Things to Do in Oahu
What is formerly known as the Honolulu Academy of Arts is the leading museum of its kind the state of Hawaii, and hosts one of the largest single collections of Asian and Pan-Pacific art in the United States at 50,000 objects. It represents all the major cultures of Hawaii and spans 5,000 years, from ancient times to today. Founded by esteemed local missionary Anna Rice Cooke in 1927 in Honolulu’s most beautiful Hawaiian-style building, the museum continues to present international caliber exhibitions along with its permanent collection, which is home to world-class pieces by none other than Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso and Warhol.
The museum actually encompasses several building, scattered over 3.2 acres near downtown Honolulu; it features the Spalding House, the Doris Duke Theatre, the Robert Allerton Art Library, the Art School and the Shangri La Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.
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.
Ala Moana Beach Park is where locals head to enjoy a weekend in the sun. While it’s moderately crowded during the middle of the week, sunny weekends are like an outdoor block party where everyone is down at the beach. Coolers, pop-up tents, BBQ’s, and beach chairs sprawl across 76 acres, and it’s a festive atmosphere along this white sand stretch of Honolulu coastline.
Even with the park’s popularity, however, visitors can still find their own little corner for relaxing out on the sand. The protected lagoon is ideal for lap swimming or visitors traveling with young children, and the offshore reef is where boogie boarders and surfers race across the waves. There isn’t much to see in the way of snorkeling, but the calm waters are perfect for sunbathing while sprawled on an inflatable raft. Lay out a blanket in the shaded grass area if you need to escape the sun, or work up a sweat on the park’s jogging trails or the popular beachfront tennis courts.
A sandy peninsula extending into Honolulu Harbor, Magic Island—more rarely referred by its official name Aina Moana—affords rare right-off-the-beach green space in downtown Honolulu thanks to a failed 1964 development project. Today, families gather on weekends to barbeque alongside its picnic tables and splash in its rock-wall protected lagoon, while friends toss footballs and Frisbees not far from the state’s largest shopping mall. The centrally-located park about halfway between downtown Honolulu and Waikiki has three restroom and changing room blocks located at various points along its 30 acres. It is adjacent to the larger Ala Moana beach park which has a performance pavilion. The area is popular with joggers and dog walkers and regularly hosts community events including an annual family carnival.
Located at the back of Honolulu’s lush Manoa Valley, Manoa Falls is a 150 ft. waterfall which is accessible by a one-hour hike. It’s the perfect distance for those wanting an easy workout, and it’s close enough to the city that you can squeeze in a visit if you only have a couple of hours.
Parking for the falls is $5 and is in the parking lot by the Rainbow’s End snack shop, and this moderate trail weaves its way between swaying stands of creaking bamboo and the sweet scent of eucalyptus. After .8 miles the trail emerges at majestic Manoa Falls, and the flow is highly dependent upon the amount of recent rainfall. On some days this can be a thundering torrent of jungle whitewater, whereas on other days (particularly in summer) the falls can be reduced to little more than a trickle.
Regardless of season, however, the shaded trail is often wet, and mud can line the narrow trail during pretty much every day of the year.
Located in downtown Honolulu, Ali'iolani Hale is the current home of the Hawaii Supreme Court, court administration offices, a law library, and the Judiciary History Center. Constructed in 1872, it was the first western-style building in Hawaii built by the Hawaiian monarchy.
Ali'iolani Hale was originally slated to be the Royal Palace, but ended up housing the Supreme Court and its legislative body. The building was the site of some of Hawaii’s pivotal historical moment, including the 1889 revolt by Robert Wilcox and over 100-armed insurgents. And, in 1893, the Committee of Public Safety overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy from here via a proclamation. Over the years, Ali'iolani Hale has undergone renovations, and was spared demolition in 1937 when new renovation plans were approved. The bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and subsequent declaration of Martial Law put everything on hold, and Ali'iolani Hale became a center for military personnel.
For 83 years, Kings, Queens, and regal monarchs ruled the Hawaiian Kingdom. One of the most controversial—and eventually beloved—monarchs was the half-Hawaiian Queen Emma, whose Caucasian background led many to argue she wasn’t fit to be Queen. Nevertheless, she would end up marrying King Kamehameha IV and become heavily involved in philanthropy—even setting up the Queen’s Medical Center that is Oahu’s main hospital today. During the peak of summer, however, Queen Emma would escape the Honolulu heat at her home in Nu‘uanu Valley.
Honolulu's Chinatown is one of the oldest in the United States.
Home to an eclectic assortment of storefronts, spend some time wandering and you’ll find herbalists, temples, antique shops and lei makers. Folks in Chinatown also know how to eat well. When hunger strikes you’ll have your pick of dishes. Chefs serve everything from Chinese dim sum to Cuban and French Fare. Night owls will be happy to know Chinatown offers a variety of nightlife options from jazz clubs to wine bars and nightclubs.
More Things to Do in Oahu
Twenty minutes. That’s all the time that is takes to be transported from the white sand beaches of Waikiki, up to the waterfall-laden wilds at the back of Manoa Valley. Here, where cliffs rise vertically over 2,000 feet and it rains nearly every day, visitors will find one of Hawaii’s foremost tropical botanical gardens. Managed by nearby University of Hawaii, the Lyon Arboretum spans 193 acres and has over 5,000 species of plants. Given the cool, wet conditions—it rains over 165 inches per year here—the forested amphitheater is the perfect setting for researching tropical plants.
Take an hour to stroll from the parking lot back to Inspiration Point, and reap the rewards of the casual walk with a view looking out at the valley. Along the journey you might encounter up to 25 species of birds, including the endangered amakihi which calls the arboretum home.
Historic Honolulu Harbor, the state’s original hub for commerce and immigration, stretches from Honolulu’s downtown business district in the east to Ke’ehi Lagoon in the west. A center of activity even prior to European contact, the harbor today—a series of dredged channels and basins encircling the less-than-a-square-mile Sand Island—is picturesque in parts and downright commercial in others. Despite a massive molasses spill that occurred here in Sept. 2013, there are those who say the harbor is among the cleanest commercial ports in the nation. To see for yourself, head down to Pier 7 where modern cruise ships still occasionally dock (if you didn’t arrive by boat, look for the giant wooden Falls of Clyde sailing ship fronting the now-shuttered Hawaii Maritime Center). There, just along the concrete harbor wall, is a veritable open-air aquarium: coral, tropical reef fish and the occasional reef shark can be seen making a living just steps from downtown skyscrapers.
The Hard Rock Cafe Honolulu was the first in the chain to open in Hawaii, in the summer of 1987. The restaurant moved to its present location in 2000. The current setting for the Hard Rock Cafe in Honolulu is right in the middle of Waikiki, within easy walking distance of many of the area's hotels and resorts, as well as other shops, restaurants, the Hawaii Convention Center, and the beach.
The Hard Rock Cafe Honolulu, like all the Hard Rock Cafes, has a casual restaurant with a menu full of American favorites, a lively full bar, and a shop where you can buy all kinds of Hard Rock Cafe merchandise.
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.
Let the vowels and loopy sounds roll slowly off your tongue—without even picturing the golden sands and palm trees swaying in the breeze, even saying the word “Honolulu” can make a person smile. Every year in Hawaii’s capital, where surfboards, sunsets, and taking it slow are simply a way of life, millions of visitors from around the globe all gather to soak in its warmth.
While the beaches and waves are what Honolulu is best known for, there’s much more to Honolulu than simply the front of a postcard. The capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom was here at ‘Iolani Palace, and the museums, temples, and historic homes are windows to Old Hawaii. Get lost in the markets of Chinatown or pay a visit to Pearl Harbor, and let your palette explore the local farm to table cuisine. Catch a show at a downtown theater or hit the late night clubs, or rise with the sun for a standup paddle off the shores of Waikiki.
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.
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.
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.
Although it is often referred to as a resort, Ko Olina doesn’t describe a property in particular. It is, in fact, a master-planned vacation and residential community containing several upscale resorts, like the Aulani Disney Resort & Spa, the JW Marriott Ihilani Resort & Spa and Marriott's Ko Olina Beach Club. The area is famous for its pristine, man-made beach coves (the sand was imported from Lanai!) that are very popular with swimmers. Their creation was more a necessity than a caprice, as the ocean tends to be quite turbulent in these parts; the rock levies encase the lagoons for safer sea ventures.
The destination is famous for its unparalleled golfing opportunities, including the LPGA Lotte Championship (women's professional golf tournament on the LPGA Tour).
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.
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.