Aloha! You’ve finally saved enough money to fly the ohana to Hawaii for vacation. What do you do now? Where should you stay? Can you afford it? Is it kid-friendly?
With gorgeous beaches, stunning sunsets, gentle trade winds, exotic nature trails and educational cultural attractions, Hawaii is unique and unlike anywhere else in the world. It’s also a wonderful place for families to enjoy a great vacation without breaking the bank, starving your kids for the week, sleeping in your rental car or depleting your retirement account.
We’ve raised our five kids on Oahu and when we’re able to pull away from work, school and sports (and eat somewhere other than Taco Bell or Costco pizza), here are some of the places you’ll find us.
Note: this is NOT the Condé Nast travel guide, but simply my biased, kid-friendly, on-a-budget recommendations to experiencing an incredible time while in Hawaii nei.
Where to stay
Oahu means the gathering place and is the hub of activity in Hawaii. It’s home to the state’s capital, Honolulu, and the majority of the state’s population. If you enjoy an active vacation, don’t mind a lot of people and desire a central location with easy access to the rest of the island’s attractions, the world-renown Waikiki beach is a great choice. If you’re wanting to stay on another island or in a different part of Oahu, read this.
My personal preference for family friendly hotels in Waikiki are the Sheraton Waikiki and the Hilton Hawaiian Village. Both are beach front properties with super kid-friendly pool areas. They also have many amenities on-site for families and their prime locations are short walks to other popular Waikiki attractions.
- Waikiki is one of the safer beach areas on Oahu. Its surf is consistently gentle and conducive for swimming, learning to surf and for young children to splash around. The lifeguards are well-trained in water safety and are on duty all day, every day.
- Ala Moana beach park. If you prefer no waves at all, head to Ala Moana Beach Park on the Ewa side (west end) of Waikiki. This is where you’ll find many of Honolulu’s young families spending the day at the beach, barbecuing, making sand castles and floating in the water on air mattresses.
- Diamond Head. Diamond Head crater sits prominently on the eastern end of Waikiki. Hawaii’s most familiar landmark, Diamond Head is known for its historic hiking trail that was built as part of Hawaii’s coastal defense system in the early 1900’s. It’s a short (.8 mile each way), steep hike, but not too overwhelming for a young family. (I think my youngest was about 5 when she first climbed Diamond Head.) Your hard work and sweat will pay off, though, as the views at the top provide you with stunning pictures of Waikiki and the southern shoreline.
- Manoa Falls. My kids love this short hike through the shaded, bamboo forest of Manoa Falls. It’s short (1.6 miles roundtrip) and not too steep, ending at the beautiful 100ft Manoa Falls. Some scenes from Lost and Jurassic Park were filmed here and although you’re just a short drive from Waikiki, you really feel like you’re in the middle of dense jungle. Wear junk shoes and clothes as the trail can get really muddy and bring mosquito repellant or you will be eaten by bugs.
Things to do
The great thing about vacationing in Hawaii is that all the beaches are public and free! If you’re looking for other activities for your family, here are some options near Waikiki.
- Honolulu Zoo. The zoo is located on the Diamond Head side of Waikiki. It’s well-shaded, flat with open areas for kids to run and play. Perfect way to spend a couple of hours and enjoy a relaxing morning. They have all the major “zoo animals” and a cute petting zoo.
- Waikiki Aquarium. Located across the street from the zoo, this is a nicely maintained aquarium with a variety of marine life. It’s not very big, but young kids will think it’s huge and filled with wonder.
- Surfing lessons. Waikiki is the perfect spot to try surfing. The waves are gentle and most of the people in the water are children and beginner surfers, so there’s a lot of room for trial and error. This is where we brought our kids to learn to surf. You can easily rent boards and take lessons right on the beach, which removes the hassle of having to transport surfboards in your rental car.
- Pearl Harbor. Okay, this spot isn’t in Waikiki, but I can’t leave it out. The Pearl Harbor Memorial is a sobering tribute to honor and memorialize our World War II servicemen. The USS Arizona Memorial commemorates the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, and adjacent to it, the Battleship Missouri signifies the end of World War II. Recently renovated, it’s family friendly, educational and interactive for kids.
Places to eat
- Marukame Udon. If you make Yelp’s top 100 restaurants nationwide, you have to be worth checking out. My kids love this place. It’s buffet style, with the line consistently out the door. But it moves fast and you can watch them make the udon noodles while you wait. A bowl of udon for under $5.
- Ono Seafood. Another restaurant that has made Yelp’s top 100 restaurants. If you’re adventurous and like seafood, you’ll appreciate this little hole-in-the-wall where you can try a poke (po-kay) bowl – a local favorite. If your kids are picky, Taco Bell is one block away.
- Hi Steaks. Not to be confused with the uber-pricey, fancy Hy’s Steak House, this walk-up is in Food Pantry (Waikiki’s local grocery store). They serve yummy steak plate lunches. My recommendation is to get it to-go and eat it on the beach or by your hotel pool.
- Musubi Cafe Iyasume. Musubi is a popular snack in Hawaii. It consists of a block of rice and a piece of meat (usually fried spam) wrapped in seafood. Musubis are cheap and a perfect grab and go mid-afternoon bite to eat. Usually, we pick up a musubi at 7-11 (yes, they have surprisingly good musubis), but this little place in Waikiki is my kids’ favorite.
- Teddy’s Bigger Burgers. Teddy’s is one of our favorites. In fact, our family thinks they’re some of the best burgers we’ve had anywhere. They have many locations all around the island to choose from. Their shakes, too, are really yummy.
- Pai’s Deli. We stumbled onto this little deli during a staycation in Waikiki. We were hungry, but didn’t want to change out of our beach clothes to sit in a restaurant. Just steps away from the beach, you can pick up a healthy meal without having to even dust the sand off your feet.
A little nicer, but still good for families…
- Duke’s. Named in honor of Duke Kahanamoku, an Olympic swimmer from Hawaii who is credited with popularizing modern surfing, Duke’s is right on the beach in the heart of Waikiki. Their prices are mid-range for steak and seafood. If you don’t have a reservation and want a more casual lunch or dinner, you can sit on the lanai and order from a limited, less expensive menu. A trip to Duke’s wouldn’t be complete without ordering their Hula Pie (ice-cream, chocolate and everything amazing).
- Doraku. Founded by the son of the Benihana’s restauranteur, Doraku is our go-to place for sushi and Japanese food in Waikiki.
- Side Street Inn. One of our favorite restaurants, Side Street Inn on the Strip is where we often bring out of town guests. They serve large portions, family style and it’s always a hit.
Don’t forget coffee and dessert!
- Island Vintage Coffee. I’m typically a Starbucks girl, but Island Vintage is really good, serving 100% kona coffee. They have an Island latte that is amazing.
- Leonard’s. Leonard’s bakery has been around for decades and is known for their malasadas, which are Portuguese doughnuts without the hole. How can you not go wrong with a ball of dough, deep-fried and rolled in lots of sugar?
- Waiola Shave Ice. Waiola’s opened decades ago and operated out of a little mom & pop grocery mart. They now have a few locations. Always a popular spot for shave ice, they serve super-fine ice with lots of flavor choices.
This is just a tiny sliver of things to do and see in Waikiki. With so many great things to do and experience, I couldn’t possibly fit them all in one post. Here are a some more of our favorites.
How about you? What are your family-favorite, budget-friendly things to do in Hawaii?