The name Waikiki conjures up images of sandy beaches, tanned surfers, rolling waves, chilled mai tais and hula dancers moving to the unique sound of the ukulele.
The good news is that it’s all of those things and so much more. Located next to the central business district of Honolulu on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, Waikiki is a picture perfect travel destination. In the 1800s, beautiful Waikiki Beach and its endless stretch of white sand and turquoise water was reserved for the exclusive use of royalty. Today, it’s home to hundreds of tourist resorts and high-rise hotels, blingy boutiques and verdant tropical gardens.
At night, flaming torches cast flickering shadows as happy holidaymakers dine in the precinct’s many bistros and high-end restaurants.
Enjoy this Waikiki travel guide.
Top cultural experiences in Waikiki
Waikiki’s cultural make-up is very much one of surf, sand and sun.
Surfing is 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. Everywhere you go in the Hawaiian islands, you’ll hear the story of how Duke popularised the ancient water sport across the globe 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 backstory. 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.
No visit to Hawaii would be complete without attending a luau — a traditional social gathering involving food and entertainment. Paradise Cove Luau is one of the largest and most popular luau shows in the Hawaiian Islands. Standard tickets include a welcome drink, a buffet dinner and the cultural presentation. You can opt for hotel transfers and premium seating.
Waikiki for history lovers
Waikiki is a popular destination with military history buffs.
The US Army Museum of Hawaii is located just behind the beachfront in Fort DeRussy Beach Park. Hawaii has been a US strategic military post for decades. The museum occupies an old artillery battery, and houses a wide variety of memorabilia dating back to World War II. Various pieces of heavy war machinery stand guard out the front.
Most visitors to Waikiki take 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 the number of people admitted each day is limited. There are plenty of travel agencies in Waikiki that sell half-day trips for around US$40 (including transfers). It’s the easiest way to guarantee your entry.
Once inside the open-air facility, a boat takes you over to the floating memorial above the sunken USS Arizona battleship.
Ways to relax in Waikiki
Relaxation is the name of the game for most holidaymakers visiting Waikiki.
First up — head for the glorious beachfront, pull up some sand, and laze the day away watching the world drift by. If you’re feeling just a little energetic, hire a surfboard or stand-up paddle board. There are basic lessons on offer for those who are trying to stand upright for the first time.
To take a break from the tourist masses, book a sightseeing cruise with Holokai Catamaran. You’ll see the catamaran moored on the sand in front of the Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort. It departs throughout the day and early evening for the short trip around nearby Diamond Head, and includes a snorkelling stop-off 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.
If that’s inspired you to see more of Oahu, spend a day immersing yourself in the natural beauty of the island on a guided tour. Visit the North Shore, Dole Plantation, Byodo-In Temple, Halona Blowhole, Hanauma Bay, Nu’uanu Pali and more, accompanied by a knowledgeable local guide. It’s a full circle of the island!
Great places to eat in Waikiki
The dining scene in Waikiki can best be described as Asian-American fusion (or perhaps ‘confusion’ — as East usually competes with West on most menus).
If you’re partial to sushi or sashimi, you have come to the right place. There are more Japanese restaurants in Hawaii than any other style of international cuisine. Check out Doraku Sushi on the third floor of the Royal Hawaiian Center. It gets great reviews.
The standard caffeine offering in Waikiki is 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 Gorilla in the Cafe.
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.
Where to shop in Waikiki
If you love to head out on a shopping adventure while on holiday, bring comfortable shoes to Waikiki.
Exploring the hyper-extensive Ala Moana Center will keep you busy — for days. It’s the biggest shopping mall in Hawaii. Shuttle buses (‘trolleys’ as they are known locally) run from the centre of Waikiki to and from Ala Moana.
Closer to the centre of Waikiki, there are ultra high-end boutiques along Kalakaua Avenue — including Burberry, Louis Vuitton and Prada.
For a more casual and cost-effective retail experience, head for Duke’s Marketplace — a low-key pop-up market in Duke’s Lane — just off the main strip at Kuhio Beach. You can shop for trinkets and imported souvenirs well into the night. Around the corner, the trendy Duke’s Lane Market and Eatery houses a variety of food vendors.
For diehard shopaholics, a visit to the Waikele Premium Outlets is a must-do. Book a return shuttle transfer, but try and get one of the mid-afternoon buses home. It can be pandemonium at the end of the day as the multitude of stragglers rush to get on the last shuttle back to Waikiki.
Listen to a podcast of our tips for the best places to shop in Hawaii:
Where to stay in Waikiki
Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort
Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort is located right on the fabulous Waikiki beachfront, so you can go from resort to sand in just a few steps. Most of the 635 rooms offer ocean views. The resort caters for all types of travellers, offering hotel-style rooms, plus one, two, three and four-bedroom deluxe suites that can accommodate up to 12 guests.
For all-day casual dining, you can’t go wrong at the Kani Ka Pila Grille. It’s located right next to the pool and features live music most nights. There’s also a Starbucks on site, along with a range of specialty shops.
The writer travelled as a guest of the Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort.
Do you have any tips to add to our Waikiki travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
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. 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.