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With its pristine beaches, iconic landmarks, and rich Hawaiian culture, the island of Oahu has plenty to offer visitors. If you’re wondering what makes Oahu such a popular tourist destination, read on to discover the top things this island is known for.

Famous Beaches

Waikiki Beach

With its stunning high-rise hotels, white sand beaches, and crystal blue waters, Waikiki Beach is the most famous beach in Oahu. Over 4 million tourists visit this vibrant 2-mile stretch of beach annually, making it the epicenter of Oahu’s tourism industry.

Located in the south shore of the island, Waikiki offers a wide variety of beaches suitable for swimming, surfing, and other watersports. According to, some of the top beaches within Waikiki include Fort DeRussy Beach, Royal Hawaiian Beach, Kuhio Beach, and others.

The waves are typically mild along Waikiki Beach, making it a suitable destination for families and novice surfers alike. Waikiki Beach also offers many beachfront hotels, shops, restaurants, nightlife, cultural attractions, and more.

North Shore

Apart from Waikiki, the stunning beaches of Oahu’s North Shore are also world-renowned, especially for surfing enthusiasts. Some of the most famous beaches in the North Shore include Sunset Beach, Banzai Pipeline Beach, Waimea Bay Beach Park, and others.

These beaches have hosted international surf competitions in winter months when powerful waves up to 30 feet tall can be found. Some legendary surfers that have made a name for themselves on the North Shore include Duke Kahanamoku, Eddie Aikau, and others.

But the North Shore also has calmer beaches suitable for families and swimming like Haleiwa Ali’i Beach Park and many secluded beaches along Turtle Bay. The scenic landscapes and slower pace on the North Shore provide a nice alternative to the touristy and fast-paced Waikiki area.

Lanikai Beach

Often ranked as one of the most beautiful beaches in Hawaii, Lanikai Beach offers a picturesque landscape with white powdery sands, gentle waters, and views of the Mokulua islands just offshore. According to surveys conducted by Dr. Beach, Lanikai Beach was voted America’s Best Beach in 2007 and ranked among the world’s best beaches for many years.

Stretching about half a mile along the Windward coast, Lanikai Beach attracts many beachgoers for kayaking, paddleboarding, swimming, and even snorkeling or sailing. But its residential location keeps big crowds away and retains Lanikai’s tranquil atmosphere.

Many tourists and locals consider Lanikai a small slice of paradise where relaxation and adventure meet.

Historic Landmarks

Pearl Harbor and USS Arizona Memorial

One of Oahu’s most famous historic sites is Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial. On December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japanese forces, marking the entrance of the United States into World War II.

Over 2,400 Americans were killed in the attack, with 1,177 of those deaths occurring on the USS Arizona when it was bombed. Today, the USS Arizona still lies at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, with a memorial built above it to honor those who lost their lives.

The USS Arizona Memorial is a must-see for history lovers visiting Oahu. You can take a short boat ride out to the white memorial structure which straddles the sunken hull of the USS Arizona. Included in the experience is a movie detailing the events of the Pearl Harbor attack and a view of the memorial wall with the names those killed in the attack.

An unforgettable experience while learning about a pivotal moment in U.S. history.

Iolani Palace

Iolani Palace showcases Oahu’s history as the royal residence of King Kalakaua and Queen Liliʻuokalani, the last monarchs to rule the Kingdom of Hawaii. This National Historic Landmark in downtown Honolulu was completed in 1882 and represents one of America’s few royal palaces.

During your visit, you can tour the historic rooms filled with artifacts from the 19th century when the palace was used. Some standout items are the koa wood staircase, the formal dining room with imported china, and the tin ceiling designed to reflect sound to aid those hard of hearing.

The palace grounds are also lovely with manicured gardens of native Hawaiian plants and majestic trees like mahogany, mango, coconut palms and hala. Attending the Royal Hawaiian Band concerts held on the former barracks grounds on many Friday afternoons provides an extra cultural treat!

King Kamehameha Statue

Situated across the street from the Aliʻiōlani Hale, Oahu’s former government building, is a statue of Hawaii’s most revered king and unifier of the Hawaiian Islands, King Kamehameha I. Standing 18 feet tall and covered in gold leaf, seeing the striking King Kamehameha Statue first erected in 1883 is one of Honolulu’s long-standing icons.

The statue was lost at sea twice on its journey from Europe before eventually landing permanently near the Iolani Palace and Honolulu Harbor. Islanders consider King Kamehameha I with great esteem as the leader who established the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1810.

Taking a photo in front of the iconic Kamehameha statue with its huli kukui torches and spear is one of the top things to do in Honolulu for free!

Outdoor Activities


Oahu is a hiker’s paradise with numerous scenic trails to explore. From easy coastal paths to challenging ascents up extinct volcanoes, there is a hike for every ability level. Some of the most popular hikes on Oahu include:

  • Diamond Head Crater Hike – This moderate 2-mile round trip hike rewards you with sweeping 360 degree views from the rim of a volcanic tuff cone.
  • Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail – Walk along the scenic Windward coastline to a historic red-roof lighthouse with whale watching opportunities.
  • Manoa Falls Trail – Trek through lush tropical rainforest to a picturesque 150-foot waterfall.

In addition to day hikes, Oahu has several fantastic multi-day treks including the Kaʻena Point Trail and the Ehukai Pillbox Trail across the Koolau Summit. Guided hikes with knowledgeable local guides are also available if you want to learn more about Hawaiian history and culture while exploring Oahu’s great outdoors.


With warm crystal clear waters and an abundance of marine life, Oahu offers some of the best snorkeling in Hawaii. Top snorkel spots around the island include:

  • Hanauma Bay – This protected marine preserve has loads of tropical fish and sea turtles just below the surface.
  • Shark’s Cove – See colorful reef fish, eels, and sometimes sharks in this North Shore lava rock bay.
  • Electric Beach – Snorkel with green sea turtles near the warm water output from a power plant.

Most snorkeling sites have calm, shallow areas perfect for beginners. For the more adventurous, popular offshore snorkel cruises go to pristine coral reefs overflowing with aquatic life. Molokini Crater, just offshore Maui, offers some of Hawaii’s most spectacular snorkeling through its clear protected waters.


As the birthplace of surfing, riding waves in Hawaii is a must. Oahu’s South Shore sees the most consistent surf in winter thanks to wrap-around swells and offshore trade winds. Top beginner surf spots include Waikiki, Ala Moana Bowls, and White Plains.

Intermediate and advanced surfers flock to the iconic Banzai Pipeline and other North Shore breaks in winter when the large swell arrives.

Beginner Spots Waikiki, Ala Moana Bowls, White Plains
Intermediate Spots Kewalos, Clouds, Laniakea
Advanced Spots Banzai Pipeline, Sunset Beach, Waimea Bay

Lessons and surfboard/stand up paddleboard rentals are readily available along many South Shore beaches through local surf shops. If you’re looking to watch expert surfers instead of riding the waves yourself, the winter’s Vans Triple Crown of Surfing on the North Shore brings top professional surfers to Oahu for spectacular surfing displays at the islands most epic breaks.

Food and Dining

Traditional Hawaiian Dishes

Oahu is known for its diverse culinary scene, but traditional Hawaiian dishes are still popular amongst locals and visitors. These dishes showcase ingredients indigenous to the islands, like taro, sweet potato, breadfruit, and fresh fish.

Favorites include poi, a paste made from taro root, kalua pig slow roasted in an underground oven, lomi lomi salmon, a raw salmon salad, and poke, a raw tuna salad often served as an appetizer.

Polynesian Cuisine

In addition to Hawaiian food, Oahu boasts cuisine with influences from other Pacific Islands. This includes dishes like Samoan panipopo sweet bread, Tahitian po’e made from banana or breadfruit, and Filipino pancit noodles.

Many restaurants fuse these cuisines together to create modern twists on Polynesian classics. This reflects Oahu’s cultural diversity and Hawaiian’s appreciation for all people of the Pacific.

Diverse Dining Scene

While Hawaiian and Polynesian food reign supreme, Oahu’s dining scene has grown vastly diverse over the years. Virtually every major cuisine in the world can be found on the island. From Japanese izakaya pubs to Indian curries to Italian pasta, there are endless options.

Food trucks offering quick bites are also popular. This diversity echoes Oahu’s cultural melting pot of residents and visitors from around the globe.

In the end, whatever you crave, you can likely find it in Oahu. From the root vegetable and banana leaf-wrapped laulau to the perfect plate of spicy tuna poke, Hawaiian cuisine offers visitors a taste of the islands. Yet the modern dining scene also provides options to suit any palate.

No wonder Oahu continues to rank among the best foodie destinations in America.

Vibrant Culture

Luaus and Hula Dancing

No trip to Hawaii is complete without attending a luau, a traditional Hawaiian party featuring hula dancing, music, and a feast of local cuisine. Luaus re-create the festivities that were once reserved for Hawaiian royalty and allow visitors a glimpse into Polynesian culture.

Many major resorts in Waikīkī host their own luaus with all-you-can-eat buffets and live entertainment. The night often culminates in a riveting hula performance telling stories passed down through generations.

According to Go Hawaii, some of the best luaus on O’ahu are located at the Paradise Cove Luau, Germaine’s Luau, and Chief’s Luau at Sea Life Park.

Live Music Scene

O’ahu has an eclectic live music scene spanning rock, jazz, Hawaiian, and pop. On any given night, you can catch local bands playing gigs at beachside bars in Waikīkī or North Shore. Iconic venues such as the Blue Note Hawaii regularly host well-known mainland and international artists too.

Additionally, the First Friday events happening monthly in Chinatown transform the neighborhood into a lively block party with pop-up markets, food trucks, and musical performances on multiple stages.

With its fusion of cultures, O’ahu’s music incorporates elements of Hawaiian folk tunes, Japanese taiko drums, and contemporary genres like hip hop. So whether you’re looking for traditional island rhythms or modern beats, you’ll find inspiring live music around every corner.

Annual Festivals and Events

From massive New Year’s Eve fireworks displays to Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations, O’ahu hosts exciting festivals and events year-round:

  • Honolulu Festival (March) – This cultural event features parades, dance performances, art exhibits, and a showcase of traditional Japanese, Hawaiian, and pan-Pacific food.
  • Prince Lot Hula Festival (July) – Dedicated to the art of hula dancing, this festival hosts solo competitions for dancers of all ages and skill levels at Moanalua Gardens.
  • Aloha Festivals (September-October) – For over 70 years, this statewide tradition has celebrated Hawaiian culture and history through parades, concerts, food fairs, and the annual floral parade.
  • Hawaii Food & Wine Festival (October-November) – Foodies flock here to meet celebrity chefs and try exclusive dishes made from the state’s freshest local ingredients.
Annual Visitors Economic Impact
Over 30,000 $90 million

It’s clear that annual events significantly boost O’ahu’s economy and enable the island to proudly showcase its diverse, vibrant culture all year long.


With so much natural beauty, iconic landmarks, adventure, culture, and great food – it’s easy to see why Oahu is such a beloved destination. Hopefully this guide gives you a good overview of exactly what makes this Hawaiian island so famous and appealing to visitors.

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