Best Things To Do in Honolulu - Oahu
The island of Oahu has a great mix of activities, particularly in Honolulu. Take your kids surfing and snorkeling, hike around Manoa Falls or soak up local history at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum and Iolani Palace. And then there's the island's plethora of World War II attractions, including the Battleship Missouri Memorial, the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park and the Pearl Harbor National Memorial. But no trip to Oahu would be complete without visiting some of the island's world-renowned beaches; a few popular options include the water sports-focused Kailua Beach Park, the family-friendly Lanikai Beach and the resort-strewn Waikiki Beach. For an overview of the entire island, hop on a helicopter for a guided tour of its valleys, mountains and historical sites.
Updated July 29, 2020
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Nineteenth-century Hawaiian royalty used to come to the Honolulu neighborhood of Waikiki to relax and surf, just as scores of tourists do today. That's because this area's famous beach (which is a string of several beaches dotting the island's southwest coastline) is the go-to spot for its soft, honey-colored sand and the high waves that lap the shores during the winter months. But you don't have to be a surfer to appreciate Waikiki Beach; just lie back on a beach towel, relax and gaze up at the majestic Diamond Head State Monument in the distance.
When you need a break from the beach itself, there are scores of shops and restaurants lining the adjacent Kalakaua Avenue. The street is home to some of the world's most exclusive (read: expensive) designer boutiques, including Cartier, Coach, Hermès and Louis Vuitton. Many of the best Oahu hotels also overlook Waikiki Beach.
- #2View all Photos#2 in Honolulu - OahuFree, Tours, Monuments and Memorials, SightseeingTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDFree, Tours, Monuments and Memorials, SightseeingTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
Located northwest of downtown Honolulu in the Central Oahu region of the island, the Pearl Harbor National Memorial is home to the USS Arizona Memorial, which is the final resting place of 1,177 sailors killed during the Pearl Harbor attack. The sunken battleship is still visible from the memorial floating above it.
You can expect a long wait time and plenty of people at this attraction, but visitors almost unanimously agree that the experience is more than worth it. For fewer headaches when visiting, travelers recommend arriving before 7 a.m. if you plan on getting a walk-up ticket (only 1,300 are distributed per day on a first-come, first-served basis starting at 7 a.m.). You can also reserve one up to 60 days in advance on the monument's ticket portal. Note: Both kinds of timed passes are free, but a $1 service fee applies for tickets acquired online.
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Travel about 15 miles northeast of downtown Honolulu to the Windward Coast and you'll discover two of the island's most popular beaches – Kailua Beach Park and Lanikai Beach. Of the two, Lanikai is more tranquil, offering relatively calm waters and a mile of white sands. This family-friendly beach is also within view of the Mokulua Islands, a haven for kayaking and surfing.
Beachgoers praise Lanikai Beach's "gorgeous" setting, adding that its location in a mostly residential part of Kailua makes it less crowded and more relaxing than Waikiki Beach. But the beach's Kailua address is also its biggest drawback: Several visitors warn that parking in the area is limited. Some also report seeing jellyfish while visiting, so keep an eye out while swimming and snorkeling.
- #4View all Photos#4 in Honolulu - OahuSports, RecreationTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDSports, RecreationTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
It's no secret: Oahu is home to some of the world's best surfing spots. Every winter (when surfing conditions are at their best), professional surfers from across the globe flock to Oahu's North Shore to shred some gnarly waves in the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing. Basically the Super Bowl of surfing, the Triple Crown takes place in November and December when massive swells roll in from the stormy northern Pacific Ocean.
But you don't have to be a pro to hang 10 in Oahu. There are plenty of surfing schools that will take you from a grom (local slang for a surfing newbie) to a Big Kahuna in the course of a day. Best of all: No one will laugh if you wipe out (and you will).
- #5View all Photos#5 in Honolulu - OahuFree, Recreation, Swimming/PoolsTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDFree, Recreation, Swimming/PoolsTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
The Hawaiian Islands boast 1,200 miles of coral reef, so it's hardly surprising that two of Oahu's most popular activities are snorkeling and scuba diving. Dive into the island's surrounding turquoise water and you'll likely find an array of colorful fish (think: bright yellow tang, rainbow runners and reef triggerfish), plus bigger marine creatures like dolphins and sea turtles.
Past travelers loved snorkeling for free at public beaches like Sans Souci Beach Park (by Waikiki Beach) and Makaha Beach Park (on the Leeward Coast), citing the ample marine life and clear water as reasons to return. But keep in mind that loaner equipment fees vary by shop and rental period. Popular options include Snorkel Bob's, Aqua Zone Scuba Diving & Snorkeling and Hawaii Beach Time. Other regions, such as Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, are best explored during a snorkeling excursion via tour operators like Snorkelfest Snorkel Hanauma Bay and Hanauma Bay Tours. These half-day trips – which include round-trip transfers and the use of a mask, fins and a snorkel – generally cost $25 to $30 per adult (or about $20 for each child 12 and younger), plus taxes and an additional $7.50 preserve entrance fee for adults.
- #6View all Photos#6 in Honolulu - OahuNatural Wonders, Parks and Gardens, Hiking, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDNatural Wonders, Parks and Gardens, Hiking, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
Hawaiians call it Le'ahi, geologists call it a tuff cone (consolidated volcanic ash), 19th-century British sailors called it Diamond Head. Whatever you call it, this unique crater was created 300,000 years ago during a single volcanic eruption that spewed ash into the air. That ash settled over thousands of years, and today, Diamond Head State Monument's ridgeline is one of the most recognizable features of Oahu's skyline, not to mention home to one of the island's most scenic hiking trails.
Though the 760-foot hike up this tuff cone is somewhat taxing if you're out of shape, travelers say you'll be rewarded with a surreal view of Waikiki Beach and the Pacific Ocean once you reach the summit. But keep in mind that this natural wonder is one of Honolulu's most popular attractions, so consider arriving early to avoid the crowds and beat the heat. Also, remember to bring plenty of water, since no water fountains are available on the trail. For a different perspective, consider opting for a helicopter tour. Many of the island's air tour outfitters fly directly over the crater.
- #7View all Photos#7 in Honolulu - OahuFree, HikingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDFree, HikingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
Stretched across nearly 2 miles of Koko Crater in the Windward Coast region of Oahu, this hiking trail features more than 1,000 steps made from abandoned railroad ties. At the trail's summit, visitors will find panoramic vistas of Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve and Diamond Head State Monument.
Recent hikers cautioned that the Koko Crater Trail is steep and difficult to traverse, so travelers who are not in the best of shape may want to hike elsewhere. Many also stressed the importance of coming prepared with plenty of water, sunscreen and hiking shoes. What's more, some suggested visiting on a dry day since some parts of the trail are slippery, especially when they're wet. Others recommended arriving early to avoid crowds and peak temperatures. Those who don't mind the challenges that come with hiking this trail will be rewarded with "spectacular" views at the top, according to reviewers.
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If you like to kite surf or windsurf (or watch others participate in the sports), head to Kailua on the Windward Coast and find a perch at Kailua Beach. This 3-mile stretch of white, shaded sand and warm, turquoise-hued water appeals to both families and adrenaline junkies thanks to its gentle waves and ample facilities, including picnic tables, restrooms and free parking.
Some former visitors reported having a hard time finding parking here, but overall, many praised the beach's calm water and beautiful sand. Others appreciated the beach's less crowded atmosphere (on weekdays) and its breathtaking sunrises.
- #9View all Photos#9 in Honolulu - OahuTours, Monuments and Memorials, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDTours, Monuments and Memorials, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
Launched in 1944, the USS Missouri (or "Mighty Mo") is best known for hosting a meeting between Allied and Axis representatives that led to Japan's surrender and the end of World War II. After the war, the ship served in the Korean War and Operation Desert Storm before docking in Pearl Harbor and opening as a memorial. It holds the distinction of being the world's last active service battleship.
According to recent visitors, the Battleship Missouri Memorial's war artifacts and exhibits complement the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument's displays. Many past travelers also praised the attraction's knowledgeable tour guides. However, some wished bags could be taken on board and suggested leaving personal items behind to avoid paying a $5 per bag storage fee.
- #10View all Photos#10 in Honolulu - OahuFree, HikingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDFree, HikingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
Less than 6 miles northeast of the Koko Crater Trail lies the 2-mile-long Makapu'u Point Lighthouse Trail. Easier to trek than the one at Koko Crater, this free trail overlooks the Pacific Ocean and is a prime spot for spotting seabirds and whale watching between November and May. The path also leads to the red-roofed Makapu'u Lighthouse, which was built in 1909.
Visitors love that the Makapu'u Point Lighthouse Trail is paved and features ample benches, making it easy for travelers of all ages to explore. Many also rave about the trail's "amazing" views, adding that bringing a camera is a must. But remember, this path is mostly exposed to the sun and wind, so dress appropriately, wear sunscreen and pack plenty of water. Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources recommends allotting at least two hours to complete this hike.
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In ancient Hawaiian times, the Punchbowl Crater was used for human sacrifices. Now, it's the final resting place for men and women who served in the U.S. military. The National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific stretches across much of the crater and contains several moving tributes, including the Honolulu Memorial, which is dedicated to armed forces who fought in the Pacific during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Notable veterans buried here include Ernie Pyle (the famous World War II correspondent) and Stanley Dunham (the maternal grandfather of former President Barack Obama).
Previous visitors raved about the cemetery's beautiful and peaceful setting, adding that its memorial markers are very informative. However, some cautioned that the property can be a bit tricky to find, so consider using a GPS when driving. You can also take the No. 15 bus to the cemetery.
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In 2011, the Honolulu Academy of Arts joined forces with the Contemporary Museum to create the Honolulu Museum of Art. Together, this museum and its sister property, Spalding House, feature an art collection that spans across seas, styles and centuries. For the price of entry at one museum, you can also explore the other within the same day. (But note: They're 2 miles away from each other.)
Along with pieces by Europe's great painters (Picasso, Gauguin and van Gogh, to name a few), the Honolulu Museum of Art's main campus showcases one of America's best Asian art collections. Many visitors praise the property's Asian art exhibit, but for a truly unique experience, several recommend checking out the Arts of Hawai'i collection, where you can view Georgia O'Keeffe's Maui landscapes and indigenous feather capes. Others suggest saving time for Spalding House's permanent David Hockney installation.
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Like the Battleship Missouri Memorial, the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park sits in Pearl Harbor within view of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument. This historic vessel, which went on nine patrols during World War II, is one of only 15 U.S. World War II-era submarines that still exists. It now serves as a walk-through exhibit alongside a museum with various war artifacts, including battle flags, submarine bells and a Poseidon missile. Additional items, such as a cruise missile, a torpedo and a submarine rescue chamber, are on display in the surrounding park.
Some former travelers lamented the limited elbow room offered inside, but overall, many appreciated getting a firsthand look at the tight quarters sailors had to live in while stationed on this submarine. Others enjoyed the self-guided audio tours covered by museum and submarine admissions.
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This approximately 100-foot-tall waterfall, which sits 5 miles northeast of downtown Honolulu, is easily accessible. All you need is proper footwear, insect repellant, drinking water and the stamina to hike about 1½ miles on a well-worn path. The rainforest scenery is otherworldly, with enormous prehistoric ferns and the snaking roots of banyan trees. It's no wonder why Steven Spielberg filmed scenes from "Jurassic Park" here. You probably won't see any dinosaurs, but be prepared: The path to the falls can be quite slippery with mud, so wear sturdy hiking shoes that you don't mind getting dirty.
If you're new to hiking, past visitors said this is the trail for you. It'll get your blood pumping, but you'll be rewarded with breathtaking views of the falls. To enjoy the beauty of the falls without rubbing elbows with hordes of tourists, previous travelers suggested arriving before 10 a.m.
- #15View all Photos#15 in Honolulu - OahuMuseums, Historic Homes/Mansions, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDMuseums, Historic Homes/Mansions, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
Built in 1882, this 10-room historic house and museum details the reigns of King Kalakaua and his sister, Queen Liliuokalani, Hawaii's final monarchs. It is the only official state royal residence found in the U.S.
Recent travelers appreciated the unique glimpse into Hawaii's culture that this structure offers. However, you'll need to keep a few rules in mind when touring the property. Picture-taking is forbidden throughout the palace, and kids younger than 5 must be strapped into a child carrier or stroller at all times. Wearing cloth booties to protect the palace's koa wood floors is also required.
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There are many places in Honolulu to put down some cash and pick up some souvenirs, but none are as extensive as Ala Moana Center. Located northwest of Waikiki Beach and roughly 2 miles southeast of the city center, this behemoth open-air shopping center boasts a collection of high-end stores like Chanel and Versace, department store staples like Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus, and tourist-kitsch shops like 'Auana Quilts and Island Magnets. Its 350-plus shops and restaurants can take as little as an hour or as much as a whole day to explore.
Although some visitors warn that items sold at Ala Moana Center can be quite pricey, many enjoy shopping here. Others rave about the dining options available on-site, especially the Japanese Village food court on the first floor, and say the afternoon hula show cannot be missed.
- #17View all Photos#17 in Honolulu - OahuMuseumsTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDMuseumsTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
If you want to find out more about Hawaiian history and culture, then head to the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum. Named after the last descendant of the Kamehameha royal family and wife of museum founder Charles Reed Bishop, this property houses more than 24 million historical, cultural and natural artifacts about Hawaii and the Pacific. Exhibits include the three-story Hawaiian Hall (where visitors can learn about Hawaiian gods, key events in Hawaiian history and more) and the Hawai'i Sports Hall of Fame (an area devoted to Hawaiian sports history).
According to previous visitors, this museum is packed with interesting displays that appeal to travelers of all ages. In fact, many families raved about the property's interactive spaces and the Richard T. Mamiya Science Adventure Center's free lava demonstration. Some also recommended paying an extra $2.95 to see one of the planetarium's shows.
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The American tobacco heiress Doris Duke spent her winters living in this opulent oceanfront home near Diamond Head State Monument. She began building it in 1937 and then spent nearly 60 years filling its walls and rooms with art and furniture from Egypt, India, Morocco, Spain, Syria and Turkey. By the end of her life, she had amassed approximately 2,500 objects, which are now available for you to see on a tour of her home.
Art lovers should definitely make plans to stop by Shangri La, but you should also consider visiting the home if you're just a teensy bit curious about the enigmatic heiress. Many recent travelers were more than impressed with this museum, describing its collection as "unbelievable" and well worth a visit. Several also pointed out that the property itself – which is often compared to grand estates like Topkapi Palace in Istanbul and the Taj Mahal in Agra – can't be missed. But remember, parts of the museum are currently undergoing renovations.
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