Hawaii is a magical place and with so many things to see and do here across the eight islands, it can be difficult to choose the ‘best’ things to experience.
I’ve lived in Oahu for three years now and have had a number of friends come to visit me during that time. I’ve always tried to tell them my favorite things to do (or show them if I’m luckily enough to be off work) and I thought it may be easier to compile a list to share.
Note: most of these will be Oahu based; it’s where I’ve spent most of my time and also where most of my friends have visited. A number of these points will transfer to other islands though.
- Eat an acai bowl
I came across acai bowls for the first time in Hawaii in 2012 and fell in love. I wondered to myself “why are these not everywhere in the world?!” and seriously contemplated opening up a store in New Zealand that sold them. Fast forward five years and acai bowls are now at almost every café, health store and brunch spot around. But I still feel like is an important part of a visit to Hawaii. I’m a sucker for plain jane things; it doesn’t need to be fancy! My favorite places are Haleiwa Bowls and Banzai Bowls on the North Shore, and Lanikai Juice for when I’m in Waikiki. Add peanut butter to the blend for an extra tasty treat!
- Swim with dolphins/sharks
Seeing these beautiful animals in the wild is one of the most incredible things I’ve done. There are a number of reputable companies that do cage and cage-free shark diving on the North Shore and also swimming/snorkeling with dolphins on the West Side of Oahu. For the dolphins, I recommend going to Makua Beach early (7-8am) and swimming out from the shore towards the boats and you’ll see dolphins! They come fairly close to shore but if you are not comfortable in the ocean, this isn’t the activity for you.
In full disclosure, I haven’t done this one. I wouldn’t say I’m terrified of heights…but I’m most definitely terrified of throwing myself out of a plane and free falling down to the ground. I don’t think anyone could even pay me to do this. BUT, I have been told my friends that skydiving in Hawaii is one of the best places in the world to do it. I’ll take their word for it…
- Experience a surf contest
If you visit Hawaii in the winter season (November-February), make sure you head up to the North Shore for a surf contest and a chance to see Kelly Slater, John John Florence or Mick Fanning surf. If you’re lucky enough to be on the island when The Eddie is called on, drop anything and head to Waimea Bay to see history being made.
- Hike to a waterfall
Oahu offers hundreds of waterfall hikes and they are all very serene. My favorite ones for tourists would be Lulumahu Falls or Manoa Falls. My favorite waterfall for more adventurous visitors would be Sacred Falls (although it is highly illegal!).
- Eat poke and spam musubi
Vegetarians, this ones not for you. Poke is raw tuna, often cut into cubes. It can be served with no dressing or with dressings such as wasabi and shoyu (soy sauce). On the other hand, spam is a very processed meat and is a staple of a lot of Hawaiians diets. Spam musubi is like sushi, but with spam (rice and spam wrapped in a nori wrapper) and is available at most 7/11 making it a quick, easy snack on the go! Locals and tourists alike both swear on it.
- Visit Waikiki, but don’t spend your entire vacation there.
I think this may be the number one tip I tell friends and family visiting Oahu; locals HATE Waikiki. I believe that visiting Waikiki for a day or two to experience the world famous Waikiki beach, check out the shops and eat at some of the delicious restaurants is necessary. But spending any longer than that, is a waste of your vacation! With the ease of AirBnB these days, hotels and resorts are not the only accommodation options anymore. Rent a car and head to another spot on the island for cleaner beaches, less crowds and more of a local experience.
- Snorkel at Hanauma Bay
Often described as one of the best spots for snorkeling in the world, a visit to Hanauma Bay is a must do. Full disclosure: I don’t like it here! It’s very crowded, and you have to pay $7.50 to get in (and we all know I’m a cheap ass!). But some of my friends swear by it, so I included it. Let me know what you think after you’ve been.
- Visit famous surf beaches on the North Shore: Banzai Pipeline, Waimea Bay & Sunset Beach
In summer, it’s hard to believe these beaches have any sort of sized waves; but in winter, you can easily see 15ft waves at any of these shorelines. Pipeline is the most famous surf beach in the entire world, whereas Waimea Bay holds the most prestigious surf contest of all time. Either way, visiting all of these beaches is a definite must do. Tip: adventurous visitors should jump off the rock at Waimea Bay for bragging rights!
- Pay your respects at Pearl Harbor
One of my favorite tourist attractions on the island (I’ve even been twice!), Pearl Harbor is an amazing memorial for those who lost their lives in 1941. Tip: go super early to get your tickets. They won’t allow bags in, but do have a bag check. Also, it’s free. Who doesn’t love that?!
- Eat a malasada from Leonards
Now, I understand that malasada’s are not Hawaiian, but I’d never experienced one before living in Hawaii and now I can’t imagine my life without them! Think a warm donut, often filled with filling (custard is my favorite, but chocolate, haupia or macadamia nut are delicious also). There’s a few places on the island to get them but Leonards is the most famous one (and also the best).
- Visit the Napali coast on Kauai
The Napali Coast on Kauai is often described as the most beautiful place on earth; and I can see why. A boat tour gives the best views of the dramatic cliffs from the ocean, while an 8 mile hike (the Kalalau Trail) from the North Shore of Kauai means you end up on the deserted beaches below the cliffs. The hike is not for the faint hearted though; trying to do this hike at the wrong time of year can result in injuries and even death. It’s even been named one of the top 10 most dangerous hikes in all of America. Enter at your own risk!
- Experience a sunrise hike
There’s something very calming about hiking in the darkness and sitting on the side of a hill while watching the sun arrive for the day above the ocean. I’d recommend either the Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail or Lanikai Pillbox hikes for the best sunrise views on Oahu.
- Try shaved ice
Shaved ice, aka snow cones, are welcomed with open arms on hot, humid days in Hawaii (which is almost every day!). Try local flavors such as li hing mui (a sweet and sour flavor that compliments fruity flavors), lilikoi (passionfruit), and of course, pineapple and coconut. Tip: add a scoop of icecream to the bottom or a drizzle of condensed milk over the top for an extra sweet treat!
- Watch a sunset from the beach
I would recommend doing this every night that you can; each sunset is different and all of them are picturesque. In the summer time, the best sunsets can be seen from the North Shore, and in winter, the best ones can be seen from Waikiki.
- Have a go at surfing
If you’re visiting Hawaii in the winter season (December/January) then the places to learn to surf will be limited (e.g. you will die on the North Shore), but not impossible. Waikiki beach is calm almost all year round, but you’ll be amongst hundreds of others. Summer time brings smaller swells and a number of beaches to choose from.
- Eat a delicious plate lunch
Plate lunch is a staple Hawaiian take-out meal that is simple, but delicious. Your choice of meat, 2 scoops rice and one scoop macaroni salad. And that’s it. The meat can be anything from poke, to fried chicken, beef curry or ribs. No matter what you pick, it’s going to taste ono (delicious).
- Hike Diamond Head
Yes it’s filled with tourists. Yes it costs $1. Yes it’s so easy I once did it in flipflops. But it does give the best view across Honolulu and Waikiki Beach so spare a couple hours and do it.
- Swim with a sea turtle
There’s a particular beach on the North Shore where you are guaranteed to see turtles, but it’s a sore spot with locals because of the backed up traffic, tour operators parking illegally and tourists jaywalking in front of cars. So for the sanity of the locals of my favorite place on the island, I’m not going to name this spot. However, turtles hang out at almost any beach you can swim at; just keep an eye out when you’re underwater and have that GoPro handy for the perfect selfie shot! Tip: do not touch the sea turtles at any point, they are an endangered species and it is highly illegal.
- Have a fruity cocktail at a bar that overlooks the ocean
Because, well, why not? My favorite is Lava Flow – a pina colada but with strawberry sauce swirled throughout.
- Visit the flowing lava on the Big Island
If your visit allows, I would HIGHLY recommend going to see the lava on the Big Island. There are a few different ways to see the lava, and I explain all of them in my other blog post (A Beginners Guide to Visiting the Big Island). It’s by far the most amazing, incredible and mind-blowing thing I’ve done in my entire life and I cannot recommend it enough!
- Scuba dive
Some of the best things you can see in Hawaii, are under the sea, including some amazing ship wrecks. Many companies offer a beginners dive course so no certification is needed. My favorite companies would be Honolulu Scuba Company and Island Divers Hawaii.
- Climb the Stairway to Heaven/Haiku Stairs
Now this is a tricky one – it’s highly illegal doing the stairs one way, but legal doing them from the back way. I’ll let you research this hike yourself if you dare; it’s often named one of the most dangerous hikes in the USA (along with the Kalalau Trail which I mentioned earlier).
- Get a plate of garlic shrimp at a food truck
A visit to the North Shore of Oahu is not complete without a plate of garlic shrimp from a food truck that looks like it has seen better days. Giovanni’s in Kahuku and Haleiwa is the most famous one yet a number of them offer just as delicious shrimp. Tip: if you go to Giovannis, make sure you get a pen and sign the truck.
- Extra bonus point just for fun: the Polynesian Cultural Centre
Voted the number one tourist attraction on Trip Advisor, the PCC is a tourist hot spot. And even so, it offers a truly amazing and authentic cultural experience. Coming from New Zealand, I wasn’t that interested in visiting an attraction that showcased a culture I grew up with. But when you’re offered free tickets by a fellow Kiwi and your mom is in town then strange things happen. And I was pleasantly surprised. The authentic-ness of each village, the delectable food for dinner and the absolutely incredible show at the end all make for one wonderful day.
Please let me know if you think I nailed it, or if I missed anything crucial.