Honolulu is the largest city in Hawaiʻi and without doubt the place where things are happening! In this list we share the best things to do in Honolulu for first-time visitors – including beaches, cultural sights, adventures, and more!
26 must-do activities for First-Time Visitors to Honolulu (Oʻahu)
Polynesian Cultural Center
The Polynesian Cultural Center is the top paid attraction in Hawaiʻi. It offers a whole range of authentic cultural experiences and invites guests to take part in fun activities for all ages.
The well-known Aliʻi Luau for example is organized at the Polynesian Cultural Center.
Separated into six villages that represent different Polynesian islands such as Fiji, Tahiti, Samoa, and Hawaiʻi, it is a treasure trove of interesting activities that let you discover the richness of Polynesian cultures.
Finally, don’t let the name deceive you! while sounding like a museum it is in reality one of the best places to get to know with Hawaiian culture in a thoroughly entertaining way.
The Ala Moana Center
The Ala Moana Center is one of Honolulu’s greatest shopping malls.
It is a four-story shopping center and holds the title of being the largest open-air shopping center in the states. Summarizing – it’s the kind of mall that makes you feel as if you’ve stepped into an other world.
In the center you can find over 350 shops and eateries in a wide range – from luxury brands to department and souvenir stores. While not the cheapest place on Oʻahu, you can keep yourself entertained in the mall for a LONG time if that is what you like. Eat, drink, shop, and listen to music to your hearts content.
Waikiki is one of the most well-known names when yo ask people about Hawaii, and for good reason. This beautiful beach is made up of 7 sections and two miles of soft and comfortable white-sand beaches, and is surrounded by waving palm trees and an azure blue sea.
Many sections of Waikiki Beach are roped off for swimming and the waves typically are quite gentle. The beaches that make up Waikiki as a whole are:
- Kahanamoku Beach/Hilton Hawaiian Village
- Fort Derussy
- Royal Hawaiian Beach
- Kūhiō Beach
- Queen’s Beach
- Sans Souci Beach
- Kaimana Beach.
Popular beach activities here include swimming, surfing, boogie boarding, catamaran trips, and outrigger canoe cruises.
Keep in mind that Waikiki Beach is POPULAR. This means that crowds are a disadvantage here. Do not be surprised by large amount of beach-goers.
If that’s not an issue for you, go to Waikiki so you can proudly claim that you’ve been to one of the most famous beaches in the world! It is definitely the most well-known beach on Oahu.
When visiting Oahu, Iolani Palace is a must-add to any Oʻahu itinerary! This is the former residence of Hawaiian kings and one of Honolulu’s most historic sites. The palace was erected in 1882, reconstructed in 1969, and reopened to the public in 1978.
This sprawling edifice in downtown Honolulu spans several acres and holds everything from opulent royal chambers to plush-carpeted political offices.
A visit to this site will appeal most to history buffs. When you arrive, you can take tours, listen to audio recordings, and even see vintage exhibitions of clothing, fittings, furniture, and royal treasures!
The Manoa Falls are 150 foot tall and easily accessible at only 5 miles from downtown Honolulu.
If you’re in Honolulu and looking for a gorgeous and iconic destination, this waterfall is it! Go have a look to see why movies like “Jurassic Park” and “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” filmed some scenes in the area.
The hike to the waterfall is open from sunrise to sunset and there is no entrance fee. However, to park near the trailhead you have to pay a small $5 fee.
The trail to the falls can be very muddy, so wear good shoes and bring a change of clean socks for afterwards!
Diamond Head Crater
Known to Hawaiians as Lēʻahi, Diamond Head is a one-of-a-kind tuft crater that formed 300,000 years ago.
The unique profile of Diamond Head is easily seen from the eastern edge of Waikiki’s coastline, and is Hawaii’s most recognized landmark.
Hiking to the summit is an easy (but sweaty) undertaking which includes many (many) stairs. Once you get to the summit you are rewarded with breathtaking views of Honolulu, Waikiki Beach, and of course the serene Pacific Ocean.
Shark’s Cove (great snorkeling!)
Fun story: shark’s cove is named after the shape of the bay, which resembles a sharks head. Shark sightings are not something you need to be worries about !)
Close to Haleiwa and around the corner from Waimea Bay, Shark’s Cove is known for its fantastic snorkeling. you can find a cove that is protected by a reef, ensuring calm waters and lots of fishes.
Thanks to historical volcanic eruption here are many lava tubes and of tunnels to explore of varying length. Ranging in depth from 15 to 45 feet, there is something to explore for the beginning snorkeler and advanced diver.
Kuhio Beach Park
Kuhio Beach Park is one of the 7 section of Waikiki Beach and is well-known for laid-back vibes and a calm ocean.
You can sometimes find free hula shows on the beach, and visitors wanting to go for a stroll and looking for culture should look out for nearby landmarks such as the Duke Kahanamoku Statue, the Stones of Kapaemahu, and the Prince Kuhio Statue.
Pearl Harbor is where the Japanese army first attacked the U.S. army in December 1941, which resulted in the U.S. entering WWII. The military base at Pearl Harbor is still an active military base but also serves as National Historic Landmark.
You can tour the site and see a great selection of historical sites like the battleship USS Missouri, the USS Arizona Memorial, the Pacific Aviation Museum, the USS Bowfin, and many more.
Read more on the official Pearl Harbor website.
Close to Honolulu on the south-eastern coast of Oʻahu, the Halona Blowhole is yet another popular attraction you can check out. As waves pound into the cliffs with great force, water spouts out of a blowhole and blasts into the air.
This is not a place to go swimming as the area is dangerous because of strong currents: observe the blowhole from distance. This is one of the best things to do in Honolulu if you’re looking for something that is not too well-know by fellow tourists.
Honolulu Botanical Gardens
The Honolulu Botanical Gardens are a string of gardens that are spread around the city.
Each of the gardens offers a unique diversity of flora which is determined by the location. For example, the Wahiawa Botanical Garden is situated on a high plateau with milder temperatures, and is filled with lush greenery and lots of flowers.
If you are more a cactus and dry-land shrub kind of person you can have a look at the Koko Crater Botanical Garden which is located at a much hotter and dryer place.
Kakaʻako is a once-industrial Honolulu neighborhood that now is one of the best places to visit in town! Fashionable and entertaining, it is full of clubs, galleries, interesting new restaurant, and plenty of street art.
Donʻt miss Red Fish Poke or the Nalu Health Bar & Café if you want to explore Hawaiian cuisine.
Honolulu Museum of Art
The Honolulu Museum of Art was founded almost 100 years ago, in 1927, and is recognized for having one of the largest collections of Pan-Pacific and Asian art in the US.
The Honolulu Museum of Art’s main campus houses one of America’s best Asian art collections, as well as works by great artists like Picasso, Gauguin, and Theo van Gogh.
When visiting you shouldn’t forget to visit the “Arts of Hawaiʻi” collection, for some amazing cultural artifacts and beautiful landscape paintings.
Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture, and Design
The Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design is housed in the former home of Doris Duke close to the Diamond Head crater just outside Honolulu. It now serves as a public museum dedicated to the arts and cultures of the Islamic world.
The museum houses a diverse collection of art, furnishings, and built-in architectural components from countries like Iran, Morocco, Turkey, Spain, Syria, Egypt, and India. Tours to the Shangri La Museum must be booked well in advance, individual access is not permitted.
Corsair Wreck Dive Site
Do you have diving skills and are you looking for a real challenge? Then the Corsair Wreck Dive Site is one of the best attractions for you close to Honolulu.
Located 3 miles off Hawaii Kai Marina, the site includes a real plane from WWII that lies at the bottom of the ocean, making it interesting for not only divers but also history buffs and photographers.
You will need a boat and a guide to get to the area and the dive spot is rated as “advanced” and located at a depth of around 115 feet.
The Aloha Tower is sometimes called the Hawaiian Statue of Liberty, and is one of the iconic landmarks of the state. Back in the days it was a lighthouse welcoming sailors home.
The now retired lighthouse is 184-foot high and was constructed in the early 20th century. Now, the Gothic-styled tower is mainly used for tourism purposes and the attached marketplace is a wonderful place to visit.
Pro tip: visitors are allowed to climb all the way to the top for spectacular views of the Honolulu shoreline.
Situated at just a half-hour drive from Honolulu, the Kualoa Ranch is a 4,000-acre private nature reserve and functioning cattle ranch. The ranch is very famous for the many films that were shot there, and is popular for the many tours they organize on their property.
There are almost too many tours and activities on the Kualoa Ranch to note here. A good way to start is to take the “Jurassic Adventure Tour” or to go on an ATV raptor. Both ways let you explore the the Hakipuʻu and Kaʻaʻawa Valleys.
Other activities organized on-site are ziplining, electric mountain biking, horseback riding, and farm tours.
Wailua Shave Ice
Shave ice should definitely be on your list of must-try Hawaiian food. Wailua Shave Ice is a local treasure and a good place to pop your shave ice cherry.
The main ingredient of shave ice is shaved ice, but the magic comes from the many toppings and juices that are added. Shave ice is almost universally adored by locals, making Wailua Shave Ice one of the top places to visit in Honolulu.
Just think about some of the flavors: mango, cherries, passion fruit, haupia, chocolate, green tea, mochi, pineapple, and margarita. The best part? You can mix and match your favorites!
Sans Souci Beach Park
Sans Souci Beach Park is one of the calmer sections of Waikiki Beach, and should be your first choice if you are looking for a relaxing place to unwind yourself.
Sans Souci Beach is shallow, sandy, and without strong currents. It is one of Waikiki’s best family beaches. It also is a fantastic snorkeling spot.
Also known as Kaimana Beach, San Souci is an old name that goes back to 1884 and means “without a care” in French.
Royal Hawaiian Center (shopping!)
This is another one for the shopaholics. The 310,000 square feet Royal Hawaiian Center specializes in luxury brands and stretches along a three-block section of Waikiki’s iconic Kalākaua Avenue.
Complimentary music, hula, and cultural classes are available in The Royal Grove. Open daily from 10:00 AM to 10:00 PM.
The Chinatown district is located on the outskirts of Honolulu and is a trendy area with interesting art galleries, cafes, and a monthly First Friday series event.
Visitors can find traditional Chinese restaurants and a delicious dim sum scene, as well as many blocks of local lei stands, traditional shops, and fresh produce markets.
A landmark in Chinatown to visit is Kuan Yin, which is a beautifully designed Buddhist temple.Chinatown is also a good place to pick up some souvenirs.
The Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum
The Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum is THE place to be if you want to learn about Hawaiian history and culture.
With more than 24 million historical, cultural, and natural relics about Hawaii and the Pacific, this is a place you don’t want to miss if you like culture.
Learn about Hawaiian gods, historical events, and much more in the three-story Hawaiian Hall, or dive deeper into Hawaiian sports history at the Hawai’i Sports Hall of Fame.
Next to the extensive Hawaiian exhibits, the museum also has many natural history treasures on exhibit. Fun fact: they possess the third-largest insect collection in the United States.
Koko Crater Trail
The Koko Crater is a 1,208-foot-tall volcanic ash cone. The trail that lets you climb to the lookout point is tough but offers great views of the landscapes around this part of Oʻahu.
To reach the lookout point you must climb 1,048 exceedingly steep railroad ties stairs, which were laid down over 60 years ago by the military so they could bring supplies to the bunkers at the summit.
KCC Farmers’ Market
The KCC Farmers Marker is organized every Saturday from 7:30 to 11:00am by the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation.
As one of the larger farmers market in Honolulu this is a good place to visit to go shopping for fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers, meat, unusual jams, specialty local seasonings, etc.
Honolulu Beerworks is one of the larger craft breweries on Oʻahu. Founded in 2014, this microbrewery offers a bunch of unique seasonal tastes but also has 14 beers on tap.
This is a popular hangout area, especially on weekends, and has the well-known open-air communal seating arrangement, which makes it a wonderful place to enjoy a craft beer while meeting new people.
Nuʻuanu Pali Lookout
The Nuʻuanu Pali Lookout is a lookout point at 5 miles from downtown Honolulu that has some of the greatest views in all of Oʻahu! The lookout overlooks views of Kailua, Kaneohe Bay, and, most importantly, the impressive Koʻolau Mountain range.
The lookout is open every day, rain or shine, and there is no charge for admission.
Keep in mind that the area of the lookout can have strong winds so be cautious here if the weather looks iffy.