Honolulu and Waikiki Beach are almost synonymous with Hawaii itself. A wide angle shot of the soaring hotel high rises lined up along the beach is used in movies and TV shows over and over again. When you’ve only got a day in a place as awesome as Honolulu, you’ve really got to prioritize. There’s so much to see and do – and eat – that you can’t expect to do everything, even though you might want to. During a week trip to the island of Kauai, we planned a day to visit Honolulu on the island of Oahu. We chose flights that allowed us to have as much time to explore as possible, grabbed our rental car and basically were on the move from the moment we set foot on Oahu till we drove back to the airport. And it was totally worth it because we saw awesome stuff and ate three delicious meals.
Airfare is surprisingly expensive between the islands. Hawaiian Airlines is the only choice when booking flights. The nice thing is that they have really early and really late flights because a lot of people travel between the islands for work, but a 30 minute flight will cost you about $150. Our flight left around 6:30 am and returned at 8 pm. This way we could basically have as much time as possible to explore and still come back the same day.
First stop – Breakfast @ Rainbow Drive-In
After getting our rental car we drove from the airport straight to Rainbow Drive-In. This beloved local favorite opened in 1961 serving traditional Hawaiian plate lunches, which are usually heaping portions of meat with sides of rice and macaroni salad. If you’ve ever eaten at an L&L Hawaiian BBQ, this place is the original. It’s so iconic it even made an appearance on Diners Drive-Ins & Dives on Food Network. There’s a walk up window and outdoor seating and even at 7 am there was a line! They serve traditional breakfast items like pancakes and eggs, or you could go full Hawaiian and get the Moco Loco – a scoop of rice, a hamburger patty, and egg topped with a gravy. Yum!
Second Stop – Pearl Harbor and USS Arizona Memorial
December 7, 1941 is “a day that will live in infamy” for every American. It’s the day the Japanese army bombed the Naval station at Pearl Harbor plunging the United States into WWII. From that point onward, the sleepy little base in Hawaii became one of the most well known military memorials in the US. Visiting this monument, officially known as the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument – is free. This includes visiting the USS Arizona Memorial, which was built over the wreckage of the ship that sank during the attack and created the eternal resting place for hundreds of sailors. Because it’s in open water, you have to be escorted on a boat to get to it. The gleaming white memorial is built with large windows open on two sides and in the ceiling and also has an square in the floor open to the ocean below so you have ample viewing of the Arizona. The harbor is shallow so the ship is clearly visible just below the surface. There is a spot where a small amount of oil has been rising to the surface since the ship sank.
There is also a museum at the memorial back on land focusing on the events of that fateful day as well as the reactions of civilian citizens of Hawaii, and how native Hawaiians of Japanese descent were treated after the attacks.
You still need a timed entrance ticket to visit, even though they are free. This way the crowds are kept at a more manageable number. There are two ways to get tickets – they give away 1300 first come, first served tickets daily or you can reserve them in advance online. The memorial opens at 7 am, so we could have driven straight there from the airport and probably would have been fine, but given our short time in Honolulu we didn’t want to take any chances. There’s a $1.50 convenience fee per ticket when you order them online. You can book up to two months in advance and they will fill up fast.
It’s hard to describe the feelings I had while visiting Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial. The story, of course, is tragic. My parents had a neighbor who was a Pearl Harbor survivor. He was on the USS Oklahoma, a boiler man who was literally at the bottom of the ship when the bombing started. Luckily he was able to get out, but so many were not. Half the lives lost in the attack were those aboard the Arizona. However, I was born more than 40 years later so I have very little connection to it. My dad’s parents both in the Army Air Corps during the war. His uncle flew a bomber. My mom’s parents were also involved. My parents are baby boomers, a direct result of winning the war. For me, the visit was enlightening. I learned new things, I felt the weight of the event hanging in the air. But it wasn’t necessarily sad. It was, however, interesting to watch my parents’ reactions during the visit. If anything, a visit to the Valor in the Pacific National Monument is a time of reflection. Both on the past, and the future.
Third Stop – Lunch @ Nico’s Pier 38
Several people recommended Nico’s to me, and was featured on an episode of Diner’s Drive-In’s and Dives which I used to watch religiously, so it was a no brainer when it came to picking a place to eat. And let me tell you, it holds up to the hype. Part restaurant, part fish market, Nico’s always has fresh fish dishes filled with flavor and moderate prices. Order at the counter, then grab a seat and wait for your meal to come to you. It’s located down on the water in Honolulu Harbor, so you get the experience of a waterfront seafood dinner without the price tag.
Fourth Stop – Ioloni Palace
If you’re like me and still haven’t gotten your fill of history by this point in the day, you’ll definitely want to make a stop at the Iolani Palace. The Palace is the only royal palace in the United States and was the home of the Hawaiian monarchs from 1879 until Queen Liliuokalani was forcibly abdicated in 1895. The Queen was then imprisoned in her bedroom for almost a year. She was not allowed to leave, not even to attend the funeral of her husband who died on a trip abroad. She watched the procession through the streets from her window.
After the overthrowing of the monarchy, the Palace was used as a government building for decades until the new State Capitol building was built nearby. The Palace was painstakingly restored back to it’s original splendor. The restoration teams did extensive research on fabric patterns, furnishings, etc. and found several of the actual pieces from the Palace that had been auctioned off after the abdication, bringing them back to Iolani from all over the world.
Taking a self-guided, audio tour will lead you through the Palace, there are nine rooms on display. To preserve the integrity of the restoration, you will be required to wear plastic booties over your shoes. After the tour of the Palace, be sure to take some time in the basement, where you’ll find a restored kitchen, more pieces from the Royal Collection as well as an exhibit on the restoration itself which is really fascinating.
Tickets are $14.75 for adults and can be purchased ahead of time online. We rolled up to the Palace late in the afternoon and had no problem getting tickets and being let in on a self-guided tour. We ended up staying until they kicked us out because there was so much to see and we wanted to see everything. Be sure to give yourself plenty of time to tour the Palace. More photos of the Palace can be seen here.
Last stop – Dinner @ Siam Garden Cafe
We were running out of time and needed to find a place to eat before we had to get on the plane to head back to Kauai. So it was Yelp to the rescue. Siam Garden Cafe is near the airport and actually down the way from Nico’s. My family absolutely loves Thai food and we eat it a lot. And everything about this place was exactly what we needed to finish a full day in Honolulu. Traditional decor, delicious and authentic food, and open late.
I’m so glad we were able to squeeze a day trip to Oahu into our Kauai vacation. Trying to cram a ton of sight seeing into a short time period can be stressful because you want to feel like you used your time wisely. Even though my list of ‘must-sees’ was at least twice as long as the things we actually saw, spending the time exploring the things that we did was plenty and very enjoyable. And missing the other things like Waikiki and Diamond Head just make me want to go back to visit again.
Have you done any of the things I mentioned in this post? What is your favorite thing to do in Honolulu? Tell me about it in the comments!