Even if you don't rent a car, almost all of the places and activities listed below can be reached by foot from Waikiki or by using Oahu's excellent public transportation system called TheBus. It has more than 90 routes and 4,200 stops around Oahu and is a quick and inexpensive way to get around. The one-way fare includes two free transfers and a four-day pass allows for unlimited rides.
There is also Uber service on Oahu, which is easily accessible with their app for Android and Apple.
Here are our picks for some free or almost free things to do on Oahu.
Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial remain top tourist destinations in Hawaii with over 1,500,000 visitors annually. The addition of the Battleship Missouri and the 1999 opening of the USS Missouri Memorial have further enhanced the importance of this historic area.
A visit to the Arizona Memorial is a solemn and sobering experience, even for those who were not alive when the attack occurred. You are literally standing over a grave site where 1177 men lost their lives.
Admission is Free.
Oahu's North Shore is home to the top world-class surfers in the world when the winter waves reach their majestic heights. It is an easy hour's drive from Waikiki to lovely Hale'iwa town where the North Shore begins for most visitors as they travel in an eastward direction around Oahu.
Be sure to stop at the Banzai Pipeline where you can see surfers make their way through the middle of a wave. All of this is free unless you decide to do some shopping.
Located in the heart of Honolulu you'll find many of Hawaii's most historic buildings including the 'Iolani Palace, home to Hawaii's last monarchs, and the only palace on U.S. soil.
You'll also want to visit the Hawaii State Capitol, the Kamehameha I Statue, Kawaiaha'o Church (the first Christian church in Hawaii), the Mission Houses Museum, and the Old Federal Building.
All of historic Honolulu is within an easy walking distance of downtown parking at the equally famous Aloha Tower.
The walk and many sites are free. Both 'Iolani Palace and the Mission Houses Museum charge for guided tours of their interiors.
Diamond Head looms large over the Waikiki. Actually named Le'ahi by Hawaiians, it received its more well-known name in the late 1700s when British seamen saw calcite crystals sparkling in the sunshine and thought they had found diamonds.
A hike to the top of Diamond Head takes about an hour over a well-worn path. The summit offers a spectacular 365-degree view of O'ahu and is a must trip for photography enthusiasts.
There is a minor entrance fee. It's cheaper for pedestrians than cars.
Go Snorkeling at Hanauma Bay
What was thousands of years ago a large volcanic caldera has been flooded and subjected to centuries of wave erosion to produce one of the most popular snorkeling destinations in Hawaii? Hanauma Bay.
Hanauma means "curved bay" in Hawaiian. Today its clear blue waters and beautiful reefs are home to thousands of tropical fish, green sea turtles and a controlled number of snorkelers.
Hanauma Bay is both a Nature Preserve and a Marine Life Conservation District where visitors are required by law to refrain from mistreating marine animals or from touching, walking, or otherwise having contact with the coral.
There is an admission fee and parking fee, but the admission fee is waived for persons 12 years & younger.
Relax and Have Lunch at Kapi'olani Park
Created in 1876, Kapi'olani Park is the largest and oldest public park in Hawaii. Located on the east end of Waikiki, this large park is named after Queen Kapi'olani, the wife of King David Kalakaua.
The park is by law a free public park and recreation ground which cannot be sold and for which entrance cannot be charged. The park is home to the Honolulu Zoo, Waikiki, Aquarium, Waikiki Shell, and Waikiki Bandstand. It is host to many annual festivals and numerous sports activities. It is a popular area for joggers.
It's the perfect place to enjoy a eat a plate lunch and then stroll through the park and see all of the activities.
Park admission fee is free. Zoo General Admission is free only for those 13 years old and younger.
The Pali Highway connects Honolulu to the Windward side of the island. Located high above a tunnel on the Pali Highway, the Nu'uanu Pali State Wayside Park and Overlook welcomes almost 1 million visitors each year.
From the lookout, you have beautiful views of Kane'ohe Bay, Kailua, the Ko'olau Mountains, and the Mokapu Peninsula which is home to the Kane'ohe Marine Corps Base. It's one of the windiest spots on O'ahu, so if you go, hold on to your hat! Be sure to read the placards giving the history of the site.
Admission is free.
Located at the foot of the 2,000 foot Ko'olau Mountains in the Valley of the Temples in O'ahu's Kaneohe Region sits the beautiful Byodo-In Temple. While always a popular stop for visitors who seek locations off the beaten track, the Byodo-In Temple has become more popular since it was used as a filming location in the ABC Emmy Award-winning drama series Lost.
The Byodo-In Temple was built in the 1960's to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the first Japanese immigrant workers in Hawaii who came to work in the sugar plantation fields. It is a replica of the 950-year-old Byodoin Temple located in Uji, Japan on the southern outskirts of Kyoto.
There is a small entrance fee, lower for seniors and children. Cash only.
Wander Honolulu's Chinatown
Honolulu's Chinatown has been the subject of urban renewal in recent years in an effort to make it more attractive to the all-important tourist trade. Although still primarily Chinese, you will see many shops and restaurants run by Vietnamese, Japanese, Filipinos, Laotians, and Koreans.
Chinatown remains a small area which can easily be explored on foot. It's really the only way to experience the sights, smells, and sounds of this historic district of Honolulu.
Admission is free, but you'll have to pay for the great food!
Hawaii's Plantation Village is a non-profit, living history museum and ethnobotanical garden located on a 50-acre site in the heart of sugar plantation country in Waipahu.
Established by the Friends of Waipahu Cultural Garden Park, its mission is to ensure that the struggles, sacrifices, innovations, and contributions of Hawaii's sugar plantation forebears are preserved and acknowledged as the cornerstone of Hawaii's successful multi-ethnic society.
Hawaii's Plantation Village opened its doors in 1992 and offers docent-led tours through the Village as well as special events and activities.
There is an admission fee, with discounts for seniors, and children. Kids 3 years and under can enter for free.
O'ahu is home to over 100 festivals and events throughout the year that celebrates culture, community, music, and art.
You can see a dragon boat festival, Chinese new year lion dances, Hawaiian rodeo, and numerous music festivals featuring ukulele, slack key guitar, and hula. The annual Aloha Festivals, Lei Day Festival, and Spam Jam are three of the most popular annual events.
Every November the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing takes place on O'ahu's North Shore. If you're on O'ahu over Christmas, don't miss Honolulu City Lights.
Most festivals are free.
Oahu is a beautiful island. Even today, too many visitors to Waikiki spend all of their time at their hotel or resort and never explore the beauty of the island, much of which is within minutes of the rooms. They return home and say that they have been to Hawaii when in reality they have missed what Hawaii is all about.