The best things to do in Oahu range from fascinating cultural excursions to ancient historical sites and stunning nature trails around the island. This palm tree-fringed Hawaiian island is not only home to the state capital, but it's also one of the world’s most iconic vacation destinations. 

    Visitors arrive in droves to kick back on the world-famous Waikiki Beach, where a buzzing 24-hour vibe holds true to Oahu’s name: “gathering place”. Even though Honolulu’s renowned stretch of sand is undoubtedly picturesque, there are plenty of exciting attractions on the island to tempt the intrepid traveller.

    What are the best things to do in Oahu?

    1

    Honolulu

    Discover Hawaii’s colonial past

    You wouldn’t guess it from the glitzy row of beachfront skyscrapers that line Waikiki, but Honolulu is a historically significant town with ample ancient attractions to explore. In fact, some of its colonial-era edifices date back to the 18th century. 

    The painstakingly restored Iolani Palace is the only royal building to reside on US soil. The lavish architecture of the era is proudly displayed at the Spanish Revival-style King David Kalakaua building and the Italian Renaissance-style Ali’iolani Hale. Other worthy sites include the Kamehameha I Statue, the Mission Houses Museum, the Kawaiaha'o Church, the Hawaii State Capitol, and the Old Federal Building. All of these landmarks reside in downtown Honolulu, making it easy to visit them on foot.

    photo by Edmund Garman (CC BY 2.0) modified

    2

    Waikiki Beach

    The most popular coast in Oahu

    Before hitting the sand of Oahu’s most popular beach, enjoy a prelude walk with plenty to see through downtown Waikiki. You can start from Kaʻiulani Avenue, with the lush public garden featuring the namesake Hawaiian princess’ statue. Upon reaching the main street, Kalakaua Avenue, you’ll find the sandy, palm-lined Waikiki beachfront shared by luxurious hotels. Parasols and loungers speckle the coast, facing the blue Pacific waters.

    Location: Kalakaua Ave, Honolulu, HI 96815, USA

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    3

    North Shore

    Hang ten or feast on tasty shrimp

    North Shore is otherwise known as the “surfers capital of the world.” A quick 25-minute journey from Honolulu brings you to the Waimea Bay and the Banzai Pipeline, both of which attract pros from around the globe for their gnarly breaks. There’s so much more than perfectly sculpted barrels to lure you north, as this laidback stretch of coastline offers some of the best food, culture, and scenery in Oahu.

    Drop by the hippie surfy town of Haleiwa to pick up local handicrafts and try a refreshing snack of fruit-infused shaved ice. If you fancy something savoury, head further north to sample garlic prawns from shrimp trucks along the highway. If you’re after a day on the sand without the surfy vibe, give Waimanalo BayKailuaLanikai, or Sunset Beach a try.

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    Location: Waimea Bay, Hawaii 96712, USA

    4

    Pearl Harbor

    An important moment in history

    Few visit Oahu without paying their respects to the 1,117 American sailors who lost their lives in Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. A navy boat ferries visitors out to the offshore USS Arizona Memorial, which marks the spot where the famous battleship and its crew sunk to a watery grave. The surprise aerial attack was the tipping point that launched the United States into World War II, a moment which changed the course of history forever.

    Back on shore, the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center displays artefacts and detailed information about the event. Given its historical significance, both Americans and foreign visitors will appreciate a visit to the sombre site.

    Location: 1 Arizona Memorial Pl, Honolulu, HI 96818, USA

    Open: Daily from 7 am to 5 pm

    Phone: +1 808-422-3399

    photo by Prayitno (CC BY 2.0) modified

    5

    Hale O Lono Heiau

    Pay homage to the Hawaiian gods

    Hale O Lono Heiau is a must-visit if you're curious about the pre-colonial culture of the region. The largest ancient site in Hawaii resides within the picturesque Waimea Valley on Oahu’s North Shore. The centuries-old temple is dedicated to one of the 4 major Hawaiian gods: Lono, the lord of agriculture, harvest, and weather.

    Over time, worshippers sacrificed animals – and even humans – to appease Lono in the hopes of receiving a bountiful harvest in return. Hale O Lono Heiau serves as a shrine for indigenous residents to pay homage to their god, especially during the Makahiki season (October).

    Location: 59-864 Kamehameha Hwy, Haleiwa, HI 96712, USA

    photo by Farragutful (CC BY-SA 4.0) modified

    6

    Byodo-In Temple

    An architectural beauty with peaceful gardens

    Byodo-In Temple near Kaneohe Bay is a Buddhist temple set in a magical location against the lush Ko’olau Mountains. The temple celebrates the 1st Japanese immigrants to Hawaii and is a smaller replica of the famous Byōdō-in Temple in Japan. Since the Hawaiian temple is non-denominational, people of all faiths are welcome to walk inside. Thousands of travellers visit Byodo-In Temple each year for prayer and to participate in spiritual traditions.

    Fertile gardens, verdant forests, and koi ponds surround the temple to create a peaceful environment. Wander the property to find roaming peacocks, black swans, bamboo trees, and trickling waterfalls. The temple grounds make a romantic wedding location or a tranquil spot to meditate.

    Location: 47-200 Kahekili Hwy, Kaneohe, HI 96744, USA

    Open: Daily from 8.30 am to 5 pm

    Phone: +1 808-239-8811

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    7

    Historical Haleiwa Town

    A historic town on Oahu's northern shore

    The historic town of Haleiwa on the North Shore of Oahu is the perfect stop for experiencing historic Hawaii architecture and taking a glimpse into the former sugar plantation industry. While beaches and natural beauty dominate the Hawaiian landscape, towns like Haleiwa are a great place to enjoy all aspects of Oahu.

    You may want to pose in front of one of the famous surf shops or meander to one of the brightly coloured city centre stores. The unique shopping boutiques and uncrowded parks are another way to enjoy a change of pace in Haleiwa Town and show your Instagram followers historic Hawaii.

    Location: Haleiwa, HI 96712, USA

    Open: 24/7

    Map
    8

    Polynesian Cultural Center

    Discover ancient Polynesian traditions

    For a fascinating insight into the Polynesian culture in Hawaii and abroad, check out the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie on Oahu’s North Shore. The expansive institution adopts a fun-loving theme park kind of approach to education, ensuring the whole family will adore learning about the region’s eclectic culture.

    6 Pacific countries – Tahiti, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Aotearoa, and Hawaii – are showcased throughout the 42-acre park. You can sample the delicacies of each (save room for the smoked imu pork!). Arts and crafts stalls, canoe pageants on the lagoon, and feverish live performances add to the exotic appeal.

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    Location: 55-370 Kamehameha Hwy, Laie, HI 96762, USA

    Open: Monday–Saturday from 12 pm to 9 pm (closed on Sundays)

    Phone: +1 800-367-7060

    9

    Koko Head stairs

    Enjoy a gruelling workout with sweeping views

    Active travellers yearning for a solid workout in Oahu should head to the Koko Head Park in the South Shore, where they can scale the 1,000 or so steps to the top. The strenuous ascent follows a disused railway line that once hauled military supplies to the fortified bunkers above. These days, it’s a calorie-busting playground for local fitness fanatics and a popular photo stop for camera-toting tourists.

    Bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and sturdy shoes to tackle the gruelling climb, which you should attempt at sunrise or sunset to beat the midday heat. You’ll be exhausted upon reaching the summit, but its sweeping 360-degree views of the island and the ocean will be worth it in the end.

    Location: 7604 Koko Head Park Rd #7602, Honolulu, HI 96825, USA

    Open: Daily from 6.30 am to 11 pm

    10

    Luau at Paradise Cove

    The archetypal Hawaiian event

    Make your way to the Ko Olina Resort at Paradise Cove if you’re looking to experience Hawaii’s enchanting cultures and traditions firsthand through a luau ceremony. Upon arrival, you'll be greeted with a heartfelt “Aloha!” and a floral lei to drape around your neck.

    After you’ve explored the Hawaiian village and tried your hand at a few Hawaiian games, relish in an extravagant banquet that includes a delectable array of local favourites such as poi and kalua pork. All this, of course, is best accompanied by a cheeky mai tai as you enjoy the evening entertainment of classical Hawaiian music and seductive hula displays. Luau ceremonies take place across the island, so check out some other options if Paradise Cove isn’t convenient for you.

    Location: 92-1480 Ali'inui Dr, Kapolei, HI 96707, USA

    Open: Daily from 5 pm to 10 pm

    Phone: +1 808-671-2512

    photo by Jennifer Boyer (CC BY 2.0) modified

    Harry Stewart | Contributing Writer

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