The island of Oahu is ripe for every kind of exploration. Here's where you should dedicate your time
honolulu city

A tropical paradise fueled by volcanicity.

It may well be part of a US state, but Oahu is as far removed from the continental motherland as can be, thriving in its own Polynesian culture, laid-back lifestyle, and incomparable beauty. 

Its wondrous reputation stretches across the planet – so much so that plans are very much in place to ensure fewer tourists flood its Pacific shores. Honeymooners, hikers, and Hula enthusiasts alike can all find something in this Eden. Just make sure you leave it how you found it.

Welcome to Oahu.

5 things you can’t miss in Oahu

Hit the trails

koko head trail

If there were nothing else to do in Oahu, you’d still have an impossible amount of outdoor adventures to conquer. Trails wind up and over the island, from daunting cliffside clambers to relaxed coastal strolls — using your own two legs is the best way to get to grips with the ancient and incomparable island.

At the top of your list should be the intimidating Koko Head trail. It’s only 1.5 miles long, but don’t be fooled; the trail is actually a staircase of 1,048 steps straight up.

Adding even more deception: The stairs aren’t really stairs — they’re a disused military railway track that used to supply the bunkers on the mountain. If you can make it to the top, you’ll be rewarded with some of the island’s best views. Get up early, suck it up, and reward yourself with a cocktail later.

For those with knees that quiver at the thought of Koko Head, the Makapu’u Lighthouse Point Trail is a good alternative. This easier walk traces the coastline, culminating with the eponymous lighthouse. It’s a great option for families with young children.

Of course, what’s a Hawaii trip if you haven’t seen a waterfall? Hit the Maunawili Falls Trail for an epic adventure with an epic payoff at the end. This’ll definitely be a full-day affair, but you’ll be rewarded with fewer tourists and a look deep inside the lush rainforests that blanket the island.

Discover the real Oahu

iolani palace

Millions visit Oahu and the rest of the Hawaiian islands every year. A saddeningly small amount of them even attempts to sample a piece of the rich culture that’s blessed the region for centuries. We already mentioned Iolani Palace, where you can learn about the royal history of the island, but there are many other opportunities available.

Make time for authentic Hawaiian experiences, starting with a quick stop at the Polynesian Cultural Center. If nothing else, the cultural park will offer a glimpse into the history that made this part of the world so vibrant. Expect traditional dancing displays, replica villages, and local food.

If you stay at one of the higher-end resorts, there’s a fair chance you’ll be offered a Hi-uwai ceremony experience. The sunrise ritual is an ancient ritual and involves heading into the ocean to be cleansed and reenergized for the day ahead. While you may be hesitant to do it with your hotel, it’ll still be an excellent chance to see what the ceremony is about, so don’t hold back.

Jumping on a full-blown cultural tour is hands down the easiest way to get the most interaction with the culture. This native perspectives tour touches on many aspects of Hawaiian life, from the oft-stereotyped Lei necklaces you’re given on arrival to the history and development of Hula dancing – you might even pick up a few moves.

Hit the waves in the birthplace of surfing

surfing in oahu

How can you look at the Hawaiian waves curling into the shore and not be tempted to pick up a board? There’s no better place to surf than the birthplace of the sport itself.

Surfing in Hawaii is far more than just a hobby, though. In its early days (like the 4th century early), it was wound tightly together with island religions. Everyone surfed, from Kings to cooks, because it was a way to be close to the ocean, which sustained the islands for centuries. It’s no wonder that any avid surfer today will preach a similar spiritual connection to the ocean when riding the waves.

There are plenty of places to surf in Oahu, with the North Shore holding the best stretches of beach for the sport. To get inspired, check out Sunset Beach, where Triple Crown Tournaments are held. It’s not likely you’ll be surfing there anytime soon, but you might catch a glimpse of the pros at work. White Plains and Old Man’s beaches are some of the best for beginners. Just make sure to ask a local before you jump in. Swells in Hawaii can be insanely big and very dangerous for the uninitiated.

The safest way is to grab some lessons. It won’t be hard to find a coach. Many schools operate on the island, and some will just hang out by the beach, hoping for a day’s tuition. Prices will vary depending on the location and coach, so shop around a little.

Visit the Pearl Harbor Memorial Site

pearl habor memorial site

For all of Oahu’s beautiful sides ripe for exploration, there is a somber aspect to consider on any trip — Pearl Harbor.

On December 7th, 1941, Japanese bombers attacked the naval base, destroying a significant portion of the American fleet stationed there as well as 180 aircraft. Almost 2,400 Americans died in the attack lasting just over an hour. The attack ushered the United States into the theater of World War II.

Nowadays, the memorial site also functions as a museum where visitors can learn about the events of that day and what they meant on a global scale. It’s also a place to pay respects, in particular at the USS Arizona Memorial, which marks the resting place of well over a thousand of the crew who perished on the ship that day.

It’s well worth a visit to learn and get more in tune with the country’s recent history, so spend a morning there before heading back out to the more upbeat aspects of your trip.

Get a little volcanic

lava

The Hawaiian islands were formed more than 30 million years ago as a tectonic plate shifted slowly across the planet, dragging deep sea volcanoes with it and slotting them in a new place to form new islands each time.

While things look a little more lush nowadays, there’s a sizeable chunk of volcanic activity still churning, making it the perfect place to see them up close.

Sadly, Oahu itself is one of the only islands without active volcanoes rumbling in its landscapes. But there are many tours offering day trips to the likes of Volcanoes National Park.

On the island, you can hike up to Diamond Head Crater and explore the remnants of a long-since-extinct volcano. If you can get a helicopter ride over the island, you’ll get a grasp of the magnitude of the volcano.

Want to uncover the best of Oahu?

Check out Next Stop: Oahu for the best places to stay, eat, and explore in Oahu!

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