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Best things to do in Oahu

Isabel Catalán

Isabel Catalán

Aug 30, 2021 • 9 min read

Best things to do in Oahu

Paradisiacal views in Oahu | ©Brent Storm

The dream of many travelers with an adventurous spirit is to visit Hawaii, an idyllic place in Polynesia that looks like paradise.

Oahu, the third largest island of Hawaii after Maui and Big Island, has it all. A breathtaking nature, an intense cultural life, and multiple leisure options to have a great time during a vacation. Do you want to know what to do in Oahu during a trip to Hawaii? Here are all the details!

1. Tour the historic center of Honolulu

King Kamehameha statue with Iolani Palace in the background | ©Edmund Garman
King Kamehameha statue with Iolani Palace in the background | ©Edmund Garman

South of the island of Oahu is located Honolulu, the state capital. Although it is the largest city in Hawaii, compared to other cities in the United States it is a small city but it is full of tourist attractions and you can take a short tour of the South King Street area. Here are some must-sees in Oahu:

Iolani Palace

A good plan to do in Oahu is to join one of the guided tours of the Iolani Palace, the only one where a king once lived in the United States and where the last monarchs of Hawaii resided: King Kalakaua and his successor Queen Liliuokalani.

During the visit, you will be able to contemplate the American Florentine style in which this palace was built (something unique in the world) and learn about the Hawaiian monarchy. Here you will see the portraits of the royalty, the gold crowns of the kings, their attire and jewelry, the private rooms of the royal family, or the throne room among other rooms.

The statue of King Kamehameha

In front of the Iolani Palace is the Statue of King Kamehameha I, the unifier and peacemaker of Hawaii in the 19th century. Every year, on June 11, he is honored with an offering of lei flowers, the most typical of the archipelago.

If your trip to Honolulu coincides with this celebration, attending it is one of the best things to do in Oahu, as it will allow you to get in direct contact with the local history and culture.

Hawaii's Capitol

Behind the Iolani Palace is the Capitol, the seat of the Hawaiian government in the country. Its architecture is striking because it does not resemble that of Washington or imitates its large domes but has a very peculiar postmodernist style with which they wanted to highlight the uniqueness of Hawaii.

I recommend a walk around the grounds of the Hawaii Capitol to appreciate the architecture of this unique building, which was designed to allow the passage of wind, rain, and light as a symbol of union with nature. It also features a reflecting pool representing the Pacific Ocean.

Washington Place

Washington Place is the current seat of the governor of the island. On its grounds is the governor's residence and a former mansion converted into a National Historic Landmark, where the last queen of Hawaii, Liliuokalani, lived shortly before her overthrow.

The mansion is open for tours every Thursday at 10 AM, so I recommend you take the opportunity to see the inside of it on a free one-hour guided tour of the grounds. It's another one of the most interesting things to do on Oahu!

Compare best Oahu tours

2. Discover Pearl Harbor

Views of Pearl Harbor from the Arizona USS Memorial | ©Bernard Spragg. NZ
Views of Pearl Harbor from the Arizona USS Memorial | ©Bernard Spragg. NZ

Pearl Harbor barely needs an introduction. This naval base was bombed by Japanese aircraft during World War II, and its destruction dragged the US into the conflict.

Films and documentaries have been made about this event, but nothing compares to seeing in person the place where the events took place. If you like history, this is one of the must-see sites on Oahu.

What will you see during your visit to Pearl Harbor?

Visiting Pearl Harbor is an experience that will not leave you indifferent. You will be able to see the various exhibits with photographs and videos about Pearl Harbor, where survivors narrate what happened on the morning of December 7, 1941.

The highlight of the visit comes with the subsequent documentary on the attack on the naval base and the ferry ride to the Arizona USS Memorial to see the remains of the ship sunk by the bombs as well as the memorial in memory of the victims of the attack.

It is a site that truly impresses and moves to imagine the tragedy that happened there and how many lives were lost. Undoubtedly, a place that makes you reflect on the catastrophic effects of war.

How to book your tickets for Pearl Harbor?

Since this is one of the most visited places by tourists going to Hawaii, my recommendation is to book your tickets online and well in advance to secure them before they are sold out. In the post Pearl Harbor Tours I explain all the options to visit the naval base.

Check out the best Pearl Harbor tours

3. Ride on historic ships and planes

Hangar from the Pacific Aviation Museum | ©Daniel Ramirez
Hangar from the Pacific Aviation Museum | ©Daniel Ramirez

If you are interested in the World War II period as well as the world of aviation and navigation, to complete the visit of Pearl Harbor other visits to do in Oahu that you may like are:

  • Pacific Aviation Museum: has a very cool exhibition of restored vintage aircraft with two World War II hangars that withstood the bombing. You can even try a flight simulator here.

  • Battleship Missouri Memorial: the last battleship built by the United States where, in addition, the surrender of Japan was signed, ending the war.

Check out the Best Things to Do in Oahu

4. Have fun in Waikiki day and night

Enjoy water sports in Waikiki | ©Joris Visser
Enjoy water sports in Waikiki | ©Joris Visser

If you want to enjoy a bit of the city atmosphere and mingle with the locals, then you have to go to the Waikiki area, which is the center of tourist life on the island. The main avenue is lined with restaurants, stores, skyscrapers, and nightclubs where you can party in the Pacific at sunset.

As for beaches, Waikiki is one of the most famous in the world and the first that comes to mind when we think of Hawaii. It's a great place to start your adventures in Honolulu's waters, whether it's snorkeling or surfing.

If you haven't tried water sports before, don't worry as there are very good schools that offer classes for all levels although if you already have some experience you can also join a snorkeling cruise or do an Oahu diving tour.

So don't hesitate, seeing the depths of the island is one of the most fun things to do on Oahu and one of the most enjoyable things to do on vacation.

Discover the Best Tours in Oahu

5. Dare to swim with sharks in Oahu

Swim among sharks | ©Ji Wang
Swim among sharks | ©Ji Wang

If you feel like experiencing strong emotions during your vacations in Hawaii and are brave enough, one of the most exciting experiences you will never forget is swimming with sharks in Oahu.

You will feel the adrenaline rush when you are immersed in the ocean inside a cage and they approach to take a look at you from up close! If you want to know more, in the post Shark Diving in Oahu I tell you all the details.

Another more relaxed option for those adventurers who don't want to come face to face with a shark is to go on a dolphin watching cruise or swim with turtles. It is also a very nice experience to do on Oahu and one that you will take away with you a nice souvenir.

Speaking of seeing animals on the island, if you travel to Hawaii with your family you cannot miss the Waikiki Aquarium and the Honolulu Zoo. The little ones will love seeing so many animals together (some of them endangered) and they will learn a lot about environmental protection.

Book shark activities in Oahu

6. Try authentic Hawaiian poké

Taste the delicious Hawaiian poké | ©Miu Sua
Taste the delicious Hawaiian poké | ©Miu Sua

Another way to get to know the culture of Hawaii (very rich, by the way!) is through the local cuisine.

Poké is the traditional Hawaiian dish that has always been part of the diet of the natives, but as a result of the cultural exchange with Easterners and Westerners in the 19th century, poké went from being a simple morsel of gutted and marinated fish to a salad that combines raw fish, white rice, soy sauce, and various vegetable toppings.

And it's delicious! Take advantage of your stay in Hawaii to try the authentic poké because the recipe, as you might know, has become quite fashionable and crossed all borders. But none will be like the original, the one from the islands.

If you consider yourself a foodie, consider a gastronomic tour of Hawaiian food. If you enjoy eating, it is one of the best things to do in Oahu.

7. Surf the waves in Oahu

Ride the best waves in Oahu | ©Pete Markham
Ride the best waves in Oahu | ©Pete Markham

It's well known that Hawaii is a surfer's paradise! Are you up for grabbing a board and riding the waves? It's one of the must-do things to do on Oahu... or at least try.

Did you know that in the past this sport was reserved for the Hawaiian nobility? Who would have thought that today it is one of the most popular sports disciplines in the world and available to everyone? In fact, almost all the beaches in Honolulu rent surfboards to those who want to try their luck with the waves.

If you are new to surfing, I advise you to go to the south of the island, specifically to Waikiki Beach, where you can learn to surf in one of the schools on the island. On the other hand, if surfing is not a secret for you I recommend going to North Shore, where you will find a true challenge.

However, if surfing is not your thing, you can always paddle on a kayak or take a ride on a catamaran.

8. Take a series and movie tour of Hawaii

Admire the beautiful natural landscapes where your favorite movies and series were filmed | ©jai Mansson
Admire the beautiful natural landscapes where your favorite movies and series were filmed | ©jai Mansson

The beauty of Hawaii's landscapes has been filmed countless times in movies like "Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981), "Jurassic Park" (1993), "Pearl Harbor" (2001), or the series "Lost" (2004) and "Hawaii Five-0" (2010), among others.

How about taking a guided tour around the island of series and movies visiting the main filming sites of these productions? If you are passionate about movies and series, you will love this experience where you will also be able to take some sweet souvenir pictures.

9. Discover Oahu by land and by air

Discover the most impressive views of the island from the helicopter | ©Edmund Garman
Discover the most impressive views of the island from the helicopter | ©Edmund Garman

Touring Oahu by tourist bus is a very practical idea, as it will allow you to discover the most important areas of the island in a fast and comfortable way. It is a great option to visit Oahu by land in a short time.

Now, flying over Oahu by helicopter and seeing Hawaii from a bird's eye view is an incredible experience that everyone should do at least once in a lifetime, even if you are a bit afraid of heights. It's really worth it because the views are absolutely spectacular.

If you want to know more details about it, take a look at the articles The best tour buses in Oahu and Helicopter tours in Oahu.

Check out the best helicopters in Oahu

10. Explore the nature of Oahu

Enjoy the beauty of Waimea Falls | ©Heath Cajandig
Enjoy the beauty of Waimea Falls | ©Heath Cajandig

Although the origin of this beautiful archipelago is volcanic, its landscape hides among cliffs endless greenery, an intense blue sea that bathes white sandy beaches, valleys, bays, and countless other sites whose natural beauty will leave you speechless.

Some of the most impressive places to see in Oahu during your stay are the waterfalls of Manoa Falls and Waimea, Hanauma Bay, Dole Plantation or the top of the volcano Diamond Head (from where you will have the best views of Honolulu and the most fascinating sunset over the Pacific Ocean).

To explore the nature of the island and these beautiful sites, nothing better than a tour of Oahu and even a tour of nearby islands such as Maui or Big Island. If you want to know more about these activities, don't miss the article Island Tours on Oahu.

Things to do in Oahu