Exploring Downtown Honolulu
Visiting Downtown Honolulu might not sound like the most appealing thing to do, especially if you are crunched for time, but for those who have the extra half day, and who want to see some of Hawaii’s history, will be introduced to a treasure trove of historic places, good eats, hidden locations – something unique, compared to most Hawaiian vacations. Start your tour by going directly to the King Kamehameha Statue.
King Kamehameha Statue
For thousands of years, the Hawaiian Islands were ruled by hundreds of different chiefs. They each owned different valleys and took care of the people who lived inside these boundaries. But in 1810, after a big war and many bloody battles, King Kamehameha I united the whole Hawaiian islands together. In fact, the Pali Notches – one of the hikes listed on this site – was a turning point battle in history, and allowed the island of Oahu to be conquered by Kamehameha. A painting of the famous battle is depicted here. You can see his 18-foot gold statue right in the center of Downtown and it’s a good place to start you tour.
Directly across the Kamehameha Statue is Iolani Palace. This was the former home of Hawaii’s two last Monarchs: King Kalakaua and Queen Lili’uokalani. You’ll likely see these names if you are staying in Waikiki, as Kalakaua Boulevard is the main beachside avenue, and Lili’oukalani cuts perpendicular near the center of Waikiki. Perhaps, less historical, it was the headquarters of McGarrett from the original Hawaii-5-O series. The outside areas are free to the public and you can tour the inside on a guided or self-guided tour. You’ll want to book ahead of time to secure a spot and to learn about Hawaii’s true history.
The State Capitol
An extra five minute detour from the Iolani Palace, the State Capitol building is unique compared to other state’s main buildings. The architecture represents a volcano and various areas, like the eight main pillars, represents the main Hawaiian islands. It’s worth skipping if you are pressed for time, or if you don’t have interest in architecture. But it’s also right next to the Honolulu State Art Museum, which is free.
Making Your Way to Chinatown
To get to Chinatown, you’ll have to walk through downtown Honolulu. There’s not much to see, except for the financial district. You could try to sneak into some of the buildings to get a good view of the island from above. Midway to Chinatown though, you can cut down towards the waterfront to reach Aloha Tower. It’s a good place to watch some fish right off the piers. There’s a few shops to take a look at, and if you go at the right time, you can ride the elevator up to the top to get a great view of downtown.
The historic Chinatown is largely skipped by tourists, which is a shame, because it holds a lot of history about the islands within a small area. Sure, it’s fairly dirty and grimy around the edges, but here you can find fresh fruits at bargain rates, local cuisine like dim sum (below) is abundant, and it is home to many of the island’s lei shops. Visit here to get Vietnamese Pho and shop in the many markets in the area. From the Kamehameha Statue and Iolani Palace, you’ll walk west about 20 minutes till you reach Chinatown.
If you want an authentic eating experience in Hawaii, then look no further to any of the many dim sum restaurants in downtown Honolulu. Dim sum, for those who don’t know, is a sampling of small bite size pieces, usually bamboo basket steamed, of dumplings, rice dishes, and an assortment of meats and vegetables. It’s a sharing experience where each person usually gets one piece of a certain dish and there’s usually a bite or two left for those still hungry. Usually, an older Chinese woman will push around a cart full of steaming bamboo baskets and persuade you to take many of the dishes. You just pick and choose, and in that way you get to try many more dishes than any typical restaurant experience. By the way, dim sum is special in Hawaii due to its ties with the Chinese Cantonese population that moved here from as early as the plantation era in the late 1800s.
The best restaurant to visit is Legend Seafood Restaurant. Try to arrive 30 minutes before opening to get a spot. But, if you weren’t an early enough riser, then Mei Sum is a good place to get dim sum late into the afternoon. Yee Hong Pavilion also provides a good option to eat.
If all of this fails – such as not being able to get seating, walk over to Royal Kitchen for Baked Manapua (Char Siu Bao). It’s only a small cost of $1.50 for this meat-dough-ball.
If you aren’t feeling too hungry for dim sum, then stroll through the Maunakea Marketplace. Small vendor stand sell fruits, vegetables, and other foods, in a very interesting building. It’s a completely different Hawaii than you’ll experience elsewhere.
From Maunakea Market place, you can walk to Kekaulike Market. Here, there is fruit that hangs out in the open at really cheap prices. Tucked away inside, is Maguro Brothers Poké. This is a good place to buy bananas, mangos, lychee when they are in season, and other fruits.
Oahu Market is located right at the oceanside corner of Kekaulike Market. It’s mostly a meat market, but you’ll see fresh fish and a few different odd things being sold. Go talk a walk through here if you have a curious eye.
Maunakea Lei Making Street
All along the Mauka (mountain) side of Maunakea Street are the famous lei shops that have an assortment of beautiful flower arrangements. This is the place to get a lei for special occasions, such as an anniversary, wedding, graduation, first time visit to the islands. Cindy’s Lei Shop has some of the best leis on the island. You’ll be surprised at the number of flowers and the complexity of the designs. The most basic option is the yellow plumeria that runs about $5 most of the time. It will last most of the day without wilting. A more durable option is the purple orchids. For girls you’ll want to get a Haku Lei to be worn on the crown of the head. For men, it’s the ti leaf style or a simple flower lei. Ask any of the store owners what they recommend.
After Exploring Downtown & Chinatown:
Nearby Stop Suggestions
Shimazu Store: If it’s been a hot day walking around downtown or chinatown, then go to Shimazu Store for a classic Hawaiian shave ice. This isn’t a fancy, westernized style of shave ice, but a more traditional style. There’s a lot of good
Pali Lookout: Head 15 minutes up the Pali Highway and you’ll end up at the famous Pali Lookout. Sweeping views of the east side of the island and a breezy overlook. It’s one of the best quick stops on the island.
Tamashiro Market: Less than 10 minutes away, you’ll grab some of the freshest poké on the island from a traditional store, if still hungry or you could grab some fish for a snack later. It’s the pink colored building next to the church.
More Oahu Guides Here:
These are my other guides for Oahu:
Ultimate Guide to Oahu: Best Things to Do on Oahu – Complete Bucket List
Best Hikes: The Best Hikes on Oahu
Best Beaches: Top 5 Beaches in Waikiki
Swimming: Best Waterfall Hikes on Oahu, Makapu’u Tidepools
Relaxing: Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden, Tantalus Lookout
Where to Stay: Best Areas to Stay on Oahu, Hawaii – Your Travel Guide