Honolulu, Hawaii’s largest city, is the hub of culture, politics, dining, shopping, business and entertainment in the Aloha State.
After Captain James Cook became the first European to explore Hawaii in 1778, Honolulu became an increasingly important stop for ships traveling between America and Asia. First came fur traders, who made fortunes exchanging otter pelts from the Pacific Northwest for teas, spices and silks from China. Later, fragrant sandalwood became such a prized commodity that island forests were nearly stripped clean of it.
Then came the whalers, who plied the seas relentlessly in search of the gentle giants that were the source of rich oil. In the mid-19th century, recognizing the importance of the harbor to local commerce, King Kamehameha III moved the capital of Hawaii from Lahaina, Maui to Honolulu, and it has held that designation ever since.
Honolulu Harbor bustles with activity every day of the week. Fishing boats, tugboats, tour boats, container ships, cruise liners and barges berth at its piers. Whether you arrive by air or sea, Honolulu is your jumping-off place for an unforgettable Oahu stay.
World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument — better known as the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor — is one of Hawaii’s most visited (and most moving) sites. Informative exhibits and a video presentation set the stage for a boat ride out to the wreckage of the USS Arizona, where you can still catch a glimpse of the doomed battleship. A white memorial marks the site.
Reflecting the opulence of the royal courts of Europe, Iolani Palace was the residence of Hawaii’s last reigning monarchs, King Kalakaua and Queen Liliuokalani. Construction was completed in 1882; 11 years later, the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown. On display in the basement are the Hawaiian crown jewels as well as a collection of ancient Hawaiian regalia. On the upper floors are state apartments and private quarters.
Star of Honolulu offers whale-watching excursions and sunset dinner cruises off the coast of Waikiki.
Colorful, spice-scented Chinatown is roughly bordered by King, Smith, Beretania and River Streets. It’s one of Honolulu’s most fun neighborhoods to wander, with its open-air markets, historic buildings and mishmash of Asian cultures.
Thousands of species of tropical flora thrive in the 14-acre urban oasis known as Foster Botanical Garden, which often is used as a site for weddings and other special events. Some of our favorite spots include the Lyon Orchid Garden and the Butterfly Garden. Guided tours are available.
The Honolulu Museum of Art houses more than 50,000 works, including collections from Hawaii, Asia and Europe.
Select works from the Hawaii State Foundation on Culture and the Arts’ eclectic collection are displayed in changing themed exhibits at the Hawaii State Art Museum, located on the second floor of the No. 1 Capitol District Building. Admission is free.
Dubbed the “Carnegie Hall of the Pacific,” Hawaii Theatre opened on September 6, 1922, as the most lavish venue in Honolulu. Tours, usually offered Tuesday at 11 a.m. for $10, include a mini organ concert.
Visit the Mission Houses Museum to learn how Hawaii’s first missionaries lived. This complex of original 19th-century dwellings includes a white frame house that was precut in Boston, shipped around Cape Horn and assembled in 1821.
Dating back to 1842, Kawaiahao Church was built with more than 14,000 coral blocks quarried from reefs off Honolulu. This stately house of worship has been the site of numerous notable events, including the marriage of King Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma. Services are held in English and Hawaiian.
The former home of Queen Liliuokalani, Washington Place has served as the official residence of the governor of Hawaii since 1921. Fill out the online form at WashingtonPlaceFoundation.org to request a tour of the historic mansion; among the treasures visitors can view is the queen’s piano (she was a gifted musician and composer).
Celebrate First Friday. On the first Friday of each month, more than a dozen galleries in downtown Honolulu stay open until 9 p.m. to celebrate local art in all mediums. Be on hand to check out new exhibit openings, meet the artists, and enjoy refreshments, talks and live music. Free maps are dispensed at participating venues.
North Shore Shark Adventures whisks you three miles from Haleiwa Harbor on Oahu’s North Shore to meet Galapagos, sandbar, hammerhead and tiger sharks up to 12 feet long. You’ll descend into the sea for a close look at these fearsome creatures, all the while perfectly safe within the confines of a seven-foot-tall barred cage.
Built in the late 1930s on five gorgeous acres overlooking the ocean and Diamond Head, elegant Shangri La was the home of the reclusive heiress and philanthropist Doris Duke. Striking architectural features and more than 3,500 treasures from throughout the Islamic world (including furnishings, tile panels, ceramics, textiles, carpets and paintings) are the highlights of the collection. Advance reservations for tours are highly recommended.
One of the area’s most popular hikes, Diamond Head State Monument offers sweeping views of the island and the sea from the top. Prospective hikers should be reasonably fit; consider going early or late in the day to avoid heat and crowds.
Honolulu’s famous Waikiki Beach is the perfect spot to take a surfing lesson or simply sprawl out in the sand.
Everything you want to learn about Hawaii you can probably learn at the Bishop Museum, whose collections include everything from Polynesian artifacts to cultural treasures of the Hawaiian royal family. There’s also a planetarium.
Honolulu’s dining scene is a melting pot of Hawaiian, Pacific and Asian cuisines. Seafood lovers will find themselves in heaven here — shrimp, crab, oysters, mussels and various kinds of fish are on menus all over Honolulu. The most influential culinary movement of the last few decades is Hawaii Regional Cuisine; developed by Alan Wong and 11 other local chefs, this culinary movement emphasizes fresh local ingredients sourced right from the land and waters of Hawaii.
We like Hau Tree Lanai (at the New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel) as much for its idyllic setting — beneath a spreading hau tree right on San Souci Beach — as for its food. Choose from a nice selection of sandwiches, pastas, fresh island fish, and vegetarian dishes and salads, including an outstanding papaya chicken salad. At dinnertime, with lights twinkling in the branches of the hau and the rolling Pacific providing soft background music, it beckons to lovers.
Although you can order off the menu, the popular Legend Seafood Restaurant on North Beretania Street is known for its lunchtime dim sum, which loyal customers swear is as good as anything you’ll find in Hong Kong. Servers roll carts filled with steamed, baked, fried and roasted delicacies by your table, and you select whatever strikes your fancy.
Buca di Beppo celebrates the hearty cooking of Italian immigrants. It’s a place where you can smell the marinara sauce before you reach the door and where conversation and laughter often drown out the background music. Dishes are served family style in two portion sizes: large, for up to five people, and small, for couples or threesomes. In our opinion, the best spot in the house is the kitchen table, which actually is set in the kitchen so you can talk to the chef and watch all the action that goes on as orders are being prepared.
Only Alan Wong could turn an obscure Moiliili locale into a mecca for discerning diners. Winner of the 1996 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef in the Pacific Northwest/Hawaii, Wong is unquestionably one of the stars of Hawaiian Regional Cuisine, which promotes the use of fresh, locally grown produce, seafood and meats. Menu highlights include seared mahi mahi with wasabi sauce, garlic black pepper keahole lobster, and macadamia nut-coconut lamb chops.
La Mer, at the Halekulani Hotel, is the epitome of fine dining in Hawaii; it is the state’s longest consecutively ranked AAA five-diamond restaurant. You’ll enjoy spectacular views of Diamond Head and Waikiki and the soothing sounds of la mer (the sea) as you dine on dishes inspired by flavors from the south of France. A jacket or long-sleeved collared dress shirt is required for male diners.
Editors of Gourmet magazine singled out Chef Mavro as “where we would eat if we had only one night in Honolulu.” Dine here and you’ll agree the accolades are well deserved. The menu changes regularly; tasting menus are offered with or without wine.
For affordable local eats, check out Ono Seafood, which serves up traditional Hawaiian poke (raw fish salad), tako (octopus) and spicy ahi (yellowfin tuna).
Shopping in Honolulu
With a wealth of stores and a vibrant local arts and crafts scene, Honolulu is a fun, unique place to shop. Looking for a memento of your trip? Consider bowls or sculptures handcrafted from native wood; bags and baskets woven from coconut fronds and the leaves of the hala tree; Niihau shell and seed lei; or CDs featuring the music of local performers. And don’t forget the food! Teas, jams and jellies, chocolate-covered macadamia nuts, and island-grown pinapple and coffee are popular choices.
Stores in or near downtown Honolulu that specialize in made-in-Hawaii gifts include Native Books (books, music and educational materials), Martin & MacArthur (furniture and decorative items), Nohea Gallery (art, jewelry and crafts) and Island Keepsakes (gift baskets, woodwork and other souvenirs).
Produce, flowers, baked goods, beef, seafood, cheese, fruit preserves, snacks, seasonings and more — all made or grown in Hawaii — draw huge crowds to the Farmers’ Market, held on Saturday mornings at Kapiolani Community College.
If you’re more into malls than farmers’ markets, head to Ala Moana Center, home to more than 300 stores and restaurants, including upscale brands such as Gucci and Kate Spade. About a half-hour outside Honolulu are the Waikele Premium Outlets, where you can stock up on goods from Calvin Klein, Armani and Tommy Hilfiger, among others.