The word “Honolulu” in the Hawaiian language means a “sheltered bay”. It used to be the capital of the Hawaiian Monarchy. Since Hawaii became part of the United States, it has seen a rapid growth in tourism.
Situated on the southern shore of the island of Oahu, the Honolulu International Airport (aka Daniel K. Inouye International Airport) is the gateway to the entire state of Hawaii.
Things To Do In Honolulu
It’s best to give at least two full days to Honolulu. You can plan for the water activities on one day and visit the museum and other cultural & historical attractions on the other day. During the evening and night, you can enjoy the vibrant and rich city life. The Waikiki area is a heaven for shopping lovers.
The amalgam of wild nature, history, and delicious food is sure to make your trip worth it. So, get out and try some good Japanese and Hawaiian food, and indulge in spas and massages.
If what you want is an adventure, then trek along the Diamond Head Trail. It will offer you an exotic view of the volcanic crater. If you climb the Nu’uanu Pali lookout, then you can see the glorious view of another side of the Oahu. The mysterious underwater cave of Halona Blowhole is an exciting place to dive in.
Now, let us go through different parts of the city. You can plan your trip by covering one or more regions per day.
Waikiki is the tourist mecca and Oahu’s best-known tourist destination. Thousands of tourists head here, to surf on the turbulent waters, or lounge in the sandy white beaches of Waikiki. It’s great for families with kids too.
Waikiki has the best sunset view. Go to any of the beaches mentioned below and grab a drink at any of the beach restaurants and bars, then grab a good spot to enjoy a perfect Hawaiian sunset.
Note: For best sunrises, go to Kailua Beach or Lanikai Beach, the opposite side (Windward Coast) of Oahu.
Parking in Waikiki
Parking can be hard. If you can’t find street parking (paid meter), it’s best to put “Fort DeRussy Beach Park” in your GPS and then park at Hale Koa Hotel parking lot. It’s pricey but not too bad for its 2-minute walk proximity to the Waikiki beach.
Fort DeRussy Beach
Located adjacent to a park, this is the widest stretch of beach and one of the most popular. It is also a good spot for snorkeling, with a coral reef a little offshore.
Waikiki beach is the most famous beach in Hawaii. Speaking of which, it is important to mention, it is not one but a series of beaches. Being the most popular beach in Honolulu, it attracts the most crowd.
But, don’t let the crowd overwhelm you. You can find a fairly quiet beach; it’s just a matter of looking. Look around and explore the area a little bit. They are all connected so you can just walk to a section that is less crowded.
Royal Manoa Beach
Located in front of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and the Moana Surfrider Hotel, this is perhaps the most crowded stretch of beach in Waikiki.
Named after legendary surfer Duke Kahanamoku, this is a man-made beach and lagoon on the Ala Moana end of Waikiki, in front of the Hilton Hawaiian Village Resort.
With an offshore retaining wall, this is a calmer section of beach that’s great for families and beginner surfers. Along Kalakaua Avenue are four stones known as the Ancient Pohaku (Wizard Stones) which are believed to hold spiritual healing powers.
San Souci Beach
Located between the War Memorial Natatorium and the New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel, this is a much quieter section of beach that’s protected by a reef; great for families and swimming.
Queens Surf Beach
In front of Kapiolani Park, this is a quieter section of beach that’s also popular with gays. The snorkeling is great here. Besides, you will notice canoing, paddle boarding, and sail boats.
A large public park at the east end of Waikiki (toward Diamond Head), home to the Waikiki Shell amphitheater and the Honolulu Zoo. Right across the street on the shore is the Waikiki Aquarium. (See below listings)
Kapiolani Park in Waikiki is home to the city’s zoo and aquarium. The Honolulu Zoo is a fairly small zoo but nevertheless quite enjoyable (if you are with kids). There are plenty of exotic animals including the big ones like lions, elephants, rhinos, zebras, and giraffes.
A small but impressive aquarium, it has marine life from all over the Pacific Ocean, including sharks, octopus, colorful reef fish, jellies, and an outdoor exhibit with seals.
Waikiki Beach also offers surfing lessons. It’s the cheapest lessons you’ll find in entire Hawaii. There are several great surfing spots around Waikiki. You can sign up for private lessons on the beach itself. No prior reservation is required.
A one hour lesson includes dry land and in-the-water instruction. Instructors teach paddling, timing and balance skills. You can just sign up on the spot. Alternatively, you can also sign up with one of the many surfing schools in Waikiki.
A few companies offer underwater Submarine tours off the coast of Waikiki. These tours can be expensive but allow you to get a close-up view of marine life, coral reefs, and old shipwrecks.
Downtown Honolulu is both a business and historical hub. It has commercial centers, as well as beautiful harborfronts. Most of the museums are in the downtown area as well.
Please note, the downtown area is only about one mile long. So you easily walk to all the major attractions listed below. So feel free to just drive to Bishop Street area and park in any of the public parking spaces.
Tip: Parking in Chinatown area is cheap. It’s a couple of minutes of walk. Also, if you park anywere and spend more than $10 in a shop above the parking lot, you can get up to 2 hours of FREE parking.
Bishop Street is Hawaii’s version of New York’s Wall Street. Home to most of Honolulu’s skyscrapers, including the “First Hawaiian Center”, the tallest building in the Hawaiian Islands. This a good place to walk, eat, and look at the skyscrapers.
The Aloha Tower was for a long time the tallest building in Honolulu and was the first thing that tourists arriving by ship would see. This is one of the best things to check out in the Downtown area. The ten story high observation deck provides for full 360 degrees view of the Honolulu downtown including Pearl Harbor. It is open daily 9AM-5PM. Entry is FREE.
Located just east of the river, Chinatown is an extremely interesting place to visit, eat, and shop during the day. The markets contain fresh produce, including many exotic tropical and Asian fruits and vegetables, along with fresh seafood and other items.
Diamond Head & Hawaii Theatre
In addition to the traditional luaus and hula shows, Hawaii has a thriving scene of theatre, concerts, clubs, bars, and other events and entertainment. There are two old and popular theatres: Diamond Head Theatre and Hawaii Theatre. Both theatres have similar performances and are almost 100 years old.
Iolani Palace Museum
A gorgeous palace turned into the museum. Iolani Palace used to be the official residence of the Hawaiian Kingdom’s last two monarchs and is now open to the public for tours.
Mission Houses Museum
Mission Houses has three 19th century Honolulu houses restored for public viewing.
Hawaii State Art Museum
It displays visual art by both native and resident Hawaiin artists.
Foster Botanical Garden
It has a collection of rare and beautiful plants from the tropical regions of the world.
Liliuokalani Botanical Garden
The only one of the five botanical gardens in the world that contain only plants native to Hawaii. Back in the day, portions of this huge 7.5-acre garden belonged to Queen Liliuokalani, the last reigning Monarch of Hawaii.
National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific
Located within the Punchbowl Crater near Downtown, just above Makiki. The cemetery is the final resting place of over 45,000 Americans who served their country in the military and has a memorial to those missing in action in World War II as ll as panoramic views of Honolulu. The memorial contains a series of timeline and map-based wall paintings that tell the story of the Pacific Theater of WWII.
Ala Moana Park
A green space with plenty of trees and grass as well as a nice sandy beach that’s popular with the locals and is perfect for families or a calmer swim.
Kakaako Waterfront Park
A nice park southeast of Downtown, situated on the water. There’s no beach, but a pleasant oceanside walk and some rolling, grassy hills. Just off-shore is a popular surfing spot known as “Point Panic”.
A historic building that is the seat of the Hawaii State Supreme Court and is noted for the Kamehameha the Great Statue in front, which is often adorned with leis.
Across Beretania Street from the state capitol, this was the private home of Hawaii’s last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, and presently the governor’s mansion. You have to call to reserve tours.
In the Hawaiian language, “Honolulu Hale” literally means “Honolulu House”, a fitting name for Honolulu’s city hall.
There is a farmer’s market every Tuesday and Friday from 7:30 AM until 2:30 PM on the Fort Street Mall, a pedestrian-only walkway running parallel to Bishop Street from Beretania Avenue to the waterfront. If you get chance, go for a walk. You may find interesting local things.
The First Friday of every month is a downtown festival. It starts in the evening and all the art galleries and antique shops are open late. The area around the intersection of Nuuanu and Pauahi is particularly lively.
The western part of the city is home to the iconic landmark of Pearl Harbor. Pearl Harbor is still functioning as a military base camp. It was here that Japan’s surprise attack killed 2000 Americans.
Visitor center hours: Daily 7 AM-5 PM
USS Arizona Memorial
Here, you can visit the USS Arizona. Entrance is FREE. It’s the centerpiece of Pearl Harbor. The memorial is accessed after an introductory movie and a short ferry ride and lists the names of those lost as well as a chance to view the wreck.
USS Bowfin Submarine Museum
USS Bowfin is next to the Pearl Harbor. It’s a WWII submarine that’s open for tours and offers a glimpse at life aboard a submarine.
Pacific Aviation Museum
Ford Island, in the middle of the harbor, is home to the Pacific Aviation Museum, which has plenty of WWII fighter planes to view.
Battleship Missouri Memorial
The island is also home to the Battleship Missouri Memorial, a battleship best known as the site where World War II ended. The ship is open for tours and watches over the USS Arizona, marking the end of the war at the site where it began for the U.S. and you can visit the submarine.
Visitor timing: September-May: daily 8 AM-4 PM; June-August: daily 8 AM-5 PM.
Founded in 1889 by Charles Reed Bishop, the last direct descendant of Kamehameha I, this massive museum is by far the largest in Hawaii, with a complex of buildings holding an excellent collection of artifacts from the islands.
The main building, the Hawaiian Hall, holds three floors of exhibits on the history and culture of Hawaii, with numerous artifacts, recreations of Hawaiian villages, and a complete whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling.
The Science Adventure Center has exhibits on the natural history and environment of Hawaii, including a large simulated volcano that “erupts” regularly. The museum also features a planetarium, a Hawaii sports hall of fame, and plenty of traveling exhibits.
Parking is $5/vehicle. Timing: Daily 9 AM-5 PM.
An ice rink is probably the last thing you’d expect to see in a tropical city, but the ice-skating at the Ice Palace in Honolulu makes for the perfect getaway if the hot climate and everyday beach life is becoming too much for you. There is also a concession stand and two arcade game rooms.
A scenic public park is the Moanalua neighborhood, home to a small cottage which was home to Prince Lot Kamehameha (who would later become Kamehameha V) and a large monkeypod tree known as the “Hitachi Tree”.
Sand Island Beach Park
Tucked away behind an industrial area facing the Honolulu Harbor, this large park offers plenty of green lawns, excellent views of Downtown, and a very calm sandy beach that’s never crowded and with fairly good swimming. No lifeguards; restrooms and picnic tables available.
Aloha Stadium Swap Meet
Welcome to Hawaii’s largest swap meet. The swap meet is like a giant outdoor flea market, surrounding Aloha Stadium, and features merchants offering local food items, clothing, and Hawaiian souvenirs. Bring your hat, sunscreen, and bottled water and plan at least for half a day. You are unlikely to find Hawaiian souvenirs for cheaper anywhere else.
The prices are reasonable but you should bargain as well. Please note most places are cash only and there are only a few ATMs on the outskirts of the swap meet.
Timing: Wednesday & Saturday 8 AM-3 PM, Sunday 6:30 AM-3 PM.
The eastern region is less touristy and more residential. But the secluded beaches and rugged coastlines are the key ingredients of a quiet getaway. You will never get tired of the beaches in Honolulu.
Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve
The area surrounding Makapu’u Point has several excellent beaches, the most popular being Hanauma Bay, which is set in the crater of an extinct volcano, now open to the sea and filled with a coral reef. The calm water and abundance of marine life make it arguably the best place for snorkeling and scuba diving on the island. Snorkel gear is available to rent at the site.
Also, the scenery makes it a great place to sunbathe or picnic. Just keep in mind, finding parking can be a pain. If you’re driving you’ll want to get here early in the morning (by 8 AM) to ensure you get a space as parking is limited. Parking may become available in the afternoon as people leave. You can also get a shuttle package from most Waikiki hotels for about $15, round trip with snorkel gear. There is an entree fee (less than $10).
Plan on 20 additional minutes before entering as lines may be long, and all new visitors (as well as visitors who have not visited in the past year) are required to watch an orientation video. Bring water and food; there is a snack bar, but it’s limited and pricey. Also, keep an eye on the tides; at low tide, you will be swimming right on top of the reef, which is harder and makes it less easy to see.
Timing: Summer: W-M 6 AM-7 PM. Winter: W-M 6 AM-6 PM. Closed Tuesdays.
Located between Hanauma Bay and Makapu’u Point, Halona Blowhole is another popular roadside stop. The is one of many blowholes (ocean caves with a hole in the top, so water shoots out the top) along the coast, although this one is easy to view, located right under a parking lot, and can perform some nice blasts of water.
Halona Beach Cove
Near Halona Blowhole is the Halona Beach Cove, known as “the Peering Place”. It is a small, rocky cove that has good swimming when the surf is calm, but no lifeguards here means it’s at your own risk.
Diamond Head State Monument
One of the defining landmarks of Hawaii is this ancient volcanic crater which dominates over the surrounding area. An observation deck at the top offers breathtaking views of the southern coast of Oahu.
After entering the monument through a short tunnel into the crater itself, you can hike up a 0.75 mile (1.1 km) trail from a parking lot in the crater to the rim, up a couple flights of stairs, through a tunnel (bring a flashlight) and an old coastal artillery to the summit.
The hike is very popular and not difficult. Please carry water. $5 per vehicle or $1 per person entering on foot; Cash only. Timing: Daily 6 AM-6 PM; last entry at 4:30 PM.
Sandy Beach does have lifeguards and has been popular with surfers and bodyboarders for decades. On a calm day, it can be good for a fun day of swimming.
Makapu’u Point State Wayside
At Makapu’u Point, the very southeastern corner of the island, this roadside stop offers scenic views of Makapu’u Point and up the windward coast of Oahu. The 1.75-mile Makapu’u Point trail leads from the parking lot to the historic red-roofed Makapu’u Lighthouse at the end of the point, with magnificent views of the offshore islets and the rocky coastline along the way. Location: along Kalaniana’ole Highway (Route 72).
Makapu’u beach is scenic. It tends to have very large waves, meaning it may not be the best place to swim but a fantastic place to surf.
Koko Crater Botanical Garden
A 200-acre botanical garden located inside a volcanic crater, with many rare dry climate plants such as African plants, cacti, and succulents, plumeria, native wiliwili, dry land palms, and bougainvillea. Entree is FREE. Timing: Daily sunrise-sunset
Located between Halona Blowhole and Hanauma Bay, Lana’i Lookout is another popular roadside stop west of the Halona Blowhole. The lookout is located on a piece of land that juts out into the ocean. There is a parking lot and many people take pictures of the open ocean crashing onto the rocks. It is possible to walk down the slope of the rock to get closer to the water, although do that at your own risk (not recommended).
Sea Life Park
It includes exhibits of marine life as well as entertaining dolphin, sea lion, and penguin shows.
If you want a change from swimming and beach life, Manoa-Makiki might be the place to head out to. It’s a quieter area in the foothills north of Downtown and home to the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The gorgeous tropical scenery of the Koolau Mountains provides a majestic backdrop.
Makiki sits beneath the Punchbowl Crater and has gained recent fame as the birthplace and childhood home of President Barack Obama. It has two major art museums and Queen Emma’s Summer Palace. All of these are worth checking out.
Honolulu Museum of Art
The Honolulu Museum of Art is the largest art museum in the city and houses one of the largest collections of Asian art in the United States, along with an impressive Western collection to boot, including Van Gogh, Picasso, Gauguin, Cézanne, Monet, Modigliani and other masters.
Queen Emma’s Summer Palace
Located further east along the Pali highway, it used to be the summer home of King Kamehameha IV and his family that is now transformed into a museum commemorating its past residents.
Just up the hill, Spalding House occupies an old estate overlooking the city and is devoted exclusively to contemporary art.
Obama’s Former Neighborhood
The walking tour of Obama’s former neighborhood is one of the newest attractions in Honolulu; so new that there are no historical markers or signs erected by the city. In the thirty years since “Barry Obama”, as he was known as a youth, attended high school, the neighborhood hasn’t changed all that much.
Major landmarks along the walking tour, which takes about an hour to complete, include his grandmother’s former apartment at the Punahou Circle Apartments, Punahou School (which he attended from 1971-1979), Kapiolani Hospital (where Obama was born), the Central Union Church (the site of Obama’s baccalaureate), the Baskin Robbins ice cream store where he worked after school, and his mother’s old apartment at 1839 Poki Street.
A massive botanical garden at the top of Manoa that’s run by the University of Hawai’i with a wide variety of tropical plants as well as scenic waterfalls and views of Manoa. Entry is FREE.
Timing: M-F 8AM-4PM, Sa 9AM-3PM.
A 1.5 miles hike to a very tall waterfall. The trailhead starts near the entrance to Lyon Arboretum. If driving, parking is available a little bit before the trailhead.
Nu’uanu Pali Lookout
One of the more popular scenic vistas on Oahu and the site of one of the bloodiest battles in Hawaiian history, the Pali Lookout provides a panoramic view of the Windward side of Oahu. Look for the Pali Lookout exit on the Pali Highway (Hawaii 61).
Caution: Due to its location between two high cliffs, the Pali Lookout is often prone to sudden high winds. Be careful here.
Pu’u Ualaka’a State Park
This state park provides a stunning view of southern Oahu which includes Diamond Head, Waikiki, downtown Honolulu, Punch Bowl Crater and the Honolulu airport. There are also hiking trails which allow you to completely forget that you are in a city, taking you into a lush rainforest.
Tantalus (Round Top Drive) is winding mountain road which takes you about 2,000 above sea level to various viewpoints providing panoramic views, including the Pu’u Ualaka’a State Wayside.
Best Time to Visit Honolulu
Generally, Hawaii is most popular when the weather is the worst in the U.S. mainland. Meaning, when it is either too cold or too hot. High season in Hawaii is mid-December to March (high hotel and Airbnb rates and expensive flights), and June to September (high lodging rates but somewhat fairer flight tickets). Low season is from spring (April to June) and fall (September to mid-December).
We have been to Hawaii twice for over a month and both times we went during the low seasons and loved it. The weather is perfect, flights and lodging are cheaper and there is less crowd. Low season is when the best bargains are available.
Sun in Honolulu
If you are not familiar with Hawaii’s climate, one thing to note is you may not feel the heat from the sun at times due to the cool breezes. At other times, you may feel the direct sun on your skin as if you are very close to the sun. Either way, know that the Sun’s ultraviolet rays are present whether it feels hot or not. So take precaution and protect your skin if you are going to be out in the sun for a long duration.
How Safe Is Honolulu
Although Honolulu is relatively safe as far as violent crime goes, the risk of theft is much greater. Take particular care when parking vehicles in popular tourist spots, especially Diamond Head and the Halona Blowhole near Sandy Beach; always lock your vehicle, and do not leave ANY valuables in your car. Keep all valuables within sight and within reach at all times.
Theft is common on Waikiki Beach. Never leave items unattended on the beach and do not leave your car doors or trunk open.
Your car is not a safe place to store anything: Thieves have commonly dismantled locks and broken into vehicles, or conversely will just bash open your window to get in. So please do not display any expensive kinds of stuff laying on your car seat.
Use extra caution when visiting less savory parts of town, including the Chinatown after dark and walking in Waikiki at night. A potent mix of drug dealers, prostitutes, and drunken tourists can explode into a bad situation. That said, during the daytime, you should have no problem anywhere.
Note: Effective 25 October 2017, it’s illegal in the city for pedestrians to look at their cell phones while crossing the street. (Talking on phones is permitted, and the law doesn’t apply to sidewalks.)
Be careful when you’re in the ocean. Never underestimate the power of the currents and the waves, and don’t swim alone. If in doubt, ask a lifeguard about the current conditions. If there are signs posted, heed them.
Jellyfish sometimes float near the shore. Be watchful. If through bad luck, you get stung, immediately head to a lifeguard station. The lifeguard will spray vinegar on the stings.
Getting Around In Honolulu
Unlike many cities on the U.S. mainland, Honolulu is not laid out in a strict compass-point grid. Its street system conforms in large part to the shorelines, valleys, and ridges, with lots of twists and turns. It can be confusing for people used to straight grid systems.
Because it is difficult to differentiate north and south on an island, directions are normally given in terms of local landmarks. The most common terms that you will run into are mauka (Mow-kah) meaning “toward the mountain” and makai (mah-KAI) meaning “toward the sea”.
In the case of Honolulu, which is on Oahu’s south shore, “mauka” is a rough north, and “makai” roughly south. You will also hear Ewa-bound (Eh-vah) and Town-bound used a lot, in relation to downtown Honolulu, the former roughly means “west” (toward the town of Ewa on the southwest shore of Oahu) and the latter roughly means “east” (towards Honolulu; locals refer to Honolulu proper as “town”).
Highway signs, however, will use standard compass directions, so if you are asked to go Ewa-bound on the freeway, look for the on-ramp to H-1 west.
Use GPS to navigate around Honolulu and Oahu. Also, it is a good idea to invest in a good map of Honolulu before doing any extensive driving.
Streets in Honolulu can be extremely narrow compared to the mainland. Locals are used to this lack of space on roads but if you are coming from the mainland and are used to wide roads, prepare yourself for driving very close to the cars around you. Just take a little extra caution and you should not have any problems. Once outside of Honolulu proper, the roads will be a bit wider.
Speed limits on roads in Honolulu are generally lower than you may be used to. For example, six-laned King Street is 25–30 miles per hour for its entire length. Most streets are no more than 25 miles per hour.
During periods of rain at night, the lane markings on the roads will not be easily visible even to people with excellent vision. Take extreme caution during these times.
Traffic in Honolulu, and on Oahu in general (in particular the southern shore), is a persistent problem. In fact, Honolulu’s rush hour has been ranked among the worst in the nation. There are almost one million people living in a relatively small space, and only a few main routes connecting the major populated areas on the island to each other and to downtown Honolulu.
Normal weekday rush hour in Honolulu is 5 AM to 8 AM going inbound and 3 PM to 6:30 PM going outbound. However, traffic congestion is the norm for most of the daylight hours, often crawling along at less than ten miles per hour on the freeway, and often congested near onramps and offramps on the surface streets.
Traffic is less heavy during the summer and over the holidays when the University of Hawaii at Manoa and public and private schools are not in session. Maybe a unique thing about Honolulu is that while traffic congestion is high, drivers are generally courteous and will let you in front of them if you signal beforehand and wave after.
All in all, though, driving on Oahu is pleasurable once you get off of the Interstates. Having a car on Oahu gives a visitor a chance to visit the whole island in just a few days. Once you get a little way inland, the traffic is not too bad, and in the agricultural areas, there is little traffic. Unless you are familiar with this climate, convertible tops should be up when the sun is intense.
Travel by bus
The local bus service in Honolulu is called, with remarkable succinctness, TheBus. Effective October 1, 2017, there are two levels of fare:
One-way fares are $2.75 for adults, $1.25 for children, and $1.00 for seniors. The one-way fare no longer includes free transfers between routes; once you get off the bus, a new fare is required.
The day pass costs $5.50 for adults, $2.50 for children, and $2.00 for seniors, and includes unlimited rides on all buses for the remainder of the service day (until 2:59 a.m. the next morning). If you are planning a round trip, multiple trips in the same day, or a route that requires a transfer, it is worth it to get a day pass.
Be sure to specifically ask for it when boarding the bus for the first time, then show the pass to drivers as you board subsequent buses.
A taxi ride from Honolulu International Airport to Waikiki will cost around $30 to $40 plus tip. Taxis are locally regulated, so fares will be the same regardless of the company. Some taxi companies also offer tours around the island of O’ahu.
In Waikiki, there are tourist buses that will take you to local attractions, most notably Waikiki Trolley. Beware the trolley-style “Free Shopping Shuttles” which pick up around Waikiki Beach and claim to take passengers to the Ala Moana Center; these shuttles first take you to the Hilo Hattie’s tourist shop west of the center, where you’ll be forced to wait for half an hour before going to the Ala Moana Center; while it is technically free, your other options will be much more convenient.
- Top 7 FREE Things to Do in New York City
- Top 5 Affordable Valentine’s Day Getaways
- 1 Day in Los Angeles, This is What I Did
- 5 Tips To Save Money When Visiting New York City
- How to Find Budget Accommodations In New York City
January 15, 2017 11:06 pm