45 Best Sights in Honolulu and Pearl Harbor, Oahu

Ala Moana Regional Park

Ala Moana Fodor's choice
Overlooking Ala Moana Beach Park; Ala Moana, Honolulu, Honolulu and Oahu, Hawaii, USA
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A protective reef makes Ala Moana essentially a ½-mile-wide saltwater swimming pool. Very smooth sand and no waves create a haven for families and stand-up paddleboarders. After Waikiki, this is the most popular beach among visitors, and the free parking area can fill up quickly on sunny weekends. On the Waikiki side is a peninsula called Magic Island, with shady trees and paved sidewalks ideal for jogging. Ala Moana Regional Park also has playing fields, tennis courts, and a couple of small ponds for sailing toy boats. The beach is for everyone, but only in the daytime; after dark, it's a high-crime area, with many unhoused people. Amenities: food and drink; lifeguards; parking (free); showers; toilets. Best for: swimming; walking.

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Bishop Museum

Kalihi Fodor's choice
Bishop Museum, Kalihi, Honolulu, Honolulu and Oahu, Hawaii, USA
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Founded in 1889 by Charles R. Bishop as a memorial to his wife, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the museum began as a repository for the royal possessions of this last direct descendant of King Kamehameha the Great. Today, it's the state's designated history and culture museum. Its five exhibit halls contain almost 25 million items that tell the history of the Hawaiian Islands and their Pacific neighbors.

Gain understanding of the entire region in the Pacific Hall, and learn about the culture of the Islands through state-of-the-art and often-interactive displays in the Hawaiian Hall. Spectacular artifacts—lustrous feather capes, bone fishhooks, the skeleton of a giant sperm whale, photography and crafts displays, and a well-preserved grass house—are displayed inside a three-story, 19th-century, Victorian-style gallery. The building alone, with its huge turrets and immense stone walls, is worth seeing.

In the 16,500-square-foot science adventure wing, it's hard to miss the three-story simulated volcano where regular "lava melts" take place to the delight of younger (and young at heart) visitors. Also check out the planetarium, daily tours, lauhala-weaving and science demonstrations, special exhibits, the Shop Pacifica, and the Bishop Museum Café, which serves ono (delicious) Hawaiian food by local restaurant Highway Inn.

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Diamond Head State Monument

Diamond Head Fodor's choice
Diamond Head State Monument and Park, Diamond Head, Honolulu, Honolulu and Oahu, Hawaii, USA.
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Panoramas from this 760-foot extinct volcanic peak, once used as a military fortification, extend from Waikiki and Honolulu in one direction and out to Koko Head in the other, with surfers and windsurfers scattered like confetti on the cresting waves below. The 360-degree perspective is a great orientation for first-time visitors. On a clear day, look east past Koko Head to glimpse the outlines of the islands of Maui and Molokai.

To enter the park from Waikiki, take Kalakaua Avenue east, turn left at Monsarrat Avenue, head a mile up the hill, and look for a sign on the right. Drive through the tunnel to the inside of the crater. The ¾-mile trail to the top begins at the parking lot. Be aware that the hike up to the crater has numerous stairs to climb; if you aren't in the habit of getting occasional exercise, this might not be for you. At the top, you'll find a somewhat awkward scramble through a tunnel and bunker out into the open air, but the view is worth it.

As you walk, note the color of the vegetation: if the mountain is brown, Honolulu has been without significant rain for a while, but if the trees and undergrowth glow green, you'll know it's the wet season (winter) without looking at a calendar. Winter is when rare Hawaiian marsh plants revive on the floor of the crater. Wear a hat and take bottled water with you to stay hydrated under the tropical sun as there are no water stations (or any shade) along the hike. Keep an eye on your watch if you're here at day's end: the gates close promptly at 6 pm. To beat the heat and the crowds, rise early and make the hike before 8 am.

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Fort DeRussy Beach Park

Waikiki Fodor's choice

A wide, soft, ultra-white shore with gently lapping waves makes this fine beach a family favorite for running-jumping-frolicking fun. Other bonuses include the shaded, grassy grilling area, the sand volleyball courts, and the many aquatic rental options. The beach fronts the Hale Koa Hotel as well as Fort DeRussy. Amenities: food and drink; lifeguards; showers; toilets; water sports. Best for: swimming; walking.

Honolulu Museum of Art

Downtown Fodor's choice

Originally built around the collection of a Honolulu matron who donated much of her estate to the museum, the Honolulu Academy of Arts is housed in a maze of courtyards, cloistered walkways, and quiet, low-ceiling spaces. There's an impressive permanent collection that includes the third-largest assembly of Hiroshige's ukiyo-e Japanese prints in the country (donated by author James Michener); Italian Renaissance paintings; and American and European art by Monet, van Gogh, and Whistler, among many others. The newer Luce Pavilion complex, nicely incorporated into the more traditional architecture of the museum, has a traveling-exhibit gallery, a Hawaiian gallery, an excellent café, and a gift shop. The Doris Duke Theatre screens art films. This is also the jumping-off point for tours of Doris Duke's striking estate, which is now the Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture, and Design. If you wish to visit, you should reserve tickets well in advance.

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Iolani Palace

Downtown Fodor's choice
Iolani Palace, Honolulu and Oahu, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA
Bryan Busovicki / Shutterstock

America's only official royal residence, on the site of an earlier palace, was completed in 1882. It contains the thrones of King Kalakaua and his successor (and sister) Queen Liliuokalani. Bucking the stereotype of simple island life, the palace had electric lights even before the White House. Downstairs galleries showcase the royal jewelry, as well as a kitchen and offices that have been restored to the glory of the monarchy. The palace gift shop and ticket office are now in what was formerly the Iolani Barracks, built to house the Royal Guard. The palace has self-guided audio tours and guided tours. Guided tours are only available in the mornings, and it's best to make reservations a few days in advance.

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Pearl Harbor National Memorial

Fodor's choice

Pearl Harbor is still a working military base as well as Oahu’s most visited attraction, consisting of five distinct destinations. Managed by the National Park Service, the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center and USS Arizona Memorial make up the national memorial, where exhibits tell the story not only of the devastating Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, but also of the wartime internment of Japanese Americans, World War II battles in the Aleutian Islands, and the occupation of Japan after the war. The history continues at three, privately operated sights: the Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum (whose centerpiece is the USS Bowfin), the Battleship Missouri Memorial, and the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum.

A valid, government-issued, photo ID is required to enter the base. You can walk to the visitor center or the submarine museum from the parking lot, but access to the USS Arizona requires a ferry ride (and ticket reservations via  www.recreation.gov), and access to other sites, including the USS Missouri and the aviation museum, requires a shuttle bus trip.

With the exception of the visitor center, no bags of any kind—not even small purses—are allowed at any of the sights, though cameras, cell phones, and wallets can be hand-carried. A bag check is available. Children under four can visit the submarine museum but, for safety reasons, are not allowed on the USS Bowfin itself.

1 Arizona Memorial Pl., Pearl Harbor, HI, USA
808-422–3399
Sight Details
Visitor center and USS Arizona Memorial free (aside from $1 ticket reservation fee); fees for other sites
Rate Includes: Reservations required to access USS Arizona Memorial

Pearl Harbor Visitor Center

Fodor's choice
Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, Honolulu and Oahu, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA
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The gateway to the Pearl Harbor National Memorial and the starting point for visitors to this historic site has interpretive exhibits in two separate galleries (Road to War and Attack) that feature photographs and personal memorabilia from World War II veterans. There are also other exhibits, a bookstore, and a Remembrance Circle, where you can learn about the people who lost their lives on December 7, 1941. Survivors are sometimes on hand to give their personal accounts and answer questions. The visitor center is also where you start your tour of the USS Arizona Memorial if you have reserved the requisite timed-entry ticket ( www.recreation.gov; $1 reservation fee).

USS Arizona Memorial

Fodor's choice

Lined up tight in a row of seven battleships off Ford Island, the USS Arizona took a direct hit on December 7, 1941, exploded, and rests still on the shallow bottom where she settled. You must reserve tickets ( www.recreation.gov) ahead of time to ensure access to the memorial; same-day, first-come, first-served tickets are no longer offered. As spaces are limited and tend to fill up, reserve as far ahead as possible; you can do so up to two months in advance. When your tour starts, you watch a short documentary film, then board the ferry to the memorial.

The swooping, stark-white structure, which straddles the wreck of the USS Arizona, was designed by Honolulu architect Alfred Preis to represent both the depths of the low-spirited, early days of the war and the uplift of victory. A somber, contemplative mood descends upon visitors during the ferry ride; this is a place where 1,777 people died. Gaze at the names of the dead carved into the wall of white marble. Look at oil on the water's surface, still slowly escaping from the sunken ship. Scatter flowers (but no lei—the string is bad for the fish). Salute the flag. Remember Pearl Harbor.

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Battleship Missouri Memorial

Battleship Missouri Memorial, Honolulu and Oahu, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA
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Together with the Arizona Memorial, the USS Missouri's presence in Pearl Harbor perfectly frames America's World War II experience, which began December 7, 1941, and ended on the "Mighty Mo's" starboard deck with the signing of the Terms of Surrender. To begin your visit on the fully restored vessel, pick up tickets online or at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center. Then board a shuttle bus for the eight-minute ride to Ford Island and the teak decks and towering superstructure of the last American battleship ever built. Join a guided tour to learn more about the Missouri's long and dramatic history. The Heart of the Missouri tour (an additional $25) provides an up-close look at the battleship's engineering spaces, accessing its engine rooms, gun turret, damage control station, and aft battery plot room.

The Missouri is 887 feet long and 209 feet tall, with nine 116-ton guns capable of firing up to 23 miles. Absorb these numbers during the tour, then stop to take advantage of the view from the decks. Near the entrance is a gift shop, as well as a lunch wagon and shave ice stand that serve hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, and other treats.

Diamond Head Beach Park

Diamond Head

You have to do a little hiking to reach this beautiful, remote spot at the base of Diamond Head Crater. Although the beach is just a small, narrow strip of sand with lots of coral in the water, the views from the point are breathtaking, and it's fun to watch the windsurfers skimming along. From the parking area, look for an opening in the wall where an unpaved trail leads down to the beach. Even for the unadventurous, a stop at the lookout point is well worth the time. Amenities: parking (no fee); showers. Best for: solitude; sunset; surfing; windsurfing.

3500 Diamond Head Rd., Honolulu, HI, 96815, USA

Dolphin Quest at The Kahala Hotel & Resort

Kahala

This worldwide dolphin-encounter group has an Oahu location in The Kahala Hotel & Resort, where trained Atlantic bottlenose dolphins hold court in their outdoor lagoon adjacent to the pool area. Activities with the creatures go on throughout the day and can be watched from lanai, walkways, and even some rooms. Programs include kid-specific sessions where children can feed and interact with dolphins, fish, and other aquatic animals, as well as various interactive offerings for teens and adults.

Duke's Beach

Waikiki

Named for Hawaii's famous Olympic swimming champion and waterman, Duke Kahanamoku, this hard-packed beach fronting the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort is great for families. It's the only stretch of Waikiki with shade trees on the sand, and its waters are very calm thanks to a rock wall that creates a semiprotected cove. The ocean clarity here is not as good as elsewhere, but this is a small price to pay for peace of mind about youngsters. Amenities: food and drink; parking (fee); showers; toilets. Best for: sunset; swimming; walking.

2005 Kalia Rd., Honolulu, HI, 96815, USA

Foster Botanical Garden

Chinatown

Some of the trees in this botanical garden, which opened in 1931, date from 1853, when Queen Kalama allowed a young German doctor to lease a portion of her land. More than 150 years later, you can see these trees and countless others along with bromeliads, orchids, and other tropical plants, some of which are rare or endangered. Look out in particular for the cannonball tree and the redwood-size quipo tree. A docent-led tour is available every day at 10:30 am (call for reservations).

Gray's Beach

Waikiki

In the 1920s, a little guesthouse called Gray's-by-the-Sea stood on what is now a very narrow strip of sand that's best for walking, admiring the ocean, and imagining a Waikiki of yesteryear. (Note that the tides often put sand space at a premium, so you have to use the elevated concrete walkway most of the time.) You can also enjoy a great view of Diamond Head as well as a mai tai at House Without A Key, a legendary beach restaurant at the Halekulani hotel a few steps away. Amenities: food and drink; lifeguards; parking (fee); showers; toilets. Best for: walking.

2199 Kalia Rd., Honolulu, HI, 96815-1988, USA

Hawaii State Capitol

Downtown

The capitol's architecture is richly symbolic: the columns resemble palm trees, the legislative chambers are shaped like volcanic cinder cones, and the central court is open to the sky, representing Hawaii's open society. Replicas of the Hawaii state seal, each weighing 7,500 pounds, hang above both its entrances. The building, which in 1969 replaced Iolani Palace as the seat of government, is surrounded by reflecting pools, just as the Islands are embraced by water. A pair of statues, often draped in lei, flank the building: one of the beloved Queen Liliuokalani and the other of the sainted Father Damien de Veuster, famous for helping Molokai's Hansen's disease (leprosy) patients.

Hawaii State Library

Downtown

This beautifully renovated main library was built in 1913. Its Samuel Manaiakalani Kamakau Room, on the first floor in the mauka (Hawaiian for "mountain") courtyard, houses an extensive Hawaii and Pacific book collection and pays tribute to Kamakau, a missionary student whose 19th-century writings in English offer rare and vital insight into traditional Hawaiian culture.

Hawaii Theatre

Chinatown

Opened in 1922, this theater earned rave reviews for its neoclassical design, with Corinthian columns, marble statues, and plush carpeting and drapery. The so-called Pride of the Pacific was rescued from demolition in the early 1980s, underwent a $30-million renovation, and is now listed on both the State and National Registers of Historic Places. The 1,400-seat venue hosts concerts, theatrical productions, dance performances, and film screenings. Guided tours of the theater end with a miniconcert on the historic orchestral pipe organ and can be booked through the box office. If you're interested in the first Tuesday of the month tours at 11 am, call a few days ahead to reserve.

Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site and Archives

Downtown

The determined Hawaii missionaries arrived in 1820, gaining royal favor and influencing a wide array of Islands life. Their descendants became leaders in government, business, and education. Here you can learn about their influence and walk through their original dwellings, including Hawaii's oldest Western-style wooden structure, a white-frame house that was prefabricated in New England and shipped around the Horn. A hale pili (traditional Hawaiian dwelling) sits nearby. Be sure to sign up for one of the hourly guided tours: docents not only paint an excellent picture of what mission life was like, but they also take you to areas of the museum you wouldn't otherwise be able to see. Special Hawaiian, architectural, and history tours are also offered on certain days. Rotating displays showcase such arts as Hawaiian quilting, portraits, and even toys, and a rich archival library is also open to the public.

553 S. King St., Honolulu, HI, 96813, USA
808-447–3910
Sight Details
Rate Includes: $12, Closed Sun., Mon., Wed., Thurs.

Honolulu Hale

Downtown

This Mediterranean Renaissance–style building was constructed in 1929 and serves as the center of government for the City and County of Honolulu. Stroll through the shady, open-ceiling lobby with exhibits of local artists. During the winter holiday season, the Hale (Hawaiian for "house") becomes the focal point for the annual Honolulu City Lights, a display of lighting and playful holiday scenes spread around the campus, including the famous, gigantic Shaka Santa and Tute Mele. The mayor's office keeps a calendar of upcoming events.

Honolulu Zoo

Waikiki

The world definitely has bigger and better (and newer) zoos, but this 42-acre facility features well-paved, walkable trails amid a lush garden with tropical flowers. To get a glimpse of the endangered nene, the Hawaii state bird, check out the zoo's Kipuka Nene Sanctuary. Other highlights include a Japanese Giant Salamander habitat and an ectotherm complex, which houses a Burmese python, elongated tortoises, and a giant African snail. Though many animals prefer to remain invisible—particularly the big cats—the monkeys and elephants appear to enjoy being seen and are a hoot to watch. It's best to get to the zoo right when it opens because the animals are livelier in the cool of the morning. Children adore the petting zoo, where they can make friends with a llama or stand in the middle of a koi pond.

There's an exceptionally good gift shop. On weekends, the Art on the Zoo Fence, on Monsarrat Avenue on the Diamond Head side outside the zoo, has affordable artwork by local contemporary artists. Metered parking is available all along the makai (ocean) side of the park and in the lot next to the zoo—but it can fill up early. TheBus makes stops here along the way to and from Ala Moana Center and Sea Life Park (Routes 8 and 22).

Izumo Taishakyo Mission of Hawaii

Chinatown

From Chinatown Cultural Plaza, cross a stone bridge to the Izumo Taishakyo Mission of Hawaii to visit the shrine established in 1906. It honors Okuninushi-no-Mikoto, a kami (god) who is believed in Shinto tradition to bring good fortune if properly courted (and thanked afterward).

Kahaloa and Ulukou Beaches

Waikiki

The "it" spots for the bikini crowd—and just about everyone else—have most of the catamaran charters that sail out to Diamond Head, as well as surfboard and outrigger canoe rentals that make it easy to take advantage of the Canoes surf break. Chair and umbrella rentals are available, and great music and outdoor dancing beckon at the lively Duke's restaurant, where shirt and shoes not only aren't required, they're discouraged. The Royal Hawaiian Hotel and the Moana Surfrider are both also here. Amenities: food and drink; lifeguards; parking (fee); showers; toilets; water sports. Best for: partiers; surfing.

2259 Kalakaua Ave., Honolulu, HI, 96815, USA

Kaimana (Sans Souci) Beach

Waikiki

Across from the zoo, at the eastern end of Waikiki along what is known as the Gold Coast, this small rectangle of sand is a local-favorite sunning spot for beach lovers of all ages. Although it's usually quieter than the stretches of beach in the heart of town, it's also close to the conveniences of Waikiki. Children can splash safely in its shallow waters, which are protected (for now) by the walls of the historic natatorium, a long-closed, Olympic-size, saltwater swimming arena. Serious swimmers and triathletes also train in the channel beyond the reef here. The Kaimana Beach Hotel and popular Hau Tree lanai restaurant are next door. Amenities: lifeguards; parking (fee); showers; toilets. Best for: swimming; walking.

2776 Kalakaua Ave., Honolulu, HI, 96815, USA

Kamehameha I Statue

Downtown

Honoring the Big Island chieftain who united all the warring Hawaiian Islands into one kingdom at the turn of the 18th century, this statue, which stands with one arm outstretched in welcome, is one of two cast in Paris by American sculptor T. R. Gould. The original statue, lost at sea and replaced by this one, was eventually salvaged and is now in Kapaau, on the Big Island, near the king's birthplace. Each year on the king's birthday (June 11), the more famous copy is draped in fresh lei that reach lengths of 18 feet and longer. A parade proceeds past the statue, and Hawaiian civic clubs, women in hats and impressive long holoku dresses, and men in sashes and cummerbunds honor the leader, whose name means "The One Set Apart." 

Kapiolani Park Bandstand

Waikiki

The Victorian-style Kapiolani Park Bandstand, which was built in the late 1890s, is the park's stage for community entertainment and concerts. Founded by King Kamehameha III in 1836, the Royal Hawaiian Band is the nation's only city-sponsored band and performs free concerts at the bandstand as well as at Iolani Palace and the center stage at Ala Moana Center. Visit the band's website for concert dates ( www.rhb-music.com), and check event-listing websites and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser—Oahu's local newspaper—for information on other coming bandstand attractions.

Kawaiahao Church

Downtown

Fancifully called Hawaii's Westminster Abbey, this historic house of worship witnessed the coronations, weddings, and funerals of generations of Hawaiian royalty. Each of the building's 14,000 coral blocks was quarried from reefs offshore at depths of more than 20 feet and transported to this site. Interior woodwork was created from the forests of the Koolau Mountains. The upper gallery displays paintings of the royal families. The graves of missionaries and of King Lunalilo are adjacent. Services in English, with songs and prayers in Hawaiian, are held each Sunday. An all-Hawaiian service is held at 5 pm on the second and fourth Sunday of the month (Kawaiahao's affiliation is United Church of Christ). Although there are no guided tours, you can look around the church at no cost.

957 Punchbowl St., Honolulu, HI, 96813, USA
808-469–3000
Sight Details
Rate Includes: Free

Kuan Yin Temple

Chinatown

A couple of blocks mauka (toward the mountains) from Chinatown is the oldest Buddhist temple in the Islands. Mistakenly called a goddess by some, Kuan Yin, also known as Kannon, is a bodhisattva—one who chose to remain on Earth doing good even after achieving enlightenment. Transformed from a male into a female figure centuries ago, she is credited with being particularly sympathetic to women. You will see representations of her all over the Islands: holding a lotus flower (beauty from the mud of human frailty), as at the temple; pouring out a pitcher of oil (like mercy flowing); or as a sort of Madonna with a child. Visitors are permitted but should be mindful that this is a practicing place of worship.

170 N. Vineyard Blvd., Honolulu, HI, 96817, USA

Kuhio Beach Park

Waikiki

Featuring a bronze statue of Duke Kahanamoku, the father of modern-day surfing, this lively beach is bordered by a landscaped walkway with a few benches and some shade. It's great for strolls and people-watching any time of day. Check out the Kuhio Beach hula mound Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 6:30 (at 6, Nov.–Jan.) for free hula and Hawaiian-music performances and a sunset torch-lighting ceremony. Surf lessons for beginners are available from the beach center every half hour. Amenities: food and drink; lifeguards; showers; toilets; water sports. Best for: surfing; walking.

2461 Kalakaua Ave., Honolulu, HI, 96815, USA

Lyon Arboretum

Manoa

Tucked all the way back in Manoa Valley, this is a gem of an arboretum operated by the University of Hawaii. Hike to a waterfall, or sit and enjoy beautiful views of the valley while having a picnic. You'll also see an ethnobotanical garden, a Hawaiian hale (house) and garden, and one of the largest palm collections anywhere—all within a parklike setting. Its educational mission means there are often regular talks and walks, plus classes on lei-making, lauhala weaving, Hawaiian medicinal arts, and more, which you can take for an additional fee.

3860 Manoa Rd., Honolulu, HI, 96822, USA
808-988–0456
Sight Details
Rate Includes: Suggested donation of $10, Closed Sat. and Sun., Reservations required