My sister Shannon attended college at the University of Hawaii and fell head over heels in love with Oahu. Today she works in forestry and conservation on the island and I try to visit her whenever I can.
To be honest, I didn’t love Oahu when I visited it as a tourist for the first time. However over the years I have gotten the chance to see it from a whole new perspective. I make Shannon keep a running list of her favorite things to do in Oahu, and this has become the only destination I travel to where I don’t research or plan anything.
Keep reading for some of the highlights from our past trips; discover what to eat, unique things to do, where to stay and tips for visiting.
13 THINGS TO DO IN OAHU // A LOCAL’S GUIDE
WATCH THE SUNRISE FROM THE LANIKAI PILLBOXES
If you’re suffering from jetlag (or just an early riser), I recommend taking a trip to the windward side of the island to catch the sunrise from the Lanikai Pillboxes. These old military bunkers from WWII are situated at the top of a short hike, complete with some of the most incredible views on Oahu. Pack breakfast and watch the sun come up behind the Mokulua Islands.
Naturally, most people on vacation have no interest in watching the sun rise but don’t worry, the views are incredible no matter what time of day you visit. We hiked during sunset and still got a great show.
KAYAK TO THE MOKULUA ISLANDS
The Mokulua Islands (also known as the Mokes) are Oahu’s famous twin islands that lie off the coast of the windward side. While they make for an epic postcard worthy view, many people don’t know that you can actually visit Moko Nui (the larger island to the left).
Take half day in Kailua kayaking to the Mokulua Islands and spend the day snorkeling alongside the beautiful reef and unique lava formations. You’ll also find the Queen’s Bath as well as Shark’s Cove, a popular cliff diving spot toward the back of the island.
The Mokes are primarily a seabird sanctuary and also one of the best places on Oahu to spot the critically endangered monk seal.
For a complete guide to spending the day on Mokulua Islands, including tips for acquiring a permit (required), which beach to launch from and more, click my related post below.
RELATED POST: KAYING TO MOKULUA ISLANDS // AN IN-DEPTH GUIDE
FLOAT AROUND AT KAIONA BEACH
Shannon recommends branching away from Waikiki and experiencing a more local side of the island’s beaches. Waimanalo is home to some of her favorites.
Lanikai is commonly known for having one of the most beautiful beaches on Oahu.. but with that, comes heavy crowds. Little do people know, less than 10 miles down the road lies Lanikai’s vacant twin. Same white sand, same clear blue water, same shallow reef and even an island out in the distance. We stopped at Kaiona Beach Park in the middle of the day and had the entire shoreline to ourselves. It was magical.
Kaiona Beach would be ideal for for families and snorkelers as there is minimal to no shore break. Be sureto check out the tidal pool (which was used in the 1980’s show, Mangum PI); they also have restrooms, showers and a camping site.
HIKE LULUMAHU FALLS
Lulumahu Falls is one of Shannon’s favorite hikes in Oahu because it’s only short distance from the city but you feel as if you’re worlds away, trekking through the jungle. Some compare it to the super popular Manoa Falls hike, however, Manoa offers a clearly defined trail plus tourist facilities, a gift shop and a cafe… and Lulumahu has quite the opposite.
Hiking Lulumahu Falls is one of my favorite things to do in Oahu. You don’t feel as if you’re hiking, it is more like an adventure. We climbed over fallen trees, crossed streams and navigated our way through bamboo forests all the way to the 50ft waterfall at the end of the trail.
If you’re interested in hiking Lulumahu Falls, check out my related post below for everything you need know.
VISIT GREEN ROWS FARM
One of Shannon’s closest friends in Oahu lives and works at Green Rows Farm with a community of young farmers dedicated to regenerative agriculture and passionate about Oahu’s local food movement.
We stopped by the farm one afternoon, and Luka gave us a full tour. She introduced us to the animals which include bulls, chickens, a horse, and a tortoise. She showed us what crops they’re currently growing and told us a little about the farm. The property is located in Waimanalo at the base of a gorgeous mountain and the views are incredible.
Green Rows Farm also hosts a variety of events. Depending on the schedule for that month you can stop in for yoga days (aptly named Yogarden), drum dance ceremonies, and shows by local musicians and story tellers.
If you’re not in town during one of the events but still interested in visiting the farm, you can arrange a tour, or visit during their volunteer days which happen every Wednesday. Don’t come expecting a Dole Plantation style tour, the vibes are super laid back and causal. It’s such a cool experience and definitely one of the more local things to do in Oahu.
GO MURAL HUNTING IN KAKA’AKO
Kaka’ako is an up and coming area that neighbors Ala Moana Center in Waikiki. Shannon recommends visiting for the murals and then spending time checking out the local breweries, trendy coffee shops and boutiques in the area.
The murals are the main draw of Kaka’ako. Each year a global network of artists called Pow!Wow! come together to paint all over the neighborhood. The central event happens in February but you can view the murals year round.
Check out Lana Lane for some of the most popular pieces, including art by Simone Legno, the co-founder and artist of Tokidoki.
Download the a Google Map with the locations of each mural here. Also be sure to check out my related post below for a neighborhood guide to Kaka’ako
DO A SELF GUIDED BREWERY TOUR IN KAKA’AKO
After you’re done mural hunting in Kaka’ako, consider taking a self guided beer tour of some of the neighborhood’s local micro breweries (all located within walking distance).
Beer has been a part of Kaka’ako’s history for over a century. The neighborhood was once home to to the Honolulu Brewing and Malting Co, a pre-Prohibition brewery which opened it’s doors in 1900 and launched the Primo lager brand in 1901.
Today there are several local breweries in the neighborhood worth checking out. Click my related post below to learn more about them as well as the unique beers they have to offer.
RELATED POST: 4 OAHU BREWERIES YOU NEED TO VISIT // A SELF GUIDED TOUR
TAKE THE LONG ROAD TO NORTH SHORE
One of Shannon’s favorite things to do in Oahu is drive to North Shore via the coast. Instead of taking the Pali Highway, which cuts through the middle of Oahu, she recommends going the long way and driving along the Eastern side, slowly making your way to the North.
Make sure to take pitstops at some of the coves and beaches (her favorite is Kahana Bay and I love Halona Beach Cove) and snack on fresh coconuts and banana lumpia from street vendors along the way.
When you arrive at North Shore, stop at one of the most popular food trucks on the island, Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck. Or have lunch at Shannon’s favorite spot, Wailua Bakery.
TAKE A SUNSET BOAT RIDE
One of the best ways to see Waikiki Beach is from the water. On my last trip to Oahu, we took a cruise to watch the sunset and it was magical experience.
We booked with Diamond Head Cruises and loved everything about it. The crew was super friendly and there was only one other family on board so it felt very private. This would be a great activity for a date night or if you’re celebrating a special occasion while on Oahu.
The sunset cruise takes about 2 hours and from the water you get an excellent view of the Diamond Head Volcano as well as Waikiki’s skyline.
If you’re in town on a Friday night, you can watch the Hilton Hawaiian Village firework show. Our captain positioned the boat right in front of the display and we were able to witness the entire thing from the water.
SPEND A FEW HOURS EXPLORING CHINATOWN
Aside from the hordes of people who want wedding photos beneath the lit up Hawaii Theater sign, a visit to Chinatown is not usually on people’s list of things to do in Oahu.
Shannon lives in this area so we have explored it quite a bit during my visits. As far as looks go, there are definitely prettier neighborhoods on the island but Chinatown is lively and unique, and worth dedicating a few hours toward exploring.
From one of my favorite local coffee shops on the island (Ali’i), to the best pizza on Oahu (J Dolans), there are tons of unique places to eat in Chinatown. It’s also great for souvenir shopping as there are several cute boutiques in the area. Check out Roberta Oaks who sells modern and fashionable Aloha shirts or search for eclectic vintage pieces at Barrio Vintage.
If you’re looking for a unique and non touristy neighborhood to go bar hopping, Chinatown has some great options. The Tchin Tchin Bar is a trendy lounge with an upstairs, outdoor patio. They also have an extensive wine list and serve artisan cocktails.
GRAB SOME RAMEN AND CHEAP BEER AT SHIROKIYA JAPAN VILLAGE WALK
Shirokiya Japan Village Walk is not technically not an “off the beaten path” thing to do in Oahu but unless you are Japanese, there’s a good chance you might not come across it during your research.
Located in the Ewa Wing of the Ala Moana mall, this indoor market is beautifully decorated with flowers and paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling. Japan Village Walk is primarily a food court featuring dozens of vendors serving Japanese cuisine such as ramen, sushi, bentos, udon, soba, onigiri, bubble tea, desserts and more.
Shirokiya Japan Village Walk is also one of the best places to grab cheap beer on Oahu. Their beer garden area serves beer as cheap as $1, with pitchers ranging from $8-16.
In addition to food and drinks, there are also a few shops as well as a stage for live music and a children’s corner with Gachapon machines.
ADDRESS 1450 Ala Moana Blvd. Ste. 1360 Honolulu, Hawaii 96814
CONNECT WITH NATURE AT FOSTER BOTANICAL GARDEN
My sister works in forestry on Oahu so she likes to sneak botanical gardens onto our list of things to do during my visits.
Foster Botanical Garden is located in the middle of Downtown Honolulu and offers a quiet, peaceful escape from the busy city. The garden is home to some of the oldest trees on the island as well as a world-class collection of orchids, palms, and even some Prehistoric plants.
Within the Botanical Garden, you’ll find an outdoor butterfly garden, a palm garden and a gorgeous Bodhi tree which is a direct descendant of the tree Buddha sat under to reach Enlightenment. If your timing is impeccable, you might even get to see their Corpse Flower bloom. This flower only blooms every 7-10 years it emits a scent that people compare to rotting meat.
There is a small entrance fee to visit Foster Botanical Gardens ($5 Adults / $3 Hawaiian Residents) but they offer daily guided tours for free at 10:30 am. They also have maps available that will assist you on taking your own self guided tour if you prefer to walk the gardens alone.
ADDRESS 180 N Vineyard Blvd, Honolulu, HI 96817
RELATED POST: OAHU’S FOSTER BOTANICAL GARDEN // A VISITOR’S GUIDE
BRUSH UP ON HISTORY WHILE DRINKING A BEER AT THE BREWSEUM
The Brewseum is one of the stops on my self guided tour of Oahu breweries, but it is so unique and fun that I’m giving it its own spot on this list.
The Brewseum is a local brewery that doubles as a WWII museum. It features the largest private collection of World War II memorabilia in the Pacific and all of the museum’s contents have been donated by over 100,000 WWII Veterans and their families.
While you sip your beer (brewed in house) check out all of the photos, letters, posters, artifacts, uniforms and more. Also be sure to visit their 1940’s style speakeasy, the Wiki Waki Woo. It’s located upstairs and accessed only through a secret knock.
For more photos and information about the Brewseum, check out my self guided Oahu brewery tour here.
ADDRESS 901 Waimanu St, Honolulu, HI 96814
TRY AN OFF THE BEATEN PATH RESTAURANT
Duke’s Waikiki restaurant is probably on your list of places to eat on Oahu, but why not branch out and experience some more local, off the beaten path eateries as well?
From an all you can eat buffet at the Hare Krishna temple, to a sunny smoothie shack, tacos, Instagrammable ice cream and more, check out my list of 15 unique places to eat on Oahu. And if you follow a plant based, I gotchu .. click here to discover 23 must visit Oahu vegan and vegetarian restaurants.
A LOCAL’S TIPS FOR VISITING OAHU
FAMILIARIZE YOURSELF WITH HAWAIIAN CULTURE Before Hawaii became the 50th state, it was an independent nation known as Kingdom of Hawaii, and they had Kings and Queens. The United States overthrew the monarchy and today, many Hawaiians still consider their islands to be an occupied state. Acknowledging and observing Native Hawaiian culture and learning about their history will give you a greater appreciation for the islands during your visit.
THE BEST POKE IN OAHU Shannon has polled locals from all over the island on where to find the best poke, and the overwhelming response is always Foodland (a chain grocery store with multiple locations on the island). After eating an obscene amount of poke in my life, I was excited to see how it compared. Needless to say, the hype is real and Foodland’s secret spicy tuna will forever live in my memory as the best poke I’ve ever eaten.
RELATED POST: 15 OFF THE BEATEN PATH PLACES TO EAT IN OAHU
TRAFFIC You’d probably never guess this, but Honolulu is known to have some of the worst traffic in the nation. If you rent a car in Hawaii, make sure to check the traffic especially if you’re catching a flight home. Shannon also stresses that “island time” is not just a saying. People drive slow and it can be frustrating if you’re not used to it. Relax and be patient.
BE EXTRA CAREFUL IN THE WATER Hawaii’s rate of drownings per visitor is 13 times the national average, and visitor drownings happen 10x more than local drownings. Shannon used to work for a snorkeling company while in college and says it’s easy for tourists to enter into “vacation mode” which makes you feel invincible in this paradise setting. It’s important to recognize your own limits and not push yourself. Also be very cautious of current and tide warnings.
RENT A MOPED If you’re not planning on straying too far from Honolulu but want a quicker way to get around than the bus, renting a moped is fun way to explore. It also makes parking super easy as Shannon says she has never had to pay to park in Waikiki.
OPT FOR HALAU HULA VS A LUAU Luaus are one of the most popular things to do in Oahu, but they also can be mega touristy. Shannon recommends opting for a Halau Hula show instead. There is a free performance every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday (6:30-7:30 p.m // 6:00-7:00 p.m. Nov-Jan) at the Kuhio Beach Hula Mound. You can also look for local Hula shows like this one or this one for a more authentic experience.
PACK REEF SAFE SUNSCREEN A 2015 study found that over 412 pounds of sunscreen is deposited onto the reefs at Oahu’s Hanauma Bay each day. Because of the environmental impact of the chemicals, Hawaii recently passed a bill banning sunscreen containing chemicals which are harmful to coral reefs.
When searching for a reef-safe sunscreen, look for ones without oxybenzone and octinoxate. Many of the Hawaiian gift stores will carry it but it’s going to be cheaper to pack your own.
SOME REEF SAFE SUNSCREEN OPTIONS
Kokua Sun Care Hawaiian Sunscreen / SPF 50
MANDA Organic Sun Paste / SPF 50
Stream2Sea Biodegradable Reef Safe Sunscreen / SPF 30
Suntegrity Natural Moisturizing Face Sunscreen / SPF 30
WHERE TO STAY IN OAHU
While we usually stay at Shannon’s condo when I visit, we still pop into cute hotels to grab a drink and look around. These are two of my favorite ones to explore.
The Surfjack is a boutique hotel in Waikiki, located less than a 10 minute walk from the beach. From their vintage inspired bungalows to the cutest pool I’ve ever seen, they really hit the nail on the head as far as photo-worthy design. Rooms start at $180/night.
You can’t really go wrong with a pink hotel located directly on the beach. The Royal Hawaiian is a beautiful resort hotel and an iconic landmark in Waikiki. Rooms start at $350/night.
Did I miss anything? What are some of your favorite things to do in Oahu?
PIN IT: 14 UNIQUE THINGS TO DO IN OAHU // A LOCAL’S GUIDE
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