If Hawaii is the surfing capital of the world, the island of Oahu is its crown jewel. Like the rest of the island chain, Oahu gets plenty of excellent, surfable waves year-round. Plus, when the North Shore goes off in the winter, athletes from all over the world convene to test their skills and hone their mettle on the island’s most famous surf breaks.
But Oahu isn’t just for experienced big-wave surfers. You’ll find plenty of breaks perfect for aspiring surfers who have yet to experience the rush of standing up on their first wave, plus a bunch of intermediate spots for surfers building their skills.
In this article, we’ll run you through eight of the most popular surf breaks on Oahu. We’ll include options for surfers of all levels, so you can find the perfect spot to catch some of Oahu’s legendary waves.
First, though, we’ll answer a few of the questions we often get about surfing in Oahu.
Common Questions We Hear About Surfing in Oahu
Who started surfing?
Surfing started with the Hawaiian people. The first written accounts of surfing emerged in 1779, from the journal of Lieutenant James King, who traveled with Captain James Cook during his voyages around the Hawaiian Islands. At the time, surfboards were made of wood, and dropping in on a member of the Hawaiian royalty was an insult punishable by death. The rules have relaxed considerably in Oahu since then. (However, we still wouldn’t recommend dropping in on another surfer!)
Where can I surf in the summer in Oahu?
Head to the south shore in Oahu during the summer months. You’ll find plenty of breaks along the southern coast, and a ton of options conveniently located right in Waikiki. (We’ll share details on two of our favorites—Canoes and Publics—below!)
Which side of Oahu has the best surfing?
Many people will argue that the North Shore of Oahu offers some of the best surfing in the world, especially during the winter months when the swell is just right. However, if you’re a beginner or you want something a little more mellow, there are plenty of waves on Oahu’s south shore to keep you busy.
Where is the best surfing on the North Shore of Oahu?
It depends on the conditions, but many surfers swear by the classics, including Pipeline, Sunset Beach, and Waimea Bay. For something a little more mellow on the North Shore, check out Chun’s Reef.
What beach has the biggest waves on Oahu?
Waimea Bay is famed for having some of the largest waves you’ll find on Oahu, when the swell direction is right. You’ll also find some pretty heavy waves at Sunset Beach and Pipeline.
Where is the best surfing on Oahu for beginners?
Waikiki Beach offers several different beginner breaks, making it a great place to surf for the very first time or to hone your skills as a beginner.
What do I need to know about surfing on Oahu as a beginner?
If you’ve never surfed before, we’ve got a couple of tips to help make your first surfing experience on Oahu an awesome one:
- Take a lesson: A few hours of instruction will make a world of difference in getting yourself on your feet—fast.
- Brush up on surf etiquette: Master a couple of basics, and you’ll find the lineups in Oahu much friendlier. For starters, make sure you understand the concept of right of way. If someone is already up and surfing a wave, don’t try for the same wave. (That’s called “dropping in.”) Know that a little courtesy and a little awareness will go a long way. If you want to learn more about surf etiquette, this primer from Surfer Today offers a good intro.
- Know your limits: You’ll see signs all over the beaches in Hawaii that say, “When in doubt, don’t go out.” The same applies to surfing. Don’t attempt a wave that’s significantly beyond your abilities.
- When you fall, fall flat: Many of the waves you’ll surf in Oahu are reef breaks. When you lose your balance on your board, fall as flat as you can to minimize your chances of hitting the reef.
- Have fun: You’ll catch some amazing waves—and meet some great people—surfing in Oahu. Above all, remember to savor the experience. It’s one that some people will only ever dream of!
Now that you understand the basics of surfing in Oahu, let’s talk about where to go.
The Best Surf Spots on Oahu
Best Swell Direction: S-SW
If you’re staying in Waikiki, we’ve got some great news for you: You’ll find some excellent waves right in the heart of this busy tourist area.
- If you’re new to surfing, try Canoes, the surf break right out in front of the iconic Duke Kahanamoku statue on Kalakaua Avenue. These gentle rollers are perfect for beginning surfers.
- If you’re a more experienced surfer who can handle a significant paddle-out, try some of the breaks a bit farther off the beach, like Threes, Fours, or Paradise. You’ll find them to the west of Canoes, and you’ll be able to see them easily from the beach when the swell is up.
In short, Waikiki is a great “choose your own adventure” surf spot. Grab your board, and take your pick.
Plus, if you want to grab a beer or a meal once you’re done, you’ll find showers and bathrooms up and down the beach so you can clean up. The facilities at Kuhio Beach are always a good bet.
Best Swell Direction: N–NW
In the winter months, the North Shore becomes a mecca for the world’s best surfers. They flock to its shores to take advantage of the massive swells that create some of the world’s most exciting and challenging waves.
Banzai Pipeline, often referred to as “Pipeline” or just “Pipe,” is probably the most famous of these waves. Pipeline was first immortalized by pioneering surf filmmaker Bruce Brown in his movie, Surfing Hollow Days. From there, the wave only grew in popularity. Surfers like Gerry Lopez (a.k.a. Mr. Pipeline) and, more recently, Jamie O’Brien have made their names and honed their skills on this shallow reef break.
If you’re new to the sport, Pipeline will be a spectating opportunity for you—a chance to see some of the best surfers in the world put their finest wave-riding skills on display. (At least during the winter months!)
But Pipeline is just one stop on the seven-mile miracle, which contains the most famous surf breaks in Oahu—and maybe even in the world.
Hale’iwa Ali’i Beach Park
Level: Depends on the season
Best Swell Direction: WNW-NW
Hale’iwa Ali’i Beach Park marks the start of the seven-mile miracle on the North Shore of Oahu. In the winter months, this reef break is best left to the experts. During the calmer summer months, though, Hale’iwa can be a good spot for beginners. In fact, you’ll often see surf schools pushing students into waves when the waves are gentle.
If watching surfers dance with the ocean is on our Oahu bucket list, Hale’iwa is a great place to set up for the day with the whole family. There are plenty of amenities, including parking, restrooms, and showers.
Level: Expert, when it’s breaking
Best Swell Direction: WNW-NW
Waimea Bay has a lot to offer: waves that break up to 30 feet in the winter, gorgeous turquoise water, and powdery white sand. It’s also a place with a lot of history. Captain James Cook made the first European landing on Oahu at Waimea Bay. Much later, in the 1950s, Greg Noll became one of the first people in recorded history to surf the giant waves at Waimea Bay.
If you want to learn more about the history of Waimea and the pioneers who surfed it, check out the classic big-wave movie, Riding Giants. (You’ll also get to see some of the other waves and surfers mentioned in this article!)
Best Swell Direction: N-NW
At the other end of the seven-mile miracle from Hale’iwa, you’ll find Sunset Beach. Sunset has a storied place in the history of surfing on Oahu. It’s hosted a number of big surf competitions, including both the World Pro-Am Championships and the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational. Additionally, catching a monster wave at Sunset has helped many an unknown surfer make a name for themselves.
Ultimately, this shifty reef break is best left to surfers with some experience under their belts. Expect a lot of paddling to get out to the lineup—and stay there. If there’s a powerful north swell, it’s definitely experts only.
Even if you don’t have enough experience to try your hand with the waves at Sunset, it’s still worth stopping by to catch a glimpse of this legendary surf break when it’s pumping.
Best Swell Direction: NW
If you find yourself on the North Shore, seeking a surf spot that’s a little less intense than the famous big wave spots that dominate the area, try Chun’s Reef. There’s no better indicator for a beginner surf spot than a cluster of students on foam boards, and you’ll often find them at Chun’s on a smaller day. When the swell gets bigger, this spot can also be fun for more intermediate surfers honing their skills.
Best Swell Direction: S-SW
When you’re looking for some respite from the party waves and crowded lineups concentrated around Waikiki’s Queens and Canoes, head toward Kapi’olani Regional Park. Between Queen’s Beach and the Waikiki Aquarium, you’ll find a reef break called Publics. Even though Publics breaks pretty consistently, it can be a little less busy than the neighboring spots closer to the heart of downtown Waikiki. One note: This spot gets really shallow during low tide, so until you’ve got the spot wired, head out at high tide.
Ala Moana Bowls
Best Swell Direction: S-SW
A favorite of Gerry Lopez, Ala Moana Bowls delivers a fast ride that’s popular with the area’s dedicated surfers. When there’s significant swell from the south-southwest, this wave gets heavy and is best left to surfers with experience. As with all of Oahu’s surf breaks, respect and a strong understanding of proper surf etiquette are a must at this famous break.
Let This Be the Start of Your Search for Perfect Surf
If you’ve spent any time in the surfing community, you know that locating and choosing your own surf spots is all part of the package. We’ve shown you eight of the most popular and well-known breaks on Oahu, but there are a ton more waiting for you. Check the forecast, strap your board to your roof, grab a buddy, and start exploring. There’s a veritable paradise of surfable waves waiting for you on Oahu.
Relocating to Oahu? If you’re serious about surfing, maybe it’s time to finally make the move to Oahu. (Or maybe you just need to move closer to your favorite break!) We do mainland moves, local moves, and everything in between. Reach out to one of our experts for a complimentary quote for your Oahu move.
Tell us about your move!