The 7 Absolute Best Things to Do on Oahu (if time is short!)

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Oahu Best Things to Do

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.

Note: This post may contain affiliate links. If you choose to book through these links, I receive a small commission, which I will likely blow on mai tais, poke, and shave ice.  All of this internet voodoo takes place at no additional cost to you. 

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.”

Seriously?

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.

BUT

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, there’s only one company I recommend:

MY Pick
Driving on Molokai Hawaii

Discount Hawaii Car Rental

For rental cars in Hawaii, go to the local experts. They’ll find you the best rate among all the major companies with no booking fees. And their customer support is top-notch.

Keep in mind that most hotels in Waikiki have pretty high daily parking fees ($45-65 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.

Read More: 3 Reasons the Honolulu Marathon is the Best US Marathon for First Timers

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.

SydneyTel Aviv, and Miami also make the cut.

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.

Waikiki Shopping Hawaii
Shopping in Waikiki

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.

Several 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.

My favorite sunset catamaran cruise is Moana’s Sunset Cocktail Sail. Awesome crew, gorgeous sunset views of Waikiki, and just a generally fabulous way to spend an evening in Waikiki.

It’s also one of my top 12 Fun Activities on Oahu for Couples (#9 is a MUST!)

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!).

Duke Kahanamoku Statue Waikiki Hawaii
Duke Kahanamoku Statue, Waikiki Beach

Surf lessons are readily available along Waikiki Beach and this Private Surfing Lesson on Waikiki Beach is a great option if you’re like me and don’t like trying new things in a group setting! There’s no better place in the world to learn to surf than here in Waikiki.

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.

Read More: 5 Best Mai Tais in Waikiki (Do NOT Leave Hawaii Without Trying #3)

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.”

USS Arizona Memorial Pearl Harbor Oahu
USS Arizona Memorial – Pearl Harbor, Oahu

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.

If you want to alleviate the stress of driving there yourself and getting reservations, you can also book a tour like the Pearl Harbor National Memorial Tour from Honolulu and they’ll take care of all the details. (Just know that it’s definitely not necessary to book a tour to see Pearl Harbor, you can do it on your own with reservations.)

3. Snorkel the marine park of Hanauma Bay

It’s considered the jewel of Oahu and one of the best snorkeling sites in the world, on par with colorful coral heavyweights like Moorea and the Maldives.

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.

Hanauma Bay Best Snorkeling on Oahu
Hanauma Bay, Oahu

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.

Snorkeling at Hanauma Bay is an Oahu must-do for anyone who wants to appreciate Hawaii’s incredible underwater life.

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. Like Pearl Harbor and Diamond Head, reservations are now required to visit and must be made 48 hours in advance online through the Hawaii Parks and Recreation Department.

Tip: Snagging a reservation can be tricky, they limit the number of daily visitors to Hanauma Bay to 1000 people and it books up each day in just minutes. But don’t worry, I’ve got you covered with my best tips for getting a prime time slot:

Read More: The Foolproof Guide to Hanauma Bay for Snorkeling

Again, one workaround for this is booking a tour like the Hanauma Bay Snorkeling Tour. They take care of the reservation and provide transportation from your hotel so the experience is hassle-free.

Need to Know Info: Closed Mondays & Tuesdays, all other days open 6:45am-3:00pm (last entry at 1:20pm). 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 (or rent it there), 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.

Honolulu View from Diamond Head
Views over Honolulu from the top of Diamond Head

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. A hike up Diamond Head is one of the top things to do in Oahu.

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.

Engaged on Diamond Head Waikiki
Sunrise engagement on Diamond Head!

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 open daily, 6:00am-6:00pm (last entry at 4:00pm). The entrance fee for pedestrians is $5, Parking is $10 (both must be reserved and paid for online in advance). 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.

Important: All out-of-state visitors need a reservation to visit Diamond Head State Monument. Reservations can be made here up to 30 days in advance.

Read More: Why Hiking Diamond Head Crater is an Oahu Must-Do

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.

Lanikai Beach Oahu Hawaii
Lanikai Beach

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 fabulous 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.

In fact, the empty beaches and beach bum vibe of the North Shore remind me a bit of some of Thailand’s more laid-back islands like Koh Lipe and Koh Lanta.

But unlike the calm waters of those Thai islands, don’t attempt a swim here in the winter months unless your big wave skill level is somewhere in the neighborhood of expert.

To explore the North Shore on your own schedule, just book your car with Discount Hawaii Car Rental and download the awesome Shaka Guide App. The app connects to your phone’s GPS. It’s like having a tour guide right in the car with you giving turn-by-turn directions and local insider info.

BEST DIY Tour APP
Shaka Guide App Hawaii

The Shaka Guide App

If you’re a DIY kind of traveler like I am, this is the perfect app to download for your Hawaii vacation. These GPS-guided audio tours are fun, easy to follow, and a super affordable way to explore the islands. I bought the whole Hawaii package when we moved here but you can also purchase individual tours.

Here are 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 calm enough for swimming.

Waimea Bay North Shore Oahu
Waimea Bay (summer) – North Shore, Oahu

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!

Waimea Bay Rock Cliff Jumping Oahu
Kids jumping off Waimea Bay’s Big Rock

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 (my favorite in Haleiwa is Jenny’s Shrimp Truck) and across from Shark’s Cove. But Kahuku is ground zero for the widest assortment of food truck options.

North Shore Food Trucks
Shrimp tacos on the North Shore

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.” I won’t call this an “Oahu must do” but it’s fun if you have the time.

Read More: 5 Pineapple-Perfect Things to Do at Oahu’s Dole Plantation

If you’re short on time and want a good overview tour of the island including the highlights of the North Shore, book this full-day Tour of the North Shore and Waimea Waterfall.

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.

Kualoa Ranch Oahu UTV Raptor Tour

Visitors can tour popular movie sites by UTV, glide down a zipline, bike or hike nature trails, or take a horseback ride to explore the ranch’s incredible natural beauty.

We recently did the 2-hour UTV Raptor Tour and it was excellent. Though fair warning, you will get VERY dirty!

Need to Know Info: Open daily from 7:30am-6:00pm. Tour prices vary by activity and are best booked directly through Kualoa Ranch’s website.

And there you have it!

The 7 absolute best Oahu things to do 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.

Oahu Top Things to Do and See Hawaii Waikiki
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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.

Looking for more great things to do on Oahu? Start here:

This Family-Friendly Lighthouse Hike is Oahu’s Best Trail for Spotting Whales

Escape the Oahu Crowds with a Visit to the Byodo-In Temple

A Guide to Oahu’s Insta-Famous Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden

5 Easy Oahu Hikes for Those Who Love Nature But Hate Hiking

Why the Halona Blowhole is a Must-See on Oahu’s Loveliest Coast

And if you’ve worked up an appetite with all that island exploration, I’ve got you covered there, too:

The 10 Best Cheap Eats in Waikiki (#4 is literally a hidden gem!)

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