In the Hawaiian, Honolulu means “sheltered bay” or “place of shelter”; alternatively, it means “calm port”. The old name is said to be Kou, a district roughly encompassing the area from Nuuanu Avenue to Alakea Street and from Hotel Street to Queen Street which is the heart of the present downtown district.
Home to the majority of Oahu’s population, the sprawling city of Honolulu spreads throughout the southeastern shores of Oahu, from Pearl Harbor to Makapuu Point, encompassing world famous Waikiki.
Honolulu has it all. This is the home of some of Hawaii’s most historic places from Iolani Palace, the Kawaiahao Church, the Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site and Archives and the treasured artifacts of the Bishop Museum to iconic landmarks like the Aloha Tower, the King Kamehameha I Statue, the Duke Kahanamoku Statue and the historic Hawaii Theatre. Honolulu is also Hawaii’s hot spot for arts, culture and entertainment. From the nightlife, live music and fine dining of Waikiki to the art galleries and underground bars of the Chinatown arts district. Whether you’re looking for Hawaii’s finest museums, or Hawaii’s finest Hawaii Regional Cuisine chefs, the best resorts, festivals, and events, or just some fun things to do, you’ll find it all in Honolulu.
The majority of visitors to Hawaii enter through this city, meaning this is definitely not the place to go for a “get-away-from-it-all” Hawaiian vacation – It is as fast-paced and dynamic as any city, with all its problems such as heavy traffic, drugs, crime, and homelessness. But Honolulu still has the charm of the Islands’ laid-back atmosphere and culture.
Naturally, when most visitors think of beaches here, they think of the famous Waikiki Beach. As the tourist center of the Hawaiian Islands, this white sand beach, framed by hotels and Diamond Head as a backdrop, is easily the most crowded. Waikiki is popular with a wide crowd, as it’s a excellent place for swimming, sunbathers, catamaran and outrigger canoes, as well as a great spot for beginner surfers and body boarders (and there are plenty of surf schools set up in Waikiki for lessons). What’s remarkable is that even in Waikiki you can find a fairly quiet beach; it’s just a matter of knowing where to look.
But if you really need to get away from the crowds, there are plenty of other beaches. Just to the west, near Downtown, is Ala Moana Park, a green space with plenty of trees and grass as well as an nice sandy beach that’s popular with the locals and is perfect for families or a calmer swim.
The area surrounding Makapu’u Point in Eastern Honolulu has several excellent beaches, the most popular being Hanauma Bay, which is set in the crater of an extinct volcano, now open to the sea and filled with a coral reef. This is not the place for a good swim and certainly not the spot for surfing, but the calm water and abundance of marine life makes it excellent for snorkeling and scuba diving. Even if you don’t get in the water, the scenery makes it a great place to sunbathe or picnic, although you may find parking to be an issue.
Just near Hanauma Bay is the Halona Beach Cove, known as “the Peering Place”. It is a small, rocky cove that has good swimming with the surf is calm, but no lifeguards here means it’s at your own risk. Nearby Sandy Beach does have lifeguards, and has been popular with surfers and bodyboarders for decades. On a calm day, it can be good for a fun day of swimming. Makapu’u Beach, just a little further up the road, is quite scenic. It tends to have very large waves, meaning it many not be the best place to swim but a fantastic place to surf.
For those looking for expansive vistas, Diamond Head is a good starting point – this ancient volcanic crater dominates over Waikiki and the top offers an incredible view over the city. The trail leads up into a World War II-era bunker and up some steep staircases (one of over 100 steps), so the climb can be a little rough for the average couch potato.
If you’re looking for a vista that you don’t have to hike far to get to, look no further than the hills above Makiki. The Punchbowl crater, home to a military cemetery, offers a panoramic view closer to Downtown. Pu’u Ualaka’a Park, also above Makiki, has a winding mountain road, Tantalus/Round Top Drive, and a number of hiking trails which provide a stunning view of southern O’ahu nearly 2,000 feet above sea level.
Another popular overlook is the Nu’uanu Pali Lookout, located 6 miles north of Downtown on State Route 61 (Pali Highway). The scenic vista, set between two incredibly high cliffs, provides a panoramic view of Windward O’ahu. The overlook is often buffeted by high winds, but the view is more than worth it.