HONOLULU | With its perfect year-round weather and gorgeous beaches, Hawaii’s capital is a popular tourist destination. Waikiki is where most of Honolulu’s hotels are located, and tourists tend to congregate in the beachside neighbourhood. This is what many associate the city with, which leads many to believe that Honolulu is a touristy place. While that sentiment is true when it comes to Waikiki, dismissing Honolulu because it’s ‘too touristy’ is a mistake.
Honolulu might be a popular tourist destination, but it’s also home to 350,000 people who call the city home. Venture out of Waikiki and into the city’s other neighbourhoods, and you’ll discover a culturally diverse city that’s filled with history, art, and culture. You’ll also find an array of exciting food and drink options, ranging from places serving traditional Hawaiian food to exciting modern-American cuisine that draws upon Hawaii’s diversity.
If time is not on your side and you only have 48 hours or so in town, here’s some suggestions on things to do in Honolulu, that will ensure you have a great experience.
Admire Downtown’s Historic Architecture
Two of Honolulu’s most historic neighbourhoods, Chinatown and the Capitol District, form part of the wider downtown area.
Honolulu’s Chinatown is one the oldest in the United States, becoming established when Chinese labourers settled in the area, having been brought to Oahu to work on the island’s sugar plantations. It’s seen its ups and downs over the years, with plenty of historic architecture and Chinese cultural sites and activities to see and do.
The city’s Capitol District is home to many important cultural and governmental buildings, many of which are some the oldest and grandest buildings in Hawaii. Things like the 1883 King Kamehameha I Statue, the 1842 Kawaiahaʻo Church, and 1928 Honolulu Hale (Honolulu’s City Hall). You can read about these, and more, here.
Drink At A Tiki Bar
Despite actually being a Californian invention, Tiki Bars have become synonymous with Hawaii. Most of Honolulu’s famed Tiki Bars have long gone, with pale imitations set up to suck in tourists. Avoid these destinations, and head to La Mariana Sailing Club. Open since 1955, it’s the last remaining classic Honolulu Tiki Bar.
For a modern take on the Tiki Bar, that focuses on retaining the spirit of what makes a Tiki Bar great, brining it into the 2020s, visit the excellent Skull & Crown Trading Co. in Chinatown.
Drive Up The Coast
If you’re itching to get out of the city, hire a car and you’ll have access to the entirety of Oahu. You can get almost anywhere on the Island in less than an hour by car, such as popular tourists spots Kualoa Ranch, and the Polynesian Cultural Centre.
If you want to keep close to the city, you can drive through some beautiful inland scenery to Lanikai Beach, do the Kaiwa Ridge (Lanikai Pillbox) Hike, then enjoy a local beer at Lanikai Brewing Company. Getting there only takes half an hour. Once you’re done, take the coastal road back to Honolulu, stopping by Koko Head District Park, and China Walls.
Eat Modern & Traditional Hawaiian Food
Hawaii is home to a rich and diverse food culture, the result of successive waves of immigration over generations. There’s pre-European settlement, Polynesian staples like poi, kalua pork, and the fresh raw seafood that evolved into today’s poke. Japanese immigration has had a big influence on the food of Hawaii, as has immigration form places like China, Korea, and the Philippines.
Trends from mainland USA have influenced Hawaii’s modern dining scene, along with an ever increasing culturally diverse population. Stalwarts like Highway Inn and Ethel’s Grill, which have been in the same family for generations have a story to tell, as do newer restaurants.
Many of the new restaurants, started by Hawaiian-born chefs who have returned home, build on modern-American cuisine with a distinctly Hawaiian flavour and story. Places like The Pig & The Lady, Mud Hen Water, and Fete.
Check out my two articles, What To Eat In Hawaii, and Honolulu Food Guide: Where To Eat, for tips on what and where to eat in Honolulu.
Oahu is home to hundreds of hiking trails, with several of them being found in Honolulu itself. The most popular is the popular Diamond Head Trail, an easy to moderate trail that takes you through the Diamond Head State Monument to the top of the iconic volcano cone, Diamond Head.
A trail that’s less known by tourists is the Wa’ahila Ridge Trail. It’s a moderate to difficult ridge hike that originates in Wa’ahila Ridge State Recreation Area. It offers stunning views across Manoa Valley, Palolo Valley, Honolulu and the Ko’olau Range.
Honolulu is home to the eight largest shopping mall in the United States, and the largest open-air shopping mall in the world, the Ala Moana Centre. It’s home to a number of anchor tenants like Target, Macy’s, and Saks Off 5th, as well as low, mid, and high end international and independent brands. If outlets are more your thing, check out Waikele Premium Outlets.
Relax At The Beach
This tip is rather self explanatory. Honolulu hugs the coast, and is home to several public beaches. Waikiki Beach is the best known one, but there are plenty more that are much more relaxing and less crowded. Lanikai Beach, about a half hour drive away, is one of my favourites. If you want to stay in the city, go to Kaimana Beach. It’s just a short walk from Waikiki Beach and lot more chill.
See Some Street Art
Hawaii’s capital has a thriving street art scene. Talented local artists tell stories about themselves, and the islands that they call home, as well as painting things that they simply like.
Around February each year, artists from across the USA and the world descend on Honolulu to participate in POW! WOW! Hawaii. It’s a gathering that celebrates culture, music and art, and results in several impressive murals being created across Honolulu’s trendy Kaka’ako neighbourhood.
Check out my Honolulu Street Art Guide to find out where to find the best street art in six Honolulu’s neighbourhoods.
See Pearl Harbor
The Pearl Harbor National Memorial is a US National Memorial dedicated to commemorating the events of the Attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. A visit is a must for anyone with even the slightest interest in history.
The site includes the USS Arizona Memorial, the final resting place of 1,177 sailors killed during the Pearl Harbor attack. It also contains the USS Utah memorial, the USS Oklahoma memorial, six chief petty officer bungalows on Ford Island, mooring quays F6, F7, and F8, which formed part of Battleship Row, and the visitor center at Halawa Landing.
Snorkel With Turtles
This fun activity can be done directly off the coast of Waikiki Beach, with several operators offering affordable experiences. A boat takes you out into the ocean, where you can safely snorkel amongst the numerous turtles that call this part of the world home.
I’ve done it with Waikiki Turtle Snorkel Adventure with Manakai Catamaran, and was very happy with them.
Try Local Craft Beers
Hawaii is home to several craft breweries, located on Oahu and the state’s other islands. One of the most well known, Maui Brewing Co., have a brewpub in the heart of Waikiki. For a more local’s feel, check out the beers at smaller Honolulu breweries Hana Koa, and Beer Lab HI. Village Bottle Shop & Tasting Room, in Honolulu’s Kaka’ako neighbourhood, is a great place to try beers from not just Hawaii, but the USA and further abroad.
Visit A Market
Honolulu is home to several farmers markets, most of which take place on the weekend. They’re a great way to try a variety of fresh island produce, and tasty artisan goods make by independent vendors. KCC Farmers Market, located close close to Diamond Head State Monument, it’s a great option that you can do before your walk up the volcano.
Wander The Streets Of Waikiki
I started this article telling you that I wanted to give you a guide of things to do in Honolulu, beyond the tourist traps of Waikiki. While it’s true that you shouldn’t really spend much time in Waikiki if you want to experience the best that Honolulu has to offer, don’t completely dismiss it.
Waikiki is a part of Honolulu, even though it’s extremely touristy, it does have its own vibe. Chances are, your hotel will be located there, and you’ll be walking through it a bit on the way to some of the other things on my list. Walking through Waikiki and observing life play out on the streets is an experience of its own. Soak it in, and take it for what it is.