10 Best Culture Tours & Experiences in Tonga© TongaPocketGuide.com
10 Best Culture Tours & Experiences in Tonga

15 Best Culture Tours & Experiences in Tonga

© TongaPocketGuide.com

How to Experience the Culture in Tonga

Tonga prides itself as a place where you can experience the “true South Pacific” – where traditions and customs are living and breathing on the islands, not just put on for a show for tourists. Just by going out into the community, experiencing markets, trying the food and going to church; you’re going to get an authentic slice of life in Tonga. What’s more, you can always dive a little deeper into the Tongan culture through various culture tours in Tonga. We go through some of these and other ways to experience the Tongan culture in this guide.

1. Experience a “Full Culture Tour” at Ancient Tonga

Tours solely dedicated to the Tongan culture are surprisingly hard to come by, but one place you can rely on for such an experience is Ancient Tonga in Nuku’alofa. The culture centre offers two tours; a “Full Culture Tour” which is two hours and a “Half Culture Tour” which is a shortened version of the tour with no tasting/eating. The Full Culture Tour is well worth the time, which incorporates a huge array of aspects of the Tongan culture presented through live demonstrations, hands-on experiences, tastings and a tour of a private museum.

You’ll learn to prepare lu for the traditional umu hot-rock oven, from husking and grating the coconut to wrapping ingredients in banana leaves to putting it in the underground oven. In between, you’ll see, smell and taste various vegetation and medicinal plants that have been used by locals for hundreds of years. Then, see ancient relics including Lapita pottery that’s over 1,000 years old on a tour of Ancient Tonga’s private museum. And that’s not all, as you enter the open-air fale to see and experience demonstrations of mat weaving, beating the hiapo for the ngatu (tapa cloth), dressing up in traditional attire, tasting and learning about the significance of kava, and trying Tongan medicinal and beauty products like tuitui and nonu. Finally, on the Full Culture Tour, enjoy your umu-cooked lu accompanied by tropical fruit and refreshments.

Location: Tamakautonga Road, Popua, Nuku’alofa, Tongatapu. Transfers are available from Nuku’alofa for a fee.

10 Best Ways to Experience the Tongan Culture© TongaPocketGuide.com

2. Learn About the Tongan Culture at ‘Anahulu Cave with Teta Tours & Travel

Combine visiting one of Tonga’s most stunning natural attractions with engaging in the vibrant Tongan culture in the “‘Anahulu Cave and Culture Tour” with Teta Tours & Travel. The 3-hour tour takes you to the beautiful limestone cave of ‘Anahulu Cave, incorporating live food and crafting demonstrations for intriguing insights into the Tongan culture. After a traditional kava ceremony and tasting one of Tonga’s most iconic drinks, witness tapa cloth-making, watch coconut climbing (if the weather permits) and see how coconuts are husked and grated to be used in everyday cooking and crafting. What’s more, the experience also includes tastings of Tonga’s most iconic tropical fruits!

Location: ‘Anahulu Cave, signposted from the southern end of Haveluliku village, east side of Tongatapu. Transfers from Nuku’alofa are included.

10 Best Culture Tours & Experiences in Tonga© Teta Tours & Travel

3. Craft Your Own Souvenir at Tina’s Workshop

For anyone wanting to immerse in the Tongan culture, handmake a meaningful souvenir, and make some friends along the way, Tina’s Workshop should be a first go-to. The workshop at the Fehoko Oceanic Arts Studio in the Nuku’alofa suburb of Popua offers weekly workshops for anyone to learn how to craft from tapa cloth, fronds or wood. Join on “Tapa Tuesdays” for a three-hour tapa craft workshop where you’ll learn how to make tapa notebooks, sei (flowers for the ear), dolls and/or angels. The aim is to leave the workshop with a completed souvenir(s). At the beginning of the workshop, the team will give the group a demonstration on how to prepare an umu, which is traditional food cooked in a hot-rock oven – spoiler alert, you’ll be eating it later for lunch!

Thursdays are typically dedicated to carving workshops, which are much longer affairs, taking approximately five to seven sessions in total to complete a piece. As with the Tuesday workshop, an umu lunch is included.

Private groups and alternative workshops are available on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Learn more about Tina’s Workshop, as well as other ways to learn handicrafts in our guide to Tongan Handicrafts: Top Tours & Workshops.

Location: Fehoko Oceanic Arts Studio, Tamakautonga Road, Popua, Nuku’alofa, Tongatapu.

10 Best Culture Tours & Experiences in Tonga© TongaPocketGuide.com

4. Experience a Garden Tour, Demonstrations and a Tongan Feast on the ‘Ene’io Botanical Garden Grand Tour

An insightful garden tour, Tongan product demonstrations and Tongan feast and floor show, the ‘Ene’io Grand Tour in Vava’u offers a comprehensive cultural experience. You’ll be greeted with a fresh floral garland on arrival at ‘Ene’io Botanical Garden where you’ll embark on a fascinating tour with the founder, an agronomist and former Director of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries of Tonga for 18 years, Mr Haniteli Fa’anunu. After the guided garden tour, enjoy a demonstration or live show of how live plants are processed into valuable products by the local women at the garden’s visitor centre. Continue to a scrumptious Tongan feast with a roast suckling pig and taste local dishes. Relax and enjoy the dazzling display of traditional dancing with a floor show and a live band with folk music to enjoy.

Note that ‘Ene’io Botanical Garden can also be visited for garden tours only – no transfers included. Learn more in the 5 Best Guided Island Land Tours of Vava’u.

Location: Tu’anikivale, ‘Utu Vava’u, Vava’u. Pick-ups are included from Neiafu.

10 Best Culture Tours & Experiences in Tonga© TongaPocketGuide.com

5. Do a Medicine and Cultural Walk with Katea Retreat

Katea Retreat might be more known for its cultural shows and umu buffets, but the beach resort also offers a unique guided walk. The walk begins on the resort’s breathtaking beach backed with caves before delving into the forest where you’ll learn about the vegetation and how they are used in traditional Tongan medicine. Along the way, you’ll also check out sacred landmarks and learn more about Tonga’s unique history from your knowledgeable local guide. The experience concludes with a fabulous lunch. See more walks across the islands in the 10 Best Walks & Hikes in Tonga.

Location: Katea Retreat, Nakolo (access road off Liku Road, just south of Nakolo village), southeast coast of Tongatapu.

10 Best Culture Tours & Experiences in Tonga© TongaPocketGuide.com

6. Go to a Sunday Church Service

An easy (and free) way to experience the Tongan culture is to attend a Sunday church service. Tonga is a highly religious Christian country, where going to Sunday church is part of the routine. Visitors are welcome to attend church services, as long as they wear appropriate clothing. The reward is listening to the locals’ harmonious singing and witnessing the passion of their faith. Learn more about church protocol and check out churches to visit in the 10 Best Churches in Tonga for Tourists.

Location: All over Tonga! See the link above for church recommendations and their locations.

10 Best Culture Tours & Experiences in Tonga© TongaPocketGuide.com

7. Attend a Tongan Feast and Floor Show

Featuring traditional singing, dancing and, of course, a Tongan feast, a Tongan floor show is a must to experience at least once during your getaway! Cultural shows take place in some of the resorts around Tonga where you’ll get to enjoy a traditional form of dance known as lakalaka, which involves a mix of graceful dancing from the women and energetic war dancing from the men. You’ll need energy just to watch these captivating performances, but luckily, a floor show rarely comes without a Tongan feast with an array of local staples cooked in an umu oven, as well as a spitroast pig! Check out The 10 Best Cultural Shows in Tonga for recommended shows and what each entails.

Location: All over Tonga! See the link above for recommendations and their locations.

10 Best Ways to Experience the Tongan Culture(c) tongapocketguide.com

8. Do a Guided Sightseeing Tour with a Local

Locals offering sightseeing tours of their islands each provide their unique perspectives as you travel from one attraction to the next, making tours a good way to learn some context about the sights you are visiting compared to visiting the places on your own. There are many amazing Tongan tours to check out, as listed in the 10 Best Sightseeing Tours in Tonga.

Location: All over Tonga! Tours typically include accommodation transfers from the island group’s main town.

10 Best Ways to Experience the Tongan Culture(c) tongapocketguide.com

9. Stay in a Local Guesthouse

Tonga might have resorts and hotels, but the most “local” type of accommodation is the guesthouses. This type of budget accommodation is typically owned and run by locals who are usually eager to share their culture with guests, whether it’s through cooking, hosting umu or kava sessions, or general conversation. Check out the 20 Best Guesthouses in Tonga for examples of guesthouses.

Location: All over Tonga! See the link above for recommendations.

10 Best Culture Tours & Experiences in Tonga© TongaPocketGuide.com

10. Experience a Sunday Umu

We’ve already touched on umu feasts at Tongan floor shows, but another way you might experience this tradition is for Sunday dinner. Sunday is umu day in many homes across Tonga where you might experience this yummy slice of life at one of the accommodations that prepare Sunday umu, often when there are plenty of guests. If it’s a big occasion, there may even be a spitroast pig – a Tongan favourite! If you’re invited to an umu by a local, it’s customary to either bring a gift (ice cream from the grocery stores has always been a winner with us, as Tongan families have lots of kids) or feel free to leave some cash behind as a thank you. Otherwise, there will be a fee with accommodation providers. Note that you may also be eating first and separate from your hosts – this is also customary in Tonga. Learn more in our guide to Tonga Etiquette: Respecting the Local Customs.

Location: Any accommodation may decide to host an umu but some that are known to host them include ‘Alakoka Tahi Moana Guest House (‘Eua), Blue Water Retreat (‘Eua), Fanga ’o Ipu Lahi Resort (Ha’apai), and Mystic Sands (Vava’u).

10 Best Culture Tours & Experiences in Tonga© TongaPocketGuide.com

11. Browse Local Markets and Stalls

Another casual way to mingle with the locals is to go to the local markets and roadside stalls selling handicrafts and/or fresh produce. Visiting local markets provides excitement for all of the senses, with amazing handicrafts to admire, fresh tropical produce to buy and taste, and fun people to meet. Many stalls will personalise gifts for you, making your souvenirs from Tonga truly unique. See The Guide to Shopping in Tonga + The Best Places to Shop for more on the subject.

Location: All over Tonga! Check out the 5 Best Markets in Tonga for recommendations and their locations.

10 Best Ways to Experience the Tongan Culture(c) tongapocketguide.com

12. Drink Kava with the Locals

Drinking kava, made from the ground-up roots of a pepper plant, is a favourite pastime in Tonga. The local men gather together most evenings or before Sunday church for “faikava“. In other words, to sit in a circle, drink kava, sing harmoniously and play the guitar. Although kava is a narcotic drink, just one drink from the coconut shell won’t have an effect. Although this is traditionally a male activity, female visitors are welcome too.

Ask your accommodation provider if they can recommend a local faikava. You’ll find that the locals are very welcoming and are proud to share their culture with visitors. Either bring a bag of kava powder, which you can usually find at local grocery stores or leave a TOP$50 donation. Some accommodations also host kava nights for a guided experience.

Location: All over Tonga! See Where to Try Kava in Tonga for accommodations and tours serving kava.

10 Best Culture Tours & Experiences in Tonga© TongaPocketGuide.com

13. Learn About Tongan History at the Tonga National Museum

The Tonga National Museum is highly recommended to anyone remotely interested in the history of Tonga, which in turn, will bring you closer to the Tongan culture. Admire all sorts of ancient Tongan tools, from stone anchors to wooden headrests, and get a fascinating insight into the way that Tongans lived hundreds of years ago. Too many visitors miss this treasure trove – mainly because the museum is not easy to find. The museum has a very affordable fee and guided tours are provided by passionate and knowledgeable guides at no extra cost. Alternatively, you can walk around the hall self-guided thanks to the information displays. See more museums around the country in the 5 Best Museums in Tonga.

Location: Upstairs in Queen Salote Memorial Hall, Taufa’ahau Road (opposite the Lulutai Airlines office), Nuku’alofa city centre, Tongatapu.

10 Best Culture Tours & Experiences in Tonga© TongaPocketGuide.com

14. Visit Remote Island Villages with the Friendly Islands Kayak Company

While not exclusively a cultural tour, the Friendly Islands Kayak Company does allow adventurous travellers the opportunity to visit various Tongan villages on their multi-day kayaking tours in Ha’apai and Vava’u. For instance, on the “11-Day Ha’apai Tropical Expedition”, you’ll explore the quaint fishing village of Felemea, while on the “5-Day Vava’u Special”, you’ll paddle to the village of Matamaka to experience village life on the islands through the local school or at the weaving group at the community hall. Learn more about these kayaking experiences in The Best Kayak Tours in Tonga.

Location: Tours include local airport transfers from Ha’apai or Vava’u.

10 Best Culture Tours & Experiences in Tonga© Friendly Islands Kayak Company

15. Try the Local Cuisine

Food is an important part of the Tongan culture, so sampling some of the local dishes and snacks is a must! We recommend trying ‘ota ika, which is raw fish marinated in coconut cream, lu, which is meat and taro cooked in coconut cream, and fai kakai, which is a sweet and sticky cassava dessert. Check out the 10 Unique Foods in Tonga You Have to Try so you know what to look out for on the menu.

Location: All over Tonga! See the link above for suggestions on where to try specific Tongan dishes.

10 Best Culture Tours & Experiences in Tonga© TongaPocketGuide.com

More Culture Tours and Experiences in Tonga

That’s it for our list of the best culture tours and experiences in Tonga. For more about experiencing the Tongan culture, take a look at the following:

Finally, get inspired by the array of experiences in The Kingdom with the 101 Best Things to Do in Tonga: The Ultimate List and start planning with ease using The Complete Travel Guide to Tonga.


Laura (Lola) S.

This article was reviewed and published by Laura, editor in chief and co-founder of Tonga Pocket Guide. Since arriving solo in the South Pacific over 10 years ago with nothing but a backpack and a background in journalism, her mission has been to show the world how easy (and awesome) it is to explore a paradise such as Tonga. She knows the islands inside-out and loves sharing tips on how best to experience Tonga’s must-dos and hidden gems. Laura is also editor of several other South Pacific travel guides.

Was this article useful?