100 Free Things To Do and See on Oahu
Yes, there are over 100 things here, and they’re all 100% free if you don’t count the rental car you are likely to need to experience some of them. Even Diamond Head Crater didn’t make the list, because it costs a buck.
While Diamond Head is a great place to be first thing in the morning, sunrise on the windward side of the island (Makapu‘u Lookout, Koko Head and Kailua Beach) is even sweeter. In Kailua, if you’re shoulder-deep in the ocean as the sun crests its surface, you’ll swear you’re in Heaven, which we are saving for another list. Really, though, just strolling Waikiki Beach is enough to make a morning special.
Early morning is the perfect time to travel the Waikiki Historic Trail. Shadows at that hour create great drama on the statues in Waikiki saluting the Hawaiian monarchy (King Kalakaua, Queen Kapiolani, Prince Kuhio, Princess Kaiulani), legendary Duke Kahanamoku, India’s Mahatma Gandhi and an unnamed surfer with perfect form. The triad of abstract ceramic sculptures by Jun Kaneko at the Waikiki Aquarium is lovely, too.
In August, on the beach fronting Duke’s statue, Duke’s Oceanfest is a free, week-long aquatic extravaganza not to be missed. This also is an ideal spot to watch parades; our favorites are the King Kamehameha parade in early June and the Aloha Festivals parade in September. They go through Waikiki and end at Kapiolani Park, a marvelous greensward much beloved by local families. If you go there on the weekend, don’t miss the art shows on the Honolulu Zoo fence.
On the other end of Waikiki is a lovely statue called The Storyteller, while The Water Giver presides over the Hawaii Convention Center. Honolulu’s most famous statue, that of King Kamehameha, is downtown in our historic district. It is blanketed in lei the day before the June holiday and parade in his honor. At the Hawaii State Capitol, a striking statue of Father Damien, now a saint, greets visitors.
Downtown is home to many wonderful freebies. On Fridays at noon, the Royal Hawaiian Band, founded in 1836, performs on the grounds of Iolani Palace. (You also can enjoy their music every Sunday at 2 pm in Kapiolani Park.) Nearby are the Hawaii State Art Museum, the Hawaii State Public Library and Kawaiahao Church, which dates back to 1842. In Kaka‘ako, powerful, playful and fascinating murals adorn the sides of many buildings. And Chinatown, whose renaissance is thrilling, is especially vital in early morning, when fruit and veggie vendors display their wares.
Farmers markets without admission fees throughout Oahu showcase the same and more. Of special note are those held on Saturdays at Kapiolani Community College, on Wednesdays at Neal Blaisdell Concert Hall and on Thursdays at Waikiki Beach Walk.
Waikiki Beach Walk is also home to free ukulele, hula and yoga lessons, free hula and Hawaiian music performances every week, and free concerts, Na Mele No Na Pua, twice monthly.
At Waikiki’s Royal Hawaiian Center, free lei-making classes are offered daily, and there’s no charge for the regular hula shows, day or night. Seaside of the center is our “Pink Palace,” the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Tours of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and the Moana Surfrider, Waikiki’s first hotel, are gracious and educational. (Two other free tours you might enjoy are those to the Maui Divers jewelry factory and the Kamaka ukulele factory.)
Let’s take a break from city life, shall we, and head around the island. Diamond Head Lookout is our first stop. When it’s windy, kitesurfers and sailboarders roar off the waves below! Take a walk alongside the wide concrete wall and see if you can find the plaque commemorating Amelia Earhart’s solo Hawaii flight. Next we’re going to snorkel at some great spots without paying for it. (You did bring your gear, yes?) Down Kahala Avenue from the lookout is a tiny pocket park, Waialae Beach Park, where we go frequently at lunchtime. Shallow water extends quite a ways to the reef, and we’ve seen both schools of tiny fish and big silver ones alone leaping close to shore, as well as the occasional humuhumunukunukuapua‘a. Our other three recommended snorkeling spots are Kaimana Beach (best family beach on Oahu), Shark’s Cove (North Shore; can be busy) and a little scallop of a beach Kaena Point-side of Haleiwa’s Ali‘i Beach Park (seldom crowded and a great place to spot turtles napping on shore). Two very different places to contemplate finned creatures are the Pacific Beach Hotel’s Oceanarium Restaurant, home to a giant aquarium, and the man-made Ko Olina Lagoons in west Oahu, great for kids.
Our favorite stretch of Oahu coastline is the drive from Hanauma Bay to Sandy Beach. The land plummets, tumbles and eases its way to the pounding blue sea below, and in the distance rises the island of Molokai. Along the way, stop at the Halona Blowhole, but don’t get too close. Same goes for Sandy’s (that’s what we call it), where bodysurfing is best left to the experts. At Sandy’s you’ll also find one of Oahu’s best outdoor (free) showers. We’re self-styled connoisseurs of outdoor showers, and other great ones include Haleiwa’s Alii Beach Park, Ala Moana Beach Park and the one across the street from Makaha Beach.
Just down from Sandy’s, stop at the Makapu‘u Lookout for a spectacular view of the windward coast, or hike up to the Makapu‘u Lighthouse, where whales frolic offshore in winter months. Other popular hikes suitable for most folks are to the Lanikai Pillbox and Manoa Falls.
Continuing up the coast, our next thrilling freebie comes along only after a big rain, when the Ko‘olau Mountains are laced with dozens of waterfalls. Wet or dry, Kualoa Beach Park, where Mokoli‘i (a.k.a. Chinaman’s Hat) lies offshore, is worth a visit. In Hawaiian culture the tiny island is deemed to be the tip of the tail of a giant lizard slain by volcano goddess Pele’s sister Hi‘iaka. We enjoy flying kites in the park and stand-up paddling out to the island and back.
Laie Point, just beyond the Polynesian Cultural Center, is rarely a stopping point for visitors, all the more reason to go there. Stark and serene, it thrusts boldly into the sea and offers a sweeping view of the Ko‘olau Mountains and windward coast.
On the North Shore you’ll find yourself inside a veritable Beach Boys playlist: Sunset, Pipeline, Waimea Bay, Haleiwa — the most famous surfing spots in the world. During summertime, feel free take a dip while exercising caution. In winter months, let the pros do their stuff and keep a safe distance from the turbulent conditions. Championship surfing contests take place November – January, and surfnewsnetwork.com is your best source of information about them. In fact, throughout the year, this is your go-to place for daily beach reports, also available by calling 808.369.3333.
Overlooking Waimea Bay and Waimea Valley, Pu‘u o Mahuka is the largest heiau Hawaiian temple) on Oahu and now the centerpiece of a state park. Dating to the 1600s, it occupies the spot from which, according to Hawaiian legend, Madame Pele leapt from Oahu to create her next island, Molokai.
Kaena Point defines the farthest northwest reaches of Oahu. You can hike to it from either the Mokuleia or Waianae sides of the island. If you do, wear hiking shoes and bring plenty of water, but absolutely no dogs. Along the way you’re likely to see endangered Hawaiian monk seals and Laysan albatrosses, heavily protected species which must be left alone. The local vegetation, too, includes imperiled native species, so it’s look, don’t touch the whole way.
If you’re interested in plants, Hawaiian and other, there are wonderful free gardens you must visit: Ho‘omaluhia Botanical Garden in Kaneohe, Koko Head Cater Botanical Garden in Koko Crater (Sandy Beach-adjacent), and our little favorite, the Queen Kapiolani Garden, next to Kapiolani Park.
Heading back to Honolulu, detour up Pali Highway to the Nu‘uanu Pali Lookout, a squeaker for this list because there is a $3 parking fee. From its windswept rim, the view of Oahu’s windward side is awe-inspiring. This is a place of great historical significance as well. In May 1795, King Kamehameha and his 10,000 Big Island warriors arrived on Oahu after conquering Maui and Molokai. Outmanned, outplanned and outgunned, Oahu chief Kalanikupule’s forces were driven up Nu‘uanu Valley by the invaders. They made their final stand at the spot where you’ll be savoring the view. Hundreds of Oahu fighters were driven off the sheer cliffs, and Kamehameha seized control of Oahu.
Down Pali Highway toward Honolulu is the Royal Mausoleum. The remains of many members of the Hawaiian ali‘i (royalty) are entombed there, including that of King Kalakaua. A further final resting place is Puowaina Crater, a.k.a. Punchbowl, the site of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. More than 40,000 American military veterans and their kin are buried in this poignant, peaceful expanse.
Although kids really need no more than one beach after another, there are alternatives worth noting. At top-rated Hawaii Nautical, kids sail for free with their parents. The same goes for Dolphin Star’s cruises. Both are located on the Waianae Coast. Magic Island is indeed a beach, but it’s a very special one, well protected and ideal for beginners. Across from it and worth visiting is the Ala Wai Yacht Harbor, while Kewalo Basin, where the sport-fishing boats dock (arriving home with their catches, whether enormous or modest, daily at 3 pm), is on the other side of Ala Moana Beach Park. Not for kids, nor for those of us looking for freebies, is truly decadent window-shopping at Ala Moana Center, right down the street, where the kids might enjoy the Lego Store building stations overflowing with parts for tinkering, and the Disney Store daily events, typically story times, games, movie trivia and crafts.
Evening in Waikiki; So much to enjoy while spending not a dime! On Tuesdays and Saturdays, catch the torch-lighting ceremony and music and hula at the Kuhio Beach Hula Mound. Every Friday evening there are offshore sailboat races, plus the fireworks show at 7:45, best viewed from anywhere but the Hilton Hawaiian Village, where they are launched. The Hawaii Convention Center’s free monthly concerts feature top local draws, and entertainment in the Waikiki Shell can be enjoyed splendidly without even going inside. You can also lurk casually on the beach promenade in front of the Waikiki Aquarium catching glimpses and hearing the music of the Diamond Head Luau (Thu-Fri, Sun-Mon only).
Our favorite nighttime freebies are the classics — sunset at Kaimana Beach, complete with the green flash; the delightful zaniness of Kalakaua Avenue; and traditional Hawaiian music, whose gifts of aloha are shared generously with those perched happily just outside the Barefoot Beach Cafe, the Royal’s Mai Tai Bar and Halekulani’s venerable House Without a Key.
Go ahead and pay your buck to hike Diamond Head. If we can let the $3 parking fee at the Nu‘uanu Pali Lookout slide, we can do the same with Honolulu’s most famous landmark. If not free, they’re both priceless.