Hawaii’s capital and largest city, Honolulu is a commercial center, college town, and living landmark of Hawaiian history. Chinatown is crammed with daytime shoppers in search of a deal among its markets, gift shops, and restaurants. The mellow residential outskirts of Kaimuki and the University of Hawaii offset the fast pace of life in the city. Those who do live downtown kick back by slipping away to Manoa’s tropical mountains, cruising Waikiki’s gorgeous beaches, or barbecuing ohana-style at Ala Moana Beach Park.
Honolulu’s main highway, H-1, runs east-west along the length of the city from Kaimuki to the southwest corner of Oahu, past the airport. Getting onto H-1 can be frustrating, as some streets only provide eastbound or westbound access. Freeway access is available via Ala Moana Boulevard, which stretches from Waikiki to the airport and turns into Nimitz Hwy. west of Nuuanu River, and King Street, which leaves H-1 north of Waikiki and splits into two one-way streets between University Ave. and the Aala Park edge of Chinatown. The one-way streets formed from the split of King St., Beretania Street (heading west) and King Street (heading east), are the backbone of downtown and Chinatown and bear the brunt of intra-Honolulu traffic. Beretania and King St. also run near many of greater Honolulu’s sights and activities. TheBus has several routes that ply their way down King St. and then head up Beretania St. for the return trip. Kapiolani Boulevard is a major two-way thoroughfare, slicing a northwest-southeast passage from Wailae Ave. to H-1 and intersecting Waikiki’s Kalakaua Avenue on the way over to its western endpoint at King St. and the Civic Center. Streets that intersect these east-west routes include Kapahulu Ave. (on the eastern edge of Waikiki), University Ave. (from Waikiki to Manoa), Piikoi (northbound one-way from Ala Moana Beach), Pensacola (southbound one-way from around Makiki), and Ward Ave. (along the western edge of the Ward Centers in Ala Moana).
Honolulu is an abused place-name: it is often used to refer to whatever (or wherever) is presently under discussion. To many, Honolulu means the urban and suburban sprawl that stretches along the South Shore of Oahu, from Koko Head in the east to Kalihi and the airport in the west. Others consider Honolulu the small downtown area surrounded by the districts of Chinatown to the west, Ala Moana to the south, Kaimuki and the revitalized Waialae area to the east, and the University of Hawaii and Manoa valley neighborhoods to the north. Diamond Head Crater in the east provides some of the best views on Oahu while the Koolau Mountain Range forms a backdrop for the varying streetscapes.
AS a rule, the closer you are to Waikiki, the more populated the sand will be. Ala Moana presents a peacful, nearby option for avoiding the crowds. Further into the city, you might find throngs of tourists on their way to the Iolani Palace in Downtown Honolulu, the Foster Botanical Garden in Chinatown, or the Bishop Museum in Greater Honolulu.
Don’t let the beaches distract you from everything else Honolulu as to offer. Here are our favorite spots in Hawaii’s beautiful capital. Check out our recommendations. Click the links to explore and book tours or local guides.
In many ways, the confluence of backgrounds and ethnicities that make up Hawaii’s unique population is most evident in local culinary offerings. Most popular dishes combine elements of several cultures and incorporate unique island ingredients. Much like Hawaii residents, island fare is unpretentious and low-key; anything that isn’t beach-friendly is immediately suspect.
The epitome of local cuisine is the plate lunch. Plate lunches are available almost everywhere in Hawaii, from roadside stands to fast-food chains. The meal is a descendant of the Japanese plantation worker’s bento, a boxed lunch of rice, meat, and pickled vegetables. A typical plate lunch is a combination of two scoops of white rice, one scoop of macaroni salad, and an entree. For the entree, most places offer an overwhelming array of choices. At the very least, expect Japanese teriyaki or katsu, Korean short ribs, Filipino adobo, Chinese soy sauce chicken, hamburgers, and chili. Quantity often trumps quality in this island comfort food—most plate lunches can feed two people.
Many other local favorites have been taken from outside cultures and adapted over the years. Saimin is a noodle soup dish developed in and unique to Hawaii. Inspired by Japanese udon, Chinese mein, and Filipino pancit, saimin was developed during Hawaii’s plantation era. It is a soup dish of soft wheat egg noodles served in hot dashi (stock from Japanese bonito fish or shrimp). Same as Japanese ramen (which is often incorrectly called saimin by locals), saimin noodles tend to crinkle when cooked. Saimin is so common that even McDonald’s offers a fast-food version. Crack seed, residents’ preferred snack, is a generic term that refers to preserved fruit that have been cracked or split with the seed or kernel partially exposed as a flavor enhancement. Crack seed was brought to Hawaii by Chinese plantation workers. Many generations of Hawaiian children have flocked to neighborhood crack seed shops for after- school snacks. The little stores are packed with island delicacies—Japanese rice crackers (arare), coconut candy, and dried squid—in addition to the huge glass jars filled with varieties of crack seed.
Other local treats were once imported but have been fully embraced by Hawaii. Japanese immigrants supposedly brought shave ice to the islands during the plantation era, and it has been an island favorite every since. According to legend, the treat was created by an ancient Japanese shogun (general) who liked to snack on snow from Mt. Fiji. Often confused with the mainland snow cones, shave (not shaved) ice in Hawaii is much finer and thus absorbs the flavors rather than letting them sink to the bottom, earning the jealousy of countless sticky-fingered mainlanders. Modern toppings include the basic flavored syrups as well as fancier options such as ice cream, condensed milk, shaved li hing mui (salty plum), and azuki beans.
Spam, the lovable spiced ham in a can, rounds out any true Hawaiian’s diet. After the US military introduced Spam during WWII, islanders quickly incorporated the food into their cooking. “The Hawaiian steak” is often cooked, giving it a different taste than mainlanders are used to. Despite mainland conceptions of Spam as pedestrian and unappealing, islanders are addicted. Hawaii now boasts the highest Spam consumption in the States (over 6.7 million cans per year). Spam musubi, sticky rice topped by Spam and wrapped in dried seaweed, is one of the most popular forms of the food’s preparation.
Poi is another unique island dish. Made out of pounded taro root, poi is a thick, purplish-gray paste past down from Native Hawaiian’s Polynesian ancestors. Lacking a strong flavor, poi’s unfamiliar consistency and appearance make it an acquired taste. Locals swear by it, however, and some even rave about its semi-magical healing powers. If you’re going to give poi a try, make sure it’s fresh—the poi is sweetest right after it’s made.
Hawaii-based chefs have developed a style of cooking they call Hawaii Regional Cuisine. Led by Sam Choy, Alan Wong, and Roy Yamaguchi, the chefs have taken advantage of Hawaii’s unique ingredients to create a type of cuisine that honors Hawaii’s diverse culture while meeting the highest culinary standards. Dishes include seared Hawaiian ahi with lilikoi shrimp butter and guava-smoked Kahua ranch lamb. Hawaiian Regional Cuisine has proved to be a culinary revolution on the island. Prized for its fresh ingredients, beautiful presentation, and creativity, it has not only raised the level of gourmet dining on the island but has also established Hawaii-grown products as some of the finest in the world.
Lunch Plate: the traditional arrangement of Hawaiian fast food. One entree (such as chicken teriyaki, deep-fried mahi mahi, beef stew, or kalua pig) with two scoops of rice and one scoop of macaroni salad.
Hawaii residents place so much stock in the aloha spirit that there is an actual law in the Hawaii Revised Statutes that requires residents to abide by the spirit of ancient Hawaiians. And, for the most part, locals do. Smiles abound and islanders are quick to wave hello, usually in the form of shaka, a greeting made by extending the pinkie and thumb and curling up the middle three fingers of the right hand. It is especially popular with young people in Hawaii; the gesture is a way of saying, “hang loose” or, “relax.” Easy-going driving in Hawaii is likely to surprise many visitors. Driving aggressively is one sure way to secure tourist status. No need to cut anyone off—a simple turn signal is likely to allow you access into another lane. Avoid using your horn except in emergencies.
In addition to shaka, the word aloha is also used extensively throughout the islands. Don’t be afraid to use it to say hello; it’s not regarded as corny. The lei, a garland of flowers, shells, leaves, or even candy, is a traditional Hawaiian symbol of love or friendship. Visitors entering and leaving Hawaii are often gifted with the fragrant necklaces. Leis are also given to mark special occasions like anniversaries, birthdays, and graduations.
While Hawaii is extremely laid-back, there are a few things that travelers should keep in mind. Hawaii is inhabited by an exceptionally diverse group of people, but the only people who are referred to as Hawaiian are those of Hawaiian blood. Except for Caucasians, anyone born in the islands is known as a local. The term haole (foreigner) used to describe Caucasians is not necessarily offensive though it can be used by to denote general island incompetency. Residents who were born outside of Hawaii but have lived in the state for a long time are known as kama aina (children of the land).
Respect is key in Hawaiian culture. While this applies to the general spirit of aloha, it is especially important to treat sacred sites, such as heiau (temples), with appropriate consideration. On a more casual level, it is polite to remove your shoes when entering someone’s home.