A city guide to Honolulu, Hawaii

Hawaii’s capital city is as much Pacific idyll as it is cosmopolitan cool, offering indie shops, fusion food and sunset hulas under banyan trees. Dive in for a microcosm of the islands’ warm aloha spirit.

By Pól Ó Conghaile
Published 13 May 2021, 08:00 BST
Walking in Ala Moana Regional Park.

Walking in Ala Moana Regional Park, between Waikiki and downtown Honolulu.

Photograph by Hawaii Tourism Authority HTA, Ben Ono

“When a Hawaiian says ‘aloha’, you must respond with energy,” says the guitarist leading a hula group on Kuhio Beach. It’s a word imbued with love, compassion and respect — a catch-all for laid-back island life. It also captures the spirit of Honolulu: a city of shave ice and tropical print shirts, of shady lanais (verandahs), fragrant leis (garlands) and buff beach boys surfing as sunshine smacks off cool, blue water. The skies are bright year-round and the ocean infuses everything, from fresh poke bowls to stories of early voyagers arriving by canoe.

Aloha doesn’t preclude a sense of momentum, however — as evidenced by Honolulu’s lively fusion food scene and the murals of its de facto arts district, Kaka‘ako. The area once defined by warehouses and vacant lots is now home to SALT at Our Kaka‘ako, a trendy mixed-use market and retail space, and is the heart of the annual POW! WOW! Hawaii festival. “POW! means the punch of art,” explains Jeff Gress, a local artist and the festival’s operations director. “WOW! is the reaction.”

Honolulu is huge by Hawaiian standards, but a mere speck compared to other US cities. Its coastal setting on the island of Oahu, dramatised by a cinematic ring of mountains, feels at once like a remote outpost and a bustling Pacific crossroads. It’s a city of traffic snarls and growing pains, but also a place where surfboards lean against office walls and everyone wears slippahs (flip-flops).

Concrete and glass blocks sprout from a downtown dotted with banyan trees, but walking around here, you’ll also encounter Iolani Palace (the only royal palace on US soil) and Chinatown — a mash-up of grit and gentrification, where you can visit the city’s best galleries, eat its most fashionable food and hear the visceral clunk of cleavers chopping pork belly in old-school markets. If Hawaii is the convergence of Polynesian, Asian and American cultures, Honolulu is its most thrilling expression.

Artist Gavin Murai paints a mural for POW! WOW! Hawaii 2018.

Photograph by Hawaii Tourism Authority HTA, Vincent Lim

Top things to do and see in Honolulu

Surf’s up in Waikiki
It would be rude not to surf in Waikiki. Make your way to the beach in the morning before the wind and crowds pick up, then take a lesson with one of the local beach boys or rent a $20 (£15) long board for a better chance at balancing. Beginners should head for ‘Canoes’, the easiest break within swimming distance. If you manage to stand up, you’ll catch a sparkling view of the condo-crammed skyline.

Chill in Chinatown
This is where Second World War sailors were inked with the motto ‘stewed, screwed and tattooed’; plantation-era immigrants made new starts; and Sailor Jerry set up shop. Today’s Chinatown is a sausage grinder of a city quarter, squeezing out a fascinating mix of history and the here-and-now. Stroll through Oahu Market, browse garlands chilling in fridges at Cindy’s Lei & Flower Shoppe, wander the galleries, drink at one of the many dive bars and get your ‘grinds’ (eats) at a cutting-edge restaurant like Senia, a collaboration between chefs Chris Kajioka and Anthony Rush. 

Bishop Museum
Hawaii’s state museum is the place to get your cultural and historical bearings. A planetarium shows the stars that guided epic Pacific canoe voyages, while a large hall explores creation stories, the wao (realms) of Hawaiian life and historical chapters such as the grisly fate of Captain Cook. Small treasures like tiny pearl shell hooks make big impressions, too. 

Hike Diamond Head
Oahu is threaded with great hiking trails. If you try only one, make it this short, spectacular path, zigzagging its way from the heart of an extinct volcano crater just south of Waikiki. Follow the 0.8-mile hike from the trailhead to the summit, passing old military tunnels and bunkers, to reach views that stretch as far as the islands of Lanai and Maui. Afterwards, treat yourself to an acai bowl at Da Cove in nearby Monsarrat. dlnr.hawaii.gov

Street smarts at Kaka’ako
This old warehouse district is a rapidly changing neighbourhood buzzing with street art, independent shops and an art deco atmosphere. Mosey around the 100 or so murals radiating out from Lana Lane (artists include Shepard Fairey and Kevin Lyons) before hitting the stores and restaurants of SALT at Our Kaka‘ako. The city’s POW! WOW! Hawaii festival, a week-long series of art events, takes place every February.  

Hula at Kuhio Beach
It could be cheesy, but it isn’t. Held under an old banyan tree at sunset, this hour-long cultural session uses Hawaiian music and dance to educate visitors and keep island traditions alive. It’s a genuine and gentle fix of Aloha, with the twirling hula dancers and their surprisingly subtle feet and hand movements the star turns. 

Skip the city
Oahu is a relatively small island, but it boasts some big day trip options. Don’t come this far without planning a day at Pearl Harbor (book ahead, especially to see the USS Arizona Memorial) or a snorkelling and sailing trip on the Leeward Coast to spot wild spinner dolphins and green sea turtles with Wild Side Specialty Tours. nps.gov/valr

A take on poke at Senia, a collaboration between chefs Chris Kajioka and Anthony Rush. 

Photograph by Senia

What to buy in Honolulu

SALT at Our Kaka‘ako
This rebooted city block is devoted to innovative local culture, food and shopping. Swing by Urban Island Society for surfboards, swimwear and travel cosmetics, and Treehouse for analogue photography merchandise and art books. 

Newt at the Royal
Located at The Royal Hawaiian Resort, this store has supplied hand-woven Montecristi hats and retro-print shirts to customers from Thomas Wolfe to Eddie Vedder. 

Tin Can Mailman
For vintage Hawaiiana, look no further. This is the place for Elvis posters, koa wood carvings, painted ukuleles and dashboard hula dolls. Be warned: no photos allowed. 

Ala Moana Center
An outdoor mall mixing international brands with Hawaiian goodies. Look out for Malie Organics’ beauty products, sweet treats from the Honolulu Cookie Company and flip-flops from Island Slipper. 

Public surfboard racks, Waikiki. Locals wait years for the opportunity to store their boards by the famous waves.

Photograph by Meagan Suzuki

Where to eat in Honolulu

Highway Inn
Fuel up at this chatty comfort food joint at SALT at Our Kaka‘ako. Smoked Kalua pig, lau lau parcels (pork or fish wrapped in taro leaves), lomi salmon (tomato and salmon salad) and fermented poi (mashed taro and water, and very much an acquired taste) are served with a dollop of nostalgia. 

The Pig & the Lady
Old and new Chinatown crash together in this Vietnamese fusion joint on North King Street. Try a spiced beef or vegetable pho bowl, washed down with a chanh muoi (salty lemonade). Book in advance for dinner. 

Sushi Sho
Omakase-style meals are the order of the day at this 16-seater at The Ritz-Carlton Residences, Waikiki Beach, where chef Keiji Nakazawa and his team serve up $300 (£220) tasting meals. The evolving menu is elaborate: courses range from Kona abalone to bonito with Hawaiian mustard and Maui onions.

Waikiki Beach, with Diamond Head in the background.

Photograph by Hawaii Tourism Authority HTA

Where to sleep in Honolulu

The Surfjack
A cool counterpoint to Waikiki’s towering condos, The Surfjack mixes retro swim club with hip touches like poolside DJs, Pilates classes, graphic prints and free entry to the Honolulu Museum of Art. Grab one of its free bikes for the three-block skip to the beach. 

The royal Hawaiian resort
A Honolulu icon: Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio visited on their honeymoon, and the sixth season premiere of Mad Men was filmed here. Behind the Spanish-Moorish architecture of Waikiki’s ‘Pink Palace’, you’ll find a mix of old-school glamour, great mai tais, high-end shopping and direct access to Hawaii’s best-known beach. 

The Kahala Hotel & Resort
Previous guests have included US presidents, Sinatra, Clooney and Princess Diana. Think barefoot luxury rather than bling, with mid-century modern architecture, sea-glass chandeliers and soothing bedroom tones. 

Breakfast of papaya, toast and coffee at The Surfjack.

Photograph by Laura la Monaca

Like a local

First Fridays
On the first Friday of every month, Chinatown’s arts and food communities gather around a common theme, with bars, galleries, street artists, lei stands, rooftop spaces and more throwing events. Hotel Street also hosts a block party from 8pm to midnight. 

Slippahs (flip-flops) are your new best friend in Hawaii, where everyone has casual day-to-day pairs, as well as fancy versions for going out. They also make a handy accessory for swatting flies.

Art World Escape
This app and website aims to connect local artists of all genres with people looking to create, share, collaborate or simply learn about Honolulu’s creative scene. Sessions range from studio visits to back street tours, turntable skills and breakdancing, and start from $30 (£22). 

A flight of craft beers at Waikiki Brewing Company, on Kalakaua Avenue.

Photograph by Hawaii Tourism Authority HTA, Ben Ono

After hours

Hit up Hotel Street at least once. Smith’s Union Bar is the island’s oldest operating bar; The Dragon Upstairs is an ex-tattoo parlour doing cocktails, folk and jazz; and Bar 35 has a beer garden and pupus (snacks) including deep-fried bread pudding. 

Kalakaua Avenue is Honolulu’s main drag, filled with throngs of tourists, shopping malls and ritzy resorts. Order a drink at The Royal Hawaiian Resort’s oceanfront Mai Tai Bar; sample local beers at the Waikiki Brewing Company; and head to Michael Mina’s Stripsteak for choice cuts and craft cocktails.  

Visit Honolulu Beerworks for draught options including Pia Mahi ‘Ai, brewed with orange, lemon, lime and honey. For cocktails, try industrial-chic Bevy

Getting there & around

Several airlines, including United and Delta, fly to Honolulu via various mainland US hubs. 

Average flight time: 17h30m.

Express shuttles run from the airport to resorts in Honolulu and Waikiki, from around $17 (£12.50) each way. robertshawaii.com  speedishuttle.com

Hop on the Waikiki Trolley to downtown Honolulu or Diamond Head crater. One-, four- and seven-day passes are available from $45 (£33). Honolulu has a local bus service, known simply as ‘The Bus’. 

Cabs are plentiful, and you won’t have to wait more than a few minutes for an Uber or Lyft. Rent a car if you want to explore Oahu. Downtown and Waikiki are walkable, and there’s also the Biki bike rental scheme. 

When to go

Avoid peak holiday seasons (Christmas, July to August and early spring), if possible. Instead, travel between April and June or September and December. The weather is warm year-round, with temperatures typically in the high 20Cs. Showers are more likely between December and April, when big-wave surfing also kicks in.

More info

Honolulu magazine

How to do it

Trailfinders has flights from London to Honolulu via Los Angeles with Delta, plus four nights at The Surfjack and three nights at The Royal Hawaiian Resort, from £2,112 per person. 

Published in the April 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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