Top things to do in Waikiki
Waikiki in Honolulu, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, conjures up dreamy images of sandy beaches, tanned surfers, rolling waves, hula dancing and sipping mai tais to the unique sound of the ukulele.
Well, the good news is it’s all of those things and a whole lot more, which makes Waikiki the perfect holiday destination.
‘Waikiki’ is Hawaiian for ‘spouting fresh water’ and in the 1800s beautiful Waikiki Beach and its stretch of endless waves was a place reserved for the exclusive use of royalty. Nowadays of course it’s home to tourist resorts and high-rise hotels which perch perfectly along its sandy shore.
Here’s a city guide to the top things to do in Waikiki.
For cultural things to do in Waikiki, let’s face it, it’s pretty much all about surfing. It’s a pastime that is considered more of a daily ritual for locals and it’s been that way for centuries. The first European accounts of surfing in the islands date back to the 1700s.
To tune in to modern surfing culture, pay a visit to the Duke Kahanamoku statue, which can be found standing proudly at Kuhio Beach. In true folklore tradition, everywhere you go you’ll hear how Duke popularised the ancient Hawaiian water sport in the early 20th century.
Oahu is a melting pot of cultural influences and a morning spent visiting some of the island’s excellent museums will give you the back-story. Visit the Bishop Museum – Hawaii’s museum of natural and cultural history, and the Hawaii State Art Museum, which showcases many forms of Hawaiian art. Entry here is free.
There are plenty of relaxing things to do in Waikiki. To start with, hire a beach umbrella, pull up some sand along the stunning main beach and watch the world go by.
If you’re feeling just a little energetic, hire a surfboard or stand-up paddle board. There are basic lessons for those who are trying it for the first time. To round things off, there are bars along the foreshore that conveniently offer well-patronised happy hours as you leave the beach in the afternoon.
For some pampering, the LaaKea Day Spa at the Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort has an extensive relaxation menu to choose from, including a traditional kahuna massage.
To take a break from the rest of the tourist population, climb aboard the Holokai Catamaran. You’ll see it moored right up on the sand out the front of the Outrigger Reef and it leaves throughout the day and evening for short trips out around nearby Diamond Head, including a stop-off for snorkeling at Turtle Canyon.
For spectacular views up the Waikiki oceanfront towards Honolulu, take a leisurely stroll to the top of Diamond Head and back (it’s an hour or so round-trip). There’s a small fee to enter the national park.
The cuisine in Waikiki can best be described as Asian-American fusion (or perhaps ‘confusion’ as East meets – or competes – with West in most menu offerings). That said, the dining scene is lighthearted and a lot of fun. The Cheesecake Factory and Duke’s are popular with Australian visitors, as is Denny’s 24-hour, all-American diner.
The caffeine repertoire in Waikiki consists mainly of thick black brewed coffee. Your half-strength, skinny decaf latte is considered a ‘specialist’ coffee and most diners and restaurants don’t serve them. Instead, head for Kai Coffee or the excellent new Gorilla in the Cafe.
The aforementioned happy hour is a tradition in many of Waikiki’s best bars. Try the retro styling of the Top of Waikiki revolving restaurant for cocktails and specially priced bar snacks and appetisers from 5pm. The 360 degree views are stunning. Get there early to snaffle a prized spot at the bar.
You’ll find the convenience store ABC on every corner and its extensive deli range is perfect for snacks and healthy, affordable meals on the go.
If you don’t mind the odd shopping adventure while on holiday, bring comfortable shoes because the Ala Moana Center will keep you busy – for days. It’s the biggest shopping mall in Hawaii. Shuttle buses, or ‘trolleys’ as they are colloquially known, run from the centre of Waikiki to and from Ala Moana and a US$2.50 fare will sort you out.
Listen to a podcast of our tips for the best places to shop in Hawaii:
Closer to your Waikiki hotel, there are lots of high-end labels along Kalakaua Avenue, with Burberry, Louis Vuitton and Prada de rigueur for the swarms of well-heeled tourists.
Just off the main beachfront strip of Kuhio Beach there are also some small pop-up markets in Duke’s Lane, offering the opportunity to buy trinkets and imported souvenirs well into the night.
For diehard shopaholics, a shopping tour to the Waikele Premium Outlets is a must!
For historical things to do in Waikiki you don’t have to venture far off the sand to find the US Army Museum of Hawaii on Kalia Road. Hawaii has been a strategic military base for the USA for decades. The museum is actually an old artillery battery and inside you’ll find armour and artillery from World War II, plus the statement piece – an army tank – which stands at the entrance.
It’s hard to visit Waikiki without taking a tour of Pearl Harbor. Synonymous with wartime tragedy and the loss of 2,403 lives, Pearl Harbor is now a memorial that honours the victims of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s surprise attack on December 7, 1941.
The memorial gets very busy and a limited number of people are admitted daily so you need to arrive early. There are plenty of street vendors in Waikiki selling half-day trips for around US$40 and this is the easiest way to gain entry. Once inside the open-air facility, a speedboat takes you over to the floating memorial above the sunken battleship USS Arizona.
Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort
The Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort is one of the standout hotels along the Waikiki beachfront. The iconic pavilion-style foyer distinguishes it from the rest (including its sister resort which is located further up the beach). The hotel has an exceptional location right on the beach, so you can go from resort to sand in one step and most of the 635 rooms offer ocean views.
The resort caters for all kinds of travellers with hotel-style rooms, plus one, two, three and four-bedroom deluxe suites that can accommodate up to 12 guests. There’s a day spa and Starbucks on site, along with specialty shops and great places to eat.
Dine in-house at Ocean House Restaurant, which offers beach frontage, a sophisticated menu and Hamptons-inspired décor. The Outrigger Reef’s signature restaurant Kani Ka Pila Grille is located right beside the pool and features live Hawaiian music every night.
Jade travelled as a guest of the Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort.
Do you have any tips for top things to do in Waikiki? We would love to hear from you. Please leave us a comment.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Jade Harrison is a presenter on the Tour the World travel series on Network Ten and a freelance travel writer, and has travelled to New Zealand, Hawaii, Canada, USA, Mexico, the UK, Europe, Thailand, Brazil, India and Nepal – including a trek to Annapurna Base Camp! Jade loves all aspects of travelling and adventure – from roughing it in the Himalayas, to backpacking through Europe, to enjoying some five-star luxury along the way. Writing for The Big Bus tour and travel guide is a chance to indulge in the culture and landscapes of new destinations and Jade enjoys bringing that experience to life for readers.