Things to Do in Oahu
The pointy peak of Diamond Head forms a dramatic backdrop to Waikiki on Oahu’s south coast. Diamond Head is a State Monument, and a popular lookout point on Oahu.
Formed from volcanic tuff, the crater is part of a geological outcrop of cones, vents and old lava flows, formed from eruptions around 150,000 years ago.
If you’re feeling fit, work out with an exhilarating climb to the top of Diamond Head and take in the city views. The steep round-trip hike takes a couple of hours, with challenging stages of steps and tunnels.
Waikiki Beach is one of the most famous stretches of sand on the planet, up there with Ipanema and Bondi. Its curving stretch of sand is bordered by palms and high-rise hotels.
Come here to soak up the sun, swim, pilot an outrigger canoe, sail a boat, or snorkel. Lifeguards are on hand to keep a watchful eye.
The surfing isn’t bad either, with long rolling breaks. Look out for the statue of Duke Kahanamoku on the sands, the local who popularized surfing and brought it into the modern era.
Pack a picnic to enjoy in nearby Kapiolani Park, hire a beach chair and umbrella, or sit back at sunset and watch the free movies screened on the beach.
A hallowed name in US history, Pearl Harbor was the site of the December 7, 1941, bombing by the Japanese that wrenched the United States into World War II. In total, nine U.S. ships were sunk and a further 21 damaged, and the eventual death toll was 2,350.
Pearl Harbor is still a Navy base today, and a National Historic Landmark. For visitors, the focus is the USS Arizona memorial, protecting the remains of the American battleship destroyed in seconds during the attack. The USS Utah was also sunk, and there is a memorial on nearby Ford Island. The highlight of the harbor's Bowfin Park is the submarine USS Bowfin and the adjacent memorial museum, packed with memorabilia and exhibits.
The main Pearl Harbor memorial marks the final resting place of the USS Arizona, one of the battleships destroyed on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked and the USA joined the war effort on behalf of the Allies. The site also commemorates the 1,177 crew members killed aboard the ship that day.
Start your visit at the visitor center, with a free introductory talk, audio tour and a documentary on the attack. Then board a US Navy boat to reach the memorial for a self-guided tour.
Visitor numbers are restricted, and tickets can often run out early in the day at this extremely popular sight, so it’s a good idea to book a tour in advance.
When the Makapu‘u Lighthouse was built in 1909 for ships traveling between Moloka‘i and O‘ahu, it was meant to serve as a luminary deterrent to keep ships away from the rocks. Today, however, the historic lighthouse with its bright red roof draws visitors to the rocks in droves, and the trail to the lighthouse has become one of the most popular hikes for visitors and families on O‘ahu.
Two miles long and entirely paved, the trail climbs at a moderate pace until the dramatic lighthouse terminus. During the winter months, humpback whales can often be spotted splashing in the waters offshore, and large surf can break along the shoreline during the long, hot days of summer. As part of the Kaiwi Scenic Shoreline, the trail offers views of offshore islets such as Manana (Rabbit Island) and Kaohikaipu, which are protected from development as sea bird sanctuaries and provide a rustic nature to the coastline.
therwise and colloquially known as Punchbowl Cemetery, the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific is a United States Armed Forces cemetery in Honolulu, Hawaii. Part of the National Register of Historic Places, the cemetery gathers millions of visitors every year, making it one of the most popular tourist attractions in all of Hawaii. It is dedicated to Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard members who lost their lives in their line of duty.
The location of the cemetery wasn’t the fruit of coincidence; it is located on what Hawaiians called “Hill of Sacrifice,” which used to be an altar where they offered human sacrifices to pagan gods and where they installed a battery of two cannons used to salute prominent arrivals and signify noteworthy instances. Since the site was established in 1949, approximately 53,000 World War I, World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans and their dependents have been interred in these grounds.
Much more than just a popular Honolulu visitor attraction, ‘Iolani Palace is the only royal palace to exist within the United States of America. Constructed in 1882, this ornate palace served as the political centerpiece for the Kingdom of Hawaii, and monarchs such as King Kalakaua and Queen Lili’uokalani ruled the Kingdom from its luxurious halls.
During the time it was constructed, ‘Iolani Palace was considered to be one of the most modern buildings in the world and even boasted electricity and telephones prior to the White House in Washington D.C. The palace also featured indoor plumbing, and large galas were thrown to welcome visiting dignitaries to the modern and sovereign Kingdom of Hawaii. Since King Kalakaua was the world’s first monarch to circumnavigate the globe, the palace was also adorned with decorations and memorabilia acquired during his travels around the world.
Planted firmly on the lawn of Aliiolani Hale, the State Supreme Court building, is the most visited of all the statues honoring King Kamehameha I in Hawaii. The 18-foot bronze icon with golden-colored detailing was erected in 1883 and depicts a spear-wielding and cloak-draped Kamehameha the Great, the first Hawaiian monarch and the ruler credited with uniting the Islands under single rule in 1810.
Each year on a date near the June 11 state holiday commemorating King Kamehameha, community groups build massive flower lei garlands and drape them over the Honolulu statue using the ladder from a fire truck. The popular lei draping ceremony commemorates the King’s significance and kicks off week-long celebrations of colorful parades and festivals throughout the Islands.
More Things to Do in Oahu
Known as Mighty Mo, or Big Mo, the battleship USS Missouri played an important role in history. Her deck hosted the signing of the Japanese surrender, ending World War II.
Moored in a guarding position a little away from the USS Arizona Memorial, the battleship was moved to Pearl Harbor in 1999. It is now a museum ship, allowing visitors to experience a taste of life at sea.
Take a 35-minute guided tour to walk in the footsteps of General MacArthur, or listen to an audio guide. Follow the self-guided walking routes, or take the controls on a Battle Stations tour.
Looming large over Honolulu Harbor, the Aloha Tower complex features several buildings including a 10 story clock tower, the (now closed) Hawaii Maritime Center and several dining establishments overlooking the large wooden and permanently-stationed Falls of Clyde sailing ship. The tower, built in 1926, housed a lighthouse and its clock was one of the largest in the United States at the time. It was first structure most immigrants and visitors to Hawaii saw when their boats docked here prior to the popularization of air travel. Today, cruise ships still pull into the nook alongside the building, and, regardless of whether you arrived on one, you can take a free elevator ride to the top of the tower and lookout over downtown, Waikiki and out across the ocean.
Maunalua Bay is a popular bay for water sports activities on Oahu’s south shore. Home to many stand up paddlers and kayakers, snorkelers and divers also come to explore the nearby reef. Hawaiian for “two mountains,” Maunalua Bay is framed by the Ko’olau range and sits by the peaks of Koko Crater and Koko Head.
Famous for its sunsets, the adventure beach is especially popular among Honolulu’s boaters and jet skiers who come to make the most of Maunalua Bay’s launch site. Look out for parasailers while you’re here too, and if you’re coming to Maunalua Bay to snorkel or scuba dive the reef is a mile out to shore, its crystal-clear waters full of colorful reef fish and bright green sea turtles. If you’d rather relax, there are also park benches available on the shore where it’s popular to enjoy a picnic under the setting sun.
Hawaii’s Capitol building doesn’t have the grand golden domes of capitols in other U.S. states, instead its exterior is blocky and reminiscent of the 1960s postmodern era in which it was built. But, like other capitols, its features are rife with symbolism. Inside, the central courtyard opens to the sky via narrowing layers set to mimic the interior of the volcano; the two Legislative chambers also feature unique sloped walls to achieve a similar effect. The eight supporting pillars on the front and back of the building narrow toward the top to evoke the trunks of royal palm trees, there is one for each of the main Hawaiian Islands. A raised moat reflecting pool surrounds the building and is said to symbolize the Pacific surrounding the Islands.
Koko Crater is where locals head when they’re in need of a really good workout, and it’s also a popular visitor attraction thanks to the stunning views from the top. In order to reach the summit, however, you’ll first need to conquer the 1,048 steps that run in a straight line up the mountain. The steps themselves are actually railroad ties left over from WWII, and while the first half of the steps are moderately steep, it’s the final push to the 1,100-foot summit that make your legs really start to burn.
The reward for reaching the top, however, is unobstructed, 360-degree of the southeastern section of O‘ahu. Gaze down towards Hanauma Bay and the turquoise waters of the crater, and watch as waves break along Sandy Beach and form foamy ribbons of white. Neighboring Diamond Head looms in the west and is backed by Honolulu, and the island of Moloka‘i—and sometimes Lana‘i—float on the eastern horizon.
Just across the street from the tropical Pacific Ocean in downtown Honolulu, the four-story Ala Moana Center (often just called Ala Moana) is currently the world’s largest outdoor shopping mall. With 2.4 million square feet of retail space alone (that’s as much as 42 football fields!), the sprawling property boasts 340 shops and 80 restaurants including national and international name brands chains (Burberry, Cartier, Apple, Gap, Macy’s, Starbucks, California Pizza Kitchen and Barnes & Noble) as well as Hawaii-only outlets (Happy Wahine Boutique, Big Island Candies, Kahala Sportswear, Martin & MacArthur, Honolulu Coffee Co. and Sand People). Free live entertainment—from singing competitions to hula performances and fashion shows—often take place in its central corridor stage. Always bustling, Ala Moana Center is the place to see and be seen for residents and visitors alike.
Located at the back of Honolulu’s lush Manoa Valley, Manoa Falls is a 150 ft. waterfall which is accessible by a one-hour hike. It’s the perfect distance for those wanting an easy workout, and it’s close enough to the city that you can squeeze in a visit if you only have a couple of hours.
Parking for the falls is $5 and is in the parking lot by the Rainbow’s End snack shop, and this moderate trail weaves its way between swaying stands of creaking bamboo and the sweet scent of eucalyptus. After .8 miles the trail emerges at majestic Manoa Falls, and the flow is highly dependent upon the amount of recent rainfall. On some days this can be a thundering torrent of jungle whitewater, whereas on other days (particularly in summer) the falls can be reduced to little more than a trickle.
Regardless of season, however, the shaded trail is often wet, and mud can line the narrow trail during pretty much every day of the year.
There are only 15 American submarines that remain from World War II, and the most-heralded of them—the USS Bowfin—now sits in Pearl Harbor, where the war American’s war first started. Known as the “Avenger of Pearl Harbor,” the USS Bowfin was built in Maine and sailed the South Pacific. It set off on its mission exactly one year after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, and 44 different enemy ships would eventually succumb to her guns.
Today, visitors to Pearl Harbor can walk inside the submarine to see the cramped metal quarters, and get an authentic feel for the daily hardships of the boys in the “Silent Service.” In nine tours of duty only one crewmember died from injuries in battle, and when visiting today, you can stand in the chambers where these brave sailors celebrated a successful strike.
Even as early 1877, the Hawaiian Royalty recognized the need for preserving open space. With the city of Honolulu rapidly growing, King David Kalakaua—the last reigning King of Hawaii—allocated 130 of Waikiki’s acres towards a park for the people of Hawaii. Naming it after his beloved wife—Queen Kapiolani—the park today offers sprawling green fields for locals, visitors, and families.
In addition to the soccer fields, tennis courts, and jogging paths, the park also houses the Honolulu Zoo and public art shows on the weekends. For special events, the Waikiki Shell is a performance venue set in the middle of Kapiolani Park, where some of the world’s largest musical acts will throw concerts, benefits, and shows just minutes from Waikiki Beach. The Honolulu Marathon—held every December—usually finishes at Kapiolani Park, and even during other times of the year, this is a happening place for Honolulu residents to escape the city rush.
For the lowdown on Polynesian lore, legend, history and anthropology, drop into the Bishop Museum. Far from dry, displays range from woven hats, sculptures and scientific exhibits to planetarium shows and historical artifacts.
Take a welcome tour, view the plants of the Pacific, watch a lava-melting demonstration or hear island oral history. There’s also a calendar of events, activities and exhibitions to entertain the kids, from circus acts to hula shows.
What is formerly known as the Honolulu Academy of Arts is the leading museum of its kind the state of Hawaii, and hosts one of the largest single collections of Asian and Pan-Pacific art in the United States at 50,000 objects. It represents all the major cultures of Hawaii and spans 5,000 years, from ancient times to today. Founded by esteemed local missionary Anna Rice Cooke in 1927 in Honolulu’s most beautiful Hawaiian-style building, the museum continues to present international caliber exhibitions along with its permanent collection, which is home to world-class pieces by none other than Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso and Warhol.
The museum actually encompasses several building, scattered over 3.2 acres near downtown Honolulu; it features the Spalding House, the Doris Duke Theatre, the Robert Allerton Art Library, the Art School and the Shangri La Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.