Honolulu Kawaiahao church
Photo by Joel Bradshaw, 2007, Wikipedia

Honolulu, the city that has welcomed visitors to its sandy shores for centuries, has a unique architectural mix in its Downtown areas. Each building reflects a period in time important to the Hawaiian islands, and is a window into the evolution of this naturally beautiful coastal metropolis. The Honolulu office of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) offers architectural walking tours on Saturday mornings by advance reservation.  A rare treat for locals and visitors alike, the tours through the downtown area are led by an architect or architectural historian who will provide fascinating details and little-known facts about some of Honolulu’s most cherished structures. Visit the AIA website or call (808) 628-7243 for more information. Here are a few of my favorite Honolulu buildings:

‘Iolani Palace (pictured above)

Completed in 1882, ‘Iolani Palace is the only royal palace in the U.S. Erected for Hawai‛i’s last ruling monarchs, King David Kalākaua and his sister, Queen Lili‛uokalani, the palace is the only building in the world constructed in the American Florentine style. Built of brick with concrete facing, the palace has four corner towers, two center towers, and open-sided verandas or lanais on the first and second floors. The palace had rare amenities for the time such as indoor plumbing, an early telephone, and electric lighting before the U.S. White House in Washington D.C. was wired for electricity.

Kawaiaha‛o Church and Mission Houses

Kawaiaha‛o Church, sometimes referred to as the Westminster Abbey of Hawai‛i

Hawaiian Mission Houses Photo courtesy of Hawaiian Mission Houses Archives


The Mission Houses, built in the 1820’s, housed the first Christian missionaries on O‛ahu. Commissioned by Queen Ka‛ahumanu, Kawaiaha‛o Church was completed in 1842. Built in the Hawaiian Mission style, it combined New England architectural styles with Hawaiian building techniques and materials. Supplies were brought by ship from Boston, Massachusetts, and 14,000 indigenous coral blocks were gathered to build the church along with local timber and lime. The Mission Houses had been built 20 years earlier to house the American Protestant missionaries. Today, Kawaiaha‛o Church has an active worship schedule, and the Mission Houses are museums open to the public. They are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Aloha Tower

Aloha Tower Honolulu Image courtesy of JGKlein for Wikipedia


Aloha Tower is a lighthouse at Pier 9 in Honolulu Harbor, and is one of the most iconic landmarks in Hawai‛i. It has been welcoming cruise ship passengers and vessels seeking safe harbor since September 1926. Built in the Hawaiian Gothic architectural style, the tower stands 10 stories and 184 feet tall. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in World War II, Aloha Tower was painted in camouflage to be unseen at night. It’s beacon can be seen from 20 miles at sea, and the tower has a 12-foot diameter, 7-ton bronze clock on each of its four sides with the word “Aloha” above it.

Wo Fat Building

Honolulu Chinatown WoFat Building Image courtesy of Joel Bradshaw for Wikimedia


The Wo Fat Building is a well-known landmark in Honolulu’s Chinatown Historic District. It was first built in 1882, but burned down twice in the Chinatown fires of 1886 and 1900. Now standing at the corner of Maunakea and North Hotel Streets, the brightly-painted building was constructed in 1938 in the Italianate style with Chinese temple motifs, pagoda style roof, and a windowed octagonal tower. It once housed the Wo Fat Restaurant, Hawai‛i’s longest operating restaurant until its closure in 2009. The building now houses a food market and other local enterprises.

First Hawaiian Center

First Hawaiian Center Image courtesy of Xpixupload for Wikimedia


The First Hawaiian Center houses the corporate headquarters of First Hawaiian Bank. Completed in 1996, it features 645,834 square feet and 27 stories of commercial space. It is the tallest building in the state of Hawai‛i. There are 24,000 square feet of waterways, park space and open plaza in downtown Honolulu’s financial district. The Honolulu Museum of Art Spalding House, a gallery of Hawaiian artwork, fills three floors in the building. During the design process, Hawaiian architectural principles were used to assuage local residents’ concerns about the effect of skyscrapers on the island environment. The building was designed to incorporate natural light as far into the interior as possible.