Honolulu is a beautiful city offering relaxation at its beautiful beaches along with amazing places to shop and eat. It’s like every vacationer’s dream come true.
The best time to visit Hawaii is from November to March when the highs are around 80-85 and lows are around 50-60 Farhenheit. After planning for a long time, we decided to visit Honolulu in February of 2019. If you’re planning for a long vacation, say around 9 – 10 days, then combining two islands is a great option. We combined Kauai and Honolulu is the same trip. (Read our amazing Kauai Travel Guide here.)
A brief note on what the two islands offer. If you’re looking for happening beaches with lots of people, multiple beach activities, along with branded, high-end shopping areas close by then Honolulu is the place to be. If you’re looking for quiet beaches and complete relaxation then be sure to add Kauai to your itinerary. Additionally, if you adore resort life, and want the combination of the above two islands (minus the high-end shopping) then you will absolutely love Maui.
We stayed at the Queen Kapiolani Hotel in Waikiki. The location of the hotel was perfect, just walking distance from Waikiki beach and only a block away from Honolulu’s free parking street, Monsarrat Avenue, which offers 24 hours free parking as opposed to the ones offered by the hotels charging around $30 per day.
Waikiki is an area much like Los Angeles, boasting high end shopping malls, finger-licking food options along with crowded yet beautiful beaches. If you’re looking for more serenity and want to stay away from the crowd, then staying around North Shore will be a better choice.
We’ve put together our 5-day Honolulu itinerary, highlighting some of the best things to do on the island.
We reached the beautiful island of Oahu around noon and since our hotel room wasn’t ready until 2, we decided to roam around Waikiki’s Kalākaua Avenue. As you walk on the Kalākaua Avenue and its neighboring streets, you will find many cute little unique stores, so choose as per your liking. But do follow along for our recommendations.
Sample almost every cookie at Honolulu Cookie Company
Almost every other block on the avenue has a Honolulu Cookie Company store so choose the one that suits you best. They offer an amazing variety of shortbread cookies and the best part is you can sample as many cookies as you like, absolutely free, at all of their locations. The flavors we liked best were the milk chocolate kona coffee, white chocolate coconut, triple dark chocolate and guava.
Cool down with Açaí at Banan Waikiki Beach Shack
Since Hawaii is known for its açaí bowls and why not, we gotta beat the heat, right? We tried our first açaí bowl in Honolulu at Banan, and well it delivered what it was supposed to – give us a refreshing break from the heat!
Chill at the Waikiki Beach
Along the Kalākaua Avenue lies the Waikiki Beach, where you’ll find people playing volleyball, enjoying water sports or simply chilling. A pretty cool vibe all together!
Right on the beach is the Mai Tai Bar, where you’ll get crazy varieties of Mai Tais with an amazing view. We decided to relax here with some delicious Mai Tais for a while until it was time for our hotel check-in.
Shopping at Kalākaua Avenue
We absolutely love to collect small yet unique souvenirs from every place we go, and if you’re like us then Kalākaua Avenue is a great shopping street but if you’re looking for a more indoorsy experience, then there is the expansive Royal Hawaiian Center that you can check out. There’s also a duty free mall right next to the Waikiki Shopping Plaza, which is a great option if you’re looking for some high end shopping brands (Louis Vuitton, Dior et al) and want to save on taxes too. So, shop on!
And oh, on a side note, don’t forget to try (and buy) the macadamia nut honey caramel cookies from the Royal Hawaiian Cookie located at the entrance of the Waikiki Shopping Plaza. In fact, try all of their varieties of cookies, clusters, chocolates and popcorn because why not!
Dinner at Alan Wong
Our first day in Honolulu and we wanted to end it in style. And what’s better than having dinner at a fancy restaurant, and maybe at even one of the best fine dining restaurants in Honolulu. Their food is great and their service is exceptional. A few must try dishes include their flawless Coconut dessert, Shrimp Linguine and their Whole Tomato Salad – don’t be surprised or rather don’t be disappointed to see an entire tomato, literally, served on the plate because the sauce beneath is will make living worth it! The flavors are so complex, I still dream about it sometimes, shhh.
So, dress up and have the experience of a lifetime!
For the second day, we decided to cover the North Shore, which is quite different from Waikiki. You’ll find calmer beaches, local eats and much less crowded areas.
Breakfast at Cinnamon’s Ilikai
Now what’s so special about a breakfast place that serves the usual American breakfast, you ask? It’s their Guava Chiffon pancakes. They were one of the best pancakes I’ve had in my life, so buttery and melt-in-the-mouth. The guava cream was on point, very tropical!
Relax at the Turtle Bay in North Shore
If you want to spend some time away from the crowd and just soak yourself in the sun, then North Shore is a great area. Turtle Bay is a beautiful beach, offering great views and some spectacular photo spots. And if you’re lucky, you can even find big turtles just lounging around the beach!
On your way to Turtle Bay, make sure to stop at Giovanni’s to have their garlic shrimp. They aren’t shelled, so you’ll need to suck all the garlicky goodness first before shelling them. Pro tip: Take the hot sauce.
Choco Haupia Pie at Ted’s Bakery
Ted’s Bakery is a small old shop that might even go unnoticed if you don’t keep a lookout for it, but you wouldn’t wanna miss it, all because of their choco haupia pie. What’s so good about this pie, you ask? Well, it’s their creamy, melt in the mouth, perfectly balanced chocolate and coconut custards that blend so well it’ll keep you wanting for more.
They do have other varieties of pies and cakes to try as well, if you have room. They also offer Hawaiian lunch items, which are good too.
Açaí Bowls at Haleiwa Bowls
We tried açaí bowls at so many places and here was definitely the best açaí bowl we had. It is a small shack on the side of the road but their açaí bowls are oh so good! You’ll have a wide variety to choose from, ranging from the traditional açaí or berries based, or some of the not so traditional ones. The one we tried was called Poniolo, which was a combination of dates, bananas, peanut butter, cocoa nibs, coconut flakes and almonds. As I had my first bite, flavors danced in my mouth! If you’re also a peanut butter lover like me, then you’ll surely love it.
Cool Down with Hawaiian Shave Ice
At almost every corner, you’ll find a place serving shave ice, and you can’t go wrong with shave ice in Hawaii, right? When the heat from the sun sears your skin like it was fillet mignon, you will crave for something to cool you down quick, you will crave for shave ice.
There are a lot of good places for shave ice but one of the worth mentioning spots was Matsumoto Shave Ice (I think it was the longest we’ve waited in line for anything in Hawaii). They have an array of flavors you can choose from (maximum 3 flavors per cone), but I’d recommend choosing at least one of the creamy flavors or having a double topping of condensed milk.
Other good shave ice options include the Waiola Shave Ice and Frost City.
Visit the Dole Plantation
It’s a pineapple plantation that has many fun activities to do like a train ride through the plantation, a maze and a garden. You can even try a freshly made dole whip made from fresh pineapples. It sure sounds good!
We missed this one as it closes at sharp 5:30 pm, and we reached there around 5:35, oh well. 😦
Have the Best Ice Cream in Honolulu
Four words : Black Sheep Cream Co. We always make it a point to have ice cream in every city we visit, (secretly trying to find the best ice cream in the world, shh..) and the ice cream we had here definitely won a spot amongst the top on our (secret) list. Two flavors that you have to try are their pistachio brittle and buttah cake. Thank me later.
Dinner at The Pig and the Lady
An extremely popular restaurant in Honolulu and rightly so, The Pig and the Lady serves delicious Vietnamese comfort food. Reservations are definitely recommended. Order basically any kind of pho and it will not disappoint. Also, a must try is their Bahn Mi sandwich, French Dip Bahn Mi or the Meatball Bahn Mi to be precise.
We had gone for dinner and were disheartened taken down to not find any Bahn Mi options on their menu at that time. Turns out those are only available on their lunch menu.
But, no need to be disappointed, we did find that mouthwatering goodness somewhere else! Pig and the Lady has a booth at the KCC Farmers’ Market where they serve all their delicacies and more! (More on KCC Farmers’ Market in Day 4’s itinerary.)
Honolulu has some really beautiful hikes and you don’t wanna miss them. The tip to hike stress free (and heat free) in Hawaii is to start early.
Watch Sunrise at Lanikai Beach
Lanikai Beach is really gorgeous, honestly, much more beautiful than Waikiki Beach. The sand here is relatively white, the people here are relatively few and the views here are.. well, it’s Hawaii, views are amazing everywhere, but you get the point.
We went to Lanikai Beach to catch the sunrise and I can say, without any doubt, it was a spectacular experience. While we were waiting for the sunrise, we could see other professional photographers also set up their cameras, getting ready to capture the breathtaking scene, and we knew we were at the right spot!
As the cool breeze brushed through my hair, I saw the first rays of light break through the dark sky; we were ready! For the next 20 to 30 minutes, we experienced the mighty sun come up roaring through the clouds; it was beautiful.
Some tips getting to Lanikai, if you’re planning to catch the sunrise here, then driving is your best option. It takes about 40 minutes from Waikiki by car to reach Lanikai Beach. There’s free street parking available around Kaelepulu Dr and Aalapapa Dr; this parking area is optimal for the Lanikai Pillbox Hike as well, if you plan to do it. However, you’ll have to be hawk-eyed to find a parking spot as lot of people tend to come here for sunrise. But, be patient, you’ll find one. 🙂
Lanikai Pillbox Hike
If you’d love to combine a little adventure with your relaxing Hawaiian vacation, then Lanikai Pillbox Hike is your answer. It’s best to start this hike early to beat the scorching sun, so doing it right after catching the sunrise at Lanikai Beach is a good option. The starting point of the hike is very vaguely marked but for ease, here is its address: 265 Kaelepulu Drive. You can simply walk from the beach to the trailhead and start hiking!
For extra adventure seekers, you can even hike before the sunrise and watch the sunrise from the top of the Pillbox itself, but word of warning, the trail is usually muddy and slippery at places and has steep narrow inclines, which can make it quite risky to hike in the dark. We preferred hiking in daylight, so that we could enjoy the views through the trail as well. 🙂
Keep at least 2 to 3 hours for the hike in total.
Smoothies and Açaí Bowls at Lanikai Juice
What better way to revive your worn out body and celebrate your Pillbox Hike’s accomplishment than by having some refreshing açaí bowls. Add on a delicious smoothie as well to make it a filling breakfast.
We ordered the pitaya bowl with some additional toppings of almonds and coconut flakes; it was just so pretty to eat! We also order their coconut lemon smoothie, well, since I love coconuts! Both were very satisfying.
Amazing Photography Spot at Hoomaluhia Botanical Garden’s Glory Road
While planning our trip to Honolulu, we had come across these heart-stopping photos of an incredibly picturesque road at a number of places, but no where could we find what its exact location was and where exactly did we need to go to click those amazing pictures. All we could find was that it was somewhere in the Hoomaluhia Botanical Garden. So, we decided to add this to our itinerary, but finding some specific road in such a huge Botanical Garden was going to be difficult. But, I took up the challenge.
Now, when you’re just about to reach the gardens’ gates, you’ll see a guard standing right in front who will inform you that it is prohibited to stop your vehicle anywhere between the entrance gates and the parking area (which is 1 mile from the entrance gates). And the Glory Road, that most of us come to get a glimpse of, is located just few steps away from the gates! Why would the guard do that?! So, parking at the visitor center’s parking and then walking 1 mile back doesn’t make sense. Your best bet is to park your vehicle outside the Botanical Gardens, before the entrance gates and then just walk up inside to take your amazing photos!
Coco Puffs at Liliha Bakery
Driving up to a bakery just for some cream puffs, doesn’t sound very appealing, right? But, trust me it will be worth it. It was one of the best things we ate in Honolulu. So, take my word for it!
They also have a proper dining area offering lunch options as well, if going just for the cream puffs still doesn’t seem that alluring.
Firework Show at Hilton Hawaiian Village
It’s just a 5 minute firework show that they do every Friday and honestly, I’ve seen way better, but the kid in me never wants to miss any opportunity to watch fireworks. So, we decided to catch this as well. Now, first things first, where to find free parking around Hilton Hawaiian Village? If it was a normal day then you could easily find parking around the Ala Wai Boat Harbor, but it gets crazy crowded here every Friday evening since people come from everywhere to watch the fireworks, so finding a parking spot will be next to impossible. I’d suggest you leave your car at your hotel and just walk up to Hilton Hawaiian Village.
The fireworks start around 7:40 PM and last for about 5 minutes. Now, the Village is huge, and it might get difficult to navigate around in such crowd, so plan to reach there at least 15 to 20 minutes before the fireworks start. The best place to get an unobstructed view is from the Lagoon. And the best way to reach the spot is to just walk up to Lappert’s Hawaii and then keep going straight to reach the Lagoon.
Now that you’ve put in so much effort to view that 5-minute show, roam around the Hilton Hawaiian Village, it’s a cool area to shop and eat with a lot of restaurants and markets.
Try the Local Food at KCC Farmer’s Market
Not a farmers’ market per se, it’s more like a food festival offering huge varieties of fresh local eats from fresh poke to juicy sandwiches to warm pastries, homemade ice creams and more. The list is never ending. Keep at least an hour and a half to two hours to fully explore the market. Stuff yourself with endless varieties of local eats.
Like I mentioned before, The Pig and The Lady also holds a booth here, so I highly recommend to come here, but the lines for this booth is huge, so plan accordingly. Apart from the Bahn Mi sandwiches, other things I couldn’t get my hands off in the market were the fresh papayas, fresh sugarcane juice, papaya smoothie and ube soft serve!
Diamond Head Crater Hike
This is more of a commercial hike with well maintained paved paths throughout. On this trail, you will find everyone hiking along, from little kids to elderly people, even people wearing flip flops, although that is not recommended at all, since the hike does have steady inclines throughout. The trail can get pretty crowded so you have to have patience as you might have to wait for multiple trains of people coming the opposite way, but the views from the top are amazing, so it’s all worth it!
After about two-third of the hike, you come across two sets of stairs, the first a shorter set and the second a longer set of 99 steps, after which you will need to climb a spiral set of stairs to reach the top. If this is too much for you, then you can avoid the second set of stairs and the spiral stairs altogether by taking an alternate route. Right before the 99-step stairs, there goes a much simpler alternate route from the left side; follow that and breathtaking views await!
Fresh Ahi Poke at Ono Seafood
You can absolutely not miss poke when in Hawaii. The fish is so fresh, it will almost melt in your mouth. We had the spicy ahi, shoyu ahi and miso ahi, and all three were simply delectable. But, if you had to try just one, then I would recommend trying the spicy ahi with white rice. I still crave it! You will not find poke like this anywhere else.
Scones at Diamond Head Market Grill
It is a tiny grocery store located near Kapi’olani Regional Park and they have amazing scones! Their scones are huge and are more cakey, but yet so buttery that you will just love them. They have multiple flavors but the one we liked best was the banana scone.
Other than their scones, they also have other local eats and desserts in their market area, so simply pick what fascinates you. Two recommendations though: butter mochi and spam musubi – items authentic of Hawaii and are completely worth trying.
Snorkeling at Hanauma Bay
You might have read at a lot of places that Hawaiian waters are perfect for learning to surf, yes they are, but Hanauma Bay is perfect for snorkeling. The waters are crystal clear and you will sea lot of sea turtles, rays, eels and reefs. You will absolutely love it!
You need to keep at least half a day for it to thoroughly enjoy.
Breakfast at Yogur Story
Two words: Ube Pancakes! Ube is a sweet potato variation which is purple in color, hence the craze. But, unlike the other exaggerations such as activated charcoal, avocado toast etc., ube is actually worth trying due to its distinct flavor. Their warm-oozing ube pancakes were so good, we could have endless amount of those.
Also, their waffles are amazing, specially their red velvet waffles and chantily waffles. FYI, they don’t do half orders, bummer (or not), so you’ll just have to eat more!
Feel Emotional at Pearl Harbor
The entire historical site is very well built and the USS Arizona Memorial is a must see when visiting Honolulu. You will be taken to the USS Arizona Memorial by a boat, tickets for which are free but only a limited number is given out daily. Now, some tips before adding Pearl Harbor to your itinerary, there are two options by which you can reserve your free tickets: book them 60 days in advance on their website, but if you can’t find anything available there, then every day at 7 am they open up some more tickets on their website for the following day, make sure to check early in the morning to ensure a spot. For more information, check out their website.
They also show a 15 minute movie before taking you on the boat, and the movie is really heart-warming.
If you have good camera lenses, then don’t forget to carry them along because at the memorial you might be able to see rainbow like colors in the surrounding waters, since some oil still leaks out of the sunken ship sometimes, creating beautiful bands of color in the water.
Keep Some Time for Souvenir Shopping
Spend the rest of the day shopping either at Waikele Premium Outlets or Ala Moana Center because you’re in Honolulu and you’ve got to take loads of souvenirs for friends and family, right (or for yourself, shh…).
Some more things to eat:
- Honolulu is really big on Japanese cuisine, so do try a Japanese BBQ and a Ramen place (our recommendations: Gyukaku, Goma Tei Ramen).
- Mochi Ice cream at Bubbies if you’re a mochi lover.
- Malasadas (i.e., filled donuts) at Leonards if donuts are your thing.
- You will notice huge varieties of macadamia nut products all over Hawaii, including chocolate covered nuts, brittle, spiced nuts and more. Do bring some back with yourself! Another variety that you should try is the macadamia nut ice cream. It has really unique flavor and we don’t get it that easily on the mainland either (our recommendation: try it at Lappert’s Hawaii).
Some additional details:
- Stay: As I mentioned in the beginning, we stayed at the Queen Kapiolani Hotel. It’s a great hotel with a cute coffee shop and a happening bar & pool area. Very nice gym as well. Do not pay extra for the ocean view though, its not worth it. Try getting the pool view instead, that’s more happening, or the diamond head view if you want some quiet. Also, free parking is located just one block away at Monsarrat Avenue. So, it was a win-win.
- Car Rental: We used the Enterprise car rental to rent our car, which is located inside the Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort & Spa. The pick up was very convenient as it was right next to our hotel. And they offer after hours drop off service as well.
Now that you have all the deets to book your Hawaiian adventure, what are you waiting for, the beautiful island of Oahu awaits. Aloha!