Honolulu is the capital of and the largest city in Hawaii, and is located on the island of Oahu. Honolulu is the gateway to Hawaii and with many direct flights from the mainland US, Asia, Australia and Canada, Honolulu is often the first city that visitors to Hawaii will experience. While many visitors will quickly move on to other Hawaiian islands, or smaller beach towns around Oahu, there are many things to do right in Honolulu. Be sure to save some time in your Hawaii itinerary to explore this island city.
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Waikiki is the area most tourists think of when thinking of Honolulu, but in fact, it is just one neighborhood of Honolulu. Nevertheless, Waikiki has so much going on, it could fill an entire post alone! Waikiki Beach is where you will find the majority of resorts on the island of Oahu, although some more exclusive resorts are scattered around the perimeter of the island. In Waikiki, you can find luxury hotels, budget hostels and everything in between. As this is the main tourist area, you will also find many restaurants and tons of shopping. As with the lodging options, shopping ranges from “Luxury Row” to flea markets. If you visit Oahu without visiting Waikiki, did you really visit?
Of course, Waikiki thrives because of Waikiki Beach, some of the best shoreline on Oahu. While the North Shore boasts the big waves the pro surfers love, Waikiki is perfect for playing in the waves, paddle-boarding or learning to surf. The sugar sand and gentle waves make Waikiki Beach one of the most popular beaches on the island. All beaches here are public, so you are free to wander and choose your spot, however hotel facilities and furnishings are usually reserved for guests only, so consider this when choosing your resort.
Ala Moana Center
Ala Moana Center is Hawaii’s largest shopping center, and allegedly the largest open-air shopping mall in the world. Ala Moana is easily reachable from Waikiki Beach, on foot, bus or car. Anchored by stores such as Bloomingdale’s and Neiman Marcus, Ala Moana is a big draw for tourists from all over the world. In addition to the usual American chain stores, you’ll find unique Hawaiian merchandise and dining. There’s also a child’s play area, live musical performances and hula lessons!
Diamond Head State Monument
For an excellent bird’s eye view of Waikiki and the Western shore of Oahu, you’ll want to visit Diamond Head State Monument and hike to the top. Taking the Oahu bus to Diamond Head eliminates the hassle of parking. After paying the $1 entry fee, the hike to the top is only 1.6 miles round trip, but it’s mostly up a very steep staircase. You’ll climb through concrete “pillbox” bunkers left over from when the U.S. military used this as a lookout. The walk up Diamond Head can get very crowded, but the view is worth it, just plan to arrive as early as possible.
Pearl Harbor & USS Arizona Memorial
Honolulu is the site of the Pearl Harbor Naval Base, which was attacked in December 1941 by Japanese forces. The site today is part of the National Park Service and is an important piece of U.S. history to include in your Oahu itinerary. The USS Arizona battleship was sunk on that day, with over 1100 crew members on board. The ship remains at the bottom of the harbor today, and a tour of the Memorial includes a visit to the observation deck built over the ship, where you can still see oil leaks bubbling to the surface, nearly 80 years later. Nearby, you can visit the Battleship Missouri Monument, which offers narrated tours of the ship where the Japanese surrendered in 1945.
Polynesian Cultural Center
Hawaii has only formally been a U.S. state since 1959, but island history dates back much further to the Polynesian culture found throughout the South Pacific. To fully understand this very different culture, a visit to the Polynesian Cultural Center is a must! At the center, you’ll find six Polynesian villages representing the island cultures of Hawaii, Fiji, Aotearoa, Samoa, Tahiti and Tonga. There is a lagoon with canoe tours, several shows, a marketplace and of course, a luau. Every Hawaiian vacation must include an evening luau, and the Polynesian Cultural Center claims to have the most authentic luau in Hawaii!
Once you’ve learned about the history of the island and the Polynesian culture that predates Hawaii’s statehood, you might be interested to visit Iolani Palace, the only official royal residence in the United States. The palace was once the residence of the rulers of the kingdom of Hawaii, including the Kamehamaha Dynasty and ending with the Kalakaua Dynasty. The palace is now a National Historic Landmark and has been restored and accepts visitors to tour the palace and immense gardens. The palace is located right in downtown Honolulu, so it’s easily reached where ever you are staying.
Honolulu Museum of Art
The Honolulu Museum of Art has one of the largest collections of Asian and Pan-Pacific art in the United States. With rain a very likely possibility on the Hawaiian islands, it’s always good to have some indoor activities on your list! The museum has a second location at the Spaulding House, which includes galleries, gardens and a cafe. The Doris Duke theater, named for the tobacco heiress, hosts movies, concerts, lectures and film festivals. For art fans, Doris Duke’s island home, Shangri-La is also open for tours and contains much of her extensive art collection.
Located on the other side of the island from Waikiki is Lanikai Beach, also called Kailua Beach for the nearest town. This beach is on the windward side of the island, and although small, is often ranked as one of the best beaches in the world. This is where the Obama family stays when they come to visit Oahu each year, so you know it’s good! A popular thing to do here is rent kayaks to paddle out to nearby islands. There are big reefs here, and sometimes big waves, so be sure to check the forecast before heading out to this side of the island.
Likewise, the North Shore of Oahu draws surfers from all over the world for the huge waves rolling in. The town of Hale’iwa is a fun, laid-back alternative to glitzy Waikiki and a great place to spend an afternoon. The North Shore is also where you’ll find the exclusive Turtle Bay Resort, featured in the film “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.”
Surprisingly, Oahu is a great island for hiking! There are rainforests, bamboo forests, waterfalls, scenic vistas, challenging hikes, easy strolls, whatever you are looking for. After Diamond Head, “Stairway to Heaven” is probably the most infamous hike on Oahu as it climbs nearly 4,000 stairs to an amazing view. The hike “may or may not” be legal as the stairs were built by the Navy but haven’t been maintained. Do your research and decide your level of risk. There are many other hikes available if you choose to follow the law and skip this one!
Of course, a visit to Hawaii wouldn’t be complete without a boat tour of some kind. It’s not enough to enjoy the water from the beach, but you’ll want to get out in it! With so many tourists, there are probably hundreds of options to choose from. You can go snorkeling, dolphin-spotting, whale watching, join a dinner cruise, a booze cruise, etc. There are even multi-day cruises that visit each Hawaiian island if that’s your style! If whale watching is something that interests you, be sure to check the right season to see then, usually winter is the best, but there may be different species that migrate at different times.
Helicopter tours seem to be a very popular activity in Honolulu, as these volcanic islands and rugged coastlines are best appreciated from the air, and visitors to Hawaii are usually willing to splurge on a pricy activity like a helicopter tour. There are dozens of operators to choose from, and this is a great activity to do early on in your trip so you can scout out places to visit during the rest of your Hawaiian vacation! If helicopters make you nervous, you can also find seaplane excursions to tour the coastline.
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