If you’re headed to Honolulu for the first time, then count yourself lucky. It may not have the same quantity of museums, galleries, and architectural wonders as places like Paris or New York, but what it has instead (glorious beaches, superb food, spectacular scenery, and welcoming locals) more than makes up for it. If you’re just beginning to plan out your itinerary and need some inspiration, check out our rundown of the 20 very best things to do in Honolulu for first-time visitors.
Vibrant, diverse, and never anything short of glorious fun, a visit to Chinatown is a must-do for any visitor to Honolulu. The district positively pulses with life, offering everything from awe-inspiring temples to amazing street food and exciting street performances. The highlight of the district has to be Maunakea Marketplace, a glorious hotchpotch of street vendors offering some of the most glorious (not to mention affordable) food you’re like to taste on the island.
19. Honolulu Beer Works
If the sun and sea of Honolulu’s beaches have left you with a thirst, Honolulu Beer Works is the answer to your prayers. Set in the hip and happening Kaka’ako neighborhood, the beer works offers an extensive range of craft beers for you to sample, from the spicy Animal Farmhouse to the warming Pia Mahi’ai Farmer’s Beer. Once you’re done tasting the liquid delights, soak up the alcohol with some treats from its equally delectable food menu.
18. Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve
Nestled in the shadow of the Koʻolau Mountain Range is the Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, a stunning parkland of turquoise waters, white-sand beaches, and exotically colorful marine life. While it can admittedly feel a little crowded at times, it’s worth braving the tourists for this little slice of Hawaiian paradise.
17. Shangri La
We all know the name, but only the lucky visitor to Honolulu will get the chance to experience the magnificence of Shangri La in person. The extravagant oceanside house was once the home of tobacco heiress Doris Duke, but today stands as one of Honolulu’s most famous museums. The 2,500 artifacts collected by Duke over her lifetime are a sight to behold, while the sheer opulence of the mansion (which some have compared to the Taj Mahal) is breathtaking.
16. Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum
If you’re in the mood for some local culture, the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum is calling. The museum is home to a staggering 24 million-plus artifacts, each of which offers an invaluable insight into the rich historical, natural, and cultural melting pot of the Pacific Islands. Learn more about the Hawaiian gods of old in the huge Hawaiian Hall, or discover Hawaii’s sporting past at the Hawai'i Sports Hall of Fame. Whichever exhibit you choose to concentrate on, you can’t help but leave informed and entertained.
15. Ala Moana Center
If you’re in the mood to shop till you drop, or simply want to pick up some last-minute souvenirs before heading home, the Ala Moana Center is the answer to your prayers. The mammoth open-air shopping center is home to a huge collection of high-end boutique stores and cute little local businesses. Once you’re tired of shopping, there’s also a great selection of restaurants and cafes to rest your feet and grab a bit to eat.
14. Iolani Palace
Tired of the surfing, diving, and natural scenery of Honolulu? Then free up an afternoon to take in the regal Iolani Palace. Once the home of Hawaii’s last reigning monarchs, King Kalakaua and his sister, Queen Liliuokalani, the historic home is now a major tourist attraction, offering legions of visitors the rare opportunity to glimpse into the Hawaiian culture of old. Once you’ve finished with your tour of the home, don’t miss a quick pitstop at the gift shop to pick up a memento of your visit.
13. USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park
Giving that it’s one of only 15 US World War ii era submarines still in existence, USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park is a must-visit. As well as giving you the opportunity to explore the historic vessel (not to mention discovering artifacts like the battle flags, submarine bells, and a Poseidon missile), the site also gives you an engaging insight into the role of the navy through the fascinating (and very worthwhile) self-guided audio tour.
12. Honolulu Museum of Art
In 2011, the Honolulu Academy of Arts and the Contemporary Museum combined to create the Honolulu Museum of Art, a museum that’s home to the finest collection of art in Hawaii. The vast collection encompasses the European masters (Picasso, Gauguin, van Gogh, and more besides), and Asian greats. The indigenous feather capes in the Arts of Hawaii collection are worth the $20 admission fee alone.
11. Manoa Falls
For nature lovers, a visit to the stunning Manoa Falls is a must-do. Located just 5 miles northwest of downtown Honolulu, the falls lie at the end of a relatively easy 1.5-mile path. The scenery along the hike is outstanding, with prehistoric ferns and majestic banyan trees marking the way. Try to arrange your visit before mid-morning if possible: the route is a major tourist attraction and can feel slightly overwhelmed with crowds at peak times.
10. National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific
Several millennials ago, the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific was a site used for human sacrifices. Today, the memorial serves as a reminder, and the final resting place, of the thousands of American servicemen and women who have lost their lives while serving their country. The site is scattered with several tributes, including the Honolulu Memorial, which honors the veterans of World War ii, the Korean War, and the Vietnam war. Peaceful, informative, and touching, the cemetery may be a stark contrast to the earthly delights of Honolulu’s beaches and town, but its no less worthy a venture, none the less.
9. Battleship Missouri Memorial
If you’re starting to get tired of the beaches, pack away your towel and head to the Battleship Missouri Memorial for some first-class lessons in history. Before it was a memorial, the USS Missouri (affectionately known as Mighty Mo) was known as the venue of the meeting between Allied and Axis representatives that culminated in the end of World War II, as well as the world’s last active service battleship, having served in both the Korean War and Operation Desert Storm. The array of exhibits and artifacts on display will keep you engaged for hours, while the knowledgeable tour guides will happily fill you in on the history of the ship and its significance in US naval history.
8. Makapu'u Point Lighthouse Trail
For those that like a little light activity but don’t want to partake in anything to strenuous, Makapu'u Point Lighthouse Trail makes an excellent choice. Set just 6 miles away from the much more strenuous Koko Crater Trail (more on which coming up), it makes for an easy 2 mile, paved stroll that visitors of most ages and fitness levels will manage comfortably (there’re even a number of benches spread out along the way for those in need of a “breather”). Bring a camera and enjoy the gorgeous views over the Pacific Ocean… although don’t forget to pack your sunscreen- the path may be easy, but there’s very little shade from the sun and wind to be had.
7. Kailua Beach Park
If you’re headed to Honolulu, it’s a fair assumption to say you like beach life- in which case, Kailua Beach Park will be right up your street. Spread over 3 miles of white sand and lapped by the clearest, warmest waters you can imagine, the park is as much of a destination for families as it is for surfers. Take some drinks, a surfboard, and your nearest and dearest and enjoy the serene atmosphere, the gentle waves, and, at dawn, the awe-inspiring sunrise.
6. Diving & Snorkeling
Granted, this next one on our list is an activity rather than a destination, but given Honolulu’s location, it would be remiss of us to leave it off the list. 1200 miles of coral reef awaits visitors to Hawaii, making snorkeling and scuba diving almost compulsory. Pop on some goggles and explore the stunning waters, taking in the rainbow-colored fish, and, if you’re lucky, even the occasional dolphin and sea turtle. When it comes to choosing where to do your snorkeling, you’re almost spoilt for choice… although for diving enthusiasts, the Sea Tiger and Corsair wrecks near Waikiki and the Windward Coast are a must.
5. Koko Crater Trail
Provided your legs are up to it, the 1000 steps that make up the 2 miles long Koko Crater Trail are more than worth the climb. Pack your most comfortable shoes, your shades, and a couple of liters of water and make your way up the abandoned railroad ties to the top of the trail. If at any point you feel like giving up, don’t – the stunning views of Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve and Diamond Head State Monument at the summit will more than justify the effort.
4. Diamond Head State Monument
Created during a volcanic eruption over 300,000 years ago, the Diamond Head State Monument stands as a testament to the power and beauty of nature. From the ash that settled emerged one of Oahu’s most famous features, as recognizable to Hawaiians as the Empire State Building is to New Yorkers. Although the trail up to the monument is tough, the panoramic views of Waikiki Beach and the Pacific Ocean from the top more than justify the trek. If you really can’t face the climb, take the easy (although admittedly more expensive route) by taking a helicopter tour of the area. Once you reach the crater floor, take a breath (as well as a cooling beverage from one of the vending machines) and learn more about the monument with a self-guided audio tour.
3. Lanikai Beach
Let’s face it, if you’re going to Honolulu, a visit to some of its famous beaches is almost a pre-requisite. Located around 15 miles northeast of downtown Honolulu, Lanikai beach offers the kind of calm tranquility that’s guaranteed to rest and revive even the most harried city slicker. Despite the occasional jellyfish that make an appearance, the calm waters that lap the bay make it ideal for swimming, while the white sand beach is perfect for sinking your toes into and admiring the beauty of the stunning setting.
2. Pearl Harbor National Memorial
You’ve seen the film, heard the stories, but have you been to the memorial? If not, don’t leave Honolulu before a visit to the fascination Pearl Harbor National Memorial. The memorial marks the spot of the USS Arizona, the doomed battleship which witnessed the death of 1177 sailors during the infamous Pearl Harbor attack. Today, thousands visit to pay their respects at the memorial that floats above the still partially visible battleship. If you can afford the time, the one hour in-depth audio tour of the memorial is well worth the $7.50 fee.
1. Waikiki Beach
If you’re going to Honolulu, a visit to Waikiki Beach is practically obligatory. The world-famous beach has been drawing legions of visitors since the 19th century (although these days, the visitors tend to be more in the line of sun-worshipping foreign tourists than Hawaiian royalty). Comprising of several beaches stretched along Hawaii’s southwest coastline, Waikiki is the perfect place to catch a wave, catch a tan, and generally have a superbly relaxing experience. If you do ever tire of the beach, a stroll around the super exclusive boutiques of the adjacent Kalakaua Avenue is the perfect way to round off the day.
Written by Dana Hanson
Read more posts by Dana Hanson