If you’ve ever thought about visiting Hawaii, you probably know it’s expensive. Getting there takes a long flight, and when you arrive the hotels and restaurants are not cheap. But there is hope for the budget traveler! If you visit Hawaii’s most popular destination of Honolulu, there are lots of activities that won’t cost you much. Even better, many of these options will help you see a more local side of the city.
Getting Around Honolulu
Before we start the list, let’s talk about logistics. As of late 2021, Hawaii is experiencing a rental car shortage that has prices soaring. RIP wallet! While a rental car is the most convenient option, you can save by using a bit of public transportation, ride sharing, and walking.
Many of the activities can be reached using Oahu’s public bus system called The Bus. It’s $2.75/ride, cash only. If you’re using the system extensively, you can set up a Holo Card and load it with day passes. I use Google Maps to help navigate the bus system.
There’s also a handy tourist bus called the Waikiki Trolley (see below).
Lyft and Uber are both widely available. Even if you take a few rides a day, it might cost less than renting a car. Alright, on to the activities!
- Go to the beach
All the beaches in Hawaii are free and open to the public. The beautiful beaches and the ocean are there for you to enjoy, as long as you can get to them without trespassing. Waikiki is famous for its long series of beaches that are perfect for swimming. If you need to step away from the epicenter of tourism, head to Ala Moana Beach Park near downtown or Kapiolani Park south of Waikiki.
- Hike Diamond Head (Leʻahi)
The volcanic crater at the end of Waikiki is a classic hike that gets you ultra-panoramic views of the coast. It’s a steep 1.8 miles out-and-back to the summit of Diamond Head, also known as Leʻahi in Hawaiian. Along the way you’ll climb through old military fortifications and get up close to the volcanic terrain. From the top, you can appreciate that this cone of compressed ash is a tiny part of the island’s giant (and extinct) volcanoes.
$5 for entry. $10 to park a car, or take the #2 bus from Waikiki. Start early to avoid the crowds and the heat!
- Foster Botanical Garden
Stepping inside Foster Botanical Garden feels a world away from urban Honolulu. Located near Chinatown, the garden has lovely flowers and a tremendous collection of trees. Some of the plantings date back to the 19th century, when the garden was privately owned. Make sure to stop by the conservatory to see their orchid collection. There are guided tours daily, or grab a map for your self-guided tour. Admission is $5.
- Sample the food in Chinatown
Chinatown’s markets are full of delicious treats from around the Pacific rim. Head to the food court at Maunakea Marketplace for a sampling of everything from Chinese pork buns to Vietnamese sandwiches. You’ll be hard pressed to find a cheaper lunch in town. Venture further inside and there are market stalls with every kind of seafood and fresh produce. Don’t forget to grab a bubble tea for the road!
- Waikiki Trolley
The Waikiki Trolley is a “hop on hop off” tourist bus that’s equal parts fun activity and useful local transportation. There are three routes that leave from central Waikiki. The Red Line makes a loop through downtown Honolulu and Chinatown. It’s a great way to do some drive-by sightseeing with a local tour guide, and the trolley gets you into town faster than the public bus. The Blue Line runs south past Diamond Head, then along the picturesque eastern shore to Sea Life Park. The Pink Line runs conveniently up and down Waikiki and over to Ala Moana Shopping Center.
The trolley costs $25 for a single line day pass, but a multi-day pass cuts the cost way down ($16/day for a 4-day pass or $11/day for a 7-day pass). The Pink Line is only $5/day. You can use the trolley as transportation to many other activities, which makes it a great value.
- Hike to Manoa Falls
Spend a morning hiking through Oahu’s rainforest! It’s only a 1.7 mile hike though Jurassic Park-worthy scenery to see the waterfall. The forest is home to many colorful birds and sweet-smelling flowers too. The trail can be muddy, so wear shoes that are up to the challenge. And bring bug spray. Mosquitoes are rare by the coast, but the rainforest is a different story.
Trail access is free, but it costs $5 to park at the trailhead. Also reachable by bus #5.
- Eat local along Kapahulu Avenue
Waikiki may be overrun by tourists, but just to the south is a street lined with classic local eateries. Local food in Hawaii is a mix of many different influences: Hawaiian, American, Japanese, and more, making for a unique and delicious blend. Stop by Rainbow Drive-In for a plate lunch: a tasty main dish like barbecue pork with macaroni salad and rice. Nearby is Uncle Bo’s Pupu Bar, known for their appetizers that are called pupus in Hawaiian. Still hungry? Check out Leonard’s Bakery for local donuts.
- Pearl Harbor
The site of the infamous attack that brought the United States into World War II is now a historical site operated by the National Parks Service. There are two museum galleries about the attack and its aftermath, as well as an interpretive walkway along the shore. Youʻll also get to watch a documentary film and take a boat out to the powerful USS Arizona memorial.
The NPS areas of Pearl Harbor are all free, but there are several other museums and sights at Pearl Harbor that charge admission. Travel by car is best, but the #20 and #42 bus routes will get you there eventually.
- Waikiki Beach walking tour
The story of Waikiki is the story of how tourism began in Hawaii. You can learn a lot by touring the historic hotels and monuments along the beach. For an easy walking tour, check out this route suggested by Lonely Planet. At the north end of Waikiki is the Hilton Hawaiian Village, famous as the location where Elvis Presley starred in Blue Hawaii in 1961. Further down the beach are venerable hotels like the Royal Hawaiian and the Moana Surfrider (Hawaii’s first resort, built in 1901). Make sure to visit the statue of Duke Kahanamoku, the Olympic swimmer who brought Hawaiian surfing to the world.
- Visit Ala Moana Center
Ala Moana Center is Hawaii’s largest mall. I know youʻre probably thinking: “why am I going to the mall when Iʻm in Hawaii?” Trust me, there’s lots to do in this open-air shopping center, starting with the excellent food options. You can stop by Foodland, a Hawaii local grocery chain, for some poke to go. Check out Jejubing Dessert Cafe for bingsu, a Korean shaved ice dessert that rivals the local shave ice. There’s also a satellite location of local favorite Liliha Bakery. Mochi donut? Yes please. Visit Ala Moana’s Centerstage area for live performances and other events. Of course, the shopping is hard to beat too; there are over 350 stores.
- See the street art in Kakaʻako
The hip neighborhood of Kakaʻako is known for trendy eateries and an artsy vibe. Thanks to the POW! WOW! street art festival, it’s home to a colorful collection of murals in a very walkable area. The street art is free, but figure at least a few bucks to get a smoothie or a beer.
- Snorkel off the beach at Queen’s Beach
Snorkeling cruises aren’t cheap, but you can go on your own snorkeling adventure for a fraction of the cost. Rent some gear from Snorkel Bob’s or another local shop, and set a course for one of the recommended snorkeling beaches. Queen’s Beach at Kapiolani Park is a good choice near Waikiki. Always check with a lifeguard and make sure water conditions are OK for snorkeling.
- Tantalus Lookout at Puʻu ʻUalakaʻa State Park
If you thought Diamond Head had a great view, wait until you get to Tantalus Lookout. The top of this forested hill gives you a panoramic view of everything from Waikiki to Pearl Harbor and beyond. There are also a few hiking trails in the area that take you through the rain forest. It’s free and easily accessible by car. Bus riders will have to hike the up from the #15 bus route.
- Find free music in Waikiki
Waikiki’s tourist zone is a haven of live entertainment. Whether youʻre into surf rock, jazz, or traditional Hawaiian music, you’ll find it throughout the bars and restaurants along the beach. Stop in for a drink at the legendary Duke’s Waikiki or swing by the Moana Surfrider’s beach bar. You might even catch a live performance at the Waikiki Beach Walk shopping center.
- National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific
The picturesque valley of Punchbowl Crater is the final resting place for thousands of men and women who served in the United States military. You can visit the memorial to pay respects to those who fought in WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. The ride up to the cemetery also provides wonderful views of Honolulu and the coast.