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18 Amazing Things to Do in Honolulu, Hawaii For First Timers

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There really isn’t anywhere in the world quite like Honolulu. Not only is it the capital of Hawaii, but it’s the gateway to exploring this majestic island chain, known for its palm fringed beaches, WWII history, and balmy beachside resorts.

Despite there being so many things to do in Honolulu, not many people stick around for too long, and use it as a pit stop rather than a destination to be explored.

It’s time to change that. Honolulu is a beautiful, sunny beach vacation destination, but it also boasts a vibrant arts scene, unique culture, excellent shopping and world-class nightlife.

Only in Honolulu will you be able to swim at an idyllic beach, visit the only royal palace in the U.S., have your pick of dim sum, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai or Hawaiian food for lunch, and in the evening, go salsa dancing, clubbing, or listen to live jazz — all in one day.

Things to Do in Honolulu

1. Hike Diamond Head Crater

mother and child posing on Diamond Head Walk, Oahu, Hawaii
Diamond Head Hike Oahu

Hiking is one of the most popular activities in Hawaii. If you love a good hike, you’re never short on trails to explore.

One of the most accessible, and popular trails, is to the Diamond Head State Monument (Lē‘ahi) which is just a 15 minute drive away from Honolulu on the Waikiki’s coastline.

The crater extends for 475 acres and was formed 300,000 years ago. The volcano is now dormant, and has since been reclaimed by nature, covering it in vegetation which attracts ample bird life.

In 1908, a 800 meter, steep and strenuous trail was created to the summit. The trail elevation is 560 feet and is one way up the side of the mountain, combining natural surface and staircase.

Today there is a concrete walkway followed by stairs, with some switchbacks.

You’ll want to do this in the early morning of a clear day, before it gets too hot, as it’s a challenging hike.

Active kids will love this hike, with its bunkers and tunnel to explore along the way.

And you’ll love the magnificent panoramic view from the top of Waikiki and the Honolulu skyline, plus it’s possible to see humpback whales off the shores if you time your visit to the right season (December to May).

2. Visit Iolani Palace

woman walking in front of Iolani Palace
Iolani Palace, Honolulu

If you’re at all interested in Hawaii’s history, visit the only royal palace in the United States, and learn a little about the monarchy before Hawaii’s annexation to the U.S.

ʻIolani Palace was the official residence of King Kalākaua and his sister and successor, Queen Liliʻuokalani.

Built in 1882, the Palace complex is one of the best preserved examples of regal architecture and luxury, and features grand ballrooms and plush royal residences.

You can learn about the life and splendor of the royals in Hawai’i on a visit here, as well as how they were overthrown.

While the Palace has been renovated a few times, it hasn’t lost its grandeur. It was restored to its original state in the 1970s and remains the same today.

3. Learn to hula

Starlight Luau dancers at the Hilton Hawaiian Village
Starlight Luau dancers at the Hilton Hawaiian Village

No trip to Hawaii would be complete without watching, and learning, a hula dance.

On Tuesdays between 11.00am and 12.00pm, the Royal Hawaiian Center, a shopping center in Waikiki offers free hula lessons at The Royal Grove. You don’t need to reserve your space, simply turn up and take part!

If you want to see a professional performance, the Polynesian Cultural Center often hosts a lūʻau performance with dinner. They also have other cultural performances such as fire shows and cultural presentations.

4. Visit Doris Duke’s Shangri La

palm trees next to a pool
Doris Duke’s Shangri-La

Even if you’re not particularly interested in Islamic art, it’s worth visiting Doris Duke’s private Honolulu estate in Diamond Head for the architecture and design alone.

Make sure you reserve your tickets well in advance, as you can only visit as part of a tour leaving from the Honolulu Academy of Arts.

5. Go for a swim at Lanikai Beach

girl standing on Lanakai Beach, Oahu, Hawaii

Honolulu is not short of beaches. The most popular beaches are Waikīkī Beach, Kahanamoku Beach, Kuhio Beach Park, and Diamond Head Beach Park.

These golden sandy beaches are stunning and well worth a visit, but they are also usually very busy with tourists since they are fringed by high rise resorts.

Unlike other beaches on the island of Oahu, which are crowded, Lanikai Beach is a peaceful haven.

You’ll need to rent a car to get there, but it’s worth going to this lovely, peaceful beach where you’ll likely only see a few locals—you may even have it all to yourself, as we did the last time we were there.

You should note that all beaches in Hawaii are by law open to the public; there are no private beaches.

This doesn’t mean you can trespass on someone’s property, but once you find a public access path to the beach, you can walk along the beach and lay your blanket wherever you like.

6. Visit the Polynesian Cultural Center

people dancing on a stage
Polynesian Cultural Center, photo by cplbasilisk

The Polynesian Cultural Center continues to be one of the top Honolulu attractions.

Many folks come just for the evening luau and show, but I’d actually recommend coming in the day time as well, especially with kids.

This allows you to visit the villages that are set up to reflect the culture and traditions of various Polynesian nations: Tahiti, Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, Aotearoa, Marquesas, and of course Hawaii.

It’s the best place to learn about the unique culture and heritage of Hawaii and Polynesian communities, and learn about stories, traditions and beliefs that have lasted for generations.

7. Try the local cuisine

close up of a plate of food
Photo: Poke

When it comes to food, Honolulu has a plethora of great food options, from cheap and simple plate lunches to exquisite Pacific Rim cuisine.

You simply cannot come to Hawaii without trying the local delicacies. Of course, fresh seafood is a must, since it’s an island nation. Garlic Shrimp and fish tacos are popular local dishes that are found in most restaurants.

Ono Hawaiian Foods in Kapahulu is a place I recommend you go to try Hawaiian food. My favorites here are the pork lau lau, kalua pork, and poi with lomi lomi salmon.

The Waikiki Outlet is another Hawaiian food restaurant, located in the basement food court of the Waikiki Shopping Plaza, that has great local food.

Also make sure to try Poke, a Japanese-Hawaiian hybrid dish made of fresh, raw fish that’s been marinated, and served with fresh vegetables, rice, and other raw ingredients. It’s incredibly tasty and also healthy!

Hawaii is one of the few places in the world where you can gorge on local food and feel you’re doing something good to your body.

8. Experience the Honolulu nightlife

Honolulu is well known for its nightlife. There are clubs and bars for any type of experience, from jazz clubs to karaoke bars.

Lewers Lounge is an excellent live jazz club with a stylish, intimate design in The Halekulani. Dress up and go for the music and signature cocktails. The food is mediocre, so dine elsewhere, but come here for drinks and a cool vibe.

Wang Chung’s is a karaoke bar you should go to if you just want to have a fun evening with your friends or significant other —very welcoming and friendly

  • Salsamor is the place to go for Latin Dancing. There’s a Salsa and Latin dance party every Thursday, and the cover includes a free soft drink and free dance lesson between 8-9pm.

9. Attend a Festival in Honolulu

Hawaii has many colorful festivals throughout the year, reflecting not only its Hawaiian heritage, but also the culture of its immigrants.

First Fridays, which is held on the first Friday of each month, is an arts event where downtown Honolulu art studios showcase the work of local artists. There’s also street entertainment, live music, and wine tasting.

Honolulu Festival is an annual festival, usually held in early March, which is a three-day celebration of arts, music, dance and crafts from across the Pacific, culminating in a grand parade in Waikiki and fireworks.

Lei Day Celebration, also known as “May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii,” is where you’ll find many kama’aina (locals) wearing and giving leis on this day, and a number of hula performances.

Head to Kapiolani Park Bandstand in Waikiki to see some of the official festivities, and view the entries in the annual May Day Lei Contest.

Lantern Floating takes place every Memorial Day, in which thousands of lanterns are lit and floated on the water by locals and visitors to honor those who have sacrificed their lives in war and loved ones who have passed away.

It’s seen as a symbol of hope and peace around the world.

10. Take a day trip to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Overlooking Kilauea Volcano in Volcanoes National Park - Big Island of Hawaii
Overlooking Kilauea Volcano in Volcanoes National Park

Located on the Big Island of Hawaii, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is one of the most iconic places to visit in the whole island chain.

Luckily, you can visit on a day trip from Honolulu. You will need to take an internal flight, which is why I recommend booking this via a tour company who will have everything organized for you.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park features some of the most incredible natural wonders you won’t find anywhere else in Hawaii, such as the still active Kilauea Volcano and black sand beaches.

You can also see better preserved Hawaiian petroglyphs and the sites of ancient heiaus (temples), including the City of Refuge, on your return from the national park.

11. Take a day trip to Pearl Harbor USS Arizona Memorial

Pearl Harbor Tour, Oahu

One of the most monumental national historic landmarks in Hawaii is the Pearl Harbor USS Arizona Memorial.

If you are visiting Hawaii with kids, it’s a beneficial educational experience for them and a good way for them to learn about World War II history and about the consequences of war.

Though this historic site is famous due to a tragic event, it’s a beautiful memorial and very moving. If you are foreigners like us it offers new insights into US culture.

Visit the grounds and museum before catching a boat over to the USS Arizona Memorial, the shipwreck and resting place of 1,102 of the 1,177 sailors and marines.

Pearl Harbour memorial

What’s unique about this memorial is that oil still leaks from the fuel tanks of the sunken hull. Little drops of oil bubble up from the surface and dance across the water – known as the black tears of the USS Arizona.

This is a must-do in Hawaii, but if you are short on time, and without a car, you can join a half day or full day tour.

Be sure to check out the Battleship Missouri Memorial and USS Bowfin, a Pacific Fleet Submarine.

12. Relax in Ala Moana

Ala Moana

Ala Moana is a relaxing neighborhood between downtown and Waikiki. It’s best known for the Ala Moana Center, an upscale shopping mall which highlights why Honolulu is a great destination for shopping enthusiasts.

Take a stroll along Ala Moana Beach Park, a 100 acre waterfront park with a manmade beach and tennis courts. It’s a great place to surf with gentle waves, or simply laze on the beach.

In the evening, head over to Magic Island to witness an amazing sunset over the Pacific Ocean.

13. See the Duke Kahanamoku Statue

Duke Kahanamoku Statue

One of the most iconic monuments on Waikiki Beach is the Duke Kahanamoku Statue. Duke Kahanamoku is a local hero and one of the world’s greatest swimmer.

He was famous for his abilities in swimming, surfing and outrigger canoe paddling. He broke the world record in the 100-yard freestyle swimming in his first ever competition, won 3 Olympic gold medeals in the 100-meter freestyle and a silver medal in the relay.

As a Hawaiian native, he spent a lot of his time surfing, and has the nickname “the father of modern surfing.” 

He was a pioneer of the Waikīkī Beach Boys, surf teachers on Waikīkī Beach, who still operate today. 

He is recognized in both the Surfing Hall of Fame and the Swimming Hall of Fame.

14. Visit Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve

Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve

A great place to see the marine life of Hawaii is at Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve. It’s one of the best places in Hawaii to go snorkeling.

Only a 30-minute drive east of Waikiki, this stunning cove was once a volcanic crater, but is now a protected marine preserve. It’s known for its clear blue waters which contains a healthy and lively variety of tropical fish and green sea turtles.

Go on a snorkel cruise or rent a snorkel mask from Honolulu and embark on your own adventure. This is one spot not to miss for wildlife enthusiasts.

Hot tip: get there as early as possible. Arrive around breakfast time and snorkel before 9.00am, as it gets CRAZY busy after this time and there are only 300 parking spots. If you wait till mid-morning or lunch, the waves are more powerful, which affects visibility for snorkeling. Early in the morning the ocean is as still as glass.

15. Relax at Manoa Waterfalls

manoa falls

Manoa Falls is an impressive 150-foot waterfall, surrounded by lush, green rainforest with trees almost as tall as the falls.

The waterfall lands in a pool, though you can’t swim in it, but the enormity of the falls is worth checking out.

Walk along the Manoa Falls trail through the rainforest and feel the power of nature ebb your stresses away.

16. Check out Honolulu Museum of Art

Honolulu Museum of Art
Nandi’s Head, India, Kerala, made late 18th century, Polychromed wood. Nandi, the god of Shiva’ vehicle, is presented as an oversized head at the Honolulu Museum of Art

The Honolulu Museum of Art is a contemporary art museum dedicated to preserving and celebrating Hawaiian art and culture.

Explore the galleries, watch a film, or attend one of the regular art classes.

17. Hike up to Koko Crater

the summit of Koko Head

Another challenging hike is the Koko Head Crater Tramway hike. This 2.6km vertical hike takes you to a stunning viewpoint overlooking Honolulu.

The Koko Crater trail is on the former tramway, and while there aren’t steps as such up the mountain, there are former trusses that lead the way.

It’s best to go for sunrise, as the views are just incredible in the morning light.

It takes roughly an hour and a half to hike this trail, but it’s steep, so may take longer with breaks.

Visit the Koko Crater Botanical Garden on the way down, one of the best Honolulu botanical gardens full of rare and native plants.

18. Visit the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum

Another notable figure in Hawaii is Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the last of the royal family in Hawaii.

The museum was founded by Charles Reed Bishop, her husband, in 1889, to contain the extensive collection of royal family heirlooms of the Princess.

Today it’s expanded to include millions of artifacts, documents and photographs on Hawaiian culture throughout the years.

Nestled inside the original Kamehameha Schools for Boys, the museum is both a national historic landmark and the largest museum in the state.

Best Time of Year to Visit Honolulu

While Honolulu tends to be warm and sunny all year round, it’s best to avoid the peak holiday season around Christmas and New Year’s, due to high airfare and hotel prices.

You may also want to avoid July and August, which tend to be excessively hot and humid.

Rain showers are possible at any time, but usually don’t last for long, absent a tropical storm.

Getting To and Around Honoulu

There are nonstop flights to Honolulu from many U.S. cities, as well as from Australia, Canada, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, and the Philippines.

From the West Coast, it’s often possible to get fares of $400 or even less for a round trip.

Even from the East Coast there are also sometimes great deals, especially given that Hawaiian Air flies nonstop from NYC to Honolulu, providing competition to United Airlines.

When it comes to getting around the city, the best thing to do is rent a car and drive yourself (as I’m sure you’ll be exploring other parts of Oahu anyway) or use ride shares and taxis. There is a bus network, but it’s slow. This is the largest city in Hawaii after all, there’s a lot of stops!

Rental cars are in high demand and if you leave it too late, it will be very expensive. I recommend you plan ahead and secure a reservation well in advance.

Where to Stay in Honolulu

A palm tree in front of a building
The Royal Hawaiian Hotel

Some of the top 5-star hotels in Honolulu are The Halekulani, The Kahala, The Royal Hawaiian, and Ka Laʻi Waikiki Beach.

The Hilton Hawaiian Village is the best kid-friendly hotel in Waikiki!

For a lower cost, boutique option right outside Waikiki, consider The Hilton Vacation Club The Modern Honolulu.

overview of a resort
Pools at The Modern Honolulu

Another reasonable hotel option if you want to be closer to Diamond Head and Kapiolani Park is Hotel Lotus, in a building that used to be a W Hotel.

a hotel bedroom
Aqua Lotus, Honolulu

Final Thoughts

So there you have it, those are my top attractions and activities for Honolulu. I hope this gave you some inspiration for places to go and things to do while you’re sightseeing.

Honolulu is really a unique city and one that should not be skipped off any travelers Hawai’i trip!

BIO: Hilary Stockton is the founder of TravelSort, which helps members book their perfect luxury or boutique hotel at wholesale prices, and shares tips and tricks for flying first class and business class free, using frequent flyer miles.

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What are you most excited to do in Honolulu? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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