Downtown Honolulu is more than just the state's main business center and financial district. In and around this small jungle of office buildings and bank towers are some of Hawaii's significant and cherished treasures—all within comfortable walking distance of each other.
Iolani Palace and other important Honolulu landmarks in the background Photo by: Hawaii Tourism Authority / Tor Johnson
7 Must See Landmarks
Experience these 7 must see Honolulu landmarks yourself on our suggested 2.3 mile Honolulu walking route. View map and suggested walking route
1) Aloha Tower
A tour of downtown might begin at the Aloha Tower Marketplace, a harborside complex of shops and restaurants surrounding historic Aloha Tower. When it was erected in 1926 to welcome passenger ships arriving at Honolulu Harbor, this 10-story tower was the tallest building in the state.
2) Hawaii Maritime Center
Next door is the Hawaii Maritime Center, which traces Hawaii's colorful ocean history from the ancient Polynesian voyagers and rowdy whalers to the luxury liners of the 1920s and '30s.
Walk mauka (towards the mountain) and west, and you'll come to Chinatown bustling area filled with ethnic eateries, lei stands, fresh produce vendors, herbal shops and more. The Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii offers weekly guided walking tours of Chinatown.
Tip: Make a quick stop at the Aloha Market for fresh local produce.
4) Iolani Palace
Heading east on King Street, walk through the main business district until you reach Iolani Palace, the only royal palace standing on American soil. The palace served as the royal residence for Hawaii's last two monarchs, King Kalakaua and Queen Liliuokalani . Guided tours are available here five days a week.
5) State Capitol Building
Behind the palace is the State Capitol Building, where the governor and state legislature fight their political battles. The building opened in 1969 and remains a unique work of architecture. The cone-shaped chambers symbolize Hawaii's volcanoes , and the building columns are reminiscent of palm trees. The large pool of water surrounding the building symbolizes the fact that Hawaii is the only island state in the U.S.
6) King Kamehameha Statue
Across the street from Iolani Palace is the Kamehameha statue, which fronts Honolulu's old judicial building. The bronze statue stands eight feet and six inches high (not including the 10-foot-high base). Every June 11 on King Kamehameha Day, the statue is adorned with beautiful floral leis, some as long as 18 feet in length.
7) Mission Houses Museum
Cross Punchbowl Street to find the Mission Houses Museum, where the first American Protestant missionaries established their headquarters in 1820. The structures you see here include the oldest surviving Western-style buildings in the state. They house a treasure trove of original artifacts, including furniture, books, quilts and other household items that once belonged to missionary families.
Historic Aloha Tower, Oahu
In its heyday, 10-story Aloha Tower was the tallest structure in all of Hawaii. And even though it's now dwarfed by downtown Honolulu ‘s small jungle of office buildings, the tower still stands tall as one of the state's most recognizable symbols of Hawaiian hospitality.
Aloha Tower with double rainbow (look closely) in the background
The tower was built in 1926 as a fitting welcome for the boatloads of tourists arriving at Honolulu Harbor. In the 1920s and '30s, passenger arrivals, dubbed “Boat Days,” were lively celebrations that often involved the entire community. Many locals even left work early to take part in the festivities.
Tip: The Aloha Tower's observation deck remains open to the public daily from 9:30 a.m. to sunset. Admission is free.
Hawaii Maritime Center, Oahu
Located on Pier 7 at Honolulu Harbor, the Hawaii Maritime Center houses a variety of exhibits detailing the Islands' maritime history, from Polynesian navigators and whalers to present-day nautical wonders.
Falls of Clyde docked at the Hawaii Maritime Center
Exhibits & Tours
Visitors are provided handy tape machines that provide expert narration on the center's displays. The two-level museum is packed with insightful exhibits tracing the history of surfing, canoe racing, whaling era, Hawaii's “Boat Days” and more.
Admission to the center includes the opportunity to board the Falls of Clyde , the world's only surviving four-masted, full-rigged ship. Built in 1878, the Falls of Clyde served Hawaii as the largest ship in the sugar trade. After the turn of the century, she brought petroleum to the Islands. The ship was entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. In 1989, she was named a National Historic Landmark.
A small Flower store in Chinatown
Honolulu's Chinatown is more than a wondrous maze of shops, galleries and eateries. It's also a cultural treasure that overcame numerous obstacles—including two devastating fires—to enjoy a renaissance of sorts in recent years. Above all, Chinatown represents a colorful and unique slice of local history that makes a tour of its surroundings worthwhile.
Iolani Palace had electricity and telephones before the White House
In the middle of downtown Honolulu sits Iolani Palace, the only royal building in the United States. The Palace is an ever-present reminder of the royal heritage of the Hawaiian Islands.
Built in 1882 by King David Kalakaua and his wife Queen Kapiolani, the palace had electricity and telephones even before the White House. King Kalakaua found inspiration for the design of the palace during his European travels. Indeed, with its high ramparts and commanding presence, one can see in Iolani Palace the influence of European castles. Yet, certain features attest to the fact that the palace was built in a place where the climate invites one outdoors. Walkways encircle the exterior on both the first and second floors, and lanais offer splendid views of the palace grounds.
In January of 1895, Queen Liliuokalani , the last reigning monarch of Hawaii, was imprisoned in the palace during the overthrow of her government. Some say you can still hear the Queen pacing back-and-forth in the room where she was held captive. The palace then served as the capitol of the territory when Hawai'i was annexed to the United States, in 1959. In 1969, restoration began, and today the palace is a museum to the era.
Iolani Palace offers 2 tours: a docent guided tour, and a self-guided audio tour (in addition to the tours a basement gallery only admission is available). Both tours visit the first and second floors of the Palace followed by self-guided exploration of the basement gallery exhibits. Allow approximately 90 minutes for either tour. Tour options vary based on the day of the week and time, so make sure to check out their current hours and admission .
Tip: Free tours for Kamaiana are generally available the first Sunday of every month.
For the docent guided tour, reservations are recommended ( contact the ticket office to book a tour time). Tours are available every 15 minutes. Japanese language tours are given at 11:30am Monday-Saturday. Guided tours in Mandarin Chinese or American Sign Language can be pre-arranged.
In addition to the tours, a free introductory video “A King's Noble Vision” is shown every half-hour in the Iolani Barracks.
Tribute to a King
Kamehameha was Hawaii's greatest King
King Kamehameha the Great (1756-1819) is perhaps Hawaii's greatest historical figure. Born in the Kohala district of the Big Island , Kamehameha unified the Hawaiian islands under one rule and set the stage for the kingdom's proud-but-turbulent monarchy period .
The King Kamehameha Statue pays tribute to Hawaii's warrior king. In fact, there are four statues: one in downtown Honolulu , fronting the old Judiciary Building; another in Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. and the original statue at the king's birthplace in Kapaau on the Big Island, and a 14-foot, five-ton statue in Hilo .
Mission Houses Museum
When Reverend Hiram Bingham and the first group of Christian missionaries to Hawaii arrived in the Islands in 1820, few people could predict the impact they would have on the native culture and environment. Lucretia Bingham, the great-great granddaughter of Reverend Bingham, once wrote in ALOHA Magazine: “Rarely has such a small group exerted so much influence over an established culture.”
Many people believe the missionaries made significant contributions to the Islands, while others believe that they caused irreparable harm.
The structures that make up the museum are the oldest surviving Western-style buildings in Hawaii
To gain a better understanding of what life was like for these missionaries, visit the Mission Houses Museum in downtown Honolulu . The museum tells the story of cultural change in 19th-century Hawaii and details the daily life and work of the missionaries. On display are original artifacts such as clothing, furnishings, books and other household items belonging to the missionary families.
The structures that make up the museum were built between 1821 and 1841, making them the oldest surviving Western-style buildings in Hawaii. The white Frame House served as the residence of several prominent missionaries. The Chamberlain House was used as a storehouse and separate home. And the Printing Office housed the first printing press in the Pacific. This printing press brought literacy to the Hawaiian kingdom. (Tidbit for trivia buffs: The first printed sheet in Hawaii was produced on January 7, 1922. Oahu Chief Keeaumoku was given the privilege of pulling the lever.)
The museum also boasts an impressive exhibit of Hawaiian quilts. Quilt making in Hawaii evolved from foreign influences on the traditional Hawaiian fiber arts. Today, Hawaiian quilts are prized for their beauty and craftsmanship.