A trip to Oahu is not complete without a day in downtown Honolulu. It’s the seat of government for the county of Oahu and the Hawaii state government. Downtown has ali’i history (the royalty of Hawaii), missionary history, and modern Hawaiian life.
5 downtown attractions
‘Iolani Palace was built by King David Kalākaua and is the only royal palace in the US. ‘Iolani means royal hawk, and was one of the names of Kamehameha V. This is a sacred place and a tour often begins with a Hawaiian prayer. The palace is a beautiful snapshot of what was the latest in Victorian luxury and innovations. I always feel very somber visiting the rooms where Queen Lili’uokalani lived under house arrest when the kingdom was overthrown. Be sure to spend time studying the quilt she made while there. If you have time, watch the video presentation in the barracks building and visit the treasures on display in the basement museum.
‘Iolani is open Monday through Saturday from 9 am to 4 pm. The Royal Hawaiian Band often performs on Fridays at noon near the Coronation Pavilion. Tours of the palace are available: guided with a docent or self-guided with audio. The times vary daily, so be sure to check the website and make a reservation ahead of time.
The Hawaii State Capitol building is a short walk from ‘Iolani Palace. This modern home for the legislature was built with symbolic meaning between 1965 and 1969. Forty columns evoking royal palm trees surround the building. Look closely and you’ll see a volcano shape inside the columns. There are lots more symbols to find in the building design. The State Capitol is open Monday through Friday from 9 am to 2:30 pm. Guided tours are available Tuesday through Friday at 1 pm.
The Hawaiian Mission Houses are open for tours Tuesday through Friday from 11 am to 3 pm. A tour here takes you through 3 historic buildings dating back to 1821. The story of the Protestant missionaries who came to “save” the Hawaiians is a complex one that resonates throughout Hawaiian life today. You wouldn’t want this tour to be your only taste of history on a Hawaiian trip, but it does add to understanding. The grounds are beautiful with old trees and a wall of night blooming cereus.
Walk across the street to see Kawaiaha’o Church. This landmark of Honolulu was dedicated in 1842 (the congregation has been worshipping here since 1820.) The church is built of huge slabs of coral cut from the reef. King William Charles Lunalilo’s mausoleum is on the grounds, one of the few monarchs not laid to rest in the Royal Mausoleum.
Ali’iolani Hale is a short walk from the church towards the west. This building was built by King Kamehameha V to house the government of Hawaii. Today it is used by the state Supreme Court and the Judiciary History Center (and fictional Five-0 headquarters.) Don’t miss King Kamehameha the Great’s statue in the front courtyard! Ali’iolani Hale is open Monday through Friday from 8 am to 4:30 pm.
You may want to stop for lunch or dinner while downtown. Here’s some suggestions for places to stop:
- Lucky Belly is open for lunch 11am to 2 pm and for dinner 5pm to midnight Monday through Saturday. Lucky Belly is a modern Asian-fusion bistro in Chinatown where you can find bao, ramen, kimchi, and oxtails.
- Mission Social Hall and Café is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 am to 2 pm. Chef Noguchi features Hawaiian food inspired by the missionary era. https://www.facebook.com/MissionbyPili
- Café Julia is open for lunch 11 am to 2 pm Monday through Friday. Dinner hours vary by day so check the website. Café Julia at YWCA Laniakea is in the historic building designed by Julia Morgan in 1920. This very popular place has all types of salads, sandwiches, and entrees with local, Asian, and modern flavors. Reservations recommended.
- Highway Inn is open 7 days a week, check the website for exact times. The Kaka’ako location on Ala Moana Boulevard is near downtown. This is the place for “ono local kine grindz”, with a diner feel welcoming to both kama’aina and malahini (visitors.) The open kitchen lets you watch taro preparation and poi pounding. There are plenty of options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, from kalua pork, pipi beef stew, and poke to veggie omelets and hamburgers.
From Waikiki, you can take the Number 1 or Number 2 bus to get downtown, to Beretania and Punchbowl Streets.
If you’ve rented a car, bring change with you for parking. There’s metered parking on Kawaiahao Street between the Hawaiian Mission Houses and Kawaiaha’o Church. You can find short-term street parking near the State Capitol (Punchbowl Street). There is also a small parking lot between ‘Iolani Palace and the Capitol building (enter from Richards Street.) See the link below for more parking options.
There’s more to do in downtown, so we’ll revisit soon.
- 36 Hours in Honolulu from NY Times
- Downtown Honolulu and Chinatown, Oahu from Hawaii Tourism Authority
- Royal Hawaiian Band
- Downtown Honolulu parking from Parkopedia
Let’s talk story
Many folks visit Hawaii as a tropical getaway and resort experience on the beach. They are missing out on experiencing Honolulu, a vibrant, multicultural city that is a crossroads for east and west. We always spend at least one day downtown on our trips. I love the history and culture of Hawaii and I think visitors should honor that. It brings up lots of emotions to visit the Mission Houses and ‘Iolani Palace for me, but it adds to my love of the place.
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