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Hanauma Bay
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The best things to do in Oahu

Iconic surfing, must-try restaurants and more. These are the best things to do in Oahu, the most-visited island in Hawaii

Written by
Martha Cheng
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Where to begin with the marvels of Oahu? Idyllic beaches and surf hideouts steal the headlines but don’t sleep on the conveyer belt of must-try restaurants, cultural attractions, coffee farms, and the rest. Leave the sleeping to world-class hotels and resorts.

Oahu is home to Honolulu, Hawaii’s state capital and a criminally underrated cultural hub. Anyone with even a cursory interest in the history and culture of this unique state should make a beeline for the city and gorge on the heritage before literally gorging on the remarkable local flavors waiting on the menus of the city’s restaurants. Honolulu is the perfect base for exploring the outer parts of Oahu, where the beaches and hideouts await. 

From history to hiking terrain, and everything else in between, here is our list of the best things to do in Oahu.

Best things to do in Oahu

Hawaii was once a sovereign nation, and Iolani Palace was home to its king and queen until the monarchy was overthrown by sugar plantation owners, an action that led to statehood. A visit and guided tour of the palace will help give you a deeper understanding of Hawaii beyond its present-day sand and sun image and explain some of the tensions that still exist here today. For a more rousing reminder of the days of the monarchy, pack a picnic and come on a Friday to hear the rousing Royal Hawaiian Band, founded in 1836 by King Kamehameha III, play on the lawn.

Helena’s menu hasn’t changed much since the restaurant first opened in 1946. This is how Hawaii ate then, and scanning the dining room, full of locals, you’ll see that this is how Hawaii still eats. The pipikaula (short ribs) are a must; order them with one of the set menus to get the full experience at this James Beard American Classics winner.

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While it’s certainly more crowded than it was in Elvis’s ‘Blue Hawaii’ days, Hanauma Bay is still one of the best places on the island to swim with the fishes (in the living sense). Get here right when it opens at 6 am to snag a parking spot and snorkel when the water is clearest. Note: The bay is closed every Monday and Tuesday to give the fish and reef a rest.

Forget what you might know about poi—gluey and sour or tasteless—and stop here on your drive up the Windward coast. Poi, the Hawaiian staple made from taro, is offered either fresh-milled for a subtly sweet taste, or traditionally hand-pounded with a thicker, sticky consistency like mochi. Still not convinced? Get the Sweet Lady of Waiahole—warm kulolo (taro cooked with coconut) topped with a scoop of coconut ice cream.

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Visit the largest museum in the state to see Polynesian cultural and natural history on display, from royal capes woven from thousands of feathers to a planetarium show that puts you on the deck of the Hokulea, a traditional voyaging vessel. During the show, you’ll learn the navigation techniques that the crew utilized—forgoing GPS and even a compass to read the sun, stars and ocean swells to find their way.

The shark in Jaws was just misunderstood. One Ocean Diving seeks to dispel myths about the intimidating sea creatures while teaching you about typical behavior, the different species, and how to safely approach the friendly ones. You’ll even swim in the open ocean with these creatures. The adventure is equal parts thrilling, educational and awe-inspiring.

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Rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard from Kailua Beach Adventures and head toward the twin islands about 2.5 miles offshore. You’ll glide over clear turquoise waters and a long reef, and perhaps pass a turtle or two en route to Moku Nui, the larger island on the left (the smaller one, Moku Iki, is closed to public access). After your paddle, head back to Kailua Beach, an expansive stretch of white sand worth lazing (or collapsing) on for a few hours. Note that no landing permits for rentals are issued on Sundays.

Greeting the morning from this paved trail is a ritual for locals and visitors alike. But even if you sleep in, the views of Oahu’s southeast coast and sapphire sea are gorgeous all day long. From November to May, make sure to stop by for a chance to glimpse whales breaching in the distance. (Diamond Head may be a more popular hike, it can get very crowded—the Makapuu hike feels less claustrophobic and still offers stunning views.)

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After you’ve had your own first taste of surfing, let the pros on the North Shore show you how it’s done. During the Triple Crown of Surfing, held between mid-November and mid-December, professional surfers descend on what’s known as the ‘Seven Mile Miracle’, a stretch of world-class breaks from Haleiwa Beach Park to Sunset Beach. Watching the surfers ride walls of water, some monstrously tall, is mesmerizing.

As the generation that remembers and fought in World War II wanes, it feels even more pressing to visit the USS Arizona Memorial. From the Pearl Harbor visitor center, a Navy boat shuttles you to the offshore memorial dedicated to the sailors who went down with the USS Arizona in the surprise Japanese attack in 1941. Oil still seeps to the surface from the wreckage below, a ghostly reminder of the lives lost here.

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Ignore the weird location in a downtown office building: head into this intimate bar for the most theatrical Mai Tai of your life. A smoking tiki statue hands you an exquisitely balanced cocktail that will linger in your mind like the smoke in your clothes. Make sure to reserve a seat at the bar in advance for the full performance.

Almost every culture that knows the stickiness of hot afternoons also knows the pleasure of icy treats. In Hawaii, the go-to cooldown is shaved ice, a soft, fluffy mound of fine-as-snow ice drenched in flavored syrups. Waiola Shave Ice does it all perfectly, from the ice to the range of syrups. Try it topped with a snowcap (condensed milk) or lilikoi cream (more like a thick lilikoi syrup).

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Drive up the leeward (west side) of Oahu and park at the end of the road to begin the Kaena Point hike. This five-mile roundtrip trail takes you to the westernmost tip of Oahu, which is shaped like an arrow piercing the ocean. Since ancient times, the area has been known as the ‘leaping place of the souls’, where the spirits of the dead are greeted by their ancestors. The flat trail hugs the coast, taking you alongside crashing waves and tide pools to a bird sanctuary. There’s no shade on the route, so bring a hat, sunscreen, and plenty of water.

Stretch your travel budget by enjoying a stroll through this free-admission botanical park with tropical trees from around the world. There are over 400 acres to these gardens, which two dozen bird species call home, including Hawaii’s ‘Auku‘u (Black-crowned Night Heron) and Kōlea (Pacific Golden Plover). The visitor center offers free trail maps that help guests identify plants native to Hawaii. 

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Malasadas may have originated in Portugal, but they’ve become Hawaii’s unofficial donut. Leonard’s Bakery is a Honolulu institution, open since 1952 and famous for its fried-to-order malasadas. Get one dusted with cinnamon sugar or li hing sugar: made with the plum powder that locals love.

Is a visit to Hawaii really complete without a trip to a coffee farm? On Oahu, you’ll find a welcoming experience at Green World Coffee Farm, where guests can see coffee trees in the fields and peruse and purchase the freshest roasts in the coffee store. Samples are often available and once you find your favorite you can order a go-cup at the onsite espresso bar.

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Ride the waves on the home turf of Duke Kahanamoku, aka the Godfather of Surfing. Waikiki’s gentle waves are the perfect place to learn to surf, and iconic Diamond Head makes for a stunning backdrop. Faith Surf School will aim to get you on your feet by the end of the session.

The aloha shirt gets a modern update at Roberta Oaks, where East Coast prep meets the uniform of the islands, which is reimagined in tailored cuts, cuffed sleeves and fresh prints. This gem of a store, also full of knick-knacks for the home, was a pioneer in Honolulu’s Chinatown, a neighborhood that’s now a destination for trendy boutiques and popular restaurants.

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Depending on the season, you might find magenta-hued dragonfruit, juicy lychees or custardy soursops at the Kakaako Farmers Market. In addition to exotic fruits and fresh vegetables, vendors at the market offer ready-to-eat items like salmon belly laulau (the fish is wrapped in taro leaves, then steamed). This market is less crowded and touristy than the other Saturday farmers market at Kapiolani Community College, but still offers plenty of opportunity for delicious discovery.

Few would associate Hawaii with Islamic art, but that would be reckoning without the obsessions of tobacco heiress Doris Duke. Her former Oahu home features striking interiors brought back or commissioned from her travels. The mansion, built in 1937, is now open to the public: marvel at intricate tiles from Iran, custom marblework from India, and painted wood ceilings inspired by Morocco, all on an oceanfront property in view of Diamond Head.

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