One of the questions I get asked most frequently by friends and strangers alike is: “Connor, what are the best things to do on Oahu??”
After typing this out what seems to be hundreds of times, I feel like I have it down by heart. But to save me (and you) some time in the future, I wanted to make this into a blog as a permanent place to refer back to. So here, officially, is my comprehensive guide to Oahu!
The most frequent place visitors stay is in Waikiki so let’s begin with the top things to do near Waikiki and the South Shore of Oahu.
Learn to surf!
Duh! This will most likely be at Canoes surf break in the heart of Waikiki, right in front of the famous Duke Kahanamoku Statue. Here you'll find consistently small, beginner-friendly waves. If you're looking for cheaper board rentals and want to help out a local business I’m a fan of, check out Moku Surf Shop a block off of the beach across from the Duke Statue.
Duke Kahanamoku Statue
Since I mentioned the statue, I thought I’d add that it’s a tradition to put leis on him on Thursdays. This is one of my Mom’s favorite things to do so I thought I’d add it in haha! The Duke statue is centrally located in Waikiki.
Diamond Head Hike
As one of the most popular hikes on the island, it is fairly touristy and can get crowded but I still suggest doing it - just go early in the morning to avoid people and heat. It really is a beautiful view over the city and you can see all the way from the West Side (Ewa Beach) to the south East corner of the island (Hawaii Kai).
Although currently closed for maintenance, I want to include it for future reference as it's one of my favorite hikes. This is one of the most accessible waterfall hikes on the island in my opinion and easy enough for all skill levels. The beginning starts out lush and green and feels exactly like the tropical rainforests you would imagine here, full of bamboo and native flowers. You have to pay $5 for parking but it's worth it to be parked right at the trailhead. A little added bonus that many don't know about is the Lyon Arboretum and Botanical Garden that is located right next to the trail. Open to the public and full of gorgeous local plant species, I 10/10 suggest walking through it if you have the time!
Yes, this may be a tourist attraction but it’s for a reason! It has incredibly clear waters and you are pretty much guaranteed to see some colorful sea life while snorkeling. You do have to pay for admission and parking but it’s worth it knowing that as the states first Marine Life Conservation District, they are doing their part in protecting the bay, reefs, and sea creatures there.
Koko Head (Koko Crater Tramway)
Don’t let the short distance of this one fool you! This 1.8 mile hike is straight up and down with over 1,000 steps before you get to the top. This is a great workout with beautiful views at the top overlooking Hanauma Bay - just be sure to bring plenty of water!
This can be one of the most entertaining beaches to hang out on and holds a lot of fond memories from my early years here on island! Here you’ll find steep, hard-breaking waves with experienced bodyboarders pulling into close-out barrels close to shore. This also means a lot of non-experienced visitors also trying to play in the rough waves which makes for some wild people watching! Just be cautious before entering the water yourself and know your limits, but otherwise - have fun!
A favorite local spot for sunset activities. You can bring some poke and sit to watch the sun set over Diamond Head or watch surfers catch waves right along the rock ledge. The water can be rough so gauge your surroundings before hopping in, but this is also a super fun spot for some small cliff jumping and can be a great cool down after Koko Head!
If you are looking for something a little more laid back, head to Makapu’u. With beautiful blue waters and soft sand, go in the morning to enjoy some sunbathing or in the afternoon if you are looking for an area that’s shaded. There’s also a parking lot and restrooms which makes it a bit more accessible for families.
Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail
Right down the street from the beach is another great trail, perfect for a family hike. Completely paved, this trail is nice and easy but still delivers beautiful views. On a clear day you can even see Maui in the distance and during the winter it’s a prime spot to whale watch.
Another epic sunset spot, this is an awesome place to end an activity-filled day with a picnic and some wine. The drive winds up through Round Top Dr. with views the whole way until you reach the lookout where you are able to see all of Honolulu below you.
Top places to Eat on the South Shore
South Shore Grill - The Ono Burrito is BOMB.
The Deck - Great Happy Hour rates and Taco Wednesdays. I highly recommend the fish tacos, lilikoi margs, and ahi tartine appetizer.
Doraku Sushi - Great sushi spot right in Waikiki. Their emperor roll is amazing!
Dukes Waikiki - Ever heard “Duke’s on Sunday”?? Dukes definitely brings the Hawaii vibes with drinks and live music on the beach.
Opals Thai - My favorite Thai restaurant in Hawaii with amazing service...if you don’t know what to choose, they choose for you! You won’t regret it.
Tchin Tchin - Fun little rooftop wine bar in the middle of Chinatown with some pretty stellar cocktails and shareable plates.
Yard House - Right along the Waikiki Beach Walk, this is a chill place to grab food and drinks if you’re staying in the city.
Leonard's Bakery - You’re crazy to leave Hawaii without trying a hot Malasada. These Portuguese donuts are to die for and it’s become a pretty popular place to stop and get a picture in front of when visiting.
Brick Fire Tavern - Every food list needs a pizza joint and this one is for sure my favorite in town. Bad pizza’s good but good pizza’s better and this is good pizza.
Island Brew (Hawaii Kai) - Terrific coffee spot to sit and get some work done or meet up with friends. They have a million different coffee flavors and some pretty tasty menu items but the best part is that it’s right on the water with plenty of outdoor seating to enjoy the nice weather!
Considered one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, here you’ll find white sand and clear blue water. It’s a popular spot for tourists and locals alike so make sure to get an early start here to avoid crowds and be prepared to walk if you can’t find parking. If the winds are right, consider going to Kailua Beach Adventures to rent kayaks. You can paddle out to The Mokes to explore the island and if you're extra adventurous, even hike around to the back side for some cliff jumping depending on the tides.
Lanikai Pillboxes Hike
This is the hike I recommend the most to visitors. It’s enough to work up a sweat without taking up the whole day but still doable for all ages. Once at the top, you’ll find old military bunkers that you can climb on to sit and enjoy the views of the East Side.
Kualoa Ranch Tours
Chances are you’ve seen at least one of the movies filmed in this picturesque park over the years...does Jurassic Park, Jumanji, or 50 First Dates ring a bell? Not only are you able to tour the film sites of these blockbusters, but you can also ride horses, ATVs and electric mountain bikes here. Check out their site Kualoa Tours + Activities - Kualoa Ranch to see all of the fun activities they offer!
Pali Puka Hike
You’ve probably already been told to stop at the Pali Lookout for great views over the East Side. But it’s there at the lookout that the trail to the Pali Puka also starts. There is a parking fee for non-Hawaii residents here so keep that in mind. The trail starts over on the left hand side of the Pali Lookout and continues up until you reach the peak. It's here that you’ll find the ‘Puka’, or hole, that's formed in the rock that perfectly frames the coast and makes for an epic photo. Not necessarily the most strenuous hike, but the ridges are steep with drop-offs on either side of the trail so I still wouldn’t recommend it for the faint of heart!
Top Places to Eat on the East side
Nalu Health Bar - Some of the absolute best acai bowls that I've had on island and with many great gluten free and vegan options.
Fat Boys - Try the Chicken Katsu and you won't be sorry. Laid-back local eatery for Hawaiian style plate lunches.
Hibachi - This is a hidden gem of a place right behind Fat Boys. And no, it is not the Hibachi you know about that throws shrimp in your mouth. This is your one stop shop for wine, sake, marinated meats and some of the best poke I've had on O'ahu.
Morning Brew - A popular little coffee joint in Kailua with good coffee and tasty breakfast items.
This is a great spot to go to year round but attracts a fair amount of tourists so be prepared to circle the parking lot for a bit. In the summer when the water is calm it's perfect for snorkeling and diving and you can join those brave enough to jump off of the famous rock. In the winter comes the massive waves which makes it a prime location to stop and watch surfers try their hand at 30 footers.
When there’s no waves, this is the spot to go for snorkeling when you’re on the North Shore. There’s always a wide variety of colorful sea life here with tide pools to play around in as well. This is a nice place to spend the morning and then grab food across the street from one of the many amazing food trucks for lunch.
Chances are you’ve heard of Banzai Pipeline already, home to Billabong Pipe Masters surf competition. Every winter this break draws crowds from around the world to watch the best of the best compete over one of the world's gnarliest waves. Be sure to keep an eye out for me in the water too!
If you’re going to fling yourself out of a plane it might as well be over a beautiful island right?? I’ve jumped with Skydive Hawaii before and have always felt incredibly safe and cared for with them. This is the chance to see the island in a way few others have and I can’t recommend it enough. The views of the mountain ridges, reefs, and ocean are spectacular and the footage you get afterwards is priceless!
Swimming with Sharks
Hawaii Ocean Adventure Tours is my absolute go-to for an unforgettable time on the North Shore. Located right in Haleiwa, they host all sorts of tours including whale watching, snorkeling with turtles, and fishing. But obviously my favorite, and what I think to be the most exciting, is their shark dive. You get to learn about these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat and the ways in which they contribute to our ecosystem. It’s a thrill every single time I get the chance to swim alongside them.
Fruit Stands near Turtle Bay
I love these little stands but rumor has it that some of the fruit is actually from Costco…who knows, but either way it’s a great place for a photo op and the little old ladies there are sweethearts! They open at 8 a.m. so get there early for the best pics without any photobombs.
Top Places to Eat on North shore
Wailua Bakery & Juice Bar - A bit off the beaten path but well worth it in my opinion. Amazing flavors and fresh ingredients, this is a laid-back, fun little place to grab a quick bite. Be prepared, it's cash only!
Sunrise Shack - A must-visit while on the North Shore and right across the street from Sunset Beach. Come for the smoothies, come for the photo op, come for the gear! They've got it all!
Pupukea Grill - This is a sick little food truck right across the street from Sharks Cove. Delicious Hawaiian street eats including fresh Ahi poke bowls and shoyu chicken plates.
North Shore Tacos - I've struggled finding good Mexican food in Hawaii but North Shore Taos is yet another Pupukea food truck that delivers. Try the sweet pork nachos if you can!
Green World Coffee Farm - On the way up North from Honolulu there is an amazing coffee farm that I always stop at. Not only can you buy delicious coffee and baked goods, but they also sell coffee beans in every flavor imaginable to bring home with you. It may sound strange but I personally love the blueberry!
Pearl Harbor National Memorial - If you're looking to get a little bit of history in on your visit, I highly recommend going to Pearl Harbor to see the museum, the USS Arizona Memorial, and the Battleship Missouri. The guides are incredibly well informed and do a wonderful job at showing you around this important piece in American History.