Get the most out of your Hawaii vacation with the best things to do in Oahu.
To fully appreciate the multi-faceted paradise that is Hawaii would take a lifetime–but that doesn’t mean its mystical, fragrant beauty can’t be experienced in a week. The most populous of the eight Hawaii islands, Oahu is a good place to start. But what is Oahu known for? From the crashing surf breaks of the North Shore to the majestic volcano ranges, and azure-hued bays where Hawaiian sea turtle, manta rays, dolphins, and monk seals happily inhabit, there’s a lot to love about this idyllic urban island. And there are endless Oahu attractions, whether you’re traveling as a couple or with your kids. So we’ve put together a guide of the very best things to do in Oahu, Hawaii.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT OAHU?No matter what time of year you visit, Hawaii will be warm and inviting. Spring is an excellent choice, summer tends to be hotter and rainier with more placid seas, while winter blesses visitors with dry, cooler weather and occasional seasonal swells.
Check out the latest COVID protocol and updates for travel to Oahu here.
Top Picks for You
Swim With the Fish at Hanauma Bay
WHERE: Hawaii Kai
Spoiler alert: You will have to stay up past midnight to snag a reservation ($25 per person, free for kids under 12) to enter, but the effort will be worth it. Once a recreational area of Hawaii’s royalty, Oahu’s pristine Hanauma Bay, a state-protected Marine Life Conservation District, allows just 1,400 people in daily and remains one of the best snorkeling spots. Thanks to a nine-month closure in 2020, the water is once again crystal-clear, and tropical fish have returned. With a deep outer reef and a shallow inner reef for protection, expect to see honu (turtles), moray eels, parrotfish, and surgeonfish swimming about. Bring your sunshade, food and drinks, snorkel/mask, and use only reef-safe sunscreen.
INSIDER TIPThe bay is open Wednesday through Sunday from 6:45 a.m. to 4 p.m., and online reservations are required.
Hike Kaena Point and Spot Some Monk Seals
There are many reasons to hike Kaena Point–we recommend starting from the Mokuleia side along the North Shore–but a big draw is the chance to spot Hawaiian monk seals. With only about 1,400 of them left, this endangered and endemic species can be a little on the shy side, but if you take the coastal trail, there might be a couple lazing in the hot sun. Take note to keep at least 50 feet away and avoid disturbing them with loud noises or sudden movements. If you don’t spot any, don’t worry because this scenic, mostly flat hike is home to a dune ecosystem and an array of native birdlife. Mostly though, you’ll be distracted by the roaring surf and stunning views of the Waianae Coast as you hike to the island’s westernmost point. If you start early enough, continue to Yokohama Bay and back (7.6 miles), or if you plan it right and have a vehicle waiting on the other end, linger and enjoy a well-earned sunset dip at this pristine white-sand beach.
INSIDER TIPBring lots of water, a hat, and sunscreen as the hike is unshaded.
Feast on Some Local Favorites
WHERE: Various Locations
Food will be a big part of your Oahu experience and for good reason. Hawaiian cuisine comprises five distinct cuisines reflecting the diversity of the island’s inhabitants. To make the food hunt a lot easier, these are some top local picks.
Haupia: A traditional Hawaiian dessert of coconut pudding at Ted’s Bakery combines the creamy coconut goodness with whipped cream and chocolate custard cream for one heavenly mouthful.
Ulu: This protein-rich superfruit is native to Hawaii and a very undersung ingredient. It can taste like custard or baked bread, depending on how it’s prepared. At Duke’s Waikiki, the Pono Pie is made with Hawaiian breadfruit, macadamia nuts, toasted coconut, and tangy passionfruit. You can find Pono Pies at Whole Foods and Down to Earth for a takeaway option.
Moco Loco: There’s something extra special about The Highway Inn‘s comfort dish of rice with hamburger patties and fried eggs doused in a rich brown gravy. Warning: You’ll likely slip into a food coma post-meal.
Malasadas: There are donuts, and then there are malasadas from Leonard’s Bakery. A deep-fried, sugar-coated eggy donut filled with all sorts of goodness from mango to macadamia and the tangy-sweet lilikoi. Don’t go too late cause they tend to sell out.
Kalua Pig: The secret to Helena’s Hawaiian Food trademark dish is they cook it traditionally in an imu (underground oven), which explains its unique juicy flavor. It’s one of the reasons they were awarded a James Beard Foundation’s Regional Classics award in 2000. For a takeaway option, look out for May’s Hawaii Kalua Brand Pork which you can easily cook up at home.
Spam Musubi: You’ll see musubi (sushi rice with a protein held together by seaweed) available everywhere, but the spam version is a popular favorite of locals. At Mana Musubi, they offer four types of rice and 35 different variations–from salmon flake, spicy tuna, and konbu.
Roast Pork and Poke Bowl: Opened in 1949, Alicia’s Market is a family-run Hawai’i general store known for its roast meats and poke bar (they stock over 15 varieties), so this combination is the best of both worlds.
Snorkel at Shark's Cove
Few experiences will rival a snorkeling session at Shark’s Cove. Home to an amazing array of marine life, you’ll spot everything from butterflyfish and parrotfish to wrasse and turtles within this small rocky bay, and sometimes while you’re only knee-deep in water. A word of caution, though, as it is between the big wave surf spots of Waimea Bay and the Banzai Pipeline, check the surf report (look for Pupukea Beach Park) to ensure there’s no huge swell on the day, or you’ll risk getting swept out with the tide. Reef shoes, a mask, and a snorkel are recommended, and if you have little ones, the tide pools will keep them occupied. If all this activity gets you feeling peckish, there’s North Shore Tacos and a Foodland located opposite the road.
Cruise in a Polynesian Canoe
WHERE: Kewalo Harbor
Taking a cruise on the Kamoauli—a one-of-a-kind 44-foot long double-hulled Polynesian canoe made almost entirely of Tongan cedar wood—doesn’t just make for a pretty sunset picture; it offers a full Hawaiian history and cultural experience while onboard. As you cruise from Kewalo Basin Harbor to the majestic Diamond Head crater base, keep an eye out for manta rays and prepare to be entertained by an on-board historian re-telling the fascinating history of Hawaii. Food, live music, and non-alcoholic drinks are included in the price.
Drink Your Fill of Kona Coffee
You’ll be forgiven for cheating on your regular Starbucks order when there’s good Kona coffee to be enjoyed. On Oahu, there are many coffee shops (some names to keep handy: The Curb Kaimuki, Kai Coffee, and Morning Brew Kailua) offering a taste of this specialty bean only grown on the slopes of two volcanoes on Hawaii’s Big Island. At Honolulu Coffee Experience Center, you can learn all about the farm-to-cup process and have a first-hand look at their in-house roaster, which may be in action while you’re sipping on your cappuccino and taste testing their brews. Bring home a bag of their Peaberry or Kona Estate Blend to enjoy. For a more cafe-style setting, grab a seat at Kona Coffee Purveyors and order up a cortado with a side serving of their buttery kouign amanns in creative flavors like pumpkin and black sesame. If you’re planning to re-create the experience at home, they’ve got four 100% Kona Coffee variations for sale.
INSIDER TIPWhen buying Kona coffee, look at the label to see what percentage of Kona coffee is included, blends have to contain at least 10%.
Trawl the Farmer's Markets
WHERE: Various Locations
A great way to experience local culture and support small business owners is at a farmer’s market–in Oahu, there are four for exploring. Running from Thursday to Sunday in neighborhoods like Kailua, Haleiwa, Kaka’ako, and Pearlridge, they’re organized by FarmLovers Markets (check their website for details/timings) and attract an eclectic mix of vendors selling everything from local delicacies to farm-to-table ingredients, local artwork, chilled beach threads to island-inspired skincare. If transportation isn’t an issue, make a beeline for the Thursday market (between 2 and 6 pm) at Haleiwa in the beautiful Waimea Valley and combine it with a visit to Waimea Falls Park. Otherwise, the Saturday morning Kakaako Farmers Market (8 am to 12 pm) is voted the #7 best farmers market by USA Today and is a short Uber ride from Waikiki. Go hungry as there’s a rotating list of vendors selling everything from fresh ceviche, mochi waffles, Kona coffee, wood-fired pizzas, Kalua pig burgers, and local fresh bakes from enterprising young chefs.
INSIDER TIPSome stalls to keep an eye out for include Lanikai Mochi, Fatto a Mano Wood-fired Pizzas, Wallflour Bake Shop, Wicked Hawaii Honey Slush, Fawaffle, and Fields of Aloha.
Catch the Sunset at Three Tables
There’s no shortage of dramatic sunset spots, but catching one at Three Tables Beach on the North Shore is pretty special. A popular spot for snorkeling and turtle sightings between May and September, come dusk, the sun setting over the three flat sections of reef that appear at low tide is quite something. Closer to Waikiki, catching the sunset from Tantalus Drive brings a view of the entire city, and a peek of Diamond Head Crater, park gates close at 7:45 pm.
Knock Back the Island Beverages
WHERE: Various Locations
From sake to whisky, IPAs and rum, there’s a lot of superb booze being brewed on Oahu. You can choose to DIY your self-guided beer crawl around Kaka’ako (make a note of Aloha Beer Company, Village Bottle Shop and Tasting Room, and Honolulu Beerworks), have a firsthand tour and taste of Ko’olau whiskey made using local corn and Hawaii-sourced water, or explore the sugarcane garden of Kō Hana Hawaiian Agricole Rum before doing a taste test. The flavors and brews using local ingredients will blow you away (and don’t forget to bring home a bottle…or three).
INSIDER TIPIslander Sake might just be the smallest sake brewery in the world. While the fresh sake has to be sampled, they also offer an 18-course omakase dinner at their dining room Hanale in Chinatown.
Mural Hunt in Kaka'ako
What was once an area known for salt making and fishpond farming is now Oahu’s hippest neighborhood, thanks to the colorful murals that adorn its streets. The handiwork of POW! WOW!, a network of local and global artists, they’ve organized the week-long mural art festival in Kaka’ako since 2010. The art changes, so to track down the unique works, you can either wander the streets at random, popping into the stores and restaurants at SALT that catch your fancy, or download the map for easier navigation. Keep an eye out for Big Island artist Kai’ili Kaulukukui’s marine-inspired murals that illustrate compromised marine species, the delicate female portraits by Hawaiian artist Hula and Punky Aloha’s Pasifika queens.
INSIDER TIPLocated on South King and Pensacola Street, look out for artist Kamea Hadar’s 12-story tall mural of two of Hawaii’s surf legends: Duke Kahanamoku and Olympic gold medalist Carissa Moore.
Watch a Hula Performance
WHERE: Various Locations
Oahu resident and travel writer Paul Theroux describes the mesmerizing hula as “aloha in action”: a graceful art form imbued with layers of symbolism re-telling the rich history and rituals of the native Hawaiians. Depending on where you catch a performance, there are two forms, the hula kahiko, often referred to as traditional hula, and the hula’auana, which combines the traditional form with Western influence. More elaborate performances are put on at Paradise Cove as part of a luau or at the Polynesian Cultural Center. However, there are also free performances at the Royal Hawaiian Center‘s Royal Grove on Tuesdays. For private events, Ring of Fire has a roster of award-winning hula talents and other Polynesian entertainers.
INSIDER TIPIf you happen to be in Hawaii during the annual Merrie Monarch Festival and manage to score tickets to this prestigious hula competition, it’s worth flying out to Hilo to attend it in person.
Catch the Surf but Mind Your Manners
WHERE: Various Locations
This being Hawaii, surfing will be on the bucket list. To get a feel for the surf conditions, head to Queen’s Beach (Olympic champ Carissa Moore started surfing there when she was five years old ) or Old Man’s Oahu in Waikiki and get in line to test the deep water and long break. White Plains’ beach is another option with fewer surfers out on the water and clear signage designating swimming and surfing areas. If you need lessons, this is also a place to get tutelage from seasoned professionals. Regardless of where you choose to start, surf etiquette applies. Wait your turn in the line-up and avoid dropping in, accidentally or not. If you clock an older surfer, hang nearby and wait for their cues. And it stands to reason if the lifeguard cautions entering the water, pay heed to the advice.
Related Story: 10 Best Surfing Spots in the U.S.
Pay Your Respects at Pearl Harbor
WHERE: Pearl Harbor
Whether you’re interested in WWII or aviation, no visit to Oahu is complete without a visit to Pearl Harbor. A multi-venue attraction (free and paid), you can easily spend a full day (to visit all four Pearl Harbor Historic sites, set aside at least six hours) here soaking in the “date which will live in infamy.” If you’re short on time, organize your free tickets (reservations can be made eight weeks in advance) to the USS Arizona Memorial beforehand. The total experience takes about 45 minutes (runs every 30 minutes from 8 am to 3:30 pm), including a short boat ride out to the floating memorial where you can pay your respects and peer down at where the sunken hull of the USS Arizona still rests. Other separate and independently-run WWII museums nearby are the Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum, the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum, and the restored Battleship Missouri Memorial, where the Japanese forces surrendered to the Allies in 1945.
Take a Kayak out to the Mokes
WHERE: Kailua Beach
Paddling out to The Mokes (Nā Mokulua) is a great way to enjoy both Kailua and Lanikai Beach and be out on the water. Located a mile and a half off Kailua beach, getting there will take roughly 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the conditions. Once there, the twin-peaked Moku Nui, a bird sanctuary, is a prime spot to spot the Great Frigatebird or Red-footed Booby, and if you’re lucky, there’ll be a few Kailua locals surfing the breaks between Moku Nui and Moku Iki. En route back, take it a little slower and enjoy the sight of the sun setting behind the lush Koʻolau mountain range and dormant volcanoes–it’s one for the memory books. Check weather conditions before heading out, or check in with Kailua Beach Adventures, which offers guided excursions. Due to community concerns over increased vehicle traffic and limited parking, consider taking the bus (66 or 67 from Ala Moana Shopping Center) or an Uber/Lyft.
INSIDER TIPLook out for Rick Gardner a.k.a. the Kailua Bird Man taking a stroll along Kailua Beach. The Windward resident conducts a flock of 20-30 pigeons along Kailua’s shoreline as he feeds, instructs, and plays with his feathered buddies.
Lace-up Your Hiking Shoes
WHERE: Various Locations
For visitors who prefer epic sky-top views to the feeling of sand between their toes, Oahu does not disappoint. One of the more challenging hikes is the 5.1-mile Ka’au Crater Hike, a steep jungle trek with three waterfalls that reaches the edge of a crater 2,500 feet up. This hike is not for beginners and will take four to six hours to complete. For sunrise lovers, the Lanikai Pillbox Trail (Kaiwa Ridge) is a short hike that can be timed to catch the sunrise overlooking the picturesque Lanikai beach. Other options to consider are the fairly steep Diamond Head Crater Hike (best done in the morning) and the stroller-friendly Makapuu Lighthouse Trail, where you might spot whales in the distance.
INSIDER TIPStrollers and hikes rarely go together, but if you need a wheel-friendly option, the Makapuu Lighthouse Trail is your best bet. Regardless of the trail, it is best not to hike alone or stray off the path.
Admire Oahu From Above
WHERE: Various Locations
What better way to overcome your fear of heights than an open-door helicopter ride or co-piloting a trike while admiring Oahu from above. Rainbow Helicopters‘ Path to Pali passage flies over Waikiki Beach with close-ups of the majestic Diamond Head crater and Hanauma Bay before ending with a flyover of the USS Arizona Memorial. Over on the North Shore, Paradise Air Hawaii‘s trikes are essentially a “hand glider with a big engine” that tours guests around Kaena Point, over the Dole Plantation, and some waterfalls. Choose to either sit back and enjoy the ride or, if you’re up for it, the pilot will hand over the controls so you can co-pilot as they instruct you on what to do–although we’ll suggest handing back the controls for a smooth landing.
INSIDER TIPTo offset the CO2 emissions from your helicopter ride, book Paradise Helicopter’s O’ahu Nahele – Tree Planting with Hawaiian Legacy Forest, where the excursion includes an eco-tour and ends with a tree planting activity.
Dive With Sharks
Combining adventure and shark awareness, this adrenaline-raising experience off the North Shore of Oahu will bring you within staring-contest distance of Galapagos and Sandbar sharks–but from the safety of a large floating cage equipped with poly glass windows. Watching these majestic creatures glide through the water will give you a newfound appreciation for a fast-declining species that’s essential for a healthy ocean. And if it happens you time this outing during the winter months, keep an ear out for the sounds of whales singing.
INSIDER TIPThere are over 40 different species of sharks found in Hawaii’s waters.
Visit the Lesser-Known Beaches
WHERE: Various Locations
Certain beaches in Oahu get consistent top billing, but with it comes the crowds (and lack of parking). With 125 beaches, though, you’re not short on options. A Waikiki alternative is Ala Moana Beach Park, where the water is calmer, there’s half a mile of golden-white sand, and a high chance of spotting honu (turtles) swimming in the water. Ko’olina’s four lagoons are certainly pretty and kid-friendly, but they come with restrictions (no non-rented SUP, no kayaks) and limited parking. A local favorite, Pokai Bay offers calm water year-round, with the southern end of the bay near the breakwater being the most kid-friendly. This is also a spot for beginner surfers to try standing up in calmer conditions. Up North, Waimea Bay is perfect (and great for people-watching) in the summertime when the water is calm enough for snorkeling.
INSIDER TIPIf you’ve got a car and don’t mind driving farther, secluded Yokohama Bay on the leeward coast is sometimes visited by dolphins in the morning and offers one of the most dramatic sunsets as it’s backed by the Waianae Mountain Range.
Buy and Support Local
From locally sourced chocolate and brewed kombucha to reef-safe, organic sunscreen and soy candles made with natural Hawaiian scents, House of ManaUp at the Royal Hawaiian Center is a treasure trove of homegrown brands spanning art, clothing, books, local foods, and more. Each brand on the shop floor represents some form of Hawaii culture and/or native ingredients, and artisans are graduates of Mana Up’s six-month accelerator program–so a purchase isn’t just buying a bit of aloha home. It also supports Hawaii’s growing entrepreneur industry and helps elevate the brand of Hawaii.
INSIDER TIPIf you have limited luggage space for souvenirs, load up on the Big Island Coffee Roasters Classic Espresso Bites, UA Body Products, HI Spice sauces, and Manoa Chocolate Hawaiian Sea Salt Bar.
WHERE: Various Locations
You won’t have to travel too far from Waikiki to get to the breathtaking Manoa Falls and its 150-foot tall waterfall. If the lush jungle setting looks familiar, it’s because Jurassic Park and Lost were filmed there. Another popular waterfall is the two-tiered Likeke Falls, located below the Pali Lookout point. A quick hike that can be done en route/back from Waimanalo or Kailua Beach. Park on the road before the gate to Ko’olau Golf Club or risk getting a ticket. For a waterfall hike that ends with a dip, the three-mile Waimano Falls can’t be beat.
Find Zen at Byodo-in-Temple
Away from the hustle of Waikiki, most visitors to Byodo-in-Temple go for its blissfully quiet setting and to admire the 1960s replica of an 11th-century Japanese Buddhist phoenix temple with a nine-foot-tall, gold plated Buddha. Slow down and stroll the grounds as you admire the ornate temple, wild peacocks, and koi fish, or, if cemeteries are your thing, hike past graves of Japanese, Vietnamese, Chinese, Laotian, and Cambodian individuals. It’s best visited in the morning when the light is perfect for photographs.
INSIDER TIPThe lush valley setting of Byodo-in-Temple has been used as a location for ‘Lost.’
Head North for the Day
Offering a more laid-back vibe than Waikiki, you could easily spend a few days exploring the North Shore, from the historic town of Haleiwa to checking out the cliff-jumping and surf action at Waimea Beach. There’s horse riding on the beach, spotting turtles at Laniakea Beach, and eating your way through the food trucks that dot the North Shore (Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck and North Shore Crepes are a must). And let’s not forget the big wave beaches (up to 30 feet tall during the winter months) like Banzai Pipeline, Sunset Beach, and Laie Point, which you could spend a whole day on.
Enjoy Mai Tais and Music
WHERE: Waikiki and Ala Moana
Music is very much a part of life in Hawaii. Sitting back at Duke’s Waikiki on a Sunday with a Mai Tai in hand, listening to the tunes of Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter Harry Kapono as the sun sets over Waikiki Beach is as lovely as it sounds. If getting a spot at Duke’s is mission impossible, decamp over to Merriman’s at Auahi Street (just over the road from Ala Moana Beach Park), where they have nightly live music and a full food and drink menu. Don’t leave without trying the iconic Merriman’s Mai Tai with its house-made lilikoi syrup foam. For a night of jazz tunes, check out who’s headlining at Blue Note Hawaii, where everyone from the Harlem Gospel Choir, guitarist Larry Carlton and Kool and the Gang have taken to the stage.
Explore the Hoʻomaluhia Botanical Garden
Chances are you’ve already caught sight of this lush botanical garden on Instagram, with its palm-lined entrance. Spread across 400 acres, this “peaceful refuge” with its dramatic mountain backdrop can be explored on foot (for an easy mini hike, take the 1.5-mile Stream Trail Loop) or as part of a 20-minute scenic drive. Opened in 1982, it features floral, and fauna from tropical regions like Sri Lanka, Melanesia, Hawaii, Polynesia, and Africa grouped geographically and has a large man-made lake perfect for a picnic or just to relax and enjoy the views. If heading out in that direction is challenging, check out Foster Botanical Garden with its Exceptional Trees (there are 20 found there) and the endangered Corpse Flower.
Join a Sound Healing Session at Ala Moana Beach Park
WHERE: Ala Moana Beach Park
Weeknights at Ala Moana Beach Park have taken on a new frequency thanks to sound healer Kaori Isomura, who started this initiative to spread aloha to the community. She conducts an hour-long performance (often with other sound healers playing the harp, vibraphone, and euphonium) using seven crystal bowls perfectly timed to end with the fiery sunset. Her location varies (check her Instagram posts/stories the day of), but she’s usually at Ala Moana Beach Park opposite the tennis courts.
Get out to The Sand Bar
WHERE: Kaneohe Bay
Kayaking out to “The Sunken Island” in Kaneohe Bay is one of Oahu’s most epic experiences. A protected reef that turns into a powder white-sand island the size of a football field at low tide, you’ll easily spend the day snorkeling and exploring its crystal-clear waters and play spot a turtle/ray swimming about. If kayaking doesn’t appeal, there’s always the option to catch a sandbar tour (check out Captain Bruce, who runs two daily tours Mon-Sat) for a turnkey experience.
Pull Your Weight in an Outrigger Practice
WHERE: Lōkahi Canoe Club
A familiar sight in Hawaii but one you won’t see elsewhere is that of outrigger canoes sharing the waves with surf riders. The outrigger canoe first arrived in Hawaii around 200 A.D. and remains an important part of the island’s history and culture. Once used to transport anything (from people to food, fish, and water), today, it’s a form of recreation and a competitive sport with over 60 canoe clubs in Hawaii. To join a practice as a visitor, Lōkahi Canoe Club offers a weekday practice for a $10 donation. Do note that this isn’t a tour excursion but a full-on experience, so expect to paddle your own weight.
Treat Yourself to Oahu's Finer Dining Restaurants
WHERE: Various Locations
There’s a certain charm about the discreet nature of Oahu’s finer dining restaurants. Hidden out of sight, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Bar Maze (reservations recommended) is tucked next to a Dry Bar salon. A chic omakase and cocktail space helmed by co-owner and mixologist Justin Park (formerly of Bar Leather Apron) and head chef Ki Chung, the menu features dishes like a potato croquette topped with uni and Kombu-cured kampachi “noodles” alongside tipples like the Sansho Tonic, a Japanese-inflected G&T with sansho (Japanese green pepper) and yuzu. Less concealed is the elegant Podmore housed in a building that dates back to 1902. This boozy brunch by day and cocktails by night space is in the Downtown district. Savor house cocktails like the Slacks on the Beach (a rye and sweet vermouth tipple with macadamia nut and a toasted crunch milk wash) as you nibble on snacks like the Roasted Pork Bun (a fluffy pork bao with sage and parsley).
Visit the Hawaii Hall at the Bishop Museum
Learn more about Hawaii’s storied history at the Bishop Museum, where there’s a dedicated Hawaii Hall. There, showcases illustrate everything from the Hawaiian gods, legends, and beliefs to the importance of how the aina (land) and nature play in everyday life. The museum also holds an extensive collection of Polynesian cultural artifacts and natural history specimens, while the Abigail Kinoiki Kekaulike Kāhili Room honors the history and significance of the ali‘i (Hawaiian royalty). Don’t leave without checking out the giant whale skeleton on the third floor made with real whale bones reassembled at the museum more than 100 years ago.
Get Your Hands Dirty on a Farm Tour
WHERE: Kualoa Ranch
Malama aina (taking care of the land) is a concept close to many in Hawaii. The islands are home to 7,300 farms growing everything from taro and pineapples, macadamia nuts, and Kona coffee, and while it imports the bulk of its food, there’s a growing awareness to be more self-sufficient. For a deeper understanding of Hawaii’s native crops, take a farm tour. At Kualoa Ranch, their Malama ka Aina Tour is a hands-on two-hour experience that involves the thatching of traditional Hawaiian hale (grass huts), planting taro, and learning about medicinal plants that make teas and tinctures. It’ll bring a newfound appreciation of Hawaii’s fertile land and what it offers our daily lives.
Plan Your Trip Around a Festival
WHERE: Various Locations
Oahu’s nickname “The Gathering Isle” is apt, considering the number of festivals and events organized here. From the Hawaii Triennial 2022 to the three-day Kawaii Kon and Waikiki SPAM Jam (yes, a festival dedicated to spam) and the May 1 Lei Day celebration since 1927, there’s something going on most months. If you want to time your visit to coincide with a festival, the annual King Kamehameha Celebration Floral Parade in June is a showstopper of brightly decorated floats and traditional horseback pā‘ū riders (female horseback riders) culminating in a lei draping ceremony.
Catch a Wave at Sandy's
WHERE: Sandy Beach
As beautiful as it is dangerous, Sandy Beach (also known as “Broke Neck Beach”) is one of the best bodysurfing spots on the island’s east side, thanks to year-round waves and a broad stretch of fine white sand and crystal-clear water. Its famous waves are formed by a quick change in the ocean bottom, keeping its lifeguards busy all year round. Before strapping on your fins, chat with the lifeguards about surfing conditions. If it’s recommended to stay out, enjoy dipping in the water, and watching bodysurfers scratch for the horizon in epic fashion.
Walk Through Chinatown
Oahu’s Chinatown is one of the oldest in the United States (many buildings date back to the early 20th century) and, like many Chinatowns around the world, it is worth checking out. The eclectic mix of stores sees Chinese herbalists sitting next to creative art spaces, and long-standing Chinese bakeries like Sin Cheong Yuan Bakery (try the butter mochi and egg tarts) a few doors down from vintage boutiques and tattoo parlors (try and get inked at Black Cat Tattoo Parlour). Navigate to the Hawaii Heritage Center to see if they’re offering walking tours and look for a large-scale Chinese dragon mural on the Wo Fat building, painted by student members of the Center For Tomorrow Leaders.
Taste the Best of Asia
WHERE: Various Locations
Arguably one of the things that make Oahu unique is its mix of ethnicities and the creative interpretations of home cuisine. This means a never-ending rotation of new places to try for locals and visitors. There’s Island Sausage with its spicy Korean Beef Kalbi Sausage stuffed with kimchee, pickled daikon, and the takoyaki-inspired Ginger Miso Sausage. Beyond Pastry Studio’s Filipino Pastry Fridays are almost always sold out, as is her signature pillowy-soft Ube Cream Cheese Ensaymada, cult Umami Biscuits, and Pandesal Adobo Nest. Then there are regular pop-ups like Wallflour Bakery at ili ili Cash & Carry, known for its naturally-leavened, sourdough bread and dreamy desserts like the Double Manoa Chocolate Tarts with black sesame brittle and creamy coconut, matcha Parisian Flan. Even barbecue is given an Asian twist–Dragon Boy gets rave reviews for its Lemongrass Sausage and Smokey Dragon Wings. It’s all super ono!
Learn About Hawaiian Culture
WHERE: The Royal Hawaiian Center
A big part of what makes Hawaii memorable is its blend of ethnic influences and traditions from when Polynesians from the Marquesas Islands migrated to Hawaii more than 1,600 years ago. Today, its rich culture lives on in many ways like the wearing of leis, the art of hula dance and lauhana (the weaving of Hala leaves), and its language comprises only five vowels and eight consonants. A great way to appreciate the Hawaiian culture is to attend the free daily events and classes at The Royal Hawaiian Center, where you learn to dance the hula, play the ‘ukulele, make a lei, and watch hula performances. Spaces are limited, so bookings are recommended. For a deep dive into the Polynesian culture, book tickets to the Polynesian Cultural Center, where there are showcases of all six Polynesian islands, a Hawaiian luau, and the Hā: Breath of Life show featuring over 100 Polynesian performers.
INSIDER TIPNever remove a lei in public.
Editor’s Note: Per the Hawaii Tourism Board, Fodor’s recognizes “the proper use of the Hawaiian language, ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i,’ which includes the ‘okina [‘], a consonant, and the kahakō [ō] or macron.” The Hawai‘i Board on Geographic Names was created to “assure uniformity and standardize spelling of geographic names to communicate unambiguously about places, reducing the potential for confusion.” In order to ensure our readers the best experience reading our Hawaii travel guides, we follow the standardized spelling, but hope to expose readers to the importance and cultural significance of the written Ōlelo Hawai‘i language.