Here are some of our favorite gardens, walking trails, and other places on Oʻahu where you can spend a leisurely day with family or friends. All these places are free, and most are open year-around.
At some locations, additional services are available for a fee, such as tours, rentals, and classes or workshops. But all of them are interesting places to spend the better part of a day doing nothing special. Just going holoholo (walking around).
Although all locations are open to visitors, hours may be affected by the pandemic. Please kōkua and follow all recommended health and safety measures such as masks and social distancing. We’re in this together; do your part.
Botanical gardens and arboretums grow plants for display and enjoyment for visitors. Most gardens have a focus in the design and selection of plants, which might be native plants, rain forest vegetation, an Asian garden, or any other grouping. The botanical gardens listed below have free admission. While each one features tropical plants, the environments range from rain forests to volcanic dryland landscapes.
Hoʻomaluhia Botanical Garden
Hoʻomaluhia Botanical Garden in Kāneʻohe on windward Oʻahu offers 400 acres of tropical plants from around the world, grouped according to their geographic origin. Be sure to bring insect repellant. Designed and built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1982, Hoʻomaluhia, whose name means “peaceful refuge”, also serves to provide flood protection for Kāneʻohe. For a self-guided tour, download a map of the garden and a checklist of birds to see from their website.
Wahiawā Botanical Garden
Wahiawā Botanical Garden is a 27-acre oasis in central Oʻahu featuring plants that thrive in the shady and cool, yet humid upland tropical rain forest (hint: expect rain whenever you go). The accessible garden can provide a serene break in anyone’s day. Be sure to bring insect repellant, especially in the valley. For a self-guided tour, download a garden map from their website.
Koko Crater Botanical Garden
Koko Crater Botanical Garden in Hawaiʻi Kai on the southeast shore of Oʻahu sits on 60 acres of the inner slopes and basin of the 200-acre crater. Xeriscape concepts (requiring little or no irrigation) are used to transform the dry, volcanic landscape into a garden. This botanical garden focuses on the cultivation of rare and endangered dryland plants suitable to the desert-like conditions. Highlights include Hawaiian plants, dryland palm trees, cactus and succulents, and plants from Africa. For a self-guided tour, download a garden map from their website.
Downtown Honolulu Historic Churches
Downtown Honolulu Historic Churches walking tour. Download the brochure from their website for a self-guided tour. The one-mile walk includes four historic churches: The Cathedral of Saint Andrew, Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church, Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, and Kawaiahaʻo Church.
Keaīwa Heiau State Recreation Area
Keaīwa Heiau is a short distance north of Honolulu, above Pearl Harbor through the Aeia neighborhood. Known as heiau hoʻola, it is located within the 384-acre Keaīwa Heiau State Recreation Area. The heiau may have been constructed as early as the 16th Century. Used as a medicinal or healing heiau by a kahuna (a person trained in healing practices—although kahuna can refer to any trained professional, teacher, doctor, etc.) as a place to diagnose and treat illnesses and injuries. It would also have been used as a place to train haumana (students) in laʻau lapaʻau (herbal healing practices) using native plants. Many of the original plants around the heiau were replaced in the late 1920s. Stonework at the heiau was also severely damaged during World War II. In 1951, the heiau was re-planted and partially restored. When you visit, please kokua and “leave no trace”—take only photographs and leave only footprints. For a self-guided tour, download a brochure from their website.
Pūowaina aka National Cemetery of the Pacific (Punchbowl Cemetery)
Pūowaina (“hill of placing”) is a historical site with many different uses over time. Ancient Hawaiians used the site to execute people who had committed certain kapu or serious crimes. Today, the site is commonly referred to as Punchbowl Cemetery. Officially, is it known as the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, established in 1949, when an unknown soldier who was killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor became the first American to be buried at Pūowaina. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, many other soldiers who fell during World War II (WWII) are interred at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. Strolling the park, filled with thousands of graves of those who gave their lives for their country, it is a humbling experience punctuated with stunning views of Oʻahu . The largest memorial, the Honolulu Memorial features a grand marble staircase up to a statue of Lady Columbia, who is standing on the symbolized prow of a U.S. Navy ship. But it is the inscription under the 30-foot statue that is most moving, for me conjuring overwhelming feelings of awe and gratitude, followed by a profound sadness that lingers the rest of the day.
Inscription under the statue of Lady Columbia. It is is taken from a letter written by Abraham Lincoln to a woman who lost five sons during the civil war. It reads:
The solemn pride
That must be yours
To have laid
So costly a sacrifice
Upon the altar
All Day Parks
Patsy T. Mink Central Oʻahu Regional Park
Patsy T. Mink Central Oʻahu Regional Park in Waipi’o along the Kamehameha Hwy offers sports fields, a skateboard park, archery range, dog park, aquatic center, and numerous walking trails that wend their way through the vast 269-acre park. The park is named in honor of Maui-born Patsy Takemoto Mink (1927-2002). Among her many accomplishments, she served in the U.S. Congress and was a driving force behind “Title Nine,” which prohibits gender discrimination in federally funded educational institutions.
Queen Kapiʻolani Regional Park
Kapiʻolani Park in Waikīkī sits on 100+ acres of royal land, donated to the city of Honolulu by King David Kalakaua in honor of his wife. The park is listed on the State of Hawaiʻi Historic Register. The park features stately banyan trees punctuating large grassy areas, tennis courts, Queens Surf Beach, Waikīkī Aquarium, Honolulu Zoo, and the Waikīkī Shell open-air concert venue. On weekends, you’ll find local artists selling their crafts along the fence on Monsarrat Ave. It’s a great spot for a shady picnic or stroll around the grounds. The loop around the park along Kalākaua to Paki and Monsarrat back to Kalākaua Ave is two-miles.
Kualoa Regional Park
Kualoa Regional Park on windward Oʻahu is a 150+ acres oceanfront park in the shadow of the Koʻolau Range. The park features views of on Kāneʻohe Bay and Mokoliʻi (aka “Chinaman’s Hat”). There is a large parking lot and picnic areas with barbecues. The flat 2-mile walking trail loops around the park. If you go swimming, water shoes are recommended for the rocky bottom and currents away from the shore can be strong—so exercise caution and check conditions with the lifeguard. It’s an attractive, peaceful option when nearby parks are crowded at Kailua or Lanikai or as an option (or free addition) to paid tours at Kualoa Ranch.
Easy walking trails & paths
We’ve aimed for several locations across Oʻahu that are easy walks for all skill levels. For remote areas, be sure to bring water and snacks if you plan a long day. Coastal areas are usually free of bugs but consider using insect repellent for inland locations and tropical forests.
Ka‘ena Point Trail
Ka‘ena Point Trail is a remote destination at the westernmost point of O‘ahu. The weather is typically sunny, hot, and often windy. Sun protection and plenty of water are strongly recommended. The scenic trail follows an old railroad bed and dirt road to the Ka‘ena Point Natural Area Reserve, a protected area featuring coastal sand dunes, native plants, and seabirds. During winter, whales can be seen along the shoreline. However, stay away from the wave-exposed coast unless you are familiar with hazardous ocean conditions. Get to the trail from one of two access points, either from the Wai‘anae side or the Mokule‘ia side:
- Wai‘anae side (H1 freeway west and Farrington Highway/Route 93 to Ka‘ena Point State Park)
- Mokule‘ia side (H-2 to Kaukonahua Road/Route 803) to Farrington Highway/Route 930 past Waialua and Camp Erdman; find the trailhead where the paved road ends.
ʻAiea Loop Trail
ʻAiea Loop Trail is inside the Keaīwa Heiau State Recreation Area in ʻAiea above Pearl Harbor. The 5-mile nature walk loops through a forest. Views from the ridge include Honolulu and the southern coastline of Oʻahu from Pearl Harbor (Pu‘uloa) to Diamond Head (Le‘ahi). Lemon eucalyptus trees grow here, giving the air a light citrus fragrance. Beautiful wildflowers grow in season. You can also identify native trees, including the spreading koa and tall stately ohi‘a trees. You can also enjoy Hawaiian birds in song. The hike is not strenuous but has some gradual inclines, a steep switchback, a stream crossing, sections with exposed tree roots and slippery mud.
Kaiwi State Shoreline Trail & Makapuʻu Point Lighthouse Trail
Access both these trails from the Makapuʻu Point Lighthouse Trailhead, located on the eastern tip of Oʻahu. From Highway 72, turn makai (toward the sea) onto Makapuʻu Lighthouse Rd. The area is hot, and dry, so bring sun protection and water as there are no facilities nearby. Exercise caution on the tree-less trails and be sure to warn the kiddos before it’s too late about the low-growing thorny vegetation.
Taking the left fork from the trailhead, it meanders eastward up the ridge along the Makapuʻu Point Lighthouse Trail. The paved trail is fun for the whole family and stroller-friendly. Dogs are allowed if kept on a leash. The walk is doable in sandals or slippas (flip-flops). The 2.5 mile walk (round-trip, out-and-back) offers outstanding views of O‘ahu’s southern and windward coastlines, including Koko Crater, the historic red-roofed Makapu‘u Lighthouse (the lighthouse itself is off-limits), Rabbit Island, and three islets that are bird sanctuaries, Kāohikaipu and in the distance, Na Mokulua off the coast of Kailua. On a clear day looking south-southeast, you can see the islands of Moloka‘i and Lana‘i. From November to May, you might see migrating humpback whales (the peak season is January-March)–binoculars are suggested.
- There are tide pools below the Makapuʻu Lighthouse Trail that people like to visit. They’re not easy to access and can be a hazardous journey that ruins the day (sometimes ending in death, literally), so we’re not going to recommend them here.
Take the right fork from the trailhead and follow the unpaved path westward down Kaiwi State Shoreline Trail along the Oʻahu coastline. It is not stroller friendly and shoes are recommended rather than sandals for this rocky trail, especially if it is wet and slippery. Near the coastline, left of the trail is a large black lava rock formation called Pele’s Chair (because that’s what it looks like from the right angle). Continue along the trail to Kaho‘ohaihai Inlet, a cove also known as Alan Davis Beach. Most people play here and return, but you can continue along the trail all the way to Wawamalu Beach Park.
These are some great places to while away time. If you don’t want to spend any money, but aren’t good at telling yourself “no”, this can become an expensive outing—so you might want to leave cash and credit cards at home. It’s up to you.
Ala Moana Shopping Center
Ala Moana Shopping Center across from Ala Moana Park is the world’s largest open air shopping mall with 350 stores on three levels. There are luxury stores, department stores, and familiar brands, as well as Hawaiian goods and souvenirs. The mall is punctuated by unique works of art on display along the promenades. You can also enjoy free entertainment with hundreds of performances a year on the center stage, including a daily hula shows. If you get hungry, there are 160 dining options from fast-casual and food courts to full-service restaurants. If you just want to walk the mall, get there at 5AM and power walk until the shopping center opens.
Pearlridge Center is Hawaii’s largest enclosed shopping mall in two section (Mauka and Wai Makai) offering more than 170 shops and eateries, plus miniature golf, game arcade, and movie theater. A $1 tram ride (free for age 7 and under) takes shoppers between the Mauka and Wai Makai sides.
Waikele Premium Outlets
Waikele Premium Outlets in Waipahu in central Oʻahu is the only outlet center on the island. Shop more than 50 designer and brand name outlet stores including Coach, Kate Spade New York, Polo Ralph Lauren, Tory Burch, and more. Make a day of it and re-charge your inner shopper at the open-air food pavilion.
Aloha Stadium Swap Meet
Aloha Stadium Swap Meet is Hawaii’s largest outdoor market. You’ll find hundreds of vendors, crafters, and artists from all over the world. The choices include clothing and accessories, jewelry, vintage goods, and antiques, as well as souvenirs and food. You can meet the makers of fine art and crafts. If you are looking for a unique and special gift, as well as souvenirs, this is one of the best places to shop in Hawaii. Open three days a week: Wednesday and Saturday 8am-3pm; Sunday 6:30am-3pm. Admission: 1.00 per person (age 12+); free on Wednesday in April 2021.