A town of rolling surf and seaside cocktail shacks that represents the cultural kingpin of Hawaii this Polynesian-flavored American state capital rarely fails to impress.
The sands of Waikiki fuse lively drinking dives and laid-back beach vibes while the rugged peaks of volcanos and extinct craters rise on the horizon.
There are also Chinese eateries to rival Shanghai, along with fascinating museums and sobering memorials remembering Hawaii’s place right at the center of the Pacific War.
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Honolulu!
Hit the Beach
It’s hardly surprising that world-famous Waikiki Beach once drew the kings and queens of the Hawaiian archipelago to its sands.
In fact, it was here, where today the shimmering rises of luxurious hotels loom against the turquoise waters of the Pacific, that the first longboards were ridden by the islands’ nobles back in the 1800s, while the legendary Duke Kahanamoku (the father of modern surfing) also shredded the swells of Waikiki, and now even has his own memorial between the palm tree groves.
Put simply, if you opt to visit just one beach in Honolulu, make it this sun-kissed arched of powdery yellow sand in the shadow of the Diamond Head! The Royal Hawaiian Resort (where we always stay) has its own private section of the beach for guests only.
Take in Iolani Palace
The ancestral home of the revered Kalakaua Dynasty sits nestled in the midst of the Honolulu downtown. Contrasting with the modern builds all around, this 19th-century palace oozes a Francophone, Italianate charm from each of its terraces and Baroque come classical nooks and crannies.
It was built by the monarch David Kalakaua, who travelled Europe, Asia and Africa in search of inspiration for his grand project.
Later, the palace was the spot where American troops first raised the stars and stripes to signal Hawaii’s annexation to the US.
Today, the exhibitions encompass the personal collections of Queen Liliuokalani and King Kalakaua, along with military artifacts and regular performances of the Royal Hawaiian Band.
Visit the USS Arizona
The most-visited memorial in all of Hawaii, the USS Arizona visitor centre juts its way out into the waters of Pearl Harbour on the north-eastern fringes of Honolulu.
Straddling the sunken wreckage of its eponymous frigate ship, the museum can only be accessed by boat, and offers travelers a glimpse of the destruction that the Japanese attacks of December 1941 wreaked on the American naval fleet.
Inside, the exhibition and memorial space is divided into three separate sections. One area, the Assembly Room, offers bird’s eye views over the submerged deck, while the Shrine part of the site contains a sobering and thoughtful memorial to both the dead and the survivors.
Dine in Chinatown
Sandwiched between the Downtown and residential neighborhoods of Kalihi-Palama, Honolulu’s Chinatown is one of the largest and most authentic Oriental districts in the United States.
It pulses with life at spots like the Maunakea Marketplace, marked by its red-painted clock tower with overhanging Shan gables, and bursts with smells and sights amidst the endless stacks of tropical fruits and soy-sautéed meats that coalesce around Oahu Market.
There are awesome temples too, like the Japanese Shinto shrine of Izumo Taishakyo, or dragon-topped Kuan Yin, not to mention the enticing eateries, touting menus of Peking duck, aromatic stir fries and ancient aged eggs alike.
Walk to the Peak of the Diamond Head State Monument
Looming in sinewy, volcanic ridges high above the downtown and bustling coastal strips of central Honolulu, the Diamond Head State Monument is one of the most iconic sights on the skyline of the Aloha State’s capital.
It’s thought that this recognisable landmark formed when a great cinder cone on the edge of the Koʻolau Mountain Range burst 200,000 years ago, spewing magma and rock out to create the rugged ridges and craters seen today.
Many hikers wax up the walking boots and make for the maintained trail that carves its way along the edge of Diamond Head. This goes for just under a mile, passes through tunnels and scales staircases, all before offering up sweeping panoramas of the Pacific Ocean and the city.
If you happen to visit in mid-April, don’t miss out on Spam Jam, an annual street festival that celebrates the unusually high consumption of SPAM in Hawaii…it’s a must for its quirkiness!
For Andrew, travel is so much more than just learning history or taking photos. Rather, the value of travel is witnessing a lifestyle, bonding with locals, and gaining rich cultural experiences. That’s why he founded the Luxury Wanderer; a place to share itineraries, offer advice, swap stories, and foster a like-minded community of curious travellers.