Updated July 2, 2021.
I love everything about Hawaii! The people, the food, the beauty, the seclusion—it’s all the stuff of dreams for me. But the original reason I wanted to visit Hawaii way back for our first wedding anniversary was to see the history up-close and personal. History has fascinated me all my life, but history in paradise? There’s nothing better! Here are some of the best pieces of history the islands have to offer. I know there is so much more, and I’m not purposely leaving out anything in particular, but here’s a start to pique your interest!
Big Island of Hawai’i
The Big Island is just that: big! There’s so much to do and see, including Hawaiian and American history. Here are some favorites!
The first king of Hawaii and first person to unite the Hawaiian archipelago was King Kamehameha I. He was born on the northwest tip of the largest Hawaiian island, near the ancient Mo’okini Heiau (temple). The road to get there is rough, and you will have to hike to the birthplace site, but for history lovers, it can’t be missed!
Want more royal history?
Check out my post all about the Big Island’s Royalty!
Kealakekua Bay National Historic Park (Captain Cook Monument)
This beautiful bay is accessible by boat or hike, and it’s a great snorkeling spot, too. But what history lovers will find most interesting about this place is the monument by the bay (which is a National Historic Park) and what it commemorates. This is the spot on the Big Island where British Captain Cook and his crew landed in 1779. The native Hawaiians assumed he was one of their Hawaiian gods. This is also the site where Captain Cook was murdered on this visit.
Who killed him? It may have been the native Hawaiians when they realized he was not one of their gods. Or it may have been his own crew, as Captain Cook was not known for his kindness or personality. We may never know for sure!
Keep Reading: Hiking Hawaii: The Big Island
Pacific Tsunami Museum and Town Clock
There have been many tsunamis that hit the Hawaiian islands over the years, and the north side of the Big Island has really taken some hits, most notably the town of Hilo. There’s a fantastic museum for history lovers and science buffs alike (and anyone else interested in Hawaii really!) right in Hilo that commemorates the tsunamis that have taken so many Hawaiian lives. It also tells the stories of survivors and shows visitors how tsunamis occur and why they are so unexpectedly destructive. It was fascinating to learn about how this uniquely seaside natural disaster creates history.
Also, don’t miss the clock! The clock stopped at 1:04am April 1, 1960, the moment a tsunami hit the town of Hilo. It’s located right downtown, and there is more information there for you to read as well.
More here: Top 10 Things to do in Hilo
Ancient Hawaiians lived by strict laws they called kapu. Breaking one of these laws was punishable by death, unless the offender could find his way here to the Place of Refuge. We loved visiting this site because we just knew so little about ancient Hawaiian culture and laws, so we learned a lot! Tikis, ancient homes, and Hawaiian history are all on display here, so plan to spend a couple of hours exploring it all!
That’s right, a palace! And this is not the only one in the islands. This particular palace was a summer home for Hawaiian royalty. It was built in 1838, and today it’s a beautiful house museum set up in Victorian style as King Kalakaua and Queen Kapiolani would have had it. You’ll find it unassumingly by the shoreline in downtown Kona. The views are absolutely gorgeous from the lanai, so don’t skip it!
More here: 10 Reasons to Visit Hawaii’s Big Island
Kauai is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, and it’s my favorite Hawaiian island! Kauai is the oldest of Hawaii’s islands, but its volcanoes are now extinct. It’s called the Garden Isle, and one look at its lush, green Na’Pali coast will show you why. It’s also the only island that was never conquered by Kamehameha I. He tried many times to invade Kauai but never succeeded! The island eventually negotiated with Kamehameha I on their own terms!
Just outside the town of Lihue, you’ll find the ancient, legendary, huge Menehune Fishpond. Hawaiian fishponds were used to catch fish (some still are today), and this is one of the largest in the islands. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places, and legend has it the Menehune, or Hawaiian “little people” built it in one night! You can see it by kayak, or if you prefer a big-picture view, you can see it from the lookout on Hulemalu Road.
This 10-mile trail highlights 14 historical and cultural sites on Kauai’s south shore! It includes the site of the state’s first sugar mill, ancient heiau temples, Prince Kuhio’s birthplace, and more!
Honopu Beach (Cathedral Beach)
This is a site that can only be seen from the air or the sea. I highly suggest taking a scenic flight via airplane or helicopter to get a birds’ eye view of this beautiful piece of shoreline. The area is very distinctive with its natural arch, which some say resembles a cathedral, along the Na’Pali Coast. The beach here is so sacred that boats may not even land here. Ancient Kauaian chiefs may even have been buried here. People are only allowed to come by swimming or on a surf board.
This is certainly interesting from a history lover’s perspective, but it’s very important that you not try to swim here, even if others are. This is a tide pool created by a sink hole in the lava rock. Only Hawaiian royalty were allowed to bathe in these waters over 100 years ago. You can hike to see it for yourself!
So much more here: The Ultimate Kauai Bucket List
Tiny Lana’i is the smallest of the Hawaiian islands people can visit and stay on overnight. We haven’t been yet, but I’ve done extensive research while planning our upcoming trip there!
The Pineapple Island
Lana’i’s nickname is the Pineapple Island because almost the whole island was once a pineapple plantation that produced 75% of the world’s pineapples! The first pineapple on Lana’i was planted in 1921, and in 1922, James Dole (of the Hawaii Pineapple Company, later known as the Dole Food Company) purchased the island to make the vast majority a pineapple plantation. The final harvest occurred in 1992.
Hotel Lana’i was originally built to be housing for the pineapple plantation workers. It’s now a boutique hotel for tourists!
This was King Kamehameha I’s favorite fishing spot. It’s now a National Historic Site, and there’s a mile-long trail along the coast with historical markers and sites to see along the way. The trail goes through the Kaunolu Village where people lived from ancient times until the 1880s.
Many ships have run aground on this 8-mile stretch visible from Lana’i’s north shore. You can see ships from different eras and in a variety of sunkenness. You can also see both Molokai and Mau’i in the distance, and just a little ways up the trail you’ll find ancient Hawaiian petroglyphs as well!
Mau’i has an unofficial reputation as the honeymooners’ island for its romantic things to do, but the island has an important history, too!
This one is a big deal! This valley, with its lush greenery and iconic “needle” looking on from above, was the site of a battle that affected the course of Hawaii’s history. In 1790, Kamehameha I and his army fought with the Maui army. Kamehameha’s army won the battle, securing the island of Maui as part of the united Hawaiian islands. It’s easily accessible, and there are well-defined, paved pathways through the valley, so anyone can visit!
Lahaina Town is a wonderful little beach town on Maui’s southwest shoreline, but historically, it’s much more than that. Lahaina was once the capitol of the Hawaiian islands in the early ninteenth century. Around the same time, it was also the center of the whaling industry in the Pacific. Herman Mellville himself walked the streets of Lahaina in his day!
It’s also home to one of the largest banyan trees in the islands, which takes up an entire city block and is still growing! The town is on the National Register of Historic Places, and many of the buildings have been standing for close to 200 years.
This is particularly interesting for travel loving history-seekers. Charles Lindbergh is most famous for completing the first solo flight across the Atlantic ocean. He chose to spend his last years on Maui, and he moved here in 1968. He’s buried at the end of the Road to Hana, at the Palapala Ho’omau Church. It’s a beautiful setting for a final resting place.
Maui has some of the best museums in the islands, in my opinion, and they have a great Passport to the Past ticket that gets you into four of them for one bargain price. You’ll find snippets of Maui and Hawaiian history at all of them, which will help you understand the islands, their people, and their history. My favorites were the Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Mill Museum and the Bailey House Museum!
Keep reading: The Ultimate Maui Bucket List
Molokai has perhaps the most intriguing and controversial history of all the Hawaiian islands. We visited for our fifth anniversary, and it’s one of our most memorable trip to date.
This is the last place in the Hawaiian islands where the ancient Hawaiian traditions are still practiced by one remaining family. It was a thriving town until the 1946 tsunami, when most of it was destroyed and the vast majority of survivors moved to other parts of the island. The family that still lives here offers guided tours of the land, including a beautiful hike to a hidden waterfall. They also offer cultural experiences to teach visitors about Hawaiian growing practices and food preparation, too!
More here: Hiking Halawa Valley, Molokai
Beginning in 1866, Hawaii’s king began sending leprosy sufferers to this isolated peninsula. They were told they would receive medical care once they arrived, but instead they were left here to die, often thrown off the boat to sink or swim to shore.
Eventually medical help did come, and in the 1960s a cure was discovered for leprosy, or Hansen’s Disease. Patients, or residents, as they are now called, were allowed to leave and live the rest of their lives in the world from which they had been banished and forgotten, but many chose to stay. There are still twelve residents, and the National Park Service offers tours as it is now a National Historic Park! It’s a must-see for history lovers, medical professionals, and anyone interested in science as well.
Keep reading: Your Ultimate Guide to Visiting the Kalaupapa Peninsula
This coconut grove is best enjoyed from outside the grove. Otherwise you may be subjected to randomly falling coconuts! It’s also one of the last royal coconut groves in the islands. It was planted in the 1860s, and there are literally hundreds of coconut trees growing up and up and up.
More here: The Ultimate Molokai Bucket List
It’s at the top of everyone’s list: Pearl Harbor. But O’ahu’s history goes much farther back than 1941.
Pali is Hawaiian for “cliff,” and this particular cliff is not only eerie with its howling winds and often overcast skies, it’s also historically significant for all of Hawaii. In the 1795 Battle of Nu’uanu, Kamehameha I succeeded in conquering O’ahu and finally uniting the Hawaiian islands. Many O’ahu warriors jumped off the cliff instead of surrendering.
This palace in the heart of Honolulu was completed in 1882 and was the official residence for Hawaii’s royalty through the end of the monarchy. When the United States annexed Hawaii in 1893, this palace served as the location of Queen Liliukalini’s house arrest. She served out her sentence in an upstairs room for eight months. It’s an absolute must-visit while on O’ahu.
This beautiful summer home in the O’ahu jungle is a National Historic Landmark, but first it was the summer palace for Queen Emma from 1857-1885. The Victorian decor is impressive and in interesting contrast to the native Hawaiian materials and artifacts inside. Don’t miss the feather cape!
Diamond Head and Koko Head Craters
These craters are two of the extinct volcanoes that formed the island of O’ahu, but in more recent history, they served as lookout points for the U.S. military before and during World War II. Diamond Head was once part of Fort Ruger, Hawaii’s first U.S. military reservation. Koko Head is famous for its steep railroad tie “stairs,” which was once the supply line to U.S. pillbox-style bunkers at the top.
More here: Hiking Hawaii: O’ahu
This is the history traveler’s crown jewel. It’s the one thing every American has to do when they visit O’ahu. The Pearl Harbor attacks on December 7, 1941, do live in infamy, and they are well-commemorated here at this National Historic Site. There are multiple sites, museums, and tours to take here, so plan to spend a few hours.
Insider info: The boat tour to take you to the USS Arizona Memorial is weather-dependent and can be cancelled for any reason, weather-related or security-related. Plan this excursion early in your trip so that if you have to reschedule, you still have time to do so.
Need more about Hawaii and everything there is to do there? Check out my Hawaiian Islands Page for everything you need and more!
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