Visiting Iolani Palace on Oahu

by Gray Cargill on February 27, 2013

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Did you know that we used to have royalty here in the U.S.? Funny how that never made it into the history books I studied in school. I didn’t know until I was planning my trip to Hawaii that the 50th state was once a kingdom with a monarchy, and that because of this, the U.S. does have a history of royalty. See, I’m still learning U.S. history when I travel.

Here’s the abridged version of the history of this National Historic Landmark: Iolani Palace is the former home of Hawaii’s royal family, the Kalakaua Dynasty, which ascended to the throne after King Kamehameha’s Dynasty ran out of heirs (David Kalakaua was the closest relative, I guess). The Kalakauas ruled Hawaii from 1874-1893. King Kalakaua ruled for 17 years, and his sister, Queen Lili’uokalani ruled for two years before the Kingdom of Hawaii was overthrown. She and the rest of the royal family were evicted from the Palace, but later, in 1895, she was imprisoned in a small room on the second floor for nine months after she was implicated in a failed revolt against the new government.

Interesting, eh? I knew none of this before I went to the Palace. I really don’t know what my fascination with palaces is, since my ancestors were constantly fighting against the King of England. But I heard there was a palace in Honolulu, so naturally, I wanted to see it.

Iolani Palace

I arrived at the Palace around 11:30, and the docent-led tours had stopped at 10am, so I had no choice but to purchase the self-guided (audio) tour. I was given a specific time for my “appointment” to tour the Palace. This was a process I found fascinating and a really great idea: You can’t just walk into Iolani Palace any time you feel like it. You are assigned the earliest time available from when you purchase your ticket (much like the USS Arizona Memorial). When your time approaches, be sure to head to the back side of the Palace—that’s where you enter, not the side of the building facing the front gate—and wait until they call your time.

You know how when you go into some museums, they’re so mobbed with people, you can’t really see anything, and you feel swept along with the throngs of people? (Louvre and Versailles, I’m looking at you.) There’s also a price you pay with so many visitors: Wear and tear on the property.

Here, they are so concerned with preserving Iolani Palace that they limit the number of people who can be in the building at any time. This is terrific as a visitor, because you get a chance to really see everything without having to stand on your tip-toes to see over the rest of the crowd. I think every museum on Earth should do this! The other thing they do is give all visitors slip-on booties to wear over your shoes to protect the floors. (I think I had mine on inside out, but whatever.)

Slip-on booties

Once your group is called, you climb the stairs and take a seat in rows of benches on the back porch. Here, you’re given your booties, a map, and your audio guide. Then, you’re allowed inside. There was no time limit given to me, so I stayed as long as I liked.

The things that struck me the most during my tour of the Palace were:

  • I was blown away by how extravagant the Palace is for an island Kingdom of that time period. There’s a clear European influence here, though it’s certainly not on the same scale as a Versailles (what is?). The staircase in the Grand Hall is gorgeous and dramatic. The Palace even had electric lights (in the chandeliers) before the White House did!
  • The size of the beds. They seemed so short, but according to the audio guide, this is an optical illusion. They’re actually queen-sized beds. I thought the narrator was making a joke (“queen-sized beds, haha!”) until he added that the large headboard, footboard, and high ceilings make the beds look smaller than they are. Oh. So that wasn’t a joke, then? Because I’m pretty sure I laughed out loud.

Iolani Palace

  • The royal family was very musical and wrote their own songs.
  • Seeing the room that Queen Lili’uokalani was imprisoned in and hearing her story was very moving. The quilt she made during her captivity is on display in the small room that was her prison.
  • The audio guide said 500 people would fit into the Throne Room–along with a band and dancing. It did not look big enough. Mind-boggling.

In addition to the Palace living quarters, there is a Basement Gallery Exhibit that is worth taking some time to check out. It houses the Hawaiian crown jewels and historic photos. And don’t leave without wandering around the Palace grounds and seeing the Coronation Pavilion.

Coronation Pavilion

To get a sense of Hawaii’s history of rule, I highly recommend a visit to Iolani Palace. It showed me a whole other side of Hawaii that I hadn’t gotten from my visit to the Polynesian Cultural Center or any other site on the Island of Oahu. There’s a reason it’s not just a Hawaiian state treasure, but a National Historic Landmark.

Things You Should Know For Your Visit:

How to Get There by Bus:

Address: 364 South King Street. Take #42 bus (the same one you can take to Pearl Harbor) to King and Punchbowl. From there, walk straight to the next light, cross the street to the left, and walk down Richards Street to South King Street. You’ll walk by the periphery of the Palace in the process. Iolani Palace is right across the street from the Courthouse and King Kamehameha statue that you see in the opening credits of Hawaii 5-0.

Where to buy your ticket:

The ticket office is in the barracks building to the left of the Palace on the Palace grounds. It looks like this:

Ticket office in barracks


Admission is $13 for a self-guided audio tour.
Docent-led tours cost $20 and take place on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9am-10am, and on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 9am-11:15am. (Members of the military only have to pay $15.)

Things You Can’t Do Inside the Palace:

No eating, drinking, gum-chewing, smoking, cell phone use, photography or video. (If you want to see what the inside of the Palace looks like, you can go to Tripadvisor, where you’ll see all sorts of photos of the Palace interior that were taken by people who apparently don’t know how to follow rules.)

The royal crest

Shannon J June 17, 2013 at 1:47 am

Thanks for the post – Iolani Palace is pretty amazing!

Gray Cargill June 17, 2013 at 6:18 am

It really is. All of Hawaii is.

Michael April 12, 2013 at 5:11 pm

When I visited Hawaii I only got to visit the Iolani Palace grounds and not go inside so your post was fantastic and gave me lots of insights to what I missed. Next time I visit Hawaii I will be sure to check it out.

Gray April 12, 2013 at 7:45 pm

Oh, Michael, I’m so sorry to hear you never made it inside! Yes, definitely add it to your list for your next trip. It’s worth it.

Christine |GRRRL TRAVELER March 14, 2013 at 4:48 pm

Very nice post, Gray! I love Iolani Palace and I found the lavishness surprising also. Like you said- definitley not something you’d expect of that century and for me, not something I’d expect of Hawaii. Hawaii has always been a bit behind. It’s a beautiful palace and the stories they tell are interesting. Would get my vote as one of the places to see!

Gray March 14, 2013 at 6:57 pm

I always love it when a local tells me I did justice to something in their neighborhood. Whew! 🙂 Thanks, Christine.

Devyn March 3, 2013 at 8:03 pm

I lived in Hawaii the last year and a half (just moved away), and I’m kicking myself for never visiting Iolani Palace. It was less than a block from where I worked too. Darn it! I’ll definitely have to check it out when I return. I thought I’d learned all the history of the monarchy, but I guess there’s still much more to discover! Great article!

Gray March 3, 2013 at 8:13 pm

Oh, Devyn, that is a shame. But lucky you, getting to live in Hawaii for a year and a half! Hey, at least you’ve got an excuse to go back now. 🙂

Tracy Antonioli February 28, 2013 at 10:07 am

Ha! I’m laughing at your last ‘people who don’t know how to follow rules’ comment! I HATE places where I can’t take interior photos. But I don’t deal with that hatred by ‘taking them anyway’. What’s up with that?

Glad to hear there’s still a historic property out there that is good at crowd-management. My last tour-of-a-historic-home ended with me LEAVING the tour because I couldn’t deal–and because I wasn’t really getting anything out of it due to the crowds.

I NEED to get to Hawaii some day. Soon, perhaps?

Gray February 28, 2013 at 12:20 pm

I know, I hate it when I’m not allowed to take photos inside, too, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to disregard those rules, even though I don’t like them. If we all did that in every aspect of life, the world would be complete anarchy.

Yes, you should go to Hawaii! Everyone should go to Hawaii at least once.

Jason February 27, 2013 at 12:49 pm

Such a great place! I was just as surprised as you when I went there, learning about all of those cool things.

Gray February 27, 2013 at 5:14 pm

Glad I’m not the only one who didn’t know ahead of time, Jason. 🙂

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