Things to Do in Oahu
A hallowed name in US history, Pearl Harbor was the site of the December 7, 1941, bombing by the Japanese that wrenched the United States into World War II. In total, nine U.S. ships were sunk and a further 21 damaged, and the eventual death toll was 2,350.
Pearl Harbor is still a Navy base today, and a National Historic Landmark. For visitors, the focus is the USS Arizona memorial, protecting the remains of the American battleship destroyed in seconds during the attack. The USS Utah was also sunk, and there is a memorial on nearby Ford Island. The highlight of the harbor's Bowfin Park is the submarine USS Bowfin and the adjacent memorial museum, packed with memorabilia and exhibits.
The pointy peak of Diamond Head forms a dramatic backdrop to Waikiki on Oahu’s south coast. Diamond Head is a State Monument, and a popular lookout point on Oahu.
Formed from volcanic tuff, the crater is part of a geological outcrop of cones, vents and old lava flows, formed from eruptions around 150,000 years ago.
If you’re feeling fit, work out with an exhilarating climb to the top of Diamond Head and take in the city views. The steep round-trip hike takes a couple of hours, with challenging stages of steps and tunnels.
Waikiki Beach is one of the most famous stretches of sand on the planet, up there with Ipanema and Bondi. Its curving stretch of sand is bordered by palms and high-rise hotels.
Come here to soak up the sun, swim, pilot an outrigger canoe, sail a boat, or snorkel. Lifeguards are on hand to keep a watchful eye.
The surfing isn’t bad either, with long rolling breaks. Look out for the statue of Duke Kahanamoku on the sands, the local who popularized surfing and brought it into the modern era.
Pack a picnic to enjoy in nearby Kapiolani Park, hire a beach chair and umbrella, or sit back at sunset and watch the free movies screened on the beach.
Circular Hanauma Bay is a particularly attractive, sheltered inlet of turquoise water, carved from a submerged volcanic crater east of Diamond Head.
The sandy beach park is popular with families, with its calm waters, lifeguards, and gentle diving and snorkeling. Picnic tables overlook the bay, and you can rent diving equipment.
The area is a Nature Preserve and Marine Life Conservation District, and when you visit there’s a short film to watch about the marine life before you head down to the beach.
While diving you should spot green turtles, parrotfish and coral.
The main Pearl Harbor memorial marks the final resting place of the USS Arizona, one of the battleships destroyed on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked and the USA joined the war effort on behalf of the Allies. The site also commemorates the 1,177 crew members killed aboard the ship that day.
Start your visit at the visitor center, with a free introductory talk, audio tour and a documentary on the attack. Then board a US Navy boat to reach the memorial for a self-guided tour.
Visitor numbers are restricted, and tickets can often run out early in the day at this extremely popular sight, so it’s a good idea to book a tour in advance.
Looming large over Honolulu Harbor, the Aloha Tower complex features several buildings including a 10 story clock tower, the (now closed) Hawaii Maritime Center and several dining establishments overlooking the large wooden and permanently-stationed Falls of Clyde sailing ship. The tower, built in 1926, housed a lighthouse and its clock was one of the largest in the United States at the time. It was first structure most immigrants and visitors to Hawaii saw when their boats docked here prior to the popularization of air travel. Today, cruise ships still pull into the nook alongside the building, and, regardless of whether you arrived on one, you can take a free elevator ride to the top of the tower and lookout over downtown, Waikiki and out across the ocean.
Known as Mighty Mo, or Big Mo, the battleship USS Missouri played an important role in history. Her deck hosted the signing of the Japanese surrender, ending World War II.
Moored in a guarding position a little away from the USS Arizona Memorial, the battleship was moved to Pearl Harbor in 1999. It is now a museum ship, allowing visitors to experience a taste of life at sea.
Take a 35-minute guided tour to walk in the footsteps of General MacArthur, or listen to an audio guide. Follow the self-guided walking routes, or take the controls on a Battle Stations tour.
Much more than just a popular Honolulu visitor attraction, ‘Iolani Palace is the only royal palace to exist within the United States of America. Constructed in 1882, this ornate palace served as the political centerpiece for the Kingdom of Hawaii, and monarchs such as King Kalakaua and Queen Lili’uokalani ruled the Kingdom from its luxurious halls.
During the time it was constructed, ‘Iolani Palace was considered to be one of the most modern buildings in the world and even boasted electricity and telephones prior to the White House in Washington D.C. The palace also featured indoor plumbing, and large galas were thrown to welcome visiting dignitaries to the modern and sovereign Kingdom of Hawaii. Since King Kalakaua was the world’s first monarch to circumnavigate the globe, the palace was also adorned with decorations and memorabilia acquired during his travels around the world.
Planted firmly on the lawn of Aliiolani Hale, the State Supreme Court building, is the most visited of all the statues honoring King Kamehameha I in Hawaii. The 18-foot bronze icon with golden-colored detailing was erected in 1883 and depicts a spear-wielding and cloak-draped Kamehameha the Great, the first Hawaiian monarch and the ruler credited with uniting the Islands under single rule in 1810.
Each year on a date near the June 11 state holiday commemorating King Kamehameha, community groups build massive flower lei garlands and drape them over the Honolulu statue using the ladder from a fire truck. The popular lei draping ceremony commemorates the King’s significance and kicks off week-long celebrations of colorful parades and festivals throughout the Islands.
More Things to Do in Oahu
Hawaii’s Capitol building doesn’t have the grand golden domes of capitols in other U.S. states, instead its exterior is blocky and reminiscent of the 1960s postmodern era in which it was built. But, like other capitols, its features are rife with symbolism. Inside, the central courtyard opens to the sky via narrowing layers set to mimic the interior of the volcano; the two Legislative chambers also feature unique sloped walls to achieve a similar effect. The eight supporting pillars on the front and back of the building narrow toward the top to evoke the trunks of royal palm trees, there is one for each of the main Hawaiian Islands. A raised moat reflecting pool surrounds the building and is said to symbolize the Pacific surrounding the Islands.
There are only 15 American submarines that remain from World War II, and the most-heralded of them—the USS Bowfin—now sits in Pearl Harbor, where the war American’s war first started. Known as the “Avenger of Pearl Harbor,” the USS Bowfin was built in Maine and sailed the South Pacific. It set off on its mission exactly one year after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, and 44 different enemy ships would eventually succumb to her guns.
Today, visitors to Pearl Harbor can walk inside the submarine to see the cramped metal quarters, and get an authentic feel for the daily hardships of the boys in the “Silent Service.” In nine tours of duty only one crewmember died from injuries in battle, and when visiting today, you can stand in the chambers where these brave sailors celebrated a successful strike.
therwise and colloquially known as Punchbowl Cemetery, the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific is a United States Armed Forces cemetery in Honolulu, Hawaii. Part of the National Register of Historic Places, the cemetery gathers millions of visitors every year, making it one of the most popular tourist attractions in all of Hawaii. It is dedicated to Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard members who lost their lives in their line of duty.
The location of the cemetery wasn’t the fruit of coincidence; it is located on what Hawaiians called “Hill of Sacrifice,” which used to be an altar where they offered human sacrifices to pagan gods and where they installed a battery of two cannons used to salute prominent arrivals and signify noteworthy instances. Since the site was established in 1949, approximately 53,000 World War I, World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans and their dependents have been interred in these grounds.
When the Makapu‘u Lighthouse was built in 1909 for ships traveling between Moloka‘i and O‘ahu, it was meant to serve as a luminary deterrent to keep ships away from the rocks. Today, however, the historic lighthouse with its bright red roof draws visitors to the rocks in droves, and the trail to the lighthouse has become one of the most popular hikes for visitors and families on O‘ahu.
Two miles long and entirely paved, the trail climbs at a moderate pace until the dramatic lighthouse terminus. During the winter months, humpback whales can often be spotted splashing in the waters offshore, and large surf can break along the shoreline during the long, hot days of summer. As part of the Kaiwi Scenic Shoreline, the trail offers views of offshore islets such as Manana (Rabbit Island) and Kaohikaipu, which are protected from development as sea bird sanctuaries and provide a rustic nature to the coastline.
For the lowdown on Polynesian lore, legend, history and anthropology, drop into the Bishop Museum. Far from dry, displays range from woven hats, sculptures and scientific exhibits to planetarium shows and historical artifacts.
Take a welcome tour, view the plants of the Pacific, watch a lava-melting demonstration or hear island oral history. There’s also a calendar of events, activities and exhibitions to entertain the kids, from circus acts to hula shows.
On Ford Island in the heart of infamous Pearl Harbor, the Pacific Aviation Museum’s two massive hangars totaling more than 120,000 square feet house military aircraft from the WWII Vietnam and the Korean War. Given its setting, the highlights here are Pearl Harbor related: Hangar 37 houses Japanese Zero planes, a civilian plane that was shot down during the Pearl Harbor attacks, and a P-40 fighter plane similar to those that took flight on Dec. 7th, 1941. On the door of Hangar 79, it’s still possible to see bullet holes left from that day. But there are plenty of other planes to pique the aviation-enthusiasts interest including an authentic F4F Wildcat, the actual Stearman N2S-3 piloted solo by former President George H.W. Bush and several MiG planes from the Korean conflict.
Ala Moana Beach Park is where locals head to enjoy a weekend in the sun. While it’s moderately crowded during the middle of the week, sunny weekends are like an outdoor block party where everyone is down at the beach. Coolers, pop-up tents, BBQ’s, and beach chairs sprawl across 76 acres, and it’s a festive atmosphere along this white sand stretch of Honolulu coastline.
Even with the park’s popularity, however, visitors can still find their own little corner for relaxing out on the sand. The protected lagoon is ideal for lap swimming or visitors traveling with young children, and the offshore reef is where boogie boarders and surfers race across the waves. There isn’t much to see in the way of snorkeling, but the calm waters are perfect for sunbathing while sprawled on an inflatable raft. Lay out a blanket in the shaded grass area if you need to escape the sun, or work up a sweat on the park’s jogging trails or the popular beachfront tennis courts.
Two of the oldest wooden houses in Hawaii—the former site of the Sandwich Islands mission, the Island’s first western colony—remain not far from the skyrises of downtown Honolulu’s financial and government district. The Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site and Archives is comprised of the Frame House, the Chamberlain House and the Printing Office—built between 1821 and 1841, and restored and furnished as they would have been in the early 19th century. Each feature small exhibits and artifacts detailing early missionary’s way of life: a recreation of a medical dispensary, chamber pots in the rooms and quilts on the beds. Short-term exhibitions regularly make an appearance too and have included features on children’s toys, portraits and portrait-making, quilts and reading. The site also includes a library featuring over 12,000 printed works, handwritten missionary journals and a printing press used to create the first written Hawaiian language materials.
The Honolulu Municipal Building doesn’t have quite the ring of Honolulu Hale—though they are one and the same. The Hale, which means house in Hawaiian, is home Oahu’s city hall— government offices including the chambers of the Mayor and the Honolulu City Council. The Spanish Colonial Revival building—a popular style in Honolulu in the 1920s—was completed in 1928, and, in addition to being interesting architecturally, hosts regular city and public functions including the popular annual Honolulu City Lights. Each December since the mid 1980s, a giant 21-foot “Shaka Santa” (that is, Santa flashing his one-handed shaka sign) and Tutu Mele (Mrs. Claus) adorn the building’s fountain pool accompanied by a flurry of colored light displays and lawn ornaments. The public is welcomed inside the building to walk amongst ornately-decorated and -themed Christmas trees, which are judged for their creativity; original artwork from area school children lines the walls.
Even as early 1877, the Hawaiian Royalty recognized the need for preserving open space. With the city of Honolulu rapidly growing, King David Kalakaua—the last reigning King of Hawaii—allocated 130 of Waikiki’s acres towards a park for the people of Hawaii. Naming it after his beloved wife—Queen Kapiolani—the park today offers sprawling green fields for locals, visitors, and families.
In addition to the soccer fields, tennis courts, and jogging paths, the park also houses the Honolulu Zoo and public art shows on the weekends. For special events, the Waikiki Shell is a performance venue set in the middle of Kapiolani Park, where some of the world’s largest musical acts will throw concerts, benefits, and shows just minutes from Waikiki Beach. The Honolulu Marathon—held every December—usually finishes at Kapiolani Park, and even during other times of the year, this is a happening place for Honolulu residents to escape the city rush.
Just across the street from the tropical Pacific Ocean in downtown Honolulu, the four-story Ala Moana Center (often just called Ala Moana) is currently the world’s largest outdoor shopping mall. With 2.4 million square feet of retail space alone (that’s as much as 42 football fields!), the sprawling property boasts 340 shops and 80 restaurants including national and international name brands chains (Burberry, Cartier, Apple, Gap, Macy’s, Starbucks, California Pizza Kitchen and Barnes & Noble) as well as Hawaii-only outlets (Happy Wahine Boutique, Big Island Candies, Kahala Sportswear, Martin & MacArthur, Honolulu Coffee Co. and Sand People). Free live entertainment—from singing competitions to hula performances and fashion shows—often take place in its central corridor stage. Always bustling, Ala Moana Center is the place to see and be seen for residents and visitors alike.
The shriek of the Honolulu Zoo’s population of endangered white-handed gibbons is a familiar morning sound to Waikiki’s regular surfing contingent; the zoo is just across the street from some of the most popular beginner surf breaks toward the far end of Waikiki near Diamond Head crater. In addition to the monkeys, the sprawling 42-acre open-air zoo is home to more than 900 tropical animals including elephants, black rhino, giraffe, Sumatran tiger, aardvark, meerkat, orangutan, birds, reptiles and more. The zoo also houses animals only found in Hawaii, including the state bird, the nēnē, as well as a number of endemic plants in and around the enclosures.