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Complete guide to the city of Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaii.
|Guide Series: Hawaii City Guides
Honolulu is so many things! It's the Hawaii State Capitol. It's the most populous city in the entire state. And it's home to world famous Waikiki, see Waikiki Guide. It's the number one place where tourists stay when on vacation in Hawaii. The list actually goes on and on.
Honolulu is a major city and a true concrete jungle because it's filled with tons of huge buildings, tall skyscrapers, streets, and a lot of people. Around 400,000 people live in Honolulu. That's a lot when you consider the entire island of O'ahu has around 950,000 people on it in total.
The city of Honolulu is located on the south shore of O'ahu. Speaking of, don't confuse Honolulu the city with the "City & County of Honolulu". The latter refers to the entire island of Oahu which is all one county. Why they couldn't just call the county "Oahu County" is beyond me.
This city is also the westernmost and southernmost major city in all of the United States of America. Getting to and from Honolulu is easy, though traffic can make it a pain at times (see Hawaii Living: Pests & Traffic). Our interstate highway system (yes, we have one as explained in Hawaii FAQ) connects our H2 Highway and H-3 Highway And Tetsuo Harano Tunnel (one of the Top 12 Man Made Wonders Of Hawaii) to the H1 Highway which travels right through Honolulu.
The name Honolulu actually means "sheltered harbor" or "calm port", which is a bit ironic today as the place is anything but calm. Even with the chaotic atmosphere, the city was ranked as the 2nd safest city in the United States in 2015.
For real chaos though, we have to go back to the days of King Kamehameha who conquered O'ahu back in 1795 during the Battle of Nu'uanu. That was a bloody time in Oahu's history. By 1804 King Kamehameha moved his royal court from Hawaii's Big Island to Oahu and in 1809 that court moved to what is now downtown Honolulu. In 1845 he moved the permanent capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom from Lahaina on Maui to Honolulu.
In 1893 the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown by the USA and then annexed in 1898. Fast forward a but to December 7, 1941 - "a date which will live in infamy" - and the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor (see Pearl Harbor & USS Arizona Memorial) which threw the United States into WWII.
By 1959, Hawaii became the 50th state of the United States of America. Although it's still a touchy subject with some Hawaiians today (understandably so), many people don't realize that this was all done by a vote from the people here in Hawaii. An overwhelming majority chose statehood. While the islands may have indirectly been pushed into statehood, it was an actual majority vote that sealed the deal. For more on this be sure to read The History of Hawaiian Statehood / Hawaii Admission Act.
If you're coming to Oahu then chances are good that you'll be flying into Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL) which is located on the far west side of Honolulu. It's not the best airport you'll ever visit but is quite good, all things considered.
Visitors always ask us, Do I Need To Rent A Car In Waikiki? We think the best way to see the island is by rental car so we suggest getting one if possible, though you won't need it to get around within Waikiki. You can even travel all around Honolulu via TheBus, taxi, trolleys, or just by walking.
Using a GPS is your best bet as the city itself can be confusing to those not familiar with all of it's odd streets, one way only roads, and freeway entrances and exits that seem as though they weren't planned out at all (because clearly they were not).
Yes, getting around in Honolulu can be confusing and frustrating so take your time and don't be in a rush (see Hawaii Living: Island Time). When you're trying to get around in the Waikiki area consider walking or taking TheBus. To be fair, TheBus can be confusing at first as well. Funny story, the first time we came to Oahu (this is pre-Google Maps to be fair) we were in Waikiki and wanted to see the Honolulu Zoo and didn't have a rental car. We got a 3-day bus pass then wait for the correct bus. It went around several blocks and stops and let us off across the street from the zoo. As we got off we realized we had been only a block away from the zoo the entire time and could have walked a few hundred feet rather than using the bus. So, look around every now and then too!
If you're staying in Honolulu then chances are good you're staying in the Waikiki area. Waikiki isn't a city, but a region inside the city of Honolulu (see Waikiki Guide).
Waikiki is a pretty amazing place and is many things. For example, it's home to a huge list of restaurants, activities, and hotels. It is also home to world famous Waikiki Beach (Main / Center) which is actually several beaches that are all next to each other as we explain in The Beaches Of Waikiki.
If you're visiting Waikiki know that it's many things but what you won't find here is peace and quiet. Instead, it borders on insanity at times but that doesn't make it any less fun. It draws in massive crowds and it's something you should experience even if you're not staying here. For more on that, be sure to read Waikiki Guide.
Honolulu is filled with a variety of fun and interesting beaches. All of The Beaches Of Waikiki are an obvious choice for sure. But we also recommend swimming at Ala Moana Beach & State Recreation Area and snorkeling at Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve and Beach Park.
If you have kids, you might be interesting in checking out Kuhio Beach Park @ Waikiki, Duke Kahanamoku Lagoon, and Magic Island (Aina Moana) which offer protected waters.
There is so much to see and do in Honolulu that you're certain to find something you like. Why not start with some of the history and culture of Hawaii at The Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Iolani Palace, and Queen Emma Summer Palace.
Although not technically in Honolulu, it goes without saying that the Pearl Harbor & USS Arizona Memorial are must see attractions. While you're there you may also like the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park, Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor, and Battleship Missouri Memorial. If you still can't get enough of the military goodness, stop by Honolulu's U.S. Army Museum Of Hawaii.
If you're a hiker then be sure to check out Judd Memorial Trail and Jackass Ginger Pool, Lulumahu Falls Hike, Manoa Falls Trail, and Diamond Head Summit Trail. If you just want to take a drive or see some sites then try Tantalus and Round Top Hill Drive, Lana'i Lookout / Heaven's Point, and Pu'u Ualaka'a State Wayside Park.
If you want a little noise and action then fire off a few rounds at Hawaii & Waikiki Gun Club. When you're ready to calm down, visit the peaceful MuRyangSa Buddhist Temple then head under the ocean with Atlantis Submarines Hawaii. If you have kids, take a break and let them play and explore at the Hawaii Children's Discovery Center.
View all that Honolulu has to offer here.
Honolulu Fun Facts
Did you know that Iolani Palace is the only royal palace in the entire United States? Not only that, but you can visit it and take a tour inside to see what life was like in Hawaii in the late 1800's (at least what it was like for royalty).
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