Things to do in Waikiki
Honolulu is the central hub of the Hawaiian Islands, and Waikiki is the center of tourism. Lots of people work, live and play in this part of the state, and odds are overwhelming that this is where you’ll be staying. That’s because there are around 90 resorts on the island of O‘ahu, and all but less than a dozen of them are in Waikiki. At any one time, 44 percent of visitors in the entire state of Hawai‘i are spending the night in, and looking for things to do in Waikiki.
There is almost nothing natural about Waikiki. A century ago the land behind the beach was a swampy sponge. Three rivers emptied into the ocean here, and the beach, though still a great place to swim, was hardly a must-see destination. Then in 1921 they started draining the swamp. People often wonder, how do you drain a swamp? Simple—you dig a canal to cut off the source of water and let nature dry it out. This they did by creating the Ala Wai Canal. And the rest is history. Waikiki, now backed by land suitable for development, was ready to take off. Throughout the 20th century, resort after resort sprang up, and visitors began coming here in droves. This page takes you through things to do in Waikiki, from activities on a budget to kid-friendly options.
Early evening is our favorite time to find things to in Waikiki, when the intensity of the sun is replaced by the joy of people-watching. Stroll along the sidewalks of Kalakaua Avenue (or Lewers, which is also pretty alive at night and considered part of the “Beachwalk” area) and shop, snack and enjoy the warm, secure feeling that dusk in the tropics provides. Incidentally, the main street, Kalakaua, has surprisingly few signs verifying that it’s the street you’re on.
If you want to stroll along the beach, you can walk from the Hilton at one end of Waikiki all the way to Kapiolani Park at the other. Those few areas that lack sand have other means of traversing the shoreline that will keep you dry. One of the best things to do in Waikiki, a sunset walk along the beach is always a dreamy experience as you listen to music often spilling from the various resorts. If you walk from the Diamond Head side toward Honolulu, you’ll be walking toward the sun. During part of the summer, the sun doesn’t set over the ocean from most of Waikiki.
Outrigger Canoe Rides
Outrigger canoe rides have been a Waikiki staple for over a century. Aloha Beach Services has rides for $25 per person (you get to ride two waves with a four-person minimum—three if you catch them on a good day), or you can charter the whole eight-passenger outrigger canoe, including the captains, for $300 per hour. (You pay for the boat for the hour, then you can swap people in and out for the duration of that hour—in case you have more than eight people in your party). Directly next door Waikiki Beach Services rides two waves in a private canoe for $25 per person, four people minimum.
Things to do in Waikiki on a budget
Koko Crater Botanical Garden
Koko Crater Botanical Garden has a large plumeria grove filled with every color and scent of plumeria imaginable, though it only flowers in the spring months. There is a 2-mile loop trail that circles the basin of the entire crater. It’s an extremely dry environment that lends itself nicely to support a pretty impressive collection of massive Dr. Seuss-looking cacti, dry land plants and palm trees along the way. The plants and cacti are nicely labeled, and you can grab a free brochure from the parking lot for a self tour of the 60-acre park. If you’re looking for things to do in Waikiki on a budget, the price is right—it’s free—and we’ve rarely seen more than a few people on our visits.
Street Performers are synonymous with Kalakaua Avenue. The silver guys, in particular, range from talented to just plain lame. With some, the only way to appease them is to give ’em money. In return, they will take their kazoo, make a few mechanical whirring noises, and strike a different position. The Waikiki Bboys are a hip-hop dance group that has a 6:30 p.m. daily routine immediately across from the Royal Hawaiian Center that does a pretty good job, but we like to leave right before the end because of their preachy (though admittedly well-rehearsed) speech about donating money to their troupe. Some nights street performers ply their trade all along Kalakaua. Other nights, hardly any show up.
Waikiki Starry Skyline
If you want to observe the city lights at night, the Waikiki Starry Skyline viewpoint is 1.8 miles up Round Top. (Plug the address 2845 Round Top Drive into your map app and go past it—there’s a wide shoulder with enough room for about a dozen cars to pull over.) Police officers are usually up here after dark to make sure lusty teenagers keep things PG, and the cops will ask people to leave at 10 p.m.
Things to do in Waikiki with kids
There is a sign near the entrance declaring it the best zoo to be found for 2,300 miles in any direction. That may be true, but only because the mainland is farther away than that. It’s like being declared the best bartender in the town of La‘ie. (You’ll have to look at North Shore Sights in our guidebooks and app to realize why that’s not much of a boast.)
Unfortunately, the Honolulu Zoo is merely so-so if you’re looking for things to do in Waikiki with kids. It’s 42 acres of cages, and that’s the problem. The habitats are poorly designed with too few vantage points, and the mesh they use on some of the cages makes it difficult to see the animals. Too much metal, too little openings. This is especially a problem with the numerous bird exhibits. The inability to get a good look is annoying, because the zoo actually has quite a few big animals, including tigers, elephants, rhinos, giraffes, zebras, lions, chimpanzees, and a hippo. The African section is the best, as the warm climate here is well-suited for these animals.
Not to be mean, but just about any aquarium built on the mainland in the past few decades outshines the tiny Waikiki Aquarium. There are no giant tanks with SCUBA divers feeding the fish, no big sharks, no touch tanks, just a series of smaller tanks with colorful fish and coral (from around the Pacific, not just Hawai‘i) and an outdoor seal enclosure with two very bored monk seals with medical issues that prevent them from surviving in the wild. Smaller kids react with excitement, but adults expecting the same kind of ooh-ah value you’d get a bigger aquarium will likely be disappointed. There are much better things to do in Waikiki.
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