Top 30 Things To Do in Honolulu

From sun-soaked beaches to vibrant cultural sites, Honolulu blends tropical paradise with urban sophistication in a uniquely Hawaiian way.

West Parker
West Parker
July 18, 2024

Picture yourself sipping a mai tai on Waikiki Beach as the sun dips below the horizon, painting the sky in vivid hues of orange and pink. Now imagine that this postcard-perfect moment is just the beginning of your Honolulu adventure. While the city's beaches are undoubtedly its calling card, this vibrant capital offers a kaleidoscope of experiences that go far beyond sun and surf.

Honolulu, the heart of Hawaii, pulses with an energy that seamlessly blends its Polynesian roots with cosmopolitan flair. Here, you can start your day watching surfers ride the waves at dawn, spend your afternoon exploring museums that chronicle the island's rich history, and end your evening savoring innovative Pacific Rim cuisine at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the glittering cityscape.

Whether you're a nature enthusiast, a history buff, a foodie, or simply in search of the perfect beach day, Honolulu has something to offer. Let's dive into the top experiences that make this tropical metropolis a must-visit destination.

Soak Up the Sun on Waikiki Beach

Sunbathers enjoying the golden sands of Waikiki Beach with palm trees and hotels in the background
Perfect day at Waikiki Beach! The water is crystal clear and the people-watching is top-notch.

Waikiki Beach is the quintessential Hawaiian experience, and for good reason. This two-mile stretch of golden sand is framed by the iconic silhouette of Diamond Head crater on one end and high-rise hotels on the other, creating a unique urban beach atmosphere. The gentle waves make it perfect for beginner surfers, while the crystal-clear waters invite snorkeling and swimming. As you lounge on the sand, you'll be treated to a parade of beach life - from skilled longboarders gracefully riding waves to street performers entertaining crowds on the bustling promenade. Don't miss the sunset; it's a daily spectacle that paints the sky in breathtaking colors, best enjoyed with a tropical drink in hand from one of the beachfront bars.

  • Location: Kalakaua Avenue, Honolulu, HI 96815
  • Hours: Open 24/7
  • Admission: Free

Why Visit: Experience the heart of Hawaiian beach culture and witness stunning sunsets.

Insider Tip: Visit early morning for a serene beach experience and to secure a prime spot on the sand.

Hike to the Summit of Diamond Head

Hikers enjoying panoramic views of Honolulu from the summit of Diamond Head crater
Made it to the top of Diamond Head! The climb was worth it for these incredible views of Honolulu.

Rising majestically above Waikiki, Diamond Head State Monument offers one of the most rewarding hikes on Oahu. The trail to the summit of this extinct volcanic crater takes you through a 225-foot tunnel, up steep staircases, and finally to a World War II bunker at the peak. Your effort is rewarded with panoramic views of Honolulu's coastline that will leave you breathless - and not just from the climb. The hike is challenging but doable for most fitness levels, taking about 1.5 to 2 hours round trip. As you ascend, you'll learn about the geological and military history of the crater through interpretive signs. The sight of the deep blue Pacific stretching to the horizon from the summit is a view you won't soon forget.

  • Location: Diamond Head Road, Honolulu, HI 96815
  • Hours: 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM (last entrance at 4:30 PM)
  • Admission: $5 per person for non-residents, $1 for residents

Why Visit: Conquer Oahu's most famous landmark for unparalleled views of Honolulu.

Insider Tip: Start early to beat the heat and crowds, and bring plenty of water.

Dive into History at Pearl Harbor National Memorial

USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, a solemn tribute to those who lost their lives in the 1941 attack
Visiting Pearl Harbor was a moving experience. The memorial is a powerful reminder of history and sacrifice.

The Pearl Harbor National Memorial is a sobering and educational experience that every visitor to Honolulu should have. This site commemorates one of the most pivotal moments in U.S. history - the attack that propelled America into World War II. The memorial complex includes several museums and exhibits, but the centerpiece is the USS Arizona Memorial. A short boat ride takes you to the gleaming white structure that straddles the sunken battleship, where you can pay your respects to the 1,177 sailors and Marines who lost their lives here. The oil that still seeps from the wreckage, often called "the tears of the Arizona," serves as a poignant reminder of the lives lost. As you explore the visitor center, you'll gain insights into the events leading up to the attack, the aftermath, and the profound impact on world history.

  • Location: 1 Arizona Memorial Place, Honolulu, HI 96818
  • Hours: 7:00 AM to 5:00 PM daily
  • Admission: Free (reservation required for USS Arizona Memorial program)

Why Visit: Honor the fallen and gain a deeper understanding of a pivotal moment in world history.

Insider Tip: Book your USS Arizona Memorial ticket in advance, as they often sell out early in the day.

Explore the Vibrant Chinatown District

Vibrant fruit and vegetable displays at a market stall in Honolulu's bustling Chinatown district
Exploring Honolulu's Chinatown is a feast for the senses. The colors and aromas are incredible!

Honolulu's Chinatown is a feast for the senses, where traditional Asian influences blend with modern Hawaiian culture. As you wander through the neighborhood's bustling streets, you'll be enveloped by the aromas of exotic spices, fresh lei, and sizzling street food. The district is a treasure trove of unique shops, from traditional herbal medicine stores to trendy boutiques showcasing local designers. Food lovers will be in heaven here - sample dim sum at legendary spots like Legend Seafood Restaurant, slurp down a bowl of steaming pho, or try innovative fusion cuisine at one of the area's hip new eateries. Don't miss the Oahu Market for a glimpse into local life, where vendors sell fresh produce, meats, and seafood. As night falls, Chinatown transforms into a hotspot for Honolulu's art and nightlife scene, with galleries, bars, and live music venues coming alive.

  • Location: Centered around N. Hotel St. and Maunakea St., Honolulu, HI 96817
  • Hours: Vary by business, but generally busiest during daytime and evening hours
  • Admission: Free to explore

Why Visit: Experience a unique blend of Asian and Hawaiian cultures in a vibrant urban setting.

Insider Tip: Join a food tour to sample the best of Chinatown's culinary offerings and learn about its history.

Marvel at Marine Life in Hanauma Bay

Snorkelers exploring the clear, turquoise waters of Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve in Honolulu
Snorkeling in Hanauma Bay was like swimming in an aquarium. Saw so many colorful fish!

Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is a snorkeler's paradise, offering some of the clearest waters and most diverse marine life on Oahu. This crescent-shaped bay, formed within a volcanic cone, is home to over 400 species of fish, many of which are endemic to Hawaii. As you snorkel in the calm, shallow waters, you'll be surrounded by schools of colorful fish, and you might even spot a green sea turtle gliding by. Before entering the bay, you'll watch a short educational video about the preserve's ecology and the importance of conservation. The beach itself is a picturesque spot to relax, with soft sand and swaying palm trees. Remember, Hanauma Bay is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays to allow the ecosystem to rest, so plan your visit accordingly.

  • Location: 7455 Kalanianaole Hwy, Honolulu, HI 96825
  • Hours: 6:45 AM to 4:00 PM, Wednesday through Sunday (closed Mondays, Tuesdays, and holidays)
  • Admission: $25 for non-residents (12 and older), free for residents and children under 12

Why Visit: Snorkel in a protected marine ecosystem and witness Hawaii's vibrant underwater world.

Insider Tip: Arrive early to secure entry, as the preserve limits daily visitors to protect the ecosystem.

Step Back in Time at Iolani Palace

Exterior view of Iolani Palace, the only royal palace on US soil, located in downtown Honolulu
Visited Iolani Palace today. It's fascinating to learn about Hawaii's royal history right in the heart of Honolulu.

Iolani Palace stands as a proud symbol of Hawaiian royalty and is the only royal palace on U.S. soil. Built in 1882 by King Kalakaua, this opulent structure blends Italianate and Hawaiian architectural styles. As you tour the grand halls and private quarters, you'll be transported to the days of the Hawaiian monarchy. The palace boasts many innovative features for its time, including electric lights, which were installed even before the White House had them. The most poignant room is perhaps the imprisonment room of Queen Liliuokalani, the last monarch of Hawaii, who was confined here during the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. The palace's restoration has been meticulous, with many original furnishings and artifacts on display. A visit here offers not just a glimpse into royal life, but also a deeper understanding of Hawaii's complex history and the events that led to its becoming a U.S. state.

  • Location: 364 S King St, Honolulu, HI 96813
  • Hours: Monday to Saturday, 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM
  • Admission: $27 for adults, $6 for children (5-12)

Why Visit: Explore the only royal palace in the United States and delve into Hawaiian royal history.

Insider Tip: Opt for the guided tour for fascinating stories and details about the palace and its former occupants.

Savor Pacific Rim Cuisine at Innovative Restaurants

Freshly prepared poke bowl with various toppings, showcasing Hawaii's popular local dish
Trying my first authentic poke bowl in Honolulu. The flavors are so fresh and delicious!

Honolulu's culinary scene is a melting pot of flavors, blending traditional Hawaiian ingredients with influences from across the Pacific Rim. From high-end dining establishments to casual local joints, the city offers a gastronomic adventure for every palate. Start your culinary journey at Chef Chai, where you can indulge in innovative fusion dishes that showcase the best of Hawaiian regional cuisine. For a farm-to-table experience, head to Mud Hen Water, where Chef Ed Kenney transforms local ingredients into creative, mouth-watering dishes. Don't miss the opportunity to try poke, Hawaii's famous raw fish salad, at spots like Ono Seafood or Maguro Brothers. For a special occasion, make a reservation at La Mer, Hawaii's only Forbes Five-Star restaurant, where French cuisine meets local flavors with a stunning oceanfront view. And of course, no visit to Honolulu is complete without trying traditional Hawaiian fare like kalua pork and poi at Helena's Hawaiian Food, a James Beard Award-winning local institution.

  • Location: Various locations throughout Honolulu
  • Hours: Vary by restaurant
  • Price Range: $10-$200+ per person

Why Visit: Experience the innovative and diverse culinary landscape of Honolulu.

Insider Tip: Many high-end restaurants offer more affordable lunch menus, allowing you to sample gourmet cuisine without the dinner prices.

Catch a Wave at Waikiki Beach

Beginner surfers taking lessons in the gentle waves of Waikiki Beach with instructors nearby
Took a surfing lesson at Waikiki today. It's harder than it looks, but so much fun!

Surfing is more than just a sport in Hawaii - it's a way of life, and Waikiki Beach is where it all began. The gentle, rolling waves of Waikiki make it an ideal spot for beginners to catch their first wave, while more experienced surfers can head to the outer breaks for bigger swells. Numerous surf schools line the beach, offering lessons that will have you standing up on a board in no time. Even if you don't want to get in the water yourself, watching the skilled longboarders gracefully riding the waves is a mesmerizing spectacle. For a truly iconic experience, book a lesson with the Waikiki Beach Boys, carrying on a tradition that dates back to the early 1900s when legendary surfer Duke Kahanamoku and his friends introduced surfing to the world from these very shores.

  • Location: Waikiki Beach, Honolulu, HI 96815
  • Hours: Surfing available 24/7, lessons typically offered from early morning to late afternoon
  • Price: Lessons range from $50-$150 per person

Why Visit: Experience the birthplace of modern surfing and catch your first wave.

Insider Tip: For a less crowded surf spot, head to the area in front of the Duke Kahanamoku statue.

Immerse Yourself in Polynesian Culture at the Polynesian Cultural Center

Exciting fire knife dance performance at the Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu's North Shore
The fire knife dance at the Polynesian Cultural Center was incredible! Such skill and bravery.

Located on Oahu's North Shore, the Polynesian Cultural Center offers a deep dive into the rich cultures of Polynesia. This 42-acre attraction features six authentic villages representing different Pacific cultures: Hawaii, Fiji, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Samoa, Tahiti, and Tonga. As you explore each village, you'll have the opportunity to participate in hands-on activities like coconut husking, tattooing, and fire making. Watch mesmerizing performances of traditional dance and music, including the thrilling Samoan fire knife dance. The center's award-winning luau offers a chance to taste traditional Polynesian cuisine, and the evening show "Ha: Breath of Life" is a spectacular production featuring over 100 performers, special effects, and a storyline that weaves together the cultures of Polynesia. While it's a bit of a drive from Honolulu, the Polynesian Cultural Center provides an unparalleled opportunity to experience the diversity and richness of Pacific Island cultures in one place.

  • Location: 55-370 Kamehameha Hwy, Laie, HI 96762
  • Hours: Monday to Saturday, 12:30 PM to 9:00 PM (closed Sundays)
  • Admission: Packages range from $69.95 to $242.95 for adults

Why Visit: Experience the cultures of six Pacific Island nations through interactive exhibits and spectacular performances.

Insider Tip: Book the "Ambassador Luau" package for the best seats at the luau and evening show, plus a guided tour of the villages.

Hike Through Lush Rainforest to Manoa Falls

Hikers navigating the lush, sometimes muddy trail leading to Manoa Falls in Honolulu
The hike to Manoa Falls was a bit slippery, but the lush rainforest scenery made it totally worth it.

Just a short drive from the hustle and bustle of Waikiki, the Manoa Falls Trail offers a refreshing escape into Oahu's lush interior. This 1.6-mile round trip hike takes you through a verdant rainforest that feels worlds away from the nearby city. The well-maintained trail winds through bamboo groves and beneath towering banyan trees dripping with vines, offering glimpses of native Hawaiian plants and birds along the way. The payoff at the end is the 150-foot Manoa Falls, a picturesque cascade tumbling down a sheer rock face into a small pool below. While swimming at the base of the falls is not allowed due to the risk of falling rocks and bacteria in the water, the view alone is worth the trek. The trail can get muddy, especially after rain, so wear appropriate footwear and bring insect repellent. On your way back, stop at the nearby Lyon Arboretum to explore its extensive collection of tropical plants.

  • Location: 3860 Manoa Rd, Honolulu, HI 96822
  • Hours: Daily, 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM
  • Admission: $5 for parking

Why Visit: Experience Hawaii's lush rainforest and a beautiful waterfall just minutes from downtown Honolulu.

Insider Tip: Go early in the morning to avoid crowds and have a better chance of seeing the falls in full sunlight.

Discover Hawaii's Rich Heritage at Bishop Museum

The Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum is the premier natural and cultural history institution in the Pacific, offering visitors a deep dive into Hawaiian and Polynesian history and culture. Founded in 1889, the museum houses the world's largest collection of Polynesian cultural artifacts and natural history specimens. The Hawaiian Hall, a three-story Victorian-era structure, showcases the history of Hawaii from its Polynesian roots to the monarchy period. Don't miss the planetarium shows, which blend Hawaiian navigation history with cutting-edge astronomy. The Science Adventure Center offers hands-on exhibits that bring Hawaii's natural environment to life, including a walk-through volcano and a simulated deep-sea submersible adventure.

  • Location: 1525 Bernice St, Honolulu, HI 96817
  • Hours: Wednesday to Monday, 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM (closed Tuesdays)
  • Admission: $24.95 for adults, $16.95 for children (4-17)

Why Visit: Gain a comprehensive understanding of Hawaiian history, culture, and natural science.

Insider Tip: Check the museum's calendar for special exhibits and cultural demonstrations.

Stroll Through the Vibrant Kaka'ako Neighborhood

Once an industrial area, Kaka'ako has transformed into Honolulu's hippest neighborhood, bursting with street art, craft breweries, and innovative restaurants. The district's walls serve as canvases for local and international artists, creating an open-air gallery that changes with each passing year. Start your exploration at the iconic "Kaka'ako Mural" by Pow! Wow! Hawaii, then wander the streets to discover hidden artistic gems. For a taste of local craft beer, stop by Aloha Beer Company or Waikiki Brewing Company. Foodies will love the SALT at Our Kaka'ako complex, home to some of Honolulu's most exciting eateries. On weekends, the Kaka'ako Farmers Market offers fresh local produce and artisanal goods. As the sun sets, join locals at the Ward Village shops for some retail therapy and dinner with a view of the harbor.

  • Location: Bounded by Ala Moana Blvd, South St, and Piikoi St
  • Hours: Vary by business, but the area is always open for exploration
  • Admission: Free to explore

Why Visit: Experience Honolulu's contemporary art scene and coolest urban neighborhood.

Insider Tip: Visit during the monthly "Kaka'ako Night Market" for food trucks, live music, and a festive atmosphere.

Relax on the Scenic Lanikai Beach

Crystal clear turquoise waters and powdery white sand of Lanikai Beach, often rated one of the world's best beaches
Found paradise at Lanikai Beach. The water is so blue it almost doesn't look real!

Often ranked as one of the world's best beaches, Lanikai Beach is a slice of paradise on Oahu's Windward Coast. The name "Lanikai" means "heavenly sea" in Hawaiian, and it's easy to see why. The beach's powdery white sand and calm, turquoise waters create a postcard-perfect setting. Unlike Waikiki, Lanikai is a residential beach with no facilities, giving it a more secluded and peaceful atmosphere. The water is protected by an offshore reef, making it ideal for swimming and snorkeling. In the distance, you can see the Mokulua Islands, twin islets that add to the beach's picturesque quality. While the beach itself is a bit narrow, it's perfect for sunbathing, reading a book, or simply soaking in the stunning views.

  • Location: Mokulua Dr, Kailua, HI 96734
  • Hours: Open 24/7
  • Admission: Free

Why Visit: Experience one of Hawaii's most beautiful and tranquil beaches.

Insider Tip: Arrive early to secure parking in the residential area, as spaces are limited.

Explore the USS Missouri Battleship

Visitors exploring the deck of the USS Missouri battleship, now a museum ship at Pearl Harbor
Touring the USS Missouri was like stepping back in time. It's amazing to stand where world history was made.

The USS Missouri, affectionately known as the "Mighty Mo," played a significant role in World War II and now serves as a floating museum in Pearl Harbor. This iconic battleship was the site of Japan's formal surrender in 1945, marking the end of World War II. As you explore the decks and corridors of this massive vessel, you'll get a sense of what life was like for the sailors who served aboard her. The tour takes you from the engine rooms deep in the ship's belly to the bridge where officers commanded the vessel. You'll see the exact spot on the surrender deck where the peace treaty was signed. The ship also saw action in the Korean War and Operation Desert Storm before being decommissioned in 1992. Standing on the deck of the Missouri, with the USS Arizona Memorial visible in the harbor, offers a powerful connection to pivotal moments in U.S. history.

  • Location: 63 Cowpens St, Honolulu, HI 96818
  • Hours: Daily, 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM
  • Admission: $29.99 for adults, $13.99 for children (4-12)

Why Visit: Walk in the footsteps of history on this legendary battleship.

Insider Tip: Combine your visit with the Pearl Harbor National Memorial for a comprehensive World War II history experience.

Attend a Traditional Hawaiian Luau

Colorfully dressed performers at a traditional Hawaiian luau, showcasing hula dancing
Attended my first Hawaiian luau tonight. The food was delicious and the performances were spectacular!

No visit to Hawaii is complete without experiencing a traditional luau, a festive Hawaiian feast accompanied by music and dance. While there are many luaus to choose from in Honolulu, the Polynesian Cultural Center's Ali'i Luau and Paradise Cove Luau are among the most popular. At a luau, you'll have the chance to taste traditional Hawaiian dishes like kalua pork (slow-roasted in an underground oven), poi (taro root paste), and haupia (coconut pudding). The evening typically begins with the ceremonial unearthing of the kalua pig, followed by a buffet dinner. As you dine, you'll be treated to performances of hula and other Polynesian dances. Many luaus also offer interactive activities like lei making or hula lessons before the main event. While luaus are admittedly touristy, they offer a fun and accessible way to experience Hawaiian culture and cuisine.

  • Location: Various locations around Oahu
  • Hours: Typically begin in the late afternoon and last 3-4 hours
  • Price: $90-$200+ per adult, depending on the package

Why Visit: Experience a quintessential Hawaiian celebration of food, music, and dance.

Insider Tip: Book a luau that includes a variety of Polynesian cultural demonstrations for the best value.

Shop and Dine at Ala Moana Center

Shoppers enjoying the open-air layout and tropical landscaping of Ala Moana Center in Honolulu
Shopping at Ala Moana Center is a unique experience. Love the open-air design and tropical vibe!

The Ala Moana Center is the world's largest open-air shopping center and a destination in itself. With over 350 shops and restaurants, it's a paradise for shoppers and food lovers alike. You'll find everything from high-end luxury brands to local boutiques selling Hawaiian-made products. The center's open-air design, koi ponds, and tropical landscaping create a pleasant atmosphere for browsing. When hunger strikes, head to the Lanai food court or Shirokiya Japan Village Walk for a diverse array of dining options. Don't miss the hula and ukulele performances at Centerstage, offering free cultural entertainment daily. Even if you're not in the mood for shopping, the center's fourth-floor observation deck provides panoramic views of Honolulu and the ocean.

  • Location: 1450 Ala Moana Blvd, Honolulu, HI 96814
  • Hours: Monday to Saturday, 11:00 AM to 7:00 PM; Sunday, 12:00 PM to 6:00 PM
  • Admission: Free to enter

Why Visit: Experience world-class shopping and dining in a uniquely Hawaiian setting.

Insider Tip: Visit during sunset to enjoy the views from the observation deck, then stay for dinner at one of the center's upscale restaurants.

Take a Scenic Drive to the North Shore

Silhouettes of surfers walking along the beach at sunset on Oahu's famous North Shore
Drove up to the North Shore today. The sunset views and watching the surfers was absolutely magical.

The North Shore of Oahu offers a completely different vibe from bustling Honolulu, and a scenic drive there makes for a perfect day trip. The coastal route takes you past pineapple fields, through charming surf towns, and alongside some of Hawaii's most famous beaches. In winter, stop at Waimea Bay or Sunset Beach to watch professional surfers tackle massive waves. During summer, these same beaches become calm enough for swimming and snorkeling. Make sure to stop in the laid-back surf town of Haleiwa for shave ice at Matsumoto's, a North Shore institution. Continue to the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie, or simply enjoy the beaches and local vibe. On your way back, take the inland route through central Oahu for a change of scenery, passing by Dole Plantation where you can learn about Hawaii's pineapple industry.

  • Location: H-2 North to Kamehameha Highway
  • Hours: Allow a full day for the round trip and stops
  • Admission: Free (costs only associated with any attractions you visit)

Why Visit: Experience Oahu's famous North Shore and its world-renowned surf beaches.

Insider Tip: Try the garlic shrimp from one of the food trucks along Kamehameha Highway - it's a North Shore specialty.

Visit the Honolulu Museum of Art

Visitors admiring a contemporary art installation at the Honolulu Museum of Art
Spent a relaxing afternoon at the Honolulu Museum of Art. The mix of traditional and contemporary pieces is impressive.

The Honolulu Museum of Art houses an impressive collection of over 50,000 works, spanning 5,000 years of creative expression across cultures. The museum's strength lies in its diverse holdings, from ancient Hawaiian artifacts to European masterpieces and contemporary Asian art. The building itself is a work of art, with a series of courtyards and galleries that seamlessly blend indoor and outdoor spaces. Don't miss the Spalding House, the museum's contemporary art-focused sister location set in the hills above Honolulu with stunning city views. The museum also operates a theater showing independent and international films, adding another dimension to its cultural offerings. After exploring the galleries, relax in the tranquil Chinese and Japanese gardens or enjoy a meal at the on-site cafe.

  • Location: 900 S Beretania St, Honolulu, HI 96814
  • Hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM (closed Mondays)
  • Admission: $20 for adults, free for children 18 and under

Why Visit: Explore a world-class art collection in a beautiful, uniquely Hawaiian setting.

Insider Tip: Check the museum's calendar for special exhibitions and events, including Art After Dark, a popular evening event held on the last Friday of each month.

Snorkel at Shark's Cove

Snorkelers exploring the clear waters and rocky formations of Shark's Cove on Oahu's North Shore
Snorkeling at Shark's Cove was amazing! Saw so many colorful fish among the rocks.

Despite its intimidating name, Shark's Cove is actually one of the best snorkeling spots on Oahu, and you're unlikely to encounter any sharks here. Located on the North Shore, this rocky bay is part of Pupukea Beach Park and is teeming with marine life. The cove is relatively shallow and protected, making it ideal for snorkeling during the calm summer months (avoid winter when waves can be dangerous). As you explore the underwater world, you'll see a variety of colorful fish, sea turtles, and maybe even an octopus or two. The rocky formations and small caves add interest to your underwater adventure. After snorkeling, explore the tide pools on the edges of the cove, where you can spot small sea creatures up close.

  • Location: 59-712 Kamehameha Hwy, Haleiwa, HI 96712
  • Hours: Open 24/7, but best visited during daylight hours
  • Admission: Free

Why Visit: Experience some of Oahu's best snorkeling in a unique, rocky cove setting.

Insider Tip: Wear water shoes to protect your feet from the rocky shore, and bring your own snorkel gear to avoid rental fees.

Learn to Make a Lei at Maunakea Marketplace

Participants learning traditional Hawaiian lei making techniques at Maunakea Marketplace in Chinatown
Learned to make a lei at Maunakea Marketplace today. It's harder than it looks, but so rewarding!

Lei making is a cherished Hawaiian tradition, and there's no better place to learn this art than at the Maunakea Marketplace in Chinatown. This bustling market is home to several lei stands where skilled artisans create beautiful floral garlands. Many vendors offer informal lei-making lessons where you can learn to string your own lei using fresh flowers and leaves. As you work, you'll learn about the cultural significance of different flowers and lei styles. The marketplace itself is a feast for the senses, with stalls selling exotic fruits, fresh fish, and local specialties. After making your lei, explore the surrounding Chinatown area, known for its eclectic mix of Asian and Hawaiian cultures.

  • Location: 1120 Maunakea St, Honolulu, HI 96817
  • Hours: Daily, 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM (lei vendors typically open until late afternoon)
  • Price: Lei-making lessons typically cost $10-$20, including materials

Why Visit: Learn the Hawaiian art of lei making and take home a unique, handmade souvenir.

Insider Tip: Visit in the morning for the freshest selection of flowers and a less crowded experience.

Kayak to the Mokulua Islands

Kayakers paddling towards the picturesque Mokulua Islands off the coast of Lanikai Beach
Kayaked to the Mokulua Islands today. The views of the coastline from out there are incredible!

For an adventurous day trip, consider kayaking to the Mokulua Islands off the coast of Lanikai Beach. These twin islets, known as "the Mokes" to locals, are seabird sanctuaries that offer a glimpse of Hawaii's untouched natural beauty. The kayak journey takes about 30-45 minutes each way, depending on conditions. Once you reach the islands, you can explore the small beach on the larger island (Moku Nui), snorkel in the clear waters, or simply relax and enjoy the stunning views of the Windward Coast. Remember that landing is only allowed on the larger island, and stick to designated areas to protect the fragile ecosystem. Several companies in Kailua offer guided kayak tours, which can be a good option for less experienced paddlers.

  • Location: Launch from Lanikai Beach or Kailua Beach Park
  • Hours: Best attempted in the morning when winds are calmer
  • Price: Kayak rentals from $60/day, guided tours from $130/person

Why Visit: Experience a true Hawaiian adventure and visit a secluded island paradise.

Insider Tip: Pack plenty of water, snacks, and reef-safe sunscreen for your trip, as there are no facilities on the islands.

Enjoy Sunset at Tantalus Lookout

Panoramic view of Honolulu's skyline and coastline from the scenic Tantalus Lookout
The view from Tantalus Lookout is breathtaking. You can see all of Honolulu spread out before you!

For a breathtaking panoramic view of Honolulu and the perfect spot to watch the sunset, head to Tantalus Lookout in Puu Ualakaa State Park. This scenic viewpoint sits atop Mount Tantalus, offering sweeping vistas of the city, Diamond Head, Pearl Harbor, and the Waianae mountain range. As the sun sinks into the Pacific, the city lights begin to twinkle, creating a magical transition from day to night. The drive up the mountain is an experience in itself, winding through lush tropical forest. Pack a picnic to enjoy at one of the tables in the park, or simply bring a blanket to sit on the grassy area. It's a popular spot for both tourists and locals alike, offering a peaceful escape from the busy city below.

  • Location: Round Top Drive, Honolulu, HI 96822
  • Hours: Daily, 7:00 AM to 7:45 PM
  • Admission: Free

Why Visit: Experience the most spectacular view of Honolulu and a stunning Hawaiian sunset.

Insider Tip: Arrive about an hour before sunset to secure a good spot and watch the changing colors of the sky.

Tour the Hawaii State Capitol

Exterior view of the unique, open-air design of the Hawaii State Capitol building in Honolulu
Visited the Hawaii State Capitol today. The open-air design is so different from other state capitols I've seen.

For those interested in Hawaii's government and recent history, a visit to the Hawaii State Capitol offers unique insights. The building's distinctive architecture is rich with symbolism - the columns resemble palm trees, the legislative chambers are shaped like volcanoes, and the central open-air design reflects Hawaii's tropical climate and open society. Free guided tours are available on weekdays, providing information about the building's design, Hawaii's government, and the state's history. You can also visit the chambers of the House of Representatives and the Senate, and see the Governor's ceremonial room. The surrounding grounds feature several significant statues, including those of Queen Liliuokalani and Saint Damien.

  • Location: 415 S Beretania St, Honolulu, HI 96813
  • Hours: Monday to Friday, 8:00 AM to 4:30 PM (closed on weekends and holidays)
  • Admission: Free

Why Visit: Gain insights into Hawaii's government and see a unique example of 1960s civic architecture.

Insider Tip: If the legislature is in session (typically January to May), you can observe proceedings from the public galleries.

Relax at Ala Moana Beach Park

Families enjoying picnics and beach activities at the popular Ala Moana Beach Park in Honolulu
Spent the afternoon at Ala Moana Beach Park. It's like a huge, beautiful backyard for the city!

Ala Moana Beach Park is a local favorite, offering a perfect blend of beach and park amenities. This 100-acre park features a half-mile stretch of beach with calm waters, thanks to a protective reef offshore. The beach is ideal for swimming and stand-up paddleboarding, while the grassy areas are perfect for picnicking or playing sports. You'll find tennis courts, walking paths, and exercise stations throughout the park. The calm waters and gentle slope of the beach make it a great spot for families with young children. As evening approaches, join locals in watching the sunset from Magic Island, a man-made peninsula at the park's end. The park's location next to Ala Moana Center means you can easily combine a beach day with some shopping or dining.

  • Location: 1201 Ala Moana Blvd, Honolulu, HI 96814
  • Hours: Daily, 4:00 AM to 10:00 PM
  • Admission: Free

Why Visit: Experience a favorite local beach park with calm waters and excellent facilities.

Insider Tip: Visit on a weekday for a quieter experience, or join the festive atmosphere on weekends when local families gather for beach barbecues.

Explore the Foster Botanical Garden

Close-up of vibrant, exotic flowers blooming at Foster Botanical Garden in Honolulu
The variety of plants at Foster Botanical Garden is amazing. Some of these flowers look like they're from another planet!

Step into a lush oasis in the heart of Honolulu at Foster Botanical Garden. Established in 1853, it's the oldest of Honolulu's botanical gardens and home to some of the largest and oldest trees on the island. The 14-acre garden features a palm collection, orchid conservatory, butterfly garden, and many rare and endangered plant species. As you stroll through the grounds, you'll see trees planted by Hawaiian royalty and can marvel at the garden's exceptional collection of tropical plants from around the world. The garden offers a peaceful retreat from the bustling city and provides a glimpse into Hawaii's diverse flora. Don't miss the Lyon Orchid Garden, which houses over 1,000 orchids, including many native Hawaiian species.

  • Location: 50 N Vineyard Blvd, Honolulu, HI 96817
  • Hours: Daily, 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM
  • Admission: $5 for adults, $1 for children (6-12)

Why Visit: Experience a tranquil tropical paradise and learn about Hawaii's unique plant life.

Insider Tip: Join a guided tour (offered on weekdays) to get the most out of your visit and learn fascinating facts about the garden's rare plants.

Visit the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific

Rows of white headstones at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, also known as Punchbowl Cemetery
Visited Punchbowl Cemetery today. It's a beautiful and solemn place with incredible views of Honolulu.

Known locally as Punchbowl Cemetery, the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific is a somber yet beautiful site honoring American veterans. Located in Punchbowl Crater, an extinct volcano, the cemetery offers panoramic views of Honolulu and the surrounding mountains. The cemetery is the final resting place for many veterans of various conflicts, including those who died at Pearl Harbor. The Courts of the Missing, a memorial consisting of white stone tablets, lists the names of those missing in action or lost at sea in the Pacific during World War II. The cemetery's central focus is the chapel, featuring mosaics depicting armed conflicts in which the U.S. has been involved. While primarily a place of remembrance, the cemetery's serene setting and historical significance make it a poignant stop for visitors.

  • Location: 2177 Puowaina Dr, Honolulu, HI 96813
  • Hours: Daily, 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM
  • Admission: Free

Why Visit: Pay respects to fallen heroes and experience a solemn yet beautiful memorial with stunning city views.

Insider Tip: Visit early in the morning for a quiet, reflective experience and to catch the sunrise over Honolulu.

Experience the Honolulu Night Market

Bustling scene with food trucks and diverse crowds at the popular Honolulu Night Market
The Honolulu Night Market is such a fun experience! Great food, cool local products, and a lively atmosphere.

For a taste of Honolulu's contemporary culture, don't miss the Honolulu Night Market, held monthly in the trendy Kaka'ako district. This vibrant street festival brings together local fashion designers, artists, food vendors, and musicians for an evening of shopping, eating, and entertainment. Browse pop-up shops featuring work by local designers and artisans, sample innovative dishes from food trucks and local restaurants, and enjoy live music and performances. The market has a lively, energetic atmosphere and offers a great opportunity to mingle with locals and experience Honolulu's creative side. Each month features a different theme, ensuring a unique experience every time.

  • Location: 555 South St, Honolulu, HI 96813
  • Hours: Typically third Saturday of each month, 6:00 PM to 11:00 PM (check website for exact dates)
  • Admission: Free

Why Visit: Experience Honolulu's vibrant contemporary culture and support local artists and businesses.

Insider Tip: Arrive early for the best selection from vendors and to secure a spot at popular food trucks.

Take a Sunset Sail

Silhouette of a sailboat against a vibrant orange sunset sky off the coast of Waikiki Beach
Tonight's sunset sail was unforgettable. Watching the sun dip into the ocean from the water is pure magic.

End your Honolulu adventure on a high note with a sunset sail off Waikiki Beach. As you cruise along the coast, you'll be treated to stunning views of Diamond Head and the Honolulu skyline bathed in the golden light of the setting sun. Many tour companies offer sunset cruises, ranging from intimate sailboat experiences to larger catamarans with full bars and entertainment. Watch for sea turtles and dolphins as you sail, and if you're visiting during whale season (December to May), you might even spot humpback whales. As darkness falls, the city lights begin to twinkle, offering a magical perspective on Honolulu from the water. It's a romantic and relaxing way to cap off your Hawaiian vacation.

  • Location: Most cruises depart from Kewalo Basin Harbor or Ala Wai Boat Harbor
  • Hours: Typically depart 1-2 hours before sunset
  • Price: $50-$150 per person, depending on the type of cruise

Why Visit: Experience a breathtaking Hawaiian sunset from the water and see Honolulu from a new perspective.

Insider Tip: Choose a smaller sailboat for a more intimate experience, or opt for a larger catamaran if you prefer more stability and onboard amenities.

Attend a Slack Key Guitar Concert

Musician performing traditional Hawaiian slack key guitar music at an intimate concert in Waikiki
Attended a slack key guitar concert tonight. The music is so soulful and uniquely Hawaiian.

Immerse yourself in the soulful sounds of Hawaiian music at a slack key guitar concert. This uniquely Hawaiian style of guitar playing, known as ki ho'alu, creates a warm, resonant sound that captures the spirit of the islands. The Grammy Award-winning Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar concert series, held at the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort, offers an intimate setting to experience this traditional art form. As you listen to the melodies, you'll learn about the history and cultural significance of slack key guitar. Many concerts also feature hula performances, providing a complete Hawaiian cultural experience. It's a perfect way to spend an evening and gain a deeper appreciation for Hawaii's musical heritage.

  • Location: Various venues, including Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort (2335 Kalakaua Ave, Honolulu, HI 96815)
  • Hours: Concerts typically held in the evening, check venue for specific times
  • Price: $30-$50 per person

Why Visit: Experience the unique sounds of traditional Hawaiian music in an intimate setting.

Insider Tip: Purchase CDs after the show to take the beautiful melodies of Hawaii home with you.

Explore the Honolulu Zoo

Giraffes in their enclosure at Honolulu Zoo with tropical palm trees in the background
Spent the morning at Honolulu Zoo. It's surreal to see African animals with palm trees in the background!

Located on the eastern end of Waikiki, the Honolulu Zoo offers a fun and educational experience for visitors of all ages. The 42-acre zoo is home to over 900 animals from tropical ecosystems around the world. Highlights include the African Savanna exhibit, where you can see elephants, zebras, and giraffes, and the Pacific Islands section featuring native Hawaiian animals. The zoo has a strong focus on conservation and education, with many opportunities to learn about endangered species and conservation efforts. Don't miss the Keiki (Children's) Zoo, where kids can get up close with domestic animals. The zoo's lush, tropical setting makes for a pleasant stroll even if you're not an animal enthusiast.

  • Location: 151 Kapahulu Ave, Honolulu, HI 96815
  • Hours: Daily, 10:30 AM to 4:30 PM
  • Admission: $19 for adults, $11 for children (3-12)

Why Visit: See a variety of animals from around the world in a beautiful tropical setting.

Insider Tip: Visit on Saturday evening for the "Twilight Tours" program, offering a unique perspective on the zoo's nocturnal animals.

Take a Surfing Lesson

Spent the morning at Honolulu Zoo. It's surreal to see African animals with palm trees in the background!
Surfing instructor demonstrating techniques to beginners on the sand at Waikiki Beach

No visit to Hawaii is complete without trying your hand at the state's official sport - surfing. Waikiki Beach is the perfect place for beginners to catch their first wave, with its gentle, rolling surf and shallow waters. Numerous surf schools line the beach, offering lessons for all skill levels. Experienced instructors will teach you the basics of paddling, standing up, and riding waves. Most lessons start with on-land instruction before heading into the water. Even if you don't manage to stand up, the experience of being out on the water and attempting to surf is unforgettable. For those who already have some surfing experience, rental boards are available, and you can challenge yourself at some of the more advanced breaks further out.

  • Location: Various schools along Waikiki Beach
  • Hours: Lessons typically offered throughout the day
  • Price: Group lessons from $60, private lessons from $150

Why Visit: Try your hand at Hawaii's most iconic sport in the birthplace of modern surfing.

Insider Tip: Book an early morning lesson for calmer conditions and fewer people in the water.

Visit the Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design

Surfing instructor demonstrating techniques to beginners on the sand at Waikiki Beach
Intricate Islamic tile work and architecture at the Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art in Honolulu

For a unique cultural experience, visit the Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design. This stunning mansion was once the home of heiress Doris Duke and now houses her extensive collection of Islamic art. The property seamlessly blends Islamic architectural elements with a stunning Hawaiian setting. As you tour the house and grounds, you'll see intricate tile work, carved marble doorways, and a vast collection of art and artifacts from the Islamic world. The museum's setting, overlooking the Pacific Ocean with Diamond Head in the background, is breathtaking. Guided tours offer insights into the collection and the fascinating life of Doris Duke. It's a unexpected and enriching addition to your Honolulu itinerary.

  • Location: 4055 Papu Cir, Honolulu, HI 96816
  • Hours: Wednesday to Saturday, tours at 9:00 AM, 10:30 AM, and 1:30 PM
  • Admission: $25 for adults, $20 for students (reservations required)

Why Visit: Experience a unique blend of Islamic art and Hawaiian landscape in a stunning seaside setting.

Insider Tip: Book your tour well in advance, as they often sell out, especially during peak tourist seasons.

Hike the Koko Crater Railway Trail

Hikers ascending the steep Koko Crater Railway Trail, with views of the coastline in the background
Conquered the Koko Crater Railway Trail today. It's a tough climb, but the views at the top are incredible!

For stunning panoramic views and a challenging workout, tackle the Koko Crater Railway Trail. This steep hike follows an abandoned railway track straight up the side of Koko Crater. The "stairs" are actually over 1,000 railroad ties, making for a strenuous climb. But the reward at the top is worth it - breathtaking 360-degree views of the southeastern Oahu coastline, including Hanauma Bay and Sandy Beach. The hike is about 1.8 miles round trip and gains nearly 1,000 feet in elevation. While challenging, it's achievable for most people with a reasonable level of fitness. Just take it slow and bring plenty of water. The sense of accomplishment when you reach the top, coupled with the incredible views, makes this one of Oahu's most popular hikes.

  • Location: 7604 Koko Head Park Rd, Honolulu, HI 96825
  • Hours: Daily, sunrise to sunset
  • Admission: Free

Why Visit: Challenge yourself to a unique hike and be rewarded with spectacular coastal views.

Insider Tip: Start early in the morning to avoid the heat and crowds, and bring a headlamp if you plan to catch the sunrise from the top.

Structuring Your Honolulu Adventure: A 7-Day Itinerary

Now that we've explored the best things to do in Honolulu, let's put it all together into a week-long itinerary. This plan balances popular attractions with off-the-beaten-path experiences, allowing you to see the best of what Honolulu has to offer. Remember, this is just a suggestion - feel free to adjust based on your interests and energy levels.

Days 1-2: Waikiki and Downtown Honolulu

  • Start your trip with a morning surf lesson at Waikiki Beach
  • Explore the Bishop Museum to learn about Hawaiian history and culture
  • Take an afternoon stroll down Kalakaua Avenue for shopping and people-watching
  • Enjoy a sunset dinner cruise off Waikiki Beach
  • Visit Pearl Harbor National Memorial and the USS Arizona Memorial
  • Tour Iolani Palace to learn about Hawaii's royal history
  • End the day with a traditional Hawaiian luau

Insider Tip: Book your Pearl Harbor visit in advance to secure your preferred time slot.

Days 3-4: Nature and Outdoor Adventures

Insider Tip: Arrive at Hanauma Bay early, as entry is limited to protect the ecosystem.

Days 5-6: Cultural Experiences and Local Flavors

  • Start your day at the KCC Farmers Market (Saturdays only)
  • Explore the vibrant Chinatown district, including a stop at Maunakea Marketplace for a lei-making lesson
  • Visit the Honolulu Museum of Art for a dose of culture
  • Take an evening food tour to sample local Hawaiian cuisine
  • Spend a day at the Polynesian Cultural Center on the North Shore
  • On your way back, stop at the famous shrimp trucks in Kahuku for dinner
  • End the evening with a slack key guitar concert

Insider Tip: The Polynesian Cultural Center is closed on Sundays, so plan accordingly.

Day 7: Final Explorations and Relaxation

  • Start early with a hike up the Koko Crater Railway Trail for stunning views
  • Cool off with a swim at Hanauma Bay or Ala Moana Beach Park
  • Spend the afternoon exploring the trendy Kaka'ako neighborhood and its street art
  • For your final evening, choose between:
    • A sunset sail off Waikiki Beach
    • A visit to the Honolulu Zoo for a twilight tour
    • A relaxing dinner at a beachfront restaurant

Insider Tip: If your flight leaves late, many hotels offer hospitality rooms where you can shower and change before heading to the airport.

Remember, this itinerary is just a suggestion. Honolulu has so much to offer that you could spend weeks here and still not see everything. Don't be afraid to adjust the plan based on your interests, the weather, or unexpected discoveries. After all, part of the joy of travel is spontaneity!

Why Visit Honolulu?

From the sun-soaked beaches of Waikiki to the lush hiking trails of Manoa, from the historical sites of Pearl Harbor to the vibrant street art of Kaka'ako, Honolulu offers a kaleidoscope of experiences that cater to every type of traveler. This city is a unique blend of natural beauty, rich cultural heritage, and modern urban amenities, all infused with the warm aloha spirit that Hawaii is famous for.

Whether you're riding your first wave, exploring ancient Hawaiian traditions, or savoring innovative Pacific Rim cuisine, Honolulu will captivate you with its diverse attractions and laid-back island vibe. The city serves as both a gateway to Hawaiian culture and a modern Pacific metropolis, offering visitors the best of both worlds.

As you plan your trip, remember that Honolulu's charm lies not just in its famous attractions, but also in its hidden gems and local favorites. Don't be afraid to venture off the beaten path, strike up conversations with locals, and immerse yourself in the unique rhythms of island life.

And while this guide covers many of Honolulu's top attractions, it's just the beginning. Each visit to this tropical paradise reveals new experiences, whether it's a secluded beach, a hole-in-the-wall eatery serving the best poke you've ever tasted, or a breathtaking sunset that paints the sky in colors you never knew existed.

So pack your sunscreen, bring your sense of adventure, and prepare to say "Aloha" to Honolulu. Whether it's your first visit or your fiftieth, this magical city always has something new to discover. From the moment you feel the warm Hawaiian sun on your face and hear the gentle lapping of waves on Waikiki Beach, you'll understand why Honolulu captures the hearts of visitors from around the world.

Mahalo for joining us on this journey through Honolulu, and we hope this guide helps you create unforgettable memories in this tropical paradise. Safe travels, and may the spirit of aloha be with you!

West Parker
West Parker
Article updated:
July 18, 2024 8:31 AM

West Parker, a Cornell University School of Hotel Administration graduate, has spent two decades as the secret weapon of the jet-set elite, crafting bespoke adventures that redefine luxury travel. Now a resident writer for Town & Tourist, this 45-year-old "Architect of Extraordinary Journeys" combines razor-sharp insights with unparalleled industry connections to deliver experiences that even the most discerning globetrotters can't help but rave about. West's expertise spans from exclusive real estate to fine dining, making him the go-to strategist for those who demand nothing but the extraordinary in their travels.

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