Oahu, Hawaii is one of the most magical places in the United States. The variety of its scenery is sure to delight any nature lover, flaunting both lush mountains and serene beaches. Outdoor activities are plentiful with so many options to choose from such as snorkeling, hiking, and surfing. But, there is also the lively downtown Waikiki area that sports great shopping and restaurants.
Waikiki is the most popular place to stay, with easy access to great food and the famous Waikiki beach. However, it’s also possible to stay a bit further inland as long as you have a car. Speaking of which, renting a car is a necessity on Oahu so that you can see all the island has to offer.
1) Snorkeling In Hanauma Bay
Hanauma Bay has grown in popularity over the years, and for good reason. Its peaceful arching cove is absolutely breathtaking with soft golden sand and the brightest turquoise water you have ever seen.
What really makes Hanauma Bay special is the extremely shallow coral that attracts a huge variety of marine life. Plus, the fish are very used to humans so they will let you get super close. Venture out into deeper water to see some of the larger fish!
On that note, do be careful of the marine life and the coral. The coral has worn down over the years from getting kicked by the flippers of many tourists. Since the coral plays an integral part in supporting the ecosystem, it’s imperative that we protect it.
The beach at Hanauma Bay is as beautiful as any, so between snorkeling sessions, you can relax in the sun. Pack a lunch or head to the snack bar for a bite. Snorkeling equipment can be rented right on the sand, or you are welcome to bring your own as well.
What Day To Visit Hanauma Bay
Many locals claim that it’s best to visit Hanauma Bay on Wednesday. The reason for this is that Tuesday is the least crowded day at this idyllic cove.
The water at the bay gets cloudy when lots of people are there kicking up sand, so the logic is that on Wednesday the water is at its clearest. You’ll have to get there early (by 7 am) to make it worthwhile.
You could also plan to head to Hanauma Bay on your first day on Oahu as the parking lot gets full quickly. This way, if you are turned away you can try again on another day. Whatever day you go, get there early.
2) Kouliouou Hike
One of the top things to do in Oahu is to go hiking due to an abundance of lush ridge lines dotting the island. It’s so hard to choose what trail to do because there are so many good ones.
Kouliouou is perfect for those who prefer a more challenging hike and want great views of the city. Its path starts out winding through a well-covered forest with lots of moss and foliage.
Kouliouou really gives you a feeling of being immersed in nature as it’s quiet and there are not many others on the trail. Eventually, the tree cover subsides and epic views of downtown Honolulu are revealed.
The stairs to the top are intense but the flowers and butterflies along the way make it well worth it. The trailhead ends after emerging at a steep drop off that reveals yet another view of Oahu from a different vantage point.
3) Lanikai Pillbox Hike
The Lanikai pillbox hike is very popular due to its moderate intensity, unique looking military barracks, and proximity to Lanikai beach.
It begins with a muddy section that flaunts ropes to help climbers pull themselves up. For this reason, I wouldn’t recommend this hike after heavy rainfall.
It quickly opens up to beautiful views of Lanikai beach to the East and rolling hills to the West. The views are vibrant hues of aqua from the shallow ocean and green from the lush mountains. The ridgeline is steep and narrow at parts but not overly dangerous.
Old military barracks painted in various colors pop up at various points along the way, making for a great photo opportunity. There are a number of cliffs and platforms that make for the perfect Instagram shot as well.
Walk down to Lanikai beach after this one to catch some rays and rinse off. Lanikai has a quaint beach town vibe, and is much less crowded and has a more relaxed feel than Waikiki.
4) Waikiki Beach
No trip to Oahu would be complete without a day at the beach.
The famous Waikiki beach is the beating heart of downtown Honolulu with a much more energetic vibe than many of the other beaches on Oahu. Stay entertained by people watching, or hop into a game of beach volleyball.
Waikiki is centrally located so easy to get to for those staying in the area. Parking, on the other hand, can be quite difficult. The ocean side of the Ala Wai golf course is a good place to look, with easy access to the beach.
Speaking of the ocean side, Hawaiians use the terms Makai and Mauka to give directions around the island. Makai means on the ocean side, and Makau refers to the mountain or inland side. If you ever get lost, it’s quite easy to find a wall with graffiti scribble of one of these words to help you get your bearings.
5) Makupuu Point Lighthouse Trail
The Lighthouse trail is a gently sloping pathway that makes for an easy workout. It is wide and well-paved unlike other trails on Oahu. This is thanks to Barack Obama’s visit to it in 2014 which popularized the hike.
While this trail is fairly featureless at first, it does offer a glimmer of adventure for those who are not faint of heart. It is possible to hike down from the main trail to the Makupu’u tide pools. These adorable nooks are perfect for a relaxing dip or an epic photoshoot.
This activity is only accessible during low tide when the ocean recedes to form shallow tide pools among the rocks. Check out this tide chart to find out what time the low tide will be.
To access the tide pools, exit the path just before the third lookout on the Makupu’u lighthouse trail. The path is steep and unmarked so proceed with caution and wear secure footwear.
With west-facing views of the mountains, this trail provides vibrant sunset views.
6) China Walls
China Walls has exploded in popularity over the last few years, turning it from a local’s only hangout to a tourist hotspot.
Nestled in a suburban area, the rocky bluffs are a great place to stop off for an afternoon adventure. Parking here is fairly easy as long as you don’t mind a short walk through the neighborhood.
This spot is well-known as an excellent spot for sunset, so it tends to get more crowded as the evening wears on.
Oahu is a volcanic island and the terrain at China Walls were formed by hardened lava flows which gives them a very unique look. The smooth steplike design of China Walls also makes for the perfect place to sit while taking in the view. Crack a beer and enjoy laidback reggae tunes that often emanate from the area.
China walls are known for their rough surf and big waves. Stand too close to the edge and you’re sure to get splashed with sea spray.
It’s steep edges make it a very popular spot for cliff jumping. However, it’s important to exercise caution as the water can be quite intense.
It’s not uncommon for tourists to have to be rescued due to strong currents. Even if you don’t partake, watching the diving competitions of the young teenagers who frequent the area is extremely entertaining.
7) North Shore
The North Shore of Oahu is known for the huge waves that grace its shores. During the winter, this is a popular spot for advanced surfers as the waves swell over 30 feet high. Crowds often gather to watch the surfing competitions that take place.
The summer months bring calmer waters that are perfect for snorkeling. It’s not uncommon to spot turtles in the shallow waters of the North Shore’s coves.
Haleiwa is the main town at the North Shore, and it is known for its laidback island style. Grab a shaved ice and pop into an art gallery after an afternoon at the beach.
The North Shore of Oahu is about an hour’s drive from Waikiki. As you enter the area, you will pass through Doll’s famous pineapple plantation. From here, popular beach stop-offs are Waimea Bay Beach Park and Sunset Beach. There is also plenty of hiking to do in the area.
That wraps up my list of top attractions on Oahu. I hope this guide was helpful in planning your trip or inspiring you to visit this magical island!