The third-largest and most populous of the Hawaiian Islands, Oahu is accurately known as “The Gathering Place”. Home to approximately 75 to 80% of the state’s residents (953,000 according to the 2010 census), Oahu is a melting pot of culture, beauty, and history that attracts over 4.5 million visitors annually.
While there are certainly more than 10 activities to keep you entertained on Oahu, below are our picks to make the most out of your trip. Aloha!
Top 10 Things to Do on Oahu
#1 Tour Iolani Palace
King Kalakaua, also known as The Merrie Monarch, was the last reigning King of the Kingdom of Hawaii. After nearly 10 years residing in the palace he built in 1882, King Kalakaua fell ill and traveled to the mainland upon recommendations by his physician, where he died soon after. His sister, Queen Liliuokalani, was named successor in 1891. Two years later, Queen Liliuokalani was forced to yield her authority after an overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, and in 1895, she was accused of knowledge of a royalist plot to restore power and was sentenced to eight months house arrest in the upstairs bedroom of Iolani Palace.
After nearly 75 years of use as a government capitol building, Iolani Palace was vacated in 1969 and opened to the public in 1978 following significant restoration. The only royal palace in the United States, Iolani Palace offers a fascinating look inside Hawaii’s history. Two tour options are available – a guided audio tour and docent-led tour – where visitors can explore the interior and exterior grounds of the palace.
#2 Visit the North Shore
While Oahu is full of all the big city amenities you could hope for, we definitely recommend taking a quick road trip to the north shore (about an hour drive from Waikiki), where surf, sand, and nature remain the focus.
Sit back and watch surfers take on Waimea Bay, Sunset Beach, and Banzai Pipeline (Ehukai Beach) during winter months, play tourist at Turtle Bay, stroll through Haleiwa Town for some shave ice, and grab lunch at one of the north shore’s famously delicious shrimp trucks.
#3 Explore Manoa Valley
Manoa is home to many beautiful and historic sights, including the most diverse campus in the country, the University of Hawaii at Manoa, in addition to Manoa Chinese Cemetery and Lyon Arboretum, where you can take a garden tour to learn more about native Hawaiian plant species.
For those interested in a scenic hike, we recommend Manoa Falls, a .8 mile (one way) hike that crosses through a bamboo forest at the base of the Ko’oaus Mountains, ending at the 150-foot Manoa Falls. Make sure to bring plenty of water and slip-resistant footwear, as the path is rocky and wet, and beware of falling rocks close to the falls.
#4 Snorkel at Hanauma Bay
The first Marine Life Conservation District in Hawaii, Hanauma Bay is a circular-shaped bay filled with an assortment of coral and marine life, some of which can only be found in Hawaii. The clear, shallow waters are perfect for a day of relaxed snorkeling and swimming, and a great place to capture close-up shots of Hawaii’s most interesting underwater species.
Go early to avoid crowds, as this spot fills up quickly, and make sure to pay special attention to the steps taken to preserve the health of the surrounding marine life and reef system.
#5 Take an Aerial Tour
No matter what island you’re on, a helicopter tour is one of the coolest ways to view and appreciate the landscape. Helicopter tours offer an amazing aerial tour of Oahu, including views of Waikiki, Diamond Head, Hanauma Bay, Waimanalo Beach, Chinaman’s Hat, coral formations of Kaneohe Bay, Nuuanu Valley Rainforest, Sacred Falls, Dole Pineapple Plantation, Pearl Harbor, Arizona Memorial, and the Battleship Missouri.
#6 Visit Pearl Harbor
Now a National Historic Landmark, Pearl Harbor is the #1 visitor destination on Oahu. The grounds of Pearl Harbor are home to four historic sights, including the USS Arizona, Battleship Missouri, USS Bowfin Submarine, and the Pacific Aviation Museum.
Spend a full day exploring the sites, getting an in-depth look at the historical significance of the area, and pay tribute to the fallen heroes of the December 7th attack. More than 2,000 free USS Arizona Memorial walk-in tickets are given away on a daily, first-come-first-served basis.
#7 Tour Kualoa
One of the most sacred places on Oahu, Kualoa was once the home and training ground for ali’i (royalty), as well as a sanctuary. Totaling 4,000 acres, Kualoa Ranch was once home to a sugar mill and military airstrip. Today, the Morgan family, now in its sixth generation of caring for the land, work hard to preserve and protect the area from development, offering visitors the chance to explore the beautiful grounds and learn more about the cultural significance of the area.
Tours at Kualoa include horseback riding, ATV tours, movie sites, and ranch tours, jungle expedition, secret island beach, ancient Hawaiian fishpond, and tropical gardens, ziplining, and several educational activities.
#8 Surf Waikiki Beach
Whether you’re a first-time surfer or have been charging waves since you were a toddler, a visit to Oahu isn’t complete without a surf session at Waikiki Beach. Legends like Duke Kahanamoku grew up riding waves here, so why not enjoy one of Hawaii’s favorite pastimes in the place where it was born!
Check the Waikiki Beach surf report for the latest conditions, or visit one of the many schools offering surf lessons in the area.
#9 Go for a Hike
One of the most enjoyable land activities on Oahu is hiking. With more than a few stunning hikes to choose from, rest assured that you can find one that matches your level of physical fitness and offers some of the most beautiful panoramic views you’ll encounter. Some of our favorite hikes include the Koko Head Stairs, Maunawili Falls, Pu’u Manamana Trail (aka Crouching Lion), Diamond Head Crater and Pali Puka.
#10 Visit Chinatown
Spanning twenty blocks, Oahu’s Chinatown is a particularly great place to experience the culture, flavors, sights, and sounds of Hawaii. Visit the Oahu Market, Yat Tung Chow Noodle Factory, and Maunakea Marketplace to try some of the best food specialties, and come back for First Fridays, a great opportunity to browse local art galleries during the Chinatown Art Walk. Other activities include auction houses, herbal shops, incense burning at the Kuan Yin Temple, shopping, fortune-telling, and more.
Mahalo for reading, and happy travels. Aloha! Tell us what we missed in the comments below.