There are so many terrific reasons to go to Hawaii. It boasts incredible beaches with sand in a variety of shades ranging from black to white and even green. The snorkeling and diving are glorious, with a wide array of sea creatures regularly on display under the water. In some parts of the island chain, you can go from tropical paradise to mountain snow in a single day! And then there’s the infectious spirit of aloha that shines through it all.
Hawaii’s outdoor scenery tends to take center stage for vacationers, and for good reason. However, if you’re staying on Oahu, there is a wonderful museum you should really take the time to visit.
The Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, also known as the Hawaii State Museum of Natural and Cultural History, examines the culture and lasting legacy of Hawaii’s first people. It houses millions of artifacts along with other terrific exhibits focusing on Hawaii’s natural history.
We had zero regrets spending some time at the Bishop and away from the beach. Here are a few reasons you should consider a stop there during your own island adventure.
1. Both The Building And Grounds Are Beautiful
Back in 1888, Charles Reed Bishop established the museum in memory of his wife, the late Princess Bernice, who was the last member of the Kamehameha dynasty (more on them in a bit). Bishop designed and built the gorgeous museum, famed for its spacious halls and stonework, as a place to display and protect his wife’s ancestral heirlooms, along with other Hawaiian treasures and objects.
Walking through the expansive halls, with their rich woodwork and multiple floors, makes you feel as if you’ve been transported back in time to an amazing old-world library. The surrounding gardens are equally stunning and also worthy of your attention, featuring native Hawaiian plants and landscapes. Museum staffers offer an hour-long garden tour each day, and it’s free with your museum admission -- check it out!
2. It’s A Great Introduction To Hawaiian Culture
If you’ve ever wondered about the culture and customs of Hawaii’s first people, the Bishop is the place to go. There are a variety of artifacts and displays in the main galleries, expertly arranged so that visitors can get a holistic glimpse of early island life.
The Hawaiian Hall focuses on Hawaiian gods, legends, and beliefs in pre-contact Hawaii, as well as how its people lived, worked, and played. The Bishop’s Pacific Hall explores the cultural treasures and migration patterns of the Pacific people throughout Oceania. Both are packed full of wonders, and you’ll walk away with a new appreciation of life in Hawaii’s earliest days.
3. You Can Follow In The Footsteps Of The Wayfinders
If you’ve ever wondered how the first Hawaiians reached the island paradise from Polynesia, head to the Bishop’s J. Watumull Planetarium to get a hands-on sailing lesson! The 25-minute fully immersive Wayfinders program allows visitors to simulate travels in a voyaging canoe and delves into the craft of night-sky navigation.
The experience will cost you an extra $2.95, but you’ll gain a deeper understanding of just how difficult it was for Hawaii’s intrepid first people to reach its shores. They used only the stars -- and their keen sense of navigation -- to find the way.
4. You Can Learn About Hawaii’s Royal Families
The history of Hawaii’s royal families is both fascinating and fraught with tragedy.
For nearly a hundred years, the Kamehameha dynasty ruled Hawaii and united the islands into a single nation. A stroll through the Bishop’s Kahili Room helps bring the stories of these leaders to life, both with portraits and artifacts. You’ll also learn about monarchs from the Kalakaua family, who reigned after the House of Kamehameha died out.
We were awestruck by the magnificent kahili, or feather staffs, associated with the royal family and used during formal occasions. There are also personal effects of the kings and queens on display.
By considering the stories of these families, you can better understand the present, complicated history of the 50th state.
5. You Can Explore Hawaii’s Ever-Changing Environment
To take a deeper dive into Hawaii’s incredible biodiversity and the environmental factors that continue to shape the island chain, make sure to take time to visit the Bishop’s Richard T. Mamiya Science Adventure Center. Set slightly away from the main halls, the hands-on exhibits focus on the forces -- including volcanoes and the Pacific Ocean -- that affect these beloved islands.
Don’t miss the daily lava show, at which you can see firsthand how lava forms and watch it flow in its molten state from a brass furnace. You couldn’t get any closer to the process, even if you’ve got a visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park planned!
6. You’ll Gain An Appreciation For Hawaii’s Surfing Culture
Surfing is an important part of Hawaiian culture, and at the Bishop, you can get a crash course on the sport without even getting wet.
Surfers have been testing and riding the waves for generations in Hawaii, and until May 2020, a special exhibit at the Bishop will introduce visitors to the sport. It includes vintage boards, old photos, and even a computer simulator so that you can give the sport a virtual try. Exhibits on surfing legends are also on display.
Strolling through the exhibit is a terrific way to better understand why Hawaii and surfing will be forever intertwined.
7. The Daily Programs And Presentations Are Terrific
While the offerings and programs vary at the Bishop, they always include something fascinating pertaining to Hawaiian life and culture (and are included in the price of your general admission!). From lei-making to surfboard shaping to carving and craft demonstrations, they are well worth checking out. The museum occasionally hosts after-hours events as well.
See what’s on offer daily on the Bishop’s event page.
What To Know Before You Go
The Bishop is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and adult admission costs $24.95. The museum is located near downtown Honolulu and is easily accessible by car, Uber, or bus. Keep in mind that the campus consists of several buildings, so you’ll get some walking in, especially if you opt for the garden tour.
Pro Tips: The museum shop is stocked with beautiful items and is well worth checking out. Chances are you’ll find something here to bring home to friends and family. And if you work up an appetite during your Bishop adventure, there’s no need to go off campus. We found the cafe to be charming and very much in line with traditional food-truck fare, offering Hawaiian favorites such as poke bowls, kalua pork and poi, and the famous macaroni potato salad (yes, it’s a thing!). The prices are reasonable, too.