Of the main islands in the Hawaiian archipelago, Oahu is among the most popular, thanks in large part to the large number of beautiful places to visit and exciting things to do on Oahu!
With the most flights from the mainland of any Hawaiian island and a plethora of world-class attractions in Oahu, there’s no room for boredom on this tropical island.
Oahu is home to Hawaii’s capital city, Honolulu, with its iconic Waikiki Beach and excellent location for exploring the rest of the island.
With an abundance of beachside patios to watch the sunset, luxury resort hotels with beach access, and a laid-back lifestyle, you can do as little or as much as you want when based in Waikiki.
Looking for the absolute best attractions in Oahu, Hawaii?
Here’s where to visit!
This Oahu travel guide was written by Hawaii travel enthusiast Karen Hosier of Forever Karen. Thanks for joining us, Karen!
The Best Attractions on Oahu, Hawaii
Like any metropolitan city, the Waikiki Beach area bustles with activity.
With a sandy beach, shopping, and world-class restaurants only steps away, you don’t need a rental car if you plan to spend your vacation traveling no farther than this iconic stretch of sand.
Most hotels charge a daily fee for in-and-out parking privileges if you choose to rent a vehicle.
(And if you do, we recommend comparing prices and inclusions for different companies through Discover Cars).
The city bus and the Biki Bike program allow travelers to reach many of the closest things to do.
City buses circumnavigate the island, so reaching the north shore or other locations is relatively easy.
Many tours, like whale watching tours during winter, also leave from Waikiki.
For a luxury stay, consider The Royal Hawaiian, a classic hotel with a pink exterior.
Diamond Head State Monument
From Waikiki Beach, Diamond Head Crater dominates the Honolulu skyline to the southeast.
Visitors can enjoy part of the 475 acres in the Diamond Head State Monument with an easy bus ride.
However, most come to climb to the peak for 360-degree views of the Pacific Ocean, Waikiki, and the surrounding crater.
To beat the heat of the midday sun, plan to hike early, carry bottled water, and forego those flip-flops in place of supportive footwear.
The Diamond Head hike is an interesting one with a switchback trail, a 225-foot tunnel, an old military bunker, and the memorable “stairs of doom.”
Near the top, the stairs of doom test your fitness level on 99 steep vertical steps to the peak.
Plan one hour to 90 minutes to complete the roundtrip hike, which is widely considered one of the best hikes in Oahu.
Once you complete the hike, reward yourself with a Dole Whip or pineapple smoothie from the food truck in the parking lot.
Keep in mind that as of spring 2022, reservations are now required for visiting Diamond Head.
The Hawaii Capital Historic District
Honolulu’s historic district showcases notable architecture, providing a mini history lesson.
Standing 18 feet tall, the King Kamehameha Statue memorializes Hawaii’s first king.
Behind him, Ali’iolani Hale, initially built for royalty, is now home to the Hawaii Supreme Court.
While the royal family no longer exists, you can learn their history by visiting Iolani Palace, their last royal residence.
At the palace, discover how the US government overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy, and see the imprisonment room of Queen Lili’uokalani, the kingdom’s last monarch.
The historic Washington Place was another Queen Lili’uokalani home a few blocks away.
Today, it acts as the Governor’s Residence.
East of Honolulu, the Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve aims to protect and safeguard marine life.
The sheltered cove, which derives from a volcanic cone, has a large expanse of coral reef, a vital resource for fish, turtles, and other species.
More than a million visitors a year come to snorkel at Hanauma Bay.
While you can expect to deal with high crowds during peak season, it’s for good reason!
Hanauma Bay is an excellent place for families and those without much swimming experience.
With calm waters and shallow depth, snorkelers can see tropical fish without wading too far.
The Hawaii state fish, Humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa, is commonly spotted in the reef.
Along with 400 other species, you may even be treated to a green sea turtle sighting.
However, Hanauma Bay doesn’t provide much shelter from the sun.
So, bring an umbrella, wear a rashguard, and ensure you have reef-safe sunscreen (which is required by law in Hawaii).
Ala Moana Beach Park
Not as crowded as Waikiki Beach, Ala Moana Beach Park provides a beach escape with some extras.
The area was once swampland, but the city recently developed it into an artificial beach.
Beachside trees offer plenty of shade, and the abundance of grass is ideal for picnics.
With a natural reef, those new to stand-up paddleboarding can perfect their balancing skills in calm waters.
Unless you arrive early, parking is a challenge. It’s best to use public transit to the Ala Moana Mall across the street.
Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden
Located on the windward side of Oahu, Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden is simultaneously one of the top attractions in Oahu and also a great place to get (somewhat) away from the crowds in iconic spots like Waikiki Beach.
These gorgeous gardens are divided into 6 sections, with areas to both walk and drive.
The lush plant life and mountain views are absolutely stunning.
Without a doubt, if you’re interested in Oahu’s biodiversity or simply looking for a break from the beach, Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden is a fantastic place to visit.
Kualoa Regional Park
Ten miles north of Kaneohe, the Kualoa Regional Park is a must-visit attraction in Oahu.
The park has a huge parking lot which is rarely busy.
To one side, the long expanse of beach provides a great swimming or picnic spot.
On the other, the Ko’olau Mountains, made famous by Jurassic Park movies, dominate the skyline.
Mokoli’i Island, or Chinaman’s Hat, looks like its latter name off the coast.
From the parking lot, a trail leads to Apua Fishpond. Its neighboring pond, Moli’i fishpond, is managed by Kualoa Ranch.
Covering 125 acres, it’s one of Hawaii’s largest fishponds and still raises a variety of fish.
One of the larger towns on Oahu, Kailua is one of the most scenic places on the island.
It’s home to what is arguably Oahu’s most scenic beach, Lanikai Beach (more on that in a minute), but it’s also a wonderful place to visit in its own right.
The dining scene in Kailua is fantastic and you’ll find a lot of great shopping as well.
There are also some excellent hikes to check out in Kailua, such as the popular Lanikai Pillbox hike.
As one of the most stunning beaches in Hawaii, Lanikai Beach offers brilliant white sand and a bright blue sea with the Mokulua Islands in the distance.
The water is calm here compared to the North Shore, so it’s a great place for snorkeling in Oahu.
You can also kayak out to the Mokulua Islands if you want to get active, either independently or with a guided sea kayaking tour.
Valley Of The Temples
Nestled at the foot of the lush Ko’olau Range, a 240-acre memorial park might seem like an odd place to visit in Oahu.
However, this tranquil place gathers people to honor those from all faiths, including Buddhism and Christianity.
Surrounded by an amphitheater of lush flora, the setting is like something from a fairytale.
At the back of the memorial park, visitors can discover a hidden gem.
The Byodo-In Temple is a half-sized replica of the Japanese temple bearing the same name.
Those entering the grounds are invited to ring the colossal bon-sho sacred bell before entering the temple and making a blessing.
Outside, a large reflecting pond provides a sanctuary for hundreds of giant Japanese koi of every color.
If you want to feed them, a little shop to the right of the temple sells carp pellets.
With an entrance fee of under USD 10, visitors can enjoy a fantastic Oahu attraction on a budget.
Kaiwa Ridge (Lanikai Pillbox Hike)
The Lanikai Pillbox Hike or Kaiwa Ridge trail provides stunning views of the island’s windward side.
With an elevation gain of 625 feet, expect a more challenging uphill climb than Diamond Head.
At 1.5 miles roundtrip, expect to spend an hour to 90 minutes to complete the return hike, depending on stops.
During the dry season, the trail is very dusty with loose gravel.
After 20 minutes, you’ll reach the first of two old military pillbox bunkers. The second requires another 10 minutes of walking.
From the peak, the mesmerizing views of Lanikai Beach, Makapu’u Lighthouse, Mokulua Islands, and Mokoliʻi Island (Chinaman’s hat).
With 360-degree views from the ridge, many tackle the climb to enjoy the sunrise and sunset.
Since you’ll be hiking in the dark, take a flashlight and lightweight jacket.
Spread across 4000 acres that cover three valleys, the Kualoa Ranch provides fantastic tours for a fun day.
Adventurers can choose from the Jurassic Valley Zipline or an ATV Raptor excursion to Jurassic Valley.
Although most know Jurassic Park movies were filmed there, on the Hollywood Movie Sites Tour, you’ll discover the filming spots of “Lost,” “Jumanji,” and “50 First Dates.”
The Ranch recommends making a reservation for tours, as popular ones sell out fast.
Allow for two to three hours on most excursions.
However, the Best of Kualoa Experience package combines three tours and lasts seven hours.
Alternatively, the Kualoa Half Day Package lasts 4-1/2 hours and includes two excursions. Both packages include their incredible lunch buffet.
Near the entrance to Kualoa Ranch, the Tropical Farms Macadamia Nuts offers Kona coffee and macadamia nut sampling.
With nuts in flavors like Maui onion and garlic, cinnamon glazed, and Kona coffee, you’ll be able to spoil your family and friends with the best Hawaiian souvenirs.
No visit to Oahu is complete without spending a day at Pearl Harbor.
Expect to be humbled as you learn the history of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which took place on December 7, 1941.
To get the most historical context from your visit (and the simplest transportation option), consider signing up for a tour of Pearl Harbor.
Today, visitors can see some of the preserved fleet, including the USS Missouri Battleship, USS Bowfin Submarine, and USS Arizona National Memorial.
Inside the Pacific Aviation Museum, a collection of vintage planes from the second world war is displayed.
Take to the skies in the Fighter Ace 360 Flight Simulator for the ultimate thrill.
If you can stomach the ride, you’ll experience an aviator’s life with spins, rolls, and aerial somersaults.
A tour of the USS Bowfin is an eye-opener to life on a submarine. The self-guided tour includes the claustrophobic bunks, which are sandwiched above the torpedoes.
While most attractions require a fee, a visit to the USS Arizona National Memorial is complimentary.
After a short boat ride to the memorial, you can read the names of those who lost their lives and see the “tears of Arizona” seeping from the sunken vessel below.
Ewa Forest Reserve
North of Pearl City, the Ewa Forest Reserve allows travelers to experience a dense rainforest.
It’s the polar opposite of the dense concrete jungle of Waikiki, and this mountainous region is not for the faint of heart.
While the area offers a selection of hiking trails, you need a permit to hike there.
Of the hiking trails, the Waimano Falls Trail is a popular one.
Most trails are rated as hard due to roots, steep sections, and tricky descents.
Along the way, you may encounter two local residents, the feral goat, and a pig.
National Memorial Cemetery Of The Pacific
A visit to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific makes a natural add-on to Pearl Harbor.
Located in Punchbowl Crater, it’s an easy 9-mile trip southeast of the military base.
The approach to the cemetery wows visitors with its boulevard flanked by cathedral trees.
The elevated lookout of the cemetery provides a peaceful resting place for fallen soldiers who served in the United States Armed Forces.
Around the pristine grounds, you can find unmarked graves of Pearl Harbor victims.
Around the crater’s rim and near the entrance, you’ll enjoy views of Honolulu, the Pacific Ocean, and Diamond Head in the distance.
Planning to visit Oahu’s gorgeous North Shore?
If so, you can’t miss a stop in charming Haleiwa!
Considered the heart of the North Shore, Haleiwa is a great place to stop for lunch or dinner while you’re visiting the North Shore beaches.
The North Shore is less built-up than other parts of Oahu, and Haleiwa is one of the few places with sit-down restaurants, shops, and boutiques.
This is also where you’ll find the rightfully famous Matsumoto Shave Ice.
The Dole Plantation
The Dole Plantation, home to everyone’s favorite pineapples, is undoubtedly one of the most popular places to visit in Oahu.
That being said, it has a very dark history, and the Dole family is part of the reason the Hawaiian Kingdom was forcibly overthrown in the late 19th century.
While today’s version of The Dole Plantation is clearly still a fun place for families to stop en route to the North Shore, it’s best to keep its history in mind when deciding to visit.
If you do go, you’ll find attractions like the Pineapple Express train tour, which narrates the history of pineapples in Hawaii.
In addition to the famous pineapples, they grow other tropical fruits, too.
While Hawaii once thrived on sugar cane, it now produces mangoes, cacao (for making chocolate), taro, bananas, and coffee.
One of the highlights of the plantation is a garden maze with 2-1/2 miles of pathways.
After a hot trek through the maze, reward yourself with soft-serve Dole Whip, an island favorite.
Just off the Waimea Valley Road, a short walk (0.7 miles) through a botanical garden, leads to a picturesque waterfall.
“Focus on the journey, not the destination” is a fitting quote for this walk.
Giant ferns, lush lily pads, and colorful flora enhance the hike along the paved pathway.
At the end of the path, Waimea Falls cascades into a swimming hole.
So, remember to wear your bathing suit, and bring a towel!
Popular amongst locals and tourists, the waterfalls can vary depending on rainfall.
Plan to visit after a significant rainfall to enjoy it when it is heavily flowing.
Better known as Turtle Beach, Laniakea Beach usually attracts visitors for its turtles and surfing–in other words, for having two of the biggest attractions in Oahu, HI!
The winter months, particularly January, provide the most significant waves for experienced surfers.
If you’re new to surfing, the calmer waves of summertime might be more suitable.
Due to the wave action and riptides, it’s inadvisable to swim there.
Regards of when you visit, parking can be problematic as tourists come to watch the surfers and seek out turtle sightings.
For the best chance to see turtles, head to the far right of the beach.
Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles lie on the beach during the day, enjoying the midday sun.
It’s unlawful in Hawaii to approach, harass or touch a turtle.
So, volunteers generally stand by to police that onlookers abide by the rules, and roped areas keep tourists at a distance.
Despite the name, Shark’s Cove isn’t known for its sharks but for its snorkeling.
In fact, you won’t find any sharks there!
During the winter, the strong ocean waves might create hazardous conditions.
However, summer brings calmer currents to Shark’s Cove, ideal for snorkeling.
Unlike Hanauma Bay which charges a fee, you can swim at Sharks Cove for free.
The cove has two sections.
On the right, the depth varies from 15 to 20 feet. To its left, shallow tide pools are ideal for the non-swimmers.
Due to the sharp lava field, it’s advisable to wear water shoes to protect your feet.
Quick Tips for Visiting Oahu, Hawaii
Even though Oahu has more hotels and resorts than the other islands, don’t expect bargain prices when visiting the top attractions in Oahu.
Hotels and food (restaurants and grocery stores) command high prices.
By law, in Honolulu short-term rentals (such as Airbnb and VRBO), must be rented for no less than 90 days.
If it makes sense for your itinerary, to save money when staying in Waikiki, forego the rental car to save on the daily parking fee.
Hoping to drive to some of the more far-flung things to do on Oahu?
We recommend searching for rental cars through Discover Cars, which will allow to compare prices and inclusions with multiple companies.
If you plan to visit many of the best attractions in Oahu, consider purchasing a Go Oahu Card, which can save hundreds of dollars on admission.