Flying halfway across the world is never fun. Despite my excitement to return to Australia after 2 years of being away, I wasn’t looking forward the 17+ hours of cramped plane time ahead of me. So when I found a flight that included a 24 hour layover in Honolulu, I grabbed it. Honolulu is one of the busiest airports in the United States, connecting to destinations all over the world. So if you’re flying international, look out for a long layover in Honolulu and grab some beach time before your next stop.
As soon as you step off the plane, you’ll immediately be hit with the humid Honolulu air. No matter how many hours of cramped plane time you just had, you’ll feel like you’re instantly on vacation. The airport’s proximity to the tourist attractions make it a perfect place for a 24 hour layover.
It’s about a half hour ride from Honolulu airport to Waikiki beach. If you’re doing Honolulu in a day, I would recommend staying in Waikiki area. We love getting off the beaten track when we travel, but if you only have a 24 hour stopover in Honolulu you might as well make it easy for yourself and stay in the heart of everything. Waikiki has everything you need- restaurants, hotels, shopping, beach. With a limited time, you’ll be able to see and do more if everything is in close proximity.
Getting to Waikiki Beach
For transportation from the airport, we recommend booking a private car through Blacklane. After a long flight, the last thing you want is to have to drag your bags all over the airport looking for the bus, and then waiting for it to fill up before you can leave. Blacklane makes it super easy to find your driver. They’ll send a text when they’re close to the airport, and another one when they’ve arrived to notify where you can find them. Airport pick ups include 60 minutes of free wait time, so you don’t have to stress if your flight is delayed. You can also cancel one-way rides up to an hour before your booking, so if your flight is canceled, you’re all good! On the way to Waikiki, our local driver gave us the lay of the land and clued us in to local customs and laws. Did you know its illegal in Honolulu to be looking down on your phone while walking in a cross walk?!
If you’re looking for a more budget option, there are shuttles that run frequently and will drop you off at your accommodation. If your hotel doesn’t offer transportation to the airport, you can book a round trip shuttle that will pick you up the next day when you need to return. The employees at the information desk can point you in the direction of the best shuttle for where you’re staying. Previously, we’ve taken Speedishuttle which you can book at their desk near the exit, they’re the ones in the Hawaiian shirts (not that that narrows it down much!)
Finding a Hotel at Waikiki Beach
There are plenty of Honolulu hotels to choose from at Waikiki Beach. I chose the Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort, a fantastic hotel that is right on the water. I mean RIGHT on the water! You can get off the plane, drop your bags and have your feet in the sand in just a couple minutes. The view of the ocean from my balcony was everything I imagined in Honolulu, palm trees and clear blue water. There’s also a gorgeous pool and lounge area, as well as plenty of restaurants to choose from on site if you’re hungry after your long flight.
The rooms are comfortable with traditional Hawaiian decor, perfect for resting up before your second flight. I highly recommend staying in a Voyager 47 Club Lounge room. Not only are they super spacious, but they include special guest amenities and access to the Voyager 47 Club Lounge snacks and drinks throughout the day.
We’ve stayed at Outrigger Reef Waikiki twice now (it’s our go-to!) and most recently stayed in the Club Oceanfront room. The view was spectacular! From our 8th floor balcony we had a full, unobstructed view of the ocean. It’s a perfect spot to kick back and watch the sunset right in front of you. The beach was directly below and it took mere minutes to get from our room and into the sand. Although we were only in Honolulu for a long layover, we’re already planning a longer return trip. Outrigger Reef Waikiki is perfect for a romantic getaway for two. With everything you’d want out of a beach holiday right at your fingertips, it’s an ideal destination to kick back and relax. The hotel organizes unique experiences like a Hawaiian dinner cruise or a trip to the Honolulu zoo. You can also participate in a traditional Hawaiian vow renewal ceremony on the beach. How romantic is that?
But beside all of these amenities, the reason this hotel stood out to me above the rest is its commitment to environmental sustainability. The Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort, along with their other locations around the world, run a conservation initiative called OZONE, Outrigger’s Zone. The initiative works to combat some of the devastating effects climate change has had on the coral population worldwide.
Outrigger runs educational programs to inform guests about the importance of coral in the ocean and their role in protecting these important plants. At their Fiji, Maldives and Mauritius locations you can actually participate in their coral planting program and plant coral yourself! In this day when “eco” and “green” are words that hotels throw around without much meaning, it’s nice to see a hotel that is actually committed to protecting the local environment.
Lunch at a Beach Cafe
Once you’ve dropped your bag off at the hotel, and perhaps had a quick dip in the ocean, you’ll probably want to grab some chow at a beachside restaurant. Luckily there are plenty of places to eat along Waikiki beach with a view of the water. Depending on where you go, you may not get the best or cheapest food in this touristy area. But if an eyeful of the gorgeous ocean is more important to you than gourmet eats, I’d recommend staying on the beach.
If you’re on a budget, the Waikiki Beachside Bistro, next to the Hyatt, is a simple food stand on the sand with concrete tables and chairs outside. Don’t let this unassuming little shack fool you, the food is actually really good. For $10-15 you can get a plate of fresh fish or one of their award winning burgers. Grab a plate and walk a couple meters to sit on the sand and enjoy the view. If you want a proper sit down restaurant, you can grab a delicious meal at Duke’s Waikiki under their thatched umbrellas overlooking the ocean.
Take a Surf Lesson
After a delicious lunch, you’ll probably be eager to get back in the water. One of the best things to do in Waikiki on a long layover is go for a surf. Nothing is going to make you feel more like a local than carving those sweet waves, brah. Even if you’ve never stepped foot on a board before, the calm waves of Waikiki beach are perfect for beginners.
You can take an hour long group or private class with the stellar surf instructors of Faith Surf School. They begin by teaching you all the basics on the sand. You’ll first learn how to paddle, kneel and stand up on the board, so you can get a feel for it before hitting the water. Then you paddle out and they’ll begin by pushing you into the small waves. Even if you fall the first couple of times, you’ll be shocked by how quickly you get the hang of it. You’ll be hangin’ ten in no time! Faith Surf School also offer Stand Up Paddleboard lessons and canoe surfing.
Hike Diamond Head
If surfing isn’t your thing, but you’re still looking to break a sweat, check out one of the area’s beautiful hiking trails. Diamond Head State Monument is a particularly popular one. The iconic mountain is clearly visible from Waikiki Beach. The trail is half a mile each way and is not particularly strenuous if you’re in decent shape. The terrain changes from dirt trail to cement stairs, with plenty of rest stops and lookouts along the way. There are also several tunnels and a narrow spiral staircase, which may be problematic for claustrophobic people.
When you make it to the top, you see that the hike up is well worth the reward. With 360 degree views from above, you can get a clear view of Waikiki beach and the city, as well as different mountain ranges and craters around the island. The hike is particularly popular just before dawn to catch a glimpse of the sunrise over the city.
You can get to the start of the hike by car or a local bus. Diamond Head is open from 6 am to 6pm daily, but last entrance is at 4:30pm. Entrance is $1 per person for pedestrians and $5 per car, cash only. Closed toed shoes are recommended. Don’t forget your water, sunscreen and a hat!
Check out an Alternative Beach
If you get sick of the crowds at Waikiki Beach and have time for a bit of a drive, check out one of Honolulu’s hidden beaches. About half an hour from Waikiki you’ll find Waimanalo beach, a local favorite where the water is turquoise blue, although sometimes a bit rough. Hanauma Bay is popular spot that draws crowds for snorkeling. Although it can get a bit busy during sunny days, this bay has the best snorkeling on the island. It’s the perfect spot if you’re looking to check out life below the water’s surface. As the bay is a nature reserve and sanctuary, you will have to pay to enter, but the $7.50 entrance fee is well worth the experience.
Although becoming a popular alternative for tourists, Kailua beach is still quieter than Waikiki. About 15 miles across the island, this beautiful white sand beach is popular with swimmers, kayakers and windsurfers. It’s even a vacation spot for Barack Obama and his family! The small town atmosphere of the area is a great escape from busy Waikiki.
Snack at a Local Farmer’s Market
If you want to grab a snack, or simply feel a more local layover activity in Hawaii, check out one of the local farmer’s markets. If the warm air has you craving fresh fruit, you can sample some of the local produce at the market, where you can find pre-made tasty salads and cold fresh juices. Try traditional Hawaiian dishes and speak to local producers about their favorite things to see and do in Honolulu.
The Hyatt Regency Farmers Market takes place every Thursday from 4 to 8pm and is popular with tourists because of its vicinity to local hotels. The Honolulu Farmer’s market is a bit further out but has a great local feel on Wednesdays from 4 to 7. For a complete list of Honolulu farmer’s markets, please check out this list from Go Hawaii.
Grab a Happy Hour Drink
After you’ve had your workout for the day, by taking a surf lesson or hiking Diamond Head, you’ve definitely earned yourself a drink. There are plenty of places to enjoy an afternoon happy hour overlooking the beach. If you decide to stay at the Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort, the Voyager 47 rooms include an evening happy hour. From 5-7pm guests can enjoy complimentary pu-pu (appetizers), signature cocktails and beer and wine. Enjoying a sampler of locally brewed Kona beer on the deck, watching the sunset over the water, is a perfect transition from day to night.
After you’ve filled up on snacks and drinks, head downstairs to the Kani Ka Pilla Grille, the hotel’s poolside restaurant. If you’re still hungry you can grab dinner, but the real treat is the live band they have nightly. We were visiting in mid December and were treated to Hawaiian versions of classic Christmas songs. They even had locals in the crowd that came up and did some spontaneous traditional dancing. You know if the locals are coming here for the music, it must be good.
If you’re looking to spend a night away from the hotel, all of the establishments along the beach offer some sort of afternoon beer and cocktails, some with a happy hour, some without. Hula Grill has a happy hour at 4-6pm with cheap beers on tap and fish tacos if you’re hungry. Tiki’s Grill and Bar has an earlier happy hour from 2-5 and live music.
See a Show
There is plenty of nightly entertainment on offer in Honolulu. I would definitely recommend seeing some live music, as you’ll have plenty to choose from. I was lucky enough to catch famous Hawaiian blues musician, Willie K at the Blue Note blues club at Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort, which features a wide range of musical entertainment – from local talent to international sensations. Willie K is a legend in Honolulu and a fantastic musician. In between songs he added hilarious commentary about life in Hawaii, his bandmates and his time abroad in Canada. I couldn’t decide whether I found his music or comedy act more entertaining.
If you have an evening in Honolulu, definitely check out a show at the Blue Note. The venue is large, but cozy and I recommend booking a booth. They are large enough for 4 to 5 people and give you a great view of the stage. Come early to grab the center booth and have the best seat in the house. The Blue Note also offers a full dinner menu and drinks.
As you can see there’s plenty of things to do in Honolulu. Hopefully this list gave you an idea of what to see in Honolulu during a 24 hour layover. The most important thing is to let the island vibes relax you after a long flight and just enjoy the warm Hawaiian air. Don’t miss some classic Hawaiian dishes, like a cold shaved ice on a hot afternoon. Choose a couple of activities to get the most out of your time and a nice hotel to unwind when the day is done. You’ll wake rested and ready to tackle another long flight. But don’t be surprised if you love Honolulu so much you want to stay!
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Thank you to the Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort, Faith Surf School and the Blue Note at the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort for hosting me during my stay! As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own.