Oahu, Hawaii, attracts visitors of all kinds. There are those seeking adrenaline-pumping activities and rowdy night-life. Still, others seek relaxation and a more chill vacation experience.
Downtown Honolulu is filled with fast-paced activities and excitement. There is high-end shopping and dining. Waikiki Beach is filled with fun-loving sun-seekers and families.
For the chill crowd and us 50+ travelers, there are endless sightseeing opportunities, quiet beaches, and slower-paced adventure. Here are my favorite things to do in Oahu.
1. Pearl Harbor And The USS Arizona
Almost every visitor to Oahu has Pearl Harbor National Memorial on their list. It is a moving site commemorating one of the most pivotal moments in United States history, the December 7, 1941 attack on Oahu, starting WWII. It is located just north of downtown Honolulu. The Pearl Harbor National Memorial is comprised of the USS Arizona, USS Oklahoma, and USS Utah memorials.
The visitor center includes two exhibit galleries, outdoor exhibits, an audio tour, a theater, and a bookstore. You can also visit other Pearl Harbor Historic Sites, such as the USS Bowfin Submarine, the Battleship Missouri, and the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum.
Pro Tip: There is a lot of walking at this site. Wear comfortable shoes and be prepared to spend several hours. There are benches scattered throughout. The Pearl Harbor Visitor Center has reserved accessible parking. The restrooms, movie theater, exhibit galleries, bookstore, information desk and drinking fountains, Navy shuttle boats, and USS Arizona Memorial are all fully-accessible.
The Bishop Museum is the largest museum in Hawaii and is known as the “Smithsonian of the Pacific.” It was founded in 1889 by Charles Reed Bishop in honor of his late wife, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the last descendant of the royal Kamehameha family. It boasts three floors of signature galleries, exhibitions, and a planetarium with over 25 million historical, cultural, and natural treasures.
Iolani Palace is the only official royal palace in the U.S. Built in 1882 by King Kalakaua, Iolani Palace was the home of Hawaii’s last reigning monarchs, King Kalakaua and his sister Queen Liliuokalani. It is one of the most recognizable buildings in Hawaii. The Palace and grounds are accessible and wheelchairs are available on site.
Queen Emma Summer Palace was the summer retreat for Queen Emma of Hawaii, her husband King Kamehameha IV, and their son, Prince Albert Edward, from 1857 to 1885. The Palace and 5-acre state park is now a historic landmark and museum. Guided and self tours are available for under $10. All proceeds go to the restoration of the palace.
Pro Tip: All three museums are within three miles of downtown Honolulu. Many hotels offer shuttles to them. Iolani Palace is a sacred place, so guests are asked to dress in a manner that is respectful of the palace’s cultural and historical significance.
3. Sightseeing Drives
Oahu has amazing day drives and they are all different — coastal, mountains, and central valley. We enjoy driving around the island, seeing the sights, and stopping at interesting, historical, or scenic spots.
Using downtown Honolulu as a starting point, there are four scenic routes. Perhaps my favorite drive is to North Shore on Interstate H-2. This highway runs north to the Dole Plantation and North Shore (see additional information below). Along the way, there are vistas, white-sand beaches, shops, and macadamia nut farms.
South on Interstate H-1, there’s Diamond Head, Hawai’i Kai Lookout near Koko Head, Hanauma Bay, Lanai Lookout, Halona Beach Cove (famous for the beach love scene in From Here to Eternity), and the Halona Blowhole Lookout. Further east is Makapu’u Lighthouse Lookout, Makapu’u Beach, and Makapu’u Point Tide Pools. At Waimanalo Beach, you can either loop around to Route 61 or return the same way.
From Honolulu on Route 61, also known as Pali Highway, is Queen Emma Summer Palace. Further along the mountain, a must-stop is the famous Nu‘uanu Pali Lookout, a historical landmark with panoramic views of mountain peaks and coastal cliffs. From here, you can head back into town or loop around onto coastal H-1.
Interstate H-3 is a beautiful scenic drive that takes you high over the mountains to the island’s windward side. From there you can connect to Route 61 and H-1, or take Kamehameha Highway north past the fertile, lush-green mountains where Jurassic Park was filmed. Be sure to keep a lookout on H-3 for the Haiku Stairs, also known as the Haiku Ladder and Stairway to Heaven.
4. Dole Pineapple Plantation
A fun-filled destination is the Dole Pineapple Plantation. Get lost in the giant Pineapple Garden Maze, the world’s largest maze made from 14,000 colorful Hawaiian plants. Stroll through the plantation’s eight different gardens. Get an up-close view of the plants that are the source of tropical delights from coffee to exotic fruit.
Get off your feet for a bit by riding on the Pineapple Express Train. A fun and educational 20-minute ride through two miles of stunning North Shore scenery. An Oahu must-have is a world-famous DoleWhip soft-serve ice cream in the Dole Plantation country store. There is also a cafe and a gift shop where you can purchase Hawaiian souvenirs including a fresh pineapple to take home.
5. North Shore
No doubt you’ve heard of North Shore and the giant waves of Banzai Pipeline. I was thrilled on a recent trip when I learned the waves were to be extremely high. Standing on the shore the waves were bigger than life and the force of them rising, curling, then crashing was intense.
The waves aren’t the only thing to see at North Shore. There is the iconic Rainbow Bridge, Turtle Bay, and Sunset Beach. In Haleiwa, North Shore’s only town, you’ll find bohemian-style souvenir shops, surf shops, restaurants, and local artist boutiques. Be sure to stop and take pictures at the famous North Shore surfer sign.
Have lunch at any of the scrumptious Haleiwa restaurants or a famous North Shore Shrimp Truck, and for dessert, grab another North Shore must-have, an authentic Hawaiian Shave Ice.
6. Hike Hawaii
One of the most famous trails is the iconic Diamond Head. The 0.8-mile hike from trailhead to the summit is steep and strenuous, with many switchbacks and steep stairs, plus a couple of tunnels. The postcard view from the summit is stunning and worth the difficult climb.
Nearby is Koko Head Crater with its 1,048 railroad-tie stair steps almost straight up. Again the panoramic views from the top are spectacular.
Oahu’s waterfall trails are some of the best in Hawaii. My favorite relatively easy waterfall trail is Manoa Falls Trail. Another favorite is the paved, but somewhat uphill, Makapu’u Point Lighthouse Trail.
One of the best lesser-known hiking trails is Kaena Point Seashore and Albatross Bird Sanctuary. Enter from North Shore. During nesting season, over 400 Laysan albatross call this park home. You also might see Hawaiian monk seals in the tide pools and whales spouting off in the ocean.
Pro Tip: Always use caution when hiking. Even easy to medium trails can be more difficult in areas. Diamond Head and Koko Head are physically demanding excursions.
7. Traditional Hawaiian Luau
Learn about the culture of the Pacific Islands and Hawaiian life through shows, hands-on activities, hula, and fire dances. Enjoy traditional food and drink. There are several Hawaiian luaus to choose from. No matter which location you choose, you will always remember your first luau.
Paradise Cove is a beautiful seaside luau at Ko Olina Resort and is my personal favorite. This amazing experience begins the minute you walk through the gates with a Hawaiian lei and tropical drinks.
The backyard-style barbecue at Germaine’s Luau was featured on “Good Morning America.”
Ka Moana Luau at Sea Life Park begins and ends with fire. The Toa Luau is held near a waterfall in Waimea Valley on the North Shore. And the Polynesian Cultural Center offers several very popular Hawaiian luau packages.
Pro Tip: Dinner is usually around sunset. It’s best to arrive early, when the gates open, to participate in activities and get the most out of your visit.
Did you know that there are over 30 golf courses on Oahu? Most are municipal, semi-private, or public. If you are a golfer, can you imagine anything finer than golfing on a beautiful Hawaiian island?
Whether you choose the windward side of the island, the leeward side, or North Shore, you will enjoy the diverse landscapes and ocean views. For a list of golf courses, locations, and pricing, check here.
9. Island Shopping
Shopping on Oahu is as diverse as the people who visit the island. In the heart of Waikiki, there is the iconic International Market Place and the Royal Hawaiin Center, both offering dozens of high-end shops and restaurants. Just north of Waikiki is the Ala Moana Center, a 4-story, upscale shopping mall.
If you are only going to have only one shopping extravaganza in Oahu, I suggest the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet. Don’t let the name fool you. This is more than just your average swap meet. The vendor booths circle the football stadium several rows deep. There is everything from Aloha T-shirts and bikinis to artwork and surfboards. Plenty of Hawaiian food booths, too. You can even buy a real painted coconut and have it mailed home.
Below are a few of our other recommendations as you adventure through incredible Hawaii!