20 Must-Visit Historic Sites on Oahu
Although Hawai’i is part of the United States, it has a unique culture; it’s part of the Polynesian Islands, has a royal history, and has its own language. A visit to one of Oahu’s many historic sites allows you to develop a deeper connection to the island. We’ve rounded up twenty of our favorites — these are just a few of the many historic sites you can visit while you’re here.
1. Polynesian Cultural Center
Do not miss the Polynesian Cultural Center on your trip to Oahu! This isn’t the typical museum — it’s an immersive opportunity to experience Hawaiian culture. Walk through six villages representing Hawaii, Fiji, New Zealand, Samoa, Tahiti, and Tonga to get a taste of each island’s diverse way of life.
Throw a spear while visiting Tonga, dance with the Islanders of Tahiti, watch a warrior climb a 40-foot tree at Samoa, honor the chief of Fiji, learn the Haka dance at Aotearoa, and learn how to fish in Hawaii. And, be sure to stay until evening to catch the Ha Breath of Life show.
2. Visit Iolani Palace
Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson
Iolani Palace is the only royal residence in America. That’s why it’s a a top historic site in Oahu to check out! The last monarch, Queen Lili’uokalani, was overthrown in 1893. Learn about her reign and love for the Hawaiian people during a palace tour. If you’re taking the Shaka Guide Downtown Honolulu Walking Tour you’ll visit this National Historic Landmark.
Also check out: What to do in Waikiki Beach
The Bishop Museum gives visitors an in-depth history of the state. Signature exhibits include a picture gallery with 19th-century Hawaiian art and a garden with native plants. At the museum, you’ll learn about Hawaiian values and how they relate to the other Polynesian islands. Added bonus! This is a great historic site in Oahu for the whole family. There’s a Science Adventure Center with lots of hands-on activities to keep kids engaged.
4. Free Waikiki Hula Show
Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Dana Edmunds
What better way to enjoy an evening in Waikiki than to see a hula performance? Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday dancers perform this historic dance in Waikiki. Visit the K?hi? Beach Hula Mound at 6:30 p.m. on any of these nights for a free performance. The evening starts with the lighting of the torch and traditional blowing of the conch shell, followed by hula. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the cultural immersion.
5. Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail
Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)
Legend is a huge part of Hawaiian culture and the land is rooted in folklore. That holds true for Makapu’u — an extinct volcano on the eastern tip of Oahu. Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail isn’t just a two-mile hike with an amazing view… it’s a legend! Makapu’u was a supernatural being who had eight big, bright eyes. The lighthouse is named after her as she watches those at sea. Coincidentally, the Makapu’u Lighthouse is also home to the biggest lighthouse lens in the United States.
6. The Dole Plantation
In 1950, the Dole Plantation fruit stand was established as a tourist destination. In 1989, it was expanded into the attraction that we see today. The plantation features the largest corn-maze in the world, a garden and a train-ride through the pineapple fields where you’ll learn about the history of the plantation.
Visit the Dole Plantation on Shaka Guide’s Legendary North Shore Loop and Grand Circle Island Tours!
7. Byodo-In Temple
Nestled on Oahu’s windward side, with the massive Koolau mountain range as a backdrop, the Byodo-In Temple is a scale replica of a temple in Uji, Japan. The temple was built in 1968, for the centennial commemoration of the first Japanese immigrants on the Hawaiian Islands.
Wander the temple grounds in the surrounding lush paradise - filled with koi ponds, a reflection pond, small waterfalls, and many meditation niches.
8. Manoa Chinese Cemetery
Chinese immigrants have a long history in Hawaii, as shown in this cemetery. Modeled after traditional cemeteries in China, Manoa Valley is the perfect setting for such a place. The plot of land that the cemetery sits on today, is actually the place where King Kamehameha the Great’s summer home once was. If you’re taking our Honolulu’s Backyard Rainforest Tour, we’ll guide you to the cemetery where you can pull over and learn more.
9. National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific
Cumulus Clouds, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Now, you don’t need to go and visit all the cemeteries on Oahu - but this is a truly exquisite memorial. The cemetery was established in 1948, to house all of the American casualties from the Pacific Theater - when the US was fighting Japan during WWII. Later, soldiers from Korea and Vietnam were laid to rest there as well.
You’ll find the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific located in the center of Punchbowl Crater -- a dormant volcano. The most recognizable thing about the cemetery would be the Honolulu Memorial - the focal point of the area. The massive memorial lists the missing from all 3 wars - WWII, Korea, and Vietnam.
So, come to honor the veterans of the Pacific at this one-of-a-kind memorial.
The National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific is a stop on our Honolulu’s Backyard Rainforest Tour!
10. Waimea Bay
Waimea bay is one of the most famous of Hawaii’s beaches. It’s main claim to fame is that it originated the sport of Big Wave Surfing! Today, it’s the home of the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational, among others. The Eddie Invitational is the most famous Big Wave event - named after a surfing icon in Waikiki, who was one of the first lifeguards on the island. He saved over 500 people during his career. The competition only happens when the surf gets to the 20 ft territory!
11. Waikiki Historic Trail
Waikiki has a lot of stories behind it’s luxury hotels and white-sand beaches. Along with our tour, there is the two-mile Waikiki Historic Trail. On it, there are 23 markers - describing the history of certain parts of Waikiki. Click here to learn more about taking the trail. If you want to hit the highlights of the trail, while also seeing much more of Waikiki, take our Heart of Waikiki Walking Tour in order to get a Shaka Guide spin on the area!
RELATED: What to do in Waikiki Beach
12. Pu'u o Mahuka Heiau
Pu'u o Mahuka Heiau Frank Seiplax, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Near Waimea Bay sits the largest Hawaiian temple - or heiau - on the island - Pu’u o Mahuka Heiau. Built around the 1600s, it was run by Kahuna Nui (high priests) for 700 years. This heiau is likely a Luakini heiau meaning it is larger and more complex than most others. They were reserved for certain rituals, and could only be built by ali'i 'ai moku - or high chiefs of an island or kingdom.
Because of its position overlooking Waimea Bay, not only does this site offer insight into the ancient customs of Hawaii, but also stunning views.
china town verygreen, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Found in the heart of Honolulu, Chinatown holds some of the most historic buildings in the city. Although it was established during the 1840s and 50s, most of the buildings are from 1900 and later because a devastating fire that year decimated most of the buildings.
Now, this neighborhood is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Stop by to see some of the historic buildings as well as the new shops, restaurants and galleries.
14. Leonard’s Bakery
Leonards Arnold Gatilao from Oakland, CA, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Leonard - the namesake for Leonard’s Bakery - was born in Hawaii in 1915 to the children of Portuguese immigrants. He moved to Honolulu with his wife and daughter in 1946. After working at a bakery for several years, he established Leonard’s Bakery in 1952. Not long after the bakery opened, Leonard’s mother suggested making malasadas - a Portuguese doughnut. They were a hit, and the rest is history. Today, you can get Leonard’s malasadas in a variety of filling flavors, including original, custard, macadamia nut, and more!
So, come on by to Leonard’s Bakery and get a taste of Hawaii’s past! Visit Leonard’s on Shaka Guide’s Grand Circle Island Tour.
15. Hanauma Bay
Hanauma Bay is one of the most pristine and famous beaches on Oahu. It’s also got some history! In the 1800s, Hawaiian royalty would spend time here fishing and enjoying the beach. The bay was created from a volcanic eruption. You’ll learn all about this, and the native animals and coral that call the bay home during your visit. In Hawaiian, Hanauma means curved bay, and that’s just what you’ll find - a curved bay with an abundance of sea life and history!
To learn more about the bay’s history, click here.
RELATED: Hanauma Bay Travel Guide
16. Duke Kahanamoku Statue
Duke Kahanamoku is a Hawaiian legend. After growing up on the beaches of Waikiki, he broke the world record in the 100-yard freestyle on his first swimming competition. He then went on to win three Olympic gold medals over the coming years.
He is known as the “Father of Modern Surfing,” because he helped spread the sport - and the spirit of Aloha - around the world. He began the “Waikiki Beach Boys,” people who provide rental gear, surf lessons and canoe rides (among other things) on Waikiki beach. In fact, the beach boys still exist today!
So, come check out the statue in his honor. In fact, it’s also a stop on our Heart of Waikiki Walking Tour, where we dive deeper into his story.
17. Honolulu Hale
The Honolulu Hale, built in the late 1920s, is still the center of Honolulu’s government today. It’s built in a 1920s California Spanish style - a popular style at the time.
The name Honolulu Hale actually dates back to 1835 - when King Kamehameha III built the first government building, and called it the Honolulu Hale. However, when the monarchy was overthrown in the 1890s, the building closed. The provisional government then moved to a temporary building in 1905 - and began looking for places to expand in 1920. Thus, today’s Honolulu Hale was born.
18. Royal Hawaiian Hotel
The Royal Hawaiian Hotel, also referred to as the Pink Palace, opened on February 1st, 1927. This ushered in a new age of luxury and tourism in Hawaii - Waikiki, especially. It cost $4 million to build, and employed over 300 people. At its grand opening event, it housed over 1,200 visitors. Through the decades, it has hosted some A-list celebrities: Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, and more. Even some US presidents have visited, like FDR and Lyndon Johnson! Another one of the Royal Hawaiian’s claims to fame is the Mai Tai cocktail. Although its original form was invented by Victor Bergeron (better known as Trader Vic) in the 1940s, it was perfected at the Royal Hawaiian in 1953.
So, come by and check out the Royal Hawaiian. Learn more about it’s story and how it was built on our Heart of Waikiki Walking Tour!
19. Diamond Head
Diamond Head - or L??ahi in Hawaiian - is the massive volcanic crater that is iconic to Honolulu’s skyline. It was named Diamond Head after British sailors thought they found diamonds on its slopes - turns out they were worthless calcite crystals. Nonetheless, the name stuck!
The famous hiking trail up Diamond Head was actually built in 1908 as part of Oahu’s coastal defense system.The US Government bought Diamond Head and some of its surrounding land in 1905. Atop the mountain they built a military bunker. You’ll get the chance to explore the bunker on a hike up the mountain.
From the hike’s summit, you’ll get sweeping views of Honolulu and Oahu’s southern shore. If you want to visit, Diamond Head is a stop on our East Oahu Shoreline Drive Tour!
20. Waik?k? War Memorial Natatorium
Waikiki’s War Memorial was erected in 1927, to honor the lives lost in the Great War - now known as WWI. The Natatorium is a salt-water pool built into the ocean on Waikiki’s San Souci beach. When it was built, it was wildly popular for locals and tourists alike - the pool even hosted dozens of Olympic swimmers, most famously, Duke Kahanamoku. Generations of Hawaiian children learned to swim there.
However, due to neglect, the natatorium has been closed to the public since the 80s. Efforts have been made to restore and reopen the natatorium, but they have never been approved. If you’re walking in Waikiki near Kapiolani Park, take a walk over to look at the War Memorial arch.
There’s much to learn about Oahu… far too much to discover in one visit. But with these sites, you’ll know exactly where to look for some of Oahu’s greatest stories! So, begin your exploration with some of the things mentioned here, and leave Oahu with a greater appreciation for the culture and history of the area.
What would a trip to Hawai’i be without experiencing the state’s special culture? Oahu may be known for it’s bustling capital and award-winning beaches, but the historic sites tell the island’s story.
In Hawaiian the word malama means “to take care” and the word aina means “land.” When you’re in Hawaii, we ask that you practice this and pick up your trash; respect the marine life, plants, and animals; and avoid spots that are unsafe. Hawaii’s natural resources are precious, it’s up to all of us to help preserve these resources for generations by respecting the aina when you visit.
SHAKA GUIDE OAHU TOURS: Visiting Oahu? We have several tours for the island! Download our Circle Island Driving Tour, Legendary North Shore Loop Tour, East Oahu Shoreline Drive Tour, Honolulu's Backyard Rainforest Tour, Heart of Waikiki Walking Tour, and Historic Downtown Honolulu Walking Tour!
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