There are many who would say that travelling to Hawaii alone, and also being on a budget in Hawaii, is just not possible. But, pals. I’m here to prove them wrong. There are SO MANY free things to do in Honolulu, if you just know where to look.
I arrived in Honolulu’s airport on the island of O’ahu after a very short flight from the neighbouring island of Kauai, and jumped straight into a shuttle to take me to my hostel in Waikiki beach. I’ll be honest, as the van crawled at snails pace with the rest of the traffic, horns honking like there was no tomorrow, I began to feel mildly shellshocked.
Each Hawaiian island is hugely different to the next, and Kauai- the tranquil, so-called Garden Island- couldn’t be more different from the cosmopolitan capital city that I now found myself in. The streets were wide and consistently grid-locked, and tower blocks twinkled in the sunshine while tourists and locals alike bustled around on the streets. It was brilliant, but also all a bit of a sensory overload after the peaceful wilderness of Kauai.
I began to wonder if I’d made the right decision in coming to Honolulu at all.
Related: Solo Travel in Kauai, HI
But, I’ll tell you something, pals. As I discovered during my stay, there are so many things to see in Honolulu that once I re-adjusted to city life it was super easy to fill my days with all manner of awesome activities. With only three days of my solo trip to Hawaii in the Hawaiian capital, I’m sure there is plenty that I missed out on. But here for your reading pleasure is my introduction to Honolulu on a budget.
Visit Waikiki Beach
It goes without saying that while staying in Waikiki you should spend some time at the beach- this place is an absolute institution, and the most obvious choice when you’re looking for free things to do in Honolulu.
In the early 20th Century Duke Kahanamoku became the world’s most famous surfer, and he influenced many people to take up surfing and subsequently make a visit to Waikiki Beach, which had been a hotspot for the Hawaiian royal family for years before that. Hotels and high-rises sprang up all along the shore, and white sand was imported from California to spruce the look of the beach up a bit.
This is still a surfers paradise, and it’s possible to hire a surfboard and get some surfing lessons even if you’re a complete novice. Personally after my brief dalliance with surfing in the Canary Islands, in which I spent more time yelling at the ocean in frustration than I’ve ever spent yelling at anything or anyone, I opted out of any water sports and took things at a more relaxed pace instead.
The far end of the beach towards Diamond Head is a lot quieter than the more built-up area around the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, and turtles can often be spotted in the sea here. I felt fine asking a family nearby to watch my things while I went swimming, although that’s just my own personal experience and it’s obviously not something that everyone would be comfortable with. And this is a beaut place to catch the sunset after a long day in the city- even though the pace is a lot faster than the other Hawaiian Islands, the atmosphere at sunset is still laid back and calm.
Catch a free hula show
Talking of sunset on the beach, every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday evening there is a torch-lighting ceremony and hula dancing, right by the Duke Kahanamoku statue on the beach. The show is completely free of charge, but whether you’re on a budget in Honolulu or not, it’s 100% worth checking out.
The event begins with a lad blowing a conch shell- BRILLIANT– before lighting the torches along the beach. And then a local hula troop performs their traditional dances; and when I say local I mean the troop consists of people of all ages, sometimes whole families, and with all kinds of ‘day jobs.’
Even a doctor and his two children were involved.
Hula dancing was developed by the Polynesian settlers who arrived on the Hawaiian Islands all those hundreds and hundreds of years ago. Each dance tells a story, with specific hand gestures meaning specific words, and musical instruments, chanting, and singing accompanies the whole mesmerising spectacle. Watching the show as the sun set over Waikiki was a beautiful insight into Hawaiian culture, and I bloody loved the whole experience.
In 1896 after the USA helped overthrow the monarchy, hula dancing was banned and even the Hawaiian language began to disappear. So it’s brilliant to see how the Hawaiians have managed to keep their culture and heritage alive to this day; it’s clearly something that they’re very proud of. And so they should be!!
Visit the ‘Iolani Palace
Here’s a crazy gem of information for you: Hawaii is the only US State to have an actual royal palace. Because during the 19th century, when it was still an independent nation, Hawaii had an actual royal family. The USA is full of surprises I tell you.
As quite the history geek, I decided to head over to ‘Iolani Palace by bus to see it with my own eyes, and learn more about the intriguing history of this state and how it came to be part of the USA. The building itself wouldn’t look out of place somewhere in Europe, and the the story of the royal family and its demise is quite the sad one. Not only is the palace a stunning building both outside and in, I really learnt so much from my visit that it was well worth the entrance fee; in fact it was so awesome that this place deserves its own post ya know!?
Entry to the Palace is only at timed intervals so there are never too many people inside at once; I paid $20 for a self-guided audio tour although you can also pay $27 for a tour with an actual human being as a guide. If you so desire. This was the only activity I did which cost any money, and although I was on a budget in Honolulu it was definitely worth every penny.
Go shopping on the main strip
(Or alternatively, window shopping if you’re being very strict about the Honolulu on a budget thing.)
Kalakaua Avenue is the name of the main strip through Waikiki, and it’s filled with glossy stores, boutiques, bars and restaurants…plus a few palm trees for good measure. So if you fancy a shopping afternoon then it goes without saying that this is the place to head to.
The Ala Moana Center is an outdoor shopping mall right on the strip which has a beautiful garden right in the middle. I feel a bit strange claiming that the garden of a shopping mall is a must-visit, but it’s true folks. There are also regular events put on here promoting Hawaii’s culture, from ukulele playing to hula shows.
And all for the bargain price of zero dollars.
Something that came as a bit of a surprise to me is the fact that so many of the street signs and menus here are written in both English and Japanese, and there are also lots of Japanese malls and food halls all over the place. During the 19th and 20th centuries huge numbers of Japanese immigrants came to Hawaii, and nowadays about 16% of Hawaii’s total population are of Japanese heritage. This is also a massive destination for Japanese holiday-makers, with flight times from Tokyo to Hawaii being equal to those between LA and Hawaii. In fact, the tectonic plate which Hawaii sits on is moving closer and closer to Japan by a few centimetres each year, so maybe the flight times will get even shorter as the distance does too?
Eat cute pastries
Because wherever you are in the world, if there are cute pastries available, you should obviously partake in some pastry-sampling activities.
As I was on a budget, and by myself, I didn’t do a whole load of eating out while I was in Honolulu. But I’ll tell you this for free- when I walked past the Kulu Kulu Bakery and discovered the array of colourful looking desserts underneath the glass counter, I naturally couldn’t resist. As I’m a true fan of anything mildly or majorly gimmicky (soz but it’s true), I chose some kind of choux pastry bun which doubled as a green turtle.
And I urge everyone who ever goes to Honolulu to do the same.
Appreciate the retro architecture
My favourite of all the buildings in Honolulu was without a doubt the Royal Hawaiian Hotel– this bright pink luxury hotel has been an institution in Waikiki for around ninety years, although during World War II it was used as a rehabilitation centre for soldiers. If only I’d done my research better I would have realised that it’s possible to take a historical tour of the hotel; I was desperate to see inside this bad boy, but had to make do with a mere stride-by outside, catching a glimpse of a wedding in the hotel grounds.
Elsewhere in Waikiki and the rest of Honolulu, there are plenty of architectural gems galore; colourful tower blocks nestled amongst the palm trees, none of which would look out of place in a Mad Men special.
Hike up Diamond Head
Diamond Head is the name of the old volcano which sits at the far end of Waikiki Beach, just outside of the city. Don’t worry though pals, there’s not a smidgen of volcanic activity to be felt here anymore. The massive crater in the middle is filled with long grass and, I’ll be honest, a car park.
I was particularly ambitious and decided to walk all the way from my hostel to the highest point on the rim of the crater of Diamond Head. And back again.
It turns out that’s a pretty long way, particularly in sweltering heat. But I’m a firm believer that you see a lot more on foot than in a vehicle and I had the time, so I’m glad I did it. On my entire solo trip to Hawaii, this was one of the best things I did.
The pathway up Diamond Head is clearly marked out and although parts are very steep (mainly the parts involving actual staircases built into the hillside), the view of the Pacific Ocean and the city of Honolulu are breathtakingly beautiful. Still, it’s not for everyone. I passed a family on my way back down who had stopped due to their son of about seven years old having a full-scale red-faced and very tearful meltdown a mere fifteen minutes (approximately) into the trek.
‘This isn’t FUN! Why are you making us do this?? This is the worst day of my life!!’
All I’m saying is, I know many adults who would have the exact same reaction at being forced to spend hours climbing the edge of a volcano in the extremely hot midday sun, so I did feel pretty sorry for the boy.
Like many uphill hikes to spectacular viewpoints these days, trekking up Diamond Head has become one of the ‘must-dos’ for visitors to Honolulu, so it’s highly likely that you’ll meet a fair few people on the way up and down. Some parts of the trail are marked with signs asking people not to go any further; naturally those are the parts that people decide is the perfect spot for taking photos. Please, don’t be one of those people, pals.
Once I reached the top, I realised I didn’t have any photos of myself on Oahu, so after a friendly looking lass asked if I could take her picture I asked if she would take one for me. She did indeed take one, but alas, there was only a third of my face in the frame. I really hope she just couldn’t see the camera screen properly and didn’t do it out of spite, but in this day and age who knows!?
Entry to Diamond Head is with cash only, and costs $1 on foot or $5 by car.
Where to stay on a budget in Honolulu
Honolulu is jam-packed with places to stay for all different budgets, and the best area to stay in is Waikiki Beach, right in the centre of everything. For solo travellers in Waikiki, a hostel is a perfect option- especially if you’re planning on getting out and about as much as possible. I stayed in an all-female dorm at the Seaside Hawaiian hostel which is located a few blocks back from the beach, for around $30 a night including breakfast. It was basic, but as I was by myself and literally just in need of a place to sleep, this was perfect.
Live Your Pineapple Dreams
Maybe a strange one to finish with, but as a long-term pineapple obsessive I feel it’s only right to mention the pineapples of Oahu.
What a glorious fruit.
Oahu is in actual fact the only Hawaiian island which still produces pineapple on a large scale, and although it’s fully possible to visit the Dole Plantation in the North of the island, there are many other awesome pineapple opportunities waiting around every corner my friends! I got mildly obsessed with the pineapple macadamia cookies from the Honolulu Shortbread Company; they’re truly brilliant. I also loved quenching my thirst with a freshly squeezed pineapple juice after a long day in the sunshine.
But the crowning glory of all pineapple experiences?
Someone in my hostel told me an absolute golden nugget of information so naturally I had to see for myself if it was really true. Within twenty minutes of the information reaching my ears I found myself leaving McDonald’s clutching a paper bag containing a double cheeseburger meal…
…WITH FREE PINEAPPLE ON THE SIDE.
Because at McDonald’s in Honolulu, they dish out free pineapple with every single meal.
They say the best things in life are free and I have to agree on that one, pals.
I found Honolulu incredibly easy to explore as a solo traveller, and in three days I managed to pack in as much as I possibly could- for hardly any money at all. There is so much history and beauty to discover here, and I basically just skimmed the surface. Pearl Harbour and Chinatown are two other beauts that I’d like to see, as well as the rest of the island of Oahu. If I did the trip again, I’d definitely go to Honolulu first and then into the countryside of Kauai to chill out afterwards, but I’m still really glad I saw such two contrasting sides of the state of Hawaii.
- Bus fare in Honolulu is $2.75 for a single ride, or $5 for a daily ticket, both of which are purchasable on the bus.
- Honolulu is widely considered to be one of the safest cities in the USA, and I never felt unsafe walking around alone at any time of day or night. Having said that, my hostel was in a very central location and I would still take all the usual precautions like sticking to busy, well-lit streets etc.
- Buses do run back and forth to the airport, although I shared an Uber with another girl from the hostel as we both had to be at the airport so early in the morning.
- Hawaiian tap water tastes da bomb! Other states in the USA can have a strong chlorinated taste which is frankly unpleasant- but here it is 100% au naturel.
- Traffic seems to be consistently a major problem in the city, so bear that in mind if you’re trying to get somewhere in a hurry.
- Don’t forget your suncream, but bear in mind that only reef-safe sunscreens are allowed in Hawaii because chemicals in normal sunscreens are so damaging to the environment. There’s a list of reef-safe options here.