With its world-renowned waters, lush landscapes, and luxury hotels, it’s no surprise that the island of Oahu attracts tourists from across the globe who are looking to kick back and relax in tropical paradise. In 2016, the Hawaiian island received an estimated 5.5 million visitors, roughly 475 percent more than its own population.
Today, the Islands are one of the top tourist destinations in North America, but that hasn’t always been the case. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1960s—shortly after Hawaii became the 50th state in the Union—that tourism really began to boom. By the time we reached the ’70s, the capital city of Honolulu was forced to make adjustments to meet the growing demands. Highways were expanded, high-rise hotels were built in place of Mission-style structures, and once untouched land gave way to bustling shopping centers and movie theaters.
Thankfully, there are still plenty of places to go and things to do in Oahu that can take you back to its Golden Age—that dreamy time of idyllic landscapes, exotic entertainment, and worry-free living that we still associate with Hawaii today. Here, our top 7 picks.
Polynesian Cultural Center Admission & Show
Travel back in time to the early days of the Islands’ indigenous Polynesian people at the Polynesian Cultural Center. Immerse yourself in the unique traditions of the Native Hawaiians and other Polynesians from throughout the South Pacific as you watch a coconut get cut from a 40-foot (12-m) tree, test your accuracy with an authentic throwing spear, and learn how to move to the rhythm of a thumping Tahitian drum. After plenty of time to explore the rich heritage of 6 different Pacific cultures, finish the day by taking in the Hā: Breath of Life fire show, a jaw-dropping spectacle featuring more than 100 Polynesian performers, spectacular special effects, and heart-pounding sound.
Hawaii’s Plantation Village
Take a journey into the 19th and 20th centuries when “sugar was King” with a visit to Hawaii’s Plantation Village. The living history museum, located roughly 30 minutes west of downtown Honolulu, tells the story of life during the thriving time of sugar plantations, from the mid-1800s to the 1980s. Wander the village to uncover 25 authentic plantation homes and structures highlighting personal artifacts, clothing, furniture, and art. Step into the oasis of the botanical gardens to see unique plants brought over by Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino immigrants, sampling tastes of fresh fruit picked straight off the vine.
Best of Chinatown Food Tour
Dive into Honolulu’s famous Asian food scene—one that’s been flourishing ever since the first wave of immigrants from the Far East made their way to the Islands at the end of the 1800s. Join a local guide from Aloha Food Tours for a trek through the historic neighborhood of Chinatown, where a melting pot of culinary delights await you. Bop between restaurants and markets to sample favorites like savory Vietnamese pho, Thai-style fried chicken, caramel-covered banana lumpia, and one of the island’s most iconic dishes—fresh and salty poke salad.
A visit to Longs Drugs may only be brief, but it’s a must when vacationing in Honolulu. First opened in Hawaii in 1954, the drugstore—unlike any other of the chain on the mainland—carries all the island-life necessities. Make a stop to pick up essentials such as cans of Spam, kukui necklaces, flower leis, rubber slippers, and chocolate-covered macadamia nuts. Though the company was purchased by CVS in 2008, the local stores still bear the nostalgic Longs name.
Tastes of Waikiki Food & Beverage Tour
Step outside of Chinatown to uncover the gourmet food and drink that embody the kind of Hawaiian fusion first made famous in the early 20th century. Follow along with Tastes of Waikiki as you hit up 4 luxury hotspots to sample unforgettable island recipes while learning about the area’s unique culinary scene along the way. Dig into East-meets-beach creations such as lobster rolls with cucumber namasu, chipotle kalua pork sliders, and fried mahi tacos with soy aioli slaw. Of course, the experience wouldn’t be complete without the quintessential cocktail of the Islands—the fresh and fruity Mai Tai. Though the rum-based drink was invented in California, its inspiration came from the tropical flavors of Polynesia. Its creation in the mid-1930s kicked off the widespread trend of tiki culture in the States, helping make sweltering summers far more manageable.
Hawaiian VW Camper Van Rental
If you truly want to experience the laidback island vibe of Oahu, channel your inner 70s surfer and live the Endless Summer life. Forget hotels or Airbnbs and rent a retro V-Dub camper van instead. Strap on your board, zoom down the coast, and find a prime spot near the beach to park. Catch some waves at locally loved North Shore surf spots such as Ehukai Beach, Laniakea, or Sunset Beach. When you’re ready to rest, just fold down the van’s back seats to create a bed. You won’t regret waking up to the sound of the waves lapping against the shore.
Aha’aina Royal Hawaiian Luau
Of all the things to do in Oahu, one thing is certain—your trip is not complete without a traditional luau. With the breathtaking beachfront performance of Aha’aina, you’re taken on a cultural journey back in time to the days when Native Hawaiians would celebrate momentous occasions through song, dance, stories, and food. Pay homage to the land’s majestic history as you hear ancient legends of sea, take in the tinny sound of the ukulele, and marvel at the dazzling movements of the hula. Held at the glamourous 1920s Royal Hawaiian Hotel—affectionately known as the “Pink Palace of the Pacific”—this extraordinary show also treats you to a lavish feast with all the trappings of island cuisine.
What are you looking forward to most when visiting Honolulu?