Free Things to do in Honolulu, Oahu

While it’s island paradise location in the middle of the Pacific means getting to Hawaii isn’t always cheap, a surprising amount of free activities are on offer which may balance the thrifty traveller’s budget! From hanging out on the beach with turtles, exploring local arts, and hula shows to firework displays and festivals, there really is something for everyone, and I’m just talking about the free things to do in Honolulu.

Don’t let the fact that Honolulu is Hawaii’s largest city put you off visiting. While there are all the usual attractions of a city, there is also so much to do that doesn’t cost a thing. Here are some of the best free things to do in Honolulu.

Duke Kahanamoku statue, Waikiki, Hawaii

What do you think of when you imagine Hawaii? Surfing, right? Well, apparently, it was a Waikiki local named Duke Kahanamoku that introduced the world to the glory of wave riding, Dude. A statue of him stands at Waikiki Beach (pictured above), and is often decorated with colourful leis.

Torch lighting ceremony and free hula show

Keen to master your hula moves? For a flavour of Hawaii’s Polynesian culture, make sure you catch one of the regular free shows that take place by the Duke Kahanamoku statue at Prince Kuhio Beach. Actors and dancers wearing traditional costumes entertain the crowd. The show starts with the blowing of a trumpet-like fanfare on a conch shell, nearby torches are lit and then songs are sung and anecdotes shared, making it a fun way to learn a bit about Hawaii’s history. And don’t forget the hula! Shows start at 18:30 on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays.

See turtles in Hawaii

Large turtles come ashore on beaches on the north shore of Oahu to rest, and they are often chilling on the sand at the end of the day, making sunset a great time to see if they’re there. Laniakea Beach is one of their favourites but they could pop up anywhere. Local wildlife volunteers mark out an area around the turtles so nobody approaches too closely, and display signs identifying the turtles present. The volunteers are also on hand to answer any questions visitors might have.

Green Turtles on the beach at sunset, Oahu, Hawaii, USA

Hit the beaches of Oahu

Turtles aside, Oahu boasts magnificent beaches to suit every beach-goer. Waimea Beach in the north shelves fairly steeply, so is great for swimming and snorkelling. Waikiki Beach is a busy place offering great people watching. There is also some nice reef not far off the beach, and some massive turtles. Meanwhile Lanikai Beach on the east coast is a shallow beach with some nice reef to snorkel around. It often enjoys a gentle breeze so watch out for sunburn.

Lanikai Beach, Oahu, Hawaii, USA

Meet the fishies at Hanauma Bay

Hanauma Bay is the local favourite for snorkelling with plenty of reef just a few steps from the beach. The tropical fish will delight as you float on the surface of the water admiring their world. Be careful not to touch the reef though, and avoid being knocked against it by waves where possible, as it is very easy to damage and will almost certainly hurt you.

Visit the Hawaii State Art Museum

Another way to learn about the culture and identity of Oahu’s people is to spend a little time in the Hawaii State Art Museum admiring the creative output of Hawaiian artists, and others. The museum’s permanent display of Hawaiian art reflects Hawaii’s diverse population and beliefs.

Step into history at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel

If you’re keen to imagine how it felt to visit Honolulu in the early days, take a stroll through the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. The infamous pink hotel has become a local landmark. Built in 1927, the hotel is built in pink Spanish / Moorish style. US President Franklin D Roosevelt once stayed in the hotel and it also provided a rest and recovery location for US military personnel during World War II. Free tours are offered at 2pm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Royal Hawaiian Hotel, Waikiki, Oahu, Hawaii, USA

Learn history from the first lady of Waikiki

Opened in 1901, grand old Moana Surfrider (a Westin resort), also known as ‘The first lady of Waikiki’ because it was the first hotel to grace the shore of Waikiki Beach, has a small but interesting display that is free for visitors to enjoy. The exhibit features historic photos and collectibles detailing the birth of surfing in Waikiki and artefacts from the area’s heyday as an early tourist resort.

Pearl Harbor and USS Arizona Memorial

As the site of the shocking international act of aggression that cost so many lives and propelled America into World War II, it is no surprise that many people visit Honolulu to get a better understanding of what happened here and to pay their respects to those that died here.

It is free to visit the centre which has two small museum-style exhibitions explaining the history, a small theatre that plays a film about Pearl Harbor, and to also take a boat ride over to the USS Arizona Memorial, which is a memorial set up above the wreck of the USS Arizona (one of the warships sunk in 1941). Entry tickets are free, but a limited number are available each day. It is possible to book online (which costs $1) to ensure you can visit on the day you choose, and also avoid having to queue. It is also worth visiting during the morning as Honolulu is a windy place and the boat to the memorial is cancelled when the wind gets too strong.

Other sections of the Pearl Harbor experience include the USS Bowfin (a submarine open for visitors to explore), Pacific Aviation Museum, Battleship Missouri Memorial, and the USS Oklahoma Memorial. Entry fees apply to these extra sections, and some require a quick trip on a shuttle bus.

USS Bowfin in Pearl Harbour, Oahu, Hawaii, USA

Picnic at Hale’iwa Farmers’ Market

The Hale’iwa Farmers’ Market is one of the largest in the area. Nestled in the Waimea valley, the lush vegetation and pretty gardens are a lovely place to spend a few hours. You could take your own picnic, but for a few dollars you could also try local specialties such as poke and handmade ice cream sandwiches. Keep an eye out for opportunistic peacocks and savage mosquitoes!

Picnic at Hale’iwa Farmer’s Market, Waimea, Oahu, Hawaii, USA

Friday night fireworks

To start your weekend with a bang, head to Waikiki to see the Hilton hotel’s weekly firework display get underway around 19:45 on Fridays. The show lasts 5 – 10 minutes and can be seen across town but the best views are from the beach between the Hilton and the Outrigger Reef on the Beach.

Nuuanu Pali lookout

For a magnificent panoramic view of the windward side of Oahu, follow the Pali Highway (61) through the centre of the island and keep an eye out for the turn off. Once the site of the bloodiest battle of Hawaii’s history, in which Duke Kamehameha I conquered Oahu in 1795, fortunately the lookout is now a far more peaceful place, offering a window overlooking the north eastern coast of the island and out across the Pacific. Hold onto your hat though, it can get windy!

Climb the Aloha Tower

For views across downtown and Honolulu Harbour visit the Aloha Tower. At the base of the tower some panels that have seen better days explain the history of the area and the tower. Catch the teeny tiny lift to the top of the tower for great views.

Listen to the Royal Hawaiian band

Fancy some music fit for a king? Take in a musical treat in beautiful surroundings at the bandstand in the gardens of Iolani Palace, one-time home to the Hawaiian royal family, where the Royal Hawaiian Band performs music at 12pm on Fridays. The band is the oldest band in the US, has entertained Hawaii since 1836, and was involved in developing the Hawaiian national anthem.

Iolani Palace Bandstand, Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaii, USA

Festivals and events

Honolulu hosts many events throughout the year, but for something uniquely Hawaiian, try to time your visit to coincide with the Honolulu Festival (March), King Kamehameha Celebration (June), or Aloha Festival (September), when colourful parades take place in downtown Honolulu and Waikiki.

Christmas Lights

If you’re in Honolulu in December don’t be surprised if you spot Father Christmas dipping his tired feet in a fountain, elves making merry, star-topped Christmas trees lining the streets and huge Christmas displays. Honolulu doesn’t do things by halves, and during December the Christmas lights stretching from downtown to Waikiki are amazing.

Hiking in Hawaii

It wouldn’t be paradise without paths through the tropical jungle, would it? Oahu is a hiker’s paradise. The island has lots of walking trails, of which Aihulama, Panoa Flats, and Judd Trail loop are just a few. Manoa Falls trail is said to be one of US President Obama’s favourites. Take water and a hat and enjoy the magnificent views over beautiful Oahu.

Do you have any tips on free things to do on Oahu? If so, feel free to share them in the comments below!

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