Oahu, Hawaii is one of the world’s most luxurious travel destinations, with beautiful beaches, and a paradise reputation. Oahu is more than just a tropical paradise with so many things to do, including scenic drives, great hikes, beautiful beaches, snorkeling, diving, and of course surfing.
I have visited Oahu, Hawaii multiple times over the last few years and each time I have discovered something else amazing. Road trips are one of my favorite things and this time on my visit we did more road trips than ever before, to different parts of the island as well as remote locations. Here are my top 10 things to do in Oahu, Hawaii.
I’ve driven on my fair share of beautiful highways in the US, but the highways in Oahu are by far the most beautiful. Drive on any of the many coastal highways on this island, and you’ll be treated with beautiful ocean views.
My absolute favorite though is the drive from Honolulu to Eastern Oahu or the windward side as the locals call it. This gorgeous drive on Highway 3 cuts through the Ko’olau Range, a mountain range that separates Central Oahu from the windward side (which also has some of my personal favorite beaches on Oahu: Lanikai and Kaneohe Beach). Feast your eyes on views of the ocean framed by lush, jagged cliffs and ridges, hopefully in an open-top Jeep!
Highway 83, which will take you to Northern Oahu along the eastern coast, comes a close second. With the ocean on your right and beautiful mountain ranges and farmland on your left, it can get difficult to focus on the road! Stop by the famous Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck on the way for the tastiest garlic shrimp you’ll ever have.
HO’OMALUHIA BOTANICAL GARDEN
For a closer look at the lush yet jagged peaks of the Ko’olau mountain range, head over to the Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden. You can spend an entire day exploring the lake and hikes at this beautiful park or drive through it within 20 minutes. Either way, you’ll be treated with gorgeous views and plenty of photo opportunities.
You’re not allowed to stop the car for pictures at the famous palm-lined entrance anymore, but if you keep driving, you’ll find plenty of similar viewpoints where you can legally park and take pictures.
Escape the crowds of Waikiki Beach and drive to Lanikai Beach on the windward side of Oahu. On a sunny day with clear blue skies, the crystalline water here seems to glow bright turquoise. Enjoy the view of the Mokolua Islands in the distance as you sunbathe on the beach, or hop on a kayak or paddleboard to see them up close. On a calm day, it should only take you an hour.
If you don’t have a rack on your car to drive your kayak or paddleboard to the beach, Kailua Beach Adventures rents out equipment from across the street from the beach. They will even give you a little wagon to wheel your equipment over to the beach.
Make sure you head there early, as the parking spots fill up quickly and they close quite early at 6 PM. The Mokulua Islands are closed on Sundays, so they do not rent out kayaks then.
On a good day, Lanikai and the neighboring Kailua Beach also offers good surfing for beginners. You should call ahead and ask about the surf before you rent a surfboard though!
LANIKAI PILLBOX HIKE
To enjoy views of the turquoise waters ofLanikai Beach from above, drive over to the trailhead for the Lanikai Pillbox Hike. It is a short and moderate 20-minute hike to the pillboxes, but the hike gets hot and crowded as the day progresses. It’s best to start your day here early. Make sure to wear a pair of shoes with good grip. The steep trail is quite slippery on the way down.
KANEOHE BAY SAND BAR
Kayaking to this lesser-known destination in Oahu was one of my absolute favorite experiences in Oahu. The sandbar appears like a little island in the middle of the sea during low-tide. Bring snacks, drinks and some floaties with you. You can have a little picnic as you float on the shallow waters while enjoying the gorgeous view of the jagged and mountainous Oahu coastline.
To get there, we rented a kayak from Holokai Kayak and Snorkel Adventure, where the guides will push you off right into the water with directions and a map. Make sure you call beforehand to reserve your kayak and to ask for the best time to arrive in Kaneohe. The sandbar disappears with the rising tide, so you need to ensure that you’re there at low tide. You could also keep track of the tide online.
From the shore, the sandbar is a 40-minute kayak away around coral reef nurseries. You can stop and snorkel around the coral reef in the area, and if you’re lucky, you might even see some sea turtles! It’s important to remember that coral reefs are fragile ecosystems, so please be careful not to leave any trash behind, kayak over the coral, or drop your anchor on them. Definitely, don’t touch anything!
For those who would rather avoid the physical strain to get to the sandbar, there are also boat tours that could take you to the sandbar and surrounding areas. However, I much prefer the tranquility and seclusion of kayaking there on my own!
No trip to Oahu is complete without visiting the North Shore, which is less developed, less touristy, and most importantly, less crowded. Locals often say that the North Shore is the “real Oahu”.
The town of Hale’iwa, a laidback surf town, is my favorite in the North Shore. With amazing food and shopping set in colorful buildings made to look like converted barns, this town has a quaint and rustic charm to it that constantly reminds you that you’re in the countryside.
Start your day with delicious smoothie bowls and coffee from Hale’iwa Bowls. Their Açaí bowls are to die for. Matsumoto Shave Ice nearby is also a must-try!
If you’re looking for more things to do in the area, head over to Sunset Beach to watch surfers battle giant waves while you sunbathe safely on the beach. This is actually a common pastime for locals!
You’ll be joining hundreds of other spectators with their beach towels, umbrellas, and folding chairs. This is only if you go in the winter though! In the summer, the giant waves disappear and Sunset Beach becomes a great place to snorkel.
While you’re at Sunset Beach, make sure you look for the famous crooked palm tree. It’s the perfect backdrop for your next social media post. If you want to get wet yourself but it’s surf season, head over to Shark’s Cove nearby. It offers calmer waters where you can safely snorkel year-round.
For some refreshments, cross the street from Sunset Beach to the Sunrise Shack for some snacks and to snap a picture in front of their famous, yellow storefront. Their smoothie bowls are delicious too!
Oahu is home to many beautiful and adrenaline-pumping hiking trails, none more so than the abundant ridge hikes all over the island. A particularly famous, but illegal, one is Stairway to Heaven.
STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN HIKE
You’ve probably seen pictures of the Stairway to Heaven’s fog-covered staircase all over the internet. Be forewarned that there is usually a guard at the bottom of the trail to give you a fine after your hike. So go at your own risk!
OLOMANA THREE PEAKS TRAIL
If you’re not willing to risk paying the fine, the Olomana Three Peaks Trail is a great alternative. This hike is named after the three peaks that you will be climbing while on the mountain ridge.
Each peak gets progressively more difficult and dangerous, involving even more climbing and scrambling on all fours. So don’t push yourself to finish the hike if you’re not confident that you can do so safely!
Personally, I think the view from the first peak is the most beautiful, as you get a nice view of the two peaks in front of you. A pair of hiking boots or even sneakers with good traction can really help you on this hike.
FREE-DIVE WITH SHARKS
If a ridge hike wasn’t exciting enough for you and you really want to get your adrenaline pumping, sign up for a snorkeling tour with sharks in the North Shore. No cage included!
Most of the sharks you’ll see will be 12-feet-long Galapagos Sharks and 5-feet-long White-Tipped Sharks. You might see some other species but if you’re lucky, you might see a Hammerhead, Tiger or Great White Shark!
We booked our tour with One Ocean Diving, research, and conservation program that studies pelagic sharks and other marine animals off the coast of Oahu. Don’t worry, the tour is completely safe! They have a 100% track record and really ensure that you understand the safety procedures of swimming with sharks before you head in the water.
On the tour you will also learn a lot about these misunderstood animals and why it’s important to conserve them and the ecosystem that they live in. You’ll leave with an amazing experience and a different perspective on sharks!
SURFING AT WAIKIKI BEACH
Waikiki Beach is worth at least one visit despite all the crowds. If you’re a beginner surfer like me, don’t risk your life surfing at Sunset Beach and head over to this famous beach instead. Waikiki Beach offers consistently good surf for beginners, with the beautiful outline of Honolulu and Diamond Head in the horizon as an added bonus.
There are plenty of shops and stands to rent surfboards on and around Waikiki Beach, so it’s easy for you to get your board in the water. Look for shops off the actual beach to save some money on your rental. There are also plenty of surf schools in the area, so this beach is also a great place for you to learn how to surf for the first time.
I hope this post has helped you find some great things to do in Oahu, Hawaii to plan your next island adventure!
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Discover some of our favorite places to stay in Oahu, Hawaii:
- Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina
- The Ritz-Carlton Residences
- Aston Waikiki Beach Tower
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We Are Travel Girls Contributor Jasmine Sjarif
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