I grew up on Oahu and one reason I love living here as an adult is how easy it is to access gorgeous nature and thrilling activities. If the weather is sunny and the waves are good, it’s a guarantee that I’m going surfing and spending time outside. If it’s stormy, you’ll likely find me in an atmospheric local coffee shop or brewery or admiring exhibits in a museum.
It’s easy to find so many different fun things to do on a tropical island like Oahu – just don’t forget to learn about the history of the islands. This land was once colonized, and the Hawaiian people and their culture were nearly wiped out due to foreign diseases such as smallpox and discriminatory laws.
Even in current times, while Hawaiian culture has experienced a vibrant resurgence (like the Merrie Monarch Festival, which celebrates hula every year in Hilo), I ask you to keep this in mind and be respectful to the locals and the places you visit while here . Leave no trace behind, and if you see wildlife, like a monk seal on the beach or a turtle in the water, keep a safe distance.
With that said, here’s how you can plan a memorable trip to Oahu, starting with a dip in the ocean at lesser-known beaches, followed by tourist-free hikes, and a must-visit cultural and historical attractions.
Just keep in mind that Oahu is the most populated and visited island in Hawaii, so you will probably run into crowds. Try to plan accordingly; parking might take a bit of time, or traffic could slow things down. You should start your day early to beat the rush (and the hot sun) for popular hikes or beaches.
Of course, some places are worth braving the crowds, and I’ll share my tips on how to traverse them best, below.
My favorite lesser-known beaches on Oahu
If you’re visiting Hawaii, you’re likely planning to enjoy our beautiful beaches with their year-round warm water and soft sand. I spend almost all my free time at the beach, whether sun-bathing or surfing, so I know the difference that a noisy crowd can make when it comes to affecting your beach experience.
The beaches listed below have public bathrooms and showers – as many on Oahu do – but it’s also possible that you’ll stumble upon a beach that’s a little more secluded or residential and has no amenities, such as Lanikai Beach in Kailua.
If you’re willing to venture outside of Honolulu, I highly recommend checking out the remote Yokohama Bay, which is located at the northwestern tip of Oahu and is one of my favorite beaches. It’s about an hour-long drive from Honolulu but well worth the trek. Tucked into the mountains, the sprawling beach has more than enough space for many beachgoers, and if you pay attention during the winter, you might spot a migrating humpback whale.
Waimanalo Beach and Sherwood Beach
The east side of Oahu also has stunning beaches, such as Waimanalo Beach, which looks pristine with turquoise water and white sand, and is great for families with little kids. I also like to travel a bit further east to Sherwood Beach, where the current and surf get a little stronger, making it fun to body or boogie-board in the shore break.
There’s no visit to Oahu without a trek to the North Shore, which is less developed and moves at a slower pace than Honolulu. It’s where all the pro surfers hang out, especially when the waves are firing in wintertime. If I’m heading north, I stop at Puaena Point, located just past Haleiwa. With a small strip of sand to spread your towel on, the small cove is protected by a reef, so it’s swimmable and suitable for beginner surfers, even during winter. Keep a lookout here – I often notice turtles wading by.
The best hikes to avoid crowds
Make time for hikes during your trip to Oahu so that you can take in magnificent views only accessible on foot. Oahu has a majestic landscape of ridges, craters, waterfalls, and more that are worth significant time on your itinerary, no matter your skill level.
The Pillbox Trail
In Kailua, the Pillbox Trail is a somewhat steep but short ridge hike that provides a stunning view of Lanikai Beach and the Mokulua Islands (what we call the Mokes) from former military bunkers. If you turn around, the lush green views of the Koolau Mountains are in full view. This hike is popular, but I love coming for a sunrise hike. Not only is it less crowded, but watching the sunrise above the horizon is so memorable; a camera can’t do it justice.
If you’re chasing waterfalls, I recommend Waimano Falls, which branches off from the Manana Trail in Aiea. The moderately challenging hike takes about two hours, but the reward is multiple waterfalls and water pools for swimming. The freshwater is colder than the ocean but is oh-so-refreshing.
For a create-your-own-hike experience, check out the trails that wind through Mount Tantalus in Makiki. The individual trails are typically shorter and very family-friendly but can connect to a longer, more immersive experience in the forest if you choose. During the first year of the pandemic, when options to go out were slim, I spent most of my time here wandering past mossy stones, bamboo forests, and tranquil streams.
Keep in mind that many hikes on Oahu start in residential neighborhoods, so I ask that you be respectful and quiet. I also rarely hike without sunscreen, water, and snacks, and take any trash with me when I leave. If the weather is rainy, don’t venture out, the mud gets slippery. Safety first!
Must-visit historical attractions
One reason I always recommend Oahu for first-time visitors to Hawaii is because of the important cultural and historical sites. I highly recommend you make time for at least a few of these sites during your trip, because it’s important as a visitor to the islands to learn about the culture of those who have been living here for years.
When one of my best friends visited me for the first time last year, we visited Iolani Palace to learn about the Hawaiian monarchy and its tragic overthrow. We walked through the homes of Hawaiian royalty like King Kalakaua and Queen Kapiolani and learned about when Kalakaua’s sister, Queen Liliuokalani, was imprisoned in an upstairs room for eight months by United States government officials in 1895. It was a somber but necessary experience to remember the history of the place I call home, and I hope you feel just as moved during your visit.
I also like taking visitors to the Bishop Museum, which is said to have the largest collection of Hawaiian and Pacific cultural artifacts and natural-history specimens in the world, such as capes made of feathers, created for Hawaiian royalty.
Honolulu Museum of Art
Additionally, my former workplace, the Honolulu Museum of Art, displays art made by local artists and others inspired by this wondrous place, like Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings of Maui. Both museums host after-hours events where drinks are served.
The places that are worth braving the crowds
I would be remiss if you skipped out on certain things just because they’re more likely to be crowded, especially if you’re a first-time visitor. Here are the activities I truly believe are worth braving the crowds:
Although Waikiki Beach is super-crowded and can feel like a headache, the surf there is world-famous for a reason. Don’t skip out on a lesson if you’ve been wanting to try it – but be ultra-careful not to get in anyone’s way in the water.
Hanauma Bay State Park
For those hoping to spot marine life, Hanauma Bay State Park is the place to go. As a nature reserve, you need to book reservations in advance and pay an entry fee, and it’s closed Mondays and Tuesdays to let the wildlife rest from human disturbance. Taking the effort to book tickets is worth it because the volcanic cove is teeming with vibrant aquatic life.
Make at least one trip to the North Shore, about an hour and a half from Honolulu, to explore the slower, surfer-oriented community. If it’s winter, you’ll be able to watch knowledgeable surfers drop in on steep waves. You can also explore Haleiwa’s shops and grab lunch. Definitely hit the Dole Plantation on the way up or down to the North Shore and grab a sweet Dole Whip.
Pearl Harbor National Museum
One of the most well-known sites in Hawaii, Pearl Harbor is located in Honolulu. Make reservations to visit the Pearl Harbor National Memorial to learn about that infamous day in history.
View Insider’s comprehensive guide to visiting Oahu.