Things to Do in Oahu
A hallowed name in US history, Pearl Harbor was the site of the December 7, 1941, bombing by the Japanese that wrenched the United States into World War II. In total, nine U.S. ships were sunk and a further 21 damaged, and the eventual death toll was 2,350.
Pearl Harbor is still a Navy base today, and a National Historic Landmark. For visitors, the focus is the USS Arizona memorial, protecting the remains of the American battleship destroyed in seconds during the attack. The USS Utah was also sunk, and there is a memorial on nearby Ford Island. The highlight of the harbor's Bowfin Park is the submarine USS Bowfin and the adjacent memorial museum, packed with memorabilia and exhibits.
The pointy peak of Diamond Head forms a dramatic backdrop to Waikiki on Oahu’s south coast. Diamond Head is a State Monument, and a popular lookout point on Oahu.
Formed from volcanic tuff, the crater is part of a geological outcrop of cones, vents and old lava flows, formed from eruptions around 150,000 years ago.
If you’re feeling fit, work out with an exhilarating climb to the top of Diamond Head and take in the city views. The steep round-trip hike takes a couple of hours, with challenging stages of steps and tunnels.
Waikiki Beach is one of the most famous stretches of sand on the planet, up there with Ipanema and Bondi. Its curving stretch of sand is bordered by palms and high-rise hotels.
Come here to soak up the sun, swim, pilot an outrigger canoe, sail a boat, or snorkel. Lifeguards are on hand to keep a watchful eye.
The surfing isn’t bad either, with long rolling breaks. Look out for the statue of Duke Kahanamoku on the sands, the local who popularized surfing and brought it into the modern era.
Pack a picnic to enjoy in nearby Kapiolani Park, hire a beach chair and umbrella, or sit back at sunset and watch the free movies screened on the beach.
The main Pearl Harbor memorial marks the final resting place of the USS Arizona, one of the battleships destroyed on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked and the USA joined the war effort on behalf of the Allies. The site also commemorates the 1,177 crew members killed aboard the ship that day.
Start your visit at the visitor center, with a free introductory talk, audio tour and a documentary on the attack. Then board a US Navy boat to reach the memorial for a self-guided tour.
Visitor numbers are restricted, and tickets can often run out early in the day at this extremely popular sight, so it’s a good idea to book a tour in advance.
Family-owned Kualoa Ranch is a one-stop adventure playground in Oahu. Dating back to 1850, the cattle ranch is a popular location for horse-riding tours and all-terrain trails.
Scenically, the ranch embraces a variety of Hawaiian landscapes, from fertile countryside to rugged mountains and tropical white-sand beaches.
You may recognize some of the locations you’ll see from horseback or off-road ATV, as the ranch has hosted many TV and film crews, including Jurassic Park, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii Five-O and Lost.
Narrated bus tours point out famous locations, along with other historic and cultural sites.
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.
When the Makapu‘u Lighthouse was built in 1909 for ships traveling between Moloka‘i and O‘ahu, it was meant to serve as a luminary deterrent to keep ships away from the rocks. Today, however, the historic lighthouse with its bright red roof draws visitors to the rocks in droves, and the trail to the lighthouse has become one of the most popular hikes for visitors and families on O‘ahu.
Two miles long and entirely paved, the trail climbs at a moderate pace until the dramatic lighthouse terminus. During the winter months, humpback whales can often be spotted splashing in the waters offshore, and large surf can break along the shoreline during the long, hot days of summer. As part of the Kaiwi Scenic Shoreline, the trail offers views of offshore islets such as Manana (Rabbit Island) and Kaohikaipu, which are protected from development as sea bird sanctuaries and provide a rustic nature to the coastline.
For a fun day out in the Hawaiian countryside, discover Oahu’s pineapple heritage at the Dole Plantation. What started out as a fruit stand in the middle of the pineapple fields in 1950 is now an extremely popular Hawaiian attraction.
The Dole pineapple empire was founded more than a century ago by the Pineapple King, James Dole. Visit his original pineapple plantation to tour the living museum housed in a traditional plantation home. Exhibits trace the history of Dole and his pineapple industry, but there’s far more than history to be found here.
Get lost amongst Hawaiian plants in the world’s largest maze, ride the Pineapple Express train through the fruit fields, take a garden tour of the hibiscus, bromeliads and other tropical flowers, and dine on island cuisine at the Plantation Grille.
For many visitors, Oahu’s North Shore means one thing: surfing! World-famous Waimea Bay and the Banzai Pipeline are sacred sites to surfers the world over, and some big-name surfing contests are held here.
The main town is Haleiwa, a pretty boating harbor surrounded by beaches. For wannabe surfers it’s a particularly good place to take lessons or improve your board skills.
In summer, nearby Waimea Bay is a popular snorkeling spot, and beachcombers hit the rock pools when the tide is out. The Banzai Pipeline lies just offshore.
More Things to Do in Oahu
Known as Mighty Mo, or Big Mo, the battleship USS Missouri played an important role in history. Her deck hosted the signing of the Japanese surrender, ending World War II.
Moored in a guarding position a little away from the USS Arizona Memorial, the battleship was moved to Pearl Harbor in 1999. It is now a museum ship, allowing visitors to experience a taste of life at sea.
Take a 35-minute guided tour to walk in the footsteps of General MacArthur, or listen to an audio guide. Follow the self-guided walking routes, or take the controls on a Battle Stations tour.
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.
One of Hawaii’s most popular luaus is held beside swaying palms and a stunning sunset at Paradise Cove. A Hawaiian village at Paradise Cove highlights island arts and crafts, and cultural activities include net fishing, the Imu underground oven ceremony and of course the hula.
After being greeted with a traditional floral lei and tropical mai tai, relax into the evening with a full Hawaiian buffet and tropical drinks. Transportation can be included as a package, along with souvenirs, deluxe seating and drinks.
The islet of Mokolii, or Chinaman’s Hat, is a rugged little outpost that’s home to wedge-tailed shearwaters and occasionally explored by adventurous visitors.
Its unusual shape makes it a popular landmark to spot from panoramic viewpoints such as Kualoa Point. The fish-filled coral reefs surrounding the island are home to sharks, adding to the island’s mystery and James Bond quality. When the tide is out you could even walk here, but it’s best to visit by kayak or boat. When you get here, you can explore sea caves or have two golden beaches all to yourself. A 20-minute climb winds to the top of the island for great views looking back to Oahu’s Windward coast.
Much more than just a popular Honolulu visitor attraction, ‘Iolani Palace is the only royal palace to exist within the United States of America. Constructed in 1882, this ornate palace served as the political centerpiece for the Kingdom of Hawaii, and monarchs such as King Kalakaua and Queen Lili’uokalani ruled the Kingdom from its luxurious halls.
During the time it was constructed, ‘Iolani Palace was considered to be one of the most modern buildings in the world and even boasted electricity and telephones prior to the White House in Washington D.C. The palace also featured indoor plumbing, and large galas were thrown to welcome visiting dignitaries to the modern and sovereign Kingdom of Hawaii. Since King Kalakaua was the world’s first monarch to circumnavigate the globe, the palace was also adorned with decorations and memorabilia acquired during his travels around the world.
Welcome to one of the most iconic places on O’ahu Island! Combining popular culture, history and extreme sports, Waimea Bay Beach simply does not disappoint. Its stunning panoramas alone, as seen from the Kamehameha Highway, are sufficient reason to visit the island’s northern end! The area’s international reputation emerged in 1779, when famous Captain James Cook was killed by native villagers after he tried to make the King of Hawaii captive. Staples of this period are still visible today at the Pu'u o Mahuka Heiau State Monument, the largest of its kind on the island.
Many years later, Waimea Bay Beach once again gained popularity by becoming the top surfing destination in the world and officially starting the 1950s now-iconic surf phenomenon (as demonstrated by the Beach Boys’ famous song!). In fact, surfing is still very much in fashion in this neck of the woods, with numerous surfing events taking place throughout the year.
therwise 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.
In the heart of downtown Honolulu, just across the street and two blocks west of Hawaii’s largest mall, is the small boat harbor of Kawalo Basin and the starting point for a number of popular Honolulu water-based adventures. Deep sea charter fishing vessels moor alongside snorkel and scuba charters, parasailing vessels, winter whale watch pontoons, underwater submersible tours and even an 83-foot pirate galleon complete with water-firing cannons for daytime family fun or evening debauchery. If you’re looking to get beyond the beaches of Waikiki and out into the big blue, a stroll along its street-side dock will, at the very least, display your varied options.
Though there is no beach access here, a gentle but ridable wave that breaks left of the harbor channel is a popular surf spot with local groms (kids in surf speak). In addition to hosting the Rip Curl GromSearch competition, the break is a training ground for the Kamehameha High School surf team.
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.
While we can’t exactly claim it as fact, there’s a good chance that at some point in time Lanikai Beach was a finalist for a Corona commercial. With sand as white as the clouds above and water which is a welcoming and rich shade of turquoise, this tranquil beach on Oahu’s windward shore is the Hawaii you’ve always dreamed of.
Because it’s on the island’s eastern shore, Lanikai is often graced with gentle tradewinds which cool you just to the point of comfort. Afternoons in the summer months can get a little blustery, although kitesurfers and windsurfers who have launched from Kailua Bay opt to make the most of the wind and zip across the turquoise waters which are capped in flecks of white.
Since Lanikai is set in a private neighborhood the beach is accessed by simple footpaths and isn’t too visible from the road, and while this semi-isolation thins out the crowds, it also means there aren’t any facilities and parking can come at a premium.
On Oahu’s Windward (or east) Coast, Nuuanu Pali Lookout stands sentinel over the 1,200-foot (360 m) cliffs of the Koolau mountains.
One of the best viewpoints on Oahu, the lookout provides panoramic vistas across the island. You can also see Chinaman’s Hat and Kaneohe Bay. In 1795 the lookout was the site of a massacre, when King Kamehameha defeated the island’s warriors by forcing them off the treacherous cliff top to their deaths. Hold on to your hat, as it can get extremely windy up here, and bring a warm coat and your camera.
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.
Koko Crater is where locals head when they’re in need of a really good workout, and it’s also a popular visitor attraction thanks to the stunning views from the top. In order to reach the summit, however, you’ll first need to conquer the 1,048 steps that run in a straight line up the mountain. The steps themselves are actually railroad ties left over from WWII, and while the first half of the steps are moderately steep, it’s the final push to the 1,100-foot summit that make your legs really start to burn.
The reward for reaching the top, however, is unobstructed, 360-degree of the southeastern section of O‘ahu. Gaze down towards Hanauma Bay and the turquoise waters of the crater, and watch as waves break along Sandy Beach and form foamy ribbons of white. Neighboring Diamond Head looms in the west and is backed by Honolulu, and the island of Moloka‘i—and sometimes Lana‘i—float on the eastern horizon.