things to do in oahu - waikiki beach

If you want more from your Hawaiian vacation than a suntan, O‘ahu offers a multitude of activities that will keep you happy and busy. Among the more popular activities are glider rides, ocean tours, golfing, hiking, scuba diving and kayaking. You will find lots more to do here as well.

This page will take you through different things to do in Oahu: whether you want to shop, need activities fit for the whole family, are looking for a cultural experience, or are just looking for the Diamond Head hike and places to eat.

Shopping in Honolulu

honolulu shopping

If you’re looking for gifts to bring back home for family and friends (or maybe something for yourself), you came to the right island. Daytime in Waikiki is all about the beach and water activities; nighttime is all about the food and shopping. Opportunities to spend money are everywhere, but don’t be surprised if the retail clerks at the more upscale places largely ignore you—they know from experience that most vacationers from the mainland are just browsing. The salespeople prefer to instead focus their attention on the overseas tourists, many of whom come here specifically to shop. (Believe it or not, Hawai‘i’s outrageously high prices are a steal compared to Tokyo). It’s not practical to list and evaluate every store, so here’s some general guidance on where on O‘ahu you’ll want to shop. 

The obvious place to start your shopping spree is Kalakaua Avenue (the main drag running through Waikiki.) Tons of high-end stores line the street (although for the most part, they are the same kinds of stores you’d find in any major metro area of nearly a million people.) The nearby Ala Moana Center, just outside the boundaries of Waikiki, is the largest mall in the state. 

Diamond Head Oahu

diamond head

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 O‘ahu’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.

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Cultural things to do in Oahu

Polynesian Cultural Center

polynesia cultural canter

One of the top things to do in Oahu for a cultural experience. It’s as far from Waikiki on O‘ahu as you can get—both literally and figuratively. Near the far northern tip of the island in La‘ie, the Polynesian Cultural Center is a laid-back re-creation of various island villages from across Polynesia. In addition to Hawai‘i, you can explore Tahiti, Tonga, Fiji, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Samoa and Rapa Nui (which you probably know better by the name Easter Island). They don’t pretend to be completely authentic—power outlets, plywood, electric lights and cell phones are ever-present—but it’s definitely not a Hawaiian Disneyland with rides and dolphins leaping out of the water. What they’ve attempted to do here is to create a non-frantic environment where you can wander around at your leisure and learn about all things Polynesian. You’ll see various styles of huts, cultural demonstrations, lots of dancing, spear-throwing and more. Coconuts trees, palm fronds and a meandering, cement-lined lagoon create an island atmosphere that’s certainly closer to reality than anything you’ll find in Waikiki.

Bishop Museum

The most comprehensive museum in the state is filled with thousands of historically and culturally significant artifacts, including the feathered cape worn by King Kamehameha the Great. There’s also a real lava demonstration two times a day in the science center.

The museum was established by the husband of Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the last descendent of King Kamehameha the Great, to preserve and perpetuate the legacy of the Hawaiian monarchy, so there’s a noticeable bent to the way some of the history is described. But overall, the collection does a good job of showcasing the state’s heritage. Priceless royal heirlooms sit side by side with more common items like lava poi pounders and bone fishhooks. (No indication if any of the fishhooks were made from human bone, as was often done at that time.) Other items on display include carved wooden tikis and a feathered representation of the war god Kuka‘ilimoku, as well as a real grass hut, shark’s tooth-studded weapons that were used to disembowel unsuspecting enemies, jewelry, a 55-foot sperm whale skeleton, and a conch shell that’s more than 600 years old and worn from generations of Hawaiians who rubbed it while blowing through it like a bugle.

Places to eat in Honolulu

Rum Fire

rum fire

A cool, trendy upscale bar atmosphere (lots of rum, lots of fire) with tons of well-conceived drinks and a killer rum selection. Check out their “rum bible” with 101 selections from around the world. (We’re plowing our way through that list—just for you—still loving the Ron Zacapa and the Zaya.) Also a good beer and wine by-the-glass selection. Oh, yeah, and food. The selection is modest, and there’s no real theme. Think of it as high-end bar food with a definite local flair. Portions aren’t huge, and the appetizer list is pretty meager. But the food’s tasty. 

Il Lupino Trattoria & Wine Bar

il lupino trattoria wine bar

The dining room is dimly lit and has a romantic feel, but try to get a table outside, in the Royal Hawaiian courtyard. Classic Italian dining with excellent service and delicious food. They offer lots of simple dishes that are meant to be shared, similar to tapas, and many entrées can be ordered family style. They do seafood well here, and you may lean toward those dishes when you see the price of their steaks (usually over $100—enough to exclude from our price averages). Despite an extensive selection of liquor, the bartending skills here aren’t the best, so stick with something from their massive wine list. Parking is in the Royal Hawaiian garage, and they’ll validate.

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Things to do in Oahu with kids

K1 Speed Hawaii

k1 speed

It’s tempting to think electric go-kart racing is a kid’s attraction. But I assure you—adults will walk out with a kid-like grin on their face. You and up to a dozen other drivers rip along an indoor track, squealing around corners, trying to beat everyone’s time. I was surprised at how intense the racing felt. Spectators get to stand right next to the track. Food is restricted to vending machines between races, or you can bring your own food. Avoid this place like the plague on weekends—super busy. All in all, a fun way to blow $30–$100 (all prices include $8 membership). 

Coral Crater Adventure Park

coral crater adventure park

What would you do if you owned a 35-acre hole in the ground, the result of an abandoned military quarry that’s overgrown with trees and generally unloved? Turn 10 acres of it into an adventure park and team-building location, of course.

Coral Crater Adventure Park has a toe-tingling 60-foot high adventure tower that you traverse in various ways trying not to fall off (you’re tied in, of course), a freefall stopped by harness and magnetic brake, giant swing, a climbing wall, a tiny ATV course, ziplines and their renowned zombie apocalypse. Lots of kid-friendly things to do in Oahu here. 

Best things to do North Shore Oahu

Sharks Cove

sharks cove

First of all, it ain’t overly sharky. It was so named by divers years ago because it sounded more exciting than “the area to the right of the tide-pool at Pupukea.” This tiny cove offers fantastic snorkeling and SCUBA much of the time during the summer (May–September). Yeah, it’s popular and sometimes crowded with people. But it’s also crowded with fish since this area is a preserve. You may find gobs of fish and the occasional turtle, hard-to-find octopus and even bait balls at times. Entry can be awkward over the slippery rocks. Most people enter from the left side, so if you want some wiggle room, consider entering from the right side of the cove. Snorkelers should stay inside the cove.

Waimea Bay

waimea bay beach park

Say the words “Waimea Bay” to surfers, and their eyes will light up. Visiting Waimea Bay is one of the best things to do in Oahu for serious surfers. This is the most famous big wave surf site in the world. In the winter, waves 20–40 feet high are not uncommon. Visitors and locals alike delight in coming here during these swells, lining the shoreline and road, and watching the best surfers in the world take their chances sliding down these four-story walls of water. A collapsing wave can snap boards, snap people, or hold ’em underwater for minutes at a time. If you’re on O‘ahu in the winter and the surf is giant, this is where you want to go. (Other surf sites close out with big surf.) Needless to say, you don’t want to get anywhere near the water during big winter surf. You’ll die… period… no kidding.

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