Honolulu is the largest city on Oahu, and in the state of Hawai’i. It’s also the capital. It’s Asian, it’s Hawaiian, and it’s American all mixed together with its arcitecture, food, and diversity of people. If you’re headed to Hawai’i I believe it should be your first stop–especially if you’re planning on moving here or if you’ve never been to Hawai’i before. It’s a great place to experience Asian culture first hand before going to the vast continent. Here is a guide on how to get to, where to stay, how to get around, where to eat, and what to see once you arrive in Honolulu.
How to Get to Honolulu
Being in the middle of the Pacific Ocean has it’s disadvantages with this one. Some of the cheapest flights to and from Honolulu come from Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Seattle, Australia, Japan, and other countries in eastern Asia. From other areas of the world the prices usually triple from there, so use those travel rewards points! It also might be easier to get to Los Angeles first, and then get to Honolulu.
Most flights come over Oahu from the north side and then circle around Honolulu, usually flying over Waikiki and Downtown, before landing in the airport (which is on the western side of the city) so I suggest sitting on the right side of the plane. Although, if you’re coming from Asia or Austalia you might just be out of luck in getting any Honolulu views since those come from the west.
Cruises often come into Honolulu’s harbors and I’m sure you can easily find a cuise to Hawai’i by googling it. However, these cruises often only spend a short time in the area, 12 hours, sometimes only 24 hours or 2-3 days if you’re lucky. Those are more for if you want to be on the water and enjoy the boat time.
Cargo ships also make their way to Honolulu. This is more if you’re afraid of flying since this isn’t a very popular option. Many times they have space available and through these websites I’ve listed you can find something leaving from your area and docking in Honolulu. Here has good resources for that no matter where you are on the planet.
Where to Stay in Honolulu
Finding a hotel that is less than 100 USD a night will be hard to find, whether you want to stay in Waikiki or not. There aren’t any Motel 6’s or Super 8’s like in the rest of the US either. Most hotels won’t have ocean or mountain views (especially in Waikiki, since so many other buildings are in the way!). So unless you have the money and you really want to be in Waikiki, then ditch the hotels when you’re in Honolulu (or really, the rest of Hawai’i too).
A great alternative while in Hawai’i. There are several in the city however quite a few only allow a 7 night maximum stay. Isn’t that sad? I personally believe if you truly want to experience Honolulu you should stay at least two weeks, maybe even more. If you’re spending more than a week here then those hostels are best to avoid. If you want more of a “homey feel” try the Plumeria but if you want more of a hostel feel on Waikiki beach without the 7 day maximum stay try the Polynesian Hostel.
Airbnb and Couchsurfing
There are tons of Airbnbs in Honolulu that are available all over the city. However, there is a 13+% tax on all Airbnb listings in the state of Hawai’i. If it says “taxes aren’t included” then expect a much higher price when you check in! Couchsurfing is super common here. Book well in advance if you want to try to get a room for free this way. Since hotels are so expensive this is peoples go-to when they’re on a tight budget.
House sitting isn’t that common in Honolulu or the rest of Hawai’i. I don’t know why. Go on any house sitting site and you won’t find many houses on any of the islands. Maybe it’s because most people in Hawai’i don’t go on super long vacations away from their home? Good luck on that if that is your way of traveling the world.
How to Get Around Honolulu
Renting a Car
This is definitely a great option while in Honolulu. It’ll be the fastest way to get around to all of the different sites around the city. Not only that, but you’ll map out the city much easier and faster this way since you have to pay attention to the street names, even if you can’t pronounce them. The cheapest rent-a-car I’ve seen is 35 USD a day, which is just a normal compact car. For a convertible it tends to run about 130 USD a day or more. If you have the money, go for that one. There are some cons however. Honolulu usually ranks #1 in the nation (usually neck in neck with L.A.) for the worst traffic. This is because Oahu is mostly residential, meaning most jobs, shops, and restaurants are in Honolulu so that’s thousands of people trying to get into the city daily. Stay off major highways at rush-hour times. Also, in Honolulu parking is rarely free–especially around beaches.
Using Public Transportation
The Bus is actually quite extensive. It goes practically everywhere in the city and then some. It costs 2.50 USD per ride no matter how far you’re going (1 stop or 100+ stops) or if you’re going to and from the airport. For people under 17 it’s 1.25 USD and kids under 6 are free. This is good for when you’re on a budget. A warning though, the first few seats are for the elderly and disabled and you will get dirty looks for sitting there if you’re under 50 and/or don’t look disabled. At each bus stop most of the time you’ll see a sign and under it a yellow sign will have numbers. Calling 808-848-5555 with that yellow number will give you an estimated time for which bus is coming when.
Taxis, Uber, and Lyft
The cheapest taxi is The Cab at 3.10 USD for the first 1/8 mile and .45 USD for every 1/8 mile after that. Every other company I’ve seen is 3.50 USD for the first 1/8 mile and .50 USD for every 1/8 mile after that. Uber and Lyft are available here and are much cheaper options. Although, again, when they get stuff in traffic your meter will go up. Another note, Uber and Lyft are not technically allowed at the airport for pick ups and drop offs so remember that when you land.
Where to Eat in Honolulu
If you want to eat for cheap while in Honolulu then read this advice and get out of Waikiki. I’m not kidding! So much other advice says “get a few blocks away from the touristy area and you’ll find much cheaper food there.” Not true for Waikiki. Food gets more and more expensive the closer you are so being one neighborhood over in Ala Moana isn’t going to help you! There are good and cheap restaurants in Downtown and Chinatown. I personally recommend finding a restaurant on Fort Street Mall or Hotel Street in the Downtown/Chinatown area. They have all kinds of authentic Asian foods and regular American foods to choose from for good prices. They also are usually lunch places, meaning most restaurants are open from 10am-2pm and might open again at 5pm if you’re lucky. Now, the food in Waikiki is actually good, just pricey (like 20 USD and up for an entrée usually). If you have the money eating there won’t be bad, just expensive.
There are Foodland’s, Safeway’s, Costco’s, and Walmart’s all over Honolulu. Walmart is usually the cheapest. For fruits and vegetables I also think it’s best to shop in Chinatown at their stands. If you are going to be staying more than a few days in Honolulu I suggest grocery shopping as it’ll be cheaper than eating out for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
What to See in Honolulu
On December 7, 1941 the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor (thereby attacking the US) and left there mark forever. The USS Arizona is still underwater and seeing it is completely free. That takes 75 minutes to do. If it is particularly windy however they do cancel the boat rides out to see it also in the summer it gets booked up fast. It might be worth spending that money online to book in advance. Seeing other parts of the park costs money and storing your bag costs 4 USD so if you don’t want to pay the price leave it where you’re staying (wallets are allowed and so are cameras). There is parking available there and bus 42 goes there from Waikiki.
The Aloha stadium is right up the street from Pearl Harbor (you can easily walk there). They are open Wednesdays and Sundays from 8am to 3pm and is a great place to get any and all Hawai’i souvenirs. It is cheaper than anything you’ll find in an ABC store or Walmart. They have everything there, from shirts, little wooden carved turtles, people carving out surf boards with whatever you want in it, coconut oils, etc. It costs 1 USD per person to get in.
This is a great place to say that you’ve been there, since it’s so famous. There are so many shops. The ABC stores have places for souvenirs but I mostly use them for some great AC to cool down. The beach itself is quite crowded, although it has some awesome sunset viewing. There is little parking so I suggest taking a bus there, the 2, 42, 20, 19, and so many other buses stop on Kuhio Avenue which is right next to Kalakaua Avenue, where the beach is.
Ala Moana Shopping Center
If you want to get some shopping done this is the place to go. It might sound like kind of a trashy name but they have a lot of brands there like Versace, Niemen Marcus, Chanel, etc. Oh, and on the 3rd floor there is a balcony with a great view of the ocean. You can walk there from Waikiki or buses 8, 42, 20, and 19 go by there also. Plenty of free parking too. Right across the street is the Ala Moana Beach Park which is usually less crowded than Waikiki. If you’d like to see a hula show for free the Ala Moana Shopping Center has shows that go on everyday at 1pm on their stage in the middle of the mall (1st floor).
Diamond Head Hike
The hike is less than a mile one way where you see an awesome view of the city and the ocean. The view isn’t just of the sky scrapers, you also get a good view of eastern Honolulu while going up the mountain. Bus 9 stops at the base of it and there is parking there once you go through the tunnel. The cost varies however. I’ve heard the price could be $1 per person and I’ve also heard it’s free. Expect to pay and hope it’s free.
Mount Tantalus Lookout
If you want the great view without the hike, take you rental car up there and park or take a taxi there. Parking is hard to find because there are only a few spaces. Since it’s so close to Waikiki and Downtown I suggest taking a taxi there as the buses don’t really stop there. At sunset you’ll get a great view away from the crowds on the beach no matter what time of the year.
The palace is right off the King Street next to Downtown, Honolulu. Walking around the outside of it is completely free (parking is not, it’s metered). For tours they’re 21.75 USD per adult so you might want to opt for the virtual tour online if you’re on a budget. In the old palace barracks there is a video room that explains the history of King Kalakaua and Queen Liliuokalani for free. Dozens of buses stop by this place both on King Street and Beretania Street which is what I suggest taking instead of a car.
The capitol building is right behind (or in front of, depending on your perspective) the palace. It was built in Honolulu in 1969, nearly full ten years after statehood. It’s an interesting looking building and you can go inside of it because there aren’t really doors and the ceiling isn’t completely enclosed. There is a replica of the liberty bell in front of it also (bet nobody ever told you that!) so there is no need to go to Philadelphia to see it now.
King Kamehameha Statue and Queen Liliuokalani Statue
The King Kamehameha statue is across the street from the palace. There are plenty of tourists around there, so good luck getting a clean shot of it. Also in the afternoon the sun sits right behind him so it’s even harder to get a picture of it even on a cloudy day. The Queen Liliuokalani statue is in between the palace and the capital building. I have never seen this crowded before. During special occasions (like King Kamehameha Day) sometimes the statues are decorated with leis.
This is on the far eastern side of Honolulu in Hawaii Kai. The water is a beautiful blue-green and there is plenty of coral to see! For parking, it costs 1 USD and if you’re in and out of there within 15 minutes you get it back. To get by the water to the actual beach it costs 7.50 USD per person (there is a military and kama’aina discount). To stand above and see the awesome view it’s completely free. Bus 22 pulls in to the parking lot, be warned though, it only comes every hour and a half back to Honolulu. It’s the same stop that goes to Sea Life Park further northeast so it’s hard to tell when you could get back into the city. This one might be worth the taxi, uber, or lyft price.
If you’re traveling on a budget–make this an expected expense! There are dozens of tours to choose from but Honolulu and Oahu were made to be seen from the air. They generally cost 100+ USD per person and can last anywhere from 12 minutes or 1 hour. They can take the doors off or they can leave them on. Whichever you choose. Although, the best photos and videos come with the doors off.