Iolani Palace was built between 1879-1882 and was home to Hawaii's royal family. It was the site of much political intrigue when in 1893 the Hawaiian royalty led by its last monarch Queen Liliuokalani was overthrown by a group of local businessmen. The palace would go on to be the seat of government for the Republic of Hawaii and later the Territory and State of Hawaii when it was admitted into the United States. Today the palace is a National Historical Landmark and the only royal palace on American soil.
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Iolani Palace was built between 1879-1882 and was home to Hawaii’s royal family. It was the site of much political intrigue when in 1893 the Hawaiian royalty led by its last monarch Queen Liliuokalani was overthrown by a group of local businessmen. Later after the Queen was believed to be linked to a coup attempt she was imprisoned for eight months in the palace. The palace would go on to be the seat of government for the Republic of Hawaii and later the Territory and State of Hawaii when it was admitted into the United States. Today the palace is a National Historical Landmark and the only royal palace on American soil.
The Iolani Palace is very easy to find since it is located in downtown Honolulu on the appropriately named King Street adjacent to the State Capital building. The palace is accessed by taking a left off of King Street on to Likelike Street which leads to the palace.
Unlike many other areas in downtown Honolulu parking for Iolani Palace is actually pretty easy to find. After turning off of King Street on to Likelike Street just make a left into the parking lot for the palace adjacent to the large banyan trees. There are plenty of parking spots there. However, make sure you have quarters because all the parking is metered.
Iolani Palace is one of the locations in Honolulu that everyone drives past, but I found it is a place that few locals have actually ever toured. If a local had toured the palace it was many years ago during a school trip. I found this surprising because so much of Hawaii’s modern history can be linked to Iolani Palace. So I decided to not be a local that hasn’t done one of the guided tours of the palace and on one of its “Kamaaina Sundays” I took my kids to tour the palace:
The parking at the palace is under some very large banyan trees that provide some nice shade. We would learn later during the tour that these same banyan trees were in place when the Hawaiian royalty lived in the palace in the late 1800’s. In fact their kids used to play in these large and beautiful trees:
On the far side of these trees on the grounds of the Hawaiian State Capital is a statue of Queen Lilikuokalani the last monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii that was overthrown in Iolani Palace:
After checking out the statue my kids and I walked over to the Hale Koa which was an old military garrison constructed in 1871 to house the royal guards for Iolani Palace:
The old garrison is now used as a visitor center and gift shop for Iolani Palace. Tickets for guided and audio tours of the palace can be purchased here. However, tickets are limited and reserving online is highly encouraged. However, on Kamaaina Sundays the palace has free tickets on a first come first serve basis for locals with a Hawaii state ID card. The first tour was at 9:00 AM and we got there at 8:30 to get our tickets at the Hale Koa:
After getting our tickets we then walked over to the back of Iolani Palace to meet up with our tour group:
As we waited for our tour to begin I had time to appreciate the craftsmanship used during the construction of the palace such as the native koa wood used to frame the windows:
As we sat on the lanai waiting for the tour to begin I was also able to take in the engravings on the roof as well. We would find out later the engravings around the building had no particular meaning, but was just a popular western style back when the palace was built:
Before the start of the tour the guide gave everyone little booties to wear to protect the historic floors inside the palace. They may not be very stylish, but they work:
The first location the tour guide brought us to was to look at the stunning koa wood staircase in the middle of the palace:
The guide also took time to discuss the paintings of the different Hawaiian monarchs hanging on the wall. From 1810-1872 the Kamehameha family ruled the Kingdom of Hawaii until the death of Kamehameha V who died without a successor thus ending the dynasty. After the end of the Kamehameha family line a election was held for the first time to choose who the new king would be. The son of a high chief William Charles Lunalillo won the election. However, he would not remain king long because after a year as king he got sick from tuberculosis and died. Another election was held in 1874 and this time a nobleman David Kalakaua, who was the main political rival of Lunalillo, was elected.
Kalakaua was very interested in increasing the power of the monarchy that his predecessors had weakened as part of democratic reforms. To do this he needed money and the exporting of agricultural products, particularly sugar is what he focused on. In a deal with the United States he eliminated tariffs in return for the exclusive use of Pearl Harbor by the US Navy. To demonstrate his royal status Kalakaua put the increased money from sugar sales to use by building an elaborate royal palace between 1879-1882.
While the royal building named Iolani Palace was under construction, King Kalakaua went on an around the world boat tour in 1881 to lobby for foreign laborers to come to Hawaii to work in the fields to increase agricultural production. On this trip he also had the opportunity to meet Thomas Edison and learn about electricity. This meeting would lead to Kalakaua deciding to install electricity into his newly constructed palace. According to our tour guide the decision to add electricity to the palace more than doubled the cost of construction, but Iolani Palace had electricity five years before the White House. The electricity was on display in the first room we walked into:
The electricity also allowed the palace to be installed with telephones which was another rare luxury available in the late 1800’s:
The picture above the telephone was of interest because it was from a trip Kalakaua made to Japan. During his visit Kalakaua attempted to get the Emperor of Japan to agree to marry his son to his 5-year old niece Ka’iulani who he intended to declare as a future successor to the Hawaiian throne. This would mean the Emperor of Japan’s son would be married to the future Queen of Hawaii. Kalakaua had the ambition of trying to unite all of Polynesia under Hawaiian rule and then join a confederation of Asian nations to counter balance the US and Europe. The Emperor declined Kalakaua’s offer. Obviously Kalakaua was not well versed in Japanese culture because at the time interracial marriage was greatly looked down upon especially for a royal. However, it is interesting to think how different history may have been if this marriage would have happened. For example it is likely the Pearl Harbor bombing would have never occurred since the Hawaiian king would have been the Japanese Emperor’s son.
Kalakaua’s travels caused him to be hungry for information from the outside world so he frequently invited ship captains and other distinguished visitors to Hawaii to stop by Iolani Palace to eat with him in his lavish dining room:
The most interesting thing I saw in the dining room was how it was decorated with paintings of European royals that were given to him. Apparently that was a common theme with royals back then to exchange paintings of each other:
The palace had plenty of other decorations as well that had nothing to do with Hawaii. For example here is a vase of western design:
From the dining room we then took an elevator up to the second floor:
The hallway on the second floor was lighted with some beautiful ceiling lamps:
From the second floor window we could the palace grounds. The guide said that back in the late 1800’s the harbor was visible from the second floor. From here the king could see what ships had come into port so he could send a message for the captain to dine with him. Today the growth of the city on reclaimed land has pushed the harbor out of view of the palace:
On the second floor we next stopped so see the King’s bedroom. Probably the most interesting thing I saw was that his bed was not a “King” sized bed:
His bedroom also had a very beautiful Chinese table that the guide said told a story that concluded in the center of the table:
From his bedroom we walked over to his office. Inside his office the King’s favorite hat was on display on his desk. Also laid out on the desk was the documents from the “Bayonet Constitution“:
The 1887 Bayonet Constitution was forced upon Kalakaua by anti-monarchists who threatened to depose him if he did not sign the new Constitution that would curtail his power. During this part of the tour the guide made sure to highlight the fact that the constitution allowed only land owners and those of a certain economic level to vote. These people tended to be mostly white men and Hawaiian nobles. This would prevent the regular citizens from voting. It was basically a Jim Crow law before there was Jim Crow. However, left unsaid is the fact that under Kalakaua voting did not matter since he had the authority to veto any law or decision. The Jim Crow democracy brought on by the Bayonet Constitution ended this. This is why I tend to think that both side were wrong in this whole political drama at the time.
The next room we went into was a sitting room with an old record player that was used for entertaining:
From there we went into the room where Queen Liliuokalani was imprisoned in:
King Kalakaua’s sister, Liliuokalani had long been named his heir. She would eventually become the Queen of Hawaii when her brother traveled to California and died from sickness in 1891. After becoming Queen she attempted to have the Bayonet Constitution rewritten to restore royal power and voting rights to lower class citizens, namely Asians and Hawaiians. This ended up leading to a coup that saw her disposed from power in 1893. Liliuokalani had become the last monarch of Hawaii. The follow on government led by the wealthy business class established the Republic of Hawaii. In 1895 a coup by royal supporters to overthrow the Republic of Hawaii was thwarted and Queen Liliuokalani was blamed for the uprising. The Queen claimed innocence, but was tried and imprisoned in an upstairs room in Iolani Palace for eight months until her five year sentence was commuted and she was released. While in captivity she passed the time quilting. On display was a very large and incredibly detailed quilt that she stitched during her time imprisoned in the room:
We next went into the Queen’s bedroom. This is the bedroom that Kalakaua’s wife, Queen Kapiolani would have used:
She did have her own “Queen” sized bed:
Besides electricity another major luxury in the palace was the fact that the bedrooms were equipped with running water for showers:
The palace also had running water for sinks and toilets which was rare in the late 1800’s:
From the upstairs the tour then moved back downstairs to view the throne room:
Once again the throne room was quite opulent and had chairs for King Kalakaua and his wife Queen Kapiolani. On the side of the room there were eleven chairs for royal family members such as his sister Liliuokalani:
In a glass case the crowns and royal swords of the old Kingdom of Hawaii are on display:
After visiting throne room the official guided tour ended, but visitors had the option of going downstairs and seeing the basement. Though the basement was nice it was no where near as opulent as the rooms upstairs:
This is because downstairs is wear the servants and palace staff worked at. For example the basement is where the palace kitchen is located. They would actually move food upstairs from the kitchen on a small elevator:
The basement also had various administrative offices:
It also had a room for the palace band to use:
The palace staff even had flushable toilets to use which were a rarity in the late 1800’s:
The basement also had a number of medallions and royal jewelry on display:
The most interesting piece of jewelry on display was this butterfly hair clip worn by Liliuokalani before she became Queen during a trip she made to England to meet Queen Victoria:
Here is a picture of Liliuokalani in England wearing the hair clip:
After checking out the basement I then took my kids for a walk around the palace’s grounds. On the grounds is a beautiful pavilion that was constructed in 1883 for a massive coronation ceremony that King Kalakaua organized. Today the pavilion serves as pretty much a hang out area for local homeless people:
We then walked to the front of the palace and took some pictures. It really is a beautiful building:
We then walked to the side of the palace and took another picture:
Our tour of the palace was extremely interesting which was a credit to our guide who was extremely knowledgable and energetic. It was easy to tell how much pride he took in explaining the history of the palace to visitors. The tour took about two hours to complete so it was pretty comprehensive. What I found the most ironic about the history of the palace is that it was constructed to show the power and authority of the monarchy and instead in my opinion it is what ended it. If King Kalakaua had not went on such a lavish spending spree and tried to roll back democratic reforms would the businessmen have overthrown him? If not history for the royal family and for Hawaii overall may have turned out very different. Anyway Iolani Palace is a fantastic place to explore the history of the late 1800’s Hawaii and I highly recommend it to both visitors and locals.