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The Hawaiian Islands are renowned for their natural beauty, vibrant culture, and rich history. As the 50th and most recent state to join the United States of America, Hawaii has a unique status and history that sets it apart from the other 49 states.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: The capital of Hawaii is Honolulu, located on the island of Oahu.

In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the history, geography, economy, and politics of Hawaii to understand how Honolulu came to be its modern-day capital city. We will examine other major Hawaiian cities and towns, look at previous historical capitals, and explain why Honolulu continues to be the center of government in the Aloha State.

A Brief History of Hawaii and How It Became a State

Ancient Hawaii and the Rise of Island Kingdoms

The Hawaiian Islands were first settled around 300-600 AD by Polynesian voyagers. Over the next few centuries, a uniquely Hawaiian culture emerged with complex social structures and rich artistic traditions. Independent chiefdoms ruled each of the main islands.

Around 1200 AD, the islands were officially organized into four kingdoms – Kauai, Oahu, Maui, and Hawaii (also called the “Big Island”).

Unification Under King Kamehameha

During the late 1700s and early 1800s, the ambitious King Kamehameha I embarked on a campaign to unite all the Hawaiian Islands under his rule. After years of warfare, diplomacy, and perseverance, he succeeded – formally establishing the Kingdom of Hawaii around 1810 with himself as monarch.

His successors continued Hawaiʻi’s territorial expansion and promoted increasing engagement with foreign traders and settlers.

Western Contact and the End of the Monarchy

The arrival of Western explorers like Captain James Cook in 1778 initiated a long period of cultural exchange and tension. American missionaries and businessmen established significant footholds by the mid-1800s.

Mounting economic pressures ultimately led to the overthrow of Queen Liliʻuokalani by pro-American rebels in 1893, ending Hawaiʻi’s monarchy. Shortly after, the islands were annexed as a U.S. territory.

Territorial Status and Statehood in 1959

For over 60 years, Hawaii operated under territorial status managed by the U.S. federal government. Calls for statehood increased after World War II when Hawaiian soldiers returned home. Finally, after much political wrangling, Hawaii officially became the 50th state on August 21, 1959.

Today, native Hawaiians only account for about 10% of Hawaii’s diversity population according to U.S. Census Bureau. The state remains the only one located outside North America.

Oahu and Honolulu – The Primate City of Hawaii

Honolulu Emerges as the Major Port City in the 1800s

During the early 1800s, Honolulu started emerging as a major port city due to its central location in the Hawaiian islands. Its large natural harbor made it an ideal stopover point for whaling and merchant ships traveling across the Pacific (see,and%20role%20as%20a%20port).

By the 1850s, Honolulu was designated as the official capital of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi as it became the center for business and governance in the islands.

As trade expanded rapidly, the downtown area near the harbor grew quickly. Luxury hotels, banks, retail stores were built to serve the influx of merchants, sailors, and settlers. By 1890, Honolulu’s population had grown over 20,000 making it one of the largest cities west of the Rocky Mountains.

Its cosmopolitan atmosphere with a mix of Europeans, Americans, Chinese, Japanese created a vibrant urban culture (see

Pearl Harbor and the World Wars

The strategic location of Honolulu and Pearl Harbor made it a crucial naval base for the United States. After annexation in 1898, the U.S. began developing Pearl Harbor into a major military outpost. Drydocks, fuel tanks, warehouses were built to service the Navy fleet.

During World War II, Pearl Harbor was infamously attacked by the Japanese on December 7, 1941, prompting the U.S. to enter the war. The bombing destroyed over 150 aircrafts and 18 ships, killing over 2,400 Americans. This event transformed Hawaiʻi as martial law was declared.

Barbed wires and checkpoints became commonplace through Honolulu as defenses were strengthened in preparation for invasion.

After the war, Hawaiʻi experienced major social and economic changes. Many servicemen returned to permanently settle in Honolulu leading to a population boom. Federal spending also drove rapid economic growth as tourism started taking shape.

Modern Honolulu as a Tourism and Business Hub

Today, Honolulu is a bustling cosmopolitan city with over 350,000 residents in the metro area. Its mild tropical climate and pristine beaches make it a popular tourist destination. In 2019 alone, over 6.5 million visitors came to Oʻahu generating $8 billion in revenue (see

From high-end resorts in Waikīki to the historic USS Arizona Memorial, Honolulu offers superb attractions for visitors from around the world.

Honolulu also serves as the government and business hub for the state. Most major Hawaiian companies have headquarters there including Hawaiian Airlines, Matson shipping, as well as leading healthcare providers.

The University of Hawaiʻi main campus and major federal offices are also located in the city. Overall, Honolulu boasts a strong diverse economy focused on tourism, services, technology, and the military that continues to attract new residents and investments.

Other Notable Hawaiian Cities and Towns

Hilo – the largest city on the Island of Hawaii

With over 45,000 residents, Hilo is the largest settlement on the Island of Hawaii, known as the Big Island. As the county seat of the County of Hawaii, Hilo serves as the main gateway for trade, commerce, and tourism on the eastern side of the island.

The area sees frequent rainfall throughout the year, contributing to its lush rainforests and thriving agricultural sector. Some top attractions in Hilo include the Pacific Tsunami Museum, Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Corporation, Liliuokalani Park and Gardens, and the popular Hilo Farmers Market.

Kailua-Kona – Former Capital and Center of the West Hawaii

Located along the western coastline of the Big Island, Kailua-Kona’s population is over 12,000 residents, making it a bustling tourist destination and economic center for West Hawaii. As the former capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii, Kailua-Kona retains a rich Hawaiian cultural heritage.

Top sights include Huliheʻe Palace, Ahuʻena Heiau temple, and the Kona Coffee Living History Farm. The original name of the city was Kailua, with Kona meaning “leeward side” in Hawaiian. Together they refer to its location on the western side of the Big Island.

Lahaina – Former Capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii

On the island of Maui lies the historic town of Lahaina, with about 12,000 residents. In the early 19th century, Lahaina served as the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii from 1820 to 1845. Today, Lahaina is a popular tourist destination, acclaimed for its excellent surf breaks, shops and art galleries housed in historic buildings, and access to whale watching cruises.

Notable landmarks include the Old Lahaina Courthouse, the Lahaina Historic Trail, and the Banyan Tree Park with its iconic sprawling banyan tree spanning over an acre.

Waikiki – Famous beach resort area of Honolulu

Globally renowned for its stunning beaches and vibrant resort atmosphere, Waikiki is a district of Honolulu located along the southern shore of Oʻahu island. With a resident population estimated at just over 20,000, this coastal area comes alive with millions of visitors each year eager to experience its famous golden sand beaches backed by palms, luxury hotels, and seemingly endless dining and shopping options.

The main thoroughfare of Kalākaua Avenue bustles with activity day and night. No visit to Hawaiʻi is complete without a stay in Waikiki.

How State Government is Organized in Hawaii

The Hawaii State Capitol Building in Honolulu

The Hawaii State Capitol building is located in downtown Honolulu on the island of Oahu. It has been the home of Hawaii’s state government since 1969. The distinctive building features a unique architectural design with columns meant to resemble palm trees supporting the roof.

It’s definitely a must-see landmark to check out if you’re visiting Oahu!

The Governor and Executive Branch offices

The Governor of Hawaii resides in the Hawaii State Capitol building and oversees the executive branch of the state government. The current Governor is David Ige, who was first elected in 2014. The Governor works with various state departments and agencies to administer state laws and programs.

Some key executive branch offices located in the Capitol include the Department of Education, Department of Transportation, Department of Health, and Department of Human Services.

The Hawaii State Legislature

The Hawaii State Legislature is composed of the 25-member Hawaii State Senate and 51-member Hawaii House of Representatives. It is a bicameral body that writes and votes on new state laws. The two chambers meet for 60 working days each year from mid-January through early May in the Hawaii State Capitol building.

The Senate chamber and House chamber are located on the third floor. Some major issues the Legislature deals with involve education, environmental protection, taxation, and the state’s economy and budget.

The State Judiciary

The Hawaii State Judiciary branch operates out of multiple courthouses on four major islands. The highest court is the Supreme Court of Hawaii, consisting of a Chief Justice and four Associate Justices. They hear appeals from lower courts and make final decisions on the constitutionality of laws.

There is also an Intermediate Court of Appeals, Circuit Courts, and District Courts. Judges and staff work to fairly interpret and apply the law through the court system. An important value emphasized is “aloha spirit”, reflecting Hawaii’s unique culture and values.

Why Honolulu Continues to Dominate as Capital City

Central location within island chain

Honolulu is centrally located within the Hawaiian island chain, making it an accessible seat of government for the state’s diverse counties and communities. Situated on the island of Oahu, Honolulu is surrounded by the state’s other major islands like Maui, Kauai, and Hawaii Island.

This central placement enables better coordination and partnership between state leaders and neighbor island constituencies.

Largest population center

As home to over 70% of Hawaii’s 1.5 million residents, Honolulu and its metro region constitute the Aloha State’s predominant population hub. More Hawaiians call Honolulu home than any other city. Concentrating the machinery of government in its largest city allows state administration to be close to and responsive to the majority of citizens.

Hub for tourism, trade, media and culture

In addition to its sprawling population, Honolulu serves as Hawaii’s undisputed capital for tourism, shipping, information, and culture. Top attractions like Waikiki Beach, Pearl Harbor, and iconic landmarks cement Honolulu as a globally-renowned vacation paradise visited by over 5 million people annually.

The city’s integrated airport and seaport make it a waypoint for millions of tons of imports and exports. Honolulu media outlets and institutions like the Bishop Museum shape public discourse across the islands.

Such wide-ranging influence and connectivity solidify Honolulu’s standing as the beating heart of Hawaiian society.

Heart of state government operations

On top of its geographic, demographic, and economic centrality, Honolulu is home to Hawaii’s principal organs of state administration – from the State Capitol building to the Supreme Court to executive department offices.

Consolidating the core machinery of governance in Honolulu, as opposed to diffusing it across multiple islands, allows for streamlined and strategic leadership, bringing unity and efficiency to how Hawaii charts its future in our fast-paced world.

Truly, modern Hawaii is ungovernable without Honolulu at its helm.


As we have explored, Honolulu on the island of Oahu has served as Hawaii’s capital city since it joined the United States in 1959. Its central location, large population, economic power, and existing infrastructure made it the natural choice.

Yet Hawaii has a rich history of previous capitals like Lahaina on Maui, and Hilo continues to be the largest city on the Big Island of Hawaii. While these cities still play vital economic and cultural roles, Honolulu remains the undisputed center of government and business activity in the Aloha State.

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