14 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do on Oahu
Author Meagan Drillinger visited Oahu as part of her travels across Hawaii in January and February 2023.
Oahu may not be the biggest island in the Hawaiian chain, but it is far and away the most popular. Oahu receives millions of tourists every year who come to see the key attractions; the capital city of Honolulu; the resorts of Waikiki; the beaches of the North Shore; and the many mountains, valleys, and hiking trails in between.
Oahu has the best of everything. You can disappear into nature or dine at some of the most elegant restaurants in the world. Grab a surfboard and head off for one of the world's most famous beaches, or step inside a museum to learn about ancient Hawaiian culture.
Oahu is often the first place to visit for people when they come to learn about the islands of Hawaii. As you can imagine, that means it has so many attractions and things to do. To help narrow the search, check out my list of the best things to do on the island of Oahu.
- 1. Hike Diamond Head State Monument
- 2. Visit the USS Arizona Memorial & Pearl Harbor
- 3. Tour Iolani Palace
- 4. Pay Respects at the Battleship Missouri Memorial
- 5. Swim at Hanauma Bay State Park
- 6. Splash at Waikiki Beach
- 7. Enjoy Lanikai Beach
- 8. Snorkel at Kailua Beach Park
- 9. Hike to Manoa Falls
- 10. Wander Makapu'u Lighthouse Trail
- 11. Climb the Koko Crater Railway Trail
- 12. Venture into the Waimea Valley, North Shore
- 13. Surf the Banzai Pipeline
- 14. Visit Kahuku Point, North Shore
1. Hike Diamond Head State Monument
Perhaps the most recognized landmark in the state of Hawaii is Oahu Diamond Head State Monument. This now-dormant volcano sits perched at the tip of the island like a crown overlooking Waikiki and Honolulu and is one of the most popular attractions in the entire archipelago.
The profile of Diamond Head is iconic to the island of Oahu. The state monument spans 475 acres and is most famous for its hiking trail that starts within the crater and rises to the summit. The out-and-back trail is less than two miles and gains an elevation of 560 feet along the paved path. From the top, visitors have a remarkable view of the Honolulu skyline, as well as the surrounding beaches.
Visitors do need a reservation to access Diamond Head, and reservations must be made in advance. To make a reservation, visit the Diamond Head State Monument website and select a convenient time slot. Reservations may be made up to 30 days in advance.
2. Visit the USS Arizona Memorial & Pearl Harbor
Oahu has been an important strategic military point for centuries and, unfortunately, not all of that history has been good. Honolulu was the site of the famous attack on Pearl Harbor, which resulted in the United States entering World War II.
The USS Arizona Memorial is poetic in design, shaped almost like wings and perched above the remains of the sunken battleship, USS Arizona, which is the final resting place of the 1,177 crewmen who were killed on December 7, 1941. Today the remains, as well as the monument, are maintained by the National Park Service.
A visit to the memorial and Pearl Harbor includes a boat ride to the memorial, as well as a tour. The memorial receives more than 1.7 million visitors every year who come to explore the $65 million Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, as well as the memorial.
Because it's such an important site, tickets are only available in advance. Tickets are made available eight weeks in advance, so once you know your travel dates, book your reservation as soon as you can.
Address: 1 Arizona Memorial Place, Honolulu, Hawaii
3. Tour Iolani Palace
Right in the heart of downtown Honolulu is a 19th-century palace built by the last reigning monarchs of Hawaii. The gorgeously designed, ornate Iolani Palace was constructed in 1882 by King Kalakaua and was the official royal residence of the royalty of Hawaii until the end of the monarchy.
Before the palace that we see today existed, the land was the home of King Kamehameha III's official residence. That home was where five Hawaiian kings lived and ruled until it was demolished in 1874. The construction of Iolani Palace was finished in 1882.
Today the first and second floor of the palace have been fully restored and are open for guided tours. On the first floor, visitors will find the Grand Hall, State Dining Room, the Blue Room, and the Throne Room. Upstairs are the private suites, including the room where Queen Liliuokalani was held under house arrest after the overthrow of her government.
The architecture of the palace and the surrounding grounds are stunning and impressive, especially when you see that the building is surrounded by modern-day Honolulu office buildings and skyscrapers. It is one of the last remaining vestiges of old-world Hawaii and a must for anyone interested in Hawaiian history and culture.
Address: 364 S King Street, Honolulu, Hawaii
4. Pay Respects at the Battleship Missouri Memorial
One of the other sites to see at Pearl Harbor is the Battleship Missouri Memorial. This leviathan of a ship, nicknamed the "Mighty Mo" was the last American battleship to be built and the last to be decommissioned. It was on the deck of Battleship Missouri that the Japanese surrendered, bringing World War II to a close.
Visitors can climb aboard the 58,000-ton ship, which measures 900 feet from bow to stern. Stroll the deck for an up-close view of the ship's firearms, or pop down below to see the crew's quarters. Visitors can even man the bridge and see the view from the captain's chair.
Two tours are offered every day, but guests can also explore on their own. A general admission ticket to Pearl Harbor will also grant access to Battleship Missouri.
Address: 63 Cowpens Street, Honolulu, Hawaii
5. Swim at Hanauma Bay State Park
Hanauma Bay is one of the natural jewels of Oahu. A kaleidoscope of tropical colors, this sheltered bay has a legendary reputation for being one of the most beautiful spots in Hawaii.
The plunging bay was formed within a volcanic cone and today has one of the best-preserved marine ecosystems in the world. It is protected on either side by vertical crater walls, and the long distance from the bay's outlet to shore keeps the waves impossibly calm, and the water pristine and beautiful in color.
Visitors come for the excellent snorkeling and marine life viewing. The brilliantly colored coral and tropical fish are in such high concentrations that this is one of the best spots on the island for submerging beneath the water's surface.
Of course, a place so beautiful has to be protected, so today visitors have to make reservations to enter Hanauma Bay. Tickets are $25 to enter the park, and the park is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.
6. Splash at Waikiki Beach
Of all the beaches in the state of Hawaii, none is as famous as Waikiki Beach. What is actually made up of several smaller, connected beaches is one of the most famous and iconic coastal destinations in the world, thanks to its gorgeous scenery, lovely hotels, restaurants, and entertainment.
Waikiki is a small, flat area east of downtown Honolulu with one of the highest concentrations of beach resorts, restaurants, and shopping. But the beach is what put this area on the map. Once the spot where Hawaiian royals welcomed visitors, today the beach is popular for swimming, snorkeling, surfing, and sunbathing.
The beaches of Waikiki begin in the west, with Duke Kahanamoku Beach, which is directly in front of the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort. The beach then extends all the way towards Sans Souci Beach at Diamond Head. In between are Gray's Beach, Royal Hawaiian Beach, Kuhio Beach, and Kapiolani Beach Park.
7. Enjoy Lanikai Beach
About 30 minutes from Waikiki is one of the most beautiful beaches in the Hawaiian islands. Lanikai Beach is known for its sugary white sand, turquoise water, and calm surf that is ideal for swimming and snorkeling. In fact, many people prefer Lanikai Beach over Hanauma Bay because you don't need tickets to enter and it's far, far less crowded.
Crowds are also kept away because parking can be a challenge. Lanikai Beach is in a residential area, which is part of its appeal. You will find a fantastic hike near the beach called Lanikai Pillbox, which leads up over the ridges overlooking the beach and the town of Kailua.
8. Snorkel at Kailua Beach Park
Speaking of Kailua, it is the next town over from Lanikai Beach and has a spectacular beach of its own. This soft, white-sand beach stretches for two miles and is also known for its abundance of sea turtles and fantastic snorkeling. It's a quiet stretch of sand, similar to Lanikai, thanks to its residential environment.
Kailua Beach Park is outfitted with lots of facilities, including picnic tables, beach volleyball courts, BBQ pits, picnic shelters, and restrooms. Since the water is so calm, you'll find most people stand up paddleboarding and kayaking.
9. Hike to Manoa Falls
Oahu is practically spouting with waterfalls, and many of them are very easy to reach by hike. Manoa Falls is one of the best waterfalls on Oahu and is very easily accessible thanks to a relatively moderate hiking trail through the jungle.
The trail to the falls is less than two miles out and back through lush, gorgeous jungle scenery. The hike does move along at a steady incline, so be prepared for a bit of a workout going in. The good news is the way out is all downhill.
The hike takes about an hour to complete. At the end of the trail, you'll be faced with the 150-foot Manoa Falls, which spills down a sheer rock face. The intensity of the falls is dependent on how much rainfall there has been, so keep that in mind when you set out. The muddiness of the trail is equally dependent on the rainfall, so proper footwear is highly recommended.
10. Wander Makapu'u Lighthouse Trail
The Makapu'u Point Lighthouse Trail is a beautiful coastal walk along the sea cliffs within Kaiwi State Scenic Shoreline. The two-and-a-half-mile hike takes just about an hour to complete and is jam-packed with epic Oahu views.
Parking is ample near the trailhead. From here, the trail travels at an incline up to the top of the ridge and continues on to an observation deck and lighthouse that have stunning panoramic views out to sea. Keep your eyes peeled for whales, and you will also definitely be able to see Koko Head and the Koko Crater.
Address: Makapuʻu Point Lighthouse Trail, Waimanalo, Hawaii
11. Climb the Koko Crater Railway Trail
If you're ready for an absolute quad workout, you have to attempt the Koko Crater Railway Trail. It's a humbling experience — many locals from Honolulu use this trail as their daily exercise before breakfast. The hike is entirely uphill up a very steep, completely exposed mountainside, consisting of more than 1,000 steps.
The steps are made of abandoned railroad tiles, which were used by the military during World War II as part of a tram to take supplies to the top of the ridge. While the hike is absolutely a challenge, the top does reward you with spectacular views of Honolulu, Hanauma Bay, and parts of the island of Molokai.
It is definitely not for the faint of heart. But it will feel like the most magnificent accomplishment when you reach the top. Just remember you have to turn around and head back down after.
Address: 7604 Koko Head Park Rd #7602, Honolulu, Hawaii
12. Venture into the Waimea Valley, North Shore
Oahu's North Shore is brimming with spectacular scenery. But perhaps one of the most beautiful places to visit on the northern coast of the island is the Waimea Valley. Steeped in both natural beauty and Hawaiian history, Waimea Valley is a must-stop for anyone venturing to the North Shore.
The Valley is an ancient and sacred spot nestled between the mountains along the Waimea River, which empties out into Waimea Bay. The valley was a gift from Kamehameha the Great to his most trusted advisor. Over the years, the land has changed hands many times, but today it is a protected area that is preserved for its natural beauty and ties to the history of Oahu.
Within the park are botanical gardens, a beautiful waterfall, and historic structures that help to tell the story of Oahu. Visitors to Waimea Valley can enjoy wandering the grounds or taking part in an educational workshop. The Valley is always cooking up an event or community program to help bring awareness to visitors.
Admission to Waimea Valley is $25 per person.
13. Surf the Banzai Pipeline
To be frank, you have to have some serious surf chops to be able to wrangle the Banzai Pipeline. It has earned the reputation as one of the most challenging surf breaks in the world. But if you want to see some of the best surfers in the world tackle this beautiful barrel-shaped wave, head to Ehukai Beach along the North Shore.
This beach is the spot for the annual Billabong Pipeline Masters, which brings surfers from around the world to compete for the title. It's one of the best surf contests to watch on the island.
What makes the waves so intense is a shallow reef that helps to shape the wave into the perfect barrel. It's a dream for pro surfers, and an exciting experience to watch. You can't fully say you've had an Oahu experience without catching a glimpse of the Banzai Pipeline.
14. Visit Kahuku Point, North Shore
While up on the North Shore, take it to the extreme and visit the northernmost point on the island of Oahu. Kahuku Point is the last stop on the island before the Pacific Ocean takes over and swirls out into the vast expanse. It's a beautiful place to visit, and an easy hike to take.
The trailhead for Kakuku Point starts at Turtle Bay Resort. The easy trail is 2.3 miles out and back and takes less than an hour to complete. Along the trail, you'll have gorgeous coastal views that lead into forest before emerging out at the point.
If you've visited Diamond Head, which is about as south as you can go on the island, you'll have to visit Kahuku to get the best of all vantage points.