O’ahu and the Hawaiian Islands are our favorite place on earth. We love the culture and the aloha vibe. The vibrant blue ocean contrasts fabulously with sandy beaches and rocky benches, all beneath green, folded mountains and a perfect sun. There are incredible things to do on Oahu everywhere you look, from the north shore surf towns, to the windward-side attractions, to the jaw-dropping beauty of the SE corner, to the remote and sacred NW corner. When you come to Oahu, be sure to get out of the city and explore this vast, majestic island.
Those who visit Hawaii have their vocal preferences. Some love Maui, others insist Kauai is by far the best. We don’t disagree per say, but we happen to think Oahu offers the best variety of things to do. We’ve been known to run a torrid pace when on vacation (entirely Ryan’s fault), and Oahu keeps up with that pace well.
Oahu is the most populated island in the chain; over two-thirds of Hawaiian residents live there. To some this is a drawback and we sympathize. Paradise gets a little crowded, you know? Because of this, we recommend you stay out of Honolulu as much as possible.
And after you explore all that Oahu has to offer, be sure to check out the Big Island of Hawaii!
Below are what we consider to be the twenty best things to do on Oahu. Honestly, the list could be 50 items long. We hope you enjoy your trip to Oahu.
Oahu has no shortage of incredible things to do, so it’s hard to decide which incredible thing is best. To solve this we asked ourselves, “Would we fly five hours if ___ was not there?” Our honest analysis revealed the beach was our primary motivation. If the beach is not your thing (you probably aren’t going to Hawaii), take that into consideration.
Lanikai Beach is the best beach on Oahu. The sand is white and soft, and the water lays itself gently against the shore. The palm tree sensibility is chill, as couples stroll holding hands and snorkelers dot the surf. Watching kayakers roll by gives us something to do. Fraternal twin islands, called Mokuluas, make sublime eye-candy a mile out. Lanikai is the postcard paradise people desire.
Now here’s the kicker: The beach next door, Kailua Beach, is another top-rated beach on the island. Also, Kailua Town is one of the best places to stay.
This is easily the best attraction on Oahu, and the top-rated for all of Hawaii. If you pay for only one excursion, go with the PCC. We would be sad for you if you visited Oahu and missed this opportunity, for it is arguably the best of the things to do on Oahu.
The Polynesian Cultural Center is forty-two acres of tropical beauty dedicated to the nations of the Pacific Ocean. Those nations include Hawaii, Fiji, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Samoa, Tahiti, and Tonga. Each nation has their own village setting where visitors can learn about their history, customs and culture, and engage in traditional activities like making poi in Hawaii, playing the drums in Tonga, or dancing like chickens in Tahiti. At the end of the day, the Ha: Breath of Life show — a dramatized luau performance — will amaze your eyes and stir your soul. And the ice cream is pretty good, too.
This is the largest town on the north shore of Oahu and perhaps the best place to anchor your Hawaiian vacation. The north shore vibe is completely different from Waikiki.
Haleiwa has terrific access to many north shore activities. Laniakea Beach is two miles away and is an easy place to hang with the sea turtles. Waimea, Banzai Pipeline, and Shark’s Cove are five miles north.
Haleiwa town is charming and well-equipped with its markets, galleries, and restaurants. In-town Army Beach is beautiful, uncrowded, and has lovely sunsets. The famous Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck is at the south end of the strip. Matsumoto Shave Ice is a must-try desert Mecca. Teddy’s Bigger Burgers, Café Haleiwa, Kua Aina Sandwich Shop are all tasty and recommended.
Don’t skip the opportunity to visit the north shore. Of all the things to do on Oahu, the north shore and Haleiwa are toward the very top of the list.
The remote, NW corner of Oahu is home to its most sacred location (that no one knows about). Here’s a map to find your way. Be sure to bring water and sunscreen as there are no facilities along the way.
The energy around this large, unusual rock is real. Legend says that when someone is on their death bed their spirit leaves their body and paces the island until it arrives at the Leaping Place for Souls. It is from here that their spirit will climb upon the rock and leap into the arms of their eternal ancestors. At this very moment, they believe the mortal body dies.
After hiking for about two miles you will reach a fence-like barrier with a door. Open the door and continue inside between the fence and the ocean. From here the rock is shortly ahead.
Ka’ena Point itself is glorious and would be the perfect site for a picnic. Along the path are several hidden beaches and coves where you can have everything to yourself beneath a surreal mountain backdrop.
The prominent backdrop to Waikiki Beach, Diamond Head is the most popular state park in Hawaii. A 1.6-mile round-trip hike to the top of the 300,000-year-old crater offers picture-perfect views of Honolulu and the Pacific Ocean. If you have the ability, this is must-do on the list of things to do on Oahu.
We walked to the trailhead from our condo on Waikiki, about 3.5 miles. On the way back, four hours and 8 miles later, we stopped at Bogarts Café for a late breakfast. The walk takes you right past Bogart’s, as well as the zoo and other interesting sights.
It is common opinion that Hanauma Bay is the snorkeling center of Oahu, and judging solely by the crowds that’s obvious. Not that anyone is wrong or anything, but… Shark’s Cove is better.
While much smaller than Hanauma Bay, Shark’s Cove feels less crowded because it isn’t swamped with tourists. The fish are more abundant and more colorful than anywhere we’ve found.
A six-minute walk will bring you to Three Tables Beach, another terrific place to snorkel. The beach is nice and offers shade. If you come to ahu and snorkeling is on your agenda, these two locations are some of the best things to do on Oahu.
Halona Beach is a dramatic cliffside beach with washing machine turbulence. It would be easy to miss this stunning locale, because it’s only visible from the right side of the Halona Blowhole Lookout.
The beach was made famous by Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in the 1953 film, From Here to Eternity. In one of the most iconic scenes in movie history, the actors kiss in the surf as the waves crash into them. As fun as this sounded to us, we refrained from a cringy reenactment for the sake of the nearby college students.
And don’t forget: If you can’t make out on a Hawaiian beach, you can always argue.
If you want to get tossed around in a turquoise jacuzzi, then roast yourself on a patch of sand, it doesn’t get much better than here. A short walk around the lava bench is the famous Halona Blowhole.
King Kamehameha III had a summer home near the Pali Lookout. Now it is a lesser-known relic that anyone can visit without fee (as long as you can find it). This jungle location was a royal retreat where the King would vacation, discuss matters with his chiefs, and entertain important visitors to his islands.
Many walls still stand, although time has deconstructed any functional structures. The firepit remains intact, the rocks now green with moss. A rocky path leading up to the site is clear.
For ten minutes we had the place to ourselves. I think that’s why it is special to us – here in the jungle is this historically significant place without velvet ropes or ticket booths, and so few people know about it that you can visit mid-day and contemplate the life and times of incredible humans, uninterrupted by anything but the chirping of the birds. It’s one of the best things to do on Oahu… if you can find it.
December 7th, 1941 is an infamous day in US history. The attack on Pearl Harbor destroyed eight battleships, 300 planes, and killed around 2,400 Americans, wounding another 1,000. To visit the National Memorial is a somber occasion and will switch the gears of your beachy dream getaway.
The USS Arizona Memorial is special. In day-to-day life, history becomes almost invisible. However, when standing over a sunken battleship in which 1,177 sailors died, in which temperatures reached 8000 degrees when a 1,700-pound bomb detonated hundreds of thousands of pounds of ammunition, history becomes very prominent. We think about the men who died that day, serving their country, and the families whose lives forever changed.
Oil continues to leak into the harbor waters and always will. They call it, Black Tears of the USS Arizona.
Laie is a town located near the northernmost point of Oahu on the windward side. It is home to the Polynesian Cultural Center and BYU Hawaii. This is an especially gorgeous part of the island with enough cool stuff that’s it’s worth investing an entire day.
Laie Point State Wayside is a gorgeous ocean prominence. It is easy to access and offers killer views of an arched rock and Hukilau Beach. There is fishing and a cliff to jump.
A mile north is Malaekahana State Rec. Area, where you’ll find access to Goat Island. You’ll have to (safely) wade across a channel to get to old goaty. It’s up for grabs and you’ll probably own the place.
The LDS Temple is in Laie. It is stunningly beautiful and has a visitor’s center with friendly staff if you’re curious. The 7 Brothers Restaurant resides in a strip mall in the middle of town – we can’t wait to get back there for a burger and fries. Three miles north are the famous shrimp trucks of Kahuku (Giovanni’s and Romy’s are very good), as well as another 7 Brothers restaurant.
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The Eastern-most point of the Island is Makapu’u Head, a 600’ high rocky bluff. If you’re looking for the perfect place to watch the sunrise, this is it. There are also some beautiful hiking trails that take you along the shoreline to tidepools and the Makapu’u Lighthouse.
The ocean pelts Makapu’u Beach with some very powerful waves. In August, these were the largest swells we found anywhere on the island. The boogieboarders were clearly stoked. Off the coast is Rabbit island, which creates a pretty sweet backdrop (along w/ Makapu’u Head).
Around the corner from the beach are the Makapu’u tide pools, a lava rock shelf that fills with water. The tidepools are an excellent place to lounge, float, or explore with the kids. Always be aware that waves can break over the shelf, which creates a dangerous situation. For what it’s worth, Sea Life Park Hawaii is also at this location.
Be sure to visit the Makapu’u corner of the island. Its one of the unheralded best things to do on Oahu.
Some of the biggest waves on earth blow into Waimea. In winter, the shore-break is insane, with deep blue swells two-stories-high slamming onto the beach. It is truly a sight, and for zero dollars you can sit in the sand and watch the planet show off. The lifeguards will remind you to refrain from idiocy and stay out of the water. If you’re lucky the conditions will be right to attract local surfers.
In summer it is much different; we’ve seen it placid as a mountain lake. Snorkeling and paddle boarding are great this time of year. The beach is ideal for kids to play.
The dark, monolithic rock on the left-hand side of Waimea is typically smattered with teens who take turns dropping 30’ into the bay. I know this because I was by far the oldest guy up there, made doubly obvious when my memory failed and I jumped in wearing sunglasses.
There is an underwater tunnel in the middle of the rock that allows you to swim “through the rock” to the other side. If you decide to swim for it, maybe make sure no one is jumping on either side of the rock. And please grab my shades while you’re down there.
Waimea Valley and Falls are right up the street from the beach, and both are recommended. The valley is lush and beautiful and costs a few bucks. Every Thursday is a farmer’s market from 2-6 pm.
Known as a slack-key guitar master, Kawika Kahiopo is the quintessential Hawaiian musician. His voice is soulful and buttery with humility and heart. His music fills our home and joins us on all our adventures. The Hoffmann’s are best friends with Kawika, he just doesn’t know it.
We found him by accident at Kani Ka Pila Grill at the Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort. Having just arrived in town and wanted nothing but live Hawaiian music w/ dinner, we walked for 45 minutes – getting pretty hangry – and were just about to give up when we heard a heavenly voice floating on the air. He sang Southern Cross, Have You Ever Seen the Rain, and Ventura Highway, three of my all-time favorites, as well as many of his own.
This heaving-lung-fest is not for everyone. A thousand-foot incline up a thousand old railroad ties to the top of the Koko Crater will challenge even the physically fit. As my friend put it, “I would meet all kinds of people up there… like paramedics.” We did meet a mature gal at the top who said she does it every, single day. So we steered clear of that old psycho.
Behold, the top of the hill graciously lends humongous views of the Pacific Ocean, Hawaii Kai, and Hanauma Bay. It is well worth the sweat and suffering. On the backside of the crater is Koko Crater Botanical Garden. Other nearby things to do are the Koko Crater Arch Trail, Halona Beach and Blowhole, Sandy Beach (which has vicious waves and boogie-boarding shenanigans galore), and Costco Wholesale. Believe it or not, a hotdog and pop at Hawaiian Costco is still just $1.50. Blew my mind.
Pipeline is probably the most famous wave in the world. It is also one of the most dangerous because of the shallow water and sharp coral reef. The waves are large and hollow which creates an elegant curl for surfers to tube. If you’ve ever wanted to see a big, picture-perfect wave, Pipeline is it. In the winter months there will be a thick crowd around Ehukai Beach Park at Sunset Beach. During summer the water is placid, but the uncrowded beach is worth the visit.
One of the most remote beaches on Oahu, Keawaula Beach is at the very end of the Farrington Highway on the west side of the Island. From Aulani (Disney) Resort you would drive north until the road stops.
Admittedly it is a long drive from Honolulu. We think it’s worth it because it is one of the largest, least-crowded beaches on the island, making it one of the absolute best things to do on Oahu. The ocean is deep blue and produces some large, rolling waves in summer. The backdrop of black mountains covered in green vegetation contrasts the nearby shore and creates a paradisiacal wonderland.
On the Windward Side of Oahu are two temples: The LDS Temple in Laie (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), and the Byodo-In Temple, a historic Japanese Buddhist Temple. While very different in appearance and feel, each temple is curious and inspiring.
Chances are if you’re headed to Oahu you are staying here. We’ve done it. There’s no real shame. You will have access to all sorts of restaurants and shopping. The beach is very active. The waves are ideal to surf and an excellent place to learn. I caught my only Hawaiian wave here (because I’m bad at surfing). It was one for the ages.
Take a picture with the legendary Duke Kahanamoku statue. Hike Diamond Head. Eat at Hy’s Steakhouse. Visit the Iolani Palace. Ala Moana Beach Park is very popular with locals and right next door (magic beach is great for small children). Rent a car to drive Tantalus Loop or visit the Punchbowl Cemetery. An endless assortment of excursions will be available through your hotel concierge. Be sure to see the Polynesian Cultural Center (and suffer the long bus-ride).
If you really want the truth, we won’t be staying in Waikiki again. We much prefer Haleiwa and Kailua. If it is your first time to the island, Waikiki is an easy home base to start learning your way around.
Tropical islands and snorkeling go together like peanut butter and chocolate (I’m hungry). Hanauma Bay is a wide bay with a somewhat narrow inlet and a protective barrier reef that keeps the water calm. The beach is nice with ample shade. The fish are tame and plentiful.
There’s just a rather large problem w/ overcrowding. Imagine a thousand sunscreen-slathered tourists floating in the same bay. It doesn’t exactly ruin the experience, but it certainly detracts from it. If you are staying in Waikiki, this is an easy excursion and worth doing. If you have car access, we recommend you visit Three Tables / Shark’s Cove on the north shore.
Full disclosure: We haven’t done this yet, but we are psyched to do it! It would probably be in the top-10, but we’re putting it at the back end for now because of fraud.
Stairway to Heaven is a steep, semi-dangerous trail up into the Ko’olau Mountains. The 3,922 steps were originally installed by the US Navy in the 1940’s to create a mountain top radio station so they could send radio signals to their fleets across the Pacific Ocean.
More disclosure: the old station and trail are closed to the public. Hikers have ignored the “no trespassing” signs for years, but things have recently changed. The city took control of the stairway from the Board of Water Supply on July 1, 2020. The city’s intent is to turn the stairs into a paid attraction. To be continued…
Yeah, we haven’t done this either. As amazing as it sounds, we put it last for the same reason as the Haiku Stairs. If you haven’t guessed, we love unusual things that you won’t find other places.
In the Kaneohe Bay, on the windward side of the island, just north of the Marine Base, there is a huge submerged sandbar that reveals itself at low tide. The window to visit is narrow so timing must be right. With children, the best time to visit is in the morning. Later in the day the sandbar typically becomes a BBQ party for locals.
The two best ways to get yourself out there are by boat or kayak (about a four-mile voyage). Group tours are available, as are boat charters. Kayak rentals are available at nearby He’eia State Park. Some of the amazing sea life you could meet include turtles, manta rays, hammerhead sharks, and myriad fish.
I don’t think we can profess our love much more than we have already. Hawaii is paradise, our favorite place on earth. While we have yet to visit Kauai (in three years), we’ve been to Maui and the Big Island, and we prefer Oahu in spite of the traffic and crowds. Just get out of the Honolulu/Waikiki area and you’ll see how amazing this island really can be.
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