A Guide to Honolulu | Oahu
Oh, sweet Honolulu. Where to begin? This city somehow manages to balance the laid-back island vibe one would expect to find in the tropics, with the dynamic aspects of city life: incredible food and restaurants, nightlife, art and museums, shopping, and a melting pot of cultures. Upon first impression, it may appear like any other bustling metropolis; skyrises, hotels, traffic, dense neighborhoods, and malls. Except one thing-it’s on a tropical island. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean. On the most isolated island chain in the world. That in itself lends some unique characteristics to this incredibly diverse, vibrant city.
Flying into Honolulu you are greeted with a view of homes rising up the valley ridges, and all the way down to the beach; and then the sparkling high rises of the Waikiki strip into downtown. And as always in the beautiful state of Hawai’i, the clear blue water and sandy beaches will beckon to you, and there is no shortage of ways to enjoy the ocean and the outdoors. From surfing world-class surf breaks, to paddling, snorkeling, diving, hiking, or just soaking up the sun, you will see that life in Honolulu tends to revolve around the ocean and enjoying the tropical sunshine.
Your experience in Honolulu will be shaped by which area you choose to stay in. The perennial draw of course, is Waikiki, with its grid of hotels, iconic shoreline, and the huge number of visitors flocking to this 3 mile stretch. Albeit, you will feel like a tourist while staying here, but there is a timeless feel to joining the masses at the Waikiki Beach and paddling out for a surf in front of the rows of hotels and beach umbrellas. Sailing catamarans come and go from the shore all day, and beach boys take tourists on canoe rides in the small waves. Although the buildings and times have changed, it will always have the spirit of wave riding at its core.
A few mindfulness travelling tips: Beyond the vacation vibes that Hawaii elicits, there is a much deeper level of heritage, history, and a strong Hawaiian culture that many travellers never seek out. While the past is painful and complex, making an effort to learn about what happened in Hawaiian history keeps the story and conversation alive. There are many opportunities while visiting Honolulu to educate yourself, from the Bishop Museum to Iolani Palace, or taking an traditional taro farming class. Above all, when you visit, treat the aina (land) and sea, and the people who call this place home, with care and respect.
Where to Stay
The Surfjack | 412 Lewers Road, Honolulu, HI | Rates start at $150
Don’t ask any questions, just go! I can’t even begin to tell you how much I love this hotel. It’s a mid-century, tropical oasis in the heart of Waikiki, with the sweetest staff, handcrafted details around every corner, and the most Instagrammed pool you’ve ever seen (you will see what I mean!). These guys were the first to revive a defunct, old Waikiki building and breathe new life into it by commissioning artists and designers to work their magic. Each section of the hotel has a unique touch- the large mural by the elevator, the wallpaper in the bathrooms, the old Havaiana chachkis in the lobby, the coffee tables in the rooms! No detail left untouched.. The result of all that loving hardwork is a place that makes everyone want to come, from locals to tourists, grandparents to kids. And if that is not enough to convince you already, there is more- the incredibly “ono” (tasty) restaurant Mahina and Suns is on site, run by Ed Kinney of Town and Kaimuki Superette fame, and they serve up some of the best cocktails and poke bowls you will find on the island. Commitment to sustainability and sourcing local is everything to them, so bonus points to that! Also on site, is the Olive and Oliver coffeeshop and boutique, where you will have trouble not Instagramming some more, and not spending all your money on their great selection of clothes. And lastly, there is live music every night, free bikes, and fun happenings at this sweet little treasure in Waikiki.
The Laylow | 2299 Kuhio Ave, Honolulu | Rates start at $240
In the wave of new development happening in Waikiki, the Laylow opened on Kuhio Avenue this last year. It’s like the sophisticated aunty version of the Surfjack, slightly more expensive and upscale, but going for the same 60s-tropical vibe that is coming back strong. Gorgeous rooms, a pool and sundeck, and an open air restaurant called the Hideout will not disappoint. Adjacent to the newly renovated International Marketplace, you will be right in the heart of all the action, but seemingly removed in this peaceful oasis.
If you want to be right on the water, you will pay a bit more but these hotels are great options:
Royal Hawaiian Hotel | 2259 Kalakaua Ave, Honolulu, HI 96815
Moana Surfrider | 2365 Kalakaua Ave, Honolulu, HI 96815 (opened in 1901)
New Otani | 2863 Kalakaua Ave, Honolulu, HI 96815 (at the southern end of Waikiki)
Manoa, Palolo/Kaimuki, Diamondhead, Hawai’i Kai
Airbnb | for the rest of the Honolulu area, Kailua, West side, and North Shore
Where to Eat & Drink
- Morning Glass Cafe | Manoa + Kakaako
- Arvo | Kakaako
- The Curb | Kaimuki + Kailua
- Olive and Oliver | Waikiki
- ChadLou’s | Kailua
- Coffee Gallery | North Shore
- The Pig and the Lady | incredible farm to table Vietnamese street food
- Lucky Belly | ramen and yummy cocktails
- Bar Leather Apron | cocktails and beautiful bar; feels like you stepped into a bar in NYC
- The Manifest | coffeeshop during the day, lively bar scene at night
- Tchin Tchin | amazing food and cocktails
- Piggy Smalls | Pig and the Lady’s second location with the best vegan pho you’ll ever have!
- Arvo | Aussie-style cafe inside Paiko with great coffee and of course, toasts!
- Moku Kitchen | beautiful, new sister restaurant to the famous Monkeypod Kitchen; delicious lunch, dinner, and cocktails; I recommend the Na Ka Oi!
- Morning Glass @ Fishcake | favorite coffee on the island inside a rad design store
- Mahina and Suns | go.here.now! Ed Kinney’s restaurant inside the Surfjack
- Pint and Jigger | great bar food, cocktails, and night scene!
- Cafe Julia @YWCA | delicious, local flavors inside a Julia Morgan-designed building
- ARS Cafe | great coffee and toasts in a stylish, artsy cafe
- Bogart’s Cafe | local favorite for breakfast after a surf!
- Diamondhead Cove HealthBar | acai bowls and smoothies
- Town | a must visit while in Honolulu; Chef Ed Kinney’s first restaurant with dishes that always satisfy
- Koko Head Cafe | must-have brunch that will blow you away!
- Kaimuki Superette | part of the Ed Kinney family with yummy breakfast, lunch, and coffee
- Mud Hen Water | cocktails and dinner joint next to Kaimuki Superette
- Leahi Healthbar | my favorite smoothie pit-stop and amazing kale tacos!
- Sprout Sandwich Shop | delicious, healthy sandwiches in a hole-in-the-wall
- Ono Seafood (poke bowls) | THE BEST poke; quick, local style
Local Yumminess (aka Malasadas (Portugese donuts), Shave Ice, and more!
- Helena’s Hawaiian Food | incredible local food that’s not to be missed!
- Liliha Bakery | cream puffs!
- Pipeline Bakeshop | amazing malasadas in a newly opened bakery on Waialae
- Leonards Bakery | famous malasadas
- Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha | REAL shave ice made with authentic, hand poured syrups-GO!
- Rainbow Drive-In | local plate lunches and old drive-in vibes
- The Local | another real shave-ice spot in Kailua featuring real fruit syrups that will make your mouth water
What to Do
BEACHES (In Honolulu County)
- Waikiki Beach
- Diamondhead Beach
- Kahala Beach
- Kailua: Lanikai Beach
MUSEUMS, BOTANICAL GARDENS, AND FARMS
- Kapiolani Park
- Bishop Museum | visit to learn about Hawaiian heritage and history; beautiful cultural experience
- 'Iolani Palace | built in 1882, this is the historical residence of Hawai’is monarchy and where Queen Lili’uokalani was imprisoned during the overthrow of the Hawaiian government
- Honolulu Museum of Art | gorgeous museum in the middle of downtown Honolulu with rotating exhibits and beautiful grounds to walk around
- Shangri-La, Doris Duke Center for Islamic Art | Doris Duke’s private residence near Diamondhead is also the world’s largest collection of Islamic art outside the Middle East. Arrange a tour to see this incredible private residence
- Hoʻomaluhia Botanical Garden | this stunning garden on the windward side truly takes after its name meaning “ a peaceful refuge”
- Foster Botanical Gardens | set in the heart of the city, this is the oldest botanical garden in the city and has beautiful tropical plants and trees
- Kahuman Organic Farm | take a tour or stay for a yoga class or retreat at this gorgeous, 50 acre farm/learning center on the Westside of Oahu
- Owens + Co | clothing, design, jewelry, everything goods
- Hound+Quail | vintage goods and design shop
- At Dawn | very cute women’s clothing and home decor
- Diamondhead Beach House | bikinis, clothing, and beach cuteness galore
- Paiko | plants, goods, and tropical flora shop galore
- Treehouse Hawaii | film photography store
- Mono | design and home goods
- South Shore Market | home to several new boutiques such as Cameron Hawaii, Salvage Public, and many more locally owned brands
- Ala Moana Shopping Center | can’t leave out the perennial shopping mecca of Honolulu; there is everything here!
- Olive+Oliver (Waikiki and Kailua)
- Bikini Bird (Kailua)
- Guava Shop (North Shore)
- Kuliouou Ridge Trail
- Koko Head Crater
- Olomana Peak in Kailua
- Ka’ena Point on West Side or North Shore
- Surf anywhere in Waikiki and the South Shore
- Snorkel at Hanauma Bay
- Ocean Catamaran cruises from Waikiki
- Kayak, SUP, dive, or outrigger paddle in Maunalua Bay
- Kayak or SUP to the Mokulua Islands (Kailua)
- Paddle, cruise, or surf the Westside of Oahu