Hawaii -- and namely, on the island of -- often lands on travelers’ bucket lists. That’s hardly surprising, though. As a cosmopolitan, modern American city with a unique tropical setting and historical backdrop, Honolulu has more than enough recreation, entertainment, dining, and sightseeing options to fill up a vacation. That said, the city’s abundant charms can be a blessing and a curse. With so much to see and do, how do you whittle things down? We did the work for you. Below, check out our list of the top nine activities in Honolulu.
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1. Visit Pearl Harbor.
The first stop for many tourists in Honolulu is the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center. Located halfway between Japan and the mainland United States, Pearl Harbor is a gathering place to reflect on the events of December 7, 1941, which triggered America’s entry into World War II. A morning or afternoon here is a moving and memorable experience.
Visitors to the USS Arizona Memorial — built to hover over the resting place of the 1,102 servicemen killed in the surprise attack — are transferred via boats operated by the U.S. Navy. Visitors view an award-winning historical documentary in a theater before entering the memorial. Incredibly, roughly nine quarts of oil continue to seep from the hull of the USS Arizona every day. The inky-rainbow film can be seen on the water — though it doesn’t seem to bother the tropical fish, who have adapted to the sunken skeleton of the ship and use it as an artificial reef.
The new Virtual Reality Center offers the opportunity to “tour” the doomed ship before the attack. Through this, folks can visit the crow’s nest and meet some of the servicemen who were part of the final crew, as well as sailors who survived, but asked to be interred with their fellow shipmates, and now also rest in this spot.
2. Check out the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum.
The largest museum in Hawaii, the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum shelters one of the most extensive collections of natural history specimens in the world. The museum’s mission is to serve the interests of Native Hawaiians. The planetarium here transports visitors to different places and eras. One show puts the audience on the deck of the ancient Polynesian canoe, Hōkūleʻa, as they travel to Tahiti from Hawaii, based on the clues from the sky. Another, The Dinosaur Prophecy, brings folks into the mysteries that still surround the demise of dinosaurs. At the Science Adventure Center, the dynamics of volcano science are demystified. Kids love seeing the molten lava in motion at the Hot Spot Theatre. A wind wall and wave tank are other interactive exhibits that visitors flock to. The three-floor Pacific Hall houses ancient objects of daily living, rituals, and ocean navigation. Through demonstrations and exhibits that focus on archaeology, anthropology, and linguistics, the hall brings to life the many ties between the widely dispersed Pacific cultures as well as how and when the settlement of the region came about.
3. Act like royalty at the Iolani Palace.
Opulent Iolani Palace, the former home of Hawaii’s last reigning monarchs, is the only royal residence the United States. The National Historic Landmark, situated in what is now downtown Honolulu, was built in 1882 by King Kalakaua and his sister and successor, Queen Liliuokalani. The Grand Hall, set off by a staircase made of native koa wood, runs the length of the palace. Other rooms include the king’s library, music room, throne room, and the imprisonment room, among others.
After the monarchy was overthrown, the majority of the contents from the palace were sold and scattered around the world. The Friends of Iolani Palace have found, restored, and are preserving what you’ll see here: tableware, silver pieces, personal effects, furnishings, artwork, and Iolani Palace stationery (invitations, menus, dance cards, and place cards). The grounds, which include the coronation pavilion, barracks, and a courtyard, are as impressive as the palace itself. The Sacred Mound was once the royal tomb. It is fenced off as a sign of respect to the Hawaiian chiefs still buried there. (Portions of the property are considered sacred or consecrated, marked by signs that read “Kapu.”)
4. Explore Shangri La.
“Shangri La” is synonymous with a beautiful, peaceful place, so this attraction is aptly named. The Shangri La Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures is stunning, thanks to its vibrant works, airy, open architecture, and location overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Guided tours are offered at Shangri La, originally the home of an American heiress, whose travels throughout North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia inspired what is here today. The architecture of India, Iran, Morocco, and Syria informed the building itself. The works on display include textiles (including carpets), ceramics, enameled silver and gold items, paintings, and intricate glass pieces. Despite the tremendous diversity of Islamic art, many of the pieces here share unifying features, such as calligraphy, geometric patterns, and floral or vegetal designs.
5. Nab a table at Senia.
Hawaii-born chef Chris Kajioka and British celebrity chef Anthony Rush met in Manhattan’s iconic Per Se, where they decided to open a restaurant in Hawaii with a real sense of place — and where most people could afford to eat on a regular basis. The result is Senia, winner of a James Beard Award. The dining experience here revolves around Hawaii’s abundance of fresh ingredients. Diners can choose to eat in the main dining room, which has a casual a la carte menu, or closer to the open kitchen, at the Chefs’ Counter, which accommodates parties of six to 12 for a multi-course tasting menu. Those celebrating special occasions can look to the upstairs private dining room.
6. Conquer Chinatown.
Honolulu’s Chinatown, one of the oldest in the U.S., is not nearly as insular as other such communities. A sliver of downtown Honolulu, the neighborhood historically attracted a hodgepodge of Hawaii’s ethnicities, plus seafarers who came in droves from the nearby harbor. But it does have a similar vibe to those other Chinatowns: It’s bustling with friendly, eager vendors and bargain-hunters, and has an air of mystery mixed in with savory smells. As you stroll around, you’ll notice many of the buildings still have their original facades. Notable stops include clothing boutiques like Fighting Eel and Roberta Oaks, The ARTS at Marks Garage, Black Cat Tattoo, and Tin Can Mailman, a little-known gem for Hawaiian antiques and collectibles. The Oahu Market is where the locals go to pick up the best fresh meat, fish, and produce.
7. Wander through Shirokiya Japan Village Walk.
This entertainment destination — a bit like a mini theme park — is full of fun and well worth a visit. Set inside the Ala Moana Center, the world’s largest open-air mall, Shirokiya Japan Village Walk is set up like a traditional Japanese town, reminiscent of old Kyoto. It consists of four themed sections. Yataimura has dozens of food vendors, which makes choosing quite the task. Look for bentos, onigiri, sushi, ramen, soba, udon, yakitori, takoyaki, okonomiyaki, curries, and tempura. Don’t miss the Japanese beer garden, and the Vintage Cave Bakery, which uses only Shirakami-Kodama yeast. It imparts a delectable fragrance and sweetness that ordinary yeast can’t match. After you waddle out of Yataimura, hit Zeppin Plaza, quaint shopping alleys lined with Japanese artisans and crafters (and plenty of Anime goods); Omatsuri Hiroba, the festival and performance square; and the Guardian Spirits Sanctuary. There, you’ll find out which of the eight Buddhas and 12 animal signs of the Japanese zodiac are your own personal good luck deities.
8. Do brunch at Piggy Smalls.
With a clean, modern design, Piggy Smalls recently opened its doors in the trendy Ward Village. The menu is international, showcasing some favorite dishes from Europe, North Africa, the U.S., and Southeast Asia. Stellar picks include Chinese scallion pancakes, Moroccan green papaya salad, and farmer’s goulash. Brunch is delicious, whether you start it off with Saigon-style dark roast drip coffee with sweetened condensed milk, a pineapple mimosa slushy, or both. One of the most popular selections off the brunch menu is lap cheong fish and eggs (local opah belly crusted with Chinese sausage and ginger, and served with marinated kale and smoked mushrooms).
9. Hike Diamond Head State Monument.
Hawaii’s most recognizable landmark is hard to miss. Its iconic profile has appeared in countless movies. Diamond Head (a.k.a. Lē‘ahi) may look remote in pictures, but it’s right at the eastern edge of the Waikiki coastline. The Diamond Head State Monument encompasses the interior and outer slopes of a volcanic crater. Walking the trail to the summit gives you a glimpse into the landscape’s geology and history (it was once used as a military lookout spot). When you reach the top, explore the bunkers on the crater’s rim and the lighthouse built in 1917. But the real reward is the iconic picture of the shoreline, stretching from Koko Head to Wai’anae. If you’re visiting in the winter, you may spot passing humpback whales. The round-trip hike, which includes a few staircases and lighted tunnels, takes only about two hours at a leisurely pace. So, even if you’re not really the outdoorsy type, you shouldn’t miss out on this one-of-a-kind journey.
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