Oahu is Hawaii’s most populated island and manages to be a cross between a buzzing metropolitan CIty and Paradisiacal tropical escape. Honolulu’s bright lights sit on the Southern Coast of the Island and offer all the trappings of both a City Break and a Beach Getaway. However, the concentration of tourist traps and expensive hotels means Oahu can be a fairly expensive getaway!
After the expensive flights, costly hotels, and overpriced restaurants Oahu is a costly affair. We have a full guide to saving money in Oahu here, but when things are really tight nothing beats a FREE activity right! And Oahu is PACKED with things to do for free. The sheer natural beauty of the Island means just exploring the beaches and hiking along the coast can be a life event! There really is so much on offer. In this article, we break it down and look at 10 Awesome Things to Do in Oahu for FREE.
There is a lot to do in Oahu without spending any money, but while sitting by the hotel pool is always free we wanted to look a little beyond that. Our list covers everything from incredible hikes, amazing natural wonders, awe-inspiring historical sites, and of course some of the best beaches in the world, and that is where we will start!
1 – Beaches – Best Beaches in Oahu
Oahu is blessed with some really stunning beaches. While many envisage white sands and gin clear water this is a long way from the reality of Oahu’s coastline. Instead, the beaches are far more rugged, and wild and have the feel of a lost world. Exploring these remote, wild and genuinely wonderful strips of golden sand is one of our favorite things to do on the island.
Waikiki – One of the most famous beaches in the World. The Shoreline is actually quite narrow but runs for over a mile along the front of the City. It is usually absolutely packed with sun worshipers. It remains amazingly clean considering the huge number of people. The Water is permanently warm and has an incredible soft bath-water-like feel to it. The depth is shallow for a long way out and is the perfect place to learn to surf.
Hanauma Bay – This stunning bay is a nature reserve and one of the best places to snorkel in the State. But is not actually free!
Magic Island – A man-made beach paradise just outside of Waikiki. The protected waters make this a great place for families with young children.
Waimanalo Beach – Picture Perfect Hawaii Beach, Miles of Golden Sand, Impossibly blue ocean, and lush green mountains lined with Palm trees.
Kailua / Kalama Beach – Feels more Like California than Hawaii. Wonderful Beach Bum vibe…Totally, Dude.
Kahana Bay Beach Park – Watch out for Dinosaurs! While we have never seen one, we are sure they are around, they simply must be. This Lost beach is set between two mountain ranges and is straight out of Jurrasic Park.
Kawela Bay – Right next door to the famous Turtle Bay, Kawela is more beautiful and picturesque and the vista is not spoiled by a giant hotel.
Waimea Valley Beach – One of North Shores’ many wild and remote beaches. Waimea Valley beach has the remote lost feel about it but has plenty of amenities and is even lifeguarded, meaning when the BIG north shore swells kick up, the flag system will let you know if the water is unsafe.
Makua Beach – Set in one of the most remote and wild parts of ahu, not many people make it out to Makua, and this makes the Long Wide stretch of golden perfect feel very lonely at times. With stunning mountain backdrops and empty shores, Makua is a place to find your inner paradise. A world away from Waikiki.
Ko Olina – We have pointed out some of Oahu’s wildest and most remote beaches and Ko Olina could not be any more different. The “Disneyland” of Beaches. These 3 Coves are man-made perfection built to service the high-end hotels that line the shore.
There are many more beaches to explore, and we have all the best in Our full guide to Oahu’s best beaches right here
2 – Snorkeling
The underwater world of Oahu is one of mind-blowing beauty and diversity. If you thought Hawaii was stunning above the water wait till you see it below. While Snorkelling is technically not free as you will need to buy or rent some gear to get going. The ocean world is right there and free to all, so we are counting it.
The Ocean Temperatures are a balmy 76°F (24°C) to 81°F (27°C ) which are plenty warm enough for year-round snorkeling with air temps also warm enough all year round for swimming and beach activities. Even when the winds kick up and the swells are huge you will always find a sheltered spot somewhere on the Island. Meaning whenever you head to the islands you can take to the water and dip your head below to marvel at the aquatic world below.
Along with the fantastic coral reef, and abundant reef fish even in the shallows you can see incredible creatures, Eagle rays, Octopus, Starfish, Moray Eels, Colourful Shrimp, Dolphins, Large Predatory Fish, and of course abundant Honu or Green Sea Turtles! It really is like no place on earth and a trip to Hawaii without taking a look under the ocean is a crime!
For everything you need to know about snorkeling on the Islands take a look at our full guide, including snorkeling sites, gear, safety tips, and advice on getting started. Please don’t miss out!
3- Pearl Harbor
“December 7th, 1941 a Date that will live in Infamy”, and Pearl Habor is certainly a place that also lives in Infamy. The historical significance of the place is impossible to overstate. A visit to Pearl Harbor is definitely on most people’s to-do lists and with nearly 2 million visitors a year it is certainly popular, but what most people don’t know is it is free, well nearly.
Such an important piece of national heritage should indeed be free but such a huge and elaborate memorial is going to cost a lot to run so it would not be surprising if there was a charge but the two main attractions, the visitor center, and USS Arizona Memorial are free of charge.
The Site funds itself partly through the taxpayer and partly through 3 separate museums/exhibits that incur a charge (along with merchandise and food sales). The three separately charged attractions are fantastic
You can Explore the USS Missouri Battleship including the vert room where the “Articles Of Surrender” of Japan were signed.
Climb aboard the Bowfin Submarine that stalked the Japanese fleet with a vengeance of the attack, explore the Fleet museum to learn about the terrifying Submarine war, and view several interesting and poignant artifacts in the Gardens.
Visit the Pacific Aviation Museum to see how the air battle unfolded and see some really iconic aircraft such as a Gruman Wildcat and Type Zero. But these are not free so not relevant to the article.
Without these, the Visitor Center and Memorial are still absolutely worth visiting, it is probably one of the most memorable locations we have ever been to. The unbelievable historical significance of the area is overwhelming. Mighty Mo is moored in the backdrop as you explore various artifacts and exhibits such as antiaircraft pieces, torpedos, and missiles. The Crossroads of the pacific are inside the grounds and there are many incredible things to see and do.
The USS Arizona Memorial is also free of charge, however, there is a paltry $1.00 booking fee for booking online. However, this is absolutely mandatory as the Memorial sells out really fast. We advise booking well in advance, preferably over 2 months out when the booking window opens.
The Memorial is an absolute must and paying your respects to the War Dead still interned in the hull of the USS Arizona is an incredibly moving experience.
4 – Punch Bowl Cemetary and Memorial
Another Cemetary and war grave, but this time in the most incredible location and truly fitting to honor the sacrifice of the men and women who gave everything to their country. The Cemetary and Memorial are located inside an extinct Volcanic Crater. Lying n the Cemetary of over 53,000 US Servicemen from the Pacific Theater of WW2, Korea, and Vietnam wars. There is also a Giant Granite wall with the names of 28,000 + missing in action, r buried at sea servicemen. It is a Staggering location and one of real respect and honor to the fallen.
Just above the Cemetary is the Punchbowl Scenic Lookout, which offers some of the best views on the Island of both the Cemetary and the City Itself.
5 – Free Hula Shows
Hula Dancing is an integral part of traditional Hawaiian culture and is probably the most Hawaain thing we can think of! The most common place to see expert Hula Dancers is at one of the Island’s incredible Luaus. However, A Luau is anything but FREE. These stunning spectacles combine a traditional feast and an amazing show all for one, eyewatering price!
Fortunately, there is a great alternative, and the Waikiki Improvement Association put on FREE Hula Shows, around Sunset every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday down at the Kuhio Beach Hula Mound
These are not the elaborate Dinner Shows of the high-end Luau’s but the dancers are fantastically talented and the low-key casual shows are in their own way just as great. This is REAL Hawaiian Hula by authentic and talented Dancers, all for Free!
6 – Hiking
Honolulu is a large densely populated city and to be honest hiking opportunities are limited unless you count stomping down Kalakaua Drive Window Shopping. However, the rest of the island is far more remote and wild and there are some seriously mindblowing hikes out there. Some are huge hikes along massive ridges for the serious Hiker, others are short hikes with more immediate payoffs. We include a few of the latter here:
Diamond Head Trail – $5 per person Entrance Fee ($10 for a car)
This short, 0.6mile trail just outside of Waikiki gives the most incredible payback for the short walk. The Views from the summit of this volcanic crater are mindblowing! However be warned, you gain a lot of altitude in those short 0.6miles!
This is no longer actually free but we thought we would leave it in…
Another Volcanic Crater just outside of Honolulu across the highway from Hanauma Bay. This old railway line fires you straight up the side of a 1,200ft Volcano on an incredibly steep gradient! There are no switchbacks here just an exhausting head-on charge, but wow, it’s really something when you hit the summit!
The most Westerly point on the Island and seriously remote and rugged this 4.5 Mile trail takes you along the rugged north shore coast. With stunning mountains on one side and windswept shoreline to the other, the trailheads to the very edge of the island, where you can walk around the edge of the Kuokola Range or backtrack to the start.
One of several PillBox hikes on the Island. As a remote and strategically important outpost during WW2, the island was heavily fortified with machinegun posts and lookouts all over the island. The good thing about these locations are they provide sweeping views of the area they overlook. An important quality of a Pillbox Location, and also a good quality of a Vista point for hiking.
This old roadway runs around the edge of the sunken Hanauma Bay Craor providing excellent views of the stunning waters below. Keep going and you get to a satellite installation and further still and you run out of land and end up at some very impressive rugged coastline.
A really short one to finish off, the Turtle Bay Pillbox is located after less than half a mile of gentle pathways. The trail starts off at a stunning Large Banyan Tree and heads off through the woodland, at the end of the trail is a hidden beach with the Pillbox on the end of a headland with views of Kawela and Turtle Bay.
We have a more Detailed List of Hikes here that also includes some of the more Epic routes such as the Manana Ridge Trail.
Set in the Fort DeRussy park down by the Waikiki seafront is the small Hawaii army Museum. Lined up outside is a selection of small tanks and artillery pieces with an impressive AH-1 Cobra Attack Helicopter parked up on the Ramparts of the Fort.
Inside the exhibits tell the story of the history of Warefare in the islands. From early Clan Battles to the importance of the Hawaiian Island chain in the Ring of Steel around the islands. As Oahu was home to the Pacific Fleet its defense was paramount to the war effort, and apart from the surprise attack of 1941 the islands we left nearly untouched for the rest of the war.
It has however continued to remain a key point of US military significance and will do well into the future, as the jets screaming over Hicham Airbase testify. The Museum tells the history of that importance and all the roles the Island has played. As a free museum in a fantastic park area of the city, it’s well worth a visit.
On the Remote North or the windward side of the island is the quiet village of Laia. This laid-back Coastal community is most commonly known for the Polynesian Cultural Center but the town has more going for it than just that. It is a different side of Hawaii than most people see. More Rural and traditional. There are wonderful Hikes into the Hills, a pleasant bay with calm and protected waters, and the Laia Point that creates that protection.
The point is a short hike out to the end over loose and jagged rocks, but the views down the coast are fantastic and to the north is a wonderful sea Arch. The Point is well known from the film Forgetting Sarah Marshall, for the scene where Mila Kunis and Jason Segal Leap (sort of) from the rocks. There is not much out in this part of the Island apart from stunning scenery, so checking out the town of Laia is a must and hiking the point is a must-do when in town.
If the Weather is fine and the sea Clam it’s a great place to indulge in a little Cliff Jumping too. While the Cliffs featured in the film are pretty high and maybe not that sensible there are plenty of lower more accessible jumps to try out.
In the winter months, the Point is far less safe, breakers can Pound the Coast and while this makes for an impressive display it’s one to watch from a safe distance.
9 – Halona Blowhole
There is something Very Hawaiian about BlowHoles, while they occur the world over, whenever there is porous rock and heavy surf, but the Purely volcanic rock of Hawaii seems to conjure up quite a few particularly explosive ones.
The Halona Blow Hole situated just past Hanauma Bay, in the Shadow of Koko Crater is the best example on Oahu. The Roadside pullout is often crowded and especially so when the conditions are right (High Tide, Heavy Surf) for the Blowhole to “Go Off”.
Even when the hole is quiet it is still a beautiful pullout. The setting is quite magical. The Stunning blue ocean against the magnificent lush green volcano with a beautiful sandy beach stretching off into the distance. There is also a secluded little cove that gets really churned up in the waves and is a lot of fun to swim in when safe.
We wish we didn’t need to write this next paragraph but amazingly we do. When the Blowhole is going off, Stand back. Yep, it’s amazing but people really do try and get as close as possible to get wet or even take a look inside. This is pretty dumb when it’s quiet, as it is hardly predictable when the next big blast is going to go off, but when it’s raging it’s suicidal. And really we can scarcely imagine a more horrible way to check out. And, yes this has happened several times!
As a perfect segway into our next activity, you can also find a triple Blow Hole at Three Tables up on the North Shore, directly next to Sunset Beach which is home to the Pipeline. These Blow Holes are set on three flat platforms (Tables) that make up a barrier reef for the beach.
These Reefs run right up the coastline but are more sunken further up and it is these formations that
10 – Banzai Pipeline
Last on our list is the Banzai Pipeline. We have put it last as, well it requires some luck and a little bit of good timing. The Pipeline only opens up under certain conditions. However, when it does, it is one of the most incredible sights on earth.
There are only a few places on earth with waves this phenomenal, Jaws over on Maui, Mavericks in California, and Nazaré over in Portugal and that’s about it. While Jaws and Nazaré both crush the pipeline for sheer size, the Pipeline is so much more accessible and can be viewed far more easily from the beach. And while those waves are BIG the Pipelines are near perfect, a real work of art from mother nature.
Any Serious surfer will already know all about the Pipeline, so our guess is if you are reading about it here, then you are most definitely NOT qualified to surf it. At least not when it is pounding. This is more for the joy of heading over and watching the pros do their thing.
The Giant Waves are a real thing of beauty and watching them curl their way onto the shore is something that will live in your memory for years. If the Weather is right and the pipeline is going off it really is a must-see event.
Even if not, this is the world famous North Shore and there is always something going off and the surf is normally impressive even if the Pipeline is not Firing
Have Your Say
Let us know what you do in Oahu that doesn’t cost any money? Do you have a favorite beach or an incredible hike? Maybe some natural formation forged by the island’s volcanic history? Whatever it is let us know in the comments below so we can share it with our readers. Got any questions or any other comments on our list, as ever just fire away in the comments as we ALWAYS love hearing from you,