Our list of free things to do on O’ahu includes a fresh take on some popular spots and a few hidden gems. Most of the following attractions, historical sites, nature trails, parks, and beaches are open every day of the year. All are free to visit and many offer a priceless experience you won’t fine anywhere else.
Whether you live here or are on vacation, Hawaiʻi can be an expensive place. Our suggestions will help you make the most of your leisure time without the need to dig into your wallet.
Popular Free Attractions
Honolulu self-guided walking tour
Downtown Honolulu Walking Tour. The state capitol and largest city is rich with important landmarks such as Iolani Palace (the only royal palace in the U.S.), Aliiolani Hale (House of Heavenly Kings), Hawaiian Mission Houses, Kawaiahaʻo Church, Hawaiʻi State Library, and many more historical buildings. This 1.6 mile self-guided walking tour features 14 locations and takes about two hours to complete. Download the app GPSmyCity, with built-in GPS navigation that guides you from one tour stop to next. The app works offline and offers tours to places around the globe. Free download.
Punchbowl Cemetery is a humbling place with a commanding view of Oʻahu. Known to Hawaiians as Pūowaina, meaning “hill of deposits”, ancient Hawaiians used the site to execute people who had committed certain kapu or serious crimes. Today, it is officially known as the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. Many soldiers who fell during World War II are interred here. Stroll this memorial park filled with the graves of thousands who gave their lives for their country. Reflect on their sacrifice and the lives of loved ones they left behind. On the National Historic Register since 1976, Pūowaina can be a profound experience and priceless experience that doesn’t cost a dime. Pūowaina is free and open every day. Cemetery map.
The Pearl Harbor National Memorial consists of four historic sites: the USS Arizona, Battleship Missouri, USS Bowfin Submarine, and the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum. Most people visit Pearl to see the Arizona Memorial (accessible via a free–but reserved–boat ride with limited seating) and perhaps one or more of the historic sites.
Pearl Harbor Visitor Center. Many visitors often overlook, or merely walk through the Visitor Center, which is free to visit and chock full of interesting history. While there, you can immerse yourself in the exhibit galleries, watch a short documentary film about 1941 attack, walk the grounds (on paved paths suitable for strollers and wheelchairs), read more fascinating facts at the outdoor wayside exhibits, enjoy scenic shoreline views, pay tribute to the fallen in the Remembrance Circle, and visit the bookstore. You can catch the free shuttle to Ford Island, which is the location for the historic sites: two battleships, a submarine, and aviation museum, each with separate admission fees. You can also use this Ford Island Historical Trail Map from the Historic Hawaiʻi Foundation for a free self-guided walking tour. The Pearl Harbor Visitor Center is free and open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
Hawaii State Art Museum
Hawaii State Art Museum (HiSAM) is a blissful and contemplative space showcasing contemporary works by artists who have a connection to Hawai‘i. Find HiSAM in the No. 1 Capitol District Building in downtown Honolulu. Diverse artworks are displayed in the ground floor Sculpture Garden and second floor gallery space. HiSAM is one of many venues for the “Art in Public Places” program that displays artworks at hundreds of locations statewide, including schools, libraries, hospitals, airports, and government buildings. HiSAM is free and open Monday-Saturday; it is closed on Sunday and state and federal holidays.
Art on the Zoo Fence
Art on the Zoo Fence. Hawaiʻi artists display and sell their original art and photographic works every Saturday and Sunday along the fence at the Honolulu Zoo. There are a variety of styles and subjects. Visit with the artist and discuss their work and process. Park on Monsarrat Ave (just off Kalakaua Ave) or at nearby Kapi’olani Park. Street parking is free on Sunday. Art on the Zoo Fence is free and open every weekend.
Heiau: Ancient Hawaiian Sites
Heiau are remnants of sites used in ancient Hawai’i as places of worship as well as many other other daily functions such as preparing for harvests or wars.
The structure of heiau varied according to their use. Some are simple, though large stone or earthen terraces, while others are elaborate structures with multiple platforms and chambers, contructed of natural materials including wood, stone, and thatch.
Many ancient heiau can be found throughout the Hawaiian Islands. Listed below are a few major heiau on different parts of Oʻahu.
Considered sacred, be sure to treat heiau sites with the same respect you would any house of worship, museum, or monument. Leave no trace of your visit—add nothing and take nothing away.
- Keaiwa Heiau is just inside the entry to Keaiwa Heiau State Recreation Area in central Oʻahu. It was a medicinal or healing heiau used to diagnose and treat illness and injury, as well as train new practitioners in the healing arts. The state recreation area is open every day.
- Pu’u o Mahuka Heiau State Historic Site on the north shore is the largest heiau on Oʻahu. The two-acre site overlooks Waimea Bay 300-feet below the bluff. Constructed in the 1600-1700s, it was likely a luakni heiau. The National Park site is open every day.
- Ulupō Heiau State Historic Site on the Windward coast of Oʻahu in a historic agricultural area known as Kawai Nui. The heiau likely had several functions over itʻs lifespan from the 1400s to 1700s. The state historic site area is open every day.
Kukaniloko Birthstones State Monument
Kukaniloko Birthstones State Monument in central Oʻahu is a 5-acre field north of Wahiwa town. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The ancient site was the location for the birth of high ranking chiefs and chieftesses. Today, the sacred site is marked by a concentration of 180 large stones scattered over an area of approximately half an acre. This concentration of stones is the only tangible remains of what was a much larger religious complex called Kukaniloko, that at one time included the waihau heiau of Ho’olono-pahu, a site used support those attending to the royal birth. Kukaniloko continues to be reconfirmed and commemorated by Hawaiians who visit the site and occasionally leave offerings. Find Kukaniloko from the intersection of Kamehameha (Kam) Highway (H-80) and Whitmore Ave. Find the dirt road opposite Whitemore Ave and head west from Kam Highway. The state monument area is open every day.
Nature Trails & Hikes
There are so many trails available to casual walkers as well as ardent hikers. Here are just a few, which serve as an introduction to all that Oʻahu has to offer.
Ualakaa Trail near Honolulu is a short easy 1/2-mile loop forest trail. It is kid-friendly, dog-friendly on leash, and suitable for all skill levels. The walk features wildflowers and a bamboo forest. At the uphill end of the trail you come to a 4-way intersection with a system trail map to several other trails including Moleka, Maikiki Valley, and Maunalaha Trails. These trails are part of the complex Honolulu Mauka Trail System on Mount Tantalus. The DLNR trails are open every day.
Aiea loop trail
Aiea loop trail is within the Keaīwa Heiau State Recreation Area. It is kid-friendly, dog-friendly (on a leash), forest trail, that is suitable for most abilities, if you can walk 5 miles. Start in either direction to enjoy the variety of plants and views of Halawa Valley and the Oʻahu coastline. You may see (or hear) birdlife, wildflowers in season, and a WWII plane wreck about mid-trail. Like many nature trails, it can be muddy after rainy periods, but offers shade on sunny days. Try to go early in the week if you want a less-crowded trail. Find another state recreation area managed by the Division of State Parks | Island of Oʻahu (hawaii.gov). State recreation areas are open every day.
Makapu’u Point Lighthouse Trail
Makapu’u Point Lighthouse Trail is a paved, two-mile (round-trip), coastline trail on the southeast corner of Oʻahu features outstanding views and interpretive signs. Kid-friendly and dogs allowed on leash. Binoculars are recommended to sight birds and whales (in season November-May). The lighthouse is not open to visitors. One drawback is there is no shade, so wear a hat and bring water. The parking lot can fill up mid-day, especially on weekends. The gate is open gate is open 7:00am – 6:45pm. Find another trail managed by the Division of State Parks | Oʻahu (hawaii.gov) State hiking trails are open every day.
But wait! There’s more! Find more trails throughout Hawaiʻi: https://dlnr.hawaii.gov/recreation/nah/
Parks & Beaches
Always check beach safety conditions before you head out. At the beach, check again for any posted warning signs notifying you of the day’s rip currents, jellyfish or man-o-war, or other hazards. At rocky shores, water shoes are recommended to protect you feet from sharp edges and critters such as sea urchins.
North Shore Beaches
North Shore beaches are best known for big surf and strong rip currents in winter, generally October-April. In summer when the waters are calm, the north shore is popular with swimmers, snorkelers, and paddlers. In any season, be sure to heed beach warning signs.
All north shore beaches are crowded on weekends and during surf competitions, which attract surfers and spectators from around the world. Most of the big surf competitions occur November-February.
Listed below are the iconic surfing beaches along the Oʻahu north shore. All have restrooms, showers, and parking. Waimea and Ehukai also have picnic tables. North Shore beaches are free and open every day.
Waimea Bay (which mean “reddish water”) is a wide, sandy beach and a popular spot for hook & line fishing, which is allowed from the shore only. It is also the location for the annual Quicksilver Big Wave Invitational surf competition.
Locally known as “The Eddie”, Quicksilver is a big wave surf competition held in memory of veteran big wave surfer Eddie Aikau (1946-1978).
Hired as the first lifeguard at Waimea Bay, Eddie often braved treacherous waters and saved over 500 people. This gave rise to the slogan “Eddie Would Go”, now found on everything from t-shirts to bumper stickers.
Eddie was lost at sea on the first voyage of the historical Hōkūleʻa canoe, which traces the Polynesian migration route from Tahiti to Hawaiʻi.
Ehukai Beach (“sea spray”) was coined Banzai Pipeline in the 1960s, also called simply “the Pipe”. The small park becomes extremely congested during competitions on some of Hawaiʻi’s most dangerous waves, most notably the Billbong Pipe Masters.
Sunset Beach (known as Paumalu until the 1920s) offers two miles of white sand. It is one of the most famous surfing spots in the world, hosting two of the four (yes, four) Vans Triple Crown events: the Vans Pro and the Vans World Cup.
Windward Coast Beaches
Listed below are beautiful beaches along the Windward Coast of eastern Oʻahu. Hawai’i beaches are free and open every day.
Kuoloa Beach Park is listed in the National Register of Historical Places. It is the location where chiefs brought their children for training. Kuoloa Beach is adjacent to the ranch of the same name where Jurassic Park was filmed. Being shallow and rocky, Kuoloa is not ideal for swimming. However, it is enjoyed as a quite beach that is great for picnics, games, and camping and offers beautiful mountain and ocean views.
He’eia State Park is an 18-acre peninsula located on Kāne’ohe Bay. Heʻeia features Oʻahu’s only barrier reef. The bay is known for calm waters, spectacular reefs, and stunning mountain views. This park also offers interesting ancient and WWII history, indigenous plants, public facilities, free tours, free Hawaiian games during Makahiki Season (October-January), and classes (for a fee) on water safety and small craft skills.
Waimanalo Bay Beach Park (not to be confused with Waimanalo Beach Park) is known locally as Sherwood Forest. Waimanalo is one of the islandʻs best beaches, with three miles of soft white sand and turquoise waters in the shadow of the Koʻolau Mountains. The beach is especially popular for body surfing and boogie boarding.
Kailua Beach is ranked as the second most beautiful beach on Oʻahu (Lanikai is first) and has been ranked as one of the top 15 beaches worldwide. Kailua has plenty of parking–a big drawback for nearby Lanikai, which has only limited street parking. At two and a half miles long, Kailua Beach is popular with swimmers and a center for windsurfing.
South Shore Beaches
Listed below is the states most well-known beaches along the south shore—Waikīkī Beach, which is actually a string of beaches. There are several other beaches worth visiting along the islandʻs south shore.
Waikīkī Beach. First time visitors to Oʻahu flock to the famous beach in the shadow of the Diamond Head crater (known as Leahi in Hawaiian, which means “brow of tuna”). Repeat visitors and locals often avoid it. Personally, I have always loved the vibe. It’s a great place to people watch and a stunning natural setting juxtaposed a teeming urban neighborhood. What many people miss when they visit Waikīkī is learning about the history of the area, which can greatly enhance your appreciation of the beach today.
Long ago, Waikīkī was marshland and had several streams flowing through it, from the Koʻolau Moutains to the Pacific Ocean. The name Waikīkī means “spouting water”. Now you know why.
Another fact many don’t know is that Waikīkī Beach is comprised of many smaller, named beaches along her two miles of coastline. Listed below we describe the significant beaches. Note that the names and locations are somewhat fluid and sources don’t always agree on what’s what or what’s where—we used primarily Google Maps with adjustments from Hawaiʻi Beach Safety and what we know from hanging out there over the past several decades.
The beaches are listed from west to east. Waikīkī Beach is free and open to the public every day.
- Duke Kahanamoku Beach, named after the Olympian and famed surfing ambassador is located at the west end of Waikīkī, in front of the manmade Hilton Hawaiian Lagoon.
- Fort DeRussy Beach in front of the Hale Koa (military) Hotel is one of the largest beaches on Waikīkī and is open to everyone.
- The expanse most people think of as “Waikīkī Beach” includes the Royal Moana Beach, which runs from the Royal Hawaiian to Moana Surfrider Hotels, and the adjacent Waikīkī Beach Center in front of the police precinct.
- Kuhio Beach, centered at Oʻhua along Kalakaua Ave is named for revolutionary and statesman Prince Jonah Kūhiō Kalaniana’ole. A Hawai‘i State holiday in his honor is observed every March 26. Nearby is a statue of Duke Paoa Kahanamoku bearing a plaque with more information about the champion surfer.
- Queen’s Beach is the location across from Queen Kapiʻolani’s former summer cottage—and a short walk from her main home, which was near today’s Ala Wai Canal at Paoakalani Ave. In ancient times, the beach was the site of a heiau. The stately and popular nightclub “Queen’s Surf” operated across the street, roughly from 1946-1971. Today, you can nosh at the casual, oceanfront Barefoot Beach Café. Okay, I’ve summarized things. But as you can see, there is a lot of history packed into this small area. Some maps and sources even say there is no “Queen’s Beach”.
- Kapiolanʻi Park Beach (aka San Souci Regional Park) was dedicated by King Kalakaua to his Queen in 1877. Compared to the rest of Waikīkī Beach, this shaded, verdant expanse is protected by a reef, making it popular with local families. Kapiolanʻi or San Souci and Queenʻs Beach offer the best snorkeling along Waikīkī.
Ala Moana Beach Park
Ala Moana Beach Park across from the mall is 1,000 yards long and protected by an offshore reef. ʻAina Moana (aka Magic Island) is the man-made peninsula at the east end of the park. It is one of the most popular swimming beaches on Oʻahu. But it has much more to offer. The park is used for lawn bowling, tennis, jogging, picnics, fishing, model airplane and boat operation, scuba, and surfing. Whew! Several famous surfing sites are found offshore at the edge of the reef. Swimmers prefer the east end and Magic Island beach, where the ocean bottom is shallow and sandy. Ala Moana Beach is free and open every day.
Ko Olina Lagoons
Ko Olina Lagoons in Kapolei is a string of four lagoons connected by more than a mile and a half of seaside pathways. Ko Olina is privately owned with public pedestrian traffic permitted to and from the lagoon beaches. There are no lifeguards on duty, guests swim at their own risk. Public parking in designated areas is available from sunrise to sunset on a first-come first-serve basis. Ko Olina Lagoons are free and open every day.