Visiting Oahu for the First Time? Here's What to See and Do
The most popular of the Hawaiian Islands, Oahu is like a Polynesian postcard come to life—think palm-fringed beaches, big ocean swells, flower-scented air, and verdant rainforest. But beyond its beauty, Oahu is also an excellent place to get your first taste of Hawaii’s rich culture. From surfing off Waikiki Beach and watching a fire knife dance at a luau to eating your way around Chinatown, here are some ideas for first-timers visiting this Hawaiian island.
Check out Waikiki
Discover why the world flocks to Waikiki.
Home to the majority of Oahu’s tourism infrastructure, it’s difficult to avoid Waikiki. And, really, why would you want you? The world-famous stretch of golden sand, Waikiki Beach, is the quintessential image of Oahu and a must-see starting point for your Oahu trip. And you’ll find plenty to do there—shopping, dining, surfing, swimming, and more. This is also the usual departure point for cruises, including whale-watching excursions and sunset dinner cruises.
Climb Diamond Head
Get a bird’s eye view of Waikiki.
That picture-perfect view of Waikiki always seems to feature the volcanic backdrop of Diamond Head. One of Hawaii’s most recognizable landmarks, Diamond Head is also the site of one of the best hikes you can take on Oahu. Head to the 760-foot (231-meter) summit for unparalleled views of Waikiki Beach and the Honolulu skyline. Tackle the hike early in the morning to beat the heat, and consider a guided hike for a more in-depth experience of the place that native Hawaiians know as Lē‘ahi.
Eat your way around Honolulu’s Chinatown
Take a bite out of Honolulu’s food scene.
One of the oldest Chinatowns in the United States, Honolulu’s Chinatown is a vibrant gathering place filled with some of the island’s best places to eat. Trendy restaurants and cocktail bars sit side by side with decades-old hole-in-the-wall noodle shops, dim sum spots, and bakeries where you can get a filling meal even on a tight budget. Take a guided food tour for a deep dive into the local food scene. If you’re visiting on the first Friday of the month, check out the galleries during the First Friday Art Walk.
Discover Oahu's history and culture
Learn about the island's past and present.
There are many places to learn about the history and culture of Oahu. One of the island’s top attractions is the USS Arizona Memorial, the starting point for your exploration of the wider Pearl Harbor Memorial, where visitors can learn about the attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II. A visit to the Bishop Museum offers insights into traditional Hawaiian culture and the archipelago’s relationship to the rest of the Pacific Islands, while Iolani Palace provides a glimpse into Hawaii’s royal history. At the colorful Polynesian Cultural Center, Pacific cultures come to life through vivid performances, exhibitions, and a luau.
Take a Circle Island tour
See the entire island in one day.
Typically departing from Waikiki, full-day Circle Island tours circumnavigate the whole island and are an excellent way to experience many of Oahu’s highlights, such as the Halona Blowhole, Makapuu Point, the North Shore, Hanauma Bay, and the Dole Plantation, all while getting valuable insights into local culture and history. As it can be a long day, opt for a tour that includes lunch (garlic shrimp on the North Shore is a local favorite).
Experience a Hawaiian luau
Eat, drink, and be merry at a festive feast.
One of the most colorful and entertaining experiences to be had on Oahu is a luau, a Hawaiian-style feast featuring music, dance, cultural demonstrations, and performances from around Hawaii and the islands of Polynesia. Visitors have lots of luau options on Oahu, with regular events held in some of the island’s most scenic locations, from Waimea Valley and Paradise Cove to Makapuu Beach.
Get into (or onto) the water
Enjoy Oahu’s extensive shoreline.
Sun-worshippers will be thrilled to know that Oahu has enough stretches of white sand to spend each day of a 2-week vacation on a different beach. But don’t go home without getting off the sand and into the water. Consider a snorkeling excursion or kayaking tour, try your hand at surfing, or learn how to stand-up paddleboard with a lesson on the beach. If you’d rather stay dry, head out onto the ocean on a whale-watching tour, a glass-bottom boat adventure, or a relaxing sunset cruise.