Welcome to the definitive guide on the top things to do in O’ahu.
O’ahu is the most populous island in the Hawaiian chain, and has a wide selection of attractions that includes amazing marine life, breathtaking hikes, out-of-this-world white sand beaches, delicious restaurants, and fist-pumping nightlife. O’ahu truly has something for everyone. Even if you’ve never been here before, you’ll recognize many names on this island such as Pearl Harbor, Waikiki, and Honolulu.
In this review, we will break down O’ahu by region: West side, East Side, North Side, and Waikiki. We will include hidden gems that are popular with the locals, as well as the world-famous attractions that draw in tourists from all over.
Welcome to Paradise.
Public Service Announcement: Most establishments on O’ahu do not offer public restrooms. Even go-to continental USA restroom locations such as gas stations and Starbucks will rarely let you use their restrooms.
If you need to use a restroom, find a place that serves alcohol (since they’re mandated to have public restrooms) or find a Costco.
Things to do on the West Side of O’ahu
The west side of O’ahu feels more upscale than the rest of the island, and features expensive resort properties from both Disney and Four Seasons. On this part of the island you’ll find top-notch restaurants, perfectly manicured beach pathways, and of course stunning turqoise water teeming with marine life.
Ko Olia is one of the nicest areas on the island, and one of the top places to visit in on O’ahu. It is home to incredible properties like the Four Seasons Resort O‘ahu, Disney’s Aulani property, and the Ko Olina Marina. It’s a great area to eat, relax on the beach, and take a nice walk along the beach pathways.
The resorts have constructed four man-made coves along the coast of Ko Olina. Since all beaches in Hawaii are mandated to be public, anyone can go enjoy them! These beaches have perfect (and we mean perfect) white sand, beautiful water, and barriers to prevent the big waves from directly hitting the shore. Bring your snorkel gear as there are a ton of fish and the occasional sea turtle.
The parking situation around these beaches is not ideal. We would recommend parking in one of the shopping plazas around the area, and come back within two hours to make sure they don’t tow your car.
Electric Beach (formally called Kahe Point) is named for the power plant located nearby. This area is a popular snorkeling spot on Oahu. There are pipes from a from the power plant that pump warm water to the ocean. This attracts an amazing amount of marine life including reef fish, turtles, and rays. Who knew fishies and turtles love warm water?
The waves at electric beach can be quite strong so you’ll need to be a decent swimmer to swim away from shore to snorkel.
The beach is easily accessible from the highway and there is tons of parking.
The Ka’ena point hike will take you to the very western tip of the island, and is one of the less traveled trails. However, the beauty that you will find on this trail is something you won’t see anywhere else on O’ahu. You will get some stunning views of Yokohama Bay and the west side of the island.
Things to do on the East Side of O’ahu
The attractions on the east side of O’ahu is in and around the area of “Hawaii Kai”. This area is mainly known for Hanauma Bay, but there are lots of others hidden gems in this area. Best of all, it’s only a thirty minute drive from Waikiki.
Hanauma Bay is a snorkeling paradise. This place is a “must see” if you’re visiting Oahu! With the incredibly calm waters, you will encounter lots of amazing marine life. There are a ton of colorful tropical fish, as well as octopus, eels, and crabs.
The most common fishes you will see are the Trigger Fish, Tang, Butterfly Fish, and Surgeon Fish. For more details check out our full Hanauma Bay Review.
Kayak to Mokulua (Mokes) Islands
The kayaking trip from Kailua Beach to the Mokulua (or the “Mokes”) is a picturesque trip you’ll remember for the rest of your life.
The Mokes are two small islands off of the beautiful coast. Both islands are considered seabird sanctuaries. When facing the islands, the one on the right is usually closed to the public so you’ll want to head over to the one on the left.
The island on the left, called Mokulua Nui, is a popular destination for kayakers. You can take a paddleboard out as well, but it might get a little too wavey for comfort.
We recommend grabbing a Kayak from Kailua Beach Adventures, and heading out to the islands from Kailua beach. The team working at the Beach Adventures shop are awesome, and will have some great tips on how to get out to Mokulua Nui quickly and easily.
If you’re an early riser, then head on over to Kailua beach for a nice view of the sunrise before kayaking out to the Mokes!
Hikes on the East Side of O’ahu
The two best hiking trails in this area are Koko Head and Pillbox, and both have earned their place as two of the top things to do in O’ahu.
Koko Head takes you up an abandoned set of railroad tracks toward the top of Koko Crater with unbelievable ocean & city views. This is a relatively short hike with a 1.4 miles round trip distance, but it’s the elevation change that makes this challenging. The total elevation change on this hike is almost 1,000 ft! This is no joke so make sure you pack some water.
The Pillbox trail (also known as Lanikai Pillboxes) features a punchy hike that includes multiple military bunkers as well as a beautiful view of Lanikai Beach. This hike is around 1.8 miles and you will be treated to a wide variety of wild flowers along the trail.
This beach is less well-known than some of the other ones on O’ahu, but is a favorite of the locals – and for good reason.
Waimanalo beach on a sunny day is one of the top things to see on O’ahu, and yet it is rarely visited by tourists. This place has heavenly turquoise waters, and a soft white sand beach that will make you wonder how this place has managed to stay a local secret. Best of all? You’re almost guaranteed for some sea turtle sightings if you show up around sunset.
Things to do on the North Side of O’ahu
The jewel on the north side of O’ahu is the town of Haleiwa, and the world-class surf hitting the North Shore. This area of the island feels much less busy than the rest of the island – which is probably a good thing. The downside is that it can be harder to find places to eat.
Haleiwa Town is about an hour drive from the city of Waikiki. A lot of people stay in Haleiwa so that they can surf nearby, but this place is great to visit even if you’re not a surfer.
One of the best attractions around the town of Haleiwa is Skydive Hawaii. This is the largest skydiving facility in all of Hawaii, and is very well-suited for beginners. A tandem skydive from 12,000 ft will set you back about $250 here.
Surfing on the North Side of O’ahu
The North Shore of O’ahu is one of the premier surfing spots in the world. Amazing surfs can be found here from mid-October until around mid-March.
If you’re a beginner or have never surfed before, then we would recommend heading over to Chun’s Reef. This area has forgiving waves and surfing lessons available.
Another surfing option on the North Shore is Pua’ena Point. This is one of the more popular surfing spots that’s mainly known among the local surf crowd as being suitable for both beginners and experts – depending on how the waves are on a particular day. On normal days this place is great for surfing lessons. However, if you’re at Pua’ena on a really windy day then it will be experts only!
If you’re an expert surfer, then head over to the Banzai Pipeline (or simply called the “pipe” The pipeline is near Ehukai Beach park on the North Shore, and frequently hosts professional surf competitions. Do not try and challenge the waves here if you’re not a good surfer.
Things to do in Waikiki
Waikiki was once a favorite location to visit for Hawaiian royalty. This city is the beating heart of O’ahu with lots of hotels, restaurants, and nightlife. This place is as busy as downtown Chicago or Toronto when it comes to the number of pedestrians and the traffic.
You can easily just walk down the street and find tons of stuff to do, but here are three activities that we recommend.
Dukes is located right by Waikiki beach, and is pretty much on everyone’s list for top things to do or see in O’ahu. The food here is pretty good, but the view and atmosphere is what everyone comes here for. The combination of the ocean breeze, great service, and live music makes this a must-see in Waikiki!
If this is your first time here, then you’ve got to try the “Tropical Itch” and the “Dukes Mai Tai” cocktails.
It’s a very busy restaurant so you should make reservations or you might be waiting 2+ hours to get seated if your group has more than two people.
Hiking Trails Near Waikiki
Diamond Head. No trip to O’ahu is complete without a hike to Diamond Head. On this hike, you climb to the summit of Mt. Leahi (a volcano that has been extinct for 150,000 years).
At 760-feet above ground, this vantage point offers a panoramic view of Honolulu, Waikiki Beach, and the vast Pacific Ocean. This hike takes about two hours and you will have to pay a park entrance fee.
Aiea Trail. The Aiea Trail hike is about a twenty minute drive from Waikiki. The Aiea trail is a roughly four mile hike that features stunning wild flowers and is rated as moderate. The trail is dog friendly, but they must be kept on a leash.
As with most hikes on O’ahu, you should consider hiking in the early morning before the temperature get blistering hot.
Fireworks are launched from the Hilton Hawaiian Village every Friday night. Check their website for the schedule while you are in town as they do change from time-to-time.
From the beach area there are a few good vantage points by Fort Derussy. The show lasts for about 10 minutes, and is about as good as you can expect for a free fireworks display. There are herds of people that will go check out the fireworks on the beach so just follow the crowd if you’re not sure where to go!