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Best Sights in Downtown Honolulu

The best sights in downtown Honolulu are steeped in Hawaii’s political history. Those interested in architecture will find plenty to capture their interest, especially in America’s only true royal palace and a New England-style church built from hand-harvested coral.

‘Iolani Palace

Set on a grassy 11 acres, shaded by canopy trees in the heart of the Capitol District, ‘Iolani Palace (364 S. King St., 808/522-0822, 9am-5pm Mon.-Sat.) is the second royal palace to grace the grounds. The building, with its glass and ironwork imported from San Francisco and its Corinthian columns, is the only true royal palace in America. ‘Iolani Palace, begun in late 1879 under orders of King Kalakaua, was completed in December 1882 at a cost of $350,000. It was the first electrified building in Honolulu, having electricity and telephones even before the White House in Washington, D.C. The palace served as the official residence of the monarch of Hawaii until the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom in 1893. It then became the main executive building for the provisional government, with the House of Representatives meeting in the throne room and the Senate in the dining room, until 1968. It has since been elevated to a state monument and National Historic Landmark.

Through the first floor of this palace runs a broad hallway with a grand stairway that leads to the second story. On the east side of the building is the large and opulent Throne Room, the scene of formal meetings and major royal functions. On the west side are the smaller Blue Room, an informal reception area, and the dining room. The upstairs level was the private residence of the king and his family. It also has a wide hallway, and on each side are bedrooms, sitting rooms, a music room, and office. The basement held servants’ quarters, the kitchen, and offices of certain government officials. On the palace grounds you’ll find the Coronation Pavilion, which originally stood directly in front of the palace, but was later moved to where it stands today as a bandstand for the Royal Hawaiian Band, and a raised earthen platform, the original site of the royal mausoleum, which was later moved out along the Pali Highway.

‘Iolani Palace has docent-guided tours and self-guided tours of the first and second floors, both with self-guided exploration of the basement gallery. One-hour tours enter the palace every 15 minutes. Reservations are required for the guided tour (808/522-0832, Tues. and Thurs. 9am-10am, Wed., Fri.-Sat. 9am-11:15am, $20 adults, $6 children ages 5-12), but not for the self-guided audio tour (9am-5pm Mon., 10:30am-5pm Tues. and Thurs., noon-5pm Wed. and Fri.-Sat., $12 adults, $5 children ages 5-12, $1 fee for the audio recording). The Basement Gallery exhibits (9:30am-5pm Mon.-Sat., $7 adults, $3 children) are another option for touring. Tickets are also sold at the ‘Iolani Barracks (9am-4pm Tues.-Sat.), behind the palace. Also in the barracks is the palace gift shop and bookstore (8:30am-4pm Mon.-Sat.).

There is limited metered parking on the palace grounds. From South King Street, turn left onto Likelike Street, a one-way drive, just before the major Punchbowl Street intersection. Turn left through the decorated gate onto the palace grounds.

‘Iolani Palace, with its glass and ironwork imported from San Francisco and its Corinthian columns, is the only true royal palace in America.
‘Iolani Palace, with its glass and ironwork imported from San Francisco and its Corinthian columns, is the only true royal palace in America. Photo © Edmund Garman, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Hawaii State Capitol

Directly behind ‘Iolani Palace sits the unique Hawaii State Capitol (415 S. Beretania St., 808/587-0478), built in 1969. The structure is a metaphor for Hawaii: the pillars surrounding it are palms, the reflecting pool is the sea, and the cone-shaped rooms of the Legislature represent the volcanoes of Hawaii. The walls are lined with rich koa wood from the Big Island and further graced with woven hangings, murals, and two gigantic, four-ton replicas of the State Seal hanging at both entrances. The inner courtyard has a 600,000-tile mosaic and standing at the mauka entrance to the building is a poignant sculpture of Saint Damien of Moloka‘i, while the statue The Spirit of Lili‘uokalani fronts the building on the ocean side. The State Legislature is in session for 60 working days starting on the third Wednesday in January. The legislative session opens with dancing, music, and festivities, and the public is invited. Peek inside, then take the elevator to the fifth floor for outstanding views of the city. There is also a Korean-Vietnam War Memorial paying tribute to those that died in the two wars.

Washington Place

Begun in 1841 by Captain John Dominis, Washington Place (320 S. Beretania St., 808/536-8040) is best known as the home of Queen Lili‘uokalani and her husband, John Owen Dominis, son of Captain Dominis. The Greek revival mansion was both Queen Lili‘uokalani’s home and also her prison beginning in 1893, when the Hawaiian kingdom was overthrown. She resided at Washington Place till her death in 1917. In 1918 the home became the official residence of governors of Hawaii. The mansion was converted into a museum in 2001, and a new governor’s mansion was built behind it. Washington Place is still used for state dinners and official functions and remains the official residence of the governor. The mansion is on the mountain side of Beretania Street, directly across from the Hawaii State Capitol.

King Kamehameha I Statue

The statue of King Kamehameha I is centered in a roundabout near the junction of King and Mililani Streets. Running off at an angle is Merchant Street, the oldest thoroughfare in Honolulu. This statue is much more symbolic of Kamehameha’s strength as a ruler and unifier of the Hawaiian Islands than as a replica of the man himself. It is one of three. The original, lost at sea near the Falkland Islands en route from Paris where it was bronzed, was later recovered, but not before the insurance money was used to cast this second one. The original now stands in the tiny town of Kapa‘au, in the Kohala District of the Big Island, not far from where Kamehameha was born. The Honolulu statue was dedicated in 1883, as part of King David Kalakaua’s coronation ceremony. Its black and gold colors are striking, but it is most magnificent on June 11, King Kamehameha Day, when 18-foot lei are draped around the neck and the outstretched arms. The third stands in Washington, D.C., dedicated when Hawaii became a state.

Kawaiaha‘o Church

The Kawaiaha‘o Church (957 Punchbowl St., 808/522-1333) was built between 1836 and 1842. The first Christian church in Hawaii, its New England-style architecture was crafted from 14,000 coral slabs, quarried by hand from local reefs. King Liholiho and his wife Queen Emma, who bore the last child born to a Hawaiian monarch, wed at the church, and on June 19, 1856, Lunalilo, the first king elected to the throne, took his oath of office in the church. Lunalilo is buried in a tomb at the front of the church, along with his father, Charles Kana‘ina, and nearby lies the grave of his mother, Miriam Kekauluohi. In the graveyard at the rear of the church rest many members of the Parker, Green, Brown, and Cooke families, early missionaries to the islands. Most are recognizable as important and influential people in 19th-century Hawaiian history. Hidden away in a corner of the grounds is an unobtrusive adobe building, the remains of a schoolhouse built in 1835 to educate Hawaiian children. Kawaiaha‘o holds beautiful Christmas services with a strong Polynesian and Hawaiian flavor, and Hawaiian-language services are given here every Sunday, along with English-language services.


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