Why is Waikiki Beach Famous? Here are 10 Answers to Your Question
Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, meaning if you decide to make a purchase through my links we may earn a commission at no additional cost to you. Read about our affiliate policies here.
One couldn’t resist stopping to daydream over a 1950s’ poster of Waikiki Beach. The Hawaiian surfer riding a perfect wave with the iconic Diamond Head crater as a backdrop. Waikiki Beach became famous for 10 main reasons, such a poster is one of them.
Waikiki Beach is famous for Duke Kahanamoku, the father of modern surfing, learned and taught people how to surf on the Waikiki break. Waikiki Beach attracts visitors with its white-sand beaches, celebrities, the Moana Surfrider Hotel, the proximity to Oahu attractions, and Diamond Head backdrop.
Waikiki, a neighborhood of Honolulu on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, has it all.
As a Maui local, I was skeptical of this beach oasis in the Pacific’s Manhattan. After staying for 5-days, I can see why Waikiki put Hawaii on the map as a famous and popular tourist destination. The beach is still crowded though.
Here are the 10 reasons why Waikiki Beach is famous. You will understand why 71,000 people visit Waikiki every day making it the most popular beach in Hawaii.
The Famous Waikiki Beach: 10 Reasons Why
Let me get your feet wet on Waikiki Beach before we jump into its warm waters.
Waikiki is a neighborhood of 1.5-square-miles.
Waikiki is situated in Honolulu, the capital of Hawaii and the largest city at 352,000 people. Honolulu is on the island of Oahu, the most populated Hawaiian island at 1-million people. Honolulu is considered the Manhattan of the Pacific because of its skyscrapers (gotta get that ocean view) and the closest city of comparable size is San Francisco, 2,400 miles away.
Being so remote doesn’t stop people from visiting the famous Waikiki. Within this small enclave of a city, the area generates $2 billion in tourism revenue every year. That is 42% of all tourist dollars spent in Hawaii. In 1.5-square-miles.
Oahu is known as the Gathering Place because of Waikiki. The area has been the epicenter of Hawaiian Royalty and government since the 15th century. The old Waikiki covered an area larger than the current 1.5-square miles as it encompassed the neighboring Manoa and Palolo Valleys. Waikiki has transformed over the centuries.
Waikiki translates to “spouting water” in Hawaiian due to the abundant rivers and springs that flow through the area. Fishponds and taro patches dotted the landscape where now high-rise condos and resorts sit today.
In 1920 the wetlands were designated a health hazard as they believed they harbored disease-carrying mosquitoes. The Ala Wai Canal was the solution. Waikiki is surrounded on the west and north sides by the canal. The canal drained the area (still does today) and allowed for the subdivision of the land. Waikiki went from a rural area into a suburb of Honolulu.
Today, Waikiki starts at Honolulu Harbor on the westside and ends at Kapahulu Avenue on the eastside. From the shoreline to Ala Wai Canal, Waikiki is only 2 to 3-blocks deep. All the resorts, condos, restaurants, and clubs are mostly within 2-blocks of the beach.
Waikiki Beach is made up of the following 8 beaches as erosion has broken them into sections.
🍍 Duke Kahanamoku Beach
🍍 Fort DeRussy Beach Park
🍍 Gray’s Beach
🍍 Royal Hawaiian Beach
🍍 Prince Kuhio Beach
🍍 Queen Kapiolani Beach
🍍 San Souci Beach
🍍 Outrigger Canoe Club Beach
All beaches in Hawaii are public. Therefore, you can walk and frolic in the water along the entire length of Waikiki Beach. Minus the parts where the beach has eroded.
Off the beach, Waikiki’s Kalakaua Avenue is Hawaii’s equivalent of the Vegas Strip (minus the gambling). Along Kalakaua, you will find world-class dining, resorts, shopping, and entertainment.
Due to this strip, Waikiki has lost much of its traditional Hawaiian feel. It comes off as Disney-esque, fakey, and crowded to some visitors. Yet, people still love it and flock here as part of their Hawaiian vacation.
It is the allure of this famous beach that makes it a must-see in Hawaii and the world.
How did Waikiki become the main destination for people from around the world?
Here are the 10 things that make Waikiki Beach famous.
1. The Moana Hotel
The Lady of Waikiki. Yes, a hotel put Waikiki on the map as a preeminent tourist destination.
Before the Moana Hotel, Waikiki Beach had a few bungalows and beach houses. Waikiki was a neglected part of Honolulu.
A wealthy Honolulu landowner, Walter Chamberlain Peacock, saw the potential in Waikiki so he established the first resort in the area. In 1901, the grand opening of the Moana Hotel marked the beginning of tourism to Waikiki.
The Moana Hotel boasted 75 guest rooms. They were the height of fashion for the day as they offered spacious accommodations, a saloon, billiard room, main parlor, and a library. Each room came with a telephone and bathroom, rare for the day.
The first electric-powered elevator in the Hawaii territory was installed at the Moana. Still in use today in the main lobby.
Moana means an open sea or ocean in Hawaiian. A fitting name as the hotel’s design had wide lanais facing the ocean and rooms with ocean views.
$1.50 per night was the rate paid by the first guests of the hotel. Today, the Moana is part of the resort complex known as Moana Surfrider, A Westin Resort and Spa. Hotel rates are $300 to $350 a night.
You don’t have to pay to sit on their grand porch in a rocking chair to people watch the main strip in Waikiki.
2. Duke Kahanamoku
“The best surfer out there is the one having the most fun,” Duke Kahanamoku.
When I first saw the Duke statue on Waikiki Beach, I realized I needed to get to know him. The man did it all during his lifetime.
🍍 5-time Olympian
🍍 5-time Olympic medalist
🍍 Father of modern surfing
🍍 Sherrif of Honolulu from 1932 to 1961
🍍 Hollywood actor
🍍 Rescued 8 fishermen from their capsized boat in heavy surf
🍍 Duncan v. Kahanamoku, Duke was a pro forma defendant in a landmark Supreme Court case
🍍 The first person to be inducted into both the Swimming Hall of Fame and Surfing Hall of Fame
Duke was his real name. Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh was visiting Hawaii at the time of his father’s birth. Duke’s father, Duke Halapu Kahanamoku, was named in honor of Prince Alfred. Duke’s father was his namesake.
Duke was born during the reign of King Kalakaua in the Kingdom of Hawaii. The native Hawaiian lived through statehood. His family was a well-regarded ohana (family) on Oahu but not royal.
At 3-years-old, Duke’s family moved to Waikiki where the Hilton Hawaiian Village sits today. He grew up swimming and surfing on Waikiki Beach. The local boy surfed a traditional Hawaiian surfboard.
Naming his board “papa nui,” his board was constructed out of the koa tree, was 16-feet long, and weighed 114 pounds.
In 1911, he beat the 100-yard freestyle world record by 4.6 seconds. While it wasn’t recognized for many years, Duke went on to prove his swimming skills by going to 5 Olympic games.
His post-Olympic career is when he made Waikiki and surfing famous. As Duke traveled the world in international swimming competitions, he would go surfing. By putting on surfing exhibits, he taught the wold Hawaiian surfing.
Surfing caught-on in the American mainland when he moved to Southern California. He not only wowed the beachgoers but also taught his Hollywood friends to surf.
Those same friends would visit him in Waikiki where he would teach the stars how to surf.
Waikiki Beach became famous for its surf, the man who invented modern surfing, and his friends who would come surfing with him. Waikiki is a surfing hotspot now.
3. Waikiki Celebrities
Since the Moana Hotel opened its doors, celebrities have been coming to Waikiki Beach.
News from around the world showed celebrities surfing the Waikiki waves and enjoying the sun. By the swinging 20s, Waikiki was a revolving door of the rich and famous.
Bing Crosby, Groucho Marx, Clark Gable, Shirley Temple, and Carol Lombard graced Waikiki. Many stayed at the Moana Hotel and the Royal Hawaiian, such as Babe Ruth, Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, and Amelia Earhart.
Elvis Presley filmed three moves on Oahu, including his most famous Blue Hawaii being filmed on Waikiki Beach.
Waikiki also created celebrities. Hilo Hattie, Andy Cummings, Alfred Apaka, and Sterling Mossman were Hawaiian singers and performers made popular in Waikiki and from Hawaii Calls radio show. Broadcasted from 1935 to 1975 from the Moana Hotel.
With regular airline flights to Hawaii in the late 40s and 50s, Waikiki becomes a regular tourist destination for Hollywood stars.
Today, celebrities still frequent Waikiki and movies are still shot on Waikiki locations. But with the throngs of tourists, your chances of seeing either are slim.
4. Waikiki Beach is Natural
The beach, the main reason people come to Waikiki. But is Waikiki Beach natural?
The white-sand beach with Diamond Head serving as its backdrop is too postcard-perfect. Rumors abound about artificial sand and man-made reefs.
Some are true. Waikiki Beach has been eroding since the late 1800s.
First, bungalows and beach houses were built too close to the shore. Then efforts to keep the sand in one area would take sand from another part of the beach.
But rest assured…
Waikiki Beach is a natural beach. The beach became famous and popular due to its naturally occurring sand stretching for a continuous two-miles along the south Oahu coast.
Nowadays, Waikiki Beach is partially engineered. Man-made structures, high-tides, and elevated sea levels have been making for a growing problem.
Due to erosion, sand was first imported in the 1920s and 1930s from Manhattan Beach, California. With the construction of the Ala Wai Canal in 1928, groins and seawalls started to appear along Waikiki Beach. These seawalls would save the sand in one area but deplete another part of the beach.
By the 1950s, one could no longer walk the length of Waikiki Beach as some parts had lost all their sand. The beach became divided into sections.
Importing sand stopped by the early 1970s. Sand started to be sourced from Oahu. The sand was used from other beaches like Waimea Bay Beach or other North Shore beaches. Sand has also come from the Hawaiian island of Molokai, from its 3-mile long beach.
Recently, engineers have realized local sand is best to maintain the integrity of the beach. Therefore, sand from 2,000 feet off of Waikiki has been pumped to replenish the shrinking beach.
Waikiki Beach is still spacious enough to host tens of thousands of beachgoers daily. Waikiki Beach is famous for its activities. The reef protects the beachgoers from large waves and tides, making for the feel of a giant swimming pool. Perfect for ocean sports.
On Waikiki Beach, you can find surf lessons, snorkeling, stand-up paddleboarding, beach volleyball, outrigger canoeing, and sailboat cruises (all you can drink or not, your choice).
The Waikiki surf is known for its long rolling break, making it ideal for longboarding, tandem surfing, and beginners to learn.
If sports aren’t your fancy, then rent a lounge chair and an umbrella from your hotel. Soak up that Waikiki sun.
Everything you would expect on a Hawaii beach can be done at Waikiki Beach.
- Hotel vs. Airbnb: How to Decide What is Best for Your Hawaii Vacation
- Hawaii Reef-Safe Sunscreens (2021): UV-Protect Yourself
5. Hawaiian Royalty Vacationed in Waikiki
Hawaiian roots run deep in Waikiki. The area became rich with life and culture once Chief Kalamakua designed an irrigation system to take advantage of the rivers and springs in the Waikiki area in the early 1400s, Fishponds and taro patches soon covered the landscape.
The government center of Oahu was based in Waikiki around 1450. Making an ideal location for King Kamehameha I to storm the beach. In 1794, the future king of the unified Hawaiian Islands arrived from the Big Island to conquer Oahu from Chief Kalanikupule.
Kamehameha’s warriors drove Oahu’s forces up the valley, where they were driven off the steep Pali cliffs to their deaths.
By the mid-1800s, Hawaiian royalty made Waikiki their private vacation spot. Waikiki Beach was witness to moonlit horseback rides, canoe races, and swims in the ocean by royalty.
Kamehameha IV, Kamehameha V, Lunalilo, Kalakaua, Liliuokalani, and Princess Kaiulani were the dignitaries who made Waikiki their favorite beach destination.
Waikiki has been synonymous with the rich and famous since the Kingdom of Hawaii. It is no wonder that people today continue to seek out Waikiki Beach.
6. Waikiki is Forever Evolving
History and aloha culture got us here, Waikiki energy keeps it thriving in popularity. The new Waikiki stays fresh, safe, and engaging for the times.
White sand beach, turquoise waters, resorts, sunshine, and all a 30-minute drive from Honolulu Airport. Waikiki is famous because it is easy to get to and checks all the boxes of a Hawaiian vacation.
Enjoy the international and Hawaiian cuisine, soak up the sun, and relax in the comfort of 5-star resorts. Waikiki has it all. Be a beach-bum, take your first surf lesson, and try the local cuisine. Shop at the newly remodeled International Market (I highly recommend their food court for price and selection) or the fancy Ala Moana Shopping Center.
Waikiki Beach is famous as it caters to children to adults. Families can enjoy the pools and calm ocean waters with their kids. Or visit at the Hilton Hawaiian Village for an artificial lagoon and fireworks every Friday night. Or stay at luxurious The Modern Honolulu for a nightclub, adult-only pool, and world-class restaurants.
While the rest of Hawaii, especially Maui, shuts down at 8:00 am, Waikiki is hitting its stride. Waikiki Beach is as famous as its nightlife.
Honolulu continues to invest in Waikiki. Spending $12.5 million on Kuhio Beach to install a new sidewalk promenade with landscaping or $10 million to upgrade the Honolulu Zoo in Waikiki, the city is keeping the area fresh.
Safety is also paramount to Honolulu. We saw cop cars, patrols, and local, friendly informational guides all along Kuhio and Kalakaua Avenue. While there are homeless, especially around Kuhio Beach, the area felt safe for us and our toddler.
Waikiki is also famous for partaking in Hawaiian cultural celebrations along the beach. The new Waikiki Historic Trail’s 21 surfboard markers point out historic sites and tell the story of old Waikiki. There is a nightly hula pageant at Kuhio Beach Park, starting with a torch-lighting ceremony and the call of a conch shell.
We stumbled across the Sunday afternoon Royal Hawaiian Band concert in the courtyard of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. It was delightful.
I’m a proponent of making Waikiki your first stop when you visit Hawaii. The crowds and, at times, tacky decor isn’t for everyone but Waikiki is the perfect launching pad for Oahu and then other islands.
Starting in Waikiki will indoctrinate you to Hawaii’s culture. Then jump to another part of the island or another island like Maui for authenticity, outdoors, and some peace and quiet.
7. Waikiki Sunsets and No Shark Attacks
Two for the price of one on why Waikiki Beach is famous. Sunsets are spectacular and sharks won’t bite you in Waikiki.
Waikiki Sunsets are Unforgettable
Facing southwest, the shoreline of Waikiki is near perfect for sunsets. Tiki bars, beach bars, swimming pool bars, and rooftop bars line Waikiki Beach. All ready to serve up happy hour drinks and sunsets.
Park yourself at Dukes or the Moana Surfrider Beach Bar, two of my favorites, to watch the sun dip into the Pacific. Waikiki is famous for its sunsets.
Don’t take Hawaii sunsets for granted. Only a few beaches on Oahu have such an epic setting and viewpoint for the sunset. Ko Olina and the North Shore have good sunsets but they don’t have the ambiance and energy of Waikiki.
Once the sun goes down, the party is ready to start.
No Waikiki Shark Attacks in History
The Hawaii State Department of Land and Natural Resources incidents list shows no reported shark attacks have occurred at Waikiki Beach. In 150 years of Waikiki’s tourism history, that is a long run without a shark attack.
One can feel safe in numbers while swimming and surfing in Waikiki. A large number of people make shark attacks less likely.
The lack of shark attacks helps to build Waikiki as a safe spot to vacation and builds its popularity around the world.
Lifeguard towers and an army of lifeguards do patrol the beach. They keep an eye on the sharks in the water, as the sharks are swimming out there. They may have the best job in the world.
8. Iconic Diamond Head
I feel Diamond Head doesn’t get the credit it deserves. A picture of Waikiki isn’t complete without the formidable Diamond Head in the background. Waikiki would look like just another beach if it wasn’t for the stunning backdrop that the tuff cone makes.
Vintage posters with surfers cruising down a wave, a girl on their shoulders of course, and Diamond Head behind them. It puts the viewer in the action. It gives us a perspective on the size and scale of this beach and the people who are vacationing on it.
I’m not sure what I expect to see for Diamond Head to get its recognition. Perhaps, another music festival held in the crater. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Hawaiian version of Woodstock would be held in the crater with 75,000 in attendance. The likes of the Grateful Dead and Santana would play.
Or, they revert to the Hawaiian name of Le’ahi to toss it some respect. British sailors mistakenly thought the volcanic calcite crystals on the side of the crater were diamonds, hence calling it Diamond Head. Silly sailors.
More Waikiki and Oahu itineraries should recommend hiking Diamond Head. Get some exercise after a night in Waikiki by hiking to the military bunker dug into the top of Diamond Head. If more people could experience the jaw-dropping view of Waikiki Beach from 762 feet, then more people would respect the volcanic formation that makes Waikiki famous and picture-perfect.
9. Waikiki Weather
Of course, the weather. The reason why most people spend their hard-earned savings to fly thousands of miles into the middle of the Pacific. Hawaii is in the Tropic of Cancer, sitting at 21.2 degrees North, 157.8 degrees West makes for an ideal climate to hit the beach.
As a Michigander who relocated to Hawaii, I get it. The weather here in Hawaii can’t be beaten. Thus, making Waikiki Beach a reliable vacation destination.
Even in January and February, the average high is 80°F. Overall, The average daytime summer temperature at sea level is 85° F while the average daytime winter temperature is 78°F.
The ocean stays at a pleasant 74°F, with a high of 80°F during the summer months. That is why you never see wetsuits on the surfers in Waikiki.
It does rain. Waikiki is in the tropics. But rain is localized. If it is raining in Waikiki for the day, then hop to another part of the island. It also hardly rains all day.
We visited Waikiki in February, a little vacation from our Maui abode. As the second wettest month, it did rain on us one day during our five-day trip but it came and went. The beach was still rocking.
|Average high in °F:||80||80||81||83||85||87|
|Average low in °F:||66||66||68||69||71||73|
|Av. precipitation in inch:||2.32||2.01||2.01||0.63||0.63||0.28|
|Days with precipitation:||14||11||13||12||11||12|
|Hours of sunshine:||227||202||250||255||276||280|
|Average high in °F:||88||89||89||87||84||81|
|Average low in °F:||74||75||74||73||71||68|
|Av. precipitation in inch:||0.51||0.55||0.71||1.85||2.4||3.23|
|Days with precipitation:||14||13||13||13||13||15|
|Hours of sunshine:||293||290||279||257||221||211|
The data doesn’t lie, the weather in Waikiki is near perfect. The trade winds provide a light breeze to sway the palm trees, flicker the tiki torches, and keep you cool. The weather in Waikiki and Honolulu makes doing activities a breeze.
10. Things to Do In and Around Waikiki
One or two beach days is all we can usually handle, especially with a toddler. He craves more action. Luckily for us, Waikiki Beach is famous for its activities in and around Waikiki.
At Kapahulu Avenue, at the eastern border of Waikiki is the 500-acre Kapiolani Park, the Waikiki Aquarium, and the Honolulu Zoo. Kapiolani Regional Park is the largest park in Hawaii. The park hosts concerts in its bandstand all year long. It is also an ideal place to run with a 2-mile circumference.
There is a plethora of shopping in Waikiki. Major shopping centers have gotten a facelift in the last decade and look amazing. The International Marketplace in the heart of Waikiki has all been redone with an amazing food court inside. The Royal Hawaiian Center mall in front of the Royal Hawaiian stretches for 3-blocks. Ala Moana is just over the Ala Wai Canal on the west side of Waikiki. And a new $535 million Waikiki Beach Walk boasts an entertainment center, shopping, restaurants, and five hotels.
There is high-end shopping by the likes of Louis Vuitton and Chanel to lower-priced options like local t-shirt salesmen. You can find what you are looking for at the right price.
Best of all, Waikiki is within a half-hour of a variety of Oahu attractions. Drive or take the bus to Pearl Harbor, Iolani Palace, the Nuuanu Pali Lookout (where the Oahu warriors fell to their deaths), and Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, a marine life conservation district, for epic snorkeling.
For a taste of local Honolulu neighborhoods, not as touristy as Waikiki, head over to Kapahulu Avenue and the arts district of Chinatown. You will find amazing plate lunch dining options and hip bars. We recommend the Rainbow Drive-In on Kapahulu Avenue for a plate-lunch or after hiking Diamond Head.
Closing Thoughts on Why Waikiki is Famous
From Hawaiian royalty to Hawaii regional cuisine, Waikiki continues to evolve with the times.
Waikiki Beach will continue to be a famous tourist destination for the foreseeable future. And I’m not surprised.
The City of Honolulu keeps the neighborhood safe and clean. The resorts and restaurants keep the place a culinary epicenter. The entertainers sing the aloha spirit. And the Hawaiian culture stays front and center even though the fake grass and shopping malls.
That is why we recommend staying in Waikiki for the first 3-nights in our 5-day Oahu itinerary. It is too popular and special to miss the place. Plus, Waikiki is centrally located on Oahu making it an ideal home base to jump to other activities, beaches, and scenic drives.
Video: Why is Waikiki Famous?
For more of a visual experience of why Waikiki is famous, check out our video. Subscribe for more tips and information on traveling to Hawaii. We like it here, I bet you will too.