Oahu is the most populous and third largest of the Hawaiian islands. It is the cultural, financial, and a top tourist destination. Oahu is truly at the heart of Hawaii. As the home of the city of Honolulu, the state capital, and as home to over 85% of the state’s population, Oahu is appropriately nicknamed “The Gathering Place.”
The Oahu island is made up of two mountain ranges. The Koolau mountain range runs along the east side of the island and forms the backdrop for Honolulu and the Waianae mountain range runs parallel to the Koolau Range along the west side of the island.
When you combine this with the island’s gorgeous beaches, parks, mountains, recreational areas, and quaint towns, Oahu makes one enjoyable vacation destination.
Pro Tip: Wherever you go, take plenty of water with you, lock your car if you take one, and leave no valuables behind.
Things To Do In Oahu
Take your time and enjoy Oahu and all it has to offer. Take a drive through miles of pineapple fields, visit some of the secluded white sand beaches, funky beach towns, mountain trails and scenery. In the wintertime, you get to see the monstrous waves pounding on the North Shore. Brave surfers ride these waves smoothly as if gliding in the air.
Natural beauty and some great hikes can be found in the Koolau and Waianae mountain ranges. The mountains are just a short drive from Waikiki or Honolulu.
The whole island of Oahu, with many secluded beaches, hiking opportunities, and the sight of huge waves in the winter, awaits you. Most of the island’s major attractions can be seen in two days, although we recommend spending at least five to seven days.
Read: Honolulu & Waikiki Travel Guide (complete things-to-do list)
The majority of visitors to Oahu stay in Honolulu and its Waikiki district. As the state capital and the largest city in the Hawaiian Islands, it is home to excellent museums, notable historical sites, scenic landmarks, the tourist hotspot of Waikiki, and a diverse dining and nightlife scene, among other attractions.
The bustling city of Honolulu the only real metropolitan area in all the Hawaiian Islands. Honolulu provides all the modern amenities and conveniences that only a large city can provide. Busy nightlife, great variety of restaurants, exciting cultural events, public transportation, lodging, and a wide array of shopping and entertainment options.
The Waikiki area famous for Waikiki beach is the most popular tourist place in all of Hawaii. There are many resorts located outside of Waikiki that offer less crowded surroundings.
The rest of the island is less visibly touched by tourism, with only a few B&Bs among the houses and natural sites on the Windward Coast and the North Shore.
A mostly suburban mix of residential communities outside Honolulu and situated amidst miles of pineapple fields, Central Oahu is probably the least interesting of the Oahu’s regions. That said, is a good place to stock up on cheap supplies if you’re staying on the North Shore.
Once a roadside fruit stand, this tourist attraction has been expanded into an elaborate tourist attraction. Among the attractions are a pineapple variety garden, a 20-minute miniature train ride into the surrounding pineapple fields, and the Pineapple Garden Maze, recognized in the 2001 Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest maze. Entree is FREE.
Timing: Visitor center and garden open daily 9 AM-5:30 PM; train and maze to 5 PM daily.
Pineapple Variety Gardens
A small pineapple garden north of Wahiawa at the intersection of State Road 99 and the Waialua turnoff (SR 801). Displays pineapples in various stages of growth. Not as touristy as the Dole Plantation, and also perhaps a bit more educational. Entree is FREE.
The wetter and lusher part of the island, home to many secluded beaches, sleepy villages, and one of the largest Marine Corps bases in the Pacific.
Pro Tip: If you want to get the most out of your stay on the beautiful island of Oahu and take in as much as possible then there’s nothing like renting a moped (scooty) and hitting the streets on the windward side.
Kailua beach is a much quieter and beautiful alternative to Waikiki beach. You can see the sea turtles here. Also, it is the best place to see the Sunrises. For gorgeous Sunsets, go to Waikiki.
Located just below the Kaneohe Bay and directly above Bellows air force station, this beach is famous for its excellent swimming and windsurfing. It’s perfect for sunbathing and recreational activities due to the nice fine sand and a backdrop of offshore islands. This makes it one of Oahu’s most beautiful beaches.
Sadly, in the recent years, the beach has suffered from erosion, removing a significant amount of sand from the shoreline. As a result, the space available on the beach has been severely reduced.
One of Hawaii’s most picturesque beaches with fine white sand, exceptionally clear and blue water and two offshore islands are known as the Mokuluas. The Lanikai beach is about a 10-15 minute walk from Kailua beach.
No public facilities and access are only available by public access walkways. Please respect local residents’ property. Also be advised that there are parking restrictions in Lanikai on weekends and holidays, in which case it may be best to park at Kailua Beach Park.
Kaiwa Ridge Trail
Kaiwa Ridge Trail (also known as “Lanikai’s Pillbox”). Climbs up the ridge behind Lanikai and ends at a WWII bunker. The trail is one mile in length with a 600′ elevation gain, offering hikers 360° views of Lanikai, Kailua, the Mokalua islands, and the Ko`olau Mountains. Trail Head GPS: N 21 23.405 W 157 43.141.
Maunawili Falls Trail
This popular trail leads to a 20′ waterfall that feeds a deep, wide swimming hole. 2.5 miles round trip. Trail Head GPS: N 21 21.536 W 157 45.807.
Mount Olomana Trail
A strenuous hike with steep ascents, narrow, rocky pathways; and windswept ridgeline. Five miles round-trip with 1,300′ elevation gain. Trail Head GPS: N 21 22.104 W 157 45.655.
Windsurfers in Kailua Bay get the best of both worlds, with waves on the outer reef and cleaner slalom conditions inside. Spots such as ‘Castles’, ‘Zombies’, ‘Flat Island’ and ‘Jump City’ can be reached for those who want to try their hand at wave sailing and jumping.
Kailua has been known as one of the best spots for kiting in the world due to the combination of sandy beach, warm water, and extreme beauty. Tradewinds blow year round and can range from 12-25 knots, averaging around 16 in the summer.
Oahu Dive Center
Oahu Dive Center offers Scuba diving.
Kailua Sailboards and Kayaks
Half-day or full-day kayak rental, singles, and doubles. Backrests, dry bags are extra. You can pull the kayaks on trucks (provided) to the beach, push off and kayak out to the various tiny islands there. Flat Island is a seabird sanctuary.
Reef shoes are not a bad idea, as the bottom rocks around the islands are rather sharp if you flip or to push off. Beautiful views.
A sport that anyone can enjoy and the perspective you have while standing up and paddling on these boards is truly unique and enjoyable.
Officially known as Mokoliʻi, is a small island off the shore that juts out in the middle like an Asian straw hat. It is visible from Route 83. It is located just off of Kualoa Regional Park.
Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden
Translated as “To Make a Place of Peace and Tranquility”, it’s 400 acres of geographically laid out botanic gardens, endangered and rare plants, and a network of trails. There is also a 32-acre lake, picnic areas, and a campground on site. Timing: Daily 9 AM to 4 PM.
Situated against the backdrop of steep green cliffs is a recreation of the 900-year-old Byodo-In Temple in Kyoto. The temple grounds include a nine-foot Buddha statue and the three-ton Peace Bell. Byodo-in is in the back of the Valley of the Temples cemetery. $3.00 per adult, $2.00 senior citizen, $1.00 child. Cash only. Timing: Daily 8:30 AM-4:30 PM.
Bellows Beach Park
Located near Bellows Air Force Station (Bellows Field) in Waimanalo, fronted by a long, wide, sand beach. A shallow sandbar off the beach provides good waves for bodysurfing and bodyboarding.
Kahana Bay Beach Park
Located at Kahana Bay just 5.5 miles from Kualoa with only a 10-minute drive until you can be surrounded by the lush green Ko’olau Mountains, Kahana Bay is an ideal secluded getaway along Oʻahu’s eastern shoreline. Often times went unnoticed by tourists driving by, this beach is the perfect spot to sunbathe and explore!
You can check out the natural fishpond from the Kahana Stream, take a quick up hike up the surrounding hills or just enjoy the peaceful picnic grounds – either way, you’ll surely enjoy Kahana Bay.
Located in Kailua where you can rent a kayak or sailboat to explore the unique Kaneʻohe Sandbar in the middle of the bay. Once landed on the Sandbar, you can experience the feeling of the ocean all around you while staying dry or take a refreshing dip into the crisp blue and green waters.
The view of Oʻahu’s Windward Side is absolutely breathtaking from the Kaneʻohe Bay Sandbar, so bring a camera! The bay’s unique coral reefs are one of the most studied in the world, so you’ll also want to be sure to bring your snorkel gear.
The drier (and hotter) part of the island, with several rural communities. The Makaha Beach is one of the best all-around beaches in the world. The mountains above Waianae and Makaha Valley offer some of the best hiking anywhere in the islands and the walk to Ka’ena Point is well worth the effort.
Snorkeling, Whales, Dolphins
Don’t miss the snorkeling here to see some of the oldest reefs in the clearest water on O’ahu. Make sure the area you choose has a lifeguard present.
Waianae Boat Harbor is home to a few snorkel tours, including ones that will take you out to encounter the resident pod of spinner or spotted dolphins.
Whale watching is unmatched here. You can also head to Ka’ena Point where the highest number of nearshore humpback whales are usually seen.
A resort featuring some of the most beautiful man-made beaches on the island. The four lagoons are named Kolola (whale), Honu (turtle), Nai’a (dolphin), and Ulua (fish). With literally no surf the lagoons are nice to just float around in.
Given that the lagoons are about an hour from Waikiki these lagoons are generally not crowded on weekdays but the limited parking lots fill up quickly on weekends.
Pokai Bay Beach Park
Hawaiian for “Night of the Supreme One”, this beach is named after the Hawaiian chef Pokai who according to legend brought and planted the first coconut palm tree on the island. This west shore beach is one of the most protected beaches on the island even during the months of rough surf, which makes for nice swimming conditions.
The largest water adventure park in Hawaii, Wet ‘n’ Wild boasts 25 acres of sun-drenched fun in the sun. It has over 2o different rides & attractions and many family-friendly attractions like the Keiki Cove, Water World, and the Hawaiian Waters Wave Pool.
Timing: Daily 10:30AM-4PM.
Home to some of the largest waves on earth in the winter; the ocean and surfing are a way of life here. Compared to Honolulu and Waikiki, the North Shore is a relaxed and more laid-back area.
Along the shore, you’ll also find charming towns and some interesting cultural attractions. Haleiwa is the busiest and most popular town on the North Shore, with some of the better restaurants and shopping places.
Note: The North Shore beaches are extremely dangerous for novice swimmers and surfers in the winter when waves can reach as high as 50 feet. Drownings are common, please obey the lifeguards and be careful!
Has a wide range of flora and fauna. There is also a beautiful waterfall at the end that you are allowed to swim under (bring your swimsuit). The walk is easy on a paved road but please keep in mind there are no stairs (but just the paved road).
Kualoa Ranch is the popular filming location for Jurassic Park, Pearl Harbor, Lost, and many others Holywood films and TV series. This privately owned ranch is home to the most beautiful and sacred spot on the island. Tours by bus or ATV’s are available through the lush and epic tropical landscape. 1 hr ATV tour starts at $60 USD.
Polynesian Cultural Center
Hawaii’s most popular paid tourist attraction, the Polynesian Cultural Center offers something found nowhere else: the opportunity to experience the culture not just of Hawaii, but also of seven other Polynesian island groups, all in one place.
Recreated traditional villages of Hawaii, Samoa, Aotearoa (Maori New Zealand), Fiji, the Marquesas, Tahiti, Tonga, and Rapa Nui offer educational exhibits by native islanders, some of which can be hands-on. Award-winning Horizons evening show offers Polynesian entertainment. There is a Parking fee. Timing: Monday-Saturday, 11 AM-8 PM.
Hale’iwa Historical Town
You may recognize the location as being the site of a former television series called ‘Baywatch’, but this more than 100-year-old historic town offers more than that. Many of the buildings are on the State Register of Historic Sites, and the rustic old building that dots the town is simply charming.
Pu’u o Mahuka Heiau Historic Site
Located off Kamehameha Highway, this is the largest heiau (religious site or temple) on O’ahu, covering almost 2 acres. The name is translated as “hill of escape”.
Waimea Valley Audubon Center
Formerly known as Waimea Falls Park, the National Audubon Society received a contract from the City and County of Honolulu to operate the site as a nature preserve. The preserve is home to endangered moorhen and a botanical garden with both endemic Hawaiian plants and other plants from around the world. A 0.75-mi (1.2 km) hike on paved trails leads to the centerpiece of the park, Waihi Falls, where visitors can swim in the pool at the base of the falls. Timing: Daily 9:30 AM-5 PM except for holidays.
Kualoa Regional Park
Located along the Northeast side of the island, this beach is rarely crowded and has a great view of the offshore island, Chinaman’s hat so called this due to its resemblance of the peasants’ chapeau worn by rural Chinese. With Kualoa mountains in the background, you might feel you are in the movie Jurassic Park, due to the fact that Kualoa range is where much of the footage took place.
Fun fact: This area was considered sacred by ancient Hawaiians due to the whalebones that would wash on shore that would be used for valuable tools and jewelry.
Kahana Bay Beach Park
Located along the Kamehameha Highway adjacent to Ahupua’a O Kahana State Park between Kaʻaʻawa and Punaluʻu. This beach cove is nestled at the very bottom of the Kualoa mountains and is often overlooked by people traveling up the coast due to the outlining of pine trees along the beaches edges. With its seclusion, calm waters and plenty of shady spots for those not fond of the too much sun, you can obviously see why this is one of Oahu’s best-kept secrets.
Ehukai Beach Park
Known as “Reddish tinged water”, this also home of the famous Banzai Pipeline. In the winter months, this beach features 30-40-ft (9-12 m) waves, when the swells are high, and frequented by many of the worlds best surfers. However, in the summer months, the calm ocean makes a good spot for swimming and a good sandbar. Always check with a lifeguard at this beach before entering the water.
Haleiwa Beach Park
Located in the Historical town of Haleiwa fronted by a narrow brown sand beach. While its shallow, rocky ocean bottom does not attract many swimmers, the park is well-used by canoe paddlers as a training and regatta site, by kayakers as an access point to the bay, and by surfers who ride the waves at Pua’ena Point.
Mokule’ia Beach Park
Mokulēʻia means “isle of abundance” in Hawaiian. Located on the northwestern tip of the island, this long white sandy beach is frequented by many of the local Hawaiians for its enticing windsurfing conditions and nice fishing spots.
This beach located off the Kamehameha Highway, North Shore, between Sharks Cove and Waimea Bay. Part of the Pupukea Beach Marine Sanctuary, this popular dive area is named for three table-like sections of reef that can easily be seen during low tide.
Snorkel at Shark’s Cove
There is some fine snorkeling at Shark’s Cove in Pupukea Beach Park. For a unique experience, be sure to snorkel over to the deep channel where the ocean enters the cove to feel the surge as the water moves in and out. (An alternative to Shark Cove would be to snorkel at much popular (but also much crowded) Hanauma Bay on the south side of the island).
It’s what gave the North Shore its reputation, and still one of the main reasons to come here — Waimea Bay, Sunset Beach, and Banzai Pipeline are some of the most well-known. Take extreme care, however, if you aren’t a very talented surfer. The Banzai Pipeline, in particular, is one of the most harrowing; on a day with big waves the super shallow reef can be deadly.
Named to promote the area’s spectacular sunsets, this white sand beach is one of the longest-running beaches on Oahu, stretching 2 mi (3 km) in length and between 200-300 ft (61-91 m) in width at some spots. Home to several internationally renowned surfing contests, including the Triple Crown of Surfing since 1983.
A bike path runs from Sunset Beach to Waimea Bay which is a great way to spend the day exploring the hidden spots that you cannot see from the main road. Bike rentals are available at Sunset Beach.
Waimea Bay Beach
Waimea means “red water” in Hawaiian. Waimea Bay is one of the most famous big wave surf sites in the world. Waves breaking on the north point of the bay often reach heights of 25 feet, attracting many of the best riders in the international surfing community. During the summer months, the wide sandy beach at Waimea is a popular swimming and snorkeling site. Part of the Pupukea Marine Life Conservation District.
The Banzai Pipeline is one of the most famous surf sites for “professional surfers” from all around the world. The best time to witness it is in the winter when the waves can reach up to 30 to 40 ft (10 to 12 m) high.
Caution: High wave surfing is a dangerous and extreme sport. Please do not attempt it unless you are a professional surfer and you are with a group of surfers. Never surf alone.
Best Things, Best Places
Here, we have put together a little cheat sheet for you to shortlist the best of Oahu (especially, if you have less than 2 days to spend). Please note, everything mentioned below is covered in the above sections.
Try windsurfing, surfing, and body-boarding at Waikiki (and less crowded and more scenic) North Shore and Kailua Beach. (Please see Honolulu Travel Guide and North Shore section above)
Enjoy horseback riding on the North Shore and Windward Koolau Range. (See above North Shore & Windward Coast sections).
You have great hikes all over the island. The best ones are: Diamond Head State Park (excellent view of Honolulu city and the surrounding area) and Lanikai’s Pillbox (leftover from WWII sitting above Lanikai) which gives a spectacular view of Waimanalo, the Koolau Mountains, Kailua, and the Mokulua Islands sitting in the distance. (Please see Honolulu Travel Guide)
Kayak on the Windward side of the Mokulua Islands which are a bird sanctuary and also offer encounters with turtles which have made a huge comeback in the Windward bay area. The beach on the islands is not part of the restricted zone. (Please see Windward Coast section above)
Circumnavigate the east half of the island: From Honolulu, take H1 east until it turns into Route 72. Follow Route 72 around the southeast corner of the island. Then go on Route 83, which goes along the east coast of the island around the northeast corner to the North Shore.
Driving around East-side of the island gives spectacular views. Stop several times along the route to see blowhole, swim in the secluded cove, hike up to the Lighthouse for amazing views or check out ancient Hawaiian drawings and Heiaus (Hawaiian temples).
Drive up to the Round-Top Forest Reserve (excellent view of Honolulu city and the surrounding area) and over the Pali Highway to visit the Pali Lookout. (Please see Honolulu Travel Guide)
It’s said, the better half of Oahu is underwater. Go on whales watching, dive with the dolphins, and snorkel or scuba dive to see the coral reefs with turtles and tropical fish.
Did you know, Hawaii has a greater number of endemic tropical marine fishes than any other region except the Red Sea. At the present time, there are three MLCDs (Marine Life Conservation Districts) on Oahu – Hanauma Bay, Waikiki, and Pupukea. (Please see Honolulu Travel Guide)
Reef Dive Sites
Water depths in the inner bay range to about 30 ft and visibility is generally good. The outer bay is recommended only for experienced divers. Depths range up to about 70 ft, and there is a large finger coral reef on the left side.
Papukea includes three dive sites on Oahu’s North Shore: Shark’s Cove, Firehouse, and Three Tables. The dive depths range from 20 to 45 ft. You can see many ledges, arches, lava tubes, and other underwater features.
From about May through October the water is generally calm, but sudden surges are possible. During winter months current and wave conditions become extremely dangerous in all areas. Do not dive alone or without proper guide services.
Kahe Point Beach Park
Also known as Electric Beach, Kahe Point beach park is an adjacent electric generating facility outflow clean warm water through two giant cooling pipes offshore. Easy beach entry when the surf is low, with depths ranging from 5 to 35 feet.
Also known as Haleiwa Ali’l Beach Park, you can drive to here and park your vehicle in Western parking Lot of the park. Entry is easy, walk to the left side of the Main building. Water depth is only 1 to 2 feet for about 100m then it starts to drop off.
Wall starts at 10 feet and drops to about 90 feet deep. This deep trench was originally built to hide submarines. The southern wall is the most dramatic underwater view.
Wreck Dive Sites
The Seaplane Wreck
A twin-engine Beechcraft airplane off the west coast with a maximum depth of 100’/30m. Sunk in 1986 as an artificial reef project.
Corsair Airplane Wreck
A deep dive with a maximum depth of 107ft/32m. A mostly-intact wreck submerged since 1945 when the pilot ditched it after engine problems during an exercise.
A former minesweeper/cable layer sunk off the west coast in 95ft/29m of water, with the deck between 60-80ft/18-24m. Shortly after being sunk as an artificial reef project in 1982, Hurricane Iwa repositioned the ship 180 degrees.
San Pedro Shipwreck
A former a Korean fishing boat resting in 85 ft of water with the main decks at 65 and 70 ft. Sunk in 1996 by Atlantis Submarines.
Sea Tiger Shipwreck
Rests upright on a sandy bottom off the Waikiki coast at 130ft/40m, but dive depth is generally between 80-100’/24-30m. Sunk on June 24, 1999, by now-defunct Voyager Submarines.
Rests upright at 95ft/28m off the Waikiki coast. Often in Rodale’s Scuba Diving Magazine’s top 5 of US best wrecks. Sunk in 1989 by Atlantis Submarines.
Stay Safe in Oahu
Some areas, including parts of Downtown Chinatown, Pearl City, Waianae, Nanakuli, Waipahu, and Kalihi, are not very safe after dark. Officers from the Honolulu Police Department are extremely helpful to visitors and will steer you away from potential problems.
Some beaches are unsafe due to surf conditions or underwater currents. Always check the local Oahu Beach Conditions in advance to know the dangers. Check with the lifeguards and look for flags. (Yellow=Caution; Red=Dangerous; Black=Extremely Dangerous.)
Underwater rocks and coral can be very shallow in some locations even with large waves, so know before you go. Some beaches (like Sandy’s Beach) have very large very dangerous shorebreak at times. It is good to know general beach safety to understand the risks.
Understand the conditions of the oceans and take note how high up the water has splashed due to wave action. It is not uncommon to have areas that are safe and fun to explore until surf conditions change making them dangerous or deadly.
If you fall into the water in the high surf near rock walls, SWIM AWAY from the rocks and shore. Do Not Panic in the water, instead call for help, and try to swim parallel to the shore to a location of little wave action or toward sandy areas.
Take care when hiking on trails. Several trails are hazardous, especially after large amounts of rain, go with someone who is familiar with the area. It is very easy to get to dangerous locations that are not marked by signs or railing. When hiking near on rock shelves beside the ocean, remember, the dangerous areas are usually not blocked off in Hawaii.
It’s illegal to feed or hassle wildlife, take rocks, or native plants, but it’s also disrespectful and detrimental to the Hawaiian Islands ecosystem.
Do not cut trails, litter, or desecrate natural or man-made sites. Hawaii is one of the most isolated land mass on the earth and has many species and landscapes that are struggling to survive under the pressures of tourism.
March 10, 2018 3:47 pm