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Guide to Honululu Oahu

Updated on November 19, 2015
Downtown Honululu
Downtown Honululu


Here East meets West and old meets new. Downtown is the pulse of Hawaii, the hub for economic and financial growth. Fort Street Mall is the cut off between the oldest and the newest part of town .

The financial district of Honolulu consists mainly of banks, insurance buildings, and business towers. The tallest and newest skyscraper is the First Hawaiian Bank tower with its impressive 470 feet. The area between King Street and the ocean, towards Aloha Tower is known as the old merchant district.

Until statehood, Hawaii was under control of a consortium of corporations, called the Big Five, which built much of their wealth mainly with land speculation, agriculture such as sugar and pineapple, insurance and the like. These 5 corporations were running almost all major commerce until 1960. Then statehood and tourism limited their oligarchy. Today law firms and trade companies occupy this area, but the power of the Big 5 remains, quite visible in the turn-of-the century merchant buildings.

Honolulu sights are best seen as part of a guided tour, because local guides will explain the main events that took place behind the facades of this fascinating town. The tours of the major Honolulu sights will usually lead you from the west to the east. The starting point will be Chinatown followed by Downtown Honolulu, Aloha Tower, and Iolani Palace.

The historical district of Honolulu includes the Palace, the State Capitol, Washington Palace, now the residence of the governor, and the old mission homes. An alternative where your time can be used more flexible than on a planned tour is the Waikiki Trolley. It looks like the Cable Car in San Francisco but it is actually a bus which allows you to jump on and off all day. The trolley stops frequently and the drivers give a great tour about Honolulu’s history and culture. If you take the trolley, make sure you see the mission homes as well as the Iolani Place and the law museum. You can easily spent a whole day sight-seeing in Honolulu - there is that much to do, and for the culturally inclined there is much to learn and explore.

Enjoy the time during lunch hours, when the town comes alive with secretaries, lawyers, government employees and students taking their lunch at the many little food places and ethnic restaurants. You'd never guess you are in a huge city, and compared to the US mainland the pace is still enjoyably slow. On Aloha Fridays the atmosphere becomes even more casual as suits are replaced with T-Shirts and everyone gets ready for the weekend.

Iolani Palace

The construction of Iolani Palace (Hawaiian for Royal Hawk) began in 1879 under the rule of King Kalakaua and finished in 1882. King Kalakaua was famous for his tendency to luxury and European imperialism. It was the kings wish that this palace would be an impressive and special residence.

The palace was the first electrified building on Oahu ( four years before the White House) and featured a direct phone line to the Royal boat house. In addition all the bathrooms had flushing toilets, and the grand throne room is decorated with gold and crystal chandeliers. The glass and the ironwork were imported from San Francisco and the columns were designed after Corinthian models. The palace stands witness to the changes Hawaii went through in only a few years - from kingdom to U.S. territory, and from there to statehood.

After Kalakaua’s death in 1891, his sister Queen Liliuokalani took over the thrown. She was the last empress, desperately trying to regain the strength of the Hawaiian monarchy, but a conspiracy by American businessmen, protected by the military from a US warship forced her to resign, and the palace became her prison where she was held for nine month. The Royal dining room was changed into a meeting room of the House of Representatives and the Senate.

When the State Capitol was built in 1969, the Palace was remodeled for 7million dollars. You can only enter the palace with a guided tour, and you cannot take pictures inside. These tours are held from Wednesday to Saturday from 9.00am to 2.15pm. Make early reservations by calling 522 - 0832.


Chinatown borders River Street in the west and Fort Street Mall in the east. In the middle of the 19th century, Chinese laborers were brought to Hawaii to work on the sugar plantations and pineapple fields, but as soon as their contracts were up, many of them gathered in this part of town and opened small shops and markets.

Soon Chinatown was also the center of gambling, drugs, and brothels. Hotel Street was, and is the main place for underground activities like prostitution and drugs even today. When you walk along Hotel Street don’t be surprised to meet some interesting characters, and try to avoid this area at night! A lot has been done by the neighborhood board and the police, but it is still not the place to be during those certain hours.

Nevertheless, a stroll through Chinatown in the morning hours gives you a unique idea of an Asian market environment.

The most famous restaurant in Chinatown is the Old Wo Fat, whose colorful facade is a landmark. A big fire in 1907 destroyed a lot of buildings in this district. As a visitor you might feel a little lost in the maze of small grocery shops, dark noodle factories, bakeries, lei stands, and tattoo parlors, but don’t hesitate to look inside. There will be vivid conversations going on all around you and chances are you won’t understand a word, but that’s Chinatown. A good place to stop for a snack is the Mauna Kea Marketplace, where you can find a nice selection of Asian cuisine. Further down towards the ocean some art galleries sell interesting aloha collectibles.

The Chinese Historical Society (521 3045) offers guided walking tours through Chinatown. They begin at the Asian Mall at 10.00am and last about 2 hours.

Aloha Tower

At the mauka end of Bishop Street you are going to see Aloha Tower Marketplace. The 9 story high tower was built in 1926 as the tallest building in the city. It has been Honolulu’s landmark for many years. It was nicely remodeled as part of the harbor front marketplace.

The Aloha Tower itself has a significant symbolic meaning. For many years this was the first glimpse of island life for the many immigrants and laborers who were brought to Hawaii to work in the cane fields. Back then residents would line up along the docks and welcome the sailing ships and big steamers with a hula dance, music performances and flower leis. Today the tower can still be seen from the water, and you can go up to the top floor and enjoy a wonderful view of the Honolulu skyline.

Cruise ships stop here for land excursions, such as America Hawaii Cruises, which operates weekly cruises between the ports of the main Hawaiian Islands, and the docks and surrounding buildings have been restored to remind the visitor of the early steamship days. The tower includes many shops, a great brewery and restaurants and can be visited from Waikiki. by trolley or by public bus, and by car.

Parks and Gardens

For a city of the size of Honolulu, it is amazing that so much green has survived, and if you know where to go, you may find some real botanical treasures amidst the skyscrapers and the busy city life.

Foster Gardens -180 N. Vineyard Blvd.

This exotic garden, on the north side of Chinatown bears trees and flowers, which are over 100 years old. Originally the German physician and botanist William Hillenbrand planted one single tree on this piece of Royal land. Today the garden measures 15 acres and is the home of 24 kinds of native Hawaiian trees and other very rare trees, flowers, herbs and spices. Many of the species were brought in from Asia, and are now protected by federal law.

Open daily from 9.00am – 4.00pm, $1 fee with guided tours on Mon., Tue and Wednesday at 1.30pm.

Lyon Arboretum - 3860 Manoa Road

Not quite in downtown, but worth seeing. The bus ride may take you an hour, but it is a good chance to get to know one of the most beautiful residential areas of Honolulu. Manoa Valley is very lush due to the high amounts of rain fall. At the end of the valley you will be surprised about the quiet and the beautiful surroundings. The Lyon Arboretum was founded by the sugar botanist Harold Lyon in the 1920s. The park covers 194 acres and is considered a semi natural park. Lyon traveled the world and brought several thousand new species to the islands. You can walk on a self-guided tour through the park to Inspiration Point. A part of the park is used for research purposed by the University of Hawaii.

Open Mon.-Sat 9.00am-3.00pm, admission free, Bus #5 .Guided tours available only twice per months, on Saturdays.

Queen Emma’s Summer Palace, 2913 Pali Hwy.

This simple New England style house, belonged to Queen Emma, who was the wife of Kamehameha IV. She inherited the house from her Uncle John Young II, who build the home from 1843 to 1847. After Queen Emma’s death in 1885, the house was about to be demolished. The Daughters of Hawaii, a women’s organization, saved the building and restored it. Since 1915 the Palace has been a museum. It exhibits many Royal paintings and Hawaiian artifacts.

The Palace is surrounded by a nice garden featuring trees, which are over hundred years old.

Ala Moana Beach Park

Ala Moana Beach Park is the home of ever athletic Honolulu resident. The over a mile long beach park, from Kewalo Basin to Waikiki, is mostly frequented by joggers, roller bladers, tennis players, and fitness enthusiasts. The beach is man made, but that says nothing about its beauty. The park is very clean and well maintained. It offers showers, bathrooms and lifeguards. On the weekends the park is the picnic and barbecue spot. You can’t make your way through the park without smelling the best food all around . Residents bring the entire family, food, drinks, camping chairs, grills, everything you can imagine to spend their spare time there.

The peninsula at the diamond head side of the park is called Magic Island, and if you are there at around 6.00pm you know where the name comes from. There is nothing more romantic and beautiful than to sit on the edge of a wall and enjoy the colors of the setting sun.

Bishop Museum

The Bishop Museum was built 1889 in honor of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop. The Bishops realized the urgent need to preserve Hawaii’s heritage and established a museum to house Bernice’s magnificent collection of Hawaiian artifacts. Today the museum is nationally recognized as one of the world’s best scientific institutions.

The museum has a great collection of the Hawaiiana, the Polynesian heritage and the natural history of the islands. In the Hawaiian Hall you can find displays about the Hawaiian kapu system, the arrivals of the missionaries, personal items of several monarchs, and about the Asian and European influences which shaped the Hawaii of today. The two most impressive exhibits are the 55 feet long and 7’ high whale replica and an original Hawaiian grass hut. The skull of the sperm whale weighs 3000 lbs, and was displayed the first time in 1902. The Hawaiian Hall is 3 stories high, designed in Colonial New England style, and is the most impressive hall of the museum complex.

The museum only displays the most beautiful, the most interesting and best artifacts, because the full range of collections far exceeds the capacity of the galleries. The collections of flora and fauna include 187,000 Hawaiian and Pacific artifacts, 13,500,000 Insect specimen, 6,000,000 marine and land shells, 250,000 plant specimen, 290,000 marine invertebrates, 124,000 fish specimen and 84,600 bird and mammal specimen.

To get here, you can take the Waikiki Trolley or ride the local bus. It is only about 10 minutes away from Waikiki by car and well worth a visit if you are culturally inclined. Make us of the guided tours that are given at different hours, the guides will give you valuable insights into history and culture of Hawaii and the Pacific.

1525 Bernice Street, Tel: 847 3511 - Open daily 9.00am-5.00pm Bus #2

Maritime Museum

The museum was opened in 1989 on the former site of the royal boathouse, where King Kalakaua spent most of his time. Exhibitions take you back to the times when the Polynesians first discovered the islands, and through the different stages of maritime life around the islands, including artifacts and memorabilia from the sailing boast and the steamship days.

The museum’s major attraction is the 100 year old fully rigged, four masted ship, the "Falls of the Clyde". It’s the only one of its kind left in the entire world. Originally built in Scotland, the ship has served as a cargo ship from 1898 to 1920. Then it was supposed to be wrecked by a Seattle cargo company, but the local residents managed to save the ship and tow it back into the Honolulu harbor. It was remodeled and has been a museum piece ever since.

The Hokule`a is a smaller reconstruction of one of the canoes the Polynesians used for their migrations. The canoe became famous when a 6000-mile long voyage from Honolulu to Tahiti was completed successfully. More than 12 men navigated the boat only by observing the stars and the ocean currents, living only of traditional traditional Hawaiian food, like poi, bananas and dried fish. Several voyages have been completed since then, some to distant places such as New Zealand and the Marquesas and have caused a cultural revival among the nations of the Pacific. The newest trip is set for Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, which will complete the triangle of Polynesia explored by the Hokule`a.

Pier 7 next to Aloha Tower Tel: 523-6151 Bus #19


Port of Honolulu

Cruise ships berth at the Oahu Dock at the Honolulu Cruise Terminal. Popular shore excursions for cruise ship passengers include visiting the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor and the The Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl Crater. An alternative to visiting Oahu on a cruise is to make Oahu your departure port. The Norwegian Cruise Line's ship the 'Pride Of America' is based at Honolulu, and plys a 7 day cruise of the islands year-round. Stops on the Pride's itinerary are Kahului (Maui), Hilo (Hawaii), Kailua Kona (Hawaii), Nawiliwili (Kauai).

See cruises leaving Honolulu for a comprehensive listing.

Cruise Terminal Address: 1 Aloha Tower Drive; Honolulu, HI 96814


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