The Mom's Guide to Honolulu
Paradise and city life converge in Honolulu. The largest city in Hawaii, it remains the most popular destination for families, and for good reason. With the iconic beachfront neighborhood of Waikiki, Honolulu is a prime location for family-oriented accommodations, kid-friendly activities, safe beaches and world-class shopping. It’s also a convenient base camp for experiencing the unique nature, adventure and culture available to explore throughout the island of Oahu.
To sightsee in the urban center and go off the beaten path, a rental car is a must. Even if you’re staying in downtown Honolulu, getting your own wheels will allow you to head to Oahu’s North Shore, visit Disney’s Aulani Resort for a luau or take a hike at Ka’ena Point or Makapu’u Lighthouse. If your kids are a little older, and you’ll only do a few tours beyond the city, a taxi, shuttle bus, trolley or your own two feet will get you to most local attractions. Get your shaka sign ready. Here’s what Honolulu has to offer moms with kids in tow.
Ocean views & water activities
Oceanfront views are a dream come true on any island vacation, and The Residences at Waikiki Beach Tower offers that and more. It has two-bedroom suites with full kitchens. The condominium-style accommodations also host weekly classes for hula and ukulele for the kids and a wine and cheese hour for grown-ups. The lounge area is a delightful space to get acquainted with a mai tai while the kids splash in their own separate pool. The resort is steps away from Kuhio Beach, a kid-friendly beach that offers breathtaking sunsets and free entertainment most nights.
The Ilikai Hotel & Luxury Suites is another option for families with its one- and two-bedroom suites with kitchens and PlayStations for gamers. It’s in close proximity to the Ala Wai Small Boat Harbor and Duke Kahanamoku Lagoon and Beach. The daily torch-lighting ceremony before sunset at the Ilikai and views of Friday’s fireworks over the waters of Waikiki Beach are a special treat.
Take to the ocean from Honolulu and swim with dolphins or sharks, get the kids in on a surf lesson, take a catamaran to pristine snorkeling spots or do a quick submarine or canoe tour. The water activities on Oahu are endless. Just be sure to check hawaiibeachsafety.com/alerts to stay abreast of any beach closures or surf warnings. This site is also a great place to find recommended beaches and whether the one you choose has lifeguards, bathrooms or shower facilities.
Oahu must-see & must-do
Leave the hustle and bustle of Honolulu for immersive experiences that will take you to another world. Purchase the Go Oahu card to streamline activities and save money vs. purchasing tickets for individual attractions. Below are some of the most talked-about family attractions on Oahu. They will leave you with lasting memories and fill you with awe. Admission to these attractions is included in the card, but even if you book these separately, they require careful planning well in advance of your trip.
Kualoa Ranch & Private Nature Reserve offers horseback riding, ATV tours and a jungle expedition tour, but many people go to get a taste of "Jurassic World" on the Hollywood Movie Sites Tour. You’ve seen the breathtaking views of the mountain backdrop of the Ka’a’awa Valley in Lost, Kong: Skull Island, Jumanji and Godzilla, and the tour will delight movie lovers of all ages.
The Polynesian Cultural Center is an educational theme park that takes you into the lives of Pacific Islanders like nowhere else. See a Samoan warrior climb a coconut tree, dance the Maori haka dance, chow down at the luau and witness the exhilarating finale show, Ha: Breath of Life, which showcases over 100 Polynesian performers and features fire knife dances, hula and drumming with animation and special effects through a heartwarming story that celebrates the spirit of aloha. The show follows an afternoon of engaging in the culture, dance and games of the people of Hawai’i, Tonga, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Fiji, Tahiti and Samoa. The living museum is set up as separate villages and offers a glimpse into the traditional way of life on each of these island nations.
The Bishop Museum is a state-sponsored educational center where the history and science of Polynesians can be explored indoors. The Waikiki trolley makes this destination an easy ride from downtown Honolulu, and there are fun family events, film series and cultural experiences available here year-round.
Love sea turtles, seals and dolphins but don’t want an ocean encounter? Visit Sea Life Park where you can touch, feed and interact with these sea animals as well as sharks in a controlled environment. Like SeaWorld in San Diego, there are also live shows that feature the animals at play, including the Hawaiian monk seal, penguins and the rare wholphin. If feeding the fish isn’t adventurous enough for your little one, The Dolphin Aloha encounter allows for tots’ to get up close to dolphins without having to get in the water with them. Feeding the cockatiels and lovebirds in their open-air aviary with ice pop sticks is also an exciting experience for kids and adults alike.
Malls & meals
Mall shopping is pleasurable for moms, but the variety of food options they offer is also a big draw for the whole family. The Lanai @ Ala Moana Center, the world’s largest open-air shopping center, offers variety in the way of poke bowls, Moroccan roasted chicken and loco moco burgers, all feet away from each other, allowing you and the kids to eat whatever suits your picky palates.
At the International Marketplace, The Street Food Hall is a step up from the usual, offering 12 different restaurant concepts that will satisfy the kids’ pizza cravings while giving you access to Ramen noodles, Texas brisket and more. Wash it all down at The Myna Bird Tiki Bar, where passion fruit punch, Jungle Bird and Cure the Cafard challenge the mai tai for tastiest cocktail.
At the Royal Hawaiian Center, you can enjoy their live entertainment Tuesday through Saturday as well as free classes in lei-making, lauhala-weaving, hula and ukulele playing Monday through Saturday. They even have a hula lesson just for kids. The RHC’s Pa'ina Lanai Food Court offers familiar staples like Subway, Panda Express and Mexican food at Maui Tacos. Don’t miss Island Vintage Coffee, where they serve 100 percent Kona coffee along with perfect acai bowls and smoothies for adults and a keiki menu too boot.
Where locals go
As you plan the tourist destinations, remember to check out local libraries and Honolulu’s Department of Parks and Recreation website. There, you will find free events for kids that are low- to no-cost along with opportunities to explore the island like a local.
There are half a dozen botanical gardens on Oahu, but if you want to lose yourself in a guided nature hike, Waimea Valley is the place to go. Learn about the history of this sacred valley and take a short stroller-friendly hike to a 45-foot waterfall that cascades into the 30-foot-deep pond. Swimming is allowed with life vests, and there are showers and changing rooms for families to use.
Get a taste of local vendors at the Kapi'olani Community College Farmers Market and Kaka'ako Farmers Market. Many locals also volunteer to support the sustainability of local farming. Try your hand at ecotourism as you and your little one get in on purposefully muddy fun at Kako’o Oiwi in He’eia. Say hi to the dog and pig that call the farm home, watch the plentiful mimosa pudica plants shy away from the slightest touch, and see flowering breadfruit on the vine before ending the day with a rinse in the nearby river.
Go to Kono’s Restaurant for Pig LauLau and Papa Ole’s Kitchen (on Oahu’s North Shore) for the macadamia nut pancakes or Hawaiian Plate for authentic Hawaiian fare.
To lighten things up, visit Waialua Bakery, which has healthier options, including salads, sandwiches and tropical smoothies.
Try Portuguese "doughnuts" called malasadas, a Hawaiian food favorite. Locals point to Leonard’s as the best on Oahu.
Shave ice bucket list
You can’t leave any of the Hawaiian Islands without enjoying some shave ice. The softest melt-in-your-mouth goodness I’ve ever had is Waiola Shave Ice, where you can get the Obama Special of passion fruit, lemon-lime and cherry. Add lilikoi cream for an extra-sweet boost. Shimazu Store offers up the best presentation and variety of flavors. Both Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha and Monsarrat Shave Ice are options with locally sourced artisanal syrups for those of us who prefer all-natural to high-fructose corn syrup. If you’re on the North Shore and need to cool off, Matsumoto Shave Ice is a fan favorite, but don’t miss nearby Aoki’s Shave Ice, a fourth-generation family-run shop in Haleiwa Town.
Don’t forget your leis
Whether you get it upon arrival or on your way home, don’t miss out on the traditional lei greeting. Arrange a greeting directly by contacting Greeters of Hawaii at 808-836-0161 (don't forget about the significant time difference between the continental 48 and the islands!) or visit one of the 12 lei stands located at the airport entry road before Terminal 1 if you’d like to grab some fresh flower leis before your flight. Aloha!