Planning your next vacation in Hawaii? Leave plenty of room to soak in all the best things to do in Oahu! This beautiful Hawaiian island is an unrivaled paradise where volcanic craters meet bright blue waters and famous surf. From iconic beaches like Waikiki Beach to historical & cultural attractions like Pearl Harbor and the Polynesian Cultural Center, plan your ultimate Oahu trip with this complete guide for what to see & do!
Must-see places to visit in Oahu, HI
Diamond Head Crater
As Oahu comes into view through the plane window, one sight will stick out like a sore thumb: Diamond Head Crater. Wherever you are on Oahu’s southern coastline, the dormant volcanic crater has a striking presence. Its arid colors soar above the electric blue water, constantly prodding at your sense of adventure.
One of the top outdoor activities in Oahu is to trek to the top of Diamond Head Crater. From the summit, you’ll experience awe-inspiring vistas of the Pacific Ocean, Waikiki Beach, and the Honolulu skyline.
Even more impressive is the crater itself, formed millions of years ago. The 1.6-mile round-trip hike will raise a sweat, but you’ll be quickly rewarded.
Pearl Harbor National Memorial
On December 7, 1941, hundreds of Japanese fighter planes flew into Pearl Harbor, killing over 2,400 soldiers and civilians. While the harbor still functions as an active naval base, it’s now also home to the Pearl Harbor National Memorial.
Pearl Harbor is a somber and enlightening experience—and not just for American history buffs. While most travelers come to the island for sun, beach, and volcanoes, the stature of Pearl Harbor can’t be ignored. It’s one of the most important things to see in Oahu.
Among other memorable experiences, embark on a tour of the USS Arizona Memorial. The memorial was built over the remains of the ship, where almost a thousand sailors lost their lives.
Stretching from mountains to the sea, the Waimea Valley is an extravagant display of lush nature that is quintessential Hawaii. Set back from Oahu’s North Shore, the valley is a mesmerizing way to experience the island’s beauty but also its culture and history.
Waimea Valley is home to several historic sites from when Hawaii was still a monarchy. The lush grounds of the park are also an extensive botanical garden. Over 50 themed gardens house native and endangered flora here.
The biggest highlight of Waimea Valley, however, is the stunning 45-foot-high Waimea Falls. You can reach the stunning falls along a 0.75-mile trail, which is one of the best hikes on Oahu.
Hanauma Bay Preserve
A spectacular sight awaits as you arrive at Hanauma Bay Preserve. As you look down on its golden sand shores, you’ll witness the sprawling reef as clear as day. Offering some of the most colorful snorkeling on Oahu, the vibrant preserve is one of the coolest places to visit on Oahu.
The shallow reefs at Hanauma Bay protect the beach from the surf, allowing for pleasant swimming conditions and incredible clarity. Afterward, catch your breath on the beautiful beach with fantastic views of the Koko Head Crater looming in the distance.
The number of visitors to the preserve has a daily limit in order to protect the fragile nature from overuse. Arrive early to get a spot.
Backed by upscale resorts and Diamond Head Crater, Waikiki Beach is one of the best places to go in Oahu. The must-visit destination is worth braving the crowds to experience.
The lively atmosphere, pleasant swimming, and sand as soft as marshmallows have made Waikiki not just one of the most famous beaches on Oahu, but on the planet. Even if you’re only visiting Honolulu in one day, it’s a must-see.
From surfing and parasailing to snorkeling and playing volleyball, there’s no shortage of things to see & do in Waikiki. Experience crystal clear water with epic skyline views as you look back towards the beach. Whenever you need a break from the sun, head back a block for bars and restaurants with a view.
If you’re wondering what to do in Oahu that’s not a beach day or crater hike, don’t pass up on Hawaii’s Pineapple Experience. One of the biggest Oahu attractions, the Dole Plantation presents fascinating tours that peel back the curtain on the island’s agriculture.
The pineapple plantation comes with its own pineapple train that guides you around the estate. On the ride, you’ll learn about James Drummond Dole before exploring the Pineapple Garden Maze, listed as the largest maze in the world.
After working up an appetite, sit back and enjoy fresh pineapple that’ll be among the juiciest exotic fruit to ever touch your lips.
From one historic property to another, the Kualoa Ranch is one of the top tourist attractions in Oahu. The 4,000-acre property has been handed down through the family for generations. Along the way, it played a leading role in some iconic movies and TV shows.
Exploring the jaw-dropping ranch will lead you to the set of Jurassic Park, where cloned dinosaurs caused havoc, along with the location for almost 70 other films. But this isn’t your typical tour. Blend your pop culture experience with an ATV or zipline adventure as you explore the incredible nature at Kualoa Ranch.
A cornerstone of Hawaiian history, the Iolani Palace was the official home to King Kalakaua and Queen Liliuokalani, the last monarchy in Hawaii. The beautiful royal palace was built in 1882. It became the state capitol after the Kingdom of Hawaii was annexed by the United States. Today, it remains one of the top Honolulu tourist attractions.
The Neoclassical palace is now a museum that explores the history of the Hawaiian islands. Visitors can wander through the building on their own or on a guided tour where you can see the opulent palace in all its glory.
Highlights at Iolani Palace include the original throne and King Kalakaua’s coronation suit.
In the winter, the beast that is the Banzai Pipeline awakens, creating some of the best big wave surfing in the world. If you’re wondering where to go in Oahu to see huge surf, then head to Sunset Beach in North Shore Oahu.
A part of the 7-Mile Miracle, a collection of famous surf breaks, Sunset Beach Park is a playground for those brave enough to venture into the untamed waters. It makes for non-stop action for those watching from the white sand beach.
In the summer, the waves die down, allowing for calm swimming, great for families. All year long, however, you’ll be treated to amazing sunsets.
Oahu is renowned for its turquoise oceans. But the blue waters hit defined at Lanikai Beach. Sitting on the Windward Coast, the beach’s water dazzles with an effervescent energy that constantly tempts you to dive in for a swim.
From your spot on the pristine sand, it’s easy to see why Lanikai Beach is often rated as the most beautiful in Oahu. Under the swaying palms, you can watch the aqua water roll in and out with gorgeous views towards Mokilii Island, also known as Chinaman’s Hat.
If you’re up for an adventure, paddle out to the island or hike the nearby Lanikai Pillbox Trail.
Polynesian Cultural Center
One of the most fascinating places to see in Oahu, the Polynesian Cultural Center offers an invaluable experience and insight into Hawaiian culture. The enthralling attraction is engaging from the start, allowing you to take a hands-on approach to exploring not just Hawaiian heritage but a variety of Polynesian cultures.
The 13-acre estate & open-air museum features seven villages that explore local culture in places like Fiji, Tahiti, Samoa, and Aotearoa (New Zealand). At each village, you’ll embark on a variety of hands-on activities focusing on local Polynesian life, from playing authentic games to throwing spears.
Afterward, enjoy a traditional Hawaiian Luau before ending the experience with a grand show called the “Breath of Life.”
On your way home from the Polynesian Cultural Center, stop by Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck for garlic shrimp you won’t forget.
Koko Head Crater Trail
Need a little more outdoor adventure? A hike on the Koko Head Crater Trail will make your trek to Diamond Head look like child’s play. Nonetheless, it’s an exciting and leg-burning experience that’ll long linger in your memory.
In World War II, a tramway was developed to carry gear and personnel to a military base camp. Today, you can walk the abandoned tramway, scaling up 1,048 uneven steps to epic panoramic views at the top of Koko Crater.
Keep in mind: The hike along the Koko Head Stairs is steep and not for the faint of heart. But embracing the pain is part of what eventually makes the 2-mile hike so fun. It helps that you’ll have stunning views to keep you occupied throughout!
Another member of the 7 Mile Miracle, Waimea Bay, just south of Ehukai Beach, is home to the Banzai Pipeline. With its own buffet of gigantic waves, Waimea Bay turns into an exhibition for big-wave surfers in the winter months.
But the rest of the year, Waimea Bay is arguably the most popular beach on Oahu’s North Shore. Its unique aura and distinctive landmarks separate Waimea Bay from the chasing pack.
At Waimea Bay, you can dive off the sea stack, known as The Rock, into the glowing turquoise waters below. From the white sand, gaze upon the church that sits out on the point before enjoying a picnic on the lush lawns.
From the minute you step onto Laniakea Beach, you’ll understand why its name translates to wide sky. The expansive horizon views are enough to distract you from why the spot is also known as Turtle Beach.
On Oahu’s North Shore, Laniakea Beach has residents that are also sunbathers and swimmers but have twice as many limbs. As you lay down your beach towel, you’ll share your day with green sea turtles.
The rocky cove is an excellent opportunity to see turtles up close (not too close). Don’t pass up the opportunity to swim alongside the majestic animals on a snorkel tour.
If you want to get the full Laniakea Beach experience, spend the night at the nearby Turtle Bay Resort, one of the coolest places to stay on the North Shore.
Just north of Lanikai, Kailua Beach is an equally revered beach that proves Oahu is a gift that keeps on giving. The powder-like sand dances between your toes as you walk along the breathtaking shoreline.
The 2.5-mile beach is often a preferred choice over Lanikai, thanks to the space available to veg out and enjoy the bright blue ocean and calm water. Kailua Beach Park is also more developed with a variety of amenities, from bathrooms and showers to picnic tables and beach rentals.
One of the top points of interest in Oahu, Kailua Beach Park is a great launching point for a SUP adventure, including making your way across the calm Pacific to Mokolii.
For a traditional Hawaiian Luau, add a night at Paradise Cove to your Oahu itinerary. At Ko Olina Resort, Paradise Cove is a 12-acre beachfront property with its own semi-private lagoon. But at night, the lights shine, and the cove comes to life.
After entering through an ornate garden, you’ll be presented with either an orchid lei or shell necklace, marking the beginning of the exciting experience. You’ll then take part in several fun activities, from spear throwing to coconut tree climbing and lei making.
But the night only gets better as you dine alongside the sunset before a memorable hula show.
Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden
By now, you know: Oahu doesn’t do mediocre and bland—only spectacular. Another way to experience the island’s insane natural diversity is by wandering through Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden.
Surrounding an enormous freshwater lake and with the stunning mountains providing the backdrop, it’s a brilliant experience from the very start. The 400-acre garden offers many spots to enjoy sweeping panoramic views along the miles of walking trails.
You could spend all day exploring the paths at Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden. However, lake fishing is a popular activity, along with a picnic on the spacious lawns while admiring the native flora.
Ala Moana Beach Park
With its central location and breadth of amenities, it’s no wonder Ala Moana Beach Park is one of Honolulu’s best beaches and one of the city’s most popular spots to hang out. With seemingly endless space, you’ll enjoy much of the same views had at Waikiki—without the crowd.
Ala Moana Beach is protected by an off-shore reef allowing for calm, kid-friendly swimming in crystal clear water. While you can relax on the soft white sand, you’ll also have the opportunity to laze on the spacious grass under the swaying palms.
The beach also features several concession stands and even a tennis court. When you’re done, you’ll be steps away from the Ala Moana Shopping Center. The largest open-air mall in the United States, Ala Moana Shopping Center is the perfect place to unload some dinero on all the latest fashions.
Interested in Oahu’s underwater life? Grab your snorkel and float over to Turtle Canyon. Located off the coast near Waikiki, Turtle Canyon is one of Oahu’s top snorkeling spots, with an abundance of sea life lurking just below the surface.
As you sink down for a shallow dive at Turtle Canyon, you’ll be surrounded by thousands of green sea turtles who call the finger reefs home. You’ll also dazzle at schools of tropical reef fish and other marine life like crabs and eels swirling the coral.
Nu’uanu Pali Lookout
Located just five miles from Downtown Honolulu, the Nu’uanu Pali Lookout is one of the coolest Oahu sightseeing spots. The historic lookout is perched over a thousand feet above sea level and delivers epic panoramic views over the Ko’olau Range and the Windward Coast.
The scenic drive to the Nu’uanu Pali Lookout is a big part of the experience. Cruising along the Pali Highway, the urban sprawl of Honolulu gives way to towering trees set in lush forests grinding against misty mountains.
Once you’ve soaked up the beautiful views, set your GPS for the Windward Coast via the Pali Tunnels. This lush coastline is home to a wide range of pristine beaches that are among the island’s loveliest.
Manoa Falls Trail
Interested in chasing waterfalls? Strap on your hiking shoes and traverse the Manoa Falls Trail. Embarking from the historic town of Manao, the popular hiking trail leads to the famed Manoa Falls, one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Oahu.
The Manoa Falls Trail launches from the Lyon Arboretum, meandering through a mile of dense jungle before reaching its final destination. Reaching the trail’s apex, you’ll watch the Hawaiian sun pierce the lush rainforest to the soundtrack of the 150-foot waterfall roaring into a sparkling pool below.
Kaena Point State Park
Forming a spike on the northwestern fringes of the island, Kaena Point State Park is one of Oahu’s greatest escapes. The wild coastal state park teems with beautiful scenery and fun activities, from hiking to swimming to fishing.
If you want to spend your day on the water, head to the Ka’ena Point Natural Area Reserve. The stretch of beach at Keawa’ula Bay is a great spot for experienced swimmers to go boogie boarding and body surfing. (Outside of the calmer summer months, regular swimming should be avoided.)
Ko Olina Lagoons
Located in Kapolei on the sunnier and drier Leeward Coast, the Ko Olina Lagoons are among the beautiful island’s best places to soak up the sun. The four man-made lagoons string along the coastline, connected by more than 1.5 miles of coastal walkways.
Thanks to their shape, the Ko Olina Lagoons offer calm waters sheltered from the rough surf. It’s the perfect place to go swimming with younger kids.
Although the calmer waters are a boon for families, keep in mind that there are no lifeguards on duty here. The lagoons sit on private property owned by Marriott’s Ko Olina Resort, but the public may access the beaches by foot.
Parking for the lagoons is available nearby from sunrise to sunset on a first-come-first-serve basis.
Best places to stay for sightseeing
If you’re looking to explore other areas of Oahu in-depth, there are also clusters of accommodations on the North Shore, Leeward Coast, and Windward Coast.
With its vintage-style accommodations, the Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club is one of Oahu’s coolest hotels on Oahu. The boutique hotel reminisces of 1960s Hawaii, offering rooms with private balconies and ensuite bathrooms.
Sitting on the sands of Waikiki Beach, the Moana Surfrider is one of Honolulu’s most iconic hotels. The beachfront resort features luxurious accommodations with soothing tones and beautiful ocean views. Cool down in the swimming pool before settling down for a dinner at one of the several on-site restaurants.
For a romantic getaway steps from Oahu’s urban charms, book yourself a night or two at the Aston Waikiki Beach Hotel. In the lovely suites, you’ll wake up to panoramic beach views through wide windows. All the suites feature full kitchens, flat-screen TVs, and private balconies. You’ll also enjoy relaxing at the outdoor pool and on the recreational deck.
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