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Inside: Only have a few days to spend on Oahu? Here are the top 7 things to do on Hawaii’s most popular island.
If you’re planning a visit to the incredible island of Oahu, lucky you!
It’s a fabulous island with SO much to see and do. Trust me on that one, I live here and I’m still finding great new places to explore every day!
But many visitors to the island of Oahu spend just a few days in world-famous Waikiki and then continue on to Maui, Kauai, or the Big Island.
And that’s a shame.
Sure, as a Waikiki resident, I agree that it’s fabulous. But there’s so much more to see and do around the island of Oahu.
And once you leave the traffic of Waikiki behind to explore the rest of the island, you’ll quickly discover what most visitors miss. That Oahu is home to a few incredible spots that rival some the best sights anywhere around the world.
What are the best things to do on Oahu?
If you Google the “best things to do on Oahu” you’ll undoubtedly discover a barrage of articles like “50 Top Things to do on Oahu” or “30 Must-Do Activities in Oahu.”
I hate those kinds of articles. Who has time to tackle 30 or 50 things to do on a vacation? I’m exhausted just reading those titles.
What you really want to know are the BEST things to do on the island.
The places and sights you really can’t miss when you visit Oahu. The places that make the island unique and special.
And that’s where I come in.
But first, you might be wondering…
Do I need a rental car on Oahu?
Need? No. Especially if you’re staying in Waikiki where many of the best things to see and do are within walking distance.
Tours are available to pretty much every point of interest on the island and most island tours will include a pickup at your hotel.
There’s really no need to book a tour to any of the places on my list. So if you want to get out and explore the island on your own (and you should!) you’ll need your own wheels. At least for a day or two.
To find the best deal on rental cars in Oahu, I like RentalCars.com.
Keep in mind that most hotels in Waikiki have pretty high daily parking fees ($35-45 per day). To dodge that, consider renting a car in town for your last day (or two) in Oahu and returning it at the airport. The cost of overnight parking will be offset by the taxi ride you’ll save to the airport (about $50).
It’s a good idea to book your rental car well in advance. During the Covid pandemic, many rental car companies sold off much of their fleet. Thankfully, supply is slowly increasing on the islands and rental car availability is returning to normal.
If you do drive in Oahu, you’ll quickly discover that traffic in Honolulu is generally awful.
Fortunately, once you get outside the city, driving is easy and carefree. Just allow plenty of time when you head back to the airport.
But enough about traffic…let’s get to the good stuff!
The 7 Best Things to Do on Oahu
Before moving to Oahu in 2023, I visited more than 20 times (11 of those to run the Honolulu Marathon), so I’ve always considered myself “in the know” about all the best things to do on Oahu.
I’ve also traveled to more than 175 countries so I’m pretty well versed in awesome places to visit around the world.
(Read more about that here: Round the World in 30 Days.)
And I contend that there are some amazing places on Oahu that compare quite favorably to some of the world’s best destinations.
So, humor me as I make a few loose global comparisons…off we go!
1. Soak up the glitz and glam of Waikiki Beach
There are few cities in the world that combine a brilliant beach with a cosmopolitan downtown vibe like Waikiki.
While there may be better, and certainly less crowded, beaches on Oahu (see #5 below ), Waikiki Beach is a must-see for any visitor to Hawaii.
You could spend a week just exploring Waikiki alone. But if you only have a week, spend half your time here and the rest exploring further afield.
Here are a few of my favorite things to do in Waikiki:
1. Shop Waikiki’s magnificent mile
Kalakaua Avenue is the premier shopping destination on the island of Oahu. Known as the “Heart of Waikiki,” you’ll find everything from Chanel and Gucci to surf shops and the uniquely Hawaiian ABC Stores along Kalakaua Avenue.
While most flock to the high-end boutiques, I am a sucker for an ABC Store. Conveniently, there’s one located on literally every block. I’m serious, you cannot swing a ukulele in Waikiki without hitting an ABC Store.
The ABC Stores have you covered for everything from affordable Hawaiian souvenirs and sunscreen to adult beverages, snacks, and over-the-counter medications.
If you need it, the nearest ABC Store probably has it.
2. Take a sunset catamaran sail
One of my absolute favorite things to do in Waikiki is to get out on the water for a sunset catamaran sail.
A number of companies offer nightly trips departing from Waikiki Beach. Most cruises last approximately 2 hours, include free-flowing mai tais, and offer a stunning view of the Waikiki skyline at sunset.
3. Honor Waikiki’s own Duke Kahanamoku & learn to surf
On any given morning in Waikiki, you’ll find dozens of early morning surfers looking to catch the perfect wave. For centuries surfing has been part of the ancient Polynesian culture. But in the early 1900’s, an Olympic swimmer from Hawaii introduced the sport to the world.
A 5-time Olympic medalist in swimming from 1912 to 1932, Duke Kahanamoku was also an actor, lawman, beach volleyball player, and businessman. Between Olympic competitions and after his retirement, he traveled the world giving swimming and surfing exhibitions.
His surfing exhibition at Sydney’s Freshwater Beach in 1914 is widely credited with jump-starting the sport in Australia. Today, Duke’s legacy is alive and well in Hawaii.
The Duke Kahanamoku Statue stands watch over Waikiki Beach adorned with leis placed daily on his outstretched arms. Honor Duke by trying your hand at surfing while in Waikiki (you know you want to!).
Surf lessons are readily available along Waikiki Beach and there’s no better place in the world to learn.
Or, just do what I do and honor Duke’s memory with one of my favorite mai tais at the Waikiki landmark – Duke’s Canoe Club & Barefoot Bar.
2. Remember Pearl Harbor at the USS Arizona Memorial
In the early morning hours of December 7, 1941, as the 185 vessels of the U.S. Pacific Fleet lay calm and serene, the first wave of Japanese aircraft entered Hawaiian airspace and began what would be the U.S. Navy’s greatest defeat.
It was a “day that will live in infamy.”
At 8:06am, the USS Arizona exploded when an armor-piercing bomb slammed through its deck. In less than 9 minutes, it sank with 1,177 of its crew, a total loss. The attack on Pearl Harbor continued in waves throughout the day hammering the harbor and surrounding airfields.
In the end, 21 vessels were sunk or damaged and 2,390 Americans were dead with countless wounded. World War II had come to America.
Decades later, the USS Arizona Memorial was established at Pearl Harbor to honor those who died in the attack. Its construction was completed in 1961 and it was dedicated in 1962.
In the words of its architect, Alfred Preis, the design of the memorial “which sags in the center but stands strong and vigorous at the ends, expresses initial defeat and ultimate victory. The overall effect is one of serenity.”
Like the beaches of Normandy or the concentration camps of Auschwitz, a visit to Pearl Harbor is an important but somber glimpse into World World II history.
Need to Know Info: Tickets to visit the Arizona Memorial are free. However, they are timed and frequently book up. Reservations can now be made online up to 8 weeks in advance (an increase from the previous 1 week) and are highly recommended. Plan to arrive 1-hour before your reservation time. The Pearl Harbor Visitor Center is open daily from 7:00am-5:00pm and admission is free.
3. Snorkel the marine park of Hanauma Bay
The pristine marine ecosystem of Hanauma Bay was formed within a volcanic cone creating a natural marine park. The curved bay has been a favorite of Native Hawaiians for thousands of years and is etched deeply in Hawaiian history.
In fact, records show that even Hawaiian royalty often stayed at the bay in the 1800s for recreation.
These days, Hanauma Bay often sees 3000 visitors per day. Since the 1990’s, a concerted effort has been made to reduce mass tourism and limit damage to marine life. Limiting visitors and educating tourists on the bay’s natural wildlife is a big part of the conservation plan.
First-time visitors to Hanauma Bay must first watch a 9-minute video to understand the marine life, preservation, and safety rules for the park. Reservations are now required to visit and must be made in advance online through the Hawaii Parks and Recreation Department.
Tip: Make your reservations early, the limit on the number of daily visitors to Hanauma Bay (1000 people per day) means it is often fully booked a few days in advance.
Need to Know Info: Closed Mondays & Tuesdays, all other days open 6:45am-4:00pm (last entry at 2:00pm). The entry fee for adults is $25 (locals and kids 12 and under are free). Parking is $3 (cash only) and the lot fills quickly. Bring your own snorkel gear, snacks, and beverages. Find the latest info for Hanauma Bay State Park here.
4. Take a Sunrise Hike up Diamond Head Crater
Believed extinct for more than 150,000 years, the volcanic tuff cone known as Diamond Head crater defines the skyline of Hawaii’s most famous beach, Waikiki.
But this U.S. State Monument is more than just the anchor to an iconic view. Visitors to Oahu can hike the interior of Diamond Head crater up to Fire Control Station Diamond Head at the summit.
Built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1908, the historic trail features tunnels, underground command posts, and steep switchbacks along the mile and a half journey to the top.
It’s a challenging climb but not overly strenuous. Hikers who persevere are rewarded at the summit with dazzling views over Waikiki and all of downtown Honolulu.
My best international comparison is the hike up Table Mountain for the panoramic views over Cape Town, South Africa. Though, that hike is considerably more difficult.
And on a personal note…
I’m especially partial to this hike since getting engaged up there during a particularly beautiful sunrise in 2014. Yes, it was incredibly romantic. And yes, the Japanese tour groups cheered. Bless them.
BONUS: Hike Diamond Head on a Saturday & catch the KCC Farmers’ Market
Every Saturday morning from 7:30am-11:00am, you’ll find the island’s best tasty treats and natural products at the KCC Farmer’s Market. Set up in the parking lot of Kapiolani Community College, it’s just across the street from Diamond Head State Monument. If you hike at sunrise, the timing is perfect to hit the market on your way back to town.
The KCC Farmers’ Market is one of my favorite things to do on Oahu, yet most visitors don’t know about it (it’s a favorite for locals, though!). Food, music, fun, what more could you ask for?
Try a fresh tropical fruit smoothie, a delicious Hawaiian plate breakfast, or shop for authentic local products. Come hungry, you’ll thank me later.
And hey, after that hike, you deserve it!
Need to Know Info: Diamond Head State Monument is currently open daily, 6:00am-4:00pm (gates close at 6:00pm). Entrance fee for pedestrians – $5, Parking – $10. CREDIT CARD ONLY, no cash accepted. Bring water, if you walk from Waikiki, there’s a gas station about halfway where I usually grab a bottle so I don’t have to carry it for the entire walk. The latest updates can be found here.
Note: All out-of-state visitors now need a reservation to visit Diamond Head State Monument. Reservations can be made up to 30 days in advance.
5. Lounge on Oahu’s Best Beach – Lanikai Beach
Located near the town of Kailua on Oahu’s windward coast, Lanikai Beach is considered Oahu’s best beach. In fact, these silky white sands and gentle turquoise seas rival those in more far-flung Pacific destinations like Tahiti or Fiji.
The calm waters of Lanikai Beach are perfect for watersports, swimming, or just lounging about on your favorite float.
Need to Know Info: The drive from Waikiki takes 35-45 minutes depending on traffic. There’s no “official” parking lot at Lanikai so go early or street parking in this residential neighborhood can be a challenge.
Tip: Kailua Beach State Park is less than a mile down the road. If you can’t find legal street parking in Lanikai, park here and walk. Or, just spend your day on the equally fab Kailua Beach.
6. Drive Oahu’s North Shore
Less than an hour’s drive from the glitzy crowds of Waikiki Beach, Oahu’s laid-back North Shore is known for big waves, daredevil surfers and fish tacos served from a truck.
Considered the surfing mecca of the world, every December the North Shore hosts 3 major surfing competitions known collectively as the Triple Crown of Surfing. In the summer months, this relaxed surfing community is a great place to escape the throngs in Waikiki.
But unlike the calm waters of those Thai islands, don’t attempt a swim here unless your big wave skill level is somewhere in the neighborhood of expert.
Here are a 3 can’t miss stops on a driving tour of the North Shore:
1. Haleiwa Town
Start your visit to the North Shore in the charming surf town of Haleiwa. Oozing with island history, Haleiwa is the hub of the North Shore. From surf shops to local art galleries, a stroll through Haleiwa Town is a must.
Be sure to stop for a shave ice (Hawaii’s tasty twist on the snow cone).
2. Waimea Bay
The North Shore is known for picturesque, empty beaches and Waimea Bay is one of the best. In the summer months, the water here is often calm enough for swimming (unlike the rest of the North Shore’s beaches!).
If you like to live dangerously, you can even try your hand at cliff jumping off Waimea Bay’s big rock. Full disclosure, I do not live that dangerously, but I enjoy photographing those who do!
3. The BEST North Shore Food Trucks!
Now that you’ve built up an appetite, you’ve come to the right place. Head straight for one of the North Shore’s numerous food trucks for fresh garlic shrimp or tantalizing fish tacos.
You’ll find plenty of food trucks clustered in Haleiwa Town and across from Shark’s Cove. But Kahuku is ground zero for the widest assortment of food truck options.
Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck (Haleiwa and Kahuku) is one of the most popular. But it’s also typically the one with the longest wait. I’ve yet to have a bad meal at a North Shore food truck so feel free to avoid the crowd and sniff around.
Da Bald Guy is another great one. Or, if you’re looking for an amazing burger, seek out Seven Brothers (several locations along the North Shore).
Bonus Find: Leonard’s Malasada Truck, “MalasadaMobile.” Portuguese in origin, a malasada is basically a fried donut without a hole, often containing a delicious filling. Leonard’s Bakery is Hawaii’s original malasada bakery and has been making malasadas in the Portuguese tradition since 1953.
Tip: If your relaxed day on the North Shore inspires a permanent change of scenery from the high energy of Waikiki, book a room at the Turtle Bay Resort. There’s no better place to truly get away from it all on Oahu.
Need to Know Info: The drive up to the North Shore takes about an hour from Waikiki. On the way, don’t miss a stop at the Dole Pineapple Plantation. Take a spin through the maze and cool down with an iconic “Dole Whip.”
7. Go Hollywood at Kualoa Ranch
Just as Mount Aspiring National Park is New Zealand’s most popular movie backlot, Kualoa Ranch is considered “Hollywood central” in the Hawaiian Islands.
This 4000-acre private nature reserve has served as the filming location for a wide variety of movies and TV shows. From Hawaii Five-0 and LOST to Jumanji and the Jurassic Park series (though most of the films were shot on Kauai), Kualoa Ranch is a fun detour when visiting Oahu.
Visitors can tour popular movie sites by ATV, glide down a zipline, bike or hike nature trails, or take a horseback ride to explore the ranch’s incredible natural beauty.
Need to Know Info: Open daily from 7:30am-6:00pm. Tour prices vary by activity.
And there you have it!
The 7 absolute best things to do on the island of Oahu that you can’t miss on your next visit. You could easily spend weeks exploring Oahu and still discover new things to do.
But if your time on the island is limited, these are the places I always take my friends and family when they visit.
From epic sunsets and stunning beaches to verdant landscapes and turquoise waters teeming with marine life, you’ll find it all on Oahu.
So book those flights, grab your aloha shirt and enjoy your Hawaiian holiday.