Best Things to Do on Oahu – Complete Bucket List
Welcome to the Ultimate Bucket List of Best Things to do on Oahu – all the activities you would want to do with family and friends!
Navigating the island is tough if your a first time visitor, but it shouldn’t be that way. In this guide, I will try to break Oahu into its major sections and make planning your vacation easier. You’ll begin to understand the island as if you were a local and get a true authentic Hawaiian experience. If you see a location that piques your interest, then click on any of the underlined links below for a more detailed description, which includes directions, things to know, places to see, and information about the place.
The Quick List:
Hiking: Crouching Lion, Hanauma Bay Rim Trail, Lanikai Pillboxes.
Eating: Tamashiro Market.
Swimming: Makapu’u Tidepools, Ala Moana Beach Park.
Relaxing: Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden, Tantalus Lookout.
Beaches: Lanikai Beach, Waikiki Beaches.
Experiences: Swim with Sharks, Dolphin Tour, Exploring Downtown Honolulu.
Best Free: Shell collecting, body surfing, fruit picking in the forest.
Before we jump into the best things to do on the island, it’s worth taking a second to draw out the map of Oahu and study the major areas. In that way, we can choose to explore one location and then combine another adventure somewhere close by as well. Below is a map of the island of Oahu. Let’s separate the island into its four sides based on the coastlines. North, west, south, and eastern sides.
On the south side, we have Honolulu and Waikiki. This is the place most people envision when thinking of Oahu. It has hotels, palm trees, beaches, and the famous view of Diamond Head in the background. You’ll likely stay here on your first few days on Oahu. On the eastern shore, we have Waimanalo to Hauula, which includes Makapu’u, Lanikai, Chinaman’s Hat, the famous Shrimp Trucks, and more. The north shore, at least during the winter months, is known for its beaches and surf, while during the summer you can jump off Waimea Rock, see the turtles at Laniakea beach and stand up paddle the river in Haleiwa. Finally, if you have time, and I suggest you make time, you can visit the west side of the island, Waianae, which is the least touristy, and includes famous beaches like Makaha and Yokohama, and amazing snorkeling at electric beach.
Honolulu can be a difficult city to navigate for people who are visiting. Many attractions are far and distant from the main city center and cannot be easily reached by public transportation. It’s best if you rent a car, and make sure to include a theft protection plan, as Oahu is notorious for car break-ins. But if your plan is to stay in Waikiki and stay on the South Shore, then using the bus system or the newly implemented shared Biki Bike system will be suffice. For those doing a solo mission here, you could rent a scooter in Waikiki to drive to most areas of Honolulu.
Where to stay:
Budget: Waikiki Beachside Hostel
Luxury: Turtle Bay Resort
Value: Hilton Hawaiian Village
Family Friendly: Aulani Disney Resort
Local: Airbnb hosted by a Hawaiian family
Best Things to Do on Oahu – Complete Bucket List
South side of Oahu:
Common Areas: Waikiki, Honolulu, Hawaii Kai, Manoa, Tantalus, Chinatown
Walk Downtown and visit Historic Chinatown:
The majority of blogs recommend visiting Diamond Head or Waikiki as your first stop on your trip, however I recommend making a stop in Downtown and Chinatown to load up on cheap and fresh fruits for your stay. Imagine doing all of the activities below with a nice pineapple or mango in your hand and eating these refreshing fruits on the tops of some mountain or on a hot sunny beach. Not to mention you get to see Hawaii’s cultural diversity firsthand, early in your trip by visiting Chinatown. Somehow, Chinatown has really good Vietnamese food. Make sure to try it. Read the full blog post about the Chinatown Market.
Buy a Flower Lei from Cindy’s Lei Shop
While you’re in Chinatown, you can easily purchase a flower Lei for the rest of your trip on Maunakea Street. Just plug in the directions to Cindy’s Lei Shop. They have a huge variety of flowers to choose from. Haku Leis, which girls wear on their heads, regular leis that you wear on your neck, and bouquets for your wrist. They go from $5 for the most basic and onwards. The arrangement and flower varieties are amazing to see.
Visit the Shimazu Store for Shaved Ice
While you’re in Chinatown, you can easily drive up the road five or ten minutes to go to the Shimazu Store for Shaved Ice. Here, you’ll find true local flavors. It’s sort of a hidden little shop that isn’t quite fancy, but tries to be more authentic. But I recommend this place as I’ve been going here for years, especially when I was younger.
Hike the Famous Diamond Head Crater
With fruit and a lei on hand, hike the famous Diamond Head Crater. From the top of this mountain you’ll get a 360 degree vista of the city of Honolulu, the mountains in all directions, and in the distance you can spot people surfing, sailboats crossing the ocean, and many of the major landmarks that are known to Oahu. It’s one of the best spots to visit as it provides incredible views with only a 30 minute hike involved. It will take a half a day or less to explore and both morning and afternoons are a good time to go. Read the full blog post about Diamond Head.
Explore all of Waikiki
There’s tons of activities to do in Waikiki and many places to visit just five or ten minutes away outside the main area. I suggest going to the beach, eating a plate lunch at Rainbow Drive-inn, visiting Leonard’s Malasadas for a sugary treat afterwards, and later in the day, taking an uber up to Tantalus Lookout for Sunset. If you don’t want to leave the area, then stroll through the hotels and try to pool hop your way to the best and most scenic spots. Here’s a small list of things to do within Waikiki.
Swim or Relax at Ala Moana Beach Park
The Ala Moana Beach Park is a large recreational area that many locals go to for running, swimming, exercising, and many other activities. If you head to the middle of this park’s beach, you’ll get an iconic view of Diamond Head. You’re free to do most activities here, so either exercise, soak up the sun, or enjoy the view. There’s also free parking to be found, a rarity in Oahu, all throughout the park.
Walk the Hanauma Bay Rim Trail:
The Hanauma Bay Rim Trail is a great start to your morning. You can casually stroll up the paved road to some good views, or take the dirt trail all the way to the ocean to see the large waves and large rock cliffs. The hike can be as difficult as you want it to be, or as easy as you want, but either way, you’ll get great views. Read the full blog about the Hanauma Bay Rim Trail.
Lulumahu Falls in Nu’uanu
Situated at the end of Old Pali Road, in Nu’uanu, Lulumahu Falls is one of the more scenic waterfalls that can be easily accessed from Honolulu. Cold mountain water from the tops of the Ko’olau Mountains, falls 50 feet below into a shallow-swimmable pool. It’s a hidden gem that will take you through bamboo forests, guava forests, and beautiful little streams. Read the full blog post about Lulumahu Falls.
Pu’u O Kona
Stand right on the edge of the cliffside and see the majestic views of the Ko’olau mountains from this mountain peak. A small dirt landing is easily reached by using the Kuliouou Hike and hiking the ridgeline over. You’ll be able to see all the way from Kaneohe (Ho’omaluhia Botanical Gardens) to Makapu’u. The hike starts at the end of the Kuliouou Valley.
Mt. Olympus Hike
A four hour round-trip hike leads all the way from the top of St. Louis Heights, to the top of Mt. Olympus, where you will be treated to views of Manoa Valley and Diamond Head, and on the other side, Waimanalo and Kailua. You will hike through the changing forest, from tall low-level pine trees, to guava forests, to the true native hawaiian forest – with many scenic viewpoints along the way. The highlight of this hike are the huge trees along the trail, which dwarf all the other life around it. Read the full blog post about Mt. Olympus Hike.
Kuliouou Ridge Hike
One of the easier hikes on the island, Kuliouou provides one of the best views of Oahu’s mountains. You’ll end up on the crest of the mountain above Waimanalo and have 360 degree views of much of the island. The trade winds blow strong, as the air crests over the peak. On clear days (mostly in the morning), you can see all the way to Maui and Molokai along with other islands scattered around. This is a hike not to miss.
Ka’au Crater Hike
Hike one of Oahu’s most coveted trails right in the center of Honolulu. This trail climbs up the mountain through three different waterfalls – all of them impressive on their own – and one of them you climb right next to it, crossing it over multiple times. Then make it to a large hidden volcanic crater – you would never expect it to exist because it can’t be seen from anywhere in town. Finally, you can summit the mountains to view the windward side of the island – a 360 degree view on most days of the week. Read the full blog post about Ka’au Crater.
A tough, grueling 1048 step hike, rising 1,200 ft. above sea level, leads to the top of the mountain above Hawaii Kai and Haunauma Bay. You’ll have a 360 degree views of much of the island. Similar to the Kuliouou hike, you can see all the way to Maui and Molokai. Somehow this punishing 20-minute stairmaster climb gets you stoked about the view when you reach the top. Tourist and locals do this hike all the time for good reason. Read the full blog post about Kokohead Stairs.
Deadman’s Cat Walk
A hike very similar to Kuliouou, Deadman’s Cat Walk is known for its views of the Ko’olau Mountains and famous concrete landing that you can walk onto. The hike itself is quite easy, but recently they removed most of the concrete plank. You won’t be able to walk to the absolute edge of the cliff side, but you’ll be close.
Cromwell Rockpool & Blackpoint Beach
Located on the calm and gentle beach of Blackpoint, the Cromwell Rockpool is a famous spot for locals to jump off of and cruise (aka relax). You’ll have to walk along a rockwall to get to the spot, so make sure to check that it isn’t high tide on your way there or way back. But that could also be part of the fun.
Wiliwilinui Ridge Hike or Mariner’s Ridge Trail
These two hikes that are only a valley apart, will bring you to the top of the Ko’olau mountains and give you a view of all of the island. The only difference lies in whether you are able to get a parking permit for the Wiliwilinui trail. There’s only about 10 spots and they fill up quickly. So if you aren’t lucky enough to score a pass, then head over a valley to the Mariner’s Ridge Trail. In both, you’ll get a nice introduction to Hawaii hiking and see nice views of the mountains.
China Wall’s & Portlock
Jump into the dark blue waters of China Walls and swim in what feels like the edge of the island. You’ll have a nice place to set up a picnic and watch the sun set. Or if you come here early in the morning, you’ll have the place to yourself. If you decide to hop in the water, just follow how the locals get out and be careful of the rocks and waves.
Go Canoe Surfing in Waikiki
Canoe surfing is thrilling These heavy boats pick up so much speed. You’ll feel as if you are flying with the wave. It’s really one of the most exciting ways to enjoy the ocean. Only a few strong paddle strokes into the wave, then you can enjoy the power of the ocean and coast on through till shore.
Surf the famous Waikiki Beach:
Embrace your inner tourist and rent a surfboard for $20 off Waikiki beach. There’s many stands near the Duke Kahanamoku Statue. And if you’ve never tried surfing, then get some lessons (basically a push into the wave), by one of the many instructors who have surfed this break for their entire lives. You’ll have a blast catching some of the big ones.
The Hawaiian Parasail Company will whip you around the waters of Waikiki and Diamond Head. From above, all the sounds of routine life drown out. You and your partner will only hear the silence of the wind blowing past your ears. Spot dolphins, tropical fish, turtles, reef formations, and surfers, while cruising past the Honolulu skyline. Have them do a full submersion or only a foot drag when lowering you back down to earth.
Fly Over Oahu with a Helicopter:
Riding in a Helicopter is a dream for most. There are many companies that can take you around the island to see all the spots you’ve been to, show you the hidden views that you can’t see from the land, and give an experience above the islands like this. You’ll likely want to book ahead and save it for the end of your trip, when you are more familiar with the different areas of Oahu. It’s probably the best send-off gift you can give someone or yourself.
Take Oahu’s Only Submarine Cruise in Waikiki:
Kid and family friendly, the Atlantis submarine will take you far underneath the water – almost 100 feet down at some points – and let you see the Waikiki reefs without having to be scuba certified or jump in the water. During the cruise, you’ll learn about the reef ecosystem, like the fishes, corals, and the rest of the marine life inhabiting below.
Experience Nutridge Hula:
If you want to experience a traditional Hawaiian luau and don’t want to drive all the way to the west side or north shore, then Experience Nutridge will be your place to be. According to their site, the Estate has entertained many iconic people, such as Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and Marilyn Monroe. It’s a fresh farm to table food experience with live dancing and knowledge about Hawaiian history.
Do a Sunset Cruise in Waikiki:
Off the shallows waters of Waikiki, you can hop on a catamaran and sip Mai Tais while the sun starts to set. Every day, Holokai Adventures launches off the main Waikiki beach and sails across the waters. It’s good company, relaxing vibes, and scenic views. You’ll want to do this if you have been running around the island and need to slow down for an afternoon. Afterwards, you can hit the Waikiki Strip for more fun.
Dive the Sea-Tiger Shipwreck in Waikiki:
If you are scuba certified, then you can dive a large wreck off of Waikiki. Swim through many of the boats corridors and see various sea-animals – like eels, stingrays, and sharks – that you would not normally view. The depth varies from 75-120 feet below and you are free to view it just from the outside or swim through the different areas. Just whatever you’re comfortable with.
Drive to the Top of Tantalus Lookout for Epic Views of Honolulu:
Located 15 minutes from Waikiki, you can drive to the top of Tantalus Lookout for views of Honolulu city from above. Bring picnic gear and rest on the grass lawn in front of the lookout. Be sure to not leave valuables in your car – it’s a heavy theft prone area, however you could just uber up to the top and stroll down part of the hill.
Hike Pali Notches:
With the recent closure of the Pali (with it not being reopened until late 2020), climbing the famous Pali Notches hike isn’t as easy as it used to be. You would have to walk a few miles till the entrance, and even then you might be caught by police. I don’t recommend doing this hike till the Pali Lookout Reopens.
Hike Pu’u Pia and Enjoy Views of Lush Manoa Valley:
A different slope of the Manoa valley, Pu’u Pia puts you in the middle of the Manoa Valley, up close to all its ridges, away from most houses and modern life. Plus, it’s only a short 30 minute hike with only a moderate elevation gain.
Hike Manoa Falls and Visit Lyon Arboretum
Located above Waikiki, about 15 minutes away, is Manoa Falls and the Lyon Arboretum. Here, after a 1.2km walk into the forest, you’ll visit a 150 ft waterfall. It’s an easy trail for anyone who doesn’t have experience hiking. The arboretum houses many native plants and is also worth taking the many paved walking paths.
Drive Past the Diamond Head Lookout:
On the coastal side of Diamond Head, you can drive high above the surf breaks and stop at a few lookouts to see kite surfers or longboarders catching waves out at Cliff’s surf break. It’s a good place to relax and reflect on your stay here. There’s a small grass patch at one of the round lookout spots or you can sit on the white rock walls and hang your legs off the edge.
Bodysurf or Bodyboard the Powerful Waves of Sandy Beach
The waves at Sandy Beach (Sandies) are super powerful and picturesque. On small days, you can try to bodysurf them without fins. When it gets larger, you’ll need a board and proper fins to make it out. This is the go-to spot for many locals when the surf isn’t good in town or the North Shore. Sometimes it’s best just to watch from shore and see the many crazy wipeouts that people have.
Jump into From Here to Eternity Beach & See Halona Blowhole
A small inlet of beach, you’ll scramble down a few rocks and get to From Here to Eternity Beach and have the place to yourself. With the high rock walls around you, and it being hidden from the highway, it feels like you are in a small cove with the water stretching out till forever. I recommend going here if your not a big fan of crowded beaches. You will also see Halona Blowhole, which shoots up 30-40ft into the air at times.
Hike Koko Head Arch
Near the Halona Blowhole & Eternity beach, you can climb up a small, almost undefined path up the backside of the Koko Head mountain to a huge open air arch. Either climb (scramble) ontop to peer through the sides to see the beaches below.
Get the freshest Poke at Tamashiro Market
Visiting Tamashiro’s is a very authentic experience for anyone visiting Hawaii. Inside, you’ll see fresh caught fish stacked on ice from earlier in the day like huge Uhu’s (Parrot Fish) and Moon Fish – still whole. In their deli section, you can find all types of poke. The variety is way larger than other stores. You’ll notice the sights and smells – it’s a complete sensory overload. You’ll just have to find out yourself.
Try Dim Sum in China Town
For an authentic experience, visit the many Chinese restaurants at the North end of Chinatown to try Dim Sum. Carts full of bamboo steamer baskets contain many different dishes that you’ve probably never seen. While you might not know the name, or what’s inside the dish, just close your eyes and point your finger at anything being served. It’s worth a try.
Visit Doris Duke’s Shangri La – Muslim Inspired Art
Shangri La, is a little known secret in the Diamond Head area of Oahu, built by Doris Duke, a famous philantropist of Oahu. She constructed this place as a tribute to her extended travels in North Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia and to her vision of how Hawaii actually is – a rich, vibrant and diverse blend of cultures, people, and history. If you have a half day to spare, visit the house during one of their two and a half hour tours, which leave from the Honolulu Museum of Art.
Visit the Bishop Museum for Hawaiian History
A slight departure from the more adventurous recommendations on this list, Bishop Museum has some of the best Hawaiian artifacts in preservation around the world. Here you can see the voyaging history of the Polynesian people, ancient ritual & religious artifacts, and the impressively large feather capes of the Hawaiian Ali’i (Royalty). It adds a tremendous amount of knowledge and respect for the rest of your adventures around the island and is worth a visit, if you have time. While you’re there, make a stop at Helena’s to eat some classic Hawaiian food.
Eat Traditional Hawaiian Food at Helena’s
Make a visit to Helena’s to eat some classic Hawaiian food, but bring some cash to try all their dishes. You’ll want to get something with Lau Lau, Kalua Pig, Poi, Haupia, Lomi Salmon. If there is some other options, and you are feeling like trying something less mainstream try Kulolo, Pipi Kaula, and Squid Luau.
Walk to Magic Island at Ala Moana Park and Enjoy the View
Located at the end of the Ala Moana Beach Park, Magic Island is the place to go to for kids and anyone seeking to get a more local feel close to, but outside of Waikiki. There’s a nice area to swim – a protected lagoon that’s wonderful for wading – or picnic tables and benches to rest if you don’t have swim wear. From here, you’ll get great views of Diamond Head, Waikiki, and the can view the whole pacific ocean down to the west side of the island.
Watch the Fireworks from Hilton Hawaiian Village Every Friday
Every Friday at 7:45 or so there are fireworks off of the Hilton Hawaiian Village on the west end of Waikiki. It’s a short 15 minute show, but you can get fairly close on the beach and see fireworks straight above you with the lights of Waikiki in the background. You can also spot it from different places on the island. For example, Ala Moana Beach Park or the east end of Waikiki. If you are on Tantalus lookout, you’ll see it too.
Snorkel Hanauma Bay for Turtles and Fish:
Probably one of the most visited attractions in Honolulu, you’ll be able to see many fish and marine life that are very used to human interaction. This is one of the plus sides to snorkeling at Hanauma Bay. It’s shallow reefs and calm water make it perfect for anyone’s first time snorkeling.
Go to Moanalua Gardens for a Nice Picnic
Along the way to the west side of Oahu is Moanalua Gardens – just past downtown and close to the airport exit. It’s a nice relaxing place to set out a picnic on the grassy lawn. You’ll be able to sit underneath huge monkey pod trees and see other types of plants around the botanical center as well. Admission is just $3 so it makes for a great afternoon retreat.
Take Photos of the Ocean and Waves at Spitting Caves:
Spitting Caves is a popular cliff jumping spot on Oahu’s South Shore, but most of the time, the water is very rough. Waves are constantly crashing into the lava rock cliff and people have died here because of the strong currents and unseen caves under the water. It’s better to leave it to the professionals. But even on the cliffside, you’ll still feel the power of the ocean. Don’t bring anything that might blow away.
East side of Oahu:
Common Areas: Kailua, Kaneohe, Makapu’u, Lanikai, Laie, Punalu’u
Must do: Sunrise at Lanikai Beach:
Another stunning place to watch sunrise is from the glassy waters of Lanikai Beach. Be sure to line yourself up with the sun and watch as the sun rays peel off the clouds and distant Mokulua islands offshore. The fine white sand is some of the best on the island. Afterwards, if you have enough energy, you can climb up the Lanikai Pillboxes Hike.
Lanikai Pillboxes Hike
A short 15-20 minute hike up the Lanikai Hills will lead you to two separate WWII concrete bunkers. From here, you can see the famous Mokulua Islands and the beautiful turquoise waters of Lanikai and Kailua. On the clearest of days, you’ll be able to see all the way to Molokai and Maui on the right hand side as you are looking out towards the water. This hike can also be done at sunrise, which has spectacular views.
Sunrise at Makapu’u Tidepools:
Another epic sunrise spot, Makapu’u Tidepools is a short and steep 30 minute hike down the Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail, leading to a stunning number of picturesque tide pools away from all of the major crowds. Huge waves crash on the black volcanic rock cliffs and bring in fresh salt-water from the ocean, making for crystal clear water to view all the fishes and tide pool invertebrate. Visit this place during sunrise for breathtaking lighting and to swim with lots of marine life to start your morning in Hawaii. Read the full blog post about Makapu’u Tidepools.
Right around the corner, further down the road from Makapu’u Tidepools, is Makapu’u Beach. Grab your bodyboard, fins, or any surfable object and ride the small but powerful shorebreak waves at Makapu’u. The fine sandy bottom makes it forgiving for both beginners and more advanced surfers as well. I grew up going to Makapu’u every sunday morning to play in the water. It’s one of my favorite spots for the pure color of the water and the scenic mountain backdrop close to the beach. The mornings are quite empty, while the afternoon starts to get packed. Layout on the sand, until the sun sets behind the mountain, a few hours before sunset.
Kayak to the Mokulua Islands in Lanikai:
Many locals have seen these islands from the shores of Oahu, but few have set foot on the white sandy beach on the Mokulua Island. Fewer have explored the backside of the island to do some serious cliff jumping. But if you rent kayaks from the many shops in Kailua, you’ll be out on these remote islands in 30 minutes. Be sure to pack for at least a full day of exploring, if not a full day, (especially sunscreen), and keep your eyes open for native Hawaiian Monk Seals that tend to lay on the main beach. You might even spot a few turtles on the kayak out there.
Kayak to the Chinaman’s Hat Island in Kualoa:
If you can get a kayak out to Kualoa Park and launch the boat from there, you’ll make it to the island in a quick 10 minute paddle. There you can enjoy a secluded hidden beach and see unhindered views of Kualoa and the surrounding mountains.
Ho’omaluhia Botanical Gardens
One of the truly free activities to enjoy in Honolulu, Ho’omaluhia Botanical Gardens is set underneath one of the best sections of mountains on Oahu. The winding roads are famous for their views (very popular on instagram). But make sure to check out the rest of the park like the small fishing lake, the numerous different types of flora and fauna, and the various picnic area spread throughout the entire property.
Drive the H-3 Highway from Kaneohe to Moanalua-Pearl Harbor
The H-3 is an elevated highway that winds through the mountains. The drive is one of the most scenic on the island, rivaling the drive from Koko Head to Makapu’u. You’ll pass on both sides thousand foot cliffs and go through a minute long tunnel that pops you out on the other side of the mountain, a true feat of engineering. It’s a short detour on most routes that adds at max 20 minutes to your itinerary, if you are planning on crossing the island anyway.
Hike the Stunning Crouching Lion Hike
The Crouching Lion Hike is one of the best hikes on Oahu. It’s a short and steep climb up for 30 minutes to the top, but along the way you will see dramatic cliff sides pushed up against the ocean, and a crescent shaped bay among Oahu’s finest mountains. It’s a hike worth seeing. Read the full post about Crouching Lion.
Drive on the Coastal Highway and Make a Few Stops Along the Way
There’s a ton of stops along the way on the drive from Kahuku to Makapu’u. You’ll see huge mountains on one side of the road and the ocean passing by a few feet from your window. It’s very scenic and you’ll want to stop at a few places along the way.
Eat Hawaiian Food at Waiahole Poi Factory & Get a Tour
If you’re driving on the east side and want authentic Hawaiian food, then stop at the Waiahole Poi Factory for some well made food. There’s poi to try, lau lau, kalua pig, lomi salmon, and haupia for dessert. This is the place to try all the luau foods without having to commit to a full-evening at a venue.
Eat at One of the Famous Shrimp Trucks
The historic town of Kahuku has a whole area devoted to shrimp trucks, whose signature dish is shrimp covered in garlic and butter. Giovanni’s is the most coveted because it was the first. However, there are other options, which have similar taste. You’ll want to hit this place early or later as the crowds make the wait time about an hour or so for your plate.
Visit the Byodo-In Temple in Kahalu’u, Oahu
Settled at the bottom of the Ko’olau Mountains and surrounded by a lush green forest, Byodo-In Temple is the place to visit for anyone wishing for a calmer, more reflective spot during their trip to Hawaii. It’s a non-practicing Buddhist temple, built to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the first Japanese immigrants to Hawaii. A place to meditate, find your inner calm, and find a bit of inspiration.
Swim at the Beautiful Waimanalo Beach
Step on the beach at Waimanalo and feel the silky white sand beneath your toes. It’s a three mile long stretch of pristine beach and turquoise water. Calm enough for children to swim in, but large enough for all sorts of activities, you’ll enjoy this stretch of beach on the east side of Oahu.
North side of Oahu:
Common Areas: Haleiwa, Waimea, Shark’s Cove, Banzai Pipeline
Pupukea Beach Park Diving
Right next to Shark’s Cove is Pupukea Beach Park. This little inlet of a beach is easy to access, has good swimming, and you’re likely to find parking right in front or nearby. This is a top spot to see turtles swimming, do some cave diving, and get an introduction to snorkeling on Oahu. If you can, shoot over to Shark’s Cove while you’re there, or walk over to Waimea Bay, as both are very close by.
Swim with Sharks
Multiple dive companies operate on the North Shore providing tours to dive with sharks. They launch out of Haleiwa and drive out a few miles from the coast to their moored anchors – known feeding grounds for these animals. Certain companies also provide cage-free diving so that you can be up close to the sharks, as much as possible. I’ve never personally done a tour, but I imagine it to be a cool experience.
On a calm day, or after a big swell comes in and the waves have gone away, you can go shell collecting on any beach with no particular agenda other than to find a few good specimens and bring them back home. Just be sure that there is nothing inside, especially a hidden hermit crab, otherwise you’ll be bringing back home something unexpected. The prized shells are the cowries, cones, and while not a shell perhaps, the sea glass is famed for it’s unique color and adds a nice touch to your collection. Try this activity for free and tell me what you find!
Take Photos by the Famous North Shore Haleiwa Sign
Everybody who visits the north shore will pass by a sign (also on the way out) designating that you are now entering the famous North Shore, Haleiwa, which resembles the famous landmarks of entry such as the one in Las Vegas, etc. You’ll want to stop on the side of the road (makes for a good leg break during the crazy traffic out on this side of the island) and snap a photo or two. Don’t forget to embrace your inner tourist when you do this.
Known for its famous rock in the middle of the bay, Waimea Bay is home to big surf during the winter, and calm cool waters during the summer. It’s a playground for you to swim, jump off the 35 foot cliff, or relax on the beach. You can also walk over into the valley to the botanical garden to see a beautiful waterfall and cultural demonstrations within the park. Make sure to come here early on your visit to the North Shore. Otherwise, find parking at the Pupukea Beach Park or farther up the road.
Visit Waialua Town
The quaint Waialua Town, nestled between Mokuleia and Haleiwa, is a great place to add to your visit of the North Shore. There are coffee shops, bakeries, the historic sugar mill site (for which Waialua, a former sugar plantation town – was known for), and a few thrift stores. It’s a part of town that isn’t visited as often and that’s what adds to its charm.
Shark’s Cove Diving
Ask anyone who has visited the North Shore on a flat day, and you’ll get recommended to go to Shark’s Cove to see fishes & marine life within the large tidepools and outside in the open ocean. This is the top spot to see turtles swimming, do some cave diving, and get an introduction to snorkeling on Oahu.
Visit Haleiwa Town
As the gateway to the north shore, the historic Haleiwa town brings the life blood to the whole miracle stretch of beaches you’ll find on this side of the island. Here you can find a quaint picturesque surf town full of restaurants, surf shops, art galleries, and souvenirs. It’s charming, but slowly, it is losing its charm as everything becomes more modern. But still, there are a few spots that will likely remain as they were: Surf N Sea, Matsumoto Shave Ice, Kua Aina Burgers, and Cholo’s Homestyle Mexican Food – all deserving of a visit from anyone passing by.
Known for its sunsets during the winter months, sunset beach is known for large surf during the winter, and calm snorkeling during the summer. It’s a long stretch of yellow sand beach. If you’re lucky, you might find some shells that have washed up on the shore. Nearby is Ted’s Bakery, which has good pies (try the haupia chocolate) and plate lunch food for before or after your swim at the beach.
Skydive above the Island
One of the best places to skydive in the world, the north shore has many companies willing to take you on an adventure you won’t forget. A skydive here entails jumping out of a plane 10,000 ft. above Mokuleia – the western part of the north shore – seeing the whole island as you descend – both land and sea together. It makes it so you feel like you are descending even faster than you think.
A little hidden secret among locals, Ehukai Pillboxes, also known as Sunset Pillboxes, is one of the many various pillbox hikes on the island. This one features views of the north shore. During the winter months, you can see large surf rolling in from above and see tiny dots – surfers – catching these waves. During the summer months you can see all the coral reefs that make the north shore famous.
Visit the Sunflower fields on the North Shore
Sunflower fields on the drive to Waialua make for a great stop if you are looking for a nice place to take photos. The admission is free, although there is a $5 parking donation at the front.
Watch a Surf Competition
Throughout the months of December to March, surf competitions happen frequently, with the ultimate event being the Triple Crown Pipeline Pro. This event is the last on the World Surf League circuit and usually determines the winners of the entire series. Here, you’ll see the best of the best, surfing the best wave in the world. The competition goes on for a few days, whenever the conditions are good enough. But immediately before and after are good times to view the surf competitions.
Bodysurf and Take Surf Photos at Keiki Beach
The famous photographer Clark Little uses Keiki beach as his playground and for good reason. The shorebreak here is world famous. You’ll have to be a very experienced swimmer to enter the water here, but you can also admire the beauty of the waves from shore and watch as people body surf or bodyboard.
Try the Famous Dole Whip at Dole Plantation
Pineapple flavored soft serve is the ultimate dessert to try when going to the north shore. It’s so popular that you should plan ahead of time to have someone wait in line for you. You can find it at the Dole Plantation which is right on the top of the hill before going to North Shore.
West side of Oahu:
Common Areas: Electric Beach, Waianae, Makaha, Yokohama
Dive with thousands of fish at Electric Beach. The warm waters flowing from H-power, a refuse burning powerplant, makes the coral reefs flourish and sends a strong stream of hot water back into the ocean. On early mornings, you might also get a chance to swim with dolphins in the wild as they pass by. The main attraction though is the huge amount of colorful coral reef fish who curiously approach swimmers.
Makaha and Yokohama Beaches
The stunning drive out to Makaha Beach and Yokohama Beach will leave you breathless and wanting to come back out more to this distant area of the island. Usually very calm and having clear water, this side of the island is perfect for diving, swimming in the ocean, and enjoying the beach. If venturing to this side of the island, make sure to respect the locals on this side.
Swim with Wild Dolphins
Get up close and personal with wild dolphins on this snorkeling tour on the westside of Oahu. During the daytime, Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins, move back closer to shore to sleep, where they can rest and avoid predators in the calmer waters on this side of the island. Even if you don’t see too many dolphins in the water, hearing their echolocation clicks will surely make your day.
Hike the Pink Pillbox at Maile Point:
A short and steep climb – which leads to a Pink Pillbox and epic views of Waianae (west side of the island), is a challenge but has great rewards for anyone trying to conquer this trail. Only 25 minutes of climbing and you’ll be at one of the five pillboxes at the top. It’s a good way to diversify from the overdone Lanikai Pillboxes.
Be a Mermaid at Mermaid Caves:
This one you’ll have to find by yourself. But imagine a small cave build into the reef that has sandy rubble at the bottom and blue water fills it in partially. That’s the Mermaid Cave. There’s lots of guides online for it.
Hawaii is a melting pot of tons of cultures and cuisines, so try as much food as possible, go to the beach as much as possible, hike, meet locals, and enjoy. There’s a reason why it’s one of the best places to visit in the world. Hopefully this guide lets you discover it.
Also, if you don’t have a good idea of what to pack for your trip, use this packing guide to help you get ready for your adventure in Hawaii.