Trust us when we say there is a lot to do on each of Hawai’i’s islands. Oahu Island, in particular, is known as the gathering place and is home to Waikiki’s limitless shopping, 30,000 hotel rooms, and user-friendly beaches where just about anyone can take a surfing lesson and ride their first wave.
Creating an ultimate guide to Oahu island is a full-time job. It takes us two years to produce a first edition book, and in the meantime, we update our mobile app daily with new information on places we’ve reviewed.
But to highlight a few real gems, here is a guide to the best on Oahu island, featuring unbiased reviews.
North Shore Hawaii
North Shore Hawaii is the prettiest drive on the entire island. Forget the big city and its multi-lane highways. This is a place with only a few traffic lights and a two-lane road that hugs the shoreline, embracing the Hawai‘i of yesteryear. Along the way you’ll find yourself constantly drooling over the beaches and mountain scenery.
This is a long section in our guidebooks and app because once you’ve driven past Kane‘ohe, you’re committed to the drive to Hale‘iwa. So, although part of windward O‘ahu is on this tour, we’re sticking with the term North Shore Sights. (North Shore Hawaii and the Northern part of Windward Shore Sights wouldn’t fit in the heading.)
Here are some North Shore Hawaii best bets:
Best Shoreline Drive—From Kualoa Beach Park to Hale‘iwa
Best Place to Watch Turtles—Turtle Beach
Best Snorkeling—Shark’s Cove (when it’s calm)
Best Beach That You Can’t Drive a Car to—Hidden Beach
Best Place to Stay Out of the Water—Anywhere on the North Shore when the surf’s up
Best Photo Op of You Under a Waterfall—Waimea Valley
Best Surf Spot That’s Not Marked—Banzai Pipeline
Best Use of a Cargo Plane—Snaring parachutes containing spy film
Diamond Head is that iconic volcano crater that defines the Honolulu skyline. And just like the Statue of Liberty in New York, the St. Louis Arch and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, you’re practically required to visit it.
The first thing you’ll notice after entering the crater (through a long tunnel bored through the side) is that you are in an open field surrounded by high cliff walls, nearly perfectly circular and more than 3,500 feet in diameter, as if you’re at the bottom of a massive, fluted bowl. That’s because Diamond Head is a tuff cone. It formed in the waning days of Oahu island’s growing phase, about 100,000 years ago, as the island moved away from the hot spot due to plate tectonics, and sea water seeped into the magma chamber. Ocean water flashed from liquid to gas, and the resulting pressure buildup caused a violent explosion of steam and ash. That’s why it looks more like an impact crater on the moon than a traditional volcanic cinder cone—the rim is where cemented ash fell back to earth. Scientists think the crater rim is higher on one side because that’s the direction the wind was blowing during the eruption.
Manoa Falls Trail
This is generally considered the second most popular hike on Oahu island (after Diamond Head), but we haven’t seen nearly as many people on it as its reputation suggests. It’s popular for good reason. The trail is close to Honolulu, but the isolated jungle valley is a world away from the city noise. The surrounding forest is staggeringly beautiful. It’s only a mile each way (though you gain 800 feet in the process), and it rewards you with a very pretty 160-foot-high waterfall.
Right from the get-go, it’s obvious that this is an impossibly lush area. Giant trees with luxuriant clinging vines, elephant-eared ape (pronounced ah-pay) plants and every shade of green you could want along with a soundtrack of tropical birds create an Eden-like atmosphere. The stream is always nearby, and the verdant growth is ever present. Once at the falls, there’s a bench to sit on and listen to the hissing water. All in all, a very rewarding hike for relatively little effort.
Kuli’ou’ou Ridge Trail
The Ko‘olau Range is the long mountain that stretches 36 miles, effectively defining the windward side. From its meandering summit you’ll find some of the best views on Oahu island. Look one way, and most of the windward side stretches before you. Turn around, and the leeward side from Honolulu to Makapu‘u Point is all yours.
The leeward side of this range gently slopes toward the sea, so that’s where all the trails to the summit are. (The windward side of the ridge is cliffy.) Erosion has created a repeating pattern of ridges and valleys. What does this mean for the hiker lusting after the views up there? It means you’ll be walking up one of the many ridges until you get to the summit.
Map of Oahu beaches
Things to do in Oahu Hawaii
If you need help planning out the exact things to do in Oahu Hawaii, we have a number of itineraries based on your stay. If you are there for one day, you can check out our itinerary here. If you are there for a weekend we have a 3 day itinerary that you can find here. And if you are there for 5 days we have an itinerary for that. The itineraries have complete guides for your trip including which Oahu Hawaii hotels to stay at and even describes Oahu weather. For up to the minute weather and traffic reports, check out the Oahu island chapter in our app.
Best Hawaiian food Oahu
Looking for the best Hawaiian food on Oahu island? These local restaurants earn an Ono in our books because they stand out from the rest.
a place to eat
These guys are too modest. (Heck, a vending machine is “a place to eat.”) This is tasty, inexpensive, gourmet cuisine in a clean, well-lit modern atmosphere. They’re hard to put into a category, but comfort food done Oahu island-style probably comes close. The small menu includes dishes like macadamia nut mahimahi with ginger cream sauce, sweet and sour ribs, and the popular blue New Yorker, a N.Y. strip steak smothered in bleu cheese herb butter on a bed of rice with caramelized onions. Portions are savory and generous for the price. (The homemade Oreo brownie-wich dessert is best shared.) Service is fast and friendly.
Well, here it is—the most expensive restaurant we’ve ever reviewed in Hawai‘i. A couple can easily spend $500 for the evening. Which begs the question—is the food worth $500? Of course not. No food is worth that much. But a better way to approach it is, if you have $500 to blow, is this a good place to blow it? Answer: yes.
But here’s where they soar. You start with the premise that you have to trust them. You have two choices—four courses or six courses. You can substitute a little, usually for an extra fee. (They love extra fees.) Then you choose between wine pairing or no wine pairing. We strongly encourage the pairing, because they do it really, really, really well. The menu changes every season, and the staff gathers to do blind taste testing of the wine. (I’ll bet nobody calls in sick on that day.)
Hawaii Revealed App
More things to reveal in the app:
- Reviews on Hawaii Resorts with their locations
- Reviews on every single beach on the islands
- Interactive maps of Kauai, Maui, Oahu and the Big Island
- Details to help plan your visit to Hawaii’s best sights, tours, activities and more
Download our app to find everything you need to know about Oahu Island