Things to Do in Oahu
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.
White sand, blue sea, great waves and shady palms. If it sounds too good to be true, it must be Sunset Beach!
This 2-mile (3 km) stretch of sand is targeted by swimmers and snorkelers in the calm of summer, and by the world’s best surfers during December and January, when the wintertime waves are at their lethal best for pro surfer tournaments. Pack a picnic to enjoy under the palms, go swimming in summer under the watchful eye of the beach lifeguards, and collect shells in tidal pools when the tide’s out.
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.
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.
While most sights on the island of Oahu are located in an urban setting, the Byodo-In temple is a Buddhist sanctuary backed by the Ko’olau Mountains. Located in Oahu’s “Valley of Temples”, the Byodo-In temple is only ten minutes from the town of Kaneohe and is a peaceful escape from the fast pace of city life.
Modeled after the 900-year old Boydo-In temple in the Kyoto prefecture of Japan, the temple on Oahu is a popular place for events and weddings where Buddhist communities from both Hawaii and Japan come to celebrate together. Although the Byodo-In temple is not a practicing temple, visitors are welcome to tour the grounds in exchange for a nominal fee. More than just well-manicured grounds and a replica of Japanese architecture, the temple is also home to a golden Buddha which is believed to be the largest of its kind carved outside of Japan.
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.
Pre-contact Hawaiians didn’t believe in land ownership, but they did divide the Islands into sectional slivers called ahupua’a. Running from the mountains to the sea, ahupuaa had enough land and water resources to support a whole community, and the 5,300 acre Ahupua’a ‘O Kahana State Park is one of the few statewide divisions that remains intact and managed as a whole. Surrounded on three sides by the verdant Koolau Mountains, and fronting Kahana Bay, the scenic park includes a dusty neighborhood of mostly ethnic Hawaiian residents, two popular jungle hiking trails —Kapa’ele’ele and the Nakoa Loop—leading back into a deep valley, the remnants of an ancient fishpond and a beach park with year-round camping. Most visitors, drawn by its forested seaside park and calm tropical waters, stop by the here to snap photos enroute to the North Shore. The bay is very shallow and can be murky thanks to the nearby infusion of Kahana Stream, so swimming is not recommended.
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.
The best stretch of sand in Kaneohe Bay is out on the middle of the sea. That’s where the sandbar, or “Sunken Island” emerges during low tide, and its sugary white sands are like a floating cay that was made especially for you. Kayaking to the sandbar is one of the most popular activities on the Windward Side of Oahu, and while the beaches along the shoreline aren’t great for swimming, the protected waters make the perfect spot for paddling, boating, or kayaking.
In addition to the sandbar, five islands poke above the turquoise, reef-fringed waters. The tallest of the islands—Chinaman’s Hat—rises 200 feet from the northern edge of the bay and offshore of Kualoa Park. Known to Hawaiians as Mokoli“i, the island resembles a large straw that seems to be floating on the surface of the water.
Once named the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” by Mark Twain, Waimea Valley is the gateway to one of Kauai’s most impressive natural sights, Waimea Canyon. At 26 miles across and 21 miles long, Waimea Canyon has crags, gorges, and rugged mountains characterized by a variety of colors. Natural green, red, and even purple and blue hues appear in various degrees along the eroded mountain sides. The canyon was carved thousands of years ago from waters flowing from the top of Mount Waialeale, still today one of the places on Earth with the most rainfall. There are still dozens of hidden waterfalls and pools to explore throughout the valley.
Waimea Valley, with all its natural beauty, was considered sacred by the ancient Hawaiians. Archaeological sites and more than 700 years of native Hawaiian history can still be seen, while visitors can also enjoy panoramic views of the valley from one of several lookouts or explore by foot on one of the area’s many hiking trails.
More Things to Do in Oahu
Often referred to as “the Westiminster Abbey of the Pacific,” this historic stone church was the first of its kind to be built on the island of Oahu. Prior to the construction of the church in 1843, Christian missionaries held weekly sermons in small, pili grass huts. The Hawaiian royalty rapidly embraced Christianity, and a long lineage of Hawaiian royalty have worshipped here at the Church. Not only is King Kamehameha II buried on the Church’s grounds, but this is where Kamehameha III uttered the phrase that would eventually become the state motto: “Ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono”—“the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.”
At the time of its construction, Kawaiahao Church was unlike any structure that had previously been built on Oahu. Over 14,000 coral blocks were carved from offshore reefs, and it’s estimated that over 1,000 workers took nearly six years to completely finish the church.
Hawaii means luaus, and some of the best and most authentic luaus in the Pacific are staged at the Polynesian Cultural Center. The center highlights the Polynesian cultures of many island people, including Hawaii, New Zealand, Tonga and Tahiti. Tour re-created villages then settle in to be wowed by the theatrical spectacle of the center’s live cultural shows.
Watch a canoe pageant on the lagoon, taste the Polynesian flavors of an all-you-can-eat buffet luau, and stay on for the evening show of music, dance, theater and legend.
There are heaps of fun activities for children at the center. Get the lowdown on how to crack a coconut successfully, learn how to twirl poi balls, get a washable Maori tattoo and learn how to bowl Hawaiian style.
Laie Point State Wayside Park, a rocky promontory on Oahu’s North Shore hidden behind a residential neighborhood, got its 15 minutes of fame in the 2008 comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall. It’s here where Peter (Jason Segal) and Rachel (Mila Kunis) cement their relationship by braving the cliff jump off its side. Many daredevils still attempt the jump, but, as the abundance of floral memorials and crosses attest, it might not be the smartest choice—particularly when the waves pound during winter, making the already-challenging climb back up the cliff’s lava rock face all but impossible. Besides, there’s plenty to see from land.
Between November and March, humpback whales are often sighted in the waters off Laie Point and year-round local fishermen cast for dinner from the park’s rugged edges. To the south, the greenery of the Windward Coast looms large with its backdrop of Koolau Range “foothills.”
Waikiki pretty much embodies the ancient spirit of aloha: oceanfront high rises, white sand beaches, world-class dining and some of the world’s best surfing certainly explains the neighborhood’s alluring magnetism. The name Waikiki as such means spouting fresh water in the native Hawaiian language; it refers to the streams and springs that formerly fed the wetlands separating Waikiki from the interior. Once a playground for Hawaiian royalty, and now a playground for the rich and famous of the entire planet, Waikiki has become one of the most iconic beaches in the world and draws millions of visitors every year – and with most hotel rooms being just a block or two from the ocean, it’s easy to understand why.
But more than just glitz and glory, Waikiki is really mostly about surf. What could possibly be most picturesque than learning the basics of surfing at the foot of Diamond Head State Monument and by boys who were taught everything they know by local celebrity.
Set on Oahu’s famous north shore just minutes from world-class surf, funky Haleiwa is the Hawaiian antithesis of urban Honolulu. Gone are the brand-name glamorous stores of Ala Moana Mall, and enter the small, locally-owned boutiques with tanned and beautiful staff. Surfboards poke from the back of trucks that cruise the two lane roads, and boardshorts, bikinis, and rubber slippers are the de facto outfit of choice. Haleiwa, however, has two different moods—and they change with the time of year. In spring, summer, and early fall, Haleiwa is a sunny, laidback beach town where where you can start the day with a shark diving tour and finish with a barbecue at the beach. The waves are flat, the skies are blue, and you’re fare more likely to pack a snorkel than a surfboard or boogie board to the beach.
In winter, however, the entire surf world descends on Haleiwa and the buzz in the air is electric.
What locals refer to as Waimanalo Beach Park could easily be described as paradise by most visitors; what with its three miles of soft white sand flanked by Hawaii’s famous Koolau Mountains, soaring ironwood trees and dreamy azure and emerald sea, one can hardly argue that Waimanalo Beach Park is nothing short of heaven on earth. In opposition to more famous and more active Waimea Bay Beach, Waimanalo Beach Park is infinitely more tranquil. A silent retreat during the week, it shifts into a family-friendly, chill picnic and barbecue spot for locals.
Waimea’s waves are neither too high nor break far from the beach, making it the ultimate body boarding and body surfing spot on O’ahu, in addition to being perfect for lengthy tanning sessions. Early-risers will be pleased to learn that Waimanalo Beach Park is also an excellent place to catch a good sunrise, thanks to its unbeatable eastward location.
Hawaii’s breathtaking shores and beautiful blue waters draw plenty of travelers in search of island escape. But for those looking to get a little closer to under water wildlife, there’s no better place than Oahu’s Sea of Life Park. Stationed just north of Hanauma Bay, Sea of Life is home to well-kept reefs and refreshing lagoons. But it doesn’t end there.
Visitors to this aquatic park are in for a true deep-sea adventure. Whether its swimming witch dolphins, playing with sea lions, feeding sea turtles, diving with sting rays or listening in on an expert penguin trainer’s talk, Sea of Life Park offers a host of options perfect for any animal lover. The park also offers plenty of options for land-loving travelers, like the popular Chief’s Luau. Visitors can dance under the stars while they experience the wonder of an ancient Polynesian ‘Ava ceremony, making a trip to Sea of Life Park memorable in more ways than one.
Thanks to its ample parking, family-friendly atmosphere, and postcard-worthy shoreline, Kailua Beach Park is often regarded as one of Oahu’s nicest beaches. Like its neighboring cousin, Lanikai Beach, this stretch of white sand is fronted by turquoise waters which stretch out to the Mokulua islands. Unlike Lanikai, however, Kailua Beach Park is as active a destination as Lanikai is calm. Everything from snorkeling to kayaking and parasailing is available from this windward shore classic, and when the wind picks up in the afternoon the kitesurfers, windsurfers, and catamaran sailors take to the water in full force.
If it’s a rainy day in this island paradise, or you forgot your bathing suit at home, the Waikele Center is a sprawling sanctuary of classic retail therapy. Located in Waipahu in Central Oahu, the outlets here provide an affordable alternative to the larege scale malls in town. You’ll find global classics such as Armani, Converse, Adidas, and Michael Kors, as wells as shops with island flare like the Local Motion surf shop. There’s a popular food court for re-fueling so you literally don’t shop ‘til you drop, and even a trolley connecting the two sides of this sprawling commerce compound.
Panoramic ocean views, strange rock formations and smoothed shelves with wave-battered edges await at Lanai Lookout. This popular scenic overlook on a promontory north of Kahauloa Cove is so named because it affords sweeping views of the neighboring islands of Lanai, Molokai and Maui on a clear day. Though it may be challenging for visitors to peel their eyes away from the turbulent blue sea, turning 180 degrees provides a rewarding view of the southern slopes of Koko Crater, a dormant volcano climbable via a trail that follows old railroad ties to the summit rim.
Lanai Lookout has little more infrastructure than a parking lot with space for just under two dozen cars, but it’s worth it to circle for a space in the early hours of the morning when the sun rises over the horizon beyond the Oahu’s Windward Coast. Another good time to visit? Between November and April, when the lookout becomes one of the island’s best locales for spotting visiting humpback whales.
Stretching from just behind Honolulu to Oahu’s Windward (eastern) coastline, the Ko’olau Range is not actually a mountain range at all. Instead, the undulating green and vertical slopes which top out at 3,100 feet, are just one side the ancient, massive Ko’olau shield volcano. The other half of the volcano collapsed into the ocean millennia ago. The Ko’olau Range acts as a wind block for points inland, stopping clouds along the coast and causing regular rains. But here, rain is a good thing: Residents and locals delight as the Ko’olau’s creased face fills with hundreds of thin white waterfalls and Hawaii’s iconic rainbows arch across the sky.
The best places to experience the grandeur of the Ko’olau Range are themselves elevated. The Pali Road, connecting Kailua to downtown Honolulu, winds up, into and, in some instances, through, the Ko’olaus via tunnels bored directly into the cliff face. Be sure to stop and take in the view from several scenic stop-offs along the way.