12 Unique things to do in Honolulu and Oahu

by Paul Joseph  |  Published August 7, 2017

The island of Oahu is where many begin their discovery of Hawaii. Locals will proudly tell you that this is where surfing was born – there’s even a statue to the sport’s founder on Waikiki’s Kuhio Beach. It’s an obvious place for budding and pro surfers to take to the waters, but there are also peaceful nature reserves where hikers and horse riders can explore the island their way.

The scenic coastline of Honolulu (Photo: Classic Glass via Flickr)

The capital of Honolulu sits on Oahu’s southeast coast, where you’ll find well-touristed Waikiki, the Pearl Harbor memorials and a thriving arts district on the border of Chinatown. The local cuisine involves a tempting mix of Polynesian, Chinese, Japanese and Portuguese flavours – try everything from pork buns, to grilled shrimp, to pancakes. Souvenir-hunters can browse market stalls selling artisan wares or hit the huge Ala Moana Center, packed with boutiques and restaurants.

Experienced Honolulu and Oahu’s more obvious charms? Then try our list of unusual things to do in this sunny island idyll.

1. Corsair Plane Wreck Dive Site

As stories of plane wrecks go, this one makes relatively easy-reading, with no fatalities resulting from its descent to the bottom of the ocean in 1948. Nevertheless, the Corsair plane wreck, located around 3 miles out from the Hawaii Kai marina on the southeast coast of Oahu, remains one of Hawaii’s most unique attractions. The WWII aircraft was on a routine mission when its engine began to fail, but thanks to some expert piloting the plane made a smooth water landing. However, while the pilot escaped unscathed the craft’s fate was sealed, and today receives a regular flow of visitors in the shape of divers and oceanic photographers. You can get out to the wreck in about 15 minutes departing from the Koko boat marina located in the Hawaii Kai shopping centre.

Corsair Plane Wreck Dive Site

The underwater remains of the Corsair plane wreck (Photo: Matt Kieffer via Flickr)

2. Polynesian Cultural Center

This is arguably Hawaii’s number one tourist attraction – and for good reason. Spread across 42 acres on Oahu’s North Shore, the centre takes visitors on an immersive and educational journey through Hawaii’s cultural heritage. There’s a lagoon where you can take canoe tours throughout the day, a cinema production that celebrates the splendours of Hawaii, and a marketplace selling Polynesian handiworks, clothing, jewellery and bric-a-brac. Other highlights include live performances showcasing the nerve-jangling drama of Samoan fire knife dancing and sustenance throughout the tour in the form of traditional Hawaiian cuisine.

LOCATION 55-370 Kamehameha Hwy, Laie HOURS Mon-Sat 12pm-9pm

Polynesian Cultural Center

A glamorous performance at the Polynesian Cultural Center(Photo: Daniel Ramirez via Flickr)

3. Hole-In-The-Wall Tour with Hawaii Food Tours

If you’re a food lover visiting Honolulu then you should contact Hawaii Food Tours, who run regular culinary odysseys across the city and are rated number one by TripAdvisor in Hawaii’s Food & Drink category. Their “Hole-In-The-Wall” tours invite guests to sample up to 20 mouth-watering, comfort foods of Hawaii. In operation since 2004, the company is owned and operated by former chef to the stars and leading food writer, Matthew Gray, who travelled with several legendary rock bands including the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, and Linda Ronstadt during his former life. Inevitably, Matthew is brimming with stories that will make you wince, laugh and smile. But of course, it’s the food that’s the real star of the show.

Hawaii Food Tours

A mouth-watering spread to be enjoyed by guests on a Hawaii food tour (Photo: Hawaii Food Tours)

4. Shangri La

Built to her specifications in 1937, the opulent Shangri La was home to renowned American heiress, socialite, art collector and philanthropist Doris Duke for a number of years. During her time in residence there, she filled it with a huge variety of artwork, much of which was inspired by her travels in the Middle East, including tiles from Iran, wood carvings from Morocco and embroidery from Central Asia. When she died in 1993, the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art was established to maintain her collection and fund other Islamic Art initiatives, which are today enjoyed by large numbers of visitors throughout the year.

LOCATION 4055 Papu Cir, Honolulu HOURS Wed-Sat 9am-1.30pm

Shangri La

The luxurious grounds of Shangri La (Photo: Wesley & Brandon Rosenblum via Flickr)

5. Polo Trail Ride

With its magical sunsets and awe-inspiring mountain views, there can be few more unique ways to enjoy Oahu’s beautiful North Shore than by horseback. Oahu Horseback Rides offer trips on gentle polo ponies that traverse the island’s pristine sandy shores, offering the chance to see turtles and whales in season. For the duration of your adventure you’ll be accompanied by expert guides who’ll ensure you get the maximum enjoyment out of the experience. A range of packages are available including group, private and sunset rides and they even offer polo lessons too. Rides last between 60 – 90 minutes and no horseback riding experience is required. Be sure to bring a camera (as long as it’s small) as your guides will be happy to take a snap or two for you .

Polo Trail Ride

Guests enjoy the scenic views during a horseback ride along the beach (Photo: Oahu Horseback Rides)

6. Kaniakapupu Ruins

Once home to Kamehameha III, ruler of the Kingdom of Hawaii from 1825 to 1854, this former palace has become one of the state’s most important heritage sites. At some point in the late 19th century it fell into disrepair and today sits in ruins, but can still be visited via a light trek starting from a trailhead that is marked only by a narrow gap in a roadside stand of bamboo. Bear in mind that these are the remains of a royal residence and therefore considered by Hawaiians to be a sacred site, so all visitors should treat it with due respect.

LOCATION 4295 Nuuanu Pali Dr, Honolulu

7. Bishop Museum

First built in 1889, the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum is Hawaii’s largest museum – and perhaps its finest too. It houses not only the world’s most extensive collection of Hawaiian and Polynesian art and artefacts, but also one of the world’s major display of zoological, entomological, and natural history specimens. Furthermore, there’s also a science centre, a planetarium, a hall for traveling exhibits, and a native plant garden. The museum puts a strong focus on educational and social values, including conservation, scientific research, and library services, but its original intention — to honour and preserve the legacy of native Hawaiian and Pacific cultures – remains at its core.

LOCATION 1525 Bernice St, Honolulu HOURS Mon-Sun 9am-5pm

Bishop Museum

Eye-catching exhibits on display at Bishop Museum (Photo: Maxwell Leungs via Flickr)

8. Iolani Palace

This eye-catching building lays claim to being the only royal palace on US soil, having served as the seat of royal power in Hawaii since 1845. In the late 19th century, it witnessed some of the most dramatic events in the island monarchy’s demise and was later rebuilt into a magnificent example of the Hawaiian Renaissance style of architecture. It officially ceased to be the state capitol in 1969, and reopened as a museum in 1978, seeking to recreate the environment that existed when Iolani was still an official royal residence, including the discovering of numerous original furnishings that had been sold off at public auction. Visitors can see the original Throne Room, Grand Hall, and State Dining Room, as well as the King’s and Queen’s Suites and the Imprisonment Room.

LOCATION 364 S King St, Honolulu HOURS Mon-Sat 9am-4pm

Iolani Palace

An exterior shot of the ornate Iolani Palace (Photo: Nick Johnson via Flickr)

9. The Queen Theater

The grand neon marquee of this abandoned theatre harks back to a distant past that saw the venue at the heart of Hawaii’s cultural life. Situated in Honolulu’s Kaimuki neighbourhood, the theatre opened in 1936 and was named to act as a companion to downtown Honolulu’s King Theater, as well as being a nod to Queen Liliuokalani, and Hawaii’s royal history. Originally built in an Art Moderne style, the theatre was then remodelled in the 1940s when its marquee was added. However, as the invention of the television took its toll on theatre attendance, the venue’s popularity dwindled and after trying to reinvent itself as a movie palace it fell into disrepair and today languishes in plain sight.

LOCATION 3588 Waialae Ave Honolulu

10. Sky Gate

The subsolar point in Hawaii is not just of interest to astronomy enthusiasts – it has also lead to the creation of one of the state’s most unique sculptures. Designed by world-renowned artist and landscape architect Isamu Noguchi, the Sky Gate features a bendy, curvy ring that drastically changes height as it goes around. For 363 days of the year it makes a curvy, twisted shadow, but when the sun is directly above it – the so-called subsolar point, when the earth is at its closest distance from the sun – the ring casts a perfect circle on the ground.

LOCATION 558 S King St, Honolulu HOURS

11. Chinatown Historic District

Ask someone to name a famous Chinatown district and it’s unlikely that Honolulu will be on the tip of their tongue. Yet the commercial and residential area known as Chinatown Historic District is a hugely important feature of the local community. Established during the 1840s, today it features an eclectic blend of Southeast Asian cultures, including Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Filipino, and Korean peoples as well as Native Hawaiians and Caucasians. Visitors can immerse themselves in a rich mix of experiences by visiting its restaurants, stores and Asian produce markets. In addition, part of the Honolulu Arts District, with its art galleries and performing arts spaces, is located in the Chinatown Historic District. Another bonus is the historic architecture that can still be found here untouched by time, such as the Royal Saloon Building, the Perry Block Building and the Mendoca Block Building.

Chinatown Historic District

A sign welcomes visitors to a noodle house in Honolulu’s Chinatown (Photo: Wally Gobetz via Flickr)

12. Punchbowl Crater

This is one of Hawaii’s most popular – and unique – places of interest, attracting some 5 million visitors each year. Located within the Punchbowl National Memorial, the 360-foot extinct volcano shelters and commemorates some of America’s fallen heroes. Visible from almost anywhere in Honolulu, the site – dubbed a ‘punchbowl’ due to its distinctive bowl-like shape – leaves an impression on everyone who visits, partly because of the soldiers laid to rest here but also the sheer uniqueness of its natural setting.