Here are the top picks for making the most of your time on Oahu.
Oahu is called “The Gathering Place” for a reason. Out of all the Hawaiian islands, it seems to have the most sights, activities, and crowds. So you’re not overwhelmed by the options, we’ve picked the 25 top things any visitor to Oahu must do.
Snorkel at Hanauma Bay
WHERE: Hawaii Kai
Tranquil nature preserve Hanauma Bay is a phenomenal, family-friendly place to snorkel. Hanauma (meaning “curved bay”) is nestled in a volcanic crater with a reef that is a haven for an array of fish and sea life. The creatures are pretty blasé about humans swimming amongst them too, so you can have close encounters with colorful fish like kikakapu (butterflyfish) and humuhumu-nukunuku-apua´a (reef triggerfish) among others.
INSIDER TIPIf you want to get the best experience at Hanauma Bay, arrive right as it opens, between 6-7 a.m. You’ll beat the crowds and have the best water visibility. Don’t fall into the post-breakfast arrival when every other visitor decides to show up. Another option is a noon or later arrival, but you’ll have to contend with a higher sunburn risk.
Take Tea at the Moana
Relaxed and refined at the same time, the oceanfront Banyan Veranda at the Moana Surfrider is the perfect place for sipping a cup of passion fruit tea, eating dainty sandwiches and desserts, and looking out on the beach. The Moana is “The First Lady of Waikiki,” the oldest hotel on that fair stretch of sand. So you can imagine yourself back among the leisure class of the early 1900s while you use your sandalwood fan and maybe add a tipple of rose to your tea service.
Relive History at Pearl Harbor
You can’t go to Oahu and skip a visit to Pearl Harbor. You’ll receive a rich and reflective overview of the “date which will live in infamy” at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument. Visitors take a short boat ride out to the USS Arizona Memorial, which sits over the sunken ship, oil still leaking out and up to the water’s surface. Other WWII sites nearby are the USS Bowfin submarine, the Pacific Aviation Museum, and the restored USS Missouri battleship, on which Japanese forces surrendered to the Allies in 1945.
INSIDER TIPTry and reserve your USS Arizona Memorial tickets online ahead of time and skip the wait for your tour. Otherwise, same-day timed tickets are available at the visitor center.
Munch on Malasadas
A must-eat while in Hawaii, malasadas (sometimes spelled malassadas) are deep-fried, sugar-coated donuts without holes best-served piping hot. First brought to the islands by Portuguese immigrants, malasadas are now a local fixture at every school carnival and the best way to get on the good side of your coworkers. Leonard’s Bakery is perhaps the most famous place for malasadas on Oahu. But Agnes’ Portuguese Bake Shop serves some mighty tasty ones too.
Visit Iolani Palace and Nearby Downtown Honolulu Historic Sites
A tour of Iolani Palace, the only royal residence in the U.S., also gives you an introduction to Hawaii’s monarchy era, which started with King Kamehameha I and ended with the U.S. government’s overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani in 1893. After your tour, take a walk between several other historic Honolulu sights: Honolulu Hale, Kawaiahao Church, Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site and Archives, the Kamehameha I statue and Ali’iolani Hale, the Hawaii State Capitol, and Washington Place.
Party at Paradise Cove Luau
WHERE: Ko Olina
Let’s face it. There is no non-touristy luau unless you know a local who’ll invite you to their “baby’s first luau.” But Paradise Cove is where locals like to take visitors for a luau experience. You may not get the extensive attractions that come with the Polynesian Cultural Center’s luau and facilities. But Paradise Cove is just more fun in general. Not only will you sample traditional Hawaiian foods—give poi a chance—but you’ll get some rousing entertainment and the chance to do some arts, crafts, and games.
Treat Yourself to Shave Ice at Island Snow in Kailua
There are many great places for shave ice on Oahu. Matsumoto’s on the North Shore may be the most well known, but we (and former president Barak Obama) prefer Island Snow in Kailua. Part clothing retailer, Island Snow also makes a mean shave ice. Soft icy flakes, “snow cap” topping of sweetened condensed milk, and an array of locally inspired flavors make this a great place for the local treat.
INSIDER TIPTry the less busy, newer of their two locations at the Kailua Shopping Center after a trip to the beach. And don’t say “shaved ice.” You’ll be spotted as the mainlander that you are immediately. It’s “shave ice,” no “d.”
Get Your Tiki Bar Kitsch on at La Mariana Sailing Club
WHERE: Sand Island
Hawaii’s tiki era may be over, but La Mariana Sailing Club is still carrying on the tradition. You’ll find this throwback restaurant and bar hiding on the waterfront of an industrial section of Honolulu. Neither the food nor the drinks are exceptional, but the atmosphere and glimpse into Hawaiiana of the past certainly are.
Explore Chinatown’s Vibrant Culture and Food
Oahu’s Chinatown is a jumble of historic and hip. Revitalization efforts over the last two decades mean that the area rivals Kaimuki for up-and-coming restaurants, plus a mix of art galleries and shops. You’ll also find cultural sites like Izumo Taisha Shrine and Kuan Yin Temple to intrigue you along with dim sum spots and eclectic marketplaces. Chinatown is especially vibrant at night. If you happen to time your visit with a First Friday art walk night, consider yourself extra fortunate.
Watch the Pros Surf at Waimea Bay
WHERE: North Shore
Waimea Bay was integral to the early development of big wave surfing, and it’s a great place to watch pro surfers to this day. You’ll get the best views here during the winter when waves can crest past 20 feet. No matter the time of year though, you’re better off leaving the surfing to the pros. But the sand is warm and the sights sensational.
INSIDER TIPContrary to what the Beach Boys sing in “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” Waimea Bay is pronounced “why-may-a” not “why-a-me-a”.
Explore the North Shore
WHERE: North Shore
Make a day of it when you head to the North Shore. Start off in Kaneohe and drive up Kamehameha Highway. Stop along the way at fruit stands, shrimp trucks, beaches and scenic overlooks like Laie Point. End up at world-famous surfing spots like the aforementioned Waimea Bay, Haleiwa Beach, Sunset Beach, and Banzai Pipeline. Explore Haleiwa Town, visit the sacred Puu o Mahuka Heiau, and watch honu (sea turtles) sunbathing at Laniakea “Turtle” Beach. Turtles are most likely to be spotted during nesting season in the summer.
Visit Doris Duke’s Shangri-La
WHERE: Diamond Head
Tobacco heiress Doris Duke first visited Hawaii on the tail end of her 1935 honeymoon, after having already been wowed by the art and architecture of India, Egypt, Palestine, and Jordan. Duke combined her love of Hawaii and the East when she built Shangri-La, her waterfront mansion inspired by the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa. She filled it with Islamic art and eventually donated the entire property. You can tour this stunning home through small group tours arranged by the Honolulu Museum of Art.
Walk Through Waikiki
Sure you could rent a scooter or take one of those shopping trolleys through the heart of Waikiki, but the best way to people watch, shop, eat and sightsee on this iconic tourist strip is by foot. That way you’ll skip the traffic, burn off some of those mai tai calories, and catch the sights you might miss if you weren’t hoofing it along the touristy two-mile stretch of Kalakaua Avenue. This is one of those “check the box” visits you have to do so you can say you’ve “seen Waikiki.” But don’t waste too much time there.
INSIDER TIPIf you’re not staying in Waikiki (smart move) during your whole time on Oahu, try and arrange to get your rental car before or after your Waikiki stay. That way you don’t have to pay outrageous resort parking fees.
Learn to Surf at White Plains
WHERE: Ewa Beach
White Plains has fewer crowds and just as great conditions for beginner surfers as Waikiki Beach. If you’ve got a government or military ID, you can rent gear or sign up for lessons from the beach recreation stand. (White Plains was once part of a now deactivated military base.) Otherwise, consider setting up a private surf lesson or renting a board from one of the many local companies that offer them. White Plain’s beach has clear signage designating swimming and surfing areas, an easy break, and a mostly accommodating local surfing crowd that won’t mind if you don’t know what the heck you’re doing.
Relax at Kailua Beach
Looking for that idyllic, unpopulated stretch of white sandy beach and Technicolor blue water? Visit Kailua Beach or the adjacent Kalama Beach. You’ll get easy swimming waves and maximum sand to spread your towel out on (though recent efforts have been made to combat coastal erosion in the area). Avoid neighboring Lanikai Beach, which is far too packed and hard to access these days. You’ll get the same type of beach experience with less headache and more bathroom facilities (Lanikai has none) down on the Kailua/Kalama end.
Explore the Nature Preserve at Kaena Point
Striking, stark, solitary. That’s what Kaena Point feels like compared to much of bustling Oahu. Take the easy though not shaded hike out to the westernmost point of the island that’s considered a sacred spot. You’ll spot native Hawaiian bird species and other wildlife in this “dune ecosystem.” At the point’s tidepools, you can sometimes see sunbathing seals. Wear a hat and sunscreen and bring lots of water, but Kaena Point is absolutely worth your time.
Eat out in Kaimuki
This unassuming neighborhood east of Waikiki and north of Diamond Head is a lot trendier than it was a decade or so ago. A diverse array of restaurants are making Kaimuki the new foodie epicenter of Oahu. You’ll want to snag a seat at one of well-known local chef Ed Kenney’s three farm-to-table establishments: Town, Kaimuki Superette, and Mud Hen Water. Grab a smoothie at Leahi Health, dumplings at Koko Head Café, cheesecake at Otto Cake, the bar menu at 12th Avenue Grill … the list goes on and on in this hip (but not-too-hip) town.
Feel the Wind at the Pali Lookout
On your way to or from the Windward side of Oahu, make a stop at the Nuuanu Pali Lookout. This is where the Battle of Nuuanu ended, resulting in Kamehameha I gaining control of Oahu. On especially windy days, you can actually lean up against the wind, and on most days, you get a spectacular view of the Windward side.
Hike Makapuu Lighthouse Trail Instead of Diamond Head
WHERE: Hawaii Kai
Makapuu Point Lighthouse trail is less crowded than Diamond Head but offers an equally beautiful panorama at the top, just of a different part of Oahu’s coastline. It’s also great for families with strollers since it’s paved all the way up. You’ll pass the Makapuu Lighthouse along the way and have a good chance of glimpsing humpback whales breaching the ocean’s surface during the late fall to spring months. Part way up the path, you also can choose to instead head down the cliffs to the tidepools below.
Visit Byodo-In Temple
Part of the Valley of the Temples cemetery complex, Byodo-In Temple is a smaller version of a temple in Japan. Start off your visit by ringing the large, sacred bell. Then go inside to see the nine-foot golden Buddha. Stroll the manicured grounds, feed the koi in the ponds, and have your peace disturbed only by the squawk of peacocks and swans wandering around.
Try a Spam Musubi
If you want to eat like a local, you’ve got to try spam musubi. Yes, it’s basically spam sushi—sticky rice with seasoned, fried spam wrapped up in seaweed. But the taste combination likely will surprise you in a good way. You’ll find spam musubi all over Oahu, including at convenience stores. So there’s no excuse not to try it.
Seek a Waterfall on the Manoa Falls Trail
Manoa Falls is an easy, one-and-a-half-mile rainforest hike in Manoa Valley with the reward of a 150-foot waterfall at its end. You might want to go after a good stretch of rain so the falls are flowing pretty well. But wear the right shoes since the trail through this wet valley tends to be muddy. Visit the nearby Lyon Arboretum if you’ve got time.
Watch the Kuhio Beach Hula Show
If you want a more traditional, less touristy introduction to hula and Hawaiian music, go to the Kuhio Beach Hula Show. This free event is held every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday evening on Kuhio Beach. There’s a short torch lighting and conch shell blowing ceremony followed by a rotation of performances by local hula halau (troupes) and Hawaiian musicians and singers. Did we mention it’s free—a Waikiki rarity?
INSIDER TIPBring something to sit on or you’ll have a sandy okole (behind).
Take a Sightseeing Cruise or Kayak Trip
You’re in Hawaii. You’ve got to get out on the water, and not just on a boogie board. Take a sunset catamaran cruise or a whale-watching cruise, depending on the time of year. Or rent a kayak and head somewhere scenic like the Mokulua Islands or Chinaman’s Hat, both spots where you can get off and explore a bit.
Have a Plate Lunch Picnic at Moanalua Gardens
While there’s now a small admissions fee to use Moanalua Gardens, this is still a lovely spot to relax and enjoy a plate lunch or picnic. Bring a ball or frisbee to toss around and maybe even a kite on a favorably windy day. Or realize you’re stuffed after that carb-heavy plate lunch and take a nap instead. If you’re wondering why Japanese tourists are posing under a very large monkeypod tree on the property, that’s because it’s famous in Japan for being in Hitachi advertising.