Hawaii Aloha Travel > Blog > Tour Honolulu’s Rich History

Tour Honolulu’s Rich History

Like architecture? Like history? How about walking? Honolulu has a rich past that is fun and easy to see in a tour on your own.

Several of my friends have recently gone to big cities on the mainland with plans to eat and to site see their way around – specifically going on foodie and architecture tours. Take Chicago’s version of this, for example. I’ve done it and thought it was fascinating. But I must say that upon moving here, it didn’t occur to me that Honolulu could offer what these other large cities did in terms of having interesting commercial buildings. I will note that there are those amazing paradise mansions’ in residential areas but still, nothing as grand as some of the commercial buildings.

Then I became enlightened by the grace of my photo club. They planned a Downtown Honolulu shoot led by a member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA)’s Honolulu Chapter. I came home that day (yes, a little tired after a three hour walk in the heat of Downtown) with practically no photographs.

I was just so fascinated and captivated by the history and tales that our guide told. I couldn’t stop listening long enough to practice my photography skills at each stop. My neck ached; I got dehydrated, but I wouldn’t drop behind to take a break for fear of missing the next story. In other words, it was wonderful. And I’ve been wanting to do it again ever since.

(Top) Honolulu Hale and Hawaii State Library (Bottom) St. Andrews Cathedral, stained glass windows inside.

I got my chance a short while back. The same photography group arranged the walk again, and I was thrilled. But this time, we did not have the AIA guide. Our leader, a historian himself, had been on that walk enough times to tell the stories – but with a slightly different slant.

We didn’t learn so much about the architectural features and styles and nuances of the buildings (which the AIA guide stresses, of course). Instead, we learned the actual history of the builder, the designer and the owner or original occupant. He told us all the scuttlebutt that goes along with a business or organization’s show of power in a newly developing Honolulu. He shared stories from the era of post-monarchy rule and when businessmen from across the oceans came to Hawaii to gain control.

While it might have been a power play, all those amazing historic structures Downtown and in the Capital area were built with no expense spared. And the fact that the architecture springs from so many different cultures makes it even more interesting.

The story of these buildings tells the story of a growing Honolulu. Its history is not deep in years but is very deep in culture and rooted to life on an island. This is something no mainland city can ever match. And it makes a very interesting story.

I highly recommend this tour to visitors. The AIA tours are on Saturdays, with a minimum of four hikers. The details are on the chapter’s website. It cost $10 per person (for about $2K worth of information – LOL). There are places to take a break along the way, but travel light, especially in summer months and bring plenty of water. I’d advise carrying an umbrella for sun/rain protection as well.

(Left) First post office just a block from the Honolulu port to serve the sailors. (Right) Fire house from art deco period that’s still in operation today. Aloha Tower sits at the port of the harbor.

For those who can’t do the organized walk, there is a self-guided booklet called “Exploring Downtown” for $5. You can get it at the AIA Honolulu office, located on 119 Merchant Street. The info for my most recent walk covered more than 17 historic structures. Since that’s too many to talk about here, I will mention my favorites in hopes that you’ll get a little taste of them.

Honolulu Hale (aka City Hall)

530 South King Street

Not open to the public on weekends. Its beautiful open hall is the site for many art displays or exhibits, so you might luck out and get an extra local treat. I never tire of going inside of this building. The outside is nice, but the inside is spectacular.

U.S. Post Office, Custom House and Court House

335 Merchant Street

I love to go inside this post office and walk around the open-air halls. It’s neat to see the old boxes that are still in use today. The temperature is cool in there, even in the summer, and makes a terrific backdrop for photos.

Lady of Peace Cathedral

1184 Bishop Street (entrance on Fort Street Mall)

Site where St. Damien was ordained in 1864. I was fortunate to hear a Hawaii choir practice. It was the same choir that went to Rome to sing for the St. Damien’s canonization. Words can’t express how touching this was.

Aloha Tower: Office of the Harbor Master

1 Aloha Tower Drive

Even locals never get tired of the view from the top of this historic building, which used to be the highest structure in Honolulu. When you walk up to it, the building just doesn’t look real. It’s so iconic though. And to think, people actually sat up there and watched ships from all over the world sail into the harbor! Visitors can do the same and go up there for a priceless view.

VIDEO: Inside the St. Andrews Cathedral in Honolulu during an organ practice.

ARCHITECTURAL WALKING TOURS • Saturdays, 9am-1130am • 119 Merchant Street, Suite 402, Honolulu, Hawaii 96813 • 808-628-7243 • www.aiahonolulu.org • $10

Posted by: Bruce Fisher on Nov 12, 2011