11 Fascinating Historical Sites in Hawaii That Go Beyond Pearl Harbor
Discover some of Hawaii’s most important historical landmarks on your next island vacation.
The Hawaiian Islands conjure up images of white-sand beaches, tropical sunsets, and laid-back vibes—but it has so much more to offer. The Hawaiian Islands have a rich and troubled history that’s definitely worth exploring. It’s a history that stretches back to AD 400 with the arrival of the first Polynesian voyagers to the ruthless 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom to becoming part of the United States in 1959. As a visitor, one way to show respect to the Hawaiian people and their culture is to try and understand how past events have shaped the present; and to consider our own roles in this narrative. Check out these 11 historical sights next time you make it to the Aloha State. INSIDER TIPWhile tourists still refer to Hawaii Island as “Big Island,” Hawaiians continue to push for the use of its official name, the Island of Hawaii/Hawaii Island. (We use “Big Island” as means to simplify readers’ searches, but hope to expose our audience to the importance and cultural significance of the Ōlelo Hawai‘i language and the official island names.)
Pu'u o Mahuka Heiau
Located in Pupukea on Oahu’s North Shore, this is a rarely-visited Hawaiian Heiau or temple, estimated to have been built in the 1600s. Traditional heiau are walled enclosures made of stacked rocks, and they once served important religious and cultural purposes. Pu’u o Mahuka Heiau is the biggest one still standing on Oahu. Historians believe it was a sacrificial heiau , meaning that human and/or animal sacrifices were once made here.
Although heiau used to be a common sight throughout the Hawaiian islands, that all changed in 1819 when King Liholiho ordered the destruction of them all and abolished the old belief system. Today, there are just a few remaining heiau ruins, which makes visiting the Pu’u o Mahuka Heiau all the more special. It’s impossible to visit this place and not feel the islands’ mana (spiritual energy).
This palatial white mansion in downtown Honolulu is best known as the home of Queen Lili’uokalani, Hawaii’s last monarch. She resided here during the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom in 1893, which led to the annexation of Hawaii by the United States in 1898. The Queen had a tradition of opening her home to the Hawaiian people. Today, that tradition continues, with both in-person and virtual tours of Washington Place available to all.
Kalaupapa National Historic Park
The site of the Kalaupapa leper colony, situated on an isolated peninsula on the island of Molokai , may be the most heart-wrenching place to visit in Hawaii. In 1866, King Kamehameha V banished everyone with leprosy to the peninsula to avoid the spread of the then-incurable disease. It’s estimated that 8,000 people died here, most of them native Hawaiians. It was only in 1969, more than 100 years after the arrival of the first patients, that the law of forced quarantine was abolished. Today, Kalaupapa is still home to aging patients who have chosen to live out the rest of their lives there.
Nu’uanu Pali Lookout
This cliff-top lookout just off the Pali Highway offers incredible panoramic views of Oahu’s windward coast. Once the site of the Battle of Nu’uanu, it was here that Kamehameha I finally defeated his opponents and united the kingdom of Oahu in 1795. Many soldiers lost their lives falling or jumping off the Pali’s sheer cliffs. The battle marked a major turning point in Hawaiian history, uniting all the islands (except Hawaii) under Kamehameha.
WHERE: The Big Island
Hands down the best place to see ancient Hawaiian petroglyphs, Pu’uloa is home to over 23,000 images. These enigmatic figures and symbols are carved into lava rock dating back to AD 1200-1450. Located on the southern side of the Kīlauea volcano, keep in mind that this is a sacred area for Hawaiian people.
The meaning behind these petroglyphs is still debated. Some argue that they were made by travelers making their way around the island, while others suggest they may have been used to mark a child’s birth or communicate important events. Whatever the reason, the Pu’uloa petroglyphs are a sight to behold.
Lahaina Historic Trail
Lahaina was the first capital of Hawaii and the seat of the monarchy for more than 50 years. This self-guided walking trail is a leisurely way to take in important historical sights, including everything from native Hawaiian history, whaling, and missionaries to the plantation era. Highlights include the Hale Pa’ahau (stuck-in-irons house), a 19th-century prison used mainly to detain sailors, the Wo Hing Chinese Temple, and the Banyan tree, a 60ft high giant providing almost an acre of shade.
Eric Broder Van Dyke/Dreamstime
The Bishop Museum is the Hawaiian Islands’ most iconic museum, featuring millions of precious artifacts from Hawaii and throughout the Polynesian islands. It was the brainchild of Charles Reed Bishop, who opened the museum in 1889 in memory of his late wife, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop. The princess was the last descendant of the Kamehameha royal family line. The Bishop Museum is the place to go for a beautiful crash course in Hawaiian and Polynesian history, culture, and environment and is centrally located in Honolulu.
A national historic landmark, the Iolani Palace in downtown Honolulu is an opulent testament to a proud Hawaiian national identity. Construction began in 1789 and was completed in 1882 by the order of King Kalakaua. The architecture, known as “American Florentine,” is a style unique to Hawaii and was inspired by the King’s many travels around the world. Ioalani palace also has the distinction of being the only royal palace in the United States. It was far ahead of its time during its heyday, with electric lights, indoor plumbing, and telephones. Unmissable for those who seek to understand Hawaiian identity, history, and political intrigue.
Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park
WHERE: The Big Island
Located on the Big Island’s rugged south coast, the Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park is known as an ancient place of refuge. Long ago, law-breakers sentenced to death and who managed to evade capture could find refuge here and get a second chance at life. During times of war, families could also escape to this pu’uhonua , with the guarantee of a safe trip home once the battles were over.
While there were once many places of refuge in the Hawaiian Islands, none remain as well preserved as this one. The spirit of peace and refuge still permeates its ancient walls.
WHERE: The Big Island
This is the birthplace of Christianity in the islands and Hawaii’s oldest Christian church. Located in Kailua-Kona, the church marks a turning point in Hawaiian history. The arrival of the Gospel in the islands filled a religious void left by King Liholiho, who had abolished Hawaii’s ancient belief system, and the missionaries were able to convert many native Hawaiians.
The Mokuaikaua Church is still in use today and holds regular Sunday services. It’s a great place to stop and learn about the impact the first missionaries and Christianity still have on the islands.
WHERE: The Big Island
Few people know that native Hawaiians have a proud history of horsemanship and are expert paniolo or cowboys. In 1832, King Kamehameha III needed a way to deal with the hundreds of wild cattle roaming free on the Big Island. He invited three Mexican cowboys from California to Hawaii to teach his people their skills, and the cattle ranching industry in the islands began. Kahua Ranch is a working ranch in Kamuela, on Hawaii’s north side. Discover your inner paniolo and have a bit of fun with a horseback ride and tour of the ranch.
Editor’s Note: Per the Hawaii Tourism Board, Fodor’s recognizes “the proper use of the Hawaiian language, ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i,’ which includes the ‘okina [‘], a consonant, and the kahakō [ō] or macron.” The Hawai‘i Board on Geographic Names was created to “assure uniformity and standardize spelling of geographic names to communicate unambiguously about places, reducing the potential for confusion.” In order to ensure our readers the best experience reading our Hawaii travel guides, we follow the standardized spelling, but hope to expose readers to the importance and cultural significance of the written Ōlelo Hawai‘i language.