Unlike many cities on the U.S. mainland, Honolulu is not laid out in a strict compass-point grid. Its street system conforms in large part to the shorelines, valleys, and ridges, with lots of twists and turns. It can be confusing for people used to straight grid systems. However, at the same time, it is not that difficult to navigate in, as long as you are familiar with the major arterials and terminology below.
Because it may be difficult to differentiate north and south in the city, directions are normally given in terms of local landmarks. The most common terms that you will run into are mauka (Mow-kah) meaning “toward the mountain” and makai (mah-KAI) meaning “toward the sea”. In the case of Honolulu, which is on Oahu’s south shore, “mauka” is a rough north, and “makai” roughly south. You will also hear Ewa (Eh-vah) and Diamond Head used a lot, in relation to east and west, the former roughly means “west” (toward the town of Ewa on the southwest shore of Oahu) and the latter roughly means “east” (towards Diamond Head). Locals refer to Honolulu proper (downtown) as “town”. Highway signs, however, will use standard compass directions, so if you are asked to go Ewa-bound on the freeway, look for the on-ramp to H-1 west.
It is a very good idea to invest in a good map of Honolulu before doing extensive driving. Members of the American Automobile Association (AAA) can request fold-out maps for free from their local office. Rand McNally paper fold-out maps are available in many stores; for more extensive coverage you can also purchase Bryan’s Sectional Maps (a popular choice among locals) at most bookstores for about $9.50. GPS-enabled devices can also be used to navigate around Honolulu, and Oahu.
Some streets in Honolulu can be extremely narrow compared to the mainland. Locals are used to this lack of space on roads but if you are coming from the mainland and are used to wide streets, prepare yourself for driving very close to the cars around you. Just take a little extra caution and you should not have any problems. Once outside of Honolulu proper, the roads will be a bit wider.
Please take note that many intersections on busy streets in town do prohibit left turns, especially intersections on Kapiolani Boulevard, due to flow of traffic and other various reasons.
If coming from the mainland, speed limits on roads in Honolulu are generally lower than you may be used to. For example, six-laned King Street is 25-30 miles per hour for its entire length. Most streets are no more than 25 miles per hour. In addition to this, many people disregard the speed limit, instead driving slower, which may be frustrating.
During periods of rain at night, the lane markings on the roads will not be easily visible even to people with excellent vision. Take extreme caution during these times.
Naturally, when most visitors think of beaches here, they think of the famous Waikiki Beach. As the tourist center of the Hawaiian Islands, this white sand beach, framed by hotels and Diamond Head as a backdrop, is easily the most crowded. Waikiki is popular with a wide crowd, as it’s a excellent place for swimming, sunbathers, catamaran and outrigger canoes, as well as a great spot for beginner surfers and body boarders (and there are plenty of surf schools set up in Waikiki for lessons). What’s remarkable is that even in Waikiki you can find a fairly quiet beach; it’s just a matter of knowing where to look.
But if you really need to get away from the crowds, there are plenty of other beaches. Just to the west, near Downtown, is Ala Moana Park, a green space with plenty of trees and grass as well as an nice sandy beach that’s popular with the locals and is perfect for families or a calmer swim.
The area surrounding Makapu’u Point in Eastern Honolulu has several excellent beaches, the most popular being Hanauma Bay, which is set in the crater of an extinct volcano, now open to the sea and filled with a coral reef. This is not the place for a good swim and certainly not the spot for surfing, but the calm water and abundance of marine life makes it excellent for snorkeling and scuba diving. Even if you don’t get in the water, the scenery makes it a great place to sunbathe or picnic, although you may find parking to be an issue.
Just near Hanauma Bay is the Halona Beach Cove, known as “the Peering Place”. It is a small, rocky cove that has good swimming with the surf is calm, but no lifeguards here means it’s at your own risk. Nearby Sandy Beach does have lifeguards, and has been popular with surfers and bodyboarders for decades. On a calm day, it can be good for a fun day of swimming. Makapu’u Beach, just a little further up the road, is quite scenic. It tends to have very large waves, meaning it many not be the best place to swim but a fantastic place to surf.
Pearl Harbor, located in Western Honolulu and accessible by Bus #42 or #20, is well-remembered for ‘December 7, 1941— “a date which will live in infamy” (President Franklin D. Roosevelt), when an attack by Japanese forces killed over 2,000 personnel and brought the U.S. military into World War II. Today the harbor, still functioning as a navy base, is the site of several memorials honoring the fallen of that day and the rest of the war. The centerpiece is the USS Arizona Memorial, which was built over the sunken hull of the USS Arizona battleship; the resting place of many who died that day. The memorial itself is accessed after an introductory movie and a short ferry ride, and lists the names of those lost as well as a chance to view the wreck. Time-stamped tickets (free) are needed to access the USS Arizona Memorial and can be obtained on the same day (get there early, ticket office opens at 7:45am) or in advance online for a small fee.
Next to Pearl Harbor’s visitor center is the USS Bowfin, a WWII submarine that’s open for tours and offers a glimpse at life aboard a submarine. Ford Island, in the middle of the harbor, is home to the Pacific Aviation Museum, which has plenty of WWII fighter planes to view. The island is also home to the Battleship Missouri Memorial, a battleship best known as the site where World War II ended when the Japanese military formally surrendered to the Allied forces. The ship is open for tours and watches over the USSArizona, marking the end of the war at the site where it began for the U.S.
Also in Honolulu is the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, located within the Punchbowl Crater near Downtown, just above Makiki. The cemetery is the final resting place of over 45,000 Americans who served their country in the military, and has a memorial to those missing in action in World War II as well as panoramic views of Honolulu. The memorial contains a series of time-line and map-based wall paintings that tell the story of the Pacific Theater of WWII.
Of all the museums in Honolulu, none approach the size of the Bishop Museum in Western Honolulu; a complex of buildings with a large collection of Hawaiian artifacts. Much of the museum is dedicated to Hawaiian history, with a growing number of science-based exhibits, including a planetarium, a large natural history hall, and an area centered around volcanology. The museum is huge, so give yourself a few hours to take it all in.
Downtown is home to several museums. On the state capitol grounds is the gorgeous `Iolani Palace, which was the official residence of the Hawaiian Kingdom’s last two monarchs and is now open for tours. Nearby is the Mission Houses Museum, which has three 19th century Honolulu houses restored for viewing, and theHawaii State Art Museum, which displays visual art by Hawaii artists.
Makiki has two major art museums worth a look: the Honolulu Academy of Arts is the largest art museum in the city and houses one of the largest collections of Asian art in the United States, along with an impressive Western collection to boot, including Van Gogh, Picasso, Gauguin, Cezanne, Monet, Modigliani and other masters. Just up the hill is the Contemporary Museum, which occupys an old estate overlooking the city and is devoted exclusively to contemporary art. Further east along the Pali highway is Queen Emma’s Summer Palace, the summer home of King Kamehameha IV and his family that is now transformed into a museum commemorating its past residents.
Kapiolani Park in Waikiki is home to the city’s zoo and aquarium. The Honolulu Zoo is fairly small but quite enjoyable, with plenty of exotic animals including the big-name ones like lions, elephants, rhinos, zebras, giraffes, etc. The also small but rather impressive Waikiki Aquarium holds a spot on the beach and has marine life from all over the Pacific Ocean, including sharks, octopus, colorful reef fish, jellies, and an outdoor exhibit with seals. On the far east part of the island lies Sea Life Park which includes exhibits of marine life as well as entertaining dolphin, sea lion, and penguin shows.
It’s Hawai’i, so there’s no shortage of natural scenery, even near the big city. For those looking for expansive vistas, Diamond Head is a good starting point – this ancient volcanic crater dominates over Waikiki and the top offers an incredible view over the city. The trail leads up into a World War II-era bunker and up some steep staircases (one of over 100 steps), so the climb can be a little rough for the average couch potato.
If you’re looking for a vista that you don’t have to hike far to get to, look no further than the hills above Makiki. The Punchbowl crater, home to a military cemetery, offers a panoramic view closer to Downtown.Pu’u Ualaka’a Park, also above Makiki, has a winding mountain road, Tantalus/Round Top Drive, and a number of hiking trails which provide a stunning view of southern O’ahu nearly 2,000 feet above sea level.
Another popular overlook is the Nu’uanu Pali Lookout, located 6 miles north of Downtown on State Route 61 (Pali Highway). The scenic vista, set between two incredibly high cliffs, provides a panoramic view of Windward O’ahu. The overlook is often buffeted by high winds, but the view is more than worth it.
If ocean scenery is more your speed, the rocky shoreline of the Makapu’u Point area is an excellent bet. In addition to the scenic beaches here is the Makapuʻu Point State Wayside, a roadside stop which offers an excellent view of Makapu’u Point and its lighthouse, a view up the Windward O’ahu coast, and if you’re lucky, whales off-shore in the winter months. Nearby is the popular Halona Blowhole, one of the many blowholes (an underwater cave with a hole in the top, so ocean water blasts out the top) in this area, but the easiest to view due to the large parking area overlooking it.
Hawaii’s year-round tropical weather provides perfect running weather all year, so bring your running shoes. Kapiolani Park and Ala Moana Beach Park are where most joggers in Honolulu congregate; the 4-mile loop around Diamond Head is also a popular and scenic route. If you’re up for a challenge, Tantalus Drive above Makiki is a winding, two-lane road that is relatively safe for joggers. The Honolulu Marathon, held annually on the second Sunday in December, is a huge event that attracts from 20,000-25,000 runners annually.
Cycling around Honolulu’s streets and bike paths can be a great way to see the city and stay in shape. There are several bike shops in the city that rent various types of bikes. You can also take Highway 72 to Waimanolo, east of Honolulu, if you want to get out on the open road.
Ice skating is probably the last thing you’d expect to be able to do in a tropical city, but the Ice Palace in Western Honolulu makes for the perfect getaway if the hot climate is too much for you.
There are great surfing beaches around Waikiki. For lessons, beach boys give private surfing lessons daily at Waikiki Beach. A one hour lesson includes dry land and in-the-water instruction. Instructors teach paddling, timing and balance skills. No reservations required, just sign up at the stand on the beach located Diamondhead of the Waikiki Police Station. You can also try one of the many surfing schools in Waikiki.
In addition to the traditional luaus and hula shows, Hawaii has a thriving scene of theatre, concerts, clubs, bars, and other events and entertainment. Honolulu has two major theatre complexes. The oldest and most popular one is Diamond Head Theatre. They have been entertaining audiences with broadway style performances since 1919, and has been called “The Broadway of the Pacific”. Another theatre is the Hawaii Theatre in Downtown Honolulu. They have similar performances to that of Diamond Head Theatre and have been performing since 1922. Other performances are also held at the Neil S. Blaisdell Arena and Concert Hall, and the Waikiki Shell. You can find a well-maintained list of upcoming shows and weekly events online at HNLnow.com. If you’re already out and about, you can access a daily digest on your mobile phone.