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Many travelers see Tahiti as a launch point for other incredible things to do around French Polynesia, but skipping the largest (and most populous) island is a grave mistake. While Tahiti doesn’t have the white sand beaches found elsewhere in the Society Islands, the scuba diving of the Tuamotus, or the archeological history of the Marquesas, it’s still the cultural capital and a destination you won’t want to miss out on.
Wondering how to spend your time around the capital? These are some of the best things to do on the island of Tahiti. (P.S. plenty of these Tahiti activities are free.)
Discover all the best travel tips and things to do on Tahiti in Moon Tahiti & French Polynesia.
1. Shop for food and souvenirs at Papeete Market
Waking up early and tiptoeing in between the art, food, crafts, and clothing stalls of Papeete Market is one of my favorite ways to spend a morning on in the big city. French Polynesia’s largest municipal market, this is where the arts of the islands converge. Browse through racks of hand painted pareau, sarongs, and wooden carvings made by artists from the Marquesas. Woven hats, perfumes, soaps, bags, and home goods also await. If you’ve left room in your suitcase, you’ll find plenty of souvenirs to fill the space here.
Towards the back of the market, tidy piles of tropical fruits and vegetables make for the perfect takeway snack. Bananas, mangoes, pineapples, passionfruit, pomelos, soursop… they’re all here. Fish stands and snack shops also cater to those who are craving a dish on the savory side.
2. Walk around Papeete
I was shocked at how expensive everything in French Polynesia was during my first visit. Fortunately, one of Tahiti’s best activities to do is completely free. Just throw on your comfiest pair of shoes and take a walk around the capital. Start at Pa’aofai Gardens on the waterfront, a grassy park area where families come to play and Papeete residents workout.
Then, venture north to Bougainville Park, a small park with plenty of shade. Nearby, you’ll find Papeete’s government buildings, like the Territorial Assembly and the President’s Building.
Further inland, you’ll find the Papeete Catholic Cathedral taking up its own little block. Continuing north, wander through Papeete Market.
All around the city are cafes and restaurants, galleries, pearl shops, and boutiques.
- Learn the facts of Papeete on a walking tour
- Go on a guided walking tour of Papeete as part of a full-day trip
3. Snorkel along the the coral trail at Mahana Beach Park
Pack your snorkeling gear and visit Mahana Beach Park, a white sand beach with public restrooms just a 20-minute drive from the center of Papeete.
Just a few fin kicks away from the shoreline, technicolor corals await. The government of Tahiti has installed informative plaques above some of the main coral bommies. You’ll learn about the creatures, big and small, who call the reef off Mahana Park home. Look around for sea turtles, eels, starfish, reef sharks, stingrays, and hundreds of species of reef fish.
4. Go wave watching in Teahupoo
There’s perhaps no wave more powerful, or beautiful, than Teahupoo. The wave is named after the sleepy town nearby, and it’s intensity is one you’ll have to witness with your own eyes. Trips to Teahupoo are done as part of a boat your, where you’ll feel the cool mist of the wave against your skin, and hear the roar of the lip meeting the sea as it guillotines across the water. When it’s big, only the best surfers in the world dare paddle out. Even if you’re not a surfer yourself, watching Teahupoo break when it’s big is bound to be one of the most memorable parts of your trip.
5. Visit Point Venus
History buffs, this one is for you. Point Venus, the northernmost point of the island, is where Captain Cook on Endeavour came to observe the transit of Venus in 1769.
Pack a towel and beach umbrella and laze on the ashy sands of Point Venus to watch residents paddle their outrigger canoes from the shore. Point Venus also hosts a white brick lighthouse, information plaques about the history of the point (and the missionaries who’ve landed here), a cafe, and a few stands selling smoothie bowls, coffee, and crepes.
6. Rumble along dirt roads in Papenoo Valley
If you read the fine print of your car rental contract, you’ll probably see that Papenoo Valley is a no-go. Papenoo Valley follow’s the Papenoo River into Tahiti’s verdant, rugged interior. It’s the type of place where roads are one-way only, and turn into peanut butter as soon as the rain comes. So if you go, it’s best to rent a 4WD, or even better, join a group tour where the driver’s used to the bumpy roads.
An adventure through Papenoo Valley reveals rivers and waterfalls prime for swimming, lush jungle trekking trails, creeks with blue-eyed eels, a tunnel, and Vaihiria Lake. Keep your eyes toward the treetops to spot the green feathered Tahiti Reed Warbler.
A tip? If you’re joining a tour for Papenoo Valley, notify the company in advance if you only understand English. Many of the group tours through the valley are given solely in French. In many cases, it’s best to have a private guide.
7. Eat your heart out at Vai’ete Place
Every evening just around sunset, the waterfront of Papeete at Vai’ete Place comes alive with roulottes, food trucks, doling out many types of international cuisine. Portions are large and prices tend to be fair.
Come for crepes (savory and sweet), Chinese chow mein, traditional Polynesian fare, pizzas, burgers and fries, plus whatever food fusion stall is trending at the moment. If you’re traveling with a group, this is a sure way to please every tastebud.
8. Get sprayed at Fa’arumai Waterfall
One of the most accessible waterfalls in French Polynesia is found on Tahiti, just a few hundred meters from the main road. If you’re keen to venture further into this waterfall’s lush surroundings, you’ll encounter two more waterfalls along the trail.
While the waterfall is an ideal spot to visit all year long, it’s most impressive during the island’s rainy season from November to April.
9. Be awed at the Arahoho Blowhole
Ready, set, whoosh! Arahoho Blowhole is formed by a hole in Tahiti’s rocky coastline. When a surge of water comes, the air and water blast into the sky with force. Signs for the blowhole will say “trou de souffleur de Arahoho,” and a stop here is easily combined with Fa’arumai Waterfall.
10. Learn about the islands at the Museum of Tahiti
From language to jewelry to Polynesian patterns to dance to culture, the islands of Tahiti are rife with intrigue. I recommend visiting the Museum of Tahiti towards the beginning of your trip, to act as a primer for the rest of your journey.
The museum focuses on four areas of Tahiti and the islands: the natural history, traditional Polynesian history, post-European history, and geography. Some plaques are solely in French, though there are quite a few with English translations as well.
11. Catch a wave
Despite being one of the world’s iconic surf destinations, surfing in French Polynesia is not as easy as you might think. Most waves break on outer reefs, requiring a boat (or an ultra-long paddle) to reach. Shallow, heavy, and fast waves tend to be the norm.
Fortunately, the island of Tahiti is one of the few places you can catch a wave with ease. Beach breaks like Papara are kid- and beginner-friendly, and you won’t find the rowdy crowds typically in the line-up of more intense spots.
12. Take a lap of the island
Few of French Polynesia’s islands are as road-trip worthy as Tahiti. On well marked (for South Pacific standards) and well paved (also for South Pacific standards) loops around the island, connecting most of its main sights. While you could rent a car for around CFP 10,000, or around $100 USD per day, I recommend joining a guided tour. There are half- and full-day tours available, perfect for filling in your last day if you’re leaving French Polynesia on a late night flight.
- Go on a private half-day tour stopping at your top picks
- Save money and go on a group tour of the island
- Take a private cultural tour of the east coast
- Take a private cultural tour of the west coast
Ready to take it over to the tropics? Chat with other Tahiti travelers over on our Islands of Tahiti Travel Planning group.