Oahu is the crown jewel of the Pacific, home to a bustling urban city, vast swathes of verdant countryside, some of the best waves and beaches on planet earth, as well as endless shopping and dining opportunities.
There are countless Oahu activities to enjoy. From the lively, resort-lined streets of Waikiki to flourishing countryside taro farms, Oahu is firmly planted in the ways of both old and new Hawaii and offers a myriad of experiences for travelers from near and far. Foodies, beach bums, shopaholics, nature lovers, and history buffs will easily find their step on the third largest Hawaiian Island.
To help narrow down your likely overwhelmed itinerary, here are what we consider to be the top things to do on Oahu.
1. Tour Pearl Harbor
The Pearl Harbor Memorial is the #1 attraction in the state, allowing visitors to learn about one of the most pivotal moments in both Hawaiian and US history. After a period of closure, the USS Arizona Memorial Program is now open and again welcoming visitors to pay homage to the 2,403 people who lost their lives in the 1941 attack. Free to all visitors, the USS Arizona Memorial Program includes a short film about the attack on Pearl Harbor and a visit to the sunken USS Arizona. Reservations are recommended; however, walk-up tickets are available first come first serve. Separate from the national memorial, visitors will also find the Battleship Missouri Memorial, Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum, and the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum located within the harbor.
2. Visit The North Shore
Surfer’s from near and far call Oahu’s North Shore the “seven-mile miracle.” The North Shore is home to world-class waves like Pipeline, Sunset Beach, and Waimea Bay. In the winter months, these waves come alive and play host to some of the world’s most famous surfing competitions. The north shore beaches become far less treacherous in the summer months and open up fantastic snorkeling opportunities. Aside from the area’s surfing splendor, the north shore is known for its laid-back vibe and country feel. The colorful Haleiwa Town is a great place to grab a bite to eat, do some window shopping, or even partake in a surf lesson at the nearby Haleiwa Beach Park. Waimea Valley is also a draw for visitors to the north shore, boasting cultural activities, botanical gardens, and even a waterfall-fed swimming hole.
3. Explore Waikiki and Downtown Honolulu
The effect of one of Hawaii’s first reforestation projects, Polipoli Spring State Recreation Area is a sight to behold: Ten splendid acres that sweep through Maui’s fog belt and give way to stunning views of its south-side beaches 6,400 feet below (thereby rendering it the highest-elevation hike on the island aside from Haleakala Crater).
For local Oahuans, the area spanning from Honolulu to Waikiki is simply known as “town.” Waikiki is Hawaii’s hub for tourism, home to glimmering white sand beaches, opulent resorts, and countless shopping and dining opportunities. Further west, Downtown Honolulu offers an entirely different taste of “town.” This part of Oahu’s south shore is less centered on tourism. Instead, Downtown is home to some of the most historical sites on Oahu, like the Iolani Palace- the home of Hawaii’s last two monarchs and the site of the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Exploring Downtown Honolulu will reveal other splendors, such as a bustling Chinatown, massive botanical gardens, art districts, and local breweries.
4. Go On A Hike, Or Two, Or Three, Or Four…
Like the song goes, “From the mountains to the ocean, from the windward to the leeward side….” Oahu is home to a myriad of climates and hiking trails to boot. Diamond Head is one of the most popular hikes on the island, offering expansive city and ocean views only minutes from the streets of Waikiki. From Koko Head to Kaena Point and beyond, there are hiking trails that suit all types of fitness levels and offer visitors a chance to immerse themselves in Hawaii’s raw elements. Explore the lush network of trails at Mt. Tantalus, or take in the sweeping views from the Makapu’u Lighthouse trail. The choice is yours!
5. Try The Local Cuisine
Much like the islands themselves, Hawaii’s local cuisines span an array of cultures. From Hawaii staples like spam musubis, loco mocos, and poke to imported favorites like malasadas (fried Portuguese donuts coated in sugar and cinnamon), there are endless opportunities to try unique fares in the islands. One of the most famous places for a local bite is Leonard’s Bakery, which became an island staple for malasadas after opening in 1952. A stop at one of Leonard’s several locations is an essential stop on a food tour of Oahu.
6. Go Snorkeling
Snorkeling is high on the list of Oahu must-dos. Luckily, there are fantastic snorkeling spots on nearly every side of the island, with a handful of locations that are more than suitable for first-time snorkelers. Hanauma Bay is Oahu’s most renowned snorkeling spot, and if you are lucky enough to snag a reservation, you’ll be greeted by the beauty of one of Hawaii’s most preserved and cared-for reefs. Over on the North Shore, the reef at Shark’s Cove rivals that at Hanauma Bay- although this spot should be avoided in the winter months. Beginners will love the protected shallow waters at Ko Olina Cove and the North Shore’s Kuilima Cove.
If a regular ole snorkel sesh sounds a bit boring to you, consider taking a shark diving tour. While most people pray they don’t encounter a shark while snorkeling, an entire industry on Oahu has been devoted to bringing visitors face to face with the ocean’s apex predator. Oahu is the only island in the state that offers shark dives, and it’s certainly something you won’t forget any time soon.
7. Spend A Day At The Polynesian Cultural Center
Touted as the #1 paid attraction in Hawaii, the Polynesian Culture Center shares the history, traditions, and culture of six island nations across the Pacific. This living museum takes visitors on a journey across the Pacific through six villages located within the park. Each village represents a Polynesian culture, spanning the likes of Hawaii, Tahiti, Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, and New Zealand. Here guests can partake in immersive experiences, from learning how to dance the hula to trying their hand at starting a fire the traditional Samoan way. After dark, the Cultural Center hosts one of Hawaii’s most acclaimed luaus, Ha: The Breath of Life.
8. Go Beach Hopping
Oahu is home to seemingly countless beaches, from the busy sands at Waikiki to the protected shores on the east side. Each side of the island offers something unique, and finding your favorite beach is an adventure in itself. The bleached white sand and mellow waves at Lanikai Beach in Kailua are a favorite among visitors and locals alike, while others might prefer the dramatic mountain backdrop and thumping shore break at Yokohama Bay on the west side.
9. Tour Kualoa Ranch
Far from the busy streets of Waikiki, Kualoa Ranch is settled on 4,000 lush acres on Oahu’s windward side. Located at the base of a gaping valley, Kualoa Ranch hosts a multitude of exciting activities, like ziplining, horseback riding, and UTV tours. If this sweeping verdant valley looks familiar, that’s because it’s been used as a set for famous TV shows and movies, most notably Jurassic Park. In fact, Jurassic fans can even take a tour that visits some of the franchise’s most iconic sites.
10. Go To A Luau
What would a visit to Hawaii be without a night spent under the stars, enjoying the fares, flavors, and cultures of Polynesia? Undoubtedly one of the most quintessential Hawaiian activities, luaus offer visitors both a night of quality entertainment and an introduction to Polynesian culture.