Oahu’s best offerings are free, from the exquisite sunrises over Kailua beach to the rainbows, rain forests, waterfalls and miles of sandy beaches and coastlines to sigh for. Sometimes the best day is spent with toes in the sand and nose in a book, letting the rest of the world spin around you.
From cozy pocket coves to sweeping ribbons of white sand, Oahu’s beaches are as varied and distinct as its mountain cliffs and verdant valleys. Water temperatures vary slightly, from 77 degrees in the winter to 82 degrees in the summertime, and surf conditions can turn from tranquil waters into a rollicking surfer’s paradise overnight. Weather isn’t always a predictor for what’s happening under the water, so be sure to adhere to posted signs and nightly news forecasts about beach conditions, including wave heights and turbulence. One easy solution is to swim only at beaches with lifeguards, and check with them before entering the water.
Two-mile-long Waikiki Beach enjoys its fame for a reason: a postcard-perfect setting with Diamond Head in the distance, surfers paddling out for sunset waves, and clear, lapping waters begging you to come right in. Everything you need is there, from surfboard and boogie-board rentals to plenty of spots to grab a bento box or a burger. While much of the beach is action central — great people watching, anyone? — the less-crowded Fort DeRussy Beach Park area has palm trees, shade and picnic tables.
In Kailua, two beaches considered Oahu’s prettiest sit side by side: Kailua’s three-mile strand of cottony soft sand with just enough wave action to put your boogie board to good use, and Lanikai’s idyllic strand with its tethered outrigger canoes, palm trees, bathtub-calm waters and perfect view of the twin Mokulua Islands (referred to locally as “the Mokes”), which stays with you long after you return home.
Every Oahu visit includes a trek to the North Shore, where garlic-shrimp food trucks, Matsumoto’s Shave Ice — an island institution since 1951 — and the renowned surfing beaches are legendary. The surf spots draw crowds year-round but especially during the winter, when the waves are big and the surfing ferocious. Along this iconic route, Waimea, Sunset and Pipeline have seen the world’s greatest competitions of this Hawaiian-born sport. But leave the water to the pros and stick to gawking from shore. During winter months, the waves and undercurrents are enough to challenge even the most experienced.
On the southeastern coast, one of Oahu’s most iconic vistas, the pint-sized Halona Beach Cove, was forever etched in memory by the epic kiss in the sand between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in the 1953 classic From Here to Eternity. Best to appreciate it from the hilltop lookout, as the walk down to the beach is steep and rocky and can be treacherous if the water is choppy and rushing into the cove.
Wildlife viewing and boat tours
Green sea turtles, spinner dolphins and humpback whales can frequently be spotted in Oahu’s waters, and the endangered monk seal — a sweet-looking but fierce 400-pound grayish-black seal — occasionally makes an appearance on a sunny beach. Be careful to keep your distance, since interfering with any wildlife is prohibited by federal and state law, as well as local custom.
Whale watching can be found all around the island. The humpback whales migrate to Hawaii from Alaska during the winter (November through March) to give birth, and whale-watching tours offer a glimpse of the action — baby whales swimming with their mothers, putting on fabulous breaching and diving shows as the pups learn to hunt and live independently. These whales follow their own calendars, so their annual time of appearance varies to some degree, with the first spotting occurring in October some years. However, it’s a safe bet that you’ll be able to spot whales in Hawaii from November through the end of March. Whale-watching tours leave from Waikiki daily during whale season.
Spinner dolphins are visible from the waters on the leeward side of the island, with boat tours leaving from the Waianae Boat Harbor (and many offering pickups in Waikiki). Star of Honolulu offers a big-boat experience, while smaller boats like the North Shore Catamaran offer more personalization. Ask about recent sightings as well as no-sighting refunds before you book. The whales follow their own schedule, so sightings can vary significantly day-to-day.
Sunset cruises and catamaran sails are among the island’s most popular tours. In Waikiki, catamarans sail from the beach several times every day, including their popular sunset sails. Book with the crew right on the beach. Local favorites include Kepoikai II and the Holokai.
If getting out on the trails, in the water and back to nature is part of your Hawaiian dream, consider a visit to Kualoa Ranch, which offers tours, hikes, horseback riding, sailing, swimming and adventure on its 4,000-acre nature preserve. Its popular Hollywood’s Hawaii Backlot tour features more than 50 of the biggest blockbuster movies and TV shows filmed in the state.Yes, it’s very touristy, but the Dole Plantation in Wahiawa offers a glimpse of the island’s plantation days when immigrant workers tended acres of sugar cane and pineapples — and the world’s largest maze, one of only a few botanical mazes in America. The Pineapple Express Train tour through the property is especially family-friendly, and the frozen Dole Whip is always a crowd pleaser.
Waimea Valley, a cultural and conservation site across from famed Waimea Beach, takes visitors into the history of native Hawaiian life. Guests wander through the ahupuaa, a pie-shaped piece of land stretching from the mountain tops to the beach where native Hawaiians had access to everything they needed, from fresh water and hunting grounds to flatlands and ocean access. Hike the paved, shady two-mile path through indigenous rain forest plants and cool off at the waterfall at the trail’s end. If the walk seems too daunting, you can hop on a shuttle.
With a population of about 400,000, Honolulu — simply called “town” by the locals — encompasses the Waikiki area, the city’s business district, and urban neighborhoods like Kakaako, Manoa, Ala Moana and Chinatown, each with its own distinct feel, restaurants and lifestyle.
Made famous in the 1950s for its dreamy beaches and aloha way of life, Waikiki is all luxury shopping, beaches and sunscreen by day, and restaurants, bars and street life by night. Sunsets on the beach with Diamond Head in the background frame generations of family memories, with puka shell necklaces still lingering in jewelry boxes around the globe.
Downtown, which is the business district, covers just a few square blocks. Men and women (many of whom welcomed the sunrise while surfing nearby) scurry from meeting to meeting in their business aloha attire, their boards strapped to their cars in nearby garages. In Kakaako and Ala Moana, visitors and locals alike mix to shop, dine and walk the beach.
Honolulu’s Chinatown, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has turned a corner from its seedy World War II days, now boasting award-winning, trendy and locally beloved restaurants like The Pig and the Lady. Wander through its jumble of Chinese groceries and open-air markets, youthful bars, art galleries, acupuncture outlets, noodle factories, and lei makers on your own. Or join a walking tour led by the Hawaii Heritage Center.
Plenty of other themed walking tours show off the city. Want to explore Oahu’s unique fusion cuisine? Hawaii Food Tours take you to the best hole-in-the-wall diners, trucks and hidden gems. Local food writer Matthew Gray shares the island’s best food secrets and culinary hot spots, from Korean barbecue and Portuguese malasadas to dim sum, plate lunches and crack seed (a Chinese fruit snack). More interested in architecture? Yep, there’s a tour for that, too.
While you can explore most of the island’s land-based points of interest on your own, guided tours add both convenience and local insights. The Waikiki Trolley’s hop-on, hop-off buses hit many of the cultural and historic sites as well as major scenic vistas, shopping areas and restaurants. One-, four- and seven-day passes are available, allowing you to create your own itinerary. For a personalized private tour, Donna’s Detours offers private half- and full-day adventures built around your interests and activity level.
Coach bus tours covering all aspects of Oahu can be arranged through Roberts Hawaii and Polynesian Adventure Tours.
Apart from an array of regular tours, Tom’s Barefoot Tours aggregates dozens of wheelchair- and walker-accessible tours, from shark-cage and whale-watching adventures to evening cruises and city sightseeing, all tailored to your activity level and interest and searchable by special need.
Ways to save: Save up to 55 percent on top tours, museums and attractions with a Go Oahu card. For tours, always check the vendor’s websites for promo codes, and look through the coupons offered with other bookings (like the hop-on, hop-off trolley).
Don Ho’s “Tiny Bubbles” put Hawaiian music on the map in the mid-1960s, while Bruddah Iz (Israel Kamakawiwoole) cemented the island’s music stronghold with his haunting rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” almost 30 years later. Today, the islands’ ukulele and slack-key guitar melodies blend with local folk and rock tunes, grabbing your heart with their unique, melodic strings wafting in tune with the tropical breeze and the gentle ocean waves in the distance. Paired with a mai tai and a sunset, there’s nothing better.
Top-notch local musicians make the rounds at the hotels and various venues around the island. The Halekulani’s House Without a Key and the Moana’s Banyan Tree Bar offer hula dancing and live music most nights at sunset. The Hilton Hawaiian Village boasts some of the island’s best musicians regularly. You can hear Hawaiian music most days on the beachfront stage at Duke’s Waikiki restaurant, with well-known local legends making frequent appearances.
It’s not Hawaii without a big luau show (and the multicourse feast starring a slow-roasted kalua pig). From Germaine’s Luau’s beachside Polynesian show in Kapolei to the Polynesian Cultural Center’s traditional luau and more extravagant fire-dancing hula show, “HA: Breath of Life,” options abound. (Both are wheelchair accessible.) If you’re staying in Waikiki and don’t want to travel far, there are plenty to choose from nearby, including the Waikiki Starlight Luau at the Hilton Hawaiian Village and the Ahaaina Luau at the Royal Hawaiian.
Last, world-class music, Broadway productions, stand-up comedians, Ballet Hawaii and the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra can all be found at the historic Hawaii Theatre, the Neal S. Blaisdell Center and Waikiki Shell, and the Blue Note Hawaii. Whether it’s Jimmy Buffet’s periodic island sojourn or Ballet Hawaii’s annual rendition of The Nutcracker, don your favorite aloha attire and join Honolulu locals on the lawn, in the seats and on the balcony. (The Hawaii Theatre provides wheelchair seating and audio devices, and the Blaisdell Center accommodates the mobility-impaired.)
Ways to save: You can hear live music in many of the restaurants and bars at the various hotels, often with no cover charge, so sidle up, order a beverage and enjoy.
With all the beaches and rainbows and lapping waves, it’s sometimes difficult to pull away long enough to find the rest of Oahu — the history and museums that tell the story of an island, its first inhabitants, Captain Cook’s arrival and, eventually, its place in World War II history.
Pearl Harbor, still an active military base, includes the USS Arizona Memorial as well as the USS Missouri battleship, the USS Bowfin submarine and the recently opened Pacific Aviation Museum, with a historic aircraft collection and the iconic red-and-white Ford Island Control Tower that first broadcast the attack on Pearl Harbor. Seeing everything will make a packed day. Be advised that backpacks, purses and other hand-carried items are not allowed into the museum and memorial area. Lockers are provided to store your belongings.
If you book your Arizona Memorial tickets in advance, make sure to arrive early to allow time to see the film, tour the museum and browse the bookstore before boarding your boat to the Arizona. The memorial itself sits atop the sunken ship and is considered a burial ground, so visitors are instructed to keep conversation to a minimum and voices low.
The Pearl Harbor Visitors Center, the Arizona Memorial, portions of the battleship Missouri, and the Pacific Aviation Museum are all wheelchair accessible, offer handicap parking close to the entrance, and provide closed captions and an induction loop in the theater for those with hearing aids. There are no wheelchair rentals available on the property; any medications or medical devices must be cleared with security upon entry. The Bowfin submarine is only accessible for those able to navigate the close quarters and ladders.
The Honolulu Museum of Art offers a tranquil respite from the sun and sand, with galleries filled with local and global artifacts and art collected by the museum as well as noted local collectors. The museum’s cafe is a favorite lunch spot for locals in the know, and the gift shop is one of the best. (Courtesy wheelchairs are available.)
If magnificent oceanfront estates, mysterious wealthy socialites (as in art collector and philanthropist Doris Duke) and a never-ending collection of Islamic art intrigue you, Shangri La is not to be missed. The home and views alone are jaw-droppingly photo worthy. (Those who cannot climb 53 steps easily should contact the museum two weeks in advance to arrange a private tour that bypasses the steps.)
The 1882 Iolani Palace, a National Historic Landmark, tells the story of Hawaii’s last reigning monarchs, the imprisonment of Queen Liliuokalani within the palace walls and her eventual overthrow. The palace is also noteworthy for having gotten electric lights several years before the White House. (Wheelchairs are available to borrow.)
Other museums worth a visit, particularly on those days when the sun’s too much or the rain has moved in, are the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum of cultural and natural history, which focuses on Hawaii and includes a kid-friendly planetarium, and the Hawaii State Art Museum, which exhibits local work. (Both are wheelchair accessible, and the Bishop Museum offers assistance to the visually impaired.)
Ways to save: Get your free tickets to the Arizona Memorial online (with a $1 processing fee) up to eight weeks in advance. Save $4.50 with the Passport to Pearl Harbor package tour, which combines all the Pearl Harbor sites. Buy tickets online for the Pacific Aviation Museum to save up to 20 percent.
Those 65 and over save $3 on admission to the Bishop Museum. The Hawaii State Art Museum is free. Museum membership programs at the Bishop Museum and the Honolulu Museum of Art might be worthwhile, depending on your length of stay and frequency of visits. A basic membership may be more cost-effective than the daily admission fee, and it gets you discounts in the shops and cafes.
You can’t return home without an authentic reminder of your visit. Must-have items usually include a favorite aloha shirt or dress, macadamia nuts and Kona coffee, as well as island jewelry ranging from puka shell necklaces and plumeria earrings to exquisite Niihau shell lei necklaces, traditional 14-karat gold Hawaiian bracelets and original pieces from local jeweler Na Hoku. Browse the boutiques, gift shops and Ala Moana Shopping Center — the seventh-largest mall in the U.S. and believed to be the largest outdoor mall in the world.
Been a while since you’ve traveled to Hawaii? You may be surprised at the changes made to the International Marketplace. Once a haven for various family-run vendors and trinkets, the marketplace closed down in 2013 for three years, reopening in the summer of 2016 as a mix of upscale shopping and eateries. Despite the makeover, many of the old charms were kept, such as Donn’s Treehouse, and new event spaces routinely host local music and hula shows.
Also, don’t forget the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet, Hawaii’s largest open-air flea market, on Sunday, Wednesday and Saturday. Cool off with a classic shave ice (cherry, blue raspberry, lilikoi, or grape, perhaps?) or refreshing in-the-shell coconut water. And if antiquing is your thing, make time for Antique Alley and Tin Can Mailman for vintage Hawaiiana and classic treasures. Just make sure to get there before the costume and props folks of Hawaii Five-0. Where else would they find their old-timey aloha shirts, World War II pin-up posters and iconic hula-girl lamps?
Ways to save: Splurge on island jewelry, but save the trinkets for a trip to a Longs Drug Store or an ABC Store, where your Kona coffee, mac nuts and curios will be a steal. At the Swap Meet, try your hand at bargaining, but also be sure to shop around, finding the vendor with the best prices.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on February 23, 2018. It's been updated to reflect new information.