People flying into Oahu are always asking me what they should do, see, and eat here. While you can’t go wrong with aimlessly exploring, it is good to have at least a few spots set in your agenda. Here’s an all-around list that will give you a good place to start for planning your trip to Oahu.
You’ll find that a lot of these links go out to more destinations and activities. I hope this helps you explore Oahu as a whole as you learn what kind of vacation you want to have here.
Aloha with love,
One of the biggest attractions for any warm island destination: sandy beaches and bright blue waters. On Oahu, you’ll find all kinds of beaches: crowded, non-touristy, sandy, rocky, turtle-friendly, snorkel-friendly, sandy bottom, big surf, flat waters, tidepools…the list goes on.
Here are some of the most popular beaches in Oahu that I think you should consider:
- Waikiki Beach – Famous and popular with tourists and local residents alike, but it’s also beautiful, safe, extremely convenient, there’s plenty to do, and it’s right outside your hotel.
- Sunset Beach and Waimea Bay – Two beaches located in the North Shore that are well-known for their sandy beaches, sunsets, and surf during the winter. The rest of the year, especially during the late summer, both beaches are great even for small children.
- Kailua Beach and Lanikai Beach – Two beaches located in Windward Oahu that are conveniently right next to each other. Both of these beaches are famous for their gorgeous views of the Mokulua Islands (the mokes) and white, powdery sands.
- Waimanalo Beach – I personally really enjoy Waimanalo Beach. It’s a bit of a drive for me since I live in central Oahu, but I like coming here because it’s got that slight local feel to it. The sand here is also white and powdery, which feels amazing between the toes (but gets in every nook and cranny so rinse well before you get back in the car).
- Aweoweo Beach Park – A personal favorite of mine. This is a tiny beach park that’s also on the North Shore but not so close that it’s easily discoverable. There’s just enough space here for a few families to set-up a tent and their BBQs.
- North Shore, Oahu – If you’re interested in beaches, you’ll definitely want to check out the North Shore, Hawaii’s mecca for surfing and beaches. You can get some boutique shopping in and the food here is great!
Oahu has some of the best snorkeling spots in Hawaii. Whether you’re a beginner who needs calm and flat waters, or a veteran looking for interesting rock formations to explore, you’re sure to find some great snorkel spots in Oahu.
- Hanauma Bay State Park – The most famous snorkeling spot in Oahu. Hanauma Bay is a beautiful nature preserve and you’ll find all kinds of sealife swimming around here. This snorkel spot is perfect for beginners as the waters are flat and the beach is protected.
- Queen’s Beach and Sans Souci Beach – The best spot for snorkeling in Waikiki is right in front of these two beaches, aka the Waikiki Marine Life Conservation District, located on the Diamond Head side of Waikiki.
- Electric Beach (Kahe Point) – Located on the Waianae coast (west coast) of Oahu, Electric Beach has deeper waters so I recommend it for strong swimmers and advanced snorkelers. Hawaiian spinner dolphins frequent this area, too! I recommend booking a dolphin excursion if you’re a beginner snorkeler or swimmer and want to see them.
- Shark’s Cove and Three Tables – Both of these are on the North Shore and are a part of the Pupukea Marine Life Conservation District. There’s plenty of fish to see here, but it can be rough during the winter months when the surf swells come in.
- Kuilima Cove – Another great beginner’s snorkeling spot in Oahu located at the Turtle Bay resort. The cove is well protected, there’s plenty of parking, and the snorkeling is great for both beginners and kids.
There’s some pretty fantastic hiking to do in Oahu. I love pretty views and the crowds don’t really bother me since most people are happy to be outside and enjoying Hawaii. Secluded hikes are also easy to find on Oahu despite what you might hear about Oahu being too touristy. If you get out of the city areas, there are plenty of country-like hikes to explore.
- Diamond Head State Monument – Hawaii’s most well-known landmark is a volcanic crater that you can drive into and hike up to the ridge for an incredible view of Waikiki and downtown Honolulu. Yes, it can get crowded, but I love it. It’s a family-friendly hike and the view is really one-of-a-kind.
- Kuliouou Ridge Trail – One of my personal favorites that I recommend to visiting friends who love to hike and have time to squeeze an extra hike in after visiting all of Oahu’s iconic attractions.
- Aiea Loop Trail – A very popular hike for local residents and one I go to often with friends. It’s centrally located and is suitable for even beginner hikers.
- Pauoa Flats Trail – I love that this hike is never really crowded and ends with a fantastic view. You’ll walk on a boardwalk, go through a cool bamboo forest, and finish at a bench on a cliff.
- Kaena Point – There’s a chance you’ll see Hawaiian monk seals, dolphins, and even whales during whale watching season here. This is a flat hike that goes all the way to a bird sanctuary.
The benefits of visiting Oahu is that there is a lot of shopping to do. From big malls to shopping centers to boutiques, there’s a little something for everyone.
- Waikiki – When I think of Waikiki, I’m thinking of Kalakaua Avenue full of hotels, restaurants, and shops. There’s so much to see here and you can find both luxury stores and local boutiques. Try out International Marketplace or 88tees for a start.
- Ala Moana Center – Hawaii’s biggest open-air shopping mall. There are all kinds of stores, restaurants, coffee shops, and even daily outdoor performances on their Centerstage.
- Pearlridge Center – Mostly local residents go to Pearlridge to shop, eat, and hang out. I rarely see tourists here, but it’s a fun place to go for a more local vibe.
- SALT at our Kakaako – If you like boutique shopping, SALT at our Kakaako is a great place to be. I’ve bought some really neat locally made products here.
- Waikele Premium Outlets – The place to go for discounted luxury goods. Along with clothes, bags, and accessories, there’s also a small outdoor food court and a handful of lunch trucks.
- Farmers’ markets – Get your fresh vegetables, fruits, baked goods, and local food products from any of our local farmers’ markets.
- Haleiwa Town – Located in Oahu’s North Shore, this small town is big in personality. Boutique shops, plenty of food, and the gateway to the gorgeous sandy beaches of the North Shore.
A great way to learn about Hawaiian history, culture, and iconic places on Oahu is to visit one of our many museums. As the island with the most tourists, we’ve got some really good ones that are sure to pique your interest.
- Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum – If you want to learn more about Hawaiian history and culture, then Bishop Museum is a must for you. With a huge collection of Hawaiian artifacts, this is a spectacular place to travel back in time to ancient Hawaii.
- Iolani Palace – As the USA’s only royal palace, Iolani Palace is a pretty unique place to visit. It’s European architecture and history of Hawaiian royalty will get any history buff excited.
- Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design – Originally the home of Doris Duke the American billionaire tobacco heiress, her home is a giant collection of Islamic art. Reserve your tickets early as these run out quick.
- Pearl Harbor National Memorial – One of Hawaii’s most-visited attractions is Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial. It’s a really eye-opening place to visit as you’ll be walking the area where the attack on Pearl Harbor happened.
Tours & activities
While much of Hawaii’s best attractions like snorkeling and hiking are free, there are plenty of paid tours and activities to do that give you a more personal and in-depth experience of what Oahu has to offer. From fun experiences like surfing to more authentic experiences such as personal tour guides around the island, I encourage you to do at least a few of these during your trip to Oahu.
- Book on Aloha With Tours – Visit my sister site, AlohaWithTours.com, for my personally-curated collection of authentic experiences that you can do in Hawaii. You’ll be supporting local and booking directly with these local tour companies.
- Book on HawaiiActivities.com – Browse and book all of the Oahu activities and tours available. There are some great seasonal discounts on this site, too!
Botanical gardens in Oahu are often free and are a wonderful oasis since this island can be crowded at times. I love that moment when you enter a botanical garden and the city sounds, smells, and vehicle noise falls away and all you hear are birds chirping and the wind blowing.
- Hoomaluhia Botanical Garden – If you have time to walk Hoomaluhia Botanical Garden, you won’t regret it. But a quick drivThis place is gigantic and the view of the Koolau mountain range is fantastic.
- Moanalua Botanical Garden – The famous monkeypod tree is the big draw to visit this local gem. More large park than garden, there is plenty of space to run, picnic, and walk here.
- Pearl City Urban Garden Center – I really enjoy visiting this urban garden center because of the large varieties of plants and fruit trees they have growing. Their rose garden is Oahu’s only public rose garden and is managed by The Honolulu Rose Society and the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.
- Foster Botanical Garden – If you’re in downtown Honolulu and are looking to get away from it all, Foster Botanical Garden will transport you to another world. Filled with exotic trees and cool air, the downtown noise disappears and you may find yourself laying down to take a nap!
There are so many viewpoints, vistas, and scenic spots in Oahu that it’s difficult to list them all! While you can usually see a gorgeous view on a hike, sometimes driving to a scenic point is worth the trip. Here are a few of my personal favorites:
- Tantalus Lookout (Puu Ualakaa State Park) – Drive up a windy mountain road to get to Tantalus Lookout. The view is spectacular and it’s fun to point out the different areas you recognize such as Waikiki, Pearl Harbor, Diamond Head, and the Honolulu International Airport.
- Punchbowl Cemetery (National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific) – No tour shuttles or buses are allowed up here, but if you have a car, you are welcome to visit and walk the grounds. This local gem has a beautiful view of Honolulu that you’ll enjoy.
- Halona Blowhole – Lava has created unique tunnels with each eruption and the Halona Blowhole is one that is fun to watch. With each powerful wave, you can see the ocean spray shoot up into the air against the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean.
- Nuuanu Pali Lookout – One of my favorites that I take my visiting friends to all the time. I usually make this a stop when I drive circle island.
- Laie Point – On the North Shore on a residential road, Laie Point has a neat legend
Food & beverages
There is so much to eat and drink in Oahu, it’s impossible to list them all. But there are a few things that you should try if you happen to see them on the menu.
- Fresh poke – Poke (pronounced poh-kay) is basically flavored raw fish. Ahi poke is the most popular and if you live here, you’ll see it all the time if anyone holds a party at their house. The easiest place to try some poke out is at any Foodland. They always have a nice selection of poke and it’s where most local residents get their poke.
- Plate lunch – A plate lunch usually comes in a to-go box and comes with 2 scoops of rice, mac salad, and a meat dish on a bed of sliced cabbage. A lot of food trucks with local food will offer plate lunches. My favorite is Rainbow Drive-In in Kapahulu.
- Shave ice – Yes, we call it shave ice and not shaved ice here in Hawaii. You can find shave ice at dessert food trucks, shave ice stands, and events. It’s a popular sweet dessert that tastes especially great on hot days. Try out famous shave ice at Matsumoto Shave Ice or Waiola Shave Ice.
- Musubi – Another thing to try are musubis. Most common are the spam musubis. For school field trips, it’s common for local kids to get 2 spam musubis for lunch. But these days, you can find all kinds of toppings such as teriyaki chicken, fried chicken, and even add-ons like avocado and egg. If you’re in Waikiki, walk down to Musubi Cafe Iyasume to see their selection.
Read more: Local Shave Ice Combos