The 10 Best Free Activities on Oahu – Updated 2024

Makapuu Lighthouse, Oahu

by Suzanne G., Updated January 20, 2024

Hawaii is an expensive place to live and visit, but thanks to its abundant natural beauty many of the best activities on Oahu are free. From scenic drives to cultural sites tucked away in remote valleys, plus all the many places where you can enjoy the great outdoors, you’ll never run out of exciting things to do.

Here’s a list of the ten best free activities on Oahu, outside of the Waikiki and Honolulu metro area. Although a car is required to get to most of these activities, any activity that requires an entry fee or specialty sports equipment (bikes, snorkel gear, kayaks, etc.) has been excluded. 

The 10 Best Free Activities on Oahu

  1. Visit one of the many scenic lookouts. You don’t want to miss these spots! 
  • Nuuanu Pali Lookout – This historical landmark is located on Pali Highway between Honolulu and Kailua. The lookout sits over a thousand feet above the coastline. It is the site of an important battle where hundreds of soldiers were forced off the Pali’s sheer cliffs. The lookout offers panoramic views of the windward coastline, the Ko’olau cliffs, and the communities below.
  • Halona Blowhole – This unique rock formation sits at the edge of Hanauma Bay and is about a twenty-minute drive from Waikiki. On windy days, when the tide is high, the formation shoots sea spray high into the air. The area also overlooks the picturesque Halona Beach Cove, the location of the famous beach scene from “Here to Eternity” and countless other movies. There’s a steep, rocky descent to the small beach and a lava tube at the back of the beach that you can also explore. 
  • Kualoa Regional Park – This spot offers the best view of Mokoli’i, usually referred to as Chinaman’s Hat. This uninhabited basalt islet is located just ⅓ of a mile away from shore and looks spectacular in photographs. There’s also a nice beach, BBQ grills, picnic tables, and public restrooms at the park, so it makes a great place to stop and take a break or have a picnic when driving to the North Shore. 
  1. Take a scenic drive. Some good options are:
  • H3 from Waikiki to Kaneohe or Kailua – Drive through tunnels and enjoy the view of the imposing Ko’olau Mountains.
  • Highway 72 to Sandy Beach or Makapu’u Lookout – This is a slow, winding road filled with pullouts and great views of Hanauma Bay, Kokohead, and the east side of the island.  
  • Pali Highway 61 – Drive from downtown Honolulu/Waikiki to Kaneohe or Kailua, through the mountains and past lush greenery and sweeping vistas.
Ho'omaluhia Botanical Garden is one of the best free activities on Oahu.
Walk or drive through the Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden.
  1. Find refuge at Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden. The name means ‘peaceful refuge’, and that is what you will find in this 400-acre garden in Kaneohe. It features tropical plants from around the world, grouped geographically, plus abundant birdlife and a large man-made lake. Originally, the Army Corps of Engineers built Loko Waimaluhia to provide flood protection for the city of Kaneohe. But today it is a popular spot to relax and recreate.
  1. See the big waves of the Banzai Pipeline. Ehukai Beach regularly experiences waves up to 30 feet during the winter months. You can watch the pros, and pros-in-the-making, navigate these massive waves, or even take in one of many North Shore surfing competitions held in the winter if your timing is right. There aren’t many parking spaces here, however, so arrive early or be prepared to walk. 
  1. Explore Old Town Haleiwa. This charming surfing town is worth a stop when on the North Shore. Enjoy the laid-back vibe as you stroll among the surf shops, restaurants, art galleries, and boutiques, all housed in plantation-era wooden storefronts. Also, shaved ice is the local delicacy if you’re in the mood for a sweet treat. There are plenty of shops and food trucks in Haleiwa where you can buy one, but Matsumoto’s is the O.G.  
  1. See the Sea Turtles at Laniakea Beach (and keep a respectful distance). You can spot sea turtles at any North Shore beach. But Laniakea is called ‘turtle beach’ because they are so prevalent. Be sure to read the signs, though. Stay behind the red ropes and give the turtles their space (stay at least 10 feet away). Also, do not touch, approach, or try to pose with the turtles. They are a protected species and bothering them is punishable by federal law. Instead, bring binoculars or a zoom camera lens and let them bask in peace.    
  1. Visit the Dole Plantation. The Dole Plantation is on many visitors’ to-do lists. While there are several paid activities to choose from (train ride, garden tour, and a pineapple maze) plus a massive gift shop and restaurant, there are free activities that are open to the public too. There is no entry fee for the Visitor Center and gift shop, where they sometimes hold pineapple-cutting or chocolate-making demonstrations. There’s also a lovely wrap-around porch and an accessible-to-all garden area behind the gift shop with benches and koi ponds, where cats, chickens, and peacocks roam freely. Although the gift shop is very busy, the outdoor spaces are great spots to relax, people-watch, or enjoy a refreshing Dole Whip. 
  1. Take a scenic hike. There are many great trails on Oahu to choose from, which makes it easy to find one that suits your interests and abilities. Here are three popular trails:
  • Kaena Point Trail (Easy) – A 2.7-mile (one-way) coastal trail through a bird sanctuary starting near Waialua. You’ll enjoy coastal views and you may encounter monk seals on the beach (be sure to keep a safe distance though). Although the trail is relatively flat, there’s not much shade so bring lots of water and sun protection. 
  • Makapu’u Point Lighthouse Trail (Moderate) – A short 2.5-mile paved trail along sea cliffs leads to a lighthouse and an observation deck with stunning views of Waimanalo Bay.
  • Kuliouou Ridge Trail (Hard) – This 4.4-mile trail rises almost 1,800 feet, but once you are on top of the ridge you are rewarded with sweeping panoramic views. 
  1. Visit Manoa Falls. Located about five miles north of Waikiki, this 150-foot waterfall is accessible via a 1.6-mile walking path. Stroll through a lush, tropical forest as a gradual 633-foot rise in elevation leads you to the waterfall. Note: Parking at the trailhead lot costs $7, but you can park down the road in a nearby residential neighborhood for free.   
  1. Volunteer. Many organizations on Oahu have volunteer positions or programs designed with tourists in mind. From cleaning beaches to planting trees, or restoring WWII-era battleships, there are all sorts of ways that you can give back while also having an interesting and unique experience on Oahu. For more information, click here.

No car? No problem. Many of these free activities are stops on Oahu Circle tours!

Bonus: Nearly Free Activities on Oahu 

Byodo-in Temple, Oahu.
The beautiful and serene Byodo-in Temple.
  1. See the stunning Byodo-in Temple. Located in a lush valley at the foot of the Ko’olau Mountain range, sits the Byodo-in Temple. It is a non-denominational Buddhist temple and a scale replica of the nearly 1,000-year-old Byodo-in Temple in Uji, Japan. Remarkably, the temple was constructed entirely without nails. It was established in the 1960s to mark the 100-year anniversary of the first Japanese immigrants’ arrival in Hawaii. An 18-foot gold leaf-covered Buddha is housed inside the temple, and all visitors are welcome to visit, light incense, and offer prayers. However, before entering the temple, it is customary for visitors to ring a sacred three-ton brass bell, for happiness and longevity, by swinging a suspended log. The temple is also surrounded by a beautiful Japanese garden, with koi ponds where peacocks and black swans roam freely. Admission is just $5 and parking is free. 
  1. Explore the Waimea Valley. The privately owned Waimea Valley is rich in biodiversity and cultural heritage. Known as the ‘Valley of the Priests,’ Waimea Valley was once home to holy men in the Native Hawaiian tradition. Today the grounds are home to a botanical garden, a seasonal waterfall that you can swim beneath, and Toa Luau. Although the entrance fee to the falls and garden is normally $25/person, admission is free for all guests of Toa Luau.  It is a great value, especially if you plan on attending a luau while on Oahu. You can swim and enjoy the gardens before or after the luau too, because Toa is the only luau that offers a lunchtime luau in addition to a traditional evening luau. If you are looking for a small-sized, authentic, and culturally enriching luau in a beautiful natural setting, Toa Luau will not disappoint!     

Click to see our lists of the best free activities in Waikiki or Honolulu

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