Things to Do in Oahu
Honolulu is so much more than just the sunny resort area of Waikiki, where white sands stretch all the way to iconic Diamond Head. The capital city is Hawaii’s commercial and urban heart, with first-class museums, shopping, dining, clubs, and bars. And every year millions of visitors from around the globe find aloha in Honolulu, where surfboards, sunsets, swimming, and taking it slow are simply a way of life.
Made up of several historic sites and memorials, Pearl Harbor honors and educates the public about the Japanese attack on the United States on December 7, 1941 that propelled the country into World War II. It’s one of Hawaii’s most-visited attractions, and one of the country’s most significant WWII memorial sites.
The USSArizona Memorial floats above the watery site where the eponymous battleship was bombed and sunk, taking 1,177 lives with it, in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The solemn, all-white memorial features a marble wall of names of those who served onboard and spans theArizona’s width, with openings to look down on the sunken hull.
Arguably Hawaii's most well-known sight, Diamond Head Crater is more than just a famous Waikiki backdrop but also an entire attraction unto itself, featuring one of Oahu's best hikes for a panoramic view. From atop the 760-foot (231-meter) summit, visitors can gaze out from Koko Head Crater to the Honolulu skyline and down on Waikiki Beach, where surfers, paddlers, sailboats, and canoes all splash through the tropical waters.
For decades, Waikiki Beach has been Oahu’s tourist mecca thanks to its palm-fringed white-sand beaches and high-rise luxury hotels that stretch from downtown Honolulu east toward the towering Diamond Head. Here all the spoils of Hawaiian beach life—from sunbathing and swimming to snorkeling and fruity-cocktail sipping—are within steps of world-class shopping and dining.
What started out as a Wahiawa fruit stand in the middle of the pineapple fields in 1950 is now an extremely popular Hawaiian attraction. The sprawling Dole Plantation in central Oahu is a rural throwback to a time when the pineapple helped rule Oahu’s economy. Visitors can sample the sweet yellow fruit, ride on the famous Pineapple Express train and motor out through the fields, take a walk through a huge garden maze, learn how to find fresh pineapple when grocery shopping, and hear how pineapples are grown on plants—and not underground or on trees.
Planted firmly on the lawn of Aliiolani Hale, the State Supreme Court building, is the most visited of all the statues honoring King Kamehameha I in Hawaii. The 18-foot bronze icon with golden-colored detailing was erected in 1883 and depicts a spear-wielding and cloak-draped Kamehameha the Great, the first Hawaiian monarch and the ruler credited with uniting the Islands under single rule in 1810.
Each year on a date near the June 11 state holiday commemorating King Kamehameha, community groups build massive flower lei garlands and drape them over the Honolulu statue using the ladder from a fire truck. The popular lei draping ceremony commemorates the King’s significance and kicks off week-long celebrations of colorful parades and festivals throughout the Islands.
The story of the statue’s procurement also undoubtedly adds to its allure: Constructed in Europe, the sculpture took several years to make, and, when finally finished and rounding the horn of South America, (the Panama Canal wasn’t completed until 1914) the ship carrying it wrecked near the Falkland Islands. Using insurance money, a second statue was quickly built and arrived in Honolulu without incident; this is the statue that stands here today. Meanwhile, Falkland fishermen were able to retrieve the sunken original and sold it to back to the then-U.S. territory, where the strikingly similar sculpture still stands not far from the king’s birthplace on Hawaii Island. Another Kamehameha figure, made from molds of the Honolulu version, is one of two statues representing the state of Hawaii in the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, DC.
Within Kaiwi State Scenic Shoreline on Oahu’s Windward Coast, the Makapu’u Point Lighthouse Trail is a popular hike ending at the historical red-roofed Makapu’u Lighthouse, built in 1909. Though the lighthouse is not open to the public, the moderately challenging hike attracts travelers and locals alike for its stunning coastal views.
Nicknamed the “Mighty Mo,” the USS Missouri—now known as the Battleship Missouri Memorial—is the site where the Japanese signed the surrender documents that ended World War II, on September 2, 1945. The ship is now a museum and a memorial to the war’s conclusion.
Surfing is king on Oahu’s North Shore, where summer’s placid snorkeling spots are transformed into pounding 40-foot (12-meter) waves come winter. On land you’ll find a peaceful respite from hectic Honolulu, with scenic waterfall hikes, sleepy farms selling tropical fruit, and food trucks doling out garlic shrimp.
More Things to Do in Oahu
Circular Hanauma Bay is a particularly attractive, sheltered inlet of turquoise water, carved from a submerged volcanic crater east of Diamond Head.
The sandy beach park is popular with families, with its calm waters, lifeguards, and gentle diving and snorkeling. Picnic tables overlook the bay, and you can rent diving equipment.
The area is a Nature Preserve and Marine Life Conservation District, and when you visit there’s a short film to watch about the marine life before you head down to the beach.
While diving you should spot green turtles, parrotfish and coral.
Once visitors are aware that hālona means “lookout” in Hawaiian, it becomes quite clear what the Halona Blowhole is about: views, Pacific Ocean and blowhole! The Halona Blowhole is one of the most spectacular natural wonders on O’ahu Island; the more than 1,000-year-old geyser-like rock formation is characterized by a hole which propels incoming surf in a narrow, molten lava tube, shooting sea spray high into the air as a result - sometimes up to 30 feet. This is mostly a summery phenomenon but wintertime also has a big ticket item drawing visitors: humpback whales. The lookout point offers unobstructed views of the O’ahu shoreline as well as glimpses of Lanai and Moloka'I Islands on clear days.
The coast is home to a special type of coral that requires very little light to live, the Sinularia Leather Coral, where it is possible to find various species like echinoderms, slugs, corals, and eels. And although the marine life is quite plentiful and fascinating, divers should proceed with caution because of the strong and sometimes erratic currents, including the colloquially named Moloka'i Express, which can drag divers out to sea without warning. Visitors should know that below the hālona is one of the most dangerous ocean currents in the world, and should always proceed with care.
At Paradise Cove on Oahu, guests are treated to a variety of Hawaiian experiences, including a tour of a traditional Hawaiian village, arts and crafts, and a luau. From a welcome Mai Tai and flower lei to dinner, fire dancing, and hula performances, guests are immersed in Hawaiian hospitality and culture.
Maunalua Bay is a popular bay for water sports activities on Oahu’s south shore. Home to many stand up paddlers and kayakers, snorkelers and divers also come to explore the nearby reef. Hawaiian for “two mountains,” Maunalua Bay is framed by the Ko’olau range and sits by the peaks of Koko Crater and Koko Head.
Famous for its sunsets, the adventure beach is especially popular among Honolulu’s boaters and jet skiers who come to make the most of Maunalua Bay’s launch site. Look out for parasailers while you’re here too, and if you’re coming to Maunalua Bay to snorkel or scuba dive the reef is a mile out to shore, its crystal-clear waters full of colorful reef fish and bright green sea turtles. If you’d rather relax, there are also park benches available on the shore where it’s popular to enjoy a picnic under the setting sun.
Kualoa Ranch is a one-stop adventure playground and a highlight for many travelers to Oahu. Stretching from the verdant folds of the Koolau Mountains to the tropical sea, the 4,000-acre (1,619-hectare) working cattle ranch is one of the largest tracts of accessible nature on Oahu and offers visitors a huge variety of ways to interact with Hawaii’s stunning landscapes, from ATV rides and zipline adventures to film site tours. The property is divided into two areas: the northerly Kaaawa Valley with its many movie locations, and Hakipuu Valley, fronted by an 800-year-old Hawaiian fishpond and the site’s Secret Island Beach.
Located a short distance offshore of Kualoa Point, Mokolii Island is one of Oahu’s most famous landmarks. This small, cone-shaped island attracts adventurous visitors with its secluded coves, rugged hikes, and views of Oahu’s windward coast and the Koolau mountains; the same mountains featured in scenes of the movie Jurassic Park.
Located on the east coast of Oahu, 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Honolulu, Tropical Farms Macadamia Nuts is set in the shadow of the mountains of the Koolau Range and is a stop on many circle-island tours. It’s a great place to enjoy a Hawaiian treat and shop for gifts and souvenirs.
The United States’ only official royal palace, Honolulu’s painstakingly refurbished Iolani Palace holds stories of Hawaii’s royal past. Queen Lili‘uokalani, the last Hawaiian monarch, ruled from—and then was imprisoned within—these walls. Browse ornate gifts to, and portraits of, the Hawaiian royal families, plus artifacts from their reigns.
Oahu’s Nu‘uanu Pali Lookout offers panoramic views of the Ko‘olau Mountains. The windy perch, more than 1,000 feet (300 meters) above Oahu’s Windward (northeast) coastline, also overlooks Kaneohe, Kaneohe Bay, Kailua, and the island of Mokoli‘i. In the late 1700s, the viewpoint was the scene of a bloody battle won by King Kamehameha I.
Otherwise and colloquially known as Punchbowl Cemetery, the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific is a United States Armed Forces cemetery in Honolulu, Hawaii. Part of the National Register of Historic Places, the cemetery gathers millions of visitors every year, making it one of the most popular tourist attractions in all of Hawaii. It is dedicated to Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard members who lost their lives in their line of duty.
The location of the cemetery wasn’t the fruit of coincidence; it is located on what Hawaiians called “Hill of Sacrifice,” which used to be an altar where they offered human sacrifices to pagan gods and where they installed a battery of two cannons used to salute prominent arrivals and signify noteworthy instances.
Since the site was established in 1949, approximately 53,000 World War I, World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans and their dependents have been interred in these grounds – including the sadly infamous USS Arizona victims during the Pearl Harbor attack. In addition to its vast burial grounds, the cemetery contains a number of small memorials, such as that of Honolulu, commemorating soldiers of 20th-century wars. The memorial is often regarded as the highlight of the cemetery’s visit, because of Lady Columbia’s statue erected at the top of the staircase in the Court of Honor; also known as Lady Liberty or Lady Justice, she is said to represent all grieving mothers.
Surrounded by lush grounds, Oahu’s Byodo-In Temple is tucked away in the Kahaluʻu Valley at the foot of the Koʻolau mountain range. A replica of a temple in Japan’s Kyoto Prefecture, the landmark is a testament to the island’s strong Japanese community.
The white-sand strand at Oahu’s Kailua Beach Park is a popular spot to watch the sunrise, and early risers are often out running the beach or swimming in the relatively calm waters before dawn. As it gets a good amount of wind, the beach is also a top destination for windsurfers, catamaran sailors, and kite surfers.
When U.S. President Barack Obama shared that Sandy’s was his favorite Oahu beach early in his presidency, it went from a popular locals’ beach to just plain popular. This public stretch of white sand just north of the extinct Koko Head Crater is no languid oasis, however; it’s one of Oahu’s best—and most intense—spots for bodyboarding and bodysurfing. A fierce shore break best suited for experienced surfers sometimes wells into powerful barrels that can pummel riders trying to catch a wave.
The spot is often coupled with a visit to the neighboring Halona Blowhole, a lookout point where waves regularly blow spray up through eroded crevices in the lava rock. And when the wind kicks up, it’s not uncommon to see families flying kites on the spacious lawn fronting the sand.
The Banzai Pipeline, one of the most famous surf breaks along Oahu’s Seven Mile Miracle, is known by wave riders the world over. This is no beginners’ break: Pipeline has earned its reputation as one of the most intense on the planet. The danger here is the same thing forms its ridable tubes—an abrupt and shallow coral shelf that causes the water mounds to topple quickly and very close to the shoreline. Experts try their luck when Pipeline pounds between October and April with waves heights averaging 15 feet.
As one might imagine, with surf crashing close to shore, Pipeline is a sight to behold even for landlubbers. Gawkers come out in droves to see the spectacular sunsets over the tropical waves, but especially to see the pros shred it. The Billabong Pipe Masters’ challenge—the final competition in the World Surf League’s competitive season and culminating event of the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing—selects its winner here each December.
In the summer months, it can be hard to recognize The Pipe. The ocean pulls a 180, the wind and the waves die down and the waters off Banzai Beach become a popular snorkeling spot.