurants with patio views of the ocean. Cocktail lounges and rooftop bars, like RumFire and Buho Cantina, offer modern menus with spectacular views. Feel entranced by the neon glow and live performances at hip, stylish clubs like Addiction and The Republik.

Night out in Oahu

Chinatown is sprinkled with buzzing nightclubs and bustling venues after dark. Swanky cocktail bars like Bar 35 and Manifest are the place for mingling over martinis and trying out Hawaii’s famous craft beers.

In North Shore, Banzai Sushi Bar serves up platters of freshly caught seafood, sashimi, and poke in a relaxed, open-air setting. Enjoy live music in the intimate atmosphere of Surfer the Bar at the Turtle Bay Resort, and kick back in its ocean view lounge.

4. Shopping:

From thriving outdoor markets to busy, sleek, modern malls, shopping in Honolulu and Oahu ranges from designer shop-hopping to carefully picking out handcrafted wood carvings at local stalls.

shopping in Oahu

Although shopping isn’t always the first thing that springs to mind when visiting Hawaii, Honolulu is home to the largest outdoor mall in the world, the Ala Moana Center. With more than 300 shops inside, it’s the place for day-long shopping sprees. The Waikele Premium Outlets, International Market Place, Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center and Ward Center also offer a wide selection of high-end designer and boutique shops.

Outdoor markets like the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet takes regular flea markets up a notch. With hundreds of stalls sprawling across Aloha Stadium grounds, the market is both a spectacle and a place to hunt rare finds. For more traditional handmade crafts, head out to Haleiwa Town in North Shore, where you’ll find galleries with authentic Hawaiian artwork.

5. Relaxing at the Spa:

Try getting away from your getaway and visit the many spas overlooking Oahu’s picturesque beaches. Most are found in resorts all around Honolulu, Waikiki and North Shore.

Oahu spas

From seaweed body wraps to a Polynesian-style rub down with noni oil, treatments in Hawaii have the added benefits of using locally-produced organic ingredients. Relax and feel rejuvenated with a Lomi Lomi massage at Moana Lani Spa’s sunlit facilities, or breathe easy with aromatherapy at Spa Halekulani’s oceanside rooms, perched above the radiant Waikiki coastline.

Feel the tingling heat of pohaku stones unknotting the tension along your shoulders and spine at Turtle Bay Resort’s Nalu Kinetic Spa in North Shore.

6. Climb Diamond Head:

An iconic natural landmark just south of Honolulu, Diamond Head Monument is a volcanic tuff cone formed by a single eruption over 300,000 years ago. Today, the extinct volcano is one of the most stunning hiking trails on Oahu, its saucer-shaped elevation is an awesome sight to witness up close.

Oahu climb Diamond Head

The steep and winding hiking trail crawls along the interior of the crater to a lookout point with a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean and Waikiki skyline. It’s a brisk 30 to 40 minutes hike to the top, and though the climb might leave you breathless, the view up top is undoubtedly breath-taking.

7. Snorkelling in Hanauma Bay:

Carved along the southern tip of Oahu, the crescent-shaped Hanauma Bay is home to abundant marine wildlife, shallow coral reefs, and 300 different tropical fish species. Unlike the other beach parks on the island, the bay is a natural preserve for protecting the fragile ecosystem in the area.

Oahu snorkelling

Water sports activities are limited to snorkelling, but that by itself is enough to draw thousands to flock to its crystal-blue waters. Considered to be a snorkeler’s paradise, the bay is one of the most unique and stunning destinations in all of Hawaii.

8. Visit the North Shore:

A surfer’s paradise, North Shore is where seasoned and novice surfers alike come to catch the big waves. The pros come for the high tides in winter (November to February), when some of the world’s biggest surfing competitions are held. But from May to September, the water calms, and North Shore slinks into its trademark laid-back atmosphere.

Oahu North Shore

A short drive from Honolulu, North Shore is bohemian, beachside cool. In the surfer town of Haleiwa, surfboards are stacked against the loudly painted walls of quaint seaside shops. Tranquil, sun-drenched beaches are only an earshot away from the noise of the town’s busy restaurants and art galleries.

Further north, Waimea Bay’s glassy waters are perfect for diving into from its quiet beach. Grab a shaved ice after a hot day in the sun or take a hike up Waimea Valley to see its waterfall.

9. Tour Iolani Palace:

Once the royal residence of Hawaii’s last king and queen, Iolani Palace oversaw the final chapter of Hawaii’s monarchy. Built in 1882, this lavish, Florentine style palace earned its designation as the only royal palace in the United States.

Oahu Iolani Palace

Although the royals only lived here for a little over a decade, the palace’s decorated halls and vibrant drawing rooms were elegant theatres that entertained some of Queen Liliuokalani’s most esteemed guests. When the monarchy was overthrown around the turn of the century, the queen was placed under house arrest and became a prisoner in her own palace.

From furnishing to upholstery, the interior of the palace has been painstakingly restored to its original appearance. The conservation effort even reacquired furniture that was sold off at public auctions. Located in downtown Honolulu, the palace is easily accessible from other popular destinations, like Chinatown and Waikiki.  

10. Surfing

Surfing is Oahu’s favourite pastime. The North Shore is legendary for its big waves and the Banzai Pipeline. But surfing is drastically different in winter than it is in the summer. High tides and turbulent waves between the months of November to February are sought-after by big wave surfers and seasoned pros. The Super Bowl of surfing, Vans Triple Crown is held at Haleiwa every year.

Oahu surfing

Summer tides are gentler for beginners. Waikiki beach and Kailua beach are perfect spots for catching calmer waves and to try out kitesurfing.

11. Go to a Luau:

Much like staying in Belgium without ever tasting a single drop of beer, visiting the Aloha State without going to a single luau is a waste of a good trip. Luckily, Oahu makes it extremely hard to miss out on these lively events.

Across the island, there are countless venues for diners to catch live shows by the ocean. Paradise Cove Luau, on the west coast of Oahu, is one of them. From an evening starting with lei and Mai Tai greeting, to traditional dance performances and activities, this is classic luau meets island hospitality.

Oahu luau

For variety, try Ali’i Luau at the Polynesian Cultural Center, which offers a wider range of dining options. In Honolulu, beachfront luaus can be found in popular resorts like the Ahaaina Luau in The Royal Hawaiian and Waikiki Starlight Luau at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, or open-air venues like the Diamond Head Luau by the Waikiki Aquarium.

Just outside the city, Germain’s Luau by Barber’s Point Beach Park, and Toa Luau in North Shore are also exciting outdoor options.

12. Polynesian Cultural Center

There’s more to the North Shore than just beaches and surfboards. Stretched along the eastern coastline, six distinct Polynesian villages surround a placid man-made lagoon. In this 42-acre theme park, canoes steered by staff in traditional Polynesian costumes row steadily across the water, dropping visitors off at New Zealand, Hawaii, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, and Tahiti village along the way.

Oahu Polynesian Cultural Center

From ukuleles strumming alongside swaying hula dancers to drumbeats livening up the tempo of acrobatic fire-knife performances, each village showcases the varying cultures in Polynesia. Beyond preserving the authentic customs and traditions with lei making, poi pounding, and games, the Cultural Center is a buzzing hub of shops and restaurants.

At night, the center hosts one of the most epic luaus anywhere on the island, the Ali’i Luau. Having all the fanfare of a dinner and a show, the luau takes center stage amid waterfalls, tropical gardens, and live traditional dance performances.

13. Pearl Harbor Historic Sites and Memorials

From boarding the decks of battleships to visiting the galley of a submarine, memorial sites and museums along Pearl Harbor’s port are flawlessly preserved time capsules.

Perhaps the most iconic, the USS Arizona Memorial straddles the hull of the sunken battleship, marking the final resting place of thousands of its crew. In the backdrop, the USS Missouri’s steel bulwark stands imposingly against the white monument. Known as the “Mighty Mo”, the USS Missouri fought and won countless naval battles across the Pacific. Japan officially surrendered on the deck of the Missouri, effectively ending World war II.

Oahu Pearl Harbor Arizona Monument

By the dock, visitors can descend into the lower compartments of the USS Bowfin, one of the most decorated submarines in World War II. Onboard, tours peek inside the daily life of its crew and its carefully restored engine room.

Across the port, on the 441-acre Ford Island, the Pacific Aviation Museum houses an impressive collection of World War II-era planes, modern fighter jets, and helicopters in its historic hangers. The tour also showcases the museum’s own restoration shop and how future exhibits undergo maintenance before public display.

14. Circle Island and Helicopter Tours

Take a wraparound road trip or helicopter tour across Oahu’s most significant landmarks. Most tour operators on the island start from south of the island, stopping by Diamond Head and Hanauma Bay before circling around the Dole Plantation and Turtle Bay in the north.

Oahu circle island tour

For first-timers on the island, it’s a convenient way to see all the major sites. For experienced travellers, it saves both time and the hassle of booking and searching for transportation. Road tours can stop by the most scenic edges of Oahu, including Halona Blowhole Lookout near the southern tip of the island, or the more secluded Pali Lookout, perched over a thousand feet atop the Ko’olau mountain range.

Helicopter tours take off from Honolulu International Airports and can circle the island in under an hour. Get a panoramic view of the glittering Honolulu skyline from the air, take in Hanauma Bay’s crystalline waters thousands of feet from the ground, or fly door-off by waterfalls, and experience the exhilarating rush of water from the cockpit.

15. Hiking and Camping

Oahu is brimming with nature. Whether you are hiking through forest reserves or camping under the stars in national parks, becoming fully immersed in nature is one of the many perks of staying on the island.

Popular and scenic trails are only an arm’s length away from Honolulu. About a 20-minute drive north of the city, Manoa Falls Trail travels through lush green rainforest and hillsides carpeted by wildflowers, banyan trees, and bamboo. The waterfall stands near the end of the trail and is a welcoming reward after a breathtaking hike.

hiking and camping in Oahu

For avid hikers, Koko Head trail near the Southern tip of Oahu offers a panoramic view of Hanauma Bay and the southern coastline. The trail consists of an abandoned railroad track built by the army during World War II to resupply its bunker at the summit. With over a thousand steps to the lookout point, the climb can be quite the workout.

For opportunities to camp under starlight, Peacock Flat, in the Kuaokala Forest Reserve, and Malaekahana Beach Campground, near North Shore, are both popular with campers and off-road adventurers. Mountainside campgrounds like Hoomaluhia Botanical Garden and Ahupuaa O Kahana State Park offer secluded getaways amidst palm trees and rolling meadows.

For picturesque and romantic beachside camping, Bellows Field Beach Park, Waimanalo Bay Beach Park, and Kokololio Beach Park offer quiet campsites by pristine beaches.

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