Oahu may only be the third-largest of Hawaii’s islands, but with more than two-thirds of the state’s population, it’s where most of the action happens. Here are some of the best things to do in Oahu.
The 20 Best Things to Do in Oahu
Oahu is an outdoor-friendly island, with most of its best activities involving a quick trip around the island or down to the beach. While there are plenty of things to do on Oahu itself, we are counting a few activities you can do immediately offshore, too.
Many activities may require equipment rentals if you don’t own everything you need. As a tourist-friendly area, rentals are broadly available, so don’t hesitate to look around for things if you need them.
1. Visit Diamond Head
Perhaps the most famous of Hawaii’s landmarks, Diamond Head State Monument is a broad, flat, circular crater on the southeast side of the island. The total area covers about 475 acres and is divided into two sections.
The crater floor is easily accessible, but there’s also a hike for people who want one of the best views in the state. As a fair warning, the hike to the summit is challenging.
While it’s only 0.8 miles, the trip is particularly steep. Most people need at least an hour and a half for the trip, and it’s one of the most physically taxing things most visitors to Hawaii do in the state.
However, if you can conquer the trail, you get more than a few bragging rights. Diamond Head is one of the most accessible destinations on Oahu.
It’s immediately adjacent to Honolulu’s Waikiki neighborhood and close to several other top attractions in the state. Whether you plan to take the hike or not, Diamond Head is worth the visit.
2. Surf at Waikiki Beach
Waikiki is a relatively small neighborhood, but it has some outstanding beaches. More importantly, it’s one of the most tourist-friendly spots on the island, with multiple surf schools set up just behind the beach.
Surfing is a major part of Hawaiian culture thanks to the fantastic weather and countless beaches, and you’re missing out if you don’t learn. Ask your teachers which areas they recommend visiting after your lessons.
They can give you personalized advice based on your skill level, the weather, and the time of year you visit. Like biking, surfing is hard to forget once you’ve learned how to do it, and it will make your time in Hawaii that much more fun.
As a bonus, Waikiki’s beaches have excellent views of Diamond Head, so you can enjoy some of the best sights in Hawaii while enjoying the waves.
3. Visit North Shore
The straightforwardly-named North Shore is about an hour away from Honolulu, making it one of the furthest points on the island from the main tourism center.
If you want to avoid crowds, this is the place to do it as long as there’s not an event going on. North Shore is excellent for surfing once you’ve had lessons in Waikiki.
Indeed, an area nicknamed the “Seven Mile Miracle” has several of the best surfing locations on the planet. The waters can be dangerous for beginners, so this isn’t a great place to learn how to surf.
Nevertheless, there are professional surf schools in the area. The North Shore is ideal when visited earlier in the day. With that in mind, you might want to book a nearby hotel if you want to catch the best waves.
4. Visit Iolani Palace
Registered as a historic landmark in 1962, the palace has been carefully restored and maintained to let visitors see local history. The palace is one of the most distinctive buildings in Hawaii and is easy to find from a distance thanks to its unique architecture.
The palace has several specialty tours available, so you can concentrate on specific aspects of history that interest you the most. Iolani Palace is highly accessible, thanks to its placement in downtown Honolulu, so you’ll have no trouble getting to it.
5. Byodo-In Temple
You’ll be forgiven for wondering if you landed in Japan when you visit Byodo-In Temple at the Valley of the Temples Memorial Park.
Built as a small-scale replica of the original Byodo-In Temple in Uji, the Hawaiian version is a delightful example of traditional Japanese architecture and is welcoming to guests and visitors of all faiths.
Hawaii has a long and special relationship with Japan, due in no small part to the island’s status as a stopping point for many people crossing the Pacific.
While you’re there, be sure to take a look at the art and decorations in the temple, including the nine-foot Amida Buddha statue (one of the largest outside Japan).
6. Visit Pearl Harbor National Memorial
Pearl Harbor is more than a monument or a single battle in history. It’s one of the most iconic moments in United States history, when more than 350 Japanese planes launched from several dozen ships launched a surprise raid, destroying or damaging 19 US ships.
The memorial site is about 30 minutes from Waikiki and features numerous pieces explaining the history of December 7 1941 and the subsequent naval war against Japan.
Within the harbor, you will get the chance to see the preserved wreckage of the USS Arizona. If you have any interest in history at all, don’t miss a stop at this site.
7. Stroll Around Plantation Village
Hawaii was home to several major sugar plantations, operating from roughly 1850 to 1950. Today, the history of these plantations is memorialized in Plantation Village, an outdoor museum that includes a mix of restored and replicated buildings.
Here, you can see stores, bathhouses, offices, homes, and more. Plantation Village is also a surprisingly good spot for foodies because the area features unusual plants from across Asia, Puerto Rico, and even Portugal.
These fresh fruit samples provide a different way to experience the past than most other tours permit.
Be sure to get a guided tour of the area if your schedule allows. Having a local expert explaining the sights (and the past in general) is a much better experience than wandering around alone.
8. See the Turtles at Laniakea Beach
Laniakea Beach is a comfortable stretch of sand on Oahu, but that’s hardly unique. What separates this beach from other places is the fact that it’s the favorite hangout for Hawaii’s green sea turtles.
These can be seen basking in the sun or munching on kelp and seagrass growing in the area. However, you can only enjoy them from a distance. Hawaiian laws protect the turtles and forbid getting too close to them.
Given that, you can expect quick intervention if you move too near. If you want to enjoy the sand, Chun’s Reef is about 300 feet away and much more open to the public.
9. Explore the Pineapple Garden Maze
The Dole Plantation is a remarkable landmark to visit all by itself, but the Pineapple Garden Maze deserves special mention. Declared the world’s largest maze back in 2008, this area covers about three acres and has about two and a half miles of paths between the plants.
It also has eight hidden stations to find along the way, providing more to do while you’re walking around. Most visitors can complete the maze within 40 minutes, although the time can stretch much longer if you wind up getting lost.
Otherwise, consider ending your tour with a relaxing ride on the Pineapple Express train, a kid-friendly ride that offers some impressive views and an explanation of how the Dole agricultural empire started.
If you’re getting hungry, the Plantation Grille has a wide selection of dishes, including some Asian-inspired options. You can even get pineapple to bring with you, which is worth doing if you’ve never had the fresh version of this fruit before.
10. Visit Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden
Sometimes known simply as HBG, this peaceful garden covers about 400 acres on the windward side of the island.
Originally built by the Army Corps of Engineers to offer flood protection for the area, the garden has plants from Asia, the Pacific Islands, and Africa, each grouped into distinct regions. With plants from so many places, Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden is like a miniature world tour in its own right.
It is open almost every day of the year and sometimes has additional programs and opportunities, including chances to go fishing or paint some of the garden’s unique flowers.
11. Go Shark Diving
Do you want to get close to some of nature’s most dangerous creatures? Shark diving tours are available from multiple companies on the island, including reputable businesses like North Shore Shark Adventures and Hawaii Shark Encounters.
These encounters use sturdy cages to ensure protection, with most services traveling about three miles offshore. Shark sightings are all but guaranteed in this area.
Once out in the waters, there’s a good chance you’ll spot plenty of other wildlife, from turtles to dolphins and even whales at some parts of the year. These are beginner-friendly tours, so you don’t have to be an expert diver to take part.
Make sure to listen to your guides, though, as they’ll explain both basic safety measures and some facts about the role sharks have in the local ecosystem.
12. Stop by the Polynesian Cultural Center
Stopping by the Polynesian Cultural Center is one of the best things to do in Oahu if you are looking to dive deep into Hawaiian culture and get the full historical experience.
The center covers about 42 acres in the North Shore area, with six villages that each focus on a different Pacific Island style. Options at the cultural center include dining, watching dances, spectacular fire knife displays, canoe rides, and more.
Don’t miss the Ali’i Luau Buffet, an all-you-can-eat setup with meals from across the Pacific. This approach means you can take exactly what you want to try, without the formality of many other dining experiences.
13. Get a Ride at Kualoa Ranch
Set about halfway down Oahu’s eastern side, Kualoa Ranch is an outdoor adventure destination with multiple ways to enjoy the area.
If you’re a fan of Hollywood movies, the movie sites tour covers areas where more than 200 films and television shows have filmed things. The trip also includes a stop at a World War II bunker.
Other options include boat trips, journeys through jungle areas, zip lines, horseback tours, and ATV rides. You can easily spend a whole day going through different experiences at Kualoa, and you might get to see a wedding or another special event at the same time.
14. Go Windsurfing at Kailua Beach
Kailua Beach Park is one of the top destinations on the Windward side of the island. With competitive canoe races, a calm swimming area, and gorgeous water, it’s easy to see why this is a local favorite.
However, the real reason to visit Kailua is to go windsurfing. Windsurfing is a little more complicated than regular surfing, so it’s not a good choice if you’ve never hopped onto a board before.
Still, if you have, though, you catch the wind to go faster and ride bigger waves than ever before at Kailua. The park is beautiful all year round, but try to stop by on the 4th of July for a truly sensational fireworks show.
15. Take a Helicopter Ride
Oahu has plenty of helicopter services, like Rainbow Helicopters, that offer guided tours of the island. These are a fantastic option for seeing parts of the island that are difficult to reach on foot or by vehicle.
Most regular tours are 30-60 minutes, which is easily enough time to zoom around this small island. If you want, you can also arrange for a private tour.
Whether you prefer to take a customized flight plan around the islands or use videography services to capture stunning original pictures or recordings, helicopter rides can help.
16. Walk the Makapu’u Point Lighthouse Trail
Built in 1909, Makapu’u Lighthouse is an iconic structure on Oahu’s southeastern corner. This two-mile round trip on the Makapu’u Point Lighthouse Trail takes about two hours with some steep elevation changes.
The squat lighthouse itself is off-limits to casual travelers, but the cliff shore has outstanding views of the ocean and many local birds. The entire trail is exposed and hot, so you can expect a warm trip.
What’s more, it tends to be windy towards the summit, which many climbers appreciate for the cooling effects. The trip back is entirely downhill, so it’s significantly easier than the journey up to the lighthouse.
17. Go Skydiving
Helicopter tours usually stay close to the ground, but skydiving planes can take you as far as 14,000 feet above the island. For context, commercial airliners usually fly around 36,000 feet, so you’re in no danger of crossing paths with them.
Companies like Pacific Skydiving offer these services, with tandem skydiving as the recommended option for newcomers.
In this setup, your instructor is attached to you for more than 20 seconds of complete freefall and a maximum speed of about 120 miles an hour. You can leave the landing entirely to them, and it’s a thrill unlike any other.
18. Get A Meal at STRIPSTEAK Waikiki
Easily one of the best restaurants on Oahu, STRIPSTEAK Waikiki is a culinary fusion restaurant mixing American Steakhouse style with varied Asian influences.
Run by Michelin-starred chef Michael Mina, STRIPSTEAK Waikiki offers everything from fine dinners and desserts to family-style dining and a fantastic selection of wines.
If you’re not sure what to get, try a 12-ounce prime NY strip steak with a side of roasted asparagus. Keep in mind that this is one of the top restaurants in Hawaii, so prices start at a premium and go up from there.
19. Get Cheaper Food at Waialua Bakery
STRIPSTEAK Waikiki is the place to go for fine dining, but if you’re looking for more casual fare in the North Shore area, Waialua Bakery is a healthy and delicious place to grab breakfast or lunch.
Sandwiches are available in various sizes and flavors, as are salads, smoothies, and cold treats like acai bowls. Make sure to try the roasted chicken pesto sandwich, which offers a solid selection of textures and ingredients.
The non-alcoholic pina colada smoothie is a thematic treat, too, mixing pineapple juice and banana with coconut milk and some frozen yogurt.
20. Swim at Ko Olina Lagoons
Ko Olina is one of the top resort areas, with companies including Four Seasons, Marriott, and Disney using the restricted lagoons. Even if you’re not renting there, the fourth of the manmade Ko Olina Lagoons is open to the public.
It offers safe and calm swimming, with gentle snorkeling opportunities.
Seals sometimes swim up to this area, making it excellent for viewing wildlife. You can’t get too close to the animals, but despite not being too crowded, the security here is robust enough to ensure the area remains safe.
Things to Consider
Oahu is a fantastic destination, but there are a few things to consider before you head to the area. First, the island has much more to it than Waikiki.
It’s certainly an excellent beach and tourism area, but there are lots of sights and activities if you look outside the neighborhood. Waikiki is also significantly more expensive than other areas, so you can save some money if you find hotels just a few minutes away.
Rental cars are a great way to get around the island. Oahu isn’t very large, so you’ll probably end up using less gas than you might elsewhere.
A car is particularly helpful for going between Honolulu and the North Shore. If time matters more than money, you can always get a helicopter ride across the island.
Finally, be ready to tip generously. It’s possible to enjoy Oahu on a budget, but the locals depend on tourism for income, and tipping is expected to help mitigate the high costs of living in the area.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some common questions people have about the best things to do in Oahu.
What should I avoid in Oahu?
Don’t just stay in a resort the whole time. Oahu is small enough to explore by car, and you’ll get to enjoy far more by seeing the whole island instead of one small corner of it.
Are four days enough for Oahu?
Four days is about the shortest you can spend on Oahu to get the full experience. Many people prefer spending at least one or two weeks on the island, which is enough time to enjoy it at a leisurely pace.
What should you not miss in Honolulu?
The number one thing to see in Honolulu is the beaches. However, they can get crowded around Waikiki, so consider heading a little ways away from there and seeing some of the other beaches instead.
How long does it take to drive around the entire island of Oahu?
Most people can drive around the entire island in 12 hours, and that includes time spent relaxing on the beach, hiking around a little, and dining.
What is there to do in Oahu without a reservation?
You can go snorkeling, surfing, swimming, or simply unwind on the beach without a reservation in Oahu. You can also visit many public sites, including the Pearl Harbor Memorial.
So, What’s the Best Thing to Do in Oahu?
This list has touched on 20 of the best things to do in Oahu, regardless of whether you are looking to check out resorts and fine dining or explore the island’s natural wonders.
If you’re not sure what to do, learn to surf at Waikiki, then rent a car and drive out to some of the other beaches to experience different waves. Once you have a board and some skill, the rest comes easy.