Things to do in Honolulu, Hawaii: Three-minute travel guide

36 Hours in Honolulu

The fragrance of an orchid lei; the taste of perfect sushi; grand island residences and the blue-green sea: This is Honolulu. Video by the New York Times.

WHY

Honolulu delivers exactly what you expect of it – a sparkling crescent of colour, kitsch and curling surf. And if you grew up watching endless repeats of Blue Hawaii and Hawaii Five-O you'd be disappointed with anything else. Honolulu is one of the world's most striking cities, a long, slender strip of 400,000 people with beach out the front and a phalanx of extinct volcanoes out the back. It's also supremely easy to navigate (turn left at the beach, turn right at the beach) and has a thoughtful chain of ABC Stores sited every 20 metres, so you're never far from a beer, postcard or T-shirt. Someday all cities will be made this way. 

VISIT

No matter how many modern hotels get built behind Waikiki Beach, it always looks fabulously 1950s. Embrace it – buy the Aloha shirt, take the ukulele lesson and definitely hire a longboard at $10-$20 an hour (the Waikiki surf is as benign as the island). If you need to get serious, head for Bishop Museum (bishopmuseum.org/), where an imposing piece of late 19th century architecture has been converted to tell Hawaii's story from the time it was first squeezed out of a magma reserve. There's history and art at the beautiful Iolani Palace (iolanipalace.org/), the only royal seat to hold court on American soil. And the profound influence of Chinese sugarcane labourers on Hawaii's racial mix has its roots in the gritty Chinatown.

EAT

One of America's great eating experiences awaits you in Honolulu: whatever else you do, don't miss Uncle Bo's Pupu Bar & Grill (unclebosrestaurant.com). Utterly unprepossessing from the outside (and on a perfectly ordinary street), inside is a space of colour and light and stellar plates of modern Hawaiian cuisine. A few doors up, Leonard's Bakery sells a soft, chewy Portuguese doughnut which has people queuing from 5.30am. At dawn you should do cheerful beachfront breakfast at Lulu's (luluswaikiki.com); at dusk you should flex the plastic for a table at the gorgeous 1927 Royal Hawaiian hotel right on Waikiki. 

LOOK

Diamond Head (hawaiistateparks.org) is something like Hobart's Mount Wellington, an imposing piece of topography within city limits. The extinct volcano is a popular early-morning hike, with the 1½-hour round-trip crossing the crater floor before scaling the rim to look over Honolulu. The stroll back to Waikiki is also terrific, taking you past seafront real estate where Honolulu's rich and famous hang ten (million dollars). 

MUST

Pearl Harbor is the place to visit the poignant floating memorial moored over the wreck of the USS Arizona, sunk on December 7, 1941. But the naval base complex is home to other attractions, including the USS Bowfin submarine, the Mighty Mo battleship (the USS Missouri on which Japanese surrender was signed) and a slew of thoughtful, balanced and conciliatory displays. 

For a happier memorial, visit the statue of Duke Kahanamoku on Waikiki. The 1920s father of modern surfing is always garlanded with fresh flowers.

SLEEP

If you've got lots of hula moolah, stay at handsome beachfront hotels like the Moana Surf-Rider (moana-surfrider.com/) or Royal Hawaiian (royal-hawaiian.com). If you haven't, try the big old Queen Kapiolani (queenkapiolani.com/), one street back from the happy action and ceaseless surf. 

TIP

Visiting the USS Arizona memorial is free, but for safe passage book online before your visit (recreation.gov). The complex gets 1.8 million visitors every year, and ferrying all those people out to the relatively small memorial is a military operation. 

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Max Anderson travelled at his own expense.

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