29 Best Things to Do & See in Oahu, Hawaii – Activities & Attractions
A place like Hawaii really doesn’t need an introduction. Located in the Polynesian subregion of Oceania, Hawaii is the only U.S. state that offers such diverse natural scenery, warm tropical climate, abundant beaches, active volcanoes, marine life, and oceanic surroundings. Consisting of eight main islands that encompass 10,931 square miles, the things to see, eat and do are abounding.
Because each island has its own unique culture and environment, it may be helpful to figure out what type of vacation you are looking for so that you can thoroughly enjoy the best of what Hawaii can offer you.
I wanted a family friendly vacation that included activities and sites only Hawaii could offer. Living on the east coast of the United States, my family frequents the Caribbean and wanted something beyond a “resort vacation”. That’s how I chose Oahu, the third largest island of Hawaii, and home of two-thirds of the Hawaiian population. A melting pot of diverse ethnicities evident in the island’s culinary and entertainment offerings, I knew our time in Oahu would incorporate the both the cosmopolitan and natural attractions we individually wanted as a family.
As any traveler would, I’ve researched the best of what Oahu had to offer and have tested them out with my family. Below I’ve listed not only the top places we’ve visited and the best foods we’ve eaten, but how we booked our vacation and quick tips to either save time and money on your trip.
Located on the south shore of Honolulu, Waikiki Beach is a beautiful two mile stretch of sand that is never left unoccupied due to its popularity. As soon as the sun rises at 6 am, you’ll begin spotting surfers paddling out into the ocean and tourists jogging/power walking along the adjourning streets enjoying the morning breeze. It should be noted that Waikiki Beach itself may be two miles long, but it is actually broken up into eight mini beaches. They are equally beautiful but the two note worthy ones are Prince Kuhio Beach and Duke Kahanamoku Beach. Prince Kuhio Beach was a favorite due to the large walls/dams built inside the ocean. They were designed to block out waves allowing small children and novice swimmers the ability to enjoy the infamously strong waves of Hawaii in a safe manner. I preferred Duke Kahanamoku Beach as well because steps from the actual beach was a man-made lagoon that went through a $15 million renovation in 2006. This lagoon offered water activities such as paddle boarding, kayaking, and duck boating. This was a family favorite amongst many tourists as it not only allowed young children to be able to swim safely in a supersized wading pool, but because they were allowed to partake in water activities that would normally be dangerous on the natural waters of Hawaii.
Regardless of which mini beach one may prefer, all of Waikiki Beach is densely populated with hotels and restaurants, making it a desirable area for tourists.
Sharks Cove has been rated as one of the “Top Twelve Shore Dives in the World” by Scuba Diving Magazine. Although more diminutive in size compared to the other bodies of water in Hawaii, it has crystal clear waters that proudly holds an impressive amount of sea life such as the damsel fish, surgeon fish, butterfly fish, parrot fish, and eels. Located on the North Shore where powerful waves are the norm, Sharks Cove serves as a calm and placid refuge. But beware. Because it is one of Oahu’s best snorkeling locations, it can get very crowded. I recommend going early around 9am, since there isn’t much parking space. I also recommend wearing water shoes, as the grounds are very rocky.
Sunset Beach is a surfing mecca not to be missed. It is home of one of the three surfing breaks that hold the Triple Crown Surfing competition each winter. With waves that reach 15 to 30 feet, it attracts surfers from all over the world. The summer may bring more even-tempered waters, but the rip tides are still strong and I found it to be dangerous even in the month of May. I may not be the strongest swimmer, but I know how to move around the water. The current pushed and pulled at my body at a force I’ve never felt before, rendering my body completely helpless. Although I wouldn’t categorize this beach as family friendly due to the waves, it is a quiet beach during the summer time and has a stunning view of the sunset as the name suggests.
Ranked the second best beach in Oahu, Kailua Beach Park is a great beach for the whole family. It is located on the eastern shoreline, which boasts turquoise waters which I’d consider serene compared to the rough waves of the North Shore. With two and a half miles of powder white sand you’ll find plenty of activities going on. From kite fliers, kayakers, swimmers, parasailers, to dog walkers, the beach attracts locals and tourists alike. There are picnic areas for those who wish to barbecue or bring their own food. There are also showers and bathrooms available, which are key for those who come from afar. Please note that because of its popularity, the parking lot is always full. It is best to arrive early or during lunch time, when people tend to leave for a quick bite to eat before returning.
You may be wondering why I didn’t go to or write about the number one beach in Oahu, Lanikai Beach. This is because Lanikai Beach is literally right next door to Kailua Beach. The only difference is that Lanikai is much smaller, doesn’t have a parking lot nor showers. I believe this trifecta makes it the most beautiful beach, since it deters tourists from the hassle and difficulty of going, making it easier to maintain a clean and private beach.
Hanauma Bay was the effect of a volcanic eruption that took place thousands of years ago. The explosion blew out its volcanic crater side, creating a crescent moon shaped beach. The area became the perfect home for more than 300 species of fish, and in 1967, Hanauma Bay was declared a protected marine life conservation area. The marine life and calm, shallow waters began attracting a flood of tourists and Hanauma Bay quickly became the top snorkeling destination in Hawaii. Visitors were once able to feed the fish, but because this contaminated the crystal clear water, feeding or touching the fish is now prohibited. The daily number of visitors has been decreased from 10,000 to 3,000, and the Bay is closed on Tuesdays so that the fish can feed without interruption. It should be noted that upon arrival, all visitors must watch a short 10 minute video about the history and preservation of Hanauma Bay. I found it to be informative and educational, allowing me to appreciate the beauty of the marine ecosystem and the effort and importance of preserving such a place. Once you watch the video, you may proceed to the Bay by walking down the hill or taking a trolley for a nominal fee. I found the hill towards the beach to be walkable even with a toddler and snorkel gear. The walk up is a bit steep so you may want to consider taking the trolley up then instead. However, we decided to walk back so that we can take a few family photos against the beautiful backdrop that was Hanauma Bay. It was worth the small hike uphill.
Ala Moana Beach was the quietest beach I’ve visited in Oahu. Because it is located in front of a mall (a major attraction on its own) and residential condominiums instead of hotels like Waikiki Beach, there weren’t many tourists. Not only was the shore empty except for a few locals, but the water was quite tranquil due to natural reefs that blocked the waves. My son and I were able to swim laps in the placid water and the other beach goers seemed to have the same idea. Off duty lifeguards and other locals were seen swimming laps all day long.
If you visit this beach, take advantage of the close proximity to the mall. You can easily cross the street to the Ala Moana Mall Food Court, which offers a plethora of options for a quick bite to eat.
Sea Life Park is a great way for children to get a close encounter with some of Hawaii’s underwater creatures. General admission grants access exhibits such as the shark cave, penguins, dolphins, and sea lions as well as daily performances.
Although the shows are interactive and well designed for the children, please note that they are a couple of hours apart. The park itself can be toured within that time and we wish we someone had warned us ahead of time. Many visitors like us schedule the Sea Life Park the same day as the Chief’s Luau since it is located in the same park. If you need to pass time because you are attending the Chief’s Luau later that day, you are better off booking one of their Dolphin Encounters. Assuming our toddler would be too scared, we didn’t book the experience. Priced at $169 a person and we didn’t want to risk him refusing to swim with or even touch the dolphin. However, with the Hawaiian sun beating down on us with little shade to seek refuge, and still a few hours before the next show, we wished we were in the water.
The Chief’s Luau is located inside the Sea Life Park. It rests on a beautiful cliff with a beautiful view of the ocean. The Luau begins at 5pm, when guests can learn about and make crafts influenced by native Hawaiians. Dinner proceeds shortly after, and consists of authentic Hawaiian cuisine such as rice, taro, chicken, pig, and pineapple. Live entertainment proceeds for the rest of the night.
To be quite frank, the Luau wasn’t something I anticipated during my trip to Hawaii. It was a decision made out of necessity more than desire. I assumed it would be a typical tourist attraction, cheesy and gimmicky. But to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the Luau was an understatement. The music, the history, and the dances were powerful and heartfelt. The Chief narrated as men and women performed various music and dances from Polynesia, Tahiti, Hawaii, and Samoa.
Dances by the Samoan warriors were especially moving to me. Physically speaking, these warriors were larger than life and with a mane to match. The music consisted of over powering drum beats, accompanied by swift yet strong dancing. The Samoan warriors’ performance showcased them to be undefeatable, territorial, and intimidating, which was further highlighted by their face paint and tattoos. The Chief explained that because they had no place to write down their history, they used whalebone and charcoal to tattoo their stories on their skin. The Chief wanted to highlight the fact that none of the warriors chose to do this for physical appeal, but because they wanted to keep their stories and culture alive. It is still done to this day and many die from infection due to the archaic process. Once I learned about a glimpse of their culture, I was able to watch their performances with much more understanding and appreciation.
Experiencing the unfathomably strong waves of Sunset Beach and witnessing the story of the Samoan people through song and dance were by far the highlight of my trip to Oahu for me. The experiences allowed my mind and soul to connect with the magic that is Hawaii- mother nature and its people. Both fearlessly fierce, yet gentle in spirit.
If you are traveling with children who are still too young to snorkel (but are over 36″ tall), the Atlantis Submarine Adventure is a great way to see underwater creatures in it’s natural setting. The adventure begins with a boat ride out to sea where the submarine is located. The actual tour takes place in a 48-passenger submarine that goes 100 feet below the surface. You can see various marine life such as turtles, sharks, sting rays, and many types of fish through the windows. Each visitor is given a pamphlet with photo and name identifications for the creatures. My son enjoyed playing this matching game during the submarine tour.
It’s important to note that submarine tours are an ecofriendly way to observe sea creatures in its natural habitat, and much more humane. Also, the submarine itself was cool and comfortable, so I didn’t feel claustrophobic as expected.
Perched over 1,000 feet above the Oahu coastline, Pali Lookout Point has one of the most incredible views on the island. Situated high above the mountainous terrain, you can hear the howling wind echoing out into the sea. Pali Lookout Point is not, however, just a great view. It’s also historically significant because it’s the site of the Battle of Nuuanu. Although this battle was led and won by King Kamehameha, many soldiers saw their death after being forced off the Pali cliff.
Pali Lookout Point is less than a five-minute drive from Kailua Beach Park. It is worth a pit stop if you are interested in history, or if you’re passing by on your way to the beach.
Emotional and sobering, the general admission tour began with a brief 25-minute film on the history of Pearl Harbor. (If you have small kids, please note that bombing and gun use are displayed in the movie.) After the movie, visitors are taken to the USS Memorial, where they are asked to be respectful when paying condolences to the fallen soldiers. The memorial itself is a site to see, a modern rectangular sculpture that seems to be floating above the water.
If you like to plan ahead, you can reserve tickets up to two months in advance. I highly recommend this, as tickets sell out quickly. We found it to be cheapest on the Government Recreation website, at $1.50 per ticket for general admission.
The Dole Plantation is a fun place to bring your children. They can run through the maze or ride the Pineapple Express Train for a tour of the Plantation grounds. You can buy the Plantation’s famous ice cream, known as “Dole Whip,” inside the Plantation Grille. Between ice cream, running, and trains, what isn’t there to like about the Dole Plantation for the kids?
One tip I’d like to share is that if you click on the brochure on the bottom of their website, you will find a 10% coupon for the express train and a buy one get one free coupon for a Dole Whip.
When it comes to restaurants, McDonald’s probably isn’t on your “must try” list. However, the McDonald’s in Hawaii is unique in that it is one of the few places that serves authentic Hawaiian breakfasts on their menu, which consists of rice, spam, and eggs. With hardly any value meals over $8.99, it is a cheap breakfast option that is surprisingly authentic.
I was thrilled when my husband found this vegan restaurant on Yelp. Hawaiian food can be heavy and full of starch, so after a few meals, I began craving fresh vegetable. Luckily we were able to stop at Ai Love Nalo on our way to the Kailua Beach. I tried their most popular dish, the Medi Bowl, and it did not disappoint. Consisting of baba ganoush, beet hummus, and Kalo falafel, each bite was a delight to my taste buds. My stomach was also thanking me for the healthy food. My husband had the BBQ Portobello Sandwich topped with coconut slaw. Although not a fan of vegan food, he said the sandwich was one of the best BBQ sandwiches he has ever tasted. Kudos to Ai Love Nalo, for opening my husband’s eyes and taste buds to the healthier and finer things in life.
One of the best breakfasts we had was at Café Haleiwa. A family owned business since 1982, the interior looks like it hasn’t been touched since then. Its retro design and surf town location will make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. I ordered the veggie omelette with hash browns and sour dough toast. One thing I’ve noticed in Hawaii is that their omelettes are made differently than the rest of the country. Instead of sautéing the vegetables and egg together, they are cooked separately. The Vegetables are put on an already cooked egg, which is then folded in half like a taco. Another thing that stood out was how great their sour dough bread was. Not only at Café Haleiwa, but all restaurants serving breakfast seemed to offer great sour dough bread. My husband ordered the “Hawaiian Breakfast”, which consisted of eggs sunny side up, Portugese Sausages, and rice. My son ordered blueberry pancakes, and it goes without saying that he enjoyed his dish very much.
Many locals urged us to try Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck. And once we tried their garlic shrimp scampi dish we understood what the hype was all about. Every bite had the perfect ratio of butter and garlic and even made the tedious task of peeling each shrimp, worthwhile.
Even if long lines and scarce parking discourage you, it’s still a must-try. I recommend getting there by 11am to beat as much of the lunch crowd as possible.
The Hono Truck serves Korean BBQ and is located in the same lot as Giovanni’s Shrip Truck. Although it didn’t have long lines or a loyal fan base as wide as Giovanni’s, it served delicious Korean BBQ at a great value. My son enjoyed their Kalbi Platter, and although he’s usually able to finish all the Kalbi you serve him, the generous portions was too much for him and I had to finish the rest. The Hono Truck is a great alternative for those who may not like shrimp or may want to try something different in the area.
Don’t let the bright colors on the shaved ice fool you. It tastes nothing like the shaved ice you buy at the corner store consisting of cheap colorful syrup. The flavors at Matsumoto Shaved Ice are much more delicate than they appear. For example, the blue ice is actually pineapple flavor, which were my husband and son’s favorite flavor. I thought the ones without artificial coloring (boring mom) which were yuzu and lilikoi were the best. It tasted like elegant flower petals with a drop of honey and ice had landed on my tongue. The difficulty parking was definitely worth the cup of ice. Please note, because we went to Matsumoto right after our early lunch at Giovanni and Hono’s Trucks, we were able to beat the after lunch crowd to Matsumoto as well. You don’t want to get stuck in those (even longer) lines.
My favorite place to eat in Oahu was Whole Foods. I loved everything about it. Their organic groceries, their extensive selection of ready-made food that included Poke and other Hawaiian delicacies, their hot/cold buffet, the price, the convenience, and the seating that was available for patrons who wanted to eat a meal there. The Whole Foods in Kailua even had a full bar inside. It was far greater than any Whole Foods I have seen here in New York City. If they had a Whole Foods like that here, I would be eating lunch there on a daily basis with my son, who especially loved their lobster bisque. My husband may not be as much of a fanatic, but he agreed that the poke he had at Whole Foods was the second best poke he had in Oahu (the best being Ahi Assassins). As a mom, I felt comfortable with my son eating anything his little hands wanted to grab, since all their ingredients and groceries were well-sourced and healthy options.
Leonard’s is known for their Malasadas, a Portuguese doughnut without a hole. It is fried to be crispy on the outside and light and fluffy in the inside. Unlike regular doughnuts, the texture is not design but flaky, similar to a cronut. It’s delicious, and because it is so light, you can easily eat four in one sitting, like we have each done. They also come with filling, but I preferred the plain ones. If you live in the US mainland, you can purchase them online and have them shipped to your door. I’d recommend purchasing these for an event or as a gift. They’re that good.
The Farmers Market at Kings Village is a great spot to try assorted fruits, baked goods, Thai food, paella, Turkish food, and other local treats. However, the name, “farmers market” might be misleading because instead of selling mostly fruits and vegetables, it offers prepared foods. It is only opened in the evening, from 4pm-9pm, so it may make more sense to call it a “night market”. Regardless, it’s a great place to wander after a long day at the beach with offerings at great value. Just make sure you don’t go too late, since the vendors begin to pack up and leave when they sell most of their items.
Koko Marina Pub is a restaurant owned and operated by Kona Brewing Co. Situated on a Marina, if not the beer pairings, the view alone is worth the visit to the restaurant. The menu is extensive, ranging from local cuisine to what you may find at the Cheesecake Factory- hamburgers, sandwiches, soup, and pizza. There is something for everyone and everything we ate was fantastic. Located only a few minutes from Hanauma Bay, it’s a great place to eat after swimming all day. I went there for lunch, but I’m sure watching the sunset while enjoying your dinner would be a great way to end your night.
A Japanese restaurant with locations on the mainland of the U.S. as well, Gyu-Kaku is a must go regardless of where you are. Here, guests order pre-seasoned vegetables and meat, and grill it themselves at the table. They also have prepared dishes you can order such as Beef Sukiyaki Bibimbap, which is my favorite. Everything on their menu is absolutely delicious and kids will love watching the food cook right before their eyes.
Although individually each item may not be expensive, the portions are tiny and you will end up ordering a lot. If you are feeling ravenous, I highly recommend going with the all-you-can-eat options.
The best meal I had in Oahu was at Piggy Smalls. This fusion restaurant with Vietnamese and Thai influences offers creative bites that are individually unique and delicious. We ordered the twice cooked chicken wings, Chicken Adobo on long toast, and the Chicken Pho. These dishes were the best I’ve had in each category; I’ve never had chicken wings, toast (more like a crostini), or pho that delectable. If you had to only go to one restaurant from my list, this should be it.
Although somewhat of a hole in the wall on the second floor of a strip mall, Ahi Assassins is the place you need to go if you want the best poke in Oahu. Found by a husband and wife team, Ahi Assassins only offers fresh fish they had caught themselves. We were able to try a sample of whatever poke they had available, and ended up ordering their Shoyu Garlic Poke and Smoked Marlin Dip, which were both superb and probably their best sellers. Because we went at 7pm when they were closing, the workers gave us the remainder of what they had left for only $20. Their graciousness to their customers are an extension of the care in quality that they put into the food.
If you enjoy trying different beers in a very relaxed and open environment where you can bring your own food, this is the place for you. Offering about six beers on tap, usually consisting of a sour, a couple of IPAs, a dark, and a light option, Beer Lab has something for everyone. They also sell sake and kombucha that they have brew themselves. The place itself has long picnic style tables and a few smaller tables with stools, where large or small groups can easily gather to have a few beers or to eat dinner, which is what we did. We grabbed Ahi Assassins to go since it was only a few minutes away by foot, and ate at the Beer Lab. Because it was spacious, my son was able to run around and play with some of their games. In the meantime, my husband got to drink his beer, and everyone left with a full belly. It was a great experience for everyone.
It’s important to be resourceful and to optimize every hard earned dollar you spend. That is why we actively follow the rewards programs of credit cards, to see which works best with our lifestyle. Since we are avid travelers, we have Chase Sapphire and Reserve cards. We booked all of our flights with points from these cards, along with travel-related expenses. In addition to the flights, we rented our car using points with Chase for a mere 15,600 points, which is equivalent to $156.
We saved additional money (usually a flight to Hawaii is over $1200) by booking our trip at low season in the middle of May. Because school wasn’t out yet, we beat the summer crowd that usually densely populates the beaches of Waikiki every July and August.
We decided to rent a car for a week and do most of our farther excursions during that time. In Oahu, we decided to try local transportation like the bus and Uber, since we knew we wouldn’t be going too far.
Although the bus was easily accessible, Uber was much more practical for us. Since the bus costs $2.50 each way and we were a group of 3, it was usually more cost efficient to take an Uber to our destination. Of course the convenience of not having to wait in the hot sun with a toddler for a bus tilted the decision as well.
An “AAA Diamond” Hotel, The Modern Honolulu is ranked one of the top five hotels in Honolulu by Trip Advisor, the highest rated hotel in its class according to Forbes Travel Guide, and has won the prize for first place in Hawaii Magazine’s 2017 top hotel in Oahu. As the only full-service lifestyle hotel in Honolulu, the Modern offers sophisticated style from an equally sophisticated team. The rooms, fitness center, and pools were all designed with linear precision of modernity, incorporating subtle accents native to Hawaii.
Before you book your stay, make sure you check out the Modern Honolulu’s website for special promotions. They currently offer the fourth night free if you stay for three nights and are not charging resort fees if you book directly through them.
Evident from the families that were visiting Oahu from all over the world, it is clear that this Hawaiian island is one of the best family friendly destinations one can book. With its diverse culture, food, natural scenery, and oceanic surroundings, it is worthy of any bucket list. Make sure you read more about Hawaii‘s history, quick facts, and events of not only Oahu but all the islands to see which location you’d like to visit next.
Have you been to Oahu or any other Hawaiian island? What did you find so special about it?
Yoojin Lee graduated from NYU with a background in business and worked in the fashion industry for almost a decade before becoming a mom to son, Theodore. Instead of labeling herself as a “stay at home mom,” she utilizes her education, experience, and skill sets to learn how to be a resourceful mother and wife while striving to pave a career for herself as well.
29 Best Things to Do & See in Oahu, Hawaii – Activities & Attractions
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