Visiting Oahu and having a great time does not have to cost a bundle. You’ll find plenty of free or very inexpensive activities and sights on Oahu.
When we recommend for the top things you should do and see on each island, we focus on the aspects that are unique to that island. For Oahu, we think the military history and scenery are two of the major highlights, and you’ll see that reflected in this list of suggestions for what to see and do on Oahu.
(Click the links for detailed information on each activity)
1. Visit the USS Arizona National Memorial in Pearl Harbor. The first time I saw the memorial, I was speechless for a while and then I was moved to tears. Though it is a solemn place, the history that you’ll learn here is very much worth the time to visit it. There are several things you need to know so that you are prepared for your visit, so see our detailed advice for visiting the USS Arizona Memorial.
2. Visit Punchbowl National Cemetery. This is a another solemn, yet peaceful site. Where else would you find a cemetery in the center of an extinct volcanic crater? You will find tremendous views of Honolulu at lookouts here, as well. See our tips for visiting Punchbowl.
3. Enjoy the stunning scenery. If you don’t have a rental car and you are on a limited budget, you can take Oahu’s excellent public transportation, TheBus, to tour around the island. TheBus’ Web site actually has has some very useful information aimed at sightseers. We’ll list just a sampling of the places we’d love for you to see. We’ll attempt to put them in somewhat of a logistical order starting Southeast and going in a counterclockwise direction around Oahu.
- View the rocky coast line, beautiful beaches and small islands on Oahu’s southeastern side from Kalaniana’ole Highway (Hwy 72). Some of the most scenic spots are as follows: Hanauma Bay, the Halona Blowhole lookout, Sandy Beach, Makapu’u Point Lookout and Waimanalo Beach.
- See some of Oahu’s gorgeous beaches — Kailua and Lanikai beaches. Some consider Lanikai Beach to be the most beautiful in the world. See our post on visiting beautiful Lanikai Beach.
- Byodo-In Temple near Kaneohe is simply stunning. (Entry requires a nominal fee of $3 per person the last time we checked.)
- See Mokolii (Chinaman’s Hat)
- Admire Laie Point
- North Shore beaches including a stop at Laniakea Beach to observe the honu (turtles). See item 6 for more details about Laniakea Beach.
- Ancient Hawaiian temple at Puu O Mahuku to learn about ancient Hawaiian culture and a great view, too.
- Scenic North Shore surfer town of Haleiwa town for a shave ice for a nominal price.
- The Pali Lookout towards the center of the island is off of the Pali Highway, Hwy 61. (Update: after originally publishing this article a $3 parking fee went into effect for all non-Hawaii residents. Though I don’t like that non-residents are forced to pay the fee, the views from the Pali Lookout are excellent.)
- For panoramic views of Honolulu, consider taking a drive up the jungle-like, winding road of Tantalus-Round Top drive and stop off at Puu Ualakaa State Park.
4. See a free fireworks show from Waikiki Beach at the Hilton Hawaiian Village on Friday nights. See our post on this long-standing Friday night fireworks show on Waikiki with suggestions of where to see the fireworks.
5. See the free torch lighting ceremony and hula show at Kuhio Beach Park in Waikiki. You’ll find a delightful show filled with traditional Hawaiian music and dancing. The excellent beach side setting can’t be beat. This show is presented every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and nights around sunset — at either 6:00pm or 6:30pm depending on the time of year. Follow this link to learn more about the free Kuhio Beach hula show. Please note that this hula show normally operates as scheduled, but occasionally, it is subject to change without notice.
6. Admire the honu (sea turtles) at Laniakea Beach which is also known as Turtle Beach. You’ll find this beach on the North Shore between Haleiwa and Waimea Bay off of Highway 83. The best landmark for finding this beach is to look for the southern end of Pohaku Loa Way and the cars parked off the mountain side of the road. (Update: parking may be difficult per this news.) Use this Google Map link to find Turtle Beach. Laniakea Beach spot makes a nice place to have a picnic at lunch or sunset. We should make sure we caution you that sea turtles (honu) are protected and you should never approach one or attempt to touch one. Remember that you are in their territory and they are coming to land for a rest.
7. Lace up your hiking shoes and hit the trails. For a nice variety of hikes that will show you a contrast of Oahu’s diverse terrain, check out our top 3 favorite Oahu vacation hikes.
8. Go snorkeling. Some of the best snorkeling spots on Oahu are Hanauma Bay around Honolulu and Shark’s Cove on the North Shore. For more information on snorkeling on Oahu, see this Oahu snorkeling guide.
9. In the winter, watch those incredibly tall waves along the North Shore. The top spots for watching the winter surf are at Waimea Bay, Sunset Beach and the famous Banzai Pipeline at Ehukai Beach. Also in the winter, watch for humpback whales splashing in Hawaii’s water. A great vantage point is to take a short hike on the Makapuu Point Lighthouse Trail (off Hwy 72 north of Hawaii Kai) or at the lookouts off Diamond Head Road just above Diamond Head Beach Park on the east side of Diamond Head Crater.
10. Watch the sun sink into the ocean with a sunset picnic. You can either pick up your own picnic supplies from a grocery store or restaurant. Even the ABC Stores that are all over Waikiki have a decent selection for a picnic. Alternatively, many resorts will offer “to-go” picnic baskets. Please note that alcoholic beverages are prohibited on Hawaii beaches. See my article on enjoying a Waikiki Beach sunset picnic.
See these links for more great Oahu vacation ideas:
* Where to find free entertainment and cultural activities on Oahu
* You’ll find many more ideas from our free Oahu Vacation guide.
If you’re visiting other islands, be sure and read these other articles on great budget friendly things to do in Hawaii:
- best free things to do on Kauai
- best free things to do on Maui
- best free things to do on Hawaii’s Big Island