Escaping the postcard-perfect Waikiki is not often high on most traveller’s itineraries, but following this list of unique things to do in Oahu, you may be persuaded. Whether you road trip, bus or heck, snorkel your way out of Waikiki you will not regret leaving behind the crowded beaches and overpriced tourist traps. From the best local eateries to hunting down souvenirs not adorned with rainbows, these are the tips and activities you need to enjoy authentic Oahu sightseeing.
WHERE TO STAY IN OAHU
Before your Oahu sightseeing can begin, you need to choose your base. You will be forgiven for wanting to tick Waikiki off the bucket list, after all, it is busy for a reason and when travelling off-season there are some bargains to be had on Waikiki accommodation. However, for a true taste of island life that’s a little less Starbucks and a lot more Shakas (not to mention a fraction of the cost) The North Shore is the ideal base to explore the island.
Not only does it offer some of the best snorkel spots and those sought after crowd-free beaches in Summer, but in Winter as the tides pick up so does the vibe as surfers from all over the world rock up for an attempt at Oahu’s famous waves.
Attracting beach bums and backpackers alike, Backpackers Vacation Inn offers a range of budget accommodation from dorm beds, private beach studios and entire cabins right on the beach. Snorkel all day (they offer FREE equipment!) then fall asleep to the sound of the ocean after a treat or two from the famous North Shore food trucks just around the corner.
Booking accommodation on the North Shore will save you money and time, avoiding the dreaded Honolulu traffic and offering a more genuine insight into Hawaiian culture.
Now you have a place to stay, pack those road trip essentials and get ready to explore the most unique things to do in Oahu.
UNIQUE THINGS TO DO IN OAHU
Now you know where to stay in Oahu, get your pen and paper ready as our list of unique things to do in Oahu begins. Let us know in the comments how your trip goes or if we’ve missed your favourite Oahu sightseeing spots from our list!
1. Watch the Sunrise from Koko Head Stairs
For the best views of the island, you will need to trade the Havaianas for hiking boots and embrace one of the many hikes on Oahu.
Koko Head stairs are one of the most unique things to do in Oahu although undoubtedly one of the most challenging. It’s recommended to start the hike an hour before sunrise for the best views, to enjoy cooler temperatures and because who doesn’t love death-defying hikes in the dark. Cure the jetlag, work off the Poke calories and enjoy incredible views all in one.
From Waikiki, the Koko Head Stairs are a 25-minute drive along the Kalanianaole Highway – from the North Shore, it’s around a 50-minute drive. Parking is straightforward and there is no entry fee. However, that’s when the simplicity ends and the hike (read: torture) begins.
Often referred to as Koko Crater trail or labelled Koko head stairs from Hell by Loz as despite the 0.7-mile distance there is a gruelling incline, with a jolly 1048 steps to conquer. Many of the steps are fearfully high or wide apart, but for the guaranteed adrenaline rush (albeit a touch of vertigo) it is so worth it for the sweaty-post-hike selfies at sunrise.
The stairs were originally the Koko Head railroad, transporting food and supplies to the military bunkers up top in World War II. Nowadays, the hike is a mecca for fitness fanatics racing for a new personal best which proves for some entertaining viewing for us, mere average, panting humans. Overhearing claims of 12-minute climbs won’t be uncommon, but for those who aren’t competing to be the next gladiator allow around 1 hour to reach the summit. An hour doesn’t sound too bad we hear you cry, watch our video below and you’ll soon see why we’ve labelled this hike one of the most unique things to do in Oahu!
As a tip, bring a head torch as you will need both hands at times especially crossing the bridge, which stands 10ft above a narrow ravine. Some opt to use their phone torch however at the risk of draining your battery before reaching the summit which means, those sweaty sunrise pics won’t be possible when you (eventually) make it.
When you do make it, the vistas are breath-taking with panoramic views of Hanauma Bay, Hawaii Kai Valley, Sandy Beach and if the weather is on your side, the islands of Lanai, Molokai and Maui.
After the equally challenging descent, you’ll either vow never to endure this knee crusher again or more likely, the adrenaline will fuel your masochistic desire to hike this dormant volcano same time tomorrow.
2. Hike to the Lanikai Pillboxes
If the word “sunrise” is not within your vacation vocabulary and you’re more of a “minimal effort, maximum views” type hiker then the Lanikai Pillbox hike is the ideal trail for you.
A steep yet quick climb of around 30 minutes will lead you to the Lanikai pillboxes which are old military bunkers from WWII. You are also treated to insane views of Lanikai beach which epitomises Oahu life – striking blue waters dotted with towering palm trees, the Mokulua Islands and Chinaman’s hat.
As mentioned, no alarm is needed as the views are incredible regardless of the time of day, although there is no shade from the midday sun so maybe aim for a post-poke hike mid-afternoon.
After reaching the first Lanikai pillbox you have a choice – play local and venture to the further two pillboxes or play tourist and make the return journey for a swim at Lanikai beach. If you do choose to continue farther along the Kaiwa Ridge Trail to the remaining pillboxes, note the trail will lead you down near residential houses on A’alapapa Street, so you will need to then hike a further mile to Ka’elepupu Drive where you started the hike.
If you’re keen for a post-hike sunbathe and swim instead, due to being voted one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, timing is key for avoiding the crowds at Lanikai. During peak season (June to August) crowds can be unavoidable. We did promise unique things to do in Oahu, so as a sneaky tip for a more relaxing swim, a mere 10 miles further will bring you to Kaiona Beach Park. This is a firm favourite with locals and ideal for snorkelling newbies as this spot is particularly safe due to the shallow reef and no shore break.
3. Go Camping at Bellows Field Beach Park
Our next idea is one of our favourite memories from our time on the island and is hands down one of the most unique things to do in Oahu to escape the touristy resorts – go camping! If you’re seriously exhausted from Koko head stairs, pack a tent and some marshmallows because Bellows Field Beach Park is an incredible camping spot just 8 minutes drive from Kaiona Beach Park.
We had the most incredible stay here during our time backpacking Hawaii and felt it was the perfect way to experience the Oahu way of life – without the beach resort price tag. You are literally camped right on the sand, falling asleep under the stars then waking up to an unforgettable sunrise.
Better yet, camping permits on Oahu are only $32 for 3 days and $52 for 5 days making it the perfect option for those looking for budget accommodation in Hawaii. Smores at sunset beats a Waikiki hotel any day!
4. Spot Whales from Makapu’u Lookout
If you’re craving those island views but vacay mode is officially on, then Makapu’u lookout is the stop for you as it involves zero hiking. *insert cheering here* Simply park up with your camera in hand.
This little gem features on our list of unique things to do in Oahu because it is a favoured spot for whale watching. Especially if you time your visit any time between November to May with guaranteed sightings of these majestic giants between January and March.
Also, If you’re a movie fan, nearby Makapu’u lookout is a relaxing 1.75-mile walk to the Makapu’u Point Lighthouse, which served as the location for Drew Barrymore & Adam Sandler’s first kiss in Fifty First Dates. From film fanatics to energetic mom’s pushing prams it’s a popular spot due to the gentle incline and paved walkway from the parking lot to peak. As far as Oahu hikes go – this was one of our favourites because it’s SUPER easy.
Unfortunately, no Hollywood re-enactments are possible as the lighthouse itself is off-limits, instead, save any smooches for the numerous viewing platforms on route and don’t forget to keep an eye out for whales as you walk!
5. Go Mural Hunting in Kaka’ako
Often overshadowed by the demand to surf or sunbathe, few visitors realise that Oahu has an incredible street art scene. For those seeking one of the most unique things to do in Oahu, head to the area of Kaka’ako which neighbours the Ala Moana centre in Waikiki.
The mural scene here is unrivalled – whether an Insta fan hoping to strike a pose or an art enthusiast ready to discover the next big name, the vibrant streets and warehouses will leave you with a new profile pic at the least and inspire you to pick up a spray can at most.
Keep your eye on Lana Lane, who usually post about the freshest new murals, however, world-renown artists can be found around every corner. The best time to visit Kaka’ako is in February as the Pow!Wow! Street art festival takes place then. Pow!Wow! offers the canvas for artists from all over the world to create new murals, refresh old and promote street art on Oahu.
Dotted between the murals are trendy coffee shops, up and coming breweries and souvenir shops from local artisans. Arvo Café, in particular was one of our favourite places to eat on Oahu. It is a hipster haven – stepping inside is like stepping into a real-life Pinterest board complete with macramé wall art, succulents and retro décor.
The shop is paired with a café specialising in one dish – toast. How hipster can you get? However, not just any toast, from Avocado to Nutella expect all toppings with a sprinkling of edible flowers to bump up those Instagram likes. Their drinks menu screams millennial with Lavender lattes and all things “activated charcoal” proving popular, although they won’t gasp in horror if you take one for the team and order an Americano.
6. Visit Pearl Harbour
It might not be considered one of the most unique things to do in Oahu but we’ve included it on our list as the experience was entirely different than we imagined and it is a history lesson we will never forget! Whether you’re backpacking Hawaii for a month or visiting for a weekend, it is essential to spare an hour or two to learn about the island’s infamous history and the devastating events that dragged the US into World War II.
The first surprising fact is that tickets for Pearl Harbour are FREE! They are released each morning on a first-come, first-served basis, so arrive at opening time (7:00 am) to be guaranteed a visit.
As well as the thought-provoking visitor centre where you watch a twenty-minute film depicting the historic events of Pearl Harbour your ticket includes a shuttle boat to the floating Arizona memorial shrine.
The memorial shrine honours the 1,177 lives which were lost onboard the USS Arizona, which sunk in a mere 9 minutes on December 7th 1941. In total, over 2000 lives were tragically taken that day, with nearly 350 planes obliterated and 20 ships sunk during the two-hour attack. After the Arizona Memorial Shrine, you then head back to the visitor centre on the boat. The entire experience lasts around 1 hour 15 minutes and was without a doubt worth the early alarm.
It is possible to visit Pearl Harbour via public transport, if you take the Number 42 bus from Waikiki (headed for Ewa Beach) it will drop you at the visitor centre or the Number 20 will also drop you there via the Airport. A single ticket only costs $2.75, with a round trip costing $5.50 making a visit accessible and affordable to everyone.
7. Road Trip to the North Shore
If you’re not planning on staying in this surfing mecca, no trip to Oahu would be complete without at least a day trip The North Shore to absorb all things Aloha. The vibe here is infectious, think old-school market town mixed surfer culture, complete with culinary delights and crowd-free beaches.
How to get to North Shore
The Pali Highway is the main artery on Oahu as it cuts through the middle of the island but taking the scenic route on the Eastern side instead, is far more rewarding as you head North. Escaping Waikiki to Haleiwa is only a one hour drive however if a few Konas are on the agenda, you can also take the Haleʻiwa shuttle which departs Waikiki twice daily (07:30am and 10:30am) and will return you after a day of shopping and shave ice on the North Shore.
Things to do on North Shore
There are so many things to do on North Shore Oahu, that making it your base instead of crowded Honolulu will prove hugely beneficial to your time on the Island. Especially because many drivers on Oahu adopt an “Island Time” mentality – not just chilled, Sunday afternoon vibes but painfully slow, stopping every 5 minutes for a photo vibes, so allow plenty time for road trips or as mentioned, stay in the North Shore overnight to make the most of it.
As a tip, avoid the Walmart-worthy mass-produced souvenirs of Waikiki and instead spend your hard-earned dollar in Haleiwa on The North Shore. The North Shore Marketplace and Hale‘iwa Town Center run the monopoly of stores, with Gift shops and galleries offering all sorts of goodies from homemade soaps, to locally grown coffee and artwork all within charming plantation-era buildings.
Where to eat on North Shore
Whether you’re a local or a visitor there is one unmissable stop which is the favoured welcome to North Shore – Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck. Devouring the garlicky goodness of these freshly caught shrimps literally blows any overpriced Waikiki seafood restaurant out the water. Word of warning however, bring wet wipes – things will get messy.
If seafood isn’t your thing the Aji Limo Food Truck is an equally delicious alternative and hands down, one of our favourite places to eat in Oahu. Their rainbow exterior and driftwood-esque seating area are as enticing as their menu. The pipeline Teriyaki burger is a favourite but their vegetarian options are also delicious and definitely worth the detour.
Finally, following your food truck frenzy, the North Shore is also home to one of Hawaii’s most famous desserts – Shave Ice. The best venue to enjoy this sweet snow-like substance is Matsumotos. Located in Haleiwa, although it’s easy to find – the queue down the street might be a teenie tiny giveaway.
As well as traditional flavours such as coconut and pineapple, Matsumotos offers quirky toppings such as condensed milk or Mochi balls for an added sugar rush. We did promise unique things to do in Oahu and I’d say slurping up rainbow snow ticks the box, so to remember your experience don’t forget to buy one of their epic retro-inspired T-shirts!
8. Workaway on Oahu
This is not only one of the most unique things to do in Oahu, but has been one of the best travel experiences of our entire lives. If you are reading this guide or have ever considered backpacking Hawaii and deemed it too expensive, then Workaway will change your life.
Essentially, it is a cultural exchange platform – think Airbnb but instead, you volunteer your time and in exchange, your accommodation is free, yes FREE. We spent 4 weeks on Oahu without spending a single penny on accommodation.
We stayed with a local family who not only shared their home and way of life, they introduced us to the best local places to eat on Oahu, we celebrated their birthdays by camping on the beach, experienced our first ever Superbowl and made so many memories with now, life long friends.
In exchange, we practised English with their children (who also spoke Spanish & Japanese = mindblown!) as well as daily tasks such as cooking or taking the children to school. We also shared blogging tips and ideas for working remotely as the family were planning their own adventure too.
Oahu was not our first Workaway experience so far we’ve done 3 – in Switzerland, Greece and Hawaii and to date, we have enjoyed every single minute with no bad experiences. Our hosts from Hawaii even visited us in Melbourne when we were backpacking Australia. We have SO much advice on setting up a Workaway profile to ensure you find your dream host and cannot recommend it enough to anyone looking for a unique way to experience Hawaii or who maybe wouldn’t have the budget to travel. Our video below explains a little more.
9. Wildlife Spotting
Whether you’re driving, surfing or hiking around the island always keep your eyes peeled for the abundance of wildlife Oahu has to offer. We’re including this in our most unique things to do in Oahu because we’re not just talking about the usual floral and fauna, we’re talking sharks, turtles, whales and seals all popping up to say Aloha. However *spoiler alert* for the best animal encounters, you will need to drag your Blue-Hawaiian fuelled self from the deckchairs of Waikiki and get exploring.
To spot these majestic (though tragically endangered) creatures head to Laniakea Beach. Aptly nicknamed Turtle beach, you’ll likely spot a volunteer or two to guide you to the best turtle viewing point. Should turtles be present, there will be a makeshift boundary created by the volunteer to protect the turtles and crossing the boundary results in a hefty fine so don’t risk your vacay fund for a turtle selfie.
Hawaiian Monk Seal
These fuzzy little fellas can be spotted on the eastern side of Oahu. Sadly with a population of only 1200, these guys are also endangered so although a sighting is rare, if you do see one, please be a responsible traveller and enjoy them from a distance. Also, respect the law not to touch or feed them. Hawaii is the only place in the world where you can see these Monk seals, so a sighting is definitely bucket list-worthy and hands down one of the most unique things to do in Oahu.
Sharks play a massive role in traditional Hawaiian culture, with nine of the Hawaiian Gods relating to sharks in some way. There are over 40 species of shark who flaunt the waters of Oahu, 8 of which can be observed from the island’s shores and the main species being Galapagos, Sandbar and Tiger.
Do not fear, however, chuck your bikini back in the bag as you’re more likely to be killed by a falling coconut than one of these misunderstood beasts. With coconuts killing 15 times more people worldwide than our sharp-toothed friends. Fun fact.
If you’re feeling particularly brave, for a unique afternoon outing you can even hop in a cage amongst them on the North Shore. If a death-defying Tuesday ain’t your cup of tea, opt for the numerous snorkelling spots instead for a shark-free swim. The best sites for snorkelling are Sharks Cove (oh the irony!) and Hanauma Bay. Avoid snorkelling in Winter, when towering waves dictate the shores making swimming incredible dangerous for the inexperienced.
10. Eat like a Local
The joy of Hawaii’s “melting pot” culture, is that the food offers something for everyone – if you know where to look. For those willing to escape the overpriced chains of Waikiki, you will be rewarded with local gems which offer some of the best food on the island.
Helena’s Hawaiian Food
For traditional, no-frills food guaranteed to delight foodie fanatics and fussy eaters alike, Helena’s is one of the best places to eat in Oahu. Food is served in small dishes with 3 dishes per person recommended, or ideally order the set menu for the best selection. For over six decades this humble café has been serving up Hawaiian classics such as Poi, Lomi salmon, Haupia and Kalua Pig and a visit will not disappoint.
Situated in an unassuming building in a parking lot, you’ll be forgiven for driving past The Hibachi in Kailua town. However, it is one of the best places to try the traditional Poke. It is also nearby Lanikai Beach so is the perfect stop to grab lunch before a sunbathing sesh (or attempting the Lanikai Pillbox hike.) Read more about their melt in the mouth meals in our Oahu food guide.
An hour’s north of Makapu’u is a second filming location from 50 First Dates – Hukilau Café. Located in the sleepy town of Laie, it’s more of a down to earth diner than Hollywood set. However, the café is a fun little detour to eat like a local and experience where the couple meets for the first time in the movie. Their speciality is Loco Moco, a hamburger patty topped with a fried egg and ladles of tasty gravy, served with rice. If you have any room (highly doubted considering the Loco Moco featured on an episode of Man Vs Food) then top off your visit with their second speciality – pancakes. For home-style cooking guaranteed to fill you up for at least a week, Hukilau café is an unmissable stop.
OAHU TRAVEL TIPS
Best Time to Visit
Being the rainbow state, Hawaii offers tropical sunshine and rain all year round. Arguably the best time to visit would be November to May to witness the whale migration however this falls over peak season. Visiting from Mid April to early June and between September to November is ideal if you’re looking to avoid school holidays as this is also when airfares and room rates are lower with attractions less crowded.
Unfortunately, Island life ain’t all pineapples and rainbows, in Honolulu expect some of the worst traffic queues in the country. Always check traffic reports especially if headed somewhere important, like the airport or y’know Leonard’s Bakery.
Be Wise in the Water
Visitor drownings are 10 times more common than local drownings on Hawaii due to the lack of research tourists do before hopping in for a swim. Despite the paradise surroundings, the sea can be extremely dangerous – be wary of all tide warnings and incredibly cautious of the current when swimming in Oahu.
Wear Reef Friendly Sunscreen
By entering the water you are not only putting yourself at risk, but by wearing the wrong sunscreen you are putting Oahu’s sealife at risk also. A 2015 study found over 412 pounds of suncream was deposited onto the coral reef at popular snorkel spot Hanauma Bay EACH DAY. Do not be part of this statistic, be a responsible traveller, save the turtles and switch to reef-friendly sunscreen which doesn’t contain oxybenzone or octinoxate. To be honest, most stores on Oahu offer only this type anyway because Hawaii made it a legal requirement to wear reef-friendly sunscreen.
Do Not Hike Stairway to Heaven
When searching for unique things to do in Oahu, you may be tempted to make this treacherous trek for those insane views. Don’t be. Unless you fancy a cheeky jaunt to jail during your vacation, avoid this illegal hike and do not believe any blog, local or tourist that tells you it’s safe to do.