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10 Ways to Experience Hawaiian Culture in Honolulu

From hula lessons to hi’uwai ceremonies, here’s how to make the most of Honolulu’s culture.

Dancers perform at a Hawaiian luau
Hi, I'm Karen!

Karen is a Scottish freelance travel and culture writer based in the US. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, National Geographic, BBC, and Condé Nast Traveler.

For visitors to Honolulu it can be easy to get distracted by the allure of sun, sand, and sprawling resorts. But there’s more to this city than sitting on the beach or sipping cocktails at the hotel bar. In fact, authentic cultural experiences are widely available in Honolulu so make time for one on your next trip—here are our suggestions.

1. Discover the islands’ royal heritage

For the poignant history of the last monarch.

Give yourself a fascinating history lesson with a visit to Iolani Palace, the only official royal residence in the United States. Here, you can opt for a docent-led or self-guided tour to view the rooms and collection of artifacts. Plus, learn about the history of Hawaii’s monarchy including the story of Queen Lili‘uokalani—the last Hawaiian monarch—who, after being forced to abdicate in 1895, was imprisoned within the palace’s walls.

2. Play the ukelele

And learn to pluck like a pro.

A visit to Honolulu offers plenty of opportunities to learn to play Hawaii’s most iconic instrument, the ukelele. The Royal Hawaiian Center typically offers free ukulele lessons on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, while the Ukelele Puapua on the Waikiki Beach Walk often offers free beginners’ lessons each afternoon. Some hotels also provide classes—ask at the front desk.

A performer plays the ukelele during a Luau in Hawaii.
Learn how to play the ukelele while in Honolulu.Foto: Mike Kane / Viator

3. Explore the Bishop Museum

The history of Hawaii and the Pacific.

The expansive Bishop Museum offers the chance to delve into the rich history of the ancient Hawaiians. The museum is home to a large collection of Polynesian artifacts along with numerous natural history specimens. If you’d like to learn more about the Hawaiian monarchy, you can see heirlooms such as the 18th-century ula (royal cape) worn by King Kalani’opu’u, made with more than four million red and yellow bird feathers.

4. Take a surfing lesson

Grasp the basics or hone your skills.

Born in Hawaii, surfing is deeply bound to Hawaiian culture to this day and there’s possibly no better place in the world to learn how to surf. So, make the time for a class while in Honolulu. Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned surfer, you’ll find plenty of options for both private or group lessons.

A man surfs on the beach in Honolulu.
There are few better places to learn how to surf than in Hawaii.Foto: Mike Kane / Viator

5. Experience a hi’uwai ceremony

A spiritual cleansing.

Get up before dawn to experience a hi’uwai, a traditional Hawaiian cleansing experience. Early in the morning, participants gather on the beach and, as the sun appears on the horizon, are encouraged to release their burdens and worries as they walk into the water, before focusing on their intentions as they float in the sea and turn east toward a new day. Most Waikiki resorts that offer cultural programming can arrange this for guests.

6. Take a hula lesson

A dance with a deeper meaning.

Though it’s recognizable the world over, hula is much more than just a dance. It is deeply intertwined with Hawaiian cultural identity and part of a practice of storytelling that connects dancers to their ancestral knowledge. While serious study of hula demands commitment, casual lessons offered by Honolulu resorts can teach you basic basic hand gestures, footwork, and body movements.

A performer dances in Honolulu.
Get to grips with the basic hula steps while in Honolulu.Foto: Jose Gil / Shutterstock

7. Visit Nā Mea Hawaiʻi

A center for Hawaiian culture.

In Honolulu’s Kaka'ako arts district, Nā Mea Hawaiʻi is a bookstore, art gallery, and community center that promotes Hawaiian culture and crafts through a packed program of classes and events. Here, you can take lessons in everything from the Hawaiian language to lauhala weaving, as well as make Ni'ihau shell jewelry.

8. Attend a luau

A colorful, interactive cultural experience.

It may be the quintessential Hawaiian tourist activity but attending a luau still offers a glimpse into an important part of Hawaiian life and culture. Visitors are welcome to attend luaus across Oahu; however, one of the best is the Diamond Head Luau at the Waikiki Aquarium. There, enjoy a buffet dinner of locally sourced Hawaiian specialities, live entertainment—including a knife performer—and hands-on cultural activities such as lei making, hula lessons, coconut headband weaving, and ukulele lessons.

A man performs with fire during a luau in Honolulu.
Enjoy the atmosphere at a lively luau in Honolulu.Foto: Mike Kane / Viator

9. Get a massage

Soothing, traditional style.

Perhaps the most pleasurable and relaxing way to soak up traditional Hawaiian culture is by getting a lomilomi massage. Having originated in ancient Polynesia, settlers brought the technique—which involves the masseuse rolling their forearms over the body—to the Hawaiian Islands where it continues to be practiced today. Spas and resorts around Honolulu offer the service, as do wellness centers such as the Still & Moving Center.

10. Learn about the Hokule’a

Feel the spirit of exploration.

In the 1970s, hundreds of years after the last of its kind had been seen, the double-hulled Hokule’a canoe was built using traditional methods. The vessel then set out on the first traditional open-ocean voyage to Tahiti in 600 years. Today, when not navigating the open seas using traditional Polynesian navigation, the Hokule'a is permanently docked at the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s headquarters on Sand Island in Honolulu where occasional dockside canoe tours are offered.

A boat with tourist sits off the coast of Hawaii.
The Hokule'a docked off the coast of Hawaii.Foto: Phillip B. Espinasse / Shutterstock

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