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Visiting Oahu for the First Time? Here's What to See and Do

Make the most of your trip to Oahu with our tips for first-time visitors.

Hi, I'm Karen!

Karen is a Scottish freelance travel and culture writer based in the US. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, National Geographic, BBC, and Condé Nast Traveler.

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 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.

1. Check out Waikiki

People on the shores of Waikiki Beach.
Waikiki Beach is notorious for its golden sands.Photo credit: Benny Marty / Shutterstock

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.

2. Climb Diamond Head

People at the top of Diamond Head.
Diamond Head is one of Hawaii's top hikes.Photo credit: Elyse Butler / Viator

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.

3. Eat your way around Honolulu’s Chinatown

Chinatown in Honolulu.
Honolulu's Chinatown is filled with the best places to eat.Photo credit: Theodore Trimmer / Shutterstock

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.

Related: 6 Must-See Honolulu Neighborhoods and How To Visit

4. Discover Oahu's history and culture

The exterior of the USS Arizona Memorial.
Learn about history at places like the USS Arizona Memorial.Photo credit: Elyse Butler / Viator

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, 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.

5. Take a circle island tour

Halona Blowhole.
Halona Blowhole is an included sight on many Circle Island tours.Photo credit: Elyse Butler / Viator

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).

6. Experience a Hawaiian luau

Women partaking in a luau dance.
A luau is a great way to immerse yourself in Hawaiian culture.Photo credit: Mike Kane / Viator

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.

7. Get into (or onto) the water

A young boy on a surfboard in the ocean.
Try your hand at surfing in the waters around Oahu.Photo credit: Elyse Butler / Viator

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.

8. Spend a day on the North Shore

Waimea Falls in Oahu's North Shore.
Spend a day in the North Shore and hike to hike to Waimea Falls.Photo credit: MNStudio / Shutterstock

Experience Oahu’s laid-back surf haven.

It’s all about the waves on the North Shore, home to the world-famous breaks of Pipeline, Sunset, and Waimea. But you don’t have to be a surfer to love the North Shore. You can snorkel in turtle-filled waters, hike to Waimea Falls, and refuel with a plate of garlic shrimp and a cone of shave ice from the area’s best food trucks. And those world-famous beaches are perfect for swimming in summer and watching surfers ride monster waves in the winter.

9. Take a helicopter tour

People inside a helicopter.
Take a helicopter tour for a bird's eye view of Diamond Head.Photo credit: Mike Kane / Viator

See the island’s beauty from above.

Enjoy a bird’s-eye view of Oahu’s most-famous landmarks—such as Diamond Head, Maunalua Bay, the Ko'olau Mountains, Ka'a'awa Valley, and Pearl Harbor—on a helicopter tour. Taking to the skies provides a unique perspective that most visitors miss out on and many helicopter tour operators offer the option of a doors-on or door-off experience. Some even time the flights to coincide with sunset for an even more scenic experience.

10. Visit the Byodo-In Temple

The exterior of the Byodo-In Temple.
Byodo-In Temple is a scale replica of the one in Kyoto Prefecture.Photo credit: Shane Myers Photography / Shutterstock

Experience the serenity of this hidden gem.

A testament to Oahu’s strong Japanese heritage, the Byodo-In Temple is a lush sanctuary tucked into the foothills of the Windward coast’s Koʻolau mountain range. A scale replica of a temple in Japan’s Kyoto Prefecture, the vermillion red temple was built in 1968 to commemorate the centennial of the first Japanese immigrants in Hawaii. Seemingly a world away from the hustle and bustle of Waikiki, it’s a quiet and contemplative spot and surrounded by manicured gardens and koi-filled ponds.

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