Oahu might only serve as the international gateway for some visitors to Hawaii, but the most populated island in the state ranks as one of the most beautiful in the chain. Home to Hawaii’s only “real city” – Honolulu – Oahu offers visitors all the benefits of a large metropolis along with the freedom to hit the road on epic road trips along its majestic coasts. In one of the more “action-packed” islands in Hawaii, here are the absolute top things to do in Honolulu and Oahu.
Visiting other Hawaiian islands? Sample itineraries, guides to the best beaches and the must-see highlights are all waiting for you in the Hawaii Travel Guide collection. Aloha!
10. Driving and Hiking to Manoa Falls
In an island chain that is home to so many dreamy waterfalls, Manoa Falls may not be the most impressive (100ft, 30m), but at just a few minutes away by car from downtown Honolulu, you kind of have to check them out with your own eyes. Oh, and speaking of the drive, this is the real cherry on the take. Before putting those hiking shoes on, embark on a scenic detour along Tantalus Drive. On this short urban scenic drive, you’ll be rewarded with million-dollar views of Honolulu and Diamond Head as you snake your way along a forested mountain road with million-dollar homes clinging to the hills overlooking the city.
9. Paying Respect in Pearl Harbor
President Roosevelt proclaimed December 7, 1941 as “a date which will live in infamy”, the morning of which saw the surprise attack on the U.S. naval base in Pearl Harbor and the eventual entrance of the superpower to WWII. In a shocking move, 353 Japanese planes attacked the base, destroying ships, wounding 1,178 and killing 2,403 Americans. The memorials in Pearl Harbor are a powerful reminder of that day, the most moving of which is the USS Arizona Memorial which hovers above the sunken battleship that still holds the remains of some of its fallen servicemen. Other highlights include the Battleship Missouri Memorial, Pacific Aviation Museum, the WWII Valour in the Pacific National Monument and more (combo tickets for Pearl Harbor sites available here).
8. See and be seen in Waikiki Beach
Love it or hate it, it’s difficult to visit Honolulu without paying a visit to Waikiki Beach – one of the most famous beaches in the world. In an effort to “escape the city”, Waikiki was frequented by Hawaiian royalty in the old days but when the Royals weren’t around, it was primarily a farming area. Things started to change in 1901 with the opening of the first hotel and Waikiki never looked back, for better or for worse. Waikiki Beach is magnificent if you somehow manage to ignore the high rises and block out the noise, a beautiful strip of sand and azure waters that are a haven for swimmers, beach volleyball hotshots, and surfers. But the fact that all the action in town converges on Waikiki might also be a plus. There’s never a dull moment!
7. Road tripping along the windward coast
Oahu’s windward coast is a reminder of how beautiful the island really is and how life may have looked like in the pre-development days on other parts elsewhere on the island. Signs of “keep the country, country” greet you as you exit the engineering marvel that is the scenic Interstate H-3, and as you begin heading north along the coast, the gravitational pull of Honolulu is slowly replaced by a relaxing mixture of mountains, ranches, and lots of blue. Begin this scenic road trip in one of Kailua’s fine beaches (Lanikai Beach is the best) and continue all the way to the north shore beaches, where Jack Johnson might be catching a barrel. En route, you’ll pass through several sleepy villages, plenty of beautiful beaches, shrimp ponds, and rugged coves where there’s hardly anyone around during weekdays.
6. Daring to surf in north shore beaches
If you aren’t a serious surfer, looking rather than doing is the name of the game in Oahu’s north shore beaches. These are among the world’s greatest surfing beaches, where waves pound the golden-sand in impressive heights, and where some of the best surfers in the world come to hang out. The north shore is dotted with a number of prime surf hotspots, the best of which is Ehukai Beach and the prettiest of which is Waimea Bay.
5. Admiring the beauty of the Pali Coast
Oahu is among the oldest of the Hawaiian Islands. This means that unlike the still-expanding Big Island, Mother Nature has had millennia of rain and wind with which to sculpt Oahu’s peaks and plenty of seasons to paint them emerald green. There’s no better place to admire Oahu’s Ko’olau Mountain Range (without breaking a sweat on a hike) than at the Pali Lookout (at Nu’uanu Pali State Wayside). Reached via the scenic Pali Highway, the lookout offers a unique vantage point towards the eroded cliffs (pali in Hawaiian) which, in my opinion, are the most beautiful feature of the island. Sitting at a height of 1,200 feet, the lookout is also of historical significance. It is from here that the winning forces of King Kamehameha the Great literally tossed about 500 enemy soldiers to their death – an act which led to King K’s victory and eventual unification of the Hawaiian Islands under his crown.
4. Working on your color in Waimanalo Beach
Easily making the list of the best beaches in Oahu, Waimanalo Beach is the longest uninterrupted white-sand beach on the island. Visitors are treated to miles and miles of soft white sand that meet the bluest of waters. There’s plenty of room for everyone and plenty of shade thanks to ironwood trees acting as a buffer between this natural gem and the coastal road. Waimanalo is great for both swimming (when the ocean is calm) and bodysurfing, but you’ll have just as much fun chilling on the beach and admiring the view.
3. Snorkeling in Hanauma Bay
Spectacular Hanauma Bay has to rank among the prettiest bays in the world, certainly when it comes to the tropical ones. The bay is hidden from the outside world thanks to towering cliffs, and its sheltered waters are teeming with life thanks to a pristine coral reef – quite a rarity in the Hawaiians Islands, believe it or not. Hanauma Bay was the playground of the ancient royal family and was off limits to the public for many years due to its delicate marine ecosystem. The good news is that you can now visit and snorkel in Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve and Marine Park, but you’ll have to watch an educational film prior to marching down so that others can enjoy this gem for years to come.
2. Hiking to the summit of Diamond Head
Overlooking Waikiki Beach, Diamond Head is the symbol of Oahu and the most recognized landmark of Hawaii. The crater – geologically known as a tuff cone – was formed by blasted ash, coral, and other debris, from an underwater volcanic eruption. Known as Le’ahi to Hawaiians, Diamond Head got its name when early Western explorers mistook its calcite crystals for diamonds. Later on, U.S. forces erected artillery firing stations on the crater’s slopes and summit as part of Oahu’s coastal defense system. Hiking to the summit of Diamond Head is an absolute must, though you’ll have to share the trail with hundreds of other folks who have the same genius idea. The unobstructed views of Waikiki Beach from its summit are the hallmark of any visit to the island and from up here, you can’t help but wonder what this area may have looked like before all those high rises “sprung to life”.
1. Catching panoramic views from Makapu‘u Point
Exposed to the elements (mostly wind) and commanding a breathtakingly beautiful spot overlooking the Pali Coast, hiking to Makapu‘u Point is among the most rewarding hikes in Hawaii. The short and paved trail starts with awesome views back to Koko Head, before rising to an old lighthouse overlooking Makapuu Beach and the island’s windward coast. Along the way, pause for a look down at the deep blue from atop the sea cliffs and you might even spot a family of sea turtles cruising up the coast. Makapu‘u Point has to be one of the prettiest if not the prettiest spot in Oahu, not to be missed!
There you have it, the top things to do in Oahu! Visiting other Hawaiian islands? Sample itineraries, guides to the best beaches and the must-see highlights are all waiting for you in the Hawaii Travel Guide collection. Aloha!
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