Attractions and things to do in Honolulu: A Hawaii newcomer’s guide to sightseeing attractions and significant architecture

If you’re planning your first visit to the island of Oahu, save at least three days to visit Honolulu, the only American state capital that was once home to Hawaiian monarchy. To glean a sense of its culturally diverse history and its transition to a modern metropolis, the following sites are “must-see’s” on your list of paradise attractions.


Prior to the advent of air travel, Hawaii’s tourist population arrived by ship, disembarking at Honolulu Harbor and being greeted by island dancers, musicians, and locals eager to sell their native-made products. The Aloha Tower, built in 1926 and rising to a then-astonishing height of 10 stories, was the first impression that many visitors had of this tropical destination, its four sides each boasting a clock face and the welcoming words “Aloha” for all to see. Today, the majority of tourists arrive by plane at Honolulu International Airport, passing the Aloha Tower by car or bus on their way to Waikiki. Drivers can always be counted on to mention that it was from this very harbor the ill-fated crew of Gilligan’s Island departed for their “three-hour cruise” into sitcom history. You’ll need more than three hours yourself, of course, if you pay the tower and its modern shopping mall a visit. Countless shops, restaurants that cater to every ethnic cuisine, open-air vendors, and free hula shows are a feast for the senses. There’s even a trolley system that not only gives you a narrative tour along the way but will efficiently deposit you at plenty of other island shopping venues to spend those tourist dollars!

Attractions and things to do in Honolulu 300x200 Attractions and things to do in Honolulu: A Hawaii newcomers guide to sightseeing attractions and significant architecture

Attractions and things to do in Honolulu


After you’ve shopped till you dropped and enjoyed your first MaiTai or Singapore Sling, the next stop is the next-door Hawaii Maritime Center. Within its exhibit rooms, you’ll see the seafaring arts and artifacts of the various races and cultures that comprised what came to be known as the Hawaiian Islanders. Having only the stars, the moon and the ocean currents by which to navigate their treacherous journey over thousands of miles, these early adventurers traveled in narrow, wooden canoes such as the Polynesian Hokule’a on display in the central room of the museum. A more “modern” method of ocean transport can be found just outside in the form of the historic “Falls of Clyde,” a fully rigged, four masted sailing ship that you can climb aboard and imagine what a life at sea must have been like during the 19th century. Suffice it to say, many of the young seamen of the time had less than romantic notions about the experience, a lot of them having been shanghaied in San Francisco and forced into service on whalers and merchant ships bound for the Orient.


If you really want to immerse yourself in the history of Pacific Island cultures and, most particularly, the monarchy of the royal Kamehameha family, allow a full day to explore the Bishop Museum. Charles Reed Bishop, the widower of Hawaii’s beloved Princess Bernice, established the museum in 1889 as a continuation of his wife’s wishes to educate the island’s children and to foster pride in their multicultural heritage. Bishop Museum houses the state’s largest collection of documents, artifacts, tools, books, clothing, heirlooms, historic photographs and natural history specimens. In addition, its research facilities and public outreach programs have been a template for cultural and academic institutions throughout the world. In addition, the museum exhibits and writings trace both the positive and negative influences of the missionaries’ arrival during the 19th century. This period of time in Hawaii history can be visited further in the Mission Houses Museum, which is located downtown near the State Capitol Building, and over at the Father Damien Museum in neighboring Waikiki.


For those of you old enough to remember the TV series, “Hawaii Five-0,” Iolani Palace is going to look familiar. The fictitious detectives Steve McGarrett and Danny Williams, played respectively by Jack Lord and James MacArthur, were elite members of a state police force that answered only to the governor and had their offices in the former residence of Hawaii’s last two monarchs. For trivia buffs, Gregory Peck was originally offered the McGarrett role but turned it down. It’s also amusing to note that when Hawaii’s next island-based series, “Magnum, P.I.,” debuted the same year “Hawaii Five-O” was ending, the writers felt compelled to mention McGarrett’s name as a continuity device to help win an audience for an actor (Tom Selleck) whom they weren’t sure could effectively carry the new show. Iolani Palace, built in the early 1880’s, has been preserved and restored to look very much as it did when Queen Liliuokalani was dethroned during the American annexation of the Hawaiian Islands. Just outside this magnificent dwelling is the statue of King Kamehameha I, the man responsible for uniting the islands under one ruler; specifically, himself. Kamehameha’s strategy may have been violent but was a pretty effective campaign slogan for the times: “Join me or die.” If you’re in the mood for a day trip up the Pali Highway, you can see the jagged cliffs where this enormous warrior issued his ultimatum to the tribes of Oahu holdouts who weren’t sure they liked the unification idea. On any given day on this windswept lookout above the city, you can still hear the haunting screams of those who gave the wrong answer to Kamehameha’s demands.


Even if you don’t get a chance to see the inside (security having been tightened since the events of September 11th), the exterior of Hawaii’s most prestigious government building is well worth the look. Its sleek, modern lines bear absolutely no resemblance to the typical domed buildings we’re accustomed to seeing on the mainland. Then again, Hawaii itself is like no other state in the union!


So where did the Hawaii royals go when they wanted to beat the heat and get away from it all? If you have time for a leisurely drive, be sure to take yourselves to Queen Emma and King Kamehameha IV’s summer home located five minutes from downtown Honolulu in the Nu`uanu Valley on the Pali Highway. This mix of Victorian and Hawaiian architecture is situated amongst beautiful gardens featuring tropical foliage and shade trees and is maintained by the Daughters of Hawaii, a non-profit organization dedicated to historical preservation.

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