Note: This post was written by guest contributor, Summer K-Hadden.
Picture this: a cool evening breeze lifts your hair gently off of your face as you sit comfortably in the sand. Warm water washes up against your toes. A cool but strong mai tai is in your left hand. The palm trees sway above your head and all of a sudden fireworks light up the sky reflected in what seems like a never-ending ocean.
The above description is a perfect representation of a trip to Oahu, Hawaii. This island is the most visited of all in the Hawaiian Island chain. Oahu means “the gathering place” in the native Hawaiian language. With over 9 million visitors a year, it’s no surprise that it is one of the top travel destinations in the world. Whether Oahu is an item on your bucket list or maybe just a dream destination you’ve seen in movies like “50 First Dates” or “Jurassic Park”, Oahu is worth the trip!
When I moved here in 2015 from Michigan, I had never previously set foot on the island. My significant other of 7 years had moved here a few months earlier for his dream job. So, I joined him with just two suitcases and a backpack full of my belongings. And although living in Hawaii is definitely not for everyone, I’ve made this island my home.
I love to play tour guide so showing all my family and friends this gorgeous place [if they are brave enough to cross the Pacific Ocean, that is] is right up my alley! There are thousands of things to do and see here, and since I love to show people around Oahu, I’ve rounded up my favorite “Can’t-Miss” activities and destinations just for you!
Find Your Zen at Byodo-On Temple in Kaneohe
Hidden among the mountains in Kaneohe rests the exquisite gardens and koi ponds of the Byodo-In Temple. Located within the Valley of the Temples, this Japanese inspired wonder is my favorite Oahu photo op. Add in the zen vibes, koi fish feeding, and a trip into the temple and you’re sure to have an amazing time.
I recommend wearing easy-to-remove shoes because, if you choose to enter the temple, shoes are not allowed. However, I definitely recommend going inside for a better view of the place and lighting incense to honor your ancestors. Entrance fee is $5 for visitors or $3 for Hawaii Residents.
Hike Up to the Lanikai PillBox For the Most Instagrammed Hike on Oahu
Visiting Lanikai should be a must on your list of activities. This is a 2-hour hike (including the time it’ll take to snap those insta-worthy pics) is located in Kailua on the northeast shores of Oahu. Lanikai is one of the most recognized coastlines of Hawaii.
With the amazing birdseye view from the World War II-era pillbox bunkers, you can see the aquamarine reef, the Mokuleia Islands, mountains and epic shore break. Make sure to pack lots of water and sunblock as this hike is almost completely in the direct sun! No worries though, Lanikai Beach is nearby, which is perfect for a post-hike dip!
Get Great Deals at the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet
The Aloha Stadium Swap Meet is hands down the best place to shop for souvenirs on Oahu! Visit each stall for a lively shopping experience full of Polynesian goodies, snacks, and original pieces of art and jewelry.
My favorite stall is Lin’s Hawaiian Snacks, where you can see the famous Pineapple guy, he will sweet talk you into a local delicacy. Li Hung Mui (sweet purple plum powder) covered pineapple is the perfect sweet treat to munch on as you shop for great deals.
For only a $1 entry fee this place has epic deals, one-of-a-kind finds, and the Aloha Stadium itself has been featured on many TV shows including Hawaii 5-0. The swap meet takes place in the mornings on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays throughout the year.
Learn About Historic Pearl Harbor
Oahu, Hawaii is well-known for the important and historic role it played in World War II and the attack that occurred at Pearl Harbor. It is a somber experience to visit and pay your respects to the events that occurred here, but it a must-see for many. A visit includes: Touring the grounds, viewing the submarines and U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in the harbor, and watching a special video dedicated to the events of Pearl Harbor.
Visiting the grounds and U.S.S. Arizona Memorial is free, but make sure to get your tickets online beforehand or plan to stop by early in the AM with the possibility of having to return at a separate time later in the day for your tour. The popularity of this site can make it difficult to just pop in and get a tour at any time.
Please note due to some shifting and repair work you can’t currently visit the U.S.S. Arizona by boat. However, there is still a lot to view from the shore at Pearl Harbor!
Watch Fireworks Light Up the Sky Every Friday Night
My favorite weekly event on Oahu is the Friday Night Fireworks. The Hilton Hawaiian Village puts on a spectacular show every Friday around 8 pm. The best seats are on a beach blanket in front of the Hilton Hawaiian Village right along the ocean. It’s glorious to see the shadows of the palm trees highlighted by the fireworks as they rise above the water.
Get a Panoramic View of Honolulu
Renting a car is by far the most efficient way to explore Oahu. If you decide to do this, I absolutely recommend making the trek up to Mt. Tantalus lookout. The long switchback style drive can be a little tedious, but it’s worth it for the panoramic view of Oahu. On a clear day, you can see all the way from Kapolei on the west side to Diamond Head. Bring a picnic lunch and a bottle of wine to enjoy on the grass at the top! And make sure to drive slowly on the way down 🙂
Snorkel With Turtles at Electric Beach–If You’re Lucky!)
The Westside of Oahu is much less busy than the Honolulu area, but it holds many treasures and among them is my favorite snorkeling spot! Electric beach is the perfect snorkel spot filled with fish, coral, and the occasional sea turtle or ray. It can be a little difficult to enter on a wavey day so make sure that you check the ocean reports.
Swim out to the end of the underwater pipeline for the best views. Make sure to pay attention to other snorkelers, boogie boarders, and tour boats just to be safe! This is a popular snorkel spot due to the awesome array of marine life. Enjoy the gorgeous views and don’t forget to reapply that sunscreen.
Visit the Baby Pineapples at the Dole Plantation
Did you know that pineapples do not grow on trees?! Most people don’t know this, so stopping at the Dole Plantation on the way to Oahu’s North Shore is a must! See baby pineapples in the gardens, shop for pineapple themed memorabilia and sample the Dole Whip! It’s a dairy-free frozen pineapple dessert that is perfect for the hot Hawaii weather.
You can also tour the botanical gardens, pineapple-themed maze, and take a tour of the whole pineapple farm for a fee. Otherwise, stopping in to check out the baby pineapples and gift shop is free!
Visit the Green World Coffee Farm in Wailua
If you’re like me, and you can’t make words happen in the morning before you daily cup of jo, the Green World Coffee Farm is for you! Take a stroll through the coffee farm and sample locally grown coffee, learn about coffee roasting and get some great gifts to take home, too! My personal favorite is Kau Coffee, a dark roast grown on the big island of Hawaii. It makes an amazing souvenir and tastes delicious.
Tour Oahu’s North Shore
Drive along the North Shore and stop at several beaches. Start in Historic Haleiwa town and head east towards Waimea Bay, Sharks Cove, Pipeline and Sunset Beach. These are just a few of the famous beaches in the area.
Bring your swim gear and plan to stop at a food truck somewhere along the way to make a day of it. Shrimp Trucks like Giovannis are a local and international favorite. You can also find acai bowls, bulletproof coffee, and burgers en route!
During the winter months, this stretch of coastline is known for its epic waves and the brave surfers who ride them! You might even score some great pictures of local surfers out on the water.
Manoa Falls Waterfall
Located just a few miles outside of Honolulu in Manoa Valley is the gorgeous Manoa Falls, a short (45 min.) hike through the rainforest provides gorgeous views of Oahu’s most visited waterfall. Fun fact: This was actually a shooting location for Jurassic Park, along with several other movies.
The gorgeous forest is perfect for pictures, and also mosquitos! So bring along some bug spray, sunblock, and water to drink, as the hot and humid weather can make this hike seem longer. The hike itself is not difficult and it’s absolutely safe for the kids. Some people swim in this waterfall, but I do not recommend it due to leptospirosis and rock slide–both of which have occurred several times at this site.
Make sure to stop by the Lyon Arboretum (it’s free) and located right at the start of the Manoa Falls Trail Head. There’s some amazing flora inside here that’s worth checking out!
Other Tips & Advice
Visiting Hawaii is a once in a lifetime trip for many people. This guide can help you to get the most out of your visit. Most of the items on this list are either free or less than $5 a person. With the increase in tourism each year, this island can be busy so my favorite times to have visitors are Sept-Early December and Mid January-Late February (which is also Humpback Whale season.)