Best Things to Do in Honolulu, Hawaii

Ready to plan the perfect vacation to Oahu? Leave plenty of room on your itinerary for all the best things to do in Honolulu. From golden beaches to epic volcanic craters, the biggest city in Hawaii is a must-visit U.S. destination.

The top tourist attractions in Honolulu provide a perfect balance of relaxation and adventure. Traveling families will likewise find plenty of ways to keep the young ones busy. Hike to viewpoints, explore Hollywood movie sets or roam historic museums: The choice is all yours.

Not sure what to do in Honolulu? Kick start your planning with our guide to the best places to visit in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Best places to visit in Honolulu, HI

Diamond Head State Monument

Standing ominously over the turquoise water on Waikiki Beach, the Diamond Head State Monument is one of the coolest places to see in Honolulu. Being so close to the city center, it won’t take you long to arrive at the 300,000-year-old volcanic crater.

Diamond Head State Monument

While you can appreciate the imposing beauty of the mountain, it’s impossible to grasp the sheer magnitude of the crater from below. To do this, embark on a hike along one of the top trails on the island for unforgettable panoramic views.

The Diamond Head Trail was originally developed as a military defense. Today, the 0.8-mile trek is as popular as ever. After an elevation gain of 560 feet, stand at the summit to see the Diamond Head Crater, its WWI-era lighthouse, the Honolulu skyline, and the endless Pacific Ocean.

Pearl Harbor National Memorial

Named after the pearls that were harvested from its blue waters, Pearl Harbor will forever be linked to the tragic events in 1941. The harbor is a somber reminder of the lives lost on that fateful day. Exploring the various memorials of the National Historic Landmark is one of the best things to do in Honolulu.

Pearl Harbor

Begin your time here at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, where the free exhibits expound on the events along with Pearl Harbor’s natural history. A major focus of many travelers is the USS Arizona Memorial. The memorial was constructed over the battleship where 1,700 lives were lost.

Pacific Aviation Museum on Ford Island is another highlight near Pearl Harbor. Its multiple hangars feature planes from the Second World War along with an immersive flight simulator.

Waikiki Beach

As one of the most famous beaches on earth, it’s no surprise that Waikiki Beach is one of the top Honolulu attractions. The two-mile stretch of golden sand is backed by high-rises and the ever-present Diamond Head.

Waikiki Beach

Waikiki Beach is broken up into multiple sections, each manned by lifeguards. With restaurants, beachfront bars and the shady Kapiolani Park just steps away, you have everything you need for the perfect beach day.

Lay down the towel and admire the views before stepping foot into the crystal clear water and enjoying the quintessential Hawaii experience. For families with younger kids, head to Kahanamoku Lagoon, a protected swimming area with zero swell.

Manoa Falls Trail

One of the best places to go in Honolulu to chase waterfalls is Manoa. From the quaint historic town, you can make a brief journey to the beginning of the Manoa Falls Trail. The popular hiking trail leads to none other than Manoa Falls, one of the most accessible waterfalls in Oahu.

Manoa Falls

Starting from the Lyon Arboretum, Manoa Falls are under a mile away along a casual trail through dense jungle. After 20 minutes, the lush rainforests disperse, making way for a tumbling 150-foot waterfall that dives into the sparkling pool below.

The Hawaiian sun beams down through the prehistoric canopy, creating a mesmerizing sight for nature lovers. If it feels familiar, that’s because parts of Jurassic Park were shot right here. While you shouldn’t expect dinosaurs, bring plenty of insect repellent!

Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve

Formed within the crater of a prehistoric volcano, the Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is one of the best things to see in Honolulu. From the moment you arrive, you’ll be greeted with stunning jade green water with the distant waves ending along the offshore reef.

Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve

The reef at Hanauma Bay is clear as day from the bay’s white sand. It’s teeming with exotic marine life and vibrant coral, making it a must-visit spot for snorkeling. (Keep in mind that because of overuse, the preserve restricts the number of daily visitors.)

After enjoying the underwater world in Hanauma Bay, kick back on the soft sand with a tropical cocktail and soak in the scenery, including Koko Head as a backdrop.

Kuhio Beach Park

A section of the iconic Waikiki Beach, Kuhio Beach Park offers sun, sand, grass, and shade in equal measure providing a well-rounded Honolulu beach experience.

Kuhio Beach

Kuhio Beach is great for all kinds of travelers. Surfers can make their way to Canoes and Queens, two popular breaks. Families can set up picnics in the park with the beach just steps away. The rest of us can set up hammocks and play volleyball till the sun goes down.

Beyond surfing and lazing about, you can also check out several local landmarks, including the statue of Duke Kahanamoku. Duke was an Olympic gold medalist and historic figure in the world of surfing. The park is also home to the Wizard Stones of Kapaemahu, which is believed to have healing powers.

Ala Moana Beach Park

A local favorite, Ala Moana Beach Park, is a great way to experience Honolulu’s beautiful beaches without having to elbow your way through the crowds. With its central location, Ala Moana Beach is easy to get to—even if you only have 24 hours in Honolulu. It offers a half-mile crescent beach lined with shady trees.

Ala Moana Beach Park

The waves huddle off-shore providing great surf for those that want to make the trip. This leaves the rest of the beach protected with little swell and safe swimming conditions.

After catching some sun and floating in the blue ocean, check out one of the three food shacks, spacious lawns, and picnic tables.

After your beach day, head across to the famed open-roof Ala Moana Center, one of Honolulu’s top shopping spots.

Koko Crater Botanical Garden

One of the top tourist attractions in Honolulu, Koko Head Crater Botanical Garden features over 60 acres of rare and endangered plants. As a part of the broader Honolulu Botanical Gardens, you’ll find stunning examples of desert plants thriving in the ash-burnt side of the volcanic crater.

Koko Crater Botanical Garden

You can make your way through the Koko Head Crater Botanical Garden along a casual two-mile loop that showcases the arid yet beautiful landscapes. However, most travelers come to the crater to tackle the challenging Koko Crater Trail.

Along an old military railway, you’ll traverse up 1,050 steps on your way to the summit. From the top of the Koko Crater Trail, you’ll enjoy amazing views of Hanauma Bay and the city skyline.

Kualoa Ranch

Fans of Jurassic Park, Lost and Hawaii Five-O will be familiar with the Kualoa Ranch, one of the most popular attractions in Oahu. The historic ranch has been passed down through the family for generations. Today, it’s a regular set for Hollywood blockbusters and popular TV shows.

Kualoa Ranch

Although you can only visit on a guided tour, Kualoa Ranch is packed with exciting attractions. You can experience the expansive ranch on a 4WD adventure, on the back of an ATV, or even by zip-lining through the jungle canopy.

Along the way, your guide will bring you to iconic sets from movies past, including the Indominus Rex paddock from everyone’s favorite cloned dinosaur movie.

Bishop Museum

If you’re wondering where to go in Honolulu for Hawaiian history, add the Bishop Museum to your bursting itinerary. As Hawaii’s state museum, the popular Honolulu attraction lets visitors uncover a thorough collection of historical artifacts and explore Hawaii’s natural history.

Bishop Museum

From the get-go, you’ll jump right in by taking in the Kai Akea exhibit. Kai Akea is the vast ocean where everything was born and marks the beginning of Hawaiian culture. Other floors have ancient artifacts on display, including kahilis, which were flags for royals; plus feathered capes, and military helmets.

The fascinating Bishop Museum also houses an immense collection of objects brought in by early settlers from around the world.

Honolulu Zoo

In the foothills of Diamond Head and near Kapiolani Park, the Honolulu Zoo is one of the top points of interest in Honolulu for travelers with kids. Here, the entire family can wander between the various enclosures to witness over 900 species in action.

Honolulu Zoo

The Honolulu Zoo has a wide range of wildlife to keep you entertained for hours on end. From little critters like the poisonous tree frog to soaring giraffes, if the kids have a favorite animal, it’s likely to be here.

A great way to experience Honolulu Zoo is on one of their amazing Twilight Tours. On them, you and the family will get to explore the zoo after dark when almost everyone has gone home.

Honolulu Museum of Art

History buffs visiting Oahu will have a blast exploring the Honolulu Museum of Art. With some pieces dating as far back as the early-18th century, the vast collection is the largest in Hawaii. Visitors can spend their time discovering over 50,000 works of art from all around the world.

Honolulu Museum of Art

Covering various genres and eras, the gallery includes everything from ornate sculptures to indigenous dolls to about 23,000 pieces in the immense Asian Art Collection. Hawaiian art is a strong focus and showcases prominent local artists through the centuries.

To round out the experience, the stunning European collection includes such icons as Van Gogh, Monet, and Rodin.

Lyon Arboretum

Covering almost 200 acres in the Manoa Valley, the Lyon Arboretum is a lush botanical garden showcasing thousands of tropical plants. The arboretum boasts an impressive collection of palms, one of the biggest in the world. The collection is surrounded by several distinct gardens, creating fresh experiences as you explore.

The Lyon Arboretum does a wonderful job putting Honolulu’s diverse nature on display. Some of the unique gardens include the Bromeliad Garden, a herb and spice section, and the popular Hawaiian Ethnobotanical Garden.

The arboretum is also used as a research facility to conserve the island’s natural landscapes.

Polynesian Cultural Center

An interactive park divided into six villages, the Polynesian Cultural Center is an interactive and exciting look into Polynesian culture. Rather than another boring museum, the center is a living world where you can explore several Polynesian regions, including Samoa, Fiji, and, of course, Hawaii.

Polynesian Cultural Center

In each village, you’ll experience a range of activities related to the destination. In Samoa, residents climb coconut trees while you paddle down the river. Throughout the experience, you can try your hand at spear throwing and hula dancing as you take time to immerse yourself in the broader culture.

Iolani Palace

Dive further into Hawaiian history at Iolani Palace, as you learn about the islands’ prior monarchy inside one of Honolulu’s top landmarks. The ornate 19th-century palace is laden with designs befitting a king and queen. Iolani Palace was built in the 1880s and was the official residence of King Kalakaua, the last king of Hawaii.

Iolani Palace

Soon after, Hawaii became a part of the United States, making the Iolani Palace the only royal residence in the country. You can tour the stunning building and learn about the Kingdom of Hawaii on a self-guided tour. Plug in your audio and walk around as you discover period furnishings and artifacts used by the last royal family.

Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design

The Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design began as a private collection of Islamic art within a spectacular coastal mansion. Today, the fascinating museum has grown to be one of the best places to see in Honolulu. Doris Duke, the iconic heiress, began her collection after being inspired by her travels around the Middle East.

Duke’s collection grew to include ornate embroideries, wood carvings, and prominent portraits. Now under the umbrella of the Doris Duke Foundation, the Shangri La Museum is a public space where you can experience a wondrous collection of Middle Eastern art surrounded by picturesque views.

Ala Moana Center

After your day at Ala Moana Park Beach, take a few steps back and visit the four-story Ala Moana Center. The open-air mall is the largest of its kind on earth, offering an expansive collection of shops from local boutiques to international brands.

Shop at Ala Moana Center

Exploring the Ala Moana Center mall is an adventure in itself thanks to the pristine stucco architecture and manicured interior landscapes that create an urban jungle. Spend your time between the stores and sitting under the shady palms.

The Ala Moana Center is also home to an amphitheater where live music regularly floats through the air.

Best places to stay in Honolulu for sightseeing

For most first-time visitors, the best places to stay in Honolulu lie in and around Waikiki. The area is home to most of the city’s top hotels. If you’re looking for quieter digs, you’ll also find a small selection of accommodations outside the city center in areas like Manoa, Kahala, and around Diamond Head.

The Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club

The Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club

Dishing out a retro 1960s vibe, the Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club is a fantastic spot for your Honolulu sightseeing adventure. The location of this boutique hotel is perfect, sitting just 5 minutes from Waikiki Beach. Catch some rays at the outdoor swimming pool or chill out in your room on your own private balcony.

Queen Kapiolani Hotel

Queen Kapiolani Hotel

Sitting a block from Waikiki Beach, the Queen Kapiolani Hotel stuns with its dramatic Pacific Ocean and Diamond Head views. Besides relaxing in the spacious traditional rooms, you can spend your day on the beach or soaking up the sun at the outdoor pool.

Moana Surfrider Resort & Spa

Moana Surfrider Resort & Spa

One of Waikiki’s classic hotels, the Moana Surfrider charms guests with tranquil rooms, featuring private balconies with spectacular views. You’ll also enjoy a swath of amenities including a swimming pool, spa, and several on-site restaurants.

Treksplorer

Treksplorer is a fiercely independent guide to mid-range luxury travel for busy people. Originally launched in 2011 by founder & editor Ryan O'Rourke to document his travels in East Asia & Central Europe, Treksplorer now includes things to do, where to stay, when to visit, and hiking & walking guides spanning over 30 countries from Japan to Spain and Canada to New Zealand.

DISCLAIMER: Treksplorer is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com and its affiliated international sites.

DISCLAIMER: You'll notice that from time to time I link out to recommended hotels/tours/products/services. If you purchase anything through these links, I'll receive a commission. It won't cost you anything extra, but it will help keep me trekkin' on and delivering more free (and unsponsored!) travel information to you. Thanks :)