Top things to do in Honolulu on your dream vacation

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If you’re dreaming of sun-soaked beaches, rich cultural experiences and thrilling outdoor adventures, Honolulu is the place to be. This guide will walk you through the top things to do in Honolulu, ensuring you make the most of your island getaway.

A city along a curved stretch of Pacific Ocean beach at dusk.
Photo credit: Depositphotos.

Honolulu is the ultimate destination for sun, surf and rich cultural experiences. Whether you’re catching waves, exploring historic sites or indulging in local flavors, there are many fantastic things to do, see and eat in beautiful Honolulu, Hawaii.

Beaches and water activities

Honolulu is a beach lover’s dream destination. Whether you want to ride a wave or just want to enjoy a relaxing day on the soft sand, here are the top spots you need to check out in Honolulu.

Waikiki Beach

Waikiki Beach is famous for its white sand, turquoise blue water, energetic vibe and impressive views of Diamond Head. The small but consistent waves make it a perfect spot for surfing beginners. Whether you’re catching waves, swimming or just relaxing, a day at Waikiki Beach is one of the best things to do in Honolulu. 

Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve

If you want to go snorkeling on Oahu, Hanauma Bay is the place to be. This nature preserve is home to a dazzling array of marine life. Expect to see a variety of colorful tropical fish and maybe even a sea turtle or two. It’s like swimming in an aquarium but so much cooler because it’s real life. Remember to wear reef-friendly sunscreen and always respect the marine environment when enjoying Hawaii’s underwater wonders.

North Shore

Whether you’re a beginner seeking small, friendly waves or an experienced surfer who wants to ride the bigger waves between November and February, the surf’s always up at the North Shore. This area is world-famous for its legendary surf spots like Sunset Beach, Banzai Pipeline and Waimea Bay. Even if you’re not surfing, watching the pros tackle these massive waves is also one of the best things to do in Honolulu.

Magic Island Lagoon

For a relaxing day at the beach, head to Magic Island Lagoon. This man-made peninsula offers calm waters perfect for swimming and is a lovely spot for picnicking. Take a leisurely walk along the paths, enjoy the green spaces and stick around for the stunning sunset views. It’s a great place to unwind and soak up the beauty of Honolulu​​.

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Outdoor adventures

If you love exploring the great outdoors, Honolulu is a dream destination. From hiking up volcanic craters to wandering through lush rainforests, these outdoor adventures allow you to soak in Honolulu’s natural beauty.

Diamond Head State Monument

Hiking up Diamond Head State Monument is a must-do for any visitor. This iconic landmark offers a 0.8-mile trail that climbs 560 feet from the crater floor to the summit. The hike is steep and includes switchbacks, stairs and a tunnel, but the panoramic views from the top are worth every step. You’ll be rewarded with views of the stunning coastline from Koko Head to Wai’anae.​

“I go to Honolulu every year and almost always hike the Diamond Head Summit Trail. It’s a very moderate trail and only 1.6 miles long, but offers absolutely breathtaking, panoramic views of Waikiki and the Pacific Ocean from the top of this ancient volcanic crater.”

— Shruthi Baskaran-Makanju, Urban Farmie

Makapu’u Point Lighthouse Trail

For more breathtaking coastal views, hike the Makapu’u Point Lighthouse Trail. Featuring a paved path and a round trip of about two miles, it is accessible for most fitness levels. As you walk along the trail, you’ll be treated to spectacular views of the ocean, and during the winter months, you might spot humpback whales frolicking in the waters below.

A waterfall gushes down the side of a lush green mountain.
Photo credit: Depositphotos.

Manoa Falls

If you’re looking to immerse yourself in a tropical rainforest, Manoa Falls is the perfect hike. The trail is about 1.6 miles round trip and leads you through dense foliage to a stunning 150-foot waterfall. It’s a relatively easy hike but can get muddy, so make sure to wear appropriate footwear. The lush surroundings and the serene waterfall make this one of the most memorable things to do in Honolulu.

Botanical gardens

Honolulu boasts several gorgeous botanical gardens where you can stroll among exotic plants and colorful flowers. Highlights include the Foster Botanical Garden, which features tropical plants and a butterfly garden, and the Lyon Arboretum, a research garden with hiking trails and stunning flora. Each garden offers a peaceful escape and a chance to appreciate Hawaii’s rich plant life.

Kualoa Ranch

For an adventure-packed thing to do in Honolulu, visit Kualoa Ranch. This 4,000-acre private nature reserve offers a variety of tours, including movie site tours where you can see filming locations from famous movies like “Jurassic Park.” You can also explore the ranch on horseback, e-bikes, multi-passenger UTVs or even zipline.

Historical and cultural sites

Honolulu is rich with history and culture, offering numerous sites that tell the stories of Hawaii’s past. From solemn memorials to royal palaces, here are some must-visit spots to immerse yourself in the Aloha State’s unique heritage.

A white memorial stretches across the water in Pearl Harbor as a rainbow shines down from the blue sky above.
Photo credit: Sage Scott.

Pearl Harbor and USS Arizona Memorial

Visiting the site that commemorates the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, is a profound experience. The memorial honoring the 1,177 servicemen who lost their lives on the USS Arizona spans the sunken battleship and includes a shrine room with the names of the fallen. The visitor center features exhibits and films that provide context and detail about this pivotal moment in history.

Iolani Palace

Located in downtown Honolulu, Iolani Palace is the only royal palace on U.S. soil. This stunning building served as the official residence of Hawaii’s monarchy and now operates as a museum. Visitors can explore its richly decorated rooms and learn about the history of the Hawaiian Kingdom. The palace grounds also offer a beautiful setting for a leisurely stroll while reflecting on Hawaii’s royal heritage​.

Shopping and entertainment

For the ultimate shopping and entertainment experience in Honolulu, head to the Ala Moana Center. As the world’s largest open-air shopping center, it features over 350 shops and more than 160 dining options. You’ll also experience daily hula shows and live music performances at Centerstage, making it a lively spot to visit, whether you’re shopping, eating or just soaking in the vibrant atmosphere.

Island eats and treats

Hawaii’s food scene is truly unique as a Pacific Island with heavy influences from Southeast Asia and Portugal. From traditional feasts to iconic sweet treats, these food experiences provide a true taste of the islands.

Four bowls with different types of Hawaiian luau food on a wooden table.
Photo credit: Depositphotos.

Attend a luau

A luau is more than just a meal — it’s an immersive cultural experience that brings traditional Hawaiian food, music and dance to life. At venues like Paradise Cove, Germaine’s Luau and the Polynesian Cultural Center, you’ll enjoy a feast that typically includes dishes like kalua pig, poke and poi. The evening is filled with lively hula performances, fire dancing and the sounds of traditional Hawaiian music.

Leonard’s Bakery

No trip to Honolulu is complete without a visit to Leonard’s Bakery for their famous malasadas. These Portuguese doughnuts are fried to perfection and coated in sugar, offering a deliciously warm and satisfying treat. Leonard’s has been serving these mouthwatering malasadas since 1952, and they remain a beloved favorite among locals and visitors alike. Whether you opt for the classic version or try one of the filled varieties, these doughnuts are one of the most delicious things to do in Honolulu.

A fond farewell to the Aloha State

Whether you’re soaking up the sun on stunning beaches, exploring rich cultural sites or savoring delicious local flavors, there’s a lot to see and do in Honolulu. So pack your bags and get ready for a dream vacation with memories that will last a lifetime.

Sage Scott was bitten by the travel bug as a preschooler when her family moved abroad for the first time. Now settled in America’s Heartland, Sage is a travel writer, world wanderer and photographer whose favorite color is golden hour. Follow her adventures at Everyday Wanderer.

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