Pearl Harbor tips, beach recommendations, where to shop, and where to stay
Visiting the Hawaiian Islands with kids brings to mind sand castles and surf, but when traveling with—ahem—discerning teens and tweens, of all the destinations, Waikiki might be the top. The hustle and bustle of activity all within a short walk and easily accessible beaches are a formula for teenage dreams. If you’ve skipped Waikiki in the past in favor of less urban areas, we hear you, but just remember: with teenagers, tranquility comes in many forms. Read on for the top reasons to concentrate your efforts on this Honolulu hub.
1. Give Back
The Mālama Hawaiʻi program is an initiative that encourages visitors to give back to the community while vacationing in Hawaiʻi. It offers a wide range of interesting opportunities, all of which help visitors understand the history and culture of Hawaiʻi. Learn about native plants, clean up beaches, and help restore historical monuments. As an added bonus, many of the local businesses participate in this program, including many local hotels. Teens and tweens are the perfect age to take part and it will give them a deeper understanding of the unique landscape—geographic, social, and historic—of Hawai’i.
2. The Location
There are hundreds of hotels in Waikiki, and all have pros, cons, and price differences. Our #1 advice for visiting Waikīkī with teens? Stay as close to the beach as possible. This gives teenagers more freedom without the stress of wondering how to track them down or meet up.
We stayed at the Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort & Spa immediately across from the main beach at Waikiki and, while it wasn’t the quietest location, it was so worth it. Once we were oriented to our surroundings it became less of a big deal to let the girls—ages 15 and 17—take beach chairs down on their own or walk to get coffee or snacks, because they were quite literally going across the street. Our hotel also had a fantastic cultural center where knowledgeable locals give dance, ukulele, and art lessons. We wove traditional necklaces while learning about the history of strong women rulers in Hawai’ian culture, something the girls still talk about! Out front nearly every night were vendors selling fresh fruit and local delicacies.
Hot tip: Many of the hotels offer either beach chairs on the sand or allow guests to borrow them from the hotel. This can save money over renting beach chairs and umbrellas. Additionally, we found that it can be less expensive to buy a snorkel mask at a local store vs. renting one. Ditto for boogie boards and sand toys. Before you buy anything, keep an eye out. Our hotel had a nice habit of departing guests leaving things with a “free” sign near the elevators on our floor. We managed to score an entire boogie board, which we offered to another family for free before we left as well.
3. Walkability Score: 100
There’s no shortage of things to do right in Waikiki, and the following spots are all within a 10 to 15-minute walk from Waikiki Beach. If Waikiki Beach is too crowded, head down toward Kūhiō Beach, which can be less crowded with calmer water. Just past the break wall, the Queen’s Beach is an idyllic cove for kids to snorkel and bob around. Queen’s Beach is right next to Kapiolani Park Beach and Kapiolani Park, where you’ll find the Honolulu Zoo. The zoo is on the smaller side as zoos go, so a two-hour visit is plenty of time to enjoy the animals and gorgeous botanical gardens throughout. There’s plenty of shade in the zoo, too. Along the water in Kapiolani Park, you’ll also find the Waikiki Aquarium, another great spot to get out of the sun and discover more than 3000+ Hawaiian and tropical animals.
Kapiolani Park is also home to the Tom Moffatt Waikīkī Shell, an outdoor amphitheater with frequent live performances, ranging from musicals to comedians to traditional dance. The Shell is operated by the Blaisdell Center. Click here for the calendar.
Hot Tip: The Duke Kahanamoku Statue, makes a great meeting spot if your party separates. It’s easy to find and super cool to pay homage to the father of modern surfing!
4. Take a Breathtaking Hike Nearby
When you want a nature hit but aren’t ready to head out of town too far, plan a visit to Diamond Head. Hiking Diamond Head is a ritual for many visitors to this area, but as of May 2022, non-residents who wish to hike the trail and visit the monument must register in advance. It’s well worth the trek there, and to the top, to see some of the most stunning views on the islands. You can take the green line of the trolley out there if you don’t have a car.
5. Hear the Queen’s Story
Yes, Waikiki has it all, and one of those “alls” is that it is a short trolley ride from downtown Honolulu where you will find Iolani Palace. There may be no better place to learn about the Hawaiian Kingdom and to help understand the complex history of colonialism in Hawai’i, than Iolani Palace. This former home of Hawai’i’s reigning monarchs, as their website says, “The Palace complex contains beautiful memories of grand balls and hula performances, as well as painful ones of Liliuokalani’s overthrow and imprisonment.” Walk these very halls and see displays of decorative arts, furniture, military accessories, and more as you discover the significant history of the Hawaiian monarchy. This includes what is known as the Imprisonment Room. In 1895, after an attempt to restore Queen Liliuokalani’s power, she was arrested, forced to abdicate the throne, held for trial, convicted, and imprisoned in this room for eight months.
Hot Tip: Kapu means “forbidden,” or “off-limits,” but also means “sacred” or “consecrated.” If you see a sign marking a place as Kapu, respect this and do not enter.
6. Celebrate Hawaiian Culture
The Bishop Museum is an unrivaled celebration of the history, culture, and environment of Hawai’i and the Pacific and is the state of Hawai’i’s largest museum. Founded in 1889, the Polynesian and Hawaiian Halls built by Charles Reed Bishop in honor of his wife, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop (a descendent of the royal Kamehameha family) is done in the typical architectural style of the time. At first glance, the building looks like a classic brownstone, but a closer peek will show that the entire building is constructed of lava stone, an extraordinarily unique piece of world architecture. The interior is an exquisite Victorian-era style collection, with corridors and cabinets containing royal family heirlooms, scientific specimens, taxidermy, and millions of objects, documents, and photographs about Hawai‘i and other Pacific island cultures. There is also a planetarium on site as well as a gift shop featuring local artists. Though the Bishop Museum is a little too far from Waikiki to walk, there are several easy-access buses a day that take you right from the heart of Waikiki to its doors or use the purple line of the trolley.
7. Get a Profound History Lesson
Yes, you could spend all day every day at the beach but if you want to venture out of Waikiki for the day, do not miss taking your kids to Pearl Harbor. It is a powerful place, both a somber graveyard of lost soldiers and an important lesson in World War II history. A visit to the included museum displays is critical for understanding the dangerous racism toward Hawaiians of Japanese descent during this time. Before you make the drive out to Pearl Harbor, you should know that visiting the USS Arizona requires advance reservations. The memorial sees thousands of visitors a day, so here is how to get tickets:
- Reservations are released daily at 3 p.m. HST in two windows: 24 hours and 8 weeks in advance. For example, on January 1 tickets were released for Jan. 2 and Feb. 26.
- Tickets are non-transferable and non-refundable.
- Visit this page on Recreation.gov. You will need to create an account or log in if you already have one.
- Everyone needs a ticket, even babies, but tickets are free. The reservation system keeps a $1 service fee.
We had luck finding our tickets with the 24-hour window but we did not know about the advance reservation system until we were standing at the visitor’s center. We kept ourselves busy with some of the other on-site museums and memorials but ended up having to go back out to Pearl Harbor the next day to see the USS Arizona. Easily avoided if you follow the steps above either once you know your date or once you arrive in Honolulu.
8. Attend a Luau
If you want to attend a Hawaiian luau there are a number of options in the Waikiki area but be sure to book in advance. Remember, there really is no “slow season” in Waikiki. Our favorite in the heart of Waikiki, though it’s a splurge, is the Aha’Aina Luau at the Royal Hawaiian. It runs every Monday and Thursday night at 5 p.m. and food is included. The Hilton offers a Starlight Luau every Sunday to Thursday at 5 p.m.
9. Shop Til You Drop
With two teenagers, the proximity of more than one open-air mall was a big bonus. We spent more than one evening wandering around the nearby International Marketplace. You’ll find similar box stores to other malls as well as specialty shops, treats, and more, often along with live music or dancing. We also cruised around the Royal Hawaiian Center, an upscale mall worth a visit because there are frequently live performances of traditional Hawaiian music and dance.
10. Eat Your Fill
The Waikiki area has every kind of food imaginable. From traditional local fish dishes to chain restaurants, so no matter what your teen likes to eat there will be something to suit their palette and yours. Standouts for us included: Lulu’s Waikiki near the Honolulu Zoo, Tiki’s Grill where parents can drink their week’s worth of cocktails in one, souvenir volcano, and Duke’s. Don’t miss a chance to enjoy The Beach Bar at the Moana Surfrider. Stop by the Royal Hawaiian Bakery in the lobby of the famous pink palace and be sure to walk around and check out the impressive array of memorabilia in the lobby.