Visting the Islands for the first time? Here's a short primer of the "must see" activities and places on the island of Oahu.
Oahu is third largest island in Hawaii, but it offers the most activities to first time visitors. It has something for everybody - families, honeymooners, beach bums, surfers, hiking enthusiast, shoppers, and resort lovers. So here's my list of things to see and do for first-timers visiting Oahu.
Visit The Waikiki Beaches
You can't visit Oahu without first setting foot on one of it’s many beautiful beaches. If you’re staying in Waikiki, getting sand between those toes is of utmost importance. No place better to do it than along one of the many beaches in Waikiki. Although Waikiki appears to to be a metropolis of hotels, restaurants, and stores, it also has a rich Hawaiian history. Waikiki Beach is where the Hawaiian royalty would play and surf (Yes, Hawaiian Alli were known to hit the waves). It’s the stomping ground of legendary Olympian and surfer Duke Kahanamoku. Just a reminder - take off your shoes and socks, get into a pair of swim trunks, and put on some sunscreen. At Kuhio Beach Park @ Waikiki, man-made seawalls provide a pool like lagoon - nice for children and those who many be fearful of water. The outer reefs at Waikiki Beach are awesome for novice surfers to paddle out and catch gentle long ridable waves. Surfboards can be rented rented here as well as boogie boards.
If you’d prefer to walk along the beaches, you can begin your stroll from Kapiolani Park at San Souci Beach and continue westward (away from Diamondhead) all the way to Ala Moana Beach Park. There are plenty of hotels along the way to grab a beverage or bite to eat.
After you check in to your hotel, this to be your first activity to unwind after hectic traveling and get in the aloha mood.
Here is a list of the beaches along Waikiki.
Royal-Moana Beach @ Waikiki
Waikiki Beach (Main / Center)
Queen's Beach @ Waikiki
Kapiolani Beach Park @ Waikiki
Kaimana / Sans Souci Beach @ Waikiki
Outrigger Canoe Club Beach @ Waikiki
Ala Moana Beach & State Recreation Area
Kahanamoku Beach @ Waikiki
Kuhio Beach Park @ Waikiki
Gray's Beach @ Waikiki.
And don’t forget to get your picture in front of the Duke Kahanamoku Statue. It’s essential.
Take a Tour Around the Island
Driving around the island is a great way to explore Oahu. If you’re staying in Waikiki, get on the H1 and head toward Hawaii Kai. Keep on going, and you’ll start to see some breathtaking scenery. Past Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve and Beach Park there is the Eternity Beach, Lana'i Lookout / Heaven's Point, then Sandy Beach (Koko Head Park). Sandy Beach has world class boogie body surfing, but it’s for advanced skill level. The beach is long and often crowded at “Sandys”. It's a lot of fun to sit back and watch the body surfers - the shoreline is steep and creates hollow tube onto the beach. A lot of rookies get hurt bad here, so this is beach is advanced. Keep on going down the road you’ll come upon Makapu'u Point Lighthouse Trail, and the Makapu’u lookout. If you feel like taking a short and somewhat easy hike, the Makapu’u lighthouse has fantastic views facing eastward, with an active lighthouse. It's an easy hike up a paved grade, but it completely exposed without shade cover, so wear a hat and suncreen. Breathtaking views of the ocean - bring you're camera.
Next to Makapu’u lighthouse is the Makapu’u overlook which provides a beautiful view of Rabbit Island, Makapu'u Beach Park and the other islets off in the distance. You’ll occasionally see paraglider using the updraft from the cliffs to sail overhead. Bring your camera - it’s worth the stop.
Heading just down the hill, is Makapu'u Beach Park, which is a favorite among locals and tourist. It offers good moderate level bodysurfing, a nice sandy beach, restrooms, lifeguards and a reef with tidepools to explore. Hawaii has so many great places for taking photos, and this is another one. It’s not uncommon to see professional photographers shooting portraits with families and newlyweds. Most of the time, shave ice and snack trucks will be parked out across Kamehameha highway. So if this is as far as you get on your tour around the island, it’s completely understandable.
Continuing along the road, you’ll come to Waimanalo Beach park with it’s turquoise water. It will be a less crowded option than Makapu’u beach. Not so good for body surfing but nice for fishing or snorkeling or swimming.
Stay on the 72 until you get to the 81 turn right and head into Kailua. The town of Kailua has many restaurants, and shops. Kailua Beach has beautiful turquoise water, many sunbathers. it’s windy and good for Windsurfing, Kitesurfing. Many SUP lovers will out here enjoying the bay. Outrigger canoe paddling is popular in the are, and you’ll see crews practicing for competition.
Take the 81 back up Pali Highway and visit Pali Lookout. It closes at sunset, so if you’re running late skip it. Panoramic Vistas of Kaneohe Bay that also has intense trade winds occasionally, if you’re lucky. It’s really fun tow walk on the path next to the lookout. It feels as if the wind is going to carry you away.
And that’s the half day loop on the eastern portion of the island.
The other half day Trip start driving west the H2 into Haleiwa. Along the way, you’ll want to visit the Dole Plantation if you have kids with you. There is a “Pineapple Garden Maze” for the young one to explore.
Continue along, and you will be along the pineapple fields and even
Be You can drive a Half day Tour and explore either the North shore, or the Windward side. For another option is to make or Drive along Kamehameha Highway from Hanauma Bay to Haleiwa. However you decide to do it, it's one of the most beautiful and majestic drives you'll ever make. (Write a separate article for each of the half day tours, and the Full day tour with links to beaches)
The Polynesian Cultural Center
Learn the history of island societies at the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie. There are many exhibits, and attractions celebrating Polynesian culture, and a terrific luau to finish off your day. Great place for first time visitors to Oahu, and a relaxing drive on the North Shore to get there. If you're staying in Waikiki, several tour companies offer bus service. There is plenty of parking if you plan to drive.
Located on the eastern side of Oahu is a beautiful natural preserve and crater where Hawaiians have fished and played for centuries. Hanauma Bay is a perfect spot for novice snorkelers to enjoy exploring the colorful reefs and sea life of Hawaii. Upon arrival, you'll be required to watch a short video presentation educating visitors about the bay, the preserve, and how to gently tread at this beautiful beach. Hanauma Bay however, is popular and the parking lot often fills up by 10am. Be sure to head out early, or visit midweek when it is less crowded. If the parking lot is full, you'll need to park in Hawaii Kai and walkabout a mile up the hill to the entrance. If you are staying in Waikiki, it might be easier to take either a tour bus or or public transportation.
The National Parks Service has a moving monument dedicated to the memory of those who perished during the attack at Pearl Harbor in 1941. There is a thoughtfully designed museum with stories and artifacts from December 7th 1941, and a video presentation that revisit the events leading up to the attack. After the video presentation, a navy watercraft will transport you onto the USS Arizona Memorial. There are several tour companies that offer transportation to and from the memorial. The entire tour can be done in less than 2 hours. When you first arrive, be sure to get your USS Memorial tickets since there will often be several groups ahead of you. While you’re waiting, this is a good time to explore the museum.
The Bishop Museum is the historical archive to the history of Oahu. It’s Hawaii’s version of the National Archives. This is one of the best places to learn about the history, arts, and culture of the Hawaiian people. A great place for adults and children since there is an exhibit for everyone. There are exhibits of the Hawaiian Allii’s costumes, islander tools, and documents from the early european explorers. Of interest to the younger ones is an interactive volcano and wave pool. Of interest to others may be the impact of the missionaries to Hawaii, the rebirth and celebration of Hawaiian culture in recent years. A good place to visit on a rainy day to expand your knowledge of these beautiful islands.
One of the most easily accessible vistas from Oahu is the Pali lookout. It's located near the top of Pali Highway, and offers a panoramic view of Kaneohe and the windward coast of Oahu. One thing that makes the Pali lookout unique are the strong Tradewinds that blow through the pass. The wind streams up along a wind tunnel along the old Pali Road (which is now used as a trail) and feels as if you’re going to take flight when walking down the road. (Think "The Flying Nun") It’s a lot of fun - be careful of hats or anything that might be blown away.
Also, legend has it that you never carry pork over the Nu’uanu Pali. The story goes that cars stopped and would not start again until the pork was ditched from the car. There’s more to the story and you can read about it here.
Take Surfing Lessons
Waikiki has no shortage of local surfers eager to provide lessons to visiting tourists. The waters off Waikiki are excellent for newbie surfers since the surf is gentle and it’s fairly easy to catch a wave. The rides can be long and fun. And for those of you that simply want to rent a surfboard and hit the water, there are several board rental places along the central Waikiki Beach area.
What better place to learn how to ride the wavies than the birthplace of modern surfing? And don’t forget your sunscreen and rash guard.
Kahuku Shrimp Trucks
If you love sautéed shrimp with buttery garlic sauce, then the drive to the little town of Kahuku on the North Shore will be a highlight of your trip. To be accurate, there are many “shrimp trucks” in Haleiwa and Kahuku, but a couple of our favorites (Romy’s and Fumi’s) are actually small stands rather than trucks. However, Romy’s and Fumi’s are located across from the shrimp farms where they get their shrimp. One of the most popular trucks is Giovani’s which use frozen shrimp from a wholesaler, but many find their flavors to be the best. Really, you can’t go wrong, but for the record - Romy’s is our favorite.
The inland flora and fauna of the North shore can be explored in this well preserved park. Waimea Valley, which is located adjacent to Waimea Bay, offers self-guided and guided walking tours on a paved road into the beautiful Valley. When you first drive in, you may be treated by the peacocks near the entrance. There’s a visitor’s center that offers information, and snack food is available at an outdoor stand. Along the way, there are beautiful trees that canopy the path, with various plants identified with small plaques. As you’re walking up the hill, you’ll hear the sound of a small stream. Look to the right side of the road while walking up the grade, and you’ll find a couple of short trails that will take you down to the stream. I enjoy it in this part because it’s very peaceful with the sounds of birds chirping overhead. Continuing up along the pat are exhibits of native dwellings showing what it was like for the ancients that dwelled here. Up further is a large park area with beautiful monkey pod trees. The park has benches with magnificent trees to provide cover. A a nice spot to take a break from your trek up the hill. The payoff at the end of the trail is a waterfall that is a small slice of paradise. The falls are the source of the stream you visited earlier, and are often enjoyed by many people who swim out into the pond and sit under the falls. There is a lifeguard watching over the area, and floatation gear is available as well for those that want to explore with a bit more safety. If there is heavy rains, you may not be allowed to enter the water for risk of flash flood. You wouldn’t want to anyways.
There is a fee for parking and entry, but this is great beginners guide to what you’ll see if you decide to take one of the advanced trail hikes throughout Hawaii.
The small town of Haleiwa has a charm unique to Oahu. It’s the main village for residence of the North Shore and hang out for local surfers. There are many restaurants, food trucks, and shops to enjoy. Some of the highlights in Haleiwa are Matsumoto’s Shave Ice, Opal Thai Restaurant, and The Grass Skirt Grill. Haleiwa also has rentals shops for standup paddle boards (SUP), surfboards, kayaks and SCUBA equipment. Several instructors provide SCUBA, surfing and SUP lessons.
Disclaimer: We're not affiliated, authorized, associated, endorsed by, or officially connected with the company or entities listed here, or any of their subsidiaries or affiliates. All trademarks cited, listed, or shown here are the property of their respective owners. We are not responsible for errors, omissions, safety issues
, or inaccurate information. This site is for entertainment purposes only and is not an official guide. Attempting anything you see here is done so at your own risk and we are not responsible for your safety, loss of life, legal or medical fees, or damages because of anything you see or read on this site.