When travelers consider the endless list of possible vacation destinations, Hawaii will undoubtedly make their list of top choices. Last year alone, nearly 10 million tourists visited the Aloha State, choosing Oahu as their ultimate destination. Not only is Oahu the third largest Hawaiian island, but 75% of the state's total population also lives here. It is located between the islands of Kauai and Maui, with pleasant year-round temperatures ranging between 72 and 81 degrees. Hawaii's capital city, Honolulu, is located in the southern part of the island.
Tourists and locals alike describe Lanikai Beach as one of Oahu's most beautiful and picturesque locations. It is located on the island's east side--also referred to as the windward side. Access can be a challenge because a residential district surrounds Lanikai. Visitors must enter the beach through public access points in beach alleyways between the residential homes. Although there are no parking lots, no lifeguards, and no amenities, the peaceful surroundings and calm waters are perfect for relaxing, swimming, and photography. Early risers should consider the 20-minute trek to the top of Lanikai Pillbox to view the area's phenomenal sunrise.
Also lying on the east side of Oahu, the Halona Blowhole is a natural wonder with connections to the island's volcanic history. This lava rock formation acts like a geyser on high tide, windy days. As the waves roll in and cross the lava rock, water from the sea shoots as high as 30 feet into the sky. Some of the most violent waters in Hawaii churn along the coast due to strong currents and huge waves. Visitors often see whales spouting along the surface of the coastal waters between late December and early April. Located just 20 minutes outside of Waikiki, the scenic drive to the site along the Kalaniana'ole Highway is enjoyable, offering various photographable opportunities.
Oahu is the site for several surfing competitions. The best surfers in the world head to the beaches to compete in events such as the Billabong Pipe Masters and the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational in Waimea Bay on the north shore of the island. Winter's approach creates the perfect combination of glorious waves with warm water temperatures and beautiful weather. There is generally no cost to attend many of these surfing competitions. Food trucks usually park close by, serving a unique and tantalizing collection of tasty, exotic fare. Check online schedules for upcoming competition dates.
There are numerous opportunities to get a close-up view of sea life in Oahu. Take a guided snorkeling tour off Oahu's North Shore and swim alongside reef fish and eels that reside in the heavenly blue waters. On the west side of the island, visit Electric Beach or Makua Beach to swim with dolphins or visit Kaneohe Bay to see elegant stingrays gliding through the water. Try Haleiwa Beach on the North Shore to view Hawaiian sea turtles. Not only is the water there crystal clear, but sea turtles also gather in the numerous coves located along the coastline. Tours also provide amazing underwater photo and video experiences during the fall, winter, and early spring months. For those seeking more adventure, check out one of the guided diving tours that offer unique opportunities to see sharks in their natural habitats.
Shows and family-friendly activities make the Polynesian Cultural Center a must-see while visiting the North Shore area in Oahu. Experience the cultural side of the seven villages representing the Pacific regions of Hawaii, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Aotearoa, and Tahiti. Play Tongan shuffleboard, learn how to twirl a fire knife in the Samoan area, discover your warrior side among the Fiji Warriors, or enjoy the harmonic songs in the Aotearoa Village. A daily canoe pageant representing island culture is a feast for the eyes. The Polynesian Cultural Center offers a variety of food options, but the center closes on Sundays.
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Although there are several waterfalls in Oahu, not all are accessible to the public. Manoa Falls is a must-see for nature lovers. The 1.6-mile trail allows for easy access to the falls cascading about 150 feet into the mountainside; it is one of the tallest waterfalls in Oahu and is located near Waikiki. For avid trekkers, the double-tiered Likeke Falls on the eastern side of Oahu is an adventurous hike that includes sections of the old Pali Road. Experienced hikers recommend a map.
Sunset Beach obviously earned its name for its magnificent sunsets. Located in the North Shore beach area, the sky above this popular beach takes on a dazzling palette of colors as the sun dips below the horizon. Another great spot to watch the sunset is Kaena Point at Waianae, located on the westernmost point of Oahu. Plan ahead for the trip there — heavy traffic occurs in the afternoon. The lava formations located along the shoreline add to the natural nuances of the area.
Once the sun sets across Oahu, there is a thriving nightlife, with great options for pau hana (also known as happy hour), live music, and restaurant selections with a wide array of cultural and international cuisines. Weekend crowds usually start their evenings at a local restaurant, then hit the clubs at around 9:30 p.m. Bar-hopping is difficult without transportation, but cab services and rideshares are readily available. Chinatown near downtown Honolulu offers numerous nightclub choices. Visitors can attend authentic luaus in Waikiki that not only offer delicious local cuisine but also cultural entertainment, such as fire dancers. Families will enjoy the twilight tour at the Honolulu Zoo or the Friday night fireworks show at the Hilton Hawaiian Village.
Oahu is one of the top romantic spots in the world. Whether a couple's idea of romance is a simple stroll on the beach, a plush spa retreat, or a sunset cruise with a seven-course dining experience, there is no shortage of choices available to plan a memorable getaway. Enjoy a beautiful coastline on horseback or kayak with a significant other to Moku Nui island off of Lanikai Beach. Try renting a three-speed bicycle from any docking stations around Honolulu and explore the city together.
Visit the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet in Honolulu, the largest open-air market in Hawaii, for an extraordinary shopping experience. The swap meet features more than 400 local vendors, artists, designers, and crafters. Visitors will find handcrafted souvenirs, authentic Hawaiian musical instruments, freshwater pearl jewelry, and casual Hawaiian apparel every Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Located about 30 minutes from Waikiki, visitors can catch the Purple Line Trolley to get there, then get off at Aloha Stadium. Locals recommend bringing cash because not all vendors accept credit cards.
No trip to Oahu is complete without catching sight of and visiting the iconic Diamond Head State Monument. Over 1.2 million people paid the crater a visit in 2019. With the glittering Pacific in the background and views of Waikiki Beach and even Maui, the park makes for a stunning 1.6-mile summit hike that's about an hour long. Diamond Head is also known as Leahi for its fin-shaped ridgeline, but volcano experts refer to it as a tuff cone. The short hike isn't tough, provided you stick to the signposts and carry hydration. Go super early in the morning if you plan on parking.
History buffs should note that this landmark contains a bunch of hidden military tunnels from before World War I. Intriguing!
Pearl Harbor played such a profound role in America's modern history that a USS Arizona memorial visit is almost a given when you visit Oahu. More than a thousand Marines are entombed here, and millions of travelers have made a point to pay homage to them over the years. The memorial may be closed for repairs when you go, but free half-hour harbor tours make up for that. Reserve a ticket online or buy a pass to see the USS Missouri as well.
If you love snorkeling, then Hanauma Bay will be right up your alley. The coral reefs underneath gemstone-colored waters are part of a marine preserve, so this attraction is closed on Tuesdays. You can hire equipment when you arrive, and there are lockers, changing rooms, and showers if necessary. Again, you'll need to go early to miss the crowds and see clearly. Schedule at least two hours to get your fill.
Mark Twain proclaimed this lookout to be the most beautiful view in the world. High praise, indeed. Seven minutes away from Downtown Honolulu, you too can see the Koolau Cliffs and Windward Coast. Expect deep green vistas and consider Hawaii's recent past as you gaze across a landscape that witnessed the Battle of Nuuanu in 1795. It gets blustery here, so dress appropriately and be careful about loose valuables.
You won't regret visiting one of Honolulu's most underrated sightseeing spots. Iolani is the only royal palace in the United States. During a 90-minute self-guided or docent-led tour, you'll begin to learn the regal history of the region, including how Queen Liliuokalani was imprisoned upstairs after she was overthrown. The museum is currently reacquiring some of the furnishings that left the palace after the late 19th-century takeover.
Oahu's sleepy North Shore has some of the best beaches in Hawaii. Waimea is like a lake between June and September and the opposite during winter, so if you're not an expert who can handle big waves, steer clear during the colder months. Sunset Beach is similarly two-faced. A hit with surfers and sunset connoisseurs, its rip currents pose a challenge throughout the year. Head to Laniakea Beach for turtle sightings and Ali'i Beach for ample parking and family-friendly facilities.
Just 45 minutes away from Waikiki, Kualoa Ranch is a must-do if you love movies and TV shows; plus, Interstate H-3 makes for a scenic road trip. This private nature reserve is a working ranch called "Hollywood's Backlot" for a good reason—a visit here may feel like deja vu because the rainforest landscape has appeared in blockbusters like Jurassic Park, Godzilla, and Jumanji. Book tickets in advance to avoid disappointment, and you can explore using ATVs and e-bikes, go on themed movie tours, or do green mālama activities around the farm. Kualoa Ranch has historical significance, too, as a sacred place of refuge and learning.
A Honolulu or Oahu helicopter tour will give you a bird's eye view of Hawaii's most famous island. Half-hour tours are the norm; you can fly with the "doors off" for an even more memorable experience. Skilled pilots will help you get the lay of the land, and you'll see waterfalls, animals, and other natural highlights from a unique aerial perspective. The palette of green and blue hues is something special here.
Of course, lush Oahu has a bountiful supply of fruits, veggies, and fish. Oahu Market in Chinatown is over 100 years old and will provide you with all the ingredients you need for Asian food. Kekaulike Market is a daily farmers' market offering sushi and smoothies and bursting with fresh produce from the islands. The tiny Thursday-evening Makiki Farmer's Market sells flowers and prepared foods too. If you're a bargain hunter, check out the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet marketplace for gifts, unexpected treasures, fresh coconuts, and food truck snacks.
The Honolulu Museum of Art (HoMA) houses multiple galleries and works by artists like Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, and Georgia O'Keeffe. You'll come across old and contemporary pieces, and the indoor/outdoor layout wards off browsing fatigue. When you're done looking at all the Polynesian and international art, grab a coffee or Sunday Brunch at the lovely on-site cafe.
Hula dancing is not as easy as it looks during the short demonstrations you've seen on screen. At a hālau hula or school, a Kumu Hula or master teacher can give you more insight into the ritual banned by Christian missionaries during the 19th century. You can learn about the culture, the costumes, and the intricate choreography and storytelling. Hula dancing is low-impact and reduces stress, so it's great for all ages and body types.
In the mood for a two-hour hike? The Makapu'u Point Lighthouse trail is popular, and the paved walk to get there and back is easy. You'll be rewarded with gratifying views of Oahu's southeast coast, Koko Crater, and various mini islands. If you're lucky, you'll catch sight of spouting humpback whales. The lighthouse is not open to visitors, but it's only part of the appeal of this 1.5- mile round trip.
If clifftop or helicopter-bound whale-spotting with binoculars isn't as close to the action as you'd like, you can always book a dedicated whale-watching tour. The peak season for migrating humpbacks is between December and March, but you can spot these oceanic mammals as early as September and as late as May. A whale-watching tour from the harbors in the south and west of the island will get you up close to the mothers and calves while maintaining a 100-yard distance for the animals' safety.
Honolulu's Waikiki Beach is world-famous, and the distinction has led to some calling it "overrated." Be that as it may, this golden stretch of Hawaiian shoreline, with its highrise hotels and fantastic surfing opportunities, continues to draw visitors from far and wide. Slather on the sunscreen and find a spot to soak it all in; drink in hand. After people-watching, snorkeling, and swimming, the fine dining scene and nightlife beckon. Diamond Head forms the perfect backdrop to all the goings-on.
The Bishop Museum contains a planetarium and a science center and shares information about native Hawaiians and their way of life via fascinating artifacts and interactive exhibits. You can easily spend three hours here imagining a real-life Moana's role on the island and exploring the natural history. The main building's architecture is impressive too. Try and stay for the lava show. If you're taking children, kids love the glow-in-the-dark tunnel, the volcano slide, and the dino section.
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