Things to do in Honolulu

The Most Interesting Hawaii Museums

Forget the beach! Hawaii’s museums hold ancient treasures that rival any sunset.

Marvel at Hawaii’s breathtaking beauty— from plumeria blossoms and sun-kissed beaches to volcanic landscapes that come to life. Beyond the wondrous scenery, the islands are also full of heritage and culture.

Visiting museums is among the best things to do in Honolulu and throughout the Hawaiian islands. You'll definitely want to add some of these spots to your itinerary.

Cultural and Historic Houses

Unique traditions and fascinating culture permeate Hawaii, but where did it all come from? Retrace the history with a visit to the state’s historic houses and cultural museums.

1. Iolani Palace

Once the home of Hawaii’s royalty, Iolani Palace was later converted into the capitol building after the overthrow of the kingdom. Toward the end of the 1970s, it took on yet another identity, becoming a museum that preserves Hawaii’s rich history and records the changing tides of its political landscape.

Nowadays, Iolani Palace is the only royal residence in the United States. The rooms have been restored, bringing back the opulence surrounding the Hawaiian monarchs. With its fine furnishings and impressive art, the palace has become an elaborate time capsule.

Iolani Palace is best explored by one of the museum docents, who explains the historical significance of art and precious objects. An audio-guided tour is the next best option for those who prefer to travel at their own pace.

Photographer: 12019

2. Queen Emma Summer Palace

While the Hawaiian royal family spent much of their time in the heart of Honolulu, even monarchs longed for quiet days away from political responsibilities.

Queen Emma Summer Palace was a blissful retreat for Queen Emma and King Kamehameha IV in the valley, just outside downtown Honolulu. The palace offers a glimpse into a completely different side of the royal family as it forgoes some of the grandeur of Iolani Palace for comfort.

Walking through those old halls, you experience an intimate side of the family. Personal belongings, including the Queen’s piano and various toys that belonged to her son, sit untouched after all these years.

Both the Queen and her son died tragically young, so Summer Palace has become a museum that carries a bittersweet reminder of the past. It’s witnessed both the Hawaiian monarchy's saddest and most joyful times.

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Une publication partagée par Hānaiakamalama, Queen Emma Summer Palace (@queenemmasummerpalace)

3. Washington Place

Few buildings carry as much historical significance as Washington Place. Originally the home of Queen Liliʻuokalani, it became her prison for several months after the monarchy lost its power. There, she wrote the Queen’s Prayer to rally her people’s spirits.

Today, Washington Place houses Hawaii’s governors, so exploring every nook and cranny is impossible. However, guided tours and special events offer a coveted peek inside this stately mansion.

As one of Hawaii’s famous landmarks, Washington Place is also worth a visit for its breathtaking architecture and lush green grounds. The mansion’s symmetrical facade and stunning entrance portico follow the Greek Revival style, contrasted against traditional Hawaiian design features.

4. Mission Houses Museum

In the 1820s, a wave of Protestant missionaries came to Hawaii, seeking to introduce their faith to the native people of the archipelago. Mission Houses Museum preserves many of the original buildings where these missionaries lived and worked, making it one of the largest museums of its kind.

As transformative as this period was for Hawaiian life, the missionaries’ impact was both positive and negative. While their mission led to the creation of a written Hawaiian language and expanded access to education, it also suppressed native culture.

Mission Houses Museum doesn’t shy away from this complicated history and delivers a balanced view of the events that took place throughout the 1800s. It’s one of the best Hawaiian museums to visit if you want to learn more about the state’s rich and colorful past.

Military and Maritime Museums

Hawaii is the gateway to the Indo-Pacific. Naturally, it has many fantastic museums to honor the courage and sacrifices of the military personnel who’ve served across the region.

5. Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum

Climb aboard the Pearl Harbor Avenger. Located near the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center on Oahu Island, the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum is an educational site unlike any other. That’s because the famous submarine itself is the steel-clad museum hall.

Walking through the narrow submarine may feel a bit claustrophobic, but can you imagine also being underwater? The crew members who served in the navy had to endure those same conditions but for extended periods of time; and if that wasn’t enough, they were also burdened with the awareness of being fully submerged underwater.

The narrow halls of the USS Bowfin give you an intimate understanding of life aboard a U.S. submarine. However, there are plenty of things to see back at shore if you don’t like confined spaces. Don’t forget to visit the galleries and monuments for a glimpse into naval history.

Photographer: Jeremy Huang

6. USS Missouri

When the USS Missouri first launched in 1944, it was one of the largest and most powerful battleships to sail the oceans. At that time, massive guns were the pinnacle of naval warfare.

The USS Missouri’s main guns could fire shells weighing over a ton. Combine that with its antiaircraft capabilities, and it’s easy to see why the battleship served for 51 years. Over its decades of life at sea, it participated in three wars and crucial battles in Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

It even hosted the Japanese surrender ceremony after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Explore where this history took place as you stroll across the historic battleship. Everything is now a unique museum, from the deck to the crew quarters.

7. Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum

As the first rays of sunlight crept over the U.S. naval base of Pearl Harbor, a hum in the distance soon became a deafening roar. A swarm of Japanese warplanes appeared over the horizon, delivering an onslaught of bombs. Fuel stores ignited while battleships and hangars were torn to shreds.

December 7, 1941, became the “date which will live in infamy,” and the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum exists to preserve this history. Many museum exhibits are located within restored World War II-era hangars that survived the attack. You can still see the scars of battle.

However, we think the ideal way to view Pearl Harbor is by taking a guided trip to the top of the Ford Island Control Tower. It’s easily one of the most unforgettable Hawaii tours.

8. U.S. Army Museum of Hawai’i

Experience the life of a soldier during the Vietnam War. The U.S. Army Museum of Hawai’i occupies the former site of Randolph Battery. This strategic defense installation played a role in Oahu Island’s Ring of Steel—a series of forts and guns that protected the island from invasion by sea.

While Randolph Battery itself offers a fascinating look into Hawaii’s history throughout the Vietnam War, the museum houses other important exhibits. It begins its tale from when the native Hawaiians first sailed to the archipelago. Even back then, a strong defense was crucial to maintain peace across the islands.

The museum also holds artifacts ranging from armor pieces worn by soldiers to an AH-1 Cobra helicopter. Cobras were once the workhorse of the U.S. Army’s helicopter fleet. Their rapid-fire Gatling guns and rocket launchers were the key to victory in many conquests.

9. Tropic Lightning Museum

Few infantry divisions have risen to the heroic level of the 25th Division, nicknamed the “Tropic Lightning” division. Whether traversing through thick jungles in sweltering heat or across beaches under fire from helicopters flying overhead, the division struck with lightning speed and precision.

It brought strategic victories to the United States during several conflicts. Many brave soldiers in this division went on to win the nation’s highest distinction, the Medal of Honor. The Tropic Lightning Museum commemorates their courageous actions throughout the Pacific and Asia.

While the museum contains memorabilia you’d expect to find in a military museum, don’t be surprised to see a Humvee window cracked by improvised explosives or enemy weapons recovered by the 25th Division. The museum’s artifact collection provides a visceral reminder of the toll of warfare.

Art Museums

Hawaiian art takes many forms, from featherwork to petroglyphs. Visit the incredible art museums across the islands to experience its diversity and fiery energy.

10. Honolulu Museum of Art

As one of the most extensive museums celebrating cultural expression across Hawaii, the Honolulu Museum of Art features a near-limitless collection. The museum holds over 55,000 pieces, reflecting over 5,000 years of history. There’s no better place to see traditional Hawaiian art or admire pieces from other countries.

Of course, there’s another benefit to a museum with such an extensive collection. It shows how artistic styles have evolved, revealing the foundation behind some of the most iconic works. While Hawaiian art has its own style, Impressionism and other global styles have inspired contemporary works.

You’ll find unique pieces that blend Polynesian and European styles. If you know very little about art, take one of the guided tours or attend an educational event to learn about the significance of each piece.

11. Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture, & Design

Wealthy philanthropist Doris Duke was passionate about many fine things, including Islamic art. During her life, she amassed an awe-inspiring collection of artwork and cultural items. These decorations granted her playful home, Shangri La, a dreamy and exotic feel.

Founded according to her will’s directives, the Shangri La Museum occupies the former mansion. Duke amassed paintings, textiles, and ceramics over about 60 years, so there’s a lot to take in. We recommend setting aside a few hours to ensure you have enough time to fully explore.

Take a good look at your surroundings. Duke based much of her mansion’s unique design on her Islamic artwork collection. She wanted the home to reflect the pieces within, so the mansion complements and builds upon the viewing experience.

12. University of Hawai’i

We love experimenting with our shows to deliver performances unlike anything people have never seen. Similarly, some of the most intriguing and unforgettable art defies conformity.

While there’s no shortage of unique and exciting art in Hawaii, the most innovative pieces often come from young artists who aren’t afraid to try new things. That’s why we’ve included a trip to the University of Hawai’i art gallery on this list.

The gallery features many contemporary paintings, sculptures, and installations. These thought-provoking pieces offer a thrilling contrast to the historical art galleries found elsewhere across the islands.

Specialty and Science Museums

Embrace the unexpected at Hawaii’s specialty and science museums. Polynesian heritage, marine biology, and murals are just the beginning.

13. Bishop Museum

Bishop Museum was founded in 1889 to honor Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the last descendant of the Kamehameha royal family. The princess saw the loss of Hawaiian culture and traditions as an education problem. This prompted her to create the Kamehameha Schools to empower her people and preserve their traditions.

The museum is dedicated to continuing the Princess’s mission of educating the Hawaiian people, and its exhibits go beyond Polynesian voyaging and volcanic rocks. It features its own planetarium, where whirling nebulas and twinkling stars glitter overhead. You’ll feel like you’ve taken a trip into space.

Let your curiosity and imagination run free. Many of the museum’s exhibits are interactive, offering hours of fun for kids and adults alike.

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Une publication partagée par Christian Clauwers (@christian.clauwers)

14. Capitol Modern

Originally the Hawaii State Art Museum, Capitol Modern took on its edgy new persona to highlight its continuing mission to celebrate modern art. Exhibits at the museum showcase the interpretations of contemporary Hawaiian artists on a range of societal issues and themes. It’s grittier than your average art museum.

Shapeshifting into whatever the artist envisions, the ground floor’s Passion on Display gallery opens new artistic possibilities. In the past, the gallery has been filled with inflatable pink bunnies and even transformed into a sensory forest for kids with developmental disabilities.

Source: Capitol Modern

15. Lucoral Museum

At the Lucoral Museum, you can learn about marine biology, minerals, and culturally inspired jewelry. Its unique collection includes artifacts such as oceanic rocks, geodes, and fossils. Walking through the halls, it almost feels like you’re watching the natural history of Hawaii tick by at a lightning pace.

However, the Lucoral Museum collects all these items for a specific reason. The museum's curators want to show how the ocean’s treasures can be appreciated while preserving marine life cycles. As fans of environmental sustainability, we definitely support that mission.

Echoes and Artifacts: Final Musings on Hawaii’s Museums

Whether it’s natural wonders or royal halls, the exhibits found in Hawaii’s museums provide a thrilling counterpoint to the beach bars and resorts. When evening rolls around, hula down to the theater.

As you watch our performers soar through the air, you'll gasp in awe at their acrobatic prowess. We take you on an emotional journey through thrilling storylines. Learn what happens when you dream big at our shows in Honolulu. Bring your imagination, and we'll do the rest.

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