Waikiki is the hub of tourism in Hawaii and for good reason, there’s no shortage of things to do! A lot of people end up visiting and staying in Honolulu/Waikiki by default just because it’s where most people go, so just in case you found this post early on in your trip research, let me give you a little primer on Waikiki/Honolulu/Oahu/Hawaii:
“Hawaii” is the name of the state. It’s comprised of four main islands and two smaller islands (Oahu, Maui, Kauai, the Big Island/Hawaii, Molokai, and Lanai). “Hawaii” is also the official name of the “Big Island.”
The “Big Island” is not the “main island.” The “main island” is Oahu. It’s the island where Honolulu (the state capital and the largest city) is located.
“Waikiki” is a neighborhood in Honolulu that’s 95% a tourist destination. It’s built up on the most famous beach in Hawaii (and in the world really!).
This list of things to do includes things both in Waikiki (the neighborhood/area) and Honolulu (the city at large). Waikiki is largely walkable, but there’s also a trolley system. The trolley/bus extends throughout Honolulu so while some things on this list may be 2-5 miles away from the main resort area on Waikiki Beach, they’re all pretty accessible via public transportation or a quick Uber/Lyft ride.
So let’s get to it…here are 27 things to do in Waikiki & Honolulu:
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CLASSIC WAIKIKI EXPERIENCES
1.Waikiki Beach: This is what you came to Hawaii for, right? Even though it’s shoulder-to-shoulder people, hitting the beach is THE most popular thing to do in Waikiki. Kuhio Beach is the most popular stretch of Waikiki and for good reason…the conditions are perfect for swimming and sunbathing. Also, don’t miss the famous bronze statue of Duke Kahanamoku (Olympic Champion and the “father of surfing”).
2. Mai Tais at Sunset. Sunsets on Waikiki are pretty magical. You can watch from the beach for free, or venture up to a resort poolside bar for a special treat. Duke’s (at the Outrigger) is THE place to go for sunset drinks/dinner in Waikiki, but House without a Key (at the Halekulani) and Mai Tai Bar (at the Royal Hawaiian) are also pretty noteworthy.
3. Friday Fireworks. Every Friday night, the Hilton Hawaiian Village shoots off fireworks in the skies over Waikiki. Watch from the lagoon in front of the Hilton or anywhere in Waikiki really.
4. Torch Lighting and Hula Show: Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday under the banyan tree at Kuhio Beach, catch a ceremonial torch lighting and FREE hula show. The show usually starts about 6:30 PM (6 PM in the winter months).
5. Go Resort Hopping. Some of the Waikiki resorts have a pretty storied history. Even if you’re not staying there, it’s worth stopping by both the Royal Hawaiian and the Moana Surfrider. Go for drinks, shopping, dinner, a tour, or just a look around. Royal Hawaiian Hotel Tour: The iconic “Pink Palace of the Pacific” offers complimentary walking tours that showcase the hotel’s history every Tuesday and Thursday at 1 PM. Tours meet in the Royal Hawaiian Bakery. There’s also a museum dedicated to the resort’s history in the basement. Moana Surfrider Tour: Similarly, Waikiki’s first hotel, “the First Lady of Waikiki” also hosts complimentary historical tours every Monday and Wednesday at 11 AM in the Historical Room on the 2nd floor.
6. Aloha Swap Meet: This swap meet/flea market held on weekends at Aloha Stadium is a popular place to do souvenir shopping. Admission is $1/person. To be clear, this probably isn’t what you’re expecting from a flea market. Vendors mostly sell the same made in China souvenirs, but if you’re looking for the best prices on t-shirts or trinkets to take back to your kid’s classmates, it’s widely regarded as the best place to buy items in mass. Check hours before you go though as it’s up in the air how much longer Aloha Stadium is going to be open.
7. Chinatown: Spend a few hours exploring Chinatown’s markets, lei shops, and bar and restaurant scene. Don’t miss the Pig and the Lady. The Foster Botanical Garden, Honolulu’s oldest botanical garden is also located nearby and is home to some amazing tropical plants. Admission is $5/adult. Find more information here.
8. Shopping. And of course, we have Waikiki’s most popular pastime…shopping! Many first time visitors are surprised by Waikiki’s big city feel (I’ve heard it called “NYC on the beach.”) The main drag in Waikiki (Kalakaua Avenue) is where you’ll find every major (and high end) retailer you can think of including quite a few outdoor shopping complexes. Also, don’t miss the Ala Moana Center. It’s the most decadent shopping destination on Oahu and an attraction in itself. Even if you’re not in the market for designer/luxury brands, it’s a sight to see. And surprisingly, the food court is a world class international destination.
RELATED: Not very familiar with Oahu? Read up on the lay of the (is)land and where to stay plus my favorite condos, luxury resorts, boutique hotels and a Guide to Ko’olina and a review of my stay at Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa.
FOR THE ADVENTURERS
9. Hike Diamond Head: This is probably the most iconic thing to do in Waikiki. It’s a mild hike (although it is all uphill and there are a ton of stairs right at the end) and only takes about 30 minutes to get to the top but once you do you’ll have a fabulous view of Waikiki and Honolulu. Go early since there’s no shade. It’s $10/car to drive in (if there’s space available), and $5/person to walk in.
10. Surf Lessons on Waikiki Beach: Taking surf lessons on Waikiki is such a classic thing to do (did anybody else watch Gidget Goes Hawaiian growing up?), and it’s actually a great place to learn. Book a lesson with Waikiki Beach Services.
11. Outrigger Canoe Ride: Besides surfing, this is the most culturally significant water sport in Hawaii. Dozens of companies will offer one or two wave rides right off Waikiki Beach.
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12. Hike to Manoa Falls & Visit Lyon Arboretum: A popular hike because it’s quick (1.6 miles round trip) and rewarding (hello waterfall!), this may be your easiest chance for waterfall gazing. Also, while you’re in the area…part of the University of Hawaii Manoa Campus, the Lyon Arboretum is situated in a lush rainforest setting in Manoa Valley. It’s worth a trip if you’re a nature lover. The arboretum is closed on Sundays and there is a suggested $5/person donation.
FOR THE HISTORY & CULTURE LOVERS
13. Pearl Harbor: Really if there’s one “not to be missed experience” on Oahu, visiting Pearl Harbor is it. Reserve tickets here in advance to visit the USS Arizona Memorial. Tickets to the Arizona Memorial are free but limited. You can buy tickets to tour the USS Missouri and the Bowfin Submarine separately.
14. Iolani Palace: The only royal residency in the United States, touring Iolani Palace will give you a great history lesson. Guided tours are $21.75/adult and $6/child. Self-guided audio tours are $14.25/adult and $6/child. 4 and under are free.
15. Bishop Museum: The Bishop Museum is really one of Oahu’s hidden gems (it’s not hidden by any means, it’s quite highly acclaimed, but it doesn’t receive the attention that other attractions do). The Bishop Museum is an exquisite collection of artifacts with exhibits that masterfully tell the story of the history and culture of the Hawaiian (and Polynesian) people. The price is a deterrent for some ($22.95/adult) and the entrance buildings make it seem doubtful that anything of value exists beyond, but the Hawaiian Hall and Polynesian Hall are real treasures (first class Smithsonian quality exhibits). There’s also a science center (with an amazing exhibit on volcanoes) and a planetarium that are worth checking out. It’s $5 to park in the Bishop Museum lot so a lot of people park on the street. This is definitely a “don’t miss” for museum lovers or anyone who wants to learn more about Hawaiian history and culture.
16. Honolulu Museum of Art: You may not think art when you think Hawaii, but this museum has a surprisingly diverse collection. Admission is $20/adult. 18 and under are free. Admission is free on the first Wednesday and third Sunday of every month.
17. Shangri La: This may be the most unexpected surprise on Oahu. Previously Doris Duke’s Honolulu home, it now houses her extensive collection of Islamic art. The property may only be seen via guided tour from the Honolulu Museum of Art. Tours are offered Wednesday through Saturday. Tours last 2.5 hours (1.5 hours onsite and an hour at the museum) and cost $25 (that includes admission to the Honolulu Museum of Art). Reserve in advance here.
18. Royal Hawaiian Band Concerts: Weather permitting the Royal Hawaiian Band performs every Friday from 12-1 on the lawn of the Iolani Palace. Chairs are set up and a huge banyan tree provides nice shade.
19. Kawaiaha’o Church: Thought to be the oldest church in Hawaii, the “Westminster Abbey of the Pacific” holds services on Sundays in English and Hawaiian.
20. Punchbowl: The National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (nicknamed the Punchbowl) which was built in 1948 to serve as a final resting place for members of the US Armed Forces who lost their lives in WWII lays in the dormant volcano Pouwaina, which means “hill of sacrifice.”
21. Aloha Tower: Located in Honolulu Harbor, built in 1926 as a beacon to welcome visitors to Hawaii (who came almost entirely by boat), the 10th floor observation deck offers great views of Honolulu and the water.
22. Hawaii Army Museum: Open Tuesday-Saturday from 9-5, the Hawaii Army Museum is home to artifacts from ancient Hawaiian armies to more modern campaigns.
FAMILY FRIENDLY FAVORITES
23. Magic Island: This small man made peninsula next to Ala Moana Beach Park has a nice protected lagoon to swim in. It’s also a great spot to watch the Friday night fireworks from.
24. Waikiki Aquarium: The Waikiki Aquarium is a great place to get an up close look at local marine life, especially if you have kids. Admission is $12/adult and $5/child.
26. Nutridge Luau. I haven’t made it to this luau myself yet, but I’ve been hearing GREAT things about it. Particularly how great it is if you have kids. They only host small groups and they provide a pretty authentic experience. Bonus, on your way up, stop at the Tantalus Lookout at Puu Ualakaa State Park for amazing views of Honolulu, Waikiki, Diamond Head, and Pearl Harbor.
27. Honolulu Fish Auction: The Honolulu Fish Auction is the only tuna auction in the United States and quite an experience. It’s free and open to the public, but you’ll have to arrive early to see the show (6AM-8AM is preferred) and it’s chilly inside so bring a jacket!
BEST PLACES TO STAY
Luxury Lovers: Four Seasons Oahu
Family Friendly: Aulani
Mid Range (& Cute): Laylow
WHERE TO EAT
Duke’s (Surf & Turf, cocktails, $$$)
Mai Tai Bar (Appetizers, cocktails, $$)
Egg’s ‘n Things (Breakfast, $$)
House without a Key (Live music, cocktails, appetizers, $$$)
Marukame Udon (Japanese, $)
Orchids (Brunch, $$$$)
Mahina and Sun’s (Brunch, farm to table, $$$)
La Mer (French, $$$$)
Roy’s (Surf & Turf, $$$)
Steak Shack (Takeaway, $)
Hy’s Steak House (Steak, $$$$)
The Pig and the Lady (Vietnamese, $$$)
Senia (Hawaiian Asian Fusion, $$$$)
Lucky Belly (Ramen, $$)
Little Village Noodle House (Chinese, $$)
Opal Thai (Thai, $$)
Honolulu (Outside Waikiki)
Bar Leather Apron (Trendy non-touristy bar, $$)
Uncle Bo’s Pupu Bar & Grill (Local food and appetizers, $$)
Sweet E’s (Breakfast, $)
Leonard’s (Bakery, $)
La Mariana Sailing Club (Classic tiki bar, $$)
Side Street Inn (Local favorites, $$)
Liliha Bakery (Bakery, $)
Rainbow Drive In (Local food, $)
Koko Head Cafe (Local breakfast, $)
Helena’s Hawaiian Food (Local food, $)