Looking for the best things to do on O’ahu? Follow in the footsteps of the locals!
What locals (kamaʻāina) do versus what tourists do on O’ahu can diverge quite a bit. Not that there isn’t an overlap, but for those of you keen to dive into true Hawaiian culture, here’s an overview.
Remember, Hawai’i was the only state that was a kingdom until it was overthrown. People from the South Marquesas Islands followed birds in voyaging canoes between 400-800 AD to get there. They were followed by droves of Tahitians in the 1100s and then by hordes of immigrants since the 1700s.
The islands of Aloha are among the most isolated places in the world and its culture runs deep and flows through the veins of all who have lived (or were born or raised) there. The food, the vernacular, the traditions, and the amazing culture and language of the Hawaiian people are some of the greatest treasures in America.
Guest Post by Tunco Maclovio
The key to experiencing O’ahu like a local
Immerse yourself in the local atmosphere. Take a bus, ride a bike, get out of your car, and meet locals, treat them with respect, no matter what their job or income level is.
That is the beauty of Hawai’i Nei, (the Islands as a whole) showing ‘aloha’ (love) to everyone you meet on the street and saying ‘howzit?’ to total strangers. As in Hawai’i, there are no strangers…we are all ohana (family.) The sooner you realize this is the real Hawai’i, and not the excursions and touristy lu’aus, the sooner you will fully appreciate the deep cultural ‘poi (Hawaiian, taro paste, the staple of the Hawaiian people) bowl that is Hawai’i. Here are just a few ideas to become a Kamaʻāina (Hawaiian, a local, literally ‘child of the land’) hopefully, one day.
For starters, I encourage you to go to Chinatown. There is an indoor market where they sell homemade local food specialties to go, fresh fruit, Chinese sweets and spices, and a plethora of small shops. This is the seedier part of O’ahu, so elderly or younger visitors may be in for a shock or two, especially at night!
Now, without further ado, here are the 10 best local things to do in Oahu, Hawaii!
Things to do on O’ahu (local guide!)
1. ‘Talk story’
This is a combination of making small talk, letting each other know what is new or what’s in the news, and letting people know how life is going. Of course, ‘talking story’ requires at least two people. So, if you want to talk story with a kamaʻāina, you will need to know at least some Pidgin’ English.
2. Speak Pidgin English
First off, Pidgin is not the Hawaiian language. However, many Hawaiian words are incorporated and it’s the vernacular of the locals (the argot if you will). As Hawaii is made up of people from all over the world, with a larger Asian influence, each demographic has contributed words from their language and their unique pronunciation.
As such, everyone who speaks Pidgin can feel comfortable using it, as the focus is on what they say and not how good (or bad) their English is. Some linguists may raise their hands in horror at the grammar. However, any dialect is as valid as another as it follows its own rules and it gets the meaning across. Avoid the temptation to look down on it, as it’s an important aspect of true local culture.
This article just brushes the surface and should act to inspire you to know more Pidgin and to learn some real Hawaiian.
English: “How are you? I saw you and Charlene there the other day on the North Shore”
Pidgin: “Howzit, brah? So what, I wen spark you countryside wit’ Charlene!”
English: “Do you have any more Kololo or is it gone?”
Pidgin: “Eh, brah, get kulolo, or pau already?”
Glossary:Brah = brother. Spark = see. Countryside = the windward side of O’ahu. Kulolo (Hawaiian) a type of coconut dessert. Pau (Hawaiian) = done, finished, no more.
Looking for a good book on Pidgin English? Here’s one in comic book form: Pidgin to da Max by Douglas Simonson
3. Learn Hawaiian
Try to learn some Hawaiian, and you’ll be on your way to enjoying the rest of these best things to do in O’ahu.
Ka olelo o Hawai’i is the Hawaiian language (in Hawaiian) and is making a comeback. Few people who tourists encounter actually speak Hawaiian on a daily basis. Only on Ni’ihau (closed to outsiders), parts of the Big Island and Molokai, and other select pockets will you hear it spoken daily.
Read next: Molokai Like a Local Guide
However, a new generation of young folk is reviving this beautiful-sounding language. Just like most Polynesian languages, it has a consonant-vowel-consonant structure. And its alphabet of just 12 letters, the world’s smallest—makes it mellifluous, harmonious, and ideal for singing.
Some Hawaiian words in English you know; Kahuna = priest, Aloha = love, or a greeting, Lei = the flower necklace tourists receive upon arrival and/or bring home – also graduates wear in layers at commencement. Hawaiian tradition says that if you throw the flowers from your lei back into the ocean before you leave, you will return someday. Similar to throwing coins in the Trevi Fountain in Rome. This beautiful world is more connected than you think!
4. Go for pūpū (pū-pūs)
Eating your way around the island is one of the best things to do in O’ahu, just ask the locals!
Pū-pūs are to Hawai’i like tapas are to Spain. Small, tasty morsels served at bars or restaurants, they are what kamaʻāina go for pau hana (after work). There are many places you can go for pū-pūs to talk story, so ask a kamaʻāina where their favorite spot is.
Pū-pūs can be from any regional cuisine. Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Korean, and other cuisines (as well as Hawaiian) are popular favorites.
5. Have a picnic at the beach or Kapiolani Park (Waikīkī).
Looking for one of the top things to do on O’ahu that locals do? Have a picnic at a place like Kapiolani Park or the beach, where you’ll find others doing the same. You won’t regret it!
On the weekends, you will see many families with the Hibachi (for BBQ) and a full spread on the picnic tables or on the sand at Waikīkī (Hawaiian – ‘spouting water.’). If your skills are limited, you can always order take-out and get the local feeling and taste. Bringing or cooking your food, either way, will allow you to feel and eat like a kamaʻāina.
6. Get a plate lunch
As you can see, eating is a big deal in Hawai’i as there are so many killer dishes that locals know and love. It’s important to note that people on the mainland try to imitate these plates, often unsuccessfully (i.e. poké in California and New York!).
Looking to get real poké? Try Don Quijote or Safeway Supermarkets.
Plate lunch is just that. A plate with a main and two scoops of rice and macaroni salad each. Popular mains are, teri(yaki) chicken, pork tonkatsu, lau lau (Hawaiian), kalua pork and hamburger steak. These can be had for cheap and are typically available all day. Rainbow Drive-in is the most authentic; Zippy’s, while not as original, is very popular and ubiquitous.
For real Hawaiian food, go here: Da Ono Hawaiian Food
7. Go hike the Pali
This is definitely one of the best things to do on O’ahu for adventure seekers!
The Nu’uanu Pali is the part of the mountain range (Ko’olau) that divides O’ahu into the windward side, aka ‘countryside,’ with North Shore, Kailua, Kāneʻohe, etc., and the leeward side aka ‘townside’, Honolulu and Waikīkī.’ Here is where the ‘yin and yang’ design for Town and Country surfboards gets its inspiration.
The Pali is notoriously windy, rainy, and a magnet for tourists. However, there are many trails you can explore this tropical rainforest paradise. The best thing about Hawaiian rain forests is there are few, if any, natural predators waiting to pounce. No poisonous snakes, jaguars, or other dangers. A wild pig (pua’a) might run you over but that is unlikely.
However, be sure to stick to trails as it is VERY easy to get lost. Also, you don’t want to stumble onto someone’s pakalolo (marijuana) field. That would be hazardous to your health! Auwe! (Hawaiian) watch out!
8. He’e nalu – Go (watch) surfing!
Here on O’ahu, surfing is a top spectator sport. It’s easy to see why this is one of the coolest things to do on O’ahu, for locals and tourists alike.
Hawaii has the world’s best (and most dangerous) surf. It was probably invented here, and royalty used to surf naked at Waikīkī. However, we DON’T recommend you try it as we don’t want to read about you in the newspaper or get letters saying how you broke a leg or nearly drowned.
We just recommend you WATCH. However, if you want to try your hand at your own peril, there are surf instructors at Waikīkī. Where to go to watch? Waikīkī has numerous breaks, each has a name (Ricebowl, Tongs, etc.). But you will need some binoculars if you want to see them closely on a big day.
The Kapahulu Street Groin (Graveyards) at the end of that street is a pier that juts out into the break zone. Here, you can watch from above as keiki (kids) bodyboard and surf around the pier, it’s a great place to take shots. The kamaʻāina love to do ‘cannonballs’ from the pier and see who makes the biggest splash. However, this is illegal and you might break something if you time it wrong and hit the reef, step on some vana (sea urchin) or get a toe amputated by a moray eel. So, once again, auwe, and just watch.
While the Banzai Pipeline and Waimea Bay ‘countryside’ are world-famous, we don’t need to repeat the warnings about those breaks; it’s blatantly obvious in the winter that 30-foot swells would quickly turn you into hamburger steak with no two scoops of rice.
Join the Ohana at Town & Country Surf Designs (T&C Surf)
9. Check out Sandy Beach Park (but don’t go in the water!)
My home break is Sandy Beach Park (Sandys). This is a bodyboard, bodysurf paradise on Earth, with waves that are best described as ‘gaping maws waiting to mangle tourists.’ For kamaʻāina, it’s the best shore break anywhere. It also has presidential fame, as former US President Barack Obama used to surf there with us as kids and is still known to drop into a bowl when he is on O’ahu.
As a keiki you go because…your parents tell you not to! Why? It has the reputation of having the most injuries and drownings of most USA beaches. But that’s why you go as a kid, to ride the massive waves and drop into a bus-sized barrel for just a few seconds and then pull out and not ‘go over the falls.’ The feeling lacks an exact description; you just want to ride till cramps set in. Then you rest and go back in!
Don’t let the beauty of the ocean deceive you
The unique steep incline focuses deep Pacific swell and makes the waves ‘throw’ which produces a huge sideways ‘U-shaped’ barrel that makes negotiating it difficult at best, even for seasoned ‘Sandys Crew.’
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to help tourists with broken limbs, lost bikinis, and bruised egos out of the water. And don’t even put your feet into it, the undertow will suck you into the break zone and you get ‘worked.’ Once again auwe!
However, the beauty of the beach, the athletic, tanned locals, the abundant tiny bikinis, the view of Moloka’i across the channel and the Halona Blowhole spouting off make this a great place for watching the ‘wipeouts’ and the action on the sand.
Nothing beats the sheer beauty of a wahine (woman) gracefully negotiate ‘Gas Chambers’ (the far right section with the roughest barrels) with long hair that flows with the wave. A thousand-year-old spectacle that beats looking at your phone any day.
Picnics are recommended. Here is where I would spend the last hours of my life if had a choice, there is nowhere else on Earth like it for a ‘Sandys Crewperson’. It’s easy to see why this is one of the best things to do on O’ahu for locals (and tourists!).
Videos of bodyboarding at Sandy Beach Park:
10. Learn more about Hawai’i
Read up before you go, and you will appreciate the Hawaiian islands a lot more.
The local music is a good start too. So, listen to local radio online before you go. KPOI, KUMU, etc.
Eat some real Hawaiian food at Ono’s on Kapahulu and research the kau kau (food)
The State motto says it all. “Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ʻĀina i ka Pono,” “the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” Learn it and live it, “when you stay Hawai’i Nei.”
“A hui ho, aloha no!” “Farewell, until we meet again!”
Tips on things to do on O’ahu and how to experience Hawaii like a local
NOTE: If you have time and want an excellent read, which delves into the long and amazing history of Hawai’i. I recommend Shoal of Time” by Gavant Daws. You will never see Hawai’i the same way again.
Looking to learn more about the different places in Hawaii? Check this out: Place Names of Hawai’i – By Mary Pukui
Here’s a round-up of more exotic islands around the world!
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