Aloha! Thinking about heading to Hawaii? Most people are drawn to Oahu (Honolulu & Waikiki) because of the great flight options. As Hawaii’s main island (but not the biggest!) there is sooooo much to do here! You could stay busy for weeks exploring every part of this island so this is by no means a comprehensive list of everything to do on Oahu, but it’s a pretty good overview of some “don’t miss” experiences! Also, I know different people like to vacation different ways so while a lot of things on this list you can do on your own (nothing is more fun than renting a car and taking off exploring!), I’ve also included options for people who gravitate more towards organized tours and excursions (there’s a lot you miss when you’re just driving around on your own : ).
So let’s get the show on the road…here are 15 things to do in Oahu that you definitely shouldn’t miss:
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What are the best things to do in Oahu?
1.Take surf lessons in Waikiki. Surfing has a long and rich history in Hawaii and Waikiki was the birthplace of it all. Paddle out into the lineup and you’ll be hanging ten like the pros in no time. Dozens of surf schools line the beaches of Waikiki, where ideal beginner surf conditions can be found nearly every day. Most schools will provide some on land instruction as well as all of the gear you’ll need to enjoy a morning out on the water and you can usually rent a GoPro to help capture your memories. I recommend booking lessons with Waikiki Beach Services. Their legendary Waikiki Beachboys have been welcoming visitors to Waikiki since 1955! And if surfing isn’t your thing, they also offer paddle boarding lessons and outrigger canoeing as well as daily chair and umbrella rentals.
2. Snorkel at Hanauma Bay. It’s hardly undiscovered, but Hanauma Bay is still one of the best snorkeling spots in Hawaii. It’s largely protected from the ocean and the reef is home to a huge range of species. It’s also a perfectly idyllic beach to wile away the day. Because it’s a nature preserve, there’s only a limited number of people allowed into the bay everyday and they close the parking lot when it reaches capacity so you’ll have to arrive pretty early to get in. Near the parking lot is an overlook area that’s popular with the tourists and from this point is where you’ll pay your entrance fee (about $12/person) and watch a film about conservation efforts in the bay. From the top you can walk or take a tram down to the bottom where there are shower, bathroom, and locker facilities. If showing up at 6AM to try for a spot in the parking lot doesn’t sound like fun on vacation, I would recommend booking this tour which includes transportation from Waikiki (including narration from a tour guide) and snorkel gear (but not admission to the bay once you arrive). You’ll get several hours to snorkel and hang out on your own, but you won’t have to worry about driving, getting an entry spot, or finding gear.
3. Play at Hawaii’s Most Beautiful Beach (Lanikai Beach) The most beautiful beach in Hawaii is the perfect place to spend the day sunbathing and frolicking through the waves. Located on the windward side of the island near Kailua town, this postcard worthy beach is accessed by beach paths between spectacular beach homes. The remoteness and laid back vibe of this area will make you feel a world away from bustling Waikiki. Parking is tricky (don’t go on the weekends!) and if you can’t find a spot, nearby Kailua Beach is almost just as beautiful but a lot more accessible. If laying on the beach isn’t really your thing and you’d like a little adventure, I highly recommend this kayak excursion out to the “Mokes” (the two islands off shore). It’s GORGEOUS!
RELATED: Not very familiar with Oahu? Read up on the lay of the (is)land and where to stay plus my favorite beach resorts, budget hotels, condos (under $100/night!), honeymoon resorts, family friendly resorts, luxury resorts, and boutique hotels.
4. Tour Pearl Harbor. You can’t come to Oahu and not visit Pearl Harbor. The boat ride out to the USS Arizona is the true highlight but there are plenty of other things to tour as well. Admission to two of the museums as well as the USS Arizona are free but you’ll need to secure tickets for the USS Arizona Memorial as they limit the number of visitors each day. Tickets can be obtained in person, but it’s a good idea to make reservations online ahead of time otherwise you could spend several hours waiting for your entry time to roll around. If you’re serious about touring Pearl Harbor, I’d suggest booking this tour that includes transportation from Waikiki, access to the USS Arizona AND the USS Missouri, and a tour of some historic sites around Honolulu.
5. Watch sunset on Waikiki Beach. It may be swarming with tourists but Waikiki is something that everyone needs to see at least once. Plan on dinner and drinks timed to see the sunset. Duke’s at the Outrigger Waikiki is THE most iconic place to have a meal and mai tais on Waikiki and you can’t beat the views, but I also love House without a Key at the Halekulani. Alternatively, try this sunset cruise that includes appetizers and drinks.
6. Hike Diamond Head. For one of the best views on the island (a birds eye view of Waikiki and Honolulu), make the trek up to Diamond Head. Diamond Head is the extinct volcanic crater that’s part of the iconic Waikiki backdrop. You can drive or take the bus to Diamond Head State Park and pay the entrance fee to hike to the top ($1 to walk in or $5 to park). It’s not a difficult hike (you can make it to the top in about half an hour) and it’s a well worn traveled trail but there are quite a few stairs once you reach the top and it is a fairly good climb. If you’d rather let someone else handle the logistics (and enjoy the knowledge of doing the hike with a guide), book this tour from Waikiki.
7. Visit the Polynesian Cultural Center. Oahu’s most popular (paid) attraction is definitely a don’t miss. Located in Laie on the north shore, the Polynesian Cultural Center is a series of authentic villages displaying the cultures of islanders from across the Pacific. From ukulele lessons to other cultural demonstrations, if you’re interested in learning more about Polynesian culture, plan to spend half a day here exploring the villages and stay for the luau. Tickets to the Polynesian Cultural Center aren’t cheap, so if you’re planning on going I would strongly recommend purchasing the Go Oahu 3-Day Attraction Pass which includes access to a premium attraction. For pretty much the same price as admission to the PCC, the Go Oahu pass will include access to 45+ other attractions on Oahu (including quite a few other things on this list!).
8. Attend the Luau at Paradise Cove. A luau is at the top of many visitors to do lists and I think the luau at Paradise Cove is the best on the island. Arrive early to participate in hula lessons, lei making, and a variety of cultural demonstrations before the main event. Plenty of food and a spectacular show cap off the night. Read all about my experience at the Paradise Cove Luau here. Buy tickets to the Paradise Cove Luau here.
Side Note: If you’re looking for a rental car for your trip, I LOVE Discount Hawaii Car Rentals. They’re seriously the only company I ever use. They’ll give you the very best prices, you don’t have to reserve with a credit card or pay until you show up, you can cancel and re-book anytime if you find a better rate, and they usually have a special that adds additional drivers for no fee. It’s a no brainer. Click here to check rates for your trip.
9. Take a Circle Island Tour. I know a lot of vacationers just want to stay close to the beach at their resort in Waikiki and soak up the sun, so if that’s your style, you HAVE to at least do a circle island tour one day to get a feel for the whole island. While you obviously can’t see and do everything in only one day, booking a small group tour like this one will take you to some of the prettiest places on the island and give you a taste of what it’s like beyond Waikiki.
10. Snorkel with Sea Turtles You haven’t been to Hawaii until you’ve snorkeled with sea turtles! This catamaran tour stays close to Waikiki and guarantees turtle sightings or you get to go again!
11. Dive with Sharks. I’ll be honest. I haven’t done this, and it sounds mildly terrifying, but everyone I talk with who does this tour LOVES it. And Oahu is the only island where you can dive with sharks, so if you’re an adventure/adrenaline lover, you’ve got to check this tour out.
12. Swim with Wild Dolphins. Swimming with dolphins is muuuuch more my speed. While there are a couple of spots on Oahu that have dolphin “experiences” in captivity, that just seems extra sad to me in Hawaii. The west side of Oahu has a LOT of wild dolphins, so I recommend doing a catamaran sail out of Ko’olina where you have a good chance of getting to swim with them in their natural habitat. Bonus: during whale season this is a great excursion for whale spotting too!
13. See Historic Honolulu. Most people come to Hawaii for the beaches and are so focused on snorkeling and other tropical experiences that they may overlook the rich cultural history that exists in the islands. Historic Honolulu is really something to see. Don’t miss seeing Iolani Palace, the only imperial palace located on US soil. And Chinatown (have dinner at Pig and the Lady) is a don’t miss as well. Pro Tip: The Go Oahu pass includes admission to Iolani Palace and the Bishop Museum (another don’t miss for me) so be sure to do the math and plan out what you’re planning to see and do on your trip because this card could save you some serious $$$.
14. See the Big Waves & Surfers on Oahu’s Iconic North Shore. If you’re visiting Oahu in the winter months, you’ll witness some of the world’s best surfers taking on the world’s biggest waves on the north shore. December brings the Triple Crown of Surfing to Oahu which is super cool to see in person, but be prepared for crowds if you plan to go out to watch the tournaments. A day spent on the North Shore also isn’t complete without hanging out in Haleiwa town. Home to art galleries, local shops, and a famous bakery and shaved ice joint, Haleiwa will give you a feel for a real authentic Hawaiian surf town. Also don’t miss the food trucks along the north shore! If you have a rental car, you can see a lot on your own, but if you want to make sure you don’t miss the special hidden spots (and don’t have to worry about parking, traffic, directions, etc.) book this activity tour.
15. Get Lost at the Famous Kualoa Ranch. If you’ve ever seen any movie set in a jungle, chances are you’ll recognize the jagged green mountain peaks at Kualoa Ranch. On the windward side of Oahu, Kualoa Ranch is home to quite a few recreational activities including ziplining, ATV tours, horseback riding and movie site tours (films such as Jurassic Park, Pearl Harbor, Godzilla, and the TV show Lost were all filmed here). Read all about my ATV experience at Kualoa Ranch here. Book your own Kualoa adventure here.
GO OAHU CARD: Don’t forget to check out the Go Oahu card. Depending on the length of your trip and how many attractions/excursions you’re planning, this card could save you quite a bit of money. You’ll have to do the math according to your specific plans, but usually the break even point is the 3 day pass where you do one “premium” experience and a handful of other tours/activities spread out over the other days.
BEST PLACES TO STAY
Luxury Lovers: Four Seasons Oahu
Family Friendly: Aulani
Mid Range (& Cute): Laylow
WHERE TO EAT
Duke’s (Surf & Turf, cocktails, $$$)
Mai Tai Bar (Appetizers, cocktails, $$)
Egg’s ‘n Things (Breakfast, $$)
House without a Key (Live music, cocktails, appetizers, $$$)
Marukame Udon (Japanese, $)
Orchids (Brunch, $$$$)
Mahina and Sun’s (Brunch, farm to table, $$$)
La Mer (French, $$$$)
Roy’s (Surf & Turf, $$$)
Steak Shack (Takeaway, $)
Hy’s Steak House (Steak, $$$$)
The Pig and the Lady (Vietnamese, $$$)
Senia (Hawaiian Asian Fusion, $$$$)
Lucky Belly (Ramen, $$)
Little Village Noodle House (Chinese, $$)
Opal Thai (Thai, $$)
Honolulu (Outside Waikiki)
Bar Leather Apron (Trendy non-touristy bar, $$)
Uncle Bo’s Pupu Bar & Grill (Local food and appetizers, $$)
Sweet E’s (Breakfast, $)
Leonard’s (Bakery, $)
La Mariana Sailing Club (Classic tiki bar, $$)
Side Street Inn (Local favorites, $$)
Liliha Bakery (Bakery, $)
Rainbow Drive In (Local food, $)
Koko Head Cafe (Local breakfast, $)
Helena’s Hawaiian Food (Local food, $)