Hawaii isn’t like the rest of the United States. It feels like you’ve left the country and traveled to an exotic Polynesian paradise – and of course you have. But residents of Hawaii always laugh when they hear tourists say they’ll be sorry when their vacations end and they have to “return to America.”
There’s more to Hawaii than surf and sand. You can visit museums that were once the palaces of kings and queens. You can hike through tropical rainforests, marveling at animals and plants that appear nowhere else on the planet. You can dance in discos or indulge in luscious meals. There really is something for everyone in Hawaii.
Oahu is not the biggest of the islands that make up the Hawaiian archipelago. Two are larger; about 1,500 are smaller. Oahu is the most populous, however, with about 1 million residents. And since it is home to Hawaii’s main airport and capitol city of Honolulu, almost every tourist spends some time there.
Visitors are always told that “Oahu” means “the gathering place” in the Hawaiian language, but that seems to be a myth created for the benefit of tourists. Hawaiian legends say that the island was named after the son of Hawai’iloa, the Polynesian navigator who is said to have discovered the islands more than 1,000 years ago.
Here are some of the unforgettable adventures you can have during your visit to the Aloha state, our list of 13 absolutely guaranteed fantastic things to do on Oahu:
#1 Climb Works – Keana Farms
Zip-lining is an adventure that combines thrills with breathtaking views. There’s no better place to soar high above the earth than in beautiful Hawaii.
Keana Farms boasts dual lines so you and a partner can race one another across a spectacular tropical ravine. Or you can just zip side-by-side and share a unique and incredible experience.
Elsewhere on the property you’ll see native tropical fruit and experience panoramic views everywhere you turn. You might learn a little Hawaiian history to boot.
What views can you expect? Well, you’ll see the fabled North Shore’s famous beaches and mountains, along with lush landscapes as you soar over the forest canopy.
The site is also a working commercial farm, so you can take a tour a learn a bit about sustainable food production.
#2 Pearl Harbor
Pearl Harbor is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Hawaii, a must-see site whether you’re a history buff or not.
Pearl Harbor features the Arizona Memorial, Battleship Missouri, Bowfin Submarine and the Pacific Aviation Museum. There are so many stories to hear, so much to learn and see.
The USS Arizona is where 1,177 lost their lives when the Japanese attacked. There is a special tribute set up to honor the lost crew of the ship. The U.S flag still flies high atop the flagpole attached to the sunken battleship. It’s impossible to tour this site without a lump in your throat.
#3 Happy Trails Hawaii
Sure, you can see the beautiful sights of Hawaii by foot…but wouldn’t it be more fun while riding on horseback?
Horseback riding isn’t as adventurous as zip-lining, but you do get to see the landscape up close and personal.
Happy Trails has plenty of horses to choose from and lots of beautiful trails to follow through the countryside of Hawaii’s north shore. You’ll enjoy panoramic ocean views and beautiful mountain scenery while swaying upon the back of a gentle steed.
You’d better take a partner – this sounds romantic!
#4 Chief’s Luau at Sea Life Park
A trip to Hawaii wouldn’t be complete without experiencing a luau, the feastlike Hawaiian party that includes entertainment and an abundance of mouth-watering local dishes.
Chief’s Luau at Sea Life Park has been rated the number one paid attraction in Oahu as well as the top-rated luau in Hawaii because of the highly interactive, hilarious, and thoroughly enjoyable experience it offers diners.
Enjoy Hawaiian cuisine and delicious Mai Tai cocktails while taking in an authentic Polynesian show.
Chief Sielu is the performer who gives this luau its name, and he’s a world champion fire-knife dancer as well as a comedian. You’ll also see plenty of beautiful – and handsome – hula dancers in traditional costumes. Get up close and personal with the performers while enjoying magnificent ocean and mountain views – and some pretty good food to boot!
#5 Diamond Head
The famous Diamond Head crater can be seen as you fly into the Honolulu airport, and hiking to the crater’s rim gives you views of the city that you’ll not be able to find anywhere else. The hike isn’t too difficult, making it possible for children and the elderly to enjoy the trip.
The hike is good exercise and the views are truly magnificent. The steepest bits have been carved into stairs, which minimizes the chance of slipping but can make your calves ache the next day. There trail also leads through some deliciously tight tunnels.
Overall, this trail is quiet doable for most folks. And the views, well, they speak for themselves. Diamond Head is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Hawaii for a reason!
#6 Koko Crater Trail
If you’re an experienced hiker looking for a little more challenge, look no further than the Koko Crater Trail.
This hike is not for those afraid of heights: You will be walking on narrow ground around the rim of the crater. That volcanic rock can be a bit crumbly, so you’d better watch your step!
As if that’s not enough, you’ll also encounter a bridge that crosses a deep gully. The part of the hike is not recommended for those with a healthy fear of heights!
The ascent to the top is tricky, but you’ll gain a real sense of accomplishment after mastering this trail. And it’s worth it when you get to the top and take in the panoramic view of Oahu and the Pacific Ocean.
#7 Makapuu Lighthouse Trail
There are hiking trails for every skill level in Hawaii, and all of them offer something special in return. The Makapuu Lighthouse Trail is no different.
This is an easy route with a moderate incline to a 647-foot summit, so you don’t have to be in peak physical shape to make this trek.
If you visit Hawaii during whale season (December through April), add this place to your “must see” list. At the top, you’ll have an opportunity to see migrating humpback whales as they travel through the area.
#8 Bishop Museum
Many visitors to Hawaii never leave the beach – but that’s a shame. Hawaii has a rich history and much more to offer than beaches!
If you’re curious about Hawaii’s history, look no further than the Bishop Museum. The museum is recognized throughout the world for its scientific research, educational programs and collections of art.
And if you’re a fan of looking at the night sky, check out museum’s planetarium shows. There are many chows to choose from, everything from looking up at the Hawaiian night sky to experiencing a trip to Tahiti by canoe. Yes, it’s educational…but the Bishop Museum staff knows how to make learning both fun and interesting for people of all ages. It’s accessible and enjoyable for children and adults alike.
#9 Byodo-In Temple
This Buddhist temple is a replica of the Byodo-in Temple in Japan, a United Nations World Heritage site.
Hawaii’s Byodo-in Temple is a non-practicing Buddhist temple that it welcomes people of all faiths to visit.
Whether you come to worship, meditate or just appreciate the beauty of the architecture, you’re free to do so.
The grounds are stunning, which is one reason they are so often used for wedding ceremonies. You’re likely to see wild peacocks roaming the ground, Japanese koi, reflecting ponds, waterfalls and more.
Visitors are often blown away by the sheer beauty of the temple, but also describe the experience as being relaxing and peaceful.
If you’re finding yourself craving a vacation from your vacation while in Hawaii, a trip to the Byodo-in Temple may be just what your body and soul need.
#10 Iolani Palace
If you’ve ever wanted to visit the palace of a king and queen, your visit to Hawaii is your perfect chance. The Iolani Palace was the official residence of King Kalakaua and Queen Lilliuokalani, the last monarchs of Hawaii before the monarchy was abolished in 1893.
The palace is filled with Hawaiian history and art on every floor, including displays of royal regalia and jewelry.
Visit the room where the queen was imprisoned for several years, and the massive library where the king worked and wrote.
You’ll come away knowing a bit more about Hawaiian history, some of it rather sad.
#11 Tantalus Lookout – Puu Ualakaa State Park
If you truly want to feel like you’re in paradise, take a trip up to Tantalus Lookout. The air is clean, fresh and invigorating, and you’re surrounded by lush greenery while enjoying views of Honolulu, Diamond Head and Pearl Harbor. Drive to the top, set up a picnic and spend some time with mother nature.
Photographers, whether experienced or just testing the waters, will love this place. You can get some absolutely stunning pictures from what seems like the top of the world.
Sure, the road to Puu Ualakaa State Park is narrow and twisty, but it’s worth it to get to the top and lose yourself in the lush, vibrant jungle of the island. And the views of the city you simply can’t be beat!
#12 Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve
Tourists expect to swim in the warm Pacific waters that surround Hawaii, but too few practice the simple art of snorkeling. A mask and snorkel give you an opportunity to experience Hawaii’s underwater environment the way fish do.
For some of the world’s best snorkeling, check out Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve. You’ll experience live coral, tropical fish and sea turtles, all close enough to touch.
And don’t worry, you don’t have to be a skilled snorkeler to get into the water here. All skill levels are welcome, as the water is clear and calm.
Prepare to spend at least a few hours here, and pack a picnic lunch. You’ll find yourself immersed in a truly unforgettable experience.
#13 North Shore
There’s so much to see and do at Oahu’s north shore that you really should just make a day of it and see everything.
Drive along the fabled roadway and watch the famed waves crashing along the coastline. Stop at scenic points for photo opportunities. Enjoy the beach. Get shaved ice or stop for a roadside coconut.
There are countless little shops, restaurants and sites to see. If you’re the adventurous type, you can even look into doing a little cliff-diving or surfing too.
The North Shore really is everything Hawaiian that you could ever ask for.
Get Out and Explore
Beaches, lagoons, museums…there is much more to Hawaii than the guidebooks tell you. There are a lot of great things to do on Oahu. Don’t just sit there getting sunburned – set out and see the culture, history, and natural beauty of this paradise. You’ll be glad you did.