The only royal palace in the United States and you can take a tour inside. Great historical information is presented by knowledgeable guides, but it lacks artifacts and historical pieces.
General: Cost: Paid
General: Has Gift Shop
General: Photo Opportunity
General: State Park
Tours: Self Guided
Cultural & Historical: Heiau / Sacred Site
Cultural & Historical: Museum / Art Center
Iolani Palace is a pretty interesting place to visit and tour. It's the only royal palace in the entire United States, and how often do you get to walk around inside a palace? It's also full of history and tour guides who do an amazing job and telling the history of the palace, the monarchs, and Hawaii in general. They're open from 8:30 AM to 4:00 PM Monday through Saturday.
Getting here is fairly easy and it's just a short bus ride or drive from Waikiki. Parking is another story. There is limited parking right on the grounds and to get in there you'll take the side entrance on Likelike St, just off of King St. If that parking is all taken, there is also parking right on King St in front of the palace (bring quarters, you'll need to feed the meter a quarter for every 10 minutes with a max of 2 hours so fill it all the way up). A paid parking garage can also be found at 1099 Alakea St.
You'll first need to go buy your tour tickets so follow the sign to the barracks building to buy them. At almost $22 per adult, it's a pricey tour but your money is going to support and help restore the palace. There is a short film that loops over and over across from where you buy your tickets so this is a good place to wait.
The main tour takes you inside the palace and you'll be guided around the main two floors. You'll also be watched like a hawk to make sure you don't touch anything the entire time. Literally, handlers stand around watching your every move as your guide gives you the tour. It's all a bit odd.
You'll be given cotton booties to wear inside the palace so the floors don't get damaged. When the main tour is over you'll remove the booties and head down to the basement where you can browse rooms of pictures and artifacts on your own. Overall, the tour takes about an hour and they start every 15 minutes but if it's busy you may have to wait a while to get in (call ahead for reservations and information).
It's a very interesting tour and those who want to learn Hawaiian history will really enjoy it and get a lot out of it. This was, after all, the place where Hawaii's monarchs reigned. First with King David Kalakaua (see King David Kalakaua Statue) and then with Queen Lili'uokalani.
It's also interesting to note that this isn't the original Iolani Palace. There was another Iolani Palace right in this same spot which was far less impressive. King Kalakaua had that old one removed and a new one built as a way to show the world that Hawaii wasn't some small place to be messed with and to give the Hawaiians something to be proud of.
It's crazy, and sad, to think about what took place in Hawaii many years ago and how, in 1893, the United States muscled its way in (through businessmen in search of profit no less) and decided that this was going to be part of the USA. History is filled with territory takeovers like this and it's still happening in modern times which blows my mind.
So, it's easy to understand why this is still a delicate subject with Hawaiians today. It wasn't that long ago that their leader, Queen Lili'uokalani, was imprisoned by the USA inside Iolani Palace for over 8 months. She assumed she'd be executed by the USA and, during her imprisonment, hand made a very impressive quilt that tells her life story. That quilt is currently on display in the room that was her prison. The queen was not executed either.
Later, the palace was turned into the State Capitol Building and essentially became a place for government offices. In more recent times the palace has been restored (and is still being restored) to its former glory. The Hawaii State Capitol is now located next door.
The tragedy for visitors and historians today is that when the queen was overthrown all of the items in the palace were auctioned off over a period of many years. Because of that, many have been lost. In some cases the pieces have been found and those who purchased them have donated them back to the palace for visitors to see.
Our tour guide even tells an amazing story of one couple who took the tour and commented on how a table they noticed in one of the pictures looked similar to one they had back in their house. As it turned out, they ended up with the actual table from the palace and donated it back to the palace where it's at today. So keep an eye out at those garage sales and estate auctions!
But this lack of historical items is where the Iolani Palace tour falls a bit short. When you factor in the pricey cost of entry and walk through the rooms you realize that many rooms don't have very much in them. Those rooms that do will often have reproductions. While reproductions don't kill the experience for me, lack of items does a bit. It's still interesting and something I recommend people see, but I sure hope they're able to track down more items.
As they'll tell you on the tour, many items have that have been found have been donated to the The Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum so you may want to head over there as well if you enjoy this type of thing.
So, is taking a tour of Iolani Palace worth your time? It all depends on what you like. If you're into history and seeing old buildings and artifacts then you'll certainly enjoy the tour here. If you have small children then I wouldn't recommend it at all because you'll likely be spending your time keeping their hands off the ropes, wall, doors, and answering the question "how much longer until it's over" many, many times.
On that note, kids under 4 must be in a front-held infant/child carrier worn by an adult at all times or strapped into a stroller that they provide you. Their strollers are free to use and your stroller will not be allowed inside. As you can see, it's simply not a place for small kids at all.
For me, I enjoy the history, the architecture of a place like this, and also seeing some of the old artifacts and intricate details in the various items. At the same time, it's a little pricey for what it is and lacks, well, stuff. I actually enjoyed taking a tour through the Queen Emma Summer Palace a bit more than I did here at 'Iolani Palace.
Iolani Palace has been the backdrop to movies such as The Hawaiians and Princess Ka'iulani and TV series Hawaii Five-O.
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