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Oahu is a tropical paradise, perfect for lounging. But if you are the type of person who needs a plan and you’re wondering what to do in Oahu, our guide will help you make the most of your Hawaiian island vacation. From beaches and adventurous outdoor pursuits to delicious dishes history, culture and nature, there is an exciting tropical wonderland to discover.
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Need some action and adventure?
Most of the best things to do in Oahu, Hawaii take place in the great outdoors. The tropical climate makes action-packed adventures even more enjoyable, as you can take in the fresh sea air and beautiful setting as you surf, ride, sail, hike or tour your way around the island.
Oahu boat tours
Take a boat trip while in Oahu to see the iconic Hawaiian coastline from the water. You can also try snorkeling and might spot some sea creatures along the way – such as tropical fish, sea turtles and even sharks. There is a wide range of boat trips you can charter from glass-bottomed boats to luxury yachts – all a welcome addition to your Oahu itinerary. Here are some favorites:
- Glass bottomed boat tour (departs from Honolulu) – a 90-minute adventure spotting sea turtles and dolphins with views of Diamond Head
- Oahu Catamaran Cruise (departs from Waikiki) – a half-day experience where you’ll discover the pristine Oahu coastline and swim or snorkel with turtles and dolphins and enjoy a delicious Hawaiian lunch on a trip to remember
Take an incredible helicopter tour of Oahu
Why not take one of the famous helicopter tours of Oahu where visitors have the chance to enjoy a unique birds eye view of this beautiful island – including of course the legendary coastline? You can also see waterfalls, rainforest, pineapple plantations and volcanoes from the air.
Zipline through the rainforest
Whether it’s for the adrenaline rush or the scenery, taking a rainforest zipline trip on Oahu is an unforgettable experience. You can zoom among the treetops, fly by waterfalls, spot lush, tropical gardens and enjoy panoramic views over the island’s stunning coastline. Afterwards, you can explore Keana farm and try their abundant tropical fruit >> zipline information.
Learn to Surf
The Hawaiian island of Oahu is one of the best places in the world to learn to surf. Although there are big waves here, some beaches are far calmer and thus well suited to beginners. The best beaches for surfing novices include Waikiki, Haleiwa, White Plains, Ala Moana and Kailua. If you’re staying in Waikiki, catch your first wave when you join one of the famous beach surf lessons >> surf lesson details.
Go horseback riding at a North Shore ranch
Even if you’re a beginner, the chance to ride through the North Shore rainforest is unmissable. The coastal views and the feeling are incredible, as you take in the tropical environment and laidback beach vibes in this breathtaking part of planet Earth just like a Hawaiian cowboy >> horseback riding tour info.
Hiking at Diamond Head
The Diamond Head Trail is deceptive – it looks like a long climb, but it in fact only takes an hour or less to reach the summit. Admittedly there are a few steep sections, but the round trip is only around a mile-and-a-half. The panoramic, 360 degree views make this hike well worth the modest effort. Hiking to Diamond Head is one of the best free things to do on Oahu!
If you’re looking for a double challenge and the chance to push yourself physically then why not join the Diamond Head Bike to Hike and Local Lunch experience. You’ll ride to Diamond Head and climb the crater before descending for a lunch of local fare. This activity starts early so you’ll be back on the beach for an afternoon swim! – more information.
Kualoa Ranch is a working cattle ranch and private nature reserve on the windward side of Oahu. It is located within the Jurassic Valley, where Lost, Hawaii Five-0 and Jurassic Park were filmed. Visitors can ride a horse or zipline, steer a kayak or take a movie tour. It’s a full day out and you can arrange pick up transfers from your hotel in Waikiki >> click for tickets and details.
Discover history and culture
Oahu has a fascinating culture that includes typical Polynesian feasts, celebrations and rituals. And of course the Pearl Harbor National Memorial is a sombre reminder of one of the darkest chapters in American history. You can also explore the former royal palace, attend a Hawaiian party or take in some stunning street art.
Pay your respects at Pearl Harbor
Pearl Harbor National Memorial exists as a permanent reminder of the Japanese attack on the US in 1941. This led to America joining the Second World War, and was a key moment in US history. While entry is free, reservations are recommended. Expect to spend 2-3 hours exploring the site that includes the USS Arizona Memorial. Pearl Harbor is a fascinating and moving place to visit, and a must see in Oahu for people from all over the world.
The popular Pearl Harbor Arizona, Missouri and City Tour is a full day guided experience of the main sights at Pearl Harbor including skip-the-line admission to the USS Missouri and USS Arizona Memorial. Your visit to this tragic place of American history is followed by a short tour of important sites in Honolulu including the Kawaiahao Church, the statue of King Kamehameaha and Punchbowl cemetery. The transfer tour will collect you from any of the major hotels in Waikiki >> more information.
Attend a Luau
A luau is a Hawaiian party – a traditional feast served alongside entertainment such as music and cultural performances like hula. Food served might include kalua pig – shredded pork baked underground – poke bowls, poi – a starchy root vegetable, lomi salmon, laulau – meat steamed in taro leaves – and haupia, a local coconut pudding. There are many luaus on the island however you’ll need to visit the Polynesian Cultural Center on the North Shore for the most authentic experience.
Closer to Waikiki these luaus are always popular:
- Paradise Cove Luau – customize your experience with hotel pick-up/drop-off and choice of lei at this world famous experience
- Chief’s Luau – hosted by the World Fire Knife Dance Champion Chief Sielu, this luau is fun and exciting
- Ka Moana – combine your luau experience with a visit to Sealife included in the package
Visit the Polynesian Cultural Center
A visit to the Polynesian Cultural Center allows guests to discover the rich Polynesian heritage of Hawaii and the Pacific islands. There are 42 acres to explore, including authentic villages and tropical gardens, where you can take part in various traditional activities. In the evening, a Luau feast is served alongside a spectacular evening show. You can read our full review of the luau at the Polynesian Cultural Center here.
Enjoy the Honolulu Street Art
The Kakaako area of Honolulu has made a name for itself as a hub for street art. Every year, the Pow! Wow! Street art festival attracts artists and art lovers from all over the globe. You can see impressive murals at any time of year, though, and subject matter includes faces, florals, futuristic scenes and even a Monet tribute.
Make a lei or floral crown
Receiving a lei is part of the traditional Hawaiian greeting and one of our favorite things to do in Hawaii was spent making our own. Even better you can learn to make a lei po’o (a floral crown) with fresh tropical flowers. This popular experience on the North Shore includes dressing up in hulu attire and a photo shoot too so you can show everyone back home you in your gorgeous lei po’o in beautiful Oahu >> more information
Admire Iolani Palace
Iolani Palace dates from 1882, and was the official home of the Hawaiian royals until the monarchy was overthrown in 1893. Former residents include King Kalakaua and his sister, Queen Liliuokalani, who succeeded him. The palace is a notable Hawaiian landmark and its grand halls have been painstakingly restored for visitors to explore.
Try all the Hawaiian food
What’s on the menu in Oahu, Hawaii? Things to do include trying Garlic Shrimp, Poke Bowls, Huli-Huli Chicken and Dole Whip. Hawaiian food combines migrant influences with local ingredients, and this can be seen – and sampled – in the Portuguese malasadas or Japanese shaved ice that are popular sweet treats.
We are food tour fanatics and highly recommend joining this foodie bike tour where you’ll see the sights of Honolulu and taste the island’s top dishes we mention below.
A Hawaiian Poke Bowl consists of raw, diced fish alongside other ingredients like rice and vegetables. Delectable sauces are often served alongside. This delicious and nutritious dish is a must-try when in Oahu.
Huli-Huli Chicken is a grilled poultry dish served with the signature Huli-Huli sauce. The sauce is mainly sweet, typically containing pineapple, brown sugar and ginger, but a salty, savory note is also often present due to the addition of soy sauce, black pepper and garlic.
There are plenty of shave ice shops across Oahu, yet this seemingly Hawaiian dessert originated in Japan. It comprises vanilla ice cream topped with various flavors of shaved ice. Apparently, it became popular after Japanese immigrants came to work in the pineapple plantations and prepared it as a refreshing and cooling snack. The original and the best is found at Matsumoto Shave Ice in Haleiwa on the North Shore.
According to legend, the best Hawaiian shrimp comes from Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck, when they converted a 1953 bread truck in 1993. Now, the company owns the land they park on and added a pavilion in 2010. Trying Giovanni’s Garlic Shrimp is a must when in Oahu.
The Dole Food Company devised this soft-serve dessert in the mid-1980s. The original is pineapple, but other fruit flavors include peach, lime, strawberry, orange, lemon, raspberry and watermelon. It’s one to try on Oahu, where pineapple plantations abound. You can try huge serves at the Dole Plantation where you can also visit the gardens and take a train ride through the grounds.
A malasada originates from Portugal, and is basically a donut with no hole. A great, golden malasada is light and fluffy within. Leonard’s Bakery began producing them in 1953, to celebrate Shrove Tuesday, and the establishment is still Oahu’s original malasada bakery.
Get back to nature
Nature experiences on the island are also some of the top things to do in Oahu. Active types can trek to waterfalls or go diving, or you can sit back and relax while looking for green sea turtles or humpback whales. There’s also lots of underwater life to look out for while snorkeling.
View the turtles at Laniakea Beach
Laniakea Beach is famous for its visiting Green Sea Turtles. They come here year-round, at all times of day, though there is slightly more chance of seeing them basking in the sun during summer – as well as when the water is calmer. Make sure to keep your distance and be respectful near these ancient sea creatures.
Spot whales and dolphins
It’s not only humans who are attracted to Hawaii – Humpback Whales from the North Pacific return from December to May each year to breed, give birth and raise their calves. They can be seen from the south coast of Oahu. Taking an organized boat trip can improve your chances of seeing dolphins as well as whales. We saw six whales and tens of dolphins on our boat tour and it was one of the highlights of our trip. The boat departs from outside the Hilton Hawaiian Village hotel >> more details.
Chase amazing waterfalls
Oahu is an island that’s seriously abundant in waterfalls. The walks and hikes to get to them range from the very easy route to Manoa Falls to the seven-mile trek to reach Laie Falls. At Maunawili Falls, there’s a deep, freshwater swimming pool to reward your efforts. Other notable waterfalls include Waimea Falls, the Jackass Ginger Pools, Likeke Falls, Koloa Gulch and Waimano Falls.
Go tropical snorkeling and diving
There are opportunities to dive and snorkel all over Oahu, especially during summer when the waters are calmer, with all manner of sea life to look out for. Rocky Shark’s Cove bay on the North Shore is a top spot – one of the world’s best locations. Other snorkeling beaches include Waimea Bay and Lanikai Beach. If you want to use your trip to Oahu to learn to scuba dive, it’s a great safe place to start. Tropical waters are full of amazing sea life and your Divemaster will make sure you are safe.
Brave the shark dive!
Ever wanted to get up close and personal with a shark? It’s not our cup of tea but plenty of people love the adrenaline rush of being underwater and close to the predators of the sea. Join a shark dive and you can have this experience safely, just off the coast of Oahu. You can watch from the boat or jump into a secure cage in the sea where you’ll be surrounded by fish, dolphins and sharks. This exciting activity takes place on the North Shore but you can arrange a transfer from Waikiki too >> more information.
Head to the beach
Beaches don’t come more pristine than this! The best beaches in Oahu have white sandy bays with clear, tropical blue water. Some are great for experienced surfers, while others are more suited to swimming, bodyboarding, kayaking and snorkeling. Or, if you’re more adventurous – windsurfing, diving or sailing.
The fine white sands of Lanikai beach can be found near Kailua on the windward side of Oahu, and the beach has an offshore reef that ensures safe swimming. Two tiny islands with bird sanctuaries are under a mile from the shore, and can easily be reached by kayak. Snorkeling, windsurfing and sailing are also popular pastimes.
Kailua Beach is just a mile from Lanikai Beach, boasting three miles of clear, calm water and pale sands. Visitors can enjoy using the picnic areas or volleyball court, or perhaps learn how to windsurf.
Sunset beach is located on Oahu’s North Shore. Calm, clear azure waters lap the shore in summer, while in winter the rolling waves are a big draw for experienced surfers – and it’s best left to the experts when such conditions exist. Watching them, and the huge waves, is great fun.
Of all the top 5 beaches in Oahu, Waikiki is the most famous worldwide. At two miles long, the white sands consist of sections connected by a boardwalk. Conditions suit surfers and swimmers all year round, while other popular activities include canoeing, stand-up paddle boarding and beach volleyball.
Like Sunset Beach, Waimea Bay is on the North Shore, and is also renowned for incredible wave action during winter. In summer, calmer waters make it a great spot for snorkeling, diving and swimming.
Waimanalo Bay’s soft sand beach is almost five miles long, and thus one of Oahu’s largest. This scenic Hawaiian beach is good for sunbathing, bodyboarding, walking and fishing, although rougher waters make it less suitable for swimming.
Watch the sunset
The Hawaiian islands are one of the world’s best places to watch the sun set. Choose between a range of pristine beaches with calm, clear waters or rolling surf, and settle down to witness nightfall in one of the world’s most beautiful and tropical settings.
Ala Moana Beach Park
Seeing the sun sink into the horizon at Ala Moana Beach Park can be the perfect end to an idyllic Hawaiian day. The beach park is family-friendly, with picnic tables, tennis courts, shady trees and lots of boats to see.
Sunset beach on Oahu’s North Shore is known for two things – big waves being one. The second is self-explanatory. Sunset here is unmissable, not least because of the rolling surf and those who head back into the water for one last ride before darkness descends.
The calm, clear waters of palm-fringed Ko Olina Lagoons are popular at all times of the day – but especially at sunrise and sunset. This area is great for swimming and snorkeling in safety during daytime too.
Duke’s Bar in Waikiki
Duke’s bar in Waikiki is famed for its beachfront position as well as steak and seafood grills, cocktails and a tiki vibe. Its outdoor deck is a great spot in which to sit with a sundowner as night sets over Waikiki beach.
Why not book one of the romantic sunset cruises in Oahu for a celebration or as a grand finale to your vacation? Setting sail as the day draws to a close is a very popular way to see the sun go down in Hawaii. A typical cruise might include dinner, drinks, music and hula dancing. But you can also organize a more intimate and exclusive experience where you can enjoy
- Waikiki sunset cocktail cruise – sip cocktails and enjoy a range of appetizers as you sail past Waikiki and close to Diamond Head as the sun dips below the horizon. Departs from Kewalo Basin Harbor. Hotel pickups available
- Sunset and show cruise – once the sun dips below the horizon, enjoy a crab and steak dinner with Hawaiian entertainment
How much fun will you have with the best things to do in Oahu, Hawaii
Whether you prefer an action-packed vacation, want to dive into Polynesian culture and American history or simply want to sip a cocktail as the sun sets over a lazy day at the beach, there are all kinds of things to do in Oahu, Hawaii. From learning to surf to tasting local dishes or trekking to waterfalls, our favorite Hawaiian island is bursting with tropical fun for all the family.
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