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O‘ahu Walking Tour: Explore Downtown Honolulu’s Most Famous Buildings

We try walking tours that uncover O‘ahu’s rich history and culture.


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Kawaihao Church

Photo: Diane Lee

 

We walk through our neighborhoods every day, but do we really know about the history and culture that shaped and molded them? I didn’t—that is, until I got a glimpse into O‘ahu’s past by trying historic walking tours in downtown Honolulu, Chinatown, Waikīkī and Hale‘iwa, all offered by established nonprofits. From old buildings, untold stories, cherished traditions and timeless architecture, we tried out a few tours (plus a few extras) that will give you a better sense of this place we call home. We’ll be publishing an article every Thursday in July. We start in downtown Honolulu.

 

There is a vibrant history in our city center that shouldn’t go unnoticed. Architecture is an important part, and it is a topic that is explored in great detail on the 2.5-hour walking tours offered by AIA Honolulu (American Institute of Architects).

 

Tours through AIA began when renowned architect Frank Haines started showing groups of people around downtown Honolulu about 20 years ago. Haines, former president and chairman of Architects Hawai‘i, helped to design the state Capitol, the Prince Kūhiō Federal Building, Bishop Square and many other projects. Before he died last year, a group of architects trained to do the tours on their own, with Haines’ approval. The popular tour takes you across downtown Honolulu—from Fort Street Mall to Kawaiaha‘o Church, Honolulu Hale, the Capitol, Washington Place and loops back to Hawai‘i Theatre, hitting 24 sites.

 

Photo: David Croxford

 

You start your tour at AIA Honolulu’s office on Fort Street Mall. The walls of the office are lined with pictures and renderings of award-winning designs by local architecture firms. You will quickly learn that inspiration for our downtown neighborhood came from around the world.

 

The tour spans about two miles (according to Google Maps) and most of it is on the sidewalk, so it’s a pretty easy walk for all ages. The tour feels formal and informal at the same time—our tour guide (the president of a well-known local architecture firm) took us on a specific route, outlined in a booklet you can buy for $5, and was very knowledgeable and flexible. It didn’t seem like he was just spewing facts from a book. His passion for architecture and history was evident in the way he methodically explained the significance of each building we passed. He also made a point to stop and ask for questions. Our group of about 10 was a mixture of locals and tourists, most of us asking several questions along the way. (He didn’t seem to mind.)

 

A few things that surprised me: The Stangenwald Building on Merchant Street (the one with the arched windows and terra cotta décor) opened in 1901 and was dubbed the state’s first high-rise. It’s six stories tall and remained the tallest building in Honolulu until 1926 when Aloha Tower was built. The Alexander & Baldwin Building, which fills a whole city block on Bishop Street, cost $1.2 million. It was built in 1929 (the power of the sugar industry, perhaps).

 

Hawaii Theater

Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino

 

If you’re interested in the rich history of downtown Honolulu, this tour is a great start.

 

What You Need to Know

  • When it happens: Tours are offered twice a month on Saturdays
     

  • How to sign up: at aiahonolulu.org or call (808) 628-7243 (groups are limited to about 10 people)
     

  • Cost: $15 per person
     

  • Tips: Bring an umbrella and water and wear covered shoes and comfortable clothing
     

  • Parking: Oceanit Center, 828 Fort St. Mall, for a $2 flat rate (enter on Queen Street) or Harbor Court, 55 Merchant St. (entrance on Bethel Street), on levels five to seven for 50 cents per half hour or a maximum of $3

 

READ MORE STORIES BY JAYNA OMAYE

 

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