Oahu is known as the “heart of Hawaii” and is home to Hawaii’s largest city, Honolulu. And whether this is your first time on the islands or you’ve visited before, Honolulu is the perfect starting point for exploring all that Hawaii has to offer. From snorkeling with turtles and hiking up to scenic viewpoints, to eating local food and catching stunning sunsets, we’re sharing our top 10 things to do in this amazing tropical city.
Hike Diamond Head Crater
If you’re staying in Honolulu, you can’t miss the massive crater towering over the city. Diamond Head Crater is an iconic Honolulu landmark, and while it once was a WWII fortress with lookout points, you can now hike to the top of the crater for stunning views of Honolulu. The hike itself is only 1.6 miles round-trip…as long as you don’t do it like we did. At the time, we did not realize that you could drive into the center of the crater to start the hike, so we began our journey in downtown Waikiki and ended up doing a 7-mile trek! The hike itself is relatively easy, the only difficult part being the final portion to reach the summit – 99 steep stairs and a short ladder. But getting out of breath to reach the top of the crater is worth it for the stunning views of Waikiki and all of Honolulu. Our recommendation is to go early in the morning (the park opens at 6 am) to beat the crowds.
Pro Tip: If you don’t want to spend half your day hiking, you can take a taxi or Lyft to the middle of the crater. Have the driver stop before the entrance booth and you can walk in with a $1 entrance fee to reach the trailhead (driving through the entrance booth and parking will cost you $5).
Watch the Sunrise at Sandy Beach Park
Just outside of Honolulu is Sandy Beach Park. This beach is primarily known for it’s powerful shore breaks (great for surfing) and it’s soft sand. One little known secret is that this beach is also a great spot to catch the sunrise. The beach has patches of lava rock that lead down into the ocean and make for stunning photos that capture the essence of the unique natural beauty of the island.
Pro Tip: If you look along the cliffs and wait for a few, you can capture great shots of the Halona Blow Hole that is easy to overlook given the stunning sunrises at this location.
Eat like a local at Haili’s Hawaiian Foods
In our opinion, you can’t really visit Hawaii without trying the local Hawaiian food. And we’re not talking about the food you get at a restaurant on the main drag in Waikiki or at one of the many hotel-chain Luau’s. To truly experience Hawaiian food at it’s finest, head to the local hole-in-the-wall restaurants that have made names for themselves serving fresh and delicious home-made Hawaiian dishes. If you’re in the mood to try some local food, check out Haili’s Hawaiian Foods.
Pro Tip: To really experience Hawaiian culture, order the “Da Big Kahuna,” a platter that allows you try a variety of local fare including: laulau (pork wrapped in taro leaf), kalua pig (slow cooked pork roast), poke (raw ahi tuna salad), chicken long rice soup, lomi lomi salmon (fresh tomato and salmon salad), poi (taro root), coconut haupia (coconut custard), and purple sweet potato.
Take a Break at Kapahulu Groin
Kapahulu groin is a walkway extending into the ocean from Queen’s Surf Beach and Kuhio Beach Park in Waikiki. From Waikiki beach, it’s about a 15-minute walk (right past the Honolulu Zoo). The walkway is a nice place to relax and look at the many fish swimming in the water. It’s also a great spot to watch the sunset, away from most tourists.
Pro Tip: Get there with a towel to sit on 30 minutes before sunset and park yourself on the ledge overlooking the fish and canoe surfers putting on a show while you taken in the colors of a beautiful Hawaiian sunset.
Snorkel and Scuba Dive in Oahu
Spending time in the clear waters of Honolulu is a must while you’re visiting. The coral reefs are stunning and full of marine life. If you’re lucky, you may even see a few sea turtles! Snorkeling is easy to do along any of the beaches in Honolulu, but if you want to go Scuba Diving, we recommend booking your dives with Reef Pirates Diving. Whether you’re certified to dive or not, you’ll have a great experience with the Reef Pirates team. They never do dives with more than 6 people per ship, meaning that you will get individualized attention on each of your dives. We did two private dives with Reef Pirates in Koko Crater. The marine life in the reefs was spectacular and we had the opportunity to swim alongside sea turtles and even an octopus!
Pro Tip: Ask the dive shop to take you to Koko Crater to witness a natural cleaning station where sea turtles have their shells attended to by the local fish!
Take in the View of Honolulu from Above
While Diamond Head Crater gives you a spectacular view of Honolulu looking up the coastline, the Tantalus mountain lookout gives you a different perspective of Honolulu – looking out from inland to the coast. Tantalus mountain was named for the Greek God Tantalus, who was always thirsty and was punished by being placed in a pool of water. This lookout point is a short drive from downtown Waikiki and there is a small parking lot at the top where you can either get dropped off or park your car. The views from this lookout point really give you the opportunity to see how large the city of Honolulu is. It also makes for some great Instagram-worthy shots!
Pro Tip: Step up your Instagram game by climbing up the tree next to the sidewalk to lie on the branch that overlooks the coastline of Honolulu. Have your GoPro handy for this one!
Drink Craft Beers at Maui Brewing Company
The craft beer scene in Hawaii has exploded in recent years, with breweries popping up all over the islands. If you like beer, check out some of the local Hawaiian breweries in Honolulu. Maui Brewing Company’s location in Waikiki is a perfect place to take a break from the shopping and crowds. They brew all their beers locally in Hawaii and serve delicious locally-sources meals to go along with them.
Pro Tip: Maui Brewing Co. is conveniently located next to the Reef Pirates shop. Once you’re done with your diving or snorkeling for the day, you can simply walk a few steps next door to taste the delicious craft beers and food.
Grab a Seat with a Sunset View at the Moana Surfrider
When in Waikiki, it can prove difficult to find a spot to enjoy a drink, some food, and a sunset on the beach without bumping into hundreds of other tourists trying to do the same thing. We experienced this when we tried to catch the sunset at the famous Duke’s beachfront restaurant and bar in Waikiki. Arriving over an hour before sunset, the place was already loud and packed. We couldn’t find a seat anywhere. Feeling defeated, we left and fortunately stumbled upon the hotel next door – the Moana Surfrider, Westin Resort and Spa. While it’s towering white pillared exterior may seem a little intimidating, if you walk directly through the front doors, you can take a seat at their beach front bar. It is surprisingly uncrowded and low-key compared to the surrounding beachfront restaurants. On our most recent stay during a popular holiday weekend, we ended up here three nights in a row to watch the sunset and easily found seats with a view each time.
Pro Tip: The porch seating at the Moana Surfrider before the pool level is a great place for appetizers, drinks and amazing views of the sunset.
Soak up Sun at the Iconic Waikiki Beach
A trip to Honolulu is not complete without soaking up the sun at least once on the iconic Waikiki beach. In Hawaiian, Waikiki means “spouting fresh water,” as the area where this popular beach resides was once a series of wetlands fed by springs and streams. The beach became famous in the early 1900’s due to the fame of local Waikiki surfer, Duke Kahanamokubecame. Today, the beach is crowded with sunbathing tourists and those learning how to surf on the same waves as Duke. Even with all the crowds, this is the beach that is most easily accessible from the major Waikiki hotels, with clear blue waters year round and mild surf.
Visit the Historical Pearl Harbor
Many people are familiar with Honolulu because of the historical significance of the attack on Pearl Harbor that started America’s involvement in WWII. Today, you can visit Pearl Harbor and learn about the events that happened on December 7, 1941. One of the most notable and humbling experiences is visiting the USS Arizona memorial. The memorial is built over the remains of the USS Arizona battleship, which was bombed by Japanese naval forces. This is the final resting place of 1,177 crew members who passed away after being trapped in the ship.
We do have a few recommendations before you visit. Book your tickets ahead of time for your visit to the USS Memorial. You can pick them up on the day you are scheduled to visit an hour before your entry time. The park does give out 1300 free tickets a day, but don’t count on getting one of these. The lines are long hours before the park opens and if you really want to see the memorial, it’s not worth the risk. Second, do not bring bags with you to the memorial. Pearl Harbor is still an active military base and no bags are permitted. You can check your bag for $5 at the entrance, but the lines are typically long, so it is better to forgo this option.