Steeped in rich Polynesian history, with natural landscapes of unparalleled beauty, Honolulu offers a wealth of culturally significant, must-see attractions for visitors of all age levels.
The Must-See Honolulu Attractions
Here are the top 10 must-see attractions in Honolulu.
USS Arizona Memorial
If you only have time to visit one must-see Honolulu attraction, pay tribute to the heroes and victims of Pearl Harbor with a visit the USS Arizona Memorial. Built in 1962 to honor the 2,335 sailors, soldiers, and Marines, as well as the 68 civilians, who lost their lives during the attack on Pearl Harbor, the memorial was designed by Honolulu architect Alfred Preis, and sits above the site where the USS Arizona sank. It is only accessible by boat.
Timed tickets to the memorial can be reserved up to 60 days ahead of time online, and same-day tickets are issued at Pearl Harbor Visitor Center. The visit, which includes a round-trip boat ride, a 23-minute documentary, and personal time, lasts one hour and 15 minutes. Admission is free. To make sure you get the date and time you want, book online ahead of time. This must-see attraction is one of four ticketed attractions at Pearl Harbor.
Like visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., a visit to the National Historic Landmark of Pearl Harbor is a must when coming to Honolulu. There are four destinations, each requiring a ticket. They include: the USS Arizona Memorial (free, but timed ticketed entry required), the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park, the Battleship Missouri Memorial, and Pacific Aviation Museum. Individual tickets to each destination, a combo package of two or three destinations, or a passport for all four destinations can purchased online or at the Pearl Harbor Visitors Center. Online pre-purchase is recommended to avoid lines and the possibility of sellouts.
For spectacular 360-degree views of Honolulu and beyond, a hike up Honolulu’s most recognizable landmark is a must. A volcanic crater that’s been dormant for more than 150,000 years, locals call Diamond Head “Lēʻahi,” which means “brow of the ʻahi” and “cape of fire.” Diamond Head was the name given to the crater by British sailors who found shiny calcite embedded in the side of the mountains and mistakenly thought they’d stumbled upon diamonds.
The hike to the top of the crater is a moderate 0.8-mile climb that will take you up 560 feet of elevation. Hikers should be physically fit and able to climb three sets of stairs (74 steps, 99 steps, and 43 steps). The hike is estimated to take between one to two hours, with many photo ops and lookout points along the way, culminating in a crater’s edge picture at the top.
The park has a small cash entrance fee, and is open from 6:00 a.m. daily, with the last entry at 4:30 p.m. The best time to go is early in the morning for easy parking and to avoid the crowds. Wear solid hiking boots, bring a walking stick if necessary, pack on the sunblock, take a pre-hike pit stop, and arm yourself with water before you go.
Ala Moana Center
The largest open-air shopping mall in Hawaii, Ala Moana Center is its own small district within Honolulu. Every designer brand name you could want—Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, just to name a few—is here. With 290 shops, 80 dining options, four department stores (Nordstrom, Macy’s, Nieman Marcus, and Sears), Ala Moana is a shop-til-you-drop kind of place.
The mall features live music, extensive food court options, a cultural center where you can learn hula and discover other cultural activities, and is home to Shirokiya Japan Village Walk, a food hall built like a small Japanese temple town, offering more than 30 authentic Japanese food vendors. The Ala Moana Shopping Trolley, which runs every 10 minutes, offers free rides to and from 10 locations around the city.
The area most synonymous with Honolulu itself, Waikiki Beach is not only the location of Honolulu’s grandest resorts, it is also the number one tourist destination on the island. Made up of several sections of beach including Kuhio Beach, Queen’s Beach, and Sans Souci Beach, this soft white sand beach features open public access, oceanfront lodging, countless options for water sports with a view of Diamond Head, and plenty of shopping and restaurants nearby.
One of only two royal palaces in the United States, the Iolani Palace was the official residence of the Hawaiian monarchy from 1845 to 1893, when the monarchy was overthrown. Restored in the 1970s, this National Historic Landmark is one of those must-see Honolulu attractions that’s particularly poignant. It’s also a stunning example of the style of Hawaiian renaissance architecture known as American Florentine. Visitors gain insight into the story behind the Hawaiian royal family, and with it the spirit of the island itself. Guided and self-guided tours are available.
Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve
A protected marine life conservation area since 1967, this Honolulu attraction is the place to go when you want to experience fantastic snorkeling with a view of local fish, sea turtles, and wildlife. A top Honolulu attraction, the site entertains an estimated 3,000 visitors per day. Though you can get there on your own and just pay the $7.50 entrance to get in, the bay also offers a convenient shuttle service package which includes round-trip transport from Waikiki and the use of snorkel gear.
Giraffes, elephants, and hippos are just a few of the wonderful animals on display at Honolulu Zoo. A favorite Honolulu attraction for families with young children, this is a good place to ooh and ahh over chimpanzees, cheetahs, zebras, pink flamingos, and more. Smaller than zoos in major metropolitan cities, the 42-acre grounds are easy to navigate and provide a pleasurable diversion within walking distance of Waikiki.
The largest museum in Hawaii, the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum was founded in 1889 by businessman Charles Bishop, who built it in honor of his wife, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the last legal heir of the Kamehameha Dynasty. Designated as the official Hawaiʻi State Museum of Natural and Cultural History, the collection here is vast, the time spent here invaluable in terms of learning about Hawaiian and Polynesian culture and history.
The museum boasts the largest collection of Polynesian artifacts in the world, is home to a 13.5-million insect collection, and houses more than 24 million natural history specimens. Don’t miss the spectacular Hawaiian Hall, the Science Adventure center, and make sure to catch a show in the Planetarium.
Honolulu Fish Auction
Anyone who wants to see live big-eye tuna come straight off the boat before it gets auctioned off should wake up early to experience this amazing operation, the only freshwater fish auction in the United States. Similar but smaller in scale to Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji Market, the Honolulu Fish Auction offers daily tours that takes you from the dockside fishing vessels to the auction floor itself, where thousands of pounds of fish are bought and sold daily. You’ll have to wake up early, be prepared to stand in the cold, and wear closed toe shoes, but it’s thrilling to get so close to the live auction action.
National Cemetery of the Pacific
Stunning in scope and historical significance, the National Cemetery of the Pacific, also known as the Punchbowl thanks to its location within the Punchbowl crater, is among the most important must-see attractions in Honolulu. Established in 1949, the Punchbowl is the memorial and resting place for more than 53,000 men and women who have died in service to the United States Armed forces since World War I. A place for peace and reflection, the beautiful memorial is lined with neatly trimmed Chinese banyan trees, spans more than 100 acres with 34,000 graves, and is anchored by a marble memorial building and small chapel.
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– Original reporting by Mai Pham