12 Must-Do Experiences in Honolulu

Only steps away from any accommodation in Honolulu are numerous must-do Hawaiian experiences that introduce visitors to the aloha spirit of Oahu. These must-do Honolulu experiences include learning hula, lei making, discovering the past, and playing in the ocean waves, and offer visitors the opportunity to create Honolulu-style tropical memories to take home with them.

2201 Kalakaua Ave, Honolulu, HI 96815, USA
A stroll down Kalakaua Avenue is always great for people watching, shopping, and dining. In September 2013, the Royal Hawaiian Center reopened the Helumoa Hale and Royal Grover on Kalakaua. This beautiful grove provides authentic Hawaiian hula, storytelling, and ukulele performances. If you’re interested in learning more about Hawaiian history and culture, I encourage you to participate in one of the complimentary classes that the Center offers, including hula, ukulele, lei making, or quilt making. You will not leave this cultural center without learning something new about Hawaii, and your experience will be a memorable part of your visit to Waikiki!
1525 Bernice St, Honolulu, HI 96817, USA
The largest museum in Hawaii studies and preserves the history of the islands and the Pacific—for those interested in local culture, it’s a must. The Victorian building originally housed family heirlooms from Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the last direct descendant of King Kamehameha I, including her ancestor’s royal feathered cape. Today the Bishop teems with more than 24 million artifacts, documents, and photos about Hawaii and other Polynesian cultures. Other highlights include everyday items, like combs made from coconut-leaf ribs, and extraordinary ones, like the leiomano (a shark-tooth-studded weapon kept hidden until battle). Don’t miss the 55-foot sperm whale skeleton and other natural-history exhibits, along with a planetarium showing how voyagers navigated the Pacific, guided by the stars.
Chinatown in Honolulu has an enormous number of shops and restaurants, food stalls, and vendors within several blocks of downtown. There always seems to be something new to try or buy. First Friday is a great time to visit Chinatown for the art walk. Some restaurants offer specials, and local vendors proudly display their work. It’s a way to experience a part of Hawaii’s eclectic cultures.
2005 Kalia Rd, Honolulu, HI 96815, USA
As a travel writer and a kama’aina or “child of the land” in Hawaiian, I know about Waikiki hotels. Growing up not far from the Waikiki of the late 1960’s and 1970’s, I have watched Waikiki transform from a simpler time when there were fewer hotels, showrooms had live entertainment with local celebrity singers and hula dancers performing every night, and a sprinkling of small bars were scattered like shells along the sands of Waikiki. In that long- ago time you could take an evening walk on the beach and listen to the Hawaiian music under the stars.

So much has changed since then. The Waikiki of today along bustling Kalakaua Avenue is such a compacted array of luxury brand stores, chain restaurants, and concept eateries, that some visitors may find it a bit contrary to their idea of relaxation. So they head to an outer island. But enchanting Oahu should not be overlooked because of its popularity, so I’ll tell you about an oceanfront oasis on the beach at Waikiki that you’ll love.

There are two sides to Waikiki: The Diamond Head side, and the Ewa side. The Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort is situated on the Ewa end of Waikiki on what was once referred to as the Kalia area. The famous Hawaiian water-man Duke Kahanamoku, the father of modern surfing, and an Olympic medalist, was born here in this well-populated residential area. There was also a small hotel with thatched roof cottages along the beach called Niumalu Hotel. Decades later in the 1950’s Henry J. Kaiser (and partners) bought most of the land up, negotiated leases, dredged a tidal area and created a lagoon. Then he built rooms, restaurants, and bars, and opened his Hawaiian Village Hotel in September of 1955. Soon he added an incredible marvel of an aluminum dome that was constructed in 20 hours and built as an entertainment venue. He later sold the property to Conrad Hilton.

The Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort has also made changes over the years by revamping its oceanfront 20-acre layout. Because of its size, manicured gardens, several pools, various room types, shopping, a luau venue, and multiple restaurant offerings, all along the largest expanse of Waikiki Beach, it is the only true resort in Waikiki, But I did promise you an oasis. So here is the secret: the Hilton’s Ali’i Tower.

The beachfront Ali’I Tower is a quiet “hotel within a hotel” in the large resort. Guests staying at the Ali’i Tower have their own front desk and concierge, a private pool and deck overlooking the beach, fitness room, and private bar. All of the rooms feature understated design and upscale amenities. Guests sporting their Ali’i Tower bracelet can go to the front of any line at the ever-popular Tropics Bar & Grill or Rainbow Room. Tip: Book the corner Diamond Head Oceanfront rooms on the upper floors. Your two lanais give you an expansive view from Diamond Head, across the surf spots along the reef, all the way to the Tapa Tower and Duke Kahanamoku Lagoon, the marina, and across the ocean to Ewa Beach. Don’t miss the Friday Night Fireworks from your balcony. The Hilton Hawaiian Village has been continuing this beloved tradition since 1988. So settle in at the Ali’i Tower and relax knowing that you have found a slice of the old Waikiki that still exists.
If you’re looking for a great snorkel experience accessible to Waikiki, I found Hanauma Bay a great spot. Turtles and fish galore.
Every December 7 at Pearl Harbor, there is a memorial to those who died in the awful attacks that day in 1941. Survivors gather here, though fewer every year remain alive. Oil still rises from where the USS Arizona lies in the harbor. The horrific events of December 7 are still a raw part of the history here. Several months ago, the civil defense sirens went off all over Oahu. It was a glitch in the system, but I remember an elderly woman in downtown Honolulu who said she looked at the sky because she remembers when there really was an air raid, and the sirens bring her back to that time of eminent danger when what seemed impossible unfolded in front of her young eyes. For history buffs, students, and all sorts of tourists, this is a “must visit” National Park on Oahu. Tickets to take the boat to the memorial are cheap (but do require an advanced booking of a couple days), and there are several other activities and museums at Pearl Harbor to explore including a walk through the USS Bowfin.
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