If you look up “Honolulu What To Do,” you’ll see the usual suggestions: the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, shop at the Royal Hawaiian Center, or surf in front of your Waikiki hotel. But this vibrant city has much more than a stretch of beach and a WW2 memorial.
Don’t get me wrong: both are worth visiting, but they are the tip of the iceberg. Being married to someone who grew up in Honolulu, I’ve spent more than 15 years visiting O’ahu and have sifted through the so-called best things to do.
Honolulu What To Do: More Than 30 Ideas
Approximately 4 million visitors stay on Waikiki Beach yearly and many don’t veer far beyond that. They often don’t explore the city of Honolulu beyond Waikiki, much less the entire island of Oahu, and that’s so missing out! Right now is easily one of the most exciting moments in the city as a new generation flexes their culinary, fashion, design, and creative muscles far from the stereotypes of cheesy Hawaiian shirts, plastic leis, and umbrella-clad drinks.
As the largest city in the state of Hawai’i, Honolulu is teeming with culture and history. For those wondering “Honolulu what to do,” this guide will lead you through the city’s best places. From surfing Waikiki and seeing mid century modern architecture to learning about Hawaiian culture and shopping locally, here are more than 30 things to do (plus some day trips) to help you get to the essence of Honolulu.
Get In The Water Waikiki Beach
Ride the legendary waves of Waikiki Beach, where surfing icons once carved their names in history, offering ideal conditions for everyone from beginners to experienced surfers.
This is one of the world’s busiest and most famous beaches for a reason: its backdrop is the majestic Diamond Head State Monument (Lē’ahi) , a great spot for hiking and enjoying panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. Reach out if you want advice on our favorite provider for surf lessons and outrigger canoe rides.
Visit The Duke Kahanamoku Statue
When you take a walk along the Waikiki boardwalk, make sure to stop by this statue. It pays homage to the father of modern surfing (who also won three gold medals!) Duke Kahanamoku symbolizes the Aloha spirit and is a popular photo spot for visitors.
Surf At Kuhio Beach Park
While you can rent a board and head out to surf anywhere on Waikiki, our preferred spot is Kuhio Beach Park, just east of the Duke statue. There are two breaks here — Canoes, which is great for beginners, and Queen’s, a more advanced wave — so surfers of varying skill can head here for a good time.
Sunset At Kaimana Beach
Waikiki is a must-see, but it can get really crowded on the weekends or during the high season. We prefer to head to the end of Waikiki to Kaimana Beach, where the calm waters and inviting sandy shores create a perfect beach day setting.
See A Performance At The Waikiki Shell
Just across the street from Kaimana Beach is Kapi’olani Park, a favorite spot for a morning jog. But also, it’s home to one of the most beloved music venues on the islands, the outdoor amphitheater known as the Waikiki Shell.
The legendary hula show, known as Kilohana, just returned to the Waikiki Shell in February 2024. This free show occurs from 9:30 AM – 10:30 AM every Sunday through Thursday so is a great way to see authentic hula not far from Waikiki.
Listen To Local Music
Immerse yourself in the local culture by enjoying live music performances, preferably over a cocktail at sunset. Waikiki used to be a bastion of live Hawaiian music, but it’s not as common these days. Two places that keep up the tradition are the beloved Outrigger Waikiki and the historic House Without A Key bar at the Halekulani Hotel, where they have excellent service, top Mai Tais, and live music nightly.
See Downtown Honolulu’s Architecture
Downtown Honolulu is a vibrant mix of past and present, offering visitors a taste of the island’s rich history and contemporary lifestyle. Explore the rich history and unique architectural styles of Downtown Honolulu on a walking tour, showcasing the city’s blend of modern and historical buildings.
Tour The Hawaiian Monarch’s Palace
Visit the ‘Iolani Palace, a national historic landmark and the only royal palace in the United States, offering a glimpse into the lives of Hawaiian royalty. It is not always listed on the top Honolulu attractions, but it very much should be as it gives you perspective on the rich (and complicated) history of Hawai’i.
Learn Polynesian Culture At The Bishop Museum
To truly answer “Honolulu what to do” for culture enthusiasts, the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum is an essential visit. Explore the rich heritage of the Hawaiian Islands and the broader Polynesian culture with its treasure trove of artifacts and exhibits. We recommend doing the ‘Iolani Palace and The Bishop Museum in one day to get a solid understanding of the Hawaiian culture.
See Tropical Modernism Masterpieces
Admire the mid-century modern designs of Vladimir Ossipoff, whose works masterfully blend indoor and outdoor spaces and reflect the harmony between nature and architecture. Head to the Liljestrand House for a tour or simply drive around town to see some of his 100s of works on the island, like the IBM building, the Pacific Club, and the Outrigger Canoe Club.
Visit The Pearl Harbor National Memorial
The Pearl Harbor National Memorial, including the USS Arizona Memorial, is a solemn reminder of the events that have shaped modern history. A boat ride to the memorial provides a moving experience, making it a must-visit for anyone interested in the United States history and the impact of World War II.
Hang At A Kitschy Tiki Bar
Experience the vintage charm of Honolulu at La Mariana, the last original tiki bar, offering a nostalgic ambiance with classic tiki drinks and decor. The bar is set on Sand Island, making it a logical stop after visiting Pearl Harbor or the Moana Lua Gardens.
Eat Local Grindz
Savor the island’s flavors by indulging in local grindz. We’re talking everything from poke and a plate lunch to manapua, Hank’s Haute Dogs, and Musubi Cafe Isyasume.
Eat Sweet Treats
Treat yourself to the sweet side of Honolulu with an array of local desserts, from shave ice at Waiola Shave Ice and cream puffs to malasadas from Leonard’s and butter mochi, ensuring a delightful experience for your taste buds.
Support Local Farmers Markets
Discover the freshest produce and unique local crafts at Honolulu’s farmers markets, a great way to support local farmers and artisans. There are farmers markets throughout the island, but the easiest to access for visitors is the Kaka’ako Farmers Market or the KCC Farmers Market.
Shop The Legendary Ala Moana Center
The Ala Moana Center, the world’s largest open-air shopping center, is a perfect place for retail therapy. It’s not just a shopping destination but a reflection of Honolulu’s diverse culture, with various local shops and international brands. Also don’t miss the Foodland Farms and Nijiya markets where you can dine on local eats and shop for groceries.
Shop For Vintage
Hunt for unique finds and vintage treasures in Honolulu’s various boutiques and thrift stores, offering a sustainable and stylish shopping experience. Across Honolulu, you’ll find various clothing and furniture vintage stores, but the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet and Chinatown (spots like Hound & Quail) are our favorites.
Discover the charm of Kaimuki, a laid back neighborhood known for its eclectic mix of shops, restaurants, and a laid-back vibe, offering a local experience away from the tourist crowds.
Dive Into Chinatown
Honolulu’s Chinatown is not just a historic district but also a culinary hotspot. It’s a great place to indulge in diverse cuisines and live music and experience the vibrant nightlife of Honolulu. Dive into the vibrant atmosphere of Chinatown, where the streets are lined with markets, galleries, and eateries (like the James Beard-winning Fête), offering a feast for the senses.
Located in Manoa Valley, the 200-acre Lyon Arboretum is a part of the University of Hawaii and offers a serene environment with over 5,000 tropical plant species. It’s a perfect place for nature lovers and those looking to enjoy a quiet hike.
Honolulu Museum of Art: A Feast for Art Lovers
The Honolulu Museum of Art is a treasure trove for art enthusiasts. With a collection that spans various cultures and periods, it’s a great place to appreciate classical and contemporary art. Explore the world-class collections at the Honolulu Museum of Art, featuring a diverse range of art, from traditional Hawaiian pieces to contemporary masterpieces.
Hike Diamond Head Crater
Embark on a hike to the summit of Diamond Head Crater (Lē’ahi) for breathtaking panoramic views of Honolulu and the Pacific Ocean, a rewarding experience for nature lovers.
Walk Manoa Falls Trail
Trek through the lush rainforest on the Manoa Falls Trail, leading to the spectacular Manoa Falls, a serene spot for nature enthusiasts and photographers. This is a short and relatively easy hike that’s close to Waikiki, so it’s great for families who want to escape the beach for a minute.
Visit A Local Ukulele Maker
Discover the artistry behind this iconic instrument by visiting a local ukulele maker, where you can learn about the craft and even pick up a unique souvenir.
Make Lei At A Historic Cabin
Engage in the traditional Hawaiian art of lei making at a historic cabin, a hands-on experience that connects you with the local culture and traditions.
Do A Food Tour
Embark on a culinary journey with a food tour in Honolulu, sampling various local dishes and learning about the island’s rich gastronomic history. Reach out if you want us to pair you up with a local chef so you can do a custom food tour of Honolulu.
Cook With A Local Chef
Enhance your cooking skills and learn the secrets of Hawaiian cuisine by participating in a cooking class led by a local chef, a delicious way to immerse yourself in the local culture.
Shangri La Museum
The Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, created by Doris Duke, is a unique cultural gem showcasing Islamic art in a stunning Hawaiian setting. It’s a perfect place for those exploring something different in Honolulu.
Pu’u ‘Ualaka’a State Park
This park offers one of the best panoramic views of Honolulu, away from the crowds of more popular lookouts. It’s a perfect place for a sunset view or a quiet afternoon. Enjoy a peaceful escape to Puu Ualakaa State Park, offering some of the best views of Honolulu and the surrounding area, a perfect spot for picnics and sunset watching.
Hike Koko Head Crater
Take on the challenge of hiking the Koko Crater Trail, a strenuous but rewarding trek that offers stunning views of the island and a sense of accomplishment. Note that parts of this trail require walking over an old funicular track that has worn away, so it is not great for kids or anyone with mobility issues or a fear of heights.
Witness the natural spectacle of the Halona Blowhole, where ocean waves force water through a rock formation, creating a dramatic spray, especially impressive during high tide. Please be careful and obey all the signs, as people have gotten severely hurt by getting too close!
Morning Walk At Makapu’u
If you’re an earlier riser, consider driving to the Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail to hike at sunrise.
What Not To Do In Honolulu
For all the incredible things to do in Honolulu, there are also some things we don’t recommend. Namely:
Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve
Look, many places in Hawai’i have been either loved to death by tourists or are outright dangerous. Hanauma Bay is in the former category, as busloads of tourists head there to snorkel.
There is a reservation system to control the influx of tourism, and we fully support the state’s efforts. But the truth is there are plenty of other places to snorkel on Oahu without putting stress on the environment (or dealing with crowds).
Sandy Beach Park
Located near Halona Blowhole, Koko Crater, and Makapu’u, this super local beach can be a lovely stop. However, it is a shorebreak wave (and one of the best bodysurfing waves on the island), so unless you’re a skilled water person, we recommend you do not get in the water here.
Lanikai is beautiful, with calm, turquoise water, but social media has blown it up, and the residents are inundated with tourists. This is one of the beaches on Oahu that has been most affected by erosion, so we recommend you don’t visit (we can recommend alternatives!) to not be part of the problem.
Stairway To Heaven Hike
Despite this hike being closed off to the public, we still see it promoted (along with the Lanikai Pillbox hike) everywhere. The reality is there are a lot of steep, muddy hikes with eroded trails out there, and going on them when they’re closed to the public (or just not in good condition) is a recipe for disaster. Every year, a few tourists have to get rescued off trails like this — don’t be one of them!
Frequently Asked Questions
In Honolulu, don't miss the iconic Waikiki Beach, where you can surf, sunbathe, and enjoy the vibrant atmosphere. Visit Pearl Harbor to learn about a pivotal moment in US history. Explore the natural beauty of Diamond Head State Monument through a hike that offers stunning panoramic views. The historic Iolani Palace and the bustling Ala Moana Center are also top attractions.
Honolulu is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts. Surfing and snorkeling are popular at many beaches like Waikiki and Hanauma Bay. Hiking trails like Manoa Falls and Diamond Head offer breathtaking natural scenery. Kayaking and paddleboarding are great in the calmer waters of Kailua Beach. Picnicking at Kapiolani Park is a lovely choice for a more relaxed day.
To immerse yourself in local culture, visit the 'Iolani Palace and the Bishop Museum, which showcase Hawaiian history. Don't miss the opportunity to learn about the art of hula, ukulele making, hat weaving, and lei-making in local workshops or at cultural festivals.
5 Day Trips From Honolulu
Venture to Kualoa Ranch for an unforgettable day trip where lush green valleys and striking mountains serve as the backdrop for activities like horseback riding, ATV tours, and movie site explorations, immersing visitors in the natural beauty and cinematic history of Oahu.
Head to the North Shore, a haven for surfers and beach lovers alike, offering laid-back towns, stunning beaches, and the chance to witness world-class surfing, especially during the winter months when the waves are most majestic.
Swim with Marine Life
Take a trip to Oahu’s west side for an extraordinary opportunity to swim and snorkel with the abundant marine life in clear, azure waters, where encounters with dolphins, turtles, and tropical fish are commonplace, offering a glimpse into the vibrant underwater world.
Visit a Local Farm
Escape to the countryside by visiting a local farm, where you can learn about Hawaii’s local produce, participate in farm-to-table experiences, and savor fresh, organic fruits and vegetables, providing a taste of the island’s agricultural bounty and sustainable practices.
Volunteer at a Lo’i
Spend a day volunteering at a lo’i (traditional Hawaiian taro field), where you can learn about sustainable farming and Hawaiian culture and contribute to preserving the island’s agricultural heritage, making for a fulfilling and educational experience.
If you stay in Waikiki, you’re likely wondering where to eat. While Waikiki can be touristy, there are lovely places to eat, like Hau Tree, Sushi Sho, and Maahina & Suns.
Check out all our recommendations for the best places to eat in Oahu Waikiki, then get in touch if you need additional planning help!
Photo Credit: opening photo Landscape of Honolulu from above By Jimena Roquero; Surfing Waikiki Photo by Daniel Lee on Unsplash; Iolani Palace Photo by Nico Smit on Unsplash; Diamond Head photo Norbert Turi