A town of rolling surf and seaside cocktail shacks that represents the cultural kingpin of Hawaii as a whole, this Polynesian-flavored American state capital rarely fails to impress. The likes of Elvis and Doris Duke rested here, following the traditions of the Hawaiian kings and queens themselves. And what a place it is to rest!
The sands of Waikiki fuse lively drinking dives and laid-back beach vibes (the perfect spot for cracking out Pet Sounds), 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.
Oh, and let’s not forget the surfing swells, which draw world-class wave riders to Oahu’s salt-sprayed shores right throughout the year.
I’m a Honolulu native and I know exactly what tourists like about the city and Oahu. Here is my list of the best things to do in Honolulu.
1. Hit the sands of Waikiki 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! I have also created a great post on the best beaches on Oahu which you may like to read.
2. Unravel stories of Pearl Harbor at the USS Arizona
The most-visited memorial in all of Hawaii, the USS Arizona visitor center 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. I took a combination tour that included Pearl Harbor, the USS Arizona and a tour of the city. It was an amazing experience, you can book the tour here.
3. Wax up the surf boards and hit the waves
No trip to Hawaii’s fun-loving, surf-mad capital could possibly be complete without at least a mention of this most popular of local pastimes. In fact, the southern coastal stretches of Oahu Island are home to countless surf spots, many of which are renowned across the globe.
Take the crashing Bowls of Ala Moana and its adjoining beach park, where the reefs and sand bars cook up perfect barrels.
Then there’s aforementioned Waikiki, a great spot for the beginner wave riders, counteracted by all the roaring breaks further afield on the north shore, from the colossal swells of Sunset Beach to the unforgiving tubes of the Banzai Pipeline.
I’m quite active and know how to surf but in case you don’t there are surf lessons available.
4. Sample the energy and foods 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. I’ve had some of the best dim sum I ever tasted here, so be sure to try it.
Read also: 11 Amazing Waterfalls in Oahu
5. Go beach hopping along the coast
Once you’re done with the surfboards and wakeboards on the must-see sands of Waikiki, had your fill of Chinatown’s soy-packed delicacies and delved into the WWII history at the Pearl Harbour memorial, Honolulu’s wealth of awesome beaches beckons.
These string their way along the edge of the island at spots like Ewa District in the east and beautiful Lanikai in the west, where the shore waters lap lightly against the sands thanks to an out-at-sea reef.
If you’re willing to travel even further, be sure to check out the famous surf strips of Sunset Park and the other coves of the north, where beachcombing and wave-watching are at their finest during the summer. Another great option is to go on a Sunset Cruise.
6. Keep company with Hawaiian kings at the glorious ʻIolani 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. I found the self-led audio tour really enjoying but there are also other tours available.
It was built by the monarch David Kalakaua, who traveled 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.
7. Go swimming with sharks in the Pacific – if you dare!
For the bravest travelers making their way to the hub of the Aloha State, shark diving should figure somewhere close to the top of that list of things to do in Honolulu for sure! Trips typically take intrepid groups out into the roaring swells off of the northern coast, where sightings of the formidable predators are more common.
A secure steel cage is lowered into the water, making it possible to watch everything from grey reef sharks to hammerheads, Galapagos sharks to sandbar sharks prowling the currents. Other sightings include rare green sea turtles, oodles of exotic marine flora and even colossal humpback whales – if you’re lucky! I recommend booking your tour online: 2-Hour Oahu Shark Dive
8. Scale 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 one of my favorite hikes on the island!
It’s thought that this recognizable 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.
There’s a great guided hike available: Diamond Head Crater Adventure Hike
9. Stand in the spot where history was made on the Battleship Missouri
It was on September 2 1945 that a delegation of Japanese politicians and generals headed by the Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu stepped aboard the USS Missouri.
They came to sign the official documents of surrender that were to end the Second World War. And that’s just one of the totemic historical moments that this hulking colossus of an ocean frigate has seen throughout its illustrious days at sea.
It’s also fought in three global conflicts, from the Pacific Theater to the Middle East! Today, travelers can come to join one of the regular tours of the mighty ship, while youth groups also get the chance to spend a night in the on-board military berths, just like a real US sailor. In my opinion this is a must visit to learn all about its WW2 history.
Available tour: USS Arizona Memorial & Battelship Missouri Visit
10. Taste local Oahu beers at the Honolulu Beerworks
Bringing the island’s various communities together with hops and barley creations, the Honolulu Beerworks is the premier microbrewery in all of the Aloha State.
Housed in a reinvigorated industrial depot, between the streets of the stylish and edgy neighborhood of Kaka’ako, the tasting room fuses the salt-washed character of Hawaii’s surfer shacks with a cool and distinct artsy vibe.
The beers range from the Animal Farmhouse, with its pale coloring and spicy Delta hops, to the Pia Mahi’ai Farmer’s Beer, which comes infused with traces of allspice and pepper. There’s also a great food menu, enticing diners with Pacific salmon-packed taro buns and Italian-style hoagies. The beers I liked most are their IPA and their Belgian Tripel (Resolution Breaker)!
Related: I’ve also written a great post on the 15 Best Day Trips from Oahu
11. Swim with the fishes at the Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve
This protected bay that sits in the shadow of the great Koʻolau Mountain Range on the southern tip of Oahu island can be easily reached from the downtown streets of Honolulu.
Sparkling with turquoise hues and blooming underwater coral gardens, the preserved little enclave of Hawaiian nature is peppered with the occasional coconut palm and cut through by the Kalanianaole Highway.
That brings booming crowds of more than 3,000 people a day in the high season, all eager to don the snorkels and swim in the shallows.
Who can blame them? The shores of the spot, set in the depths of an extinct volcanic crater, are famed for their marine biodiversity, with everything from sea turtles gliding by to parrot fish and more!
12. Pay your respects at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific
Sat in the bottom of the Punchbowl Crater that looms above the north-eastern side of Honolulu’s bustling downtown, the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (also known simply as the Punchbowl Cemetery) enjoys its own little enclave of calmness and quiet in the capital.
Green and well-kempt, the site actually draws millions of visitors per year. They come to pay their respects to all those who fought and died in the Pacific Theater, fighting in conflicts from WWI to the Korean War and Vietnam.
This is also the site of the Honolulu Memorial, which displays the names of all the soldiers missing in action during some of America’s bloodiest engagements, topped by a monument to Lady Liberty and words by onetime president Abraham Lincoln.
13. Go under the sea at the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum
Offering just a glimpse of what life was like for US seamen during the years of conflict between 1942 and 1945 and the days of the Korean War, when the USS Bowfin was recommissioned to bulk up the allied naval fleet, this immersive museum piece in the waters of Pearl Harbour is certainly not to be missed!
I got to walk through the mess rooms and corridors, on-board living quarters and control rooms, all with the aid of a recorded audio guide.
One of the most fascinating sections of the collection includes a medley of marine weapons, complete with an example of an infamous manned Japanese Kaiten torpedo.
There’s also a sobering memorial to all American submariners lost during the Second World War.
More: 15 Best Tour on Oahu
14. Trek the Koko Crater Trail
The trailheads of the Koko Crater start on the southern fringes of the city, weaving their way up the volcanic foothills of the Koʻolau Mountains and above the waters of beautiful Hanauma Bay.
Rising against the streets of Portlock, this nature reserve is home to spiked cacti and sun-baked paths, offering walkers a glimpse at the rugged backcountry of the Aloha State.
The trail itself follows the disused train tracks that climb the ridges here, weaving between the scrublands and rocks before opening up to 360-degree views of the south-eastern Oahu coast and even the sheer-cut cliffs of Molokai island in the distance (at least on a clear day.).
15. Walk in the footsteps of Doris Duke at Shangri La, Honolulu
The mansion of Shangri La is a modern twist on the arabesque that sits in the shadow of Honolulu’s iconic Diamond Head.
With an introduction like that you can see why so many travelers make a beeline to this curious construction, built at the behest of the moneyed American philanthropist and heiress Doris Duke!
Inside, the architectural features fuse the styles of Iran and Egypt, taking inspiration from the carved domes and calligraphy of Isfahan and the babbling waterways common in the Mughal gardens of Pakistan and India.
Then there are the rich artistic collections to see, complete with countless treasures of the Islamic world, all collected over Duke’s later life.