Before the Europeans came, Honolulu was insignificant; soon so many foreign ships were frequenting its waters that it had become Kamehameha's capital, and it remains the economic center of the archipelago. While the city covers a long (if narrow) strip of southern Oahu, downtown is a manageable size, and a lot quieter than its glamorous image might suggest. The tourist hotels are concentrated in the skyscrapers of the distinct suburb of Waikiki, a couple of miles east.
While its setting is beautiful, right on the Pacific and backed by dramatic cliffs and extinct volcanoes, most visitors are here simply to enjoy the sheer hedonism of shopping, eating, and generally hanging out in the sun. It's also the center of an exemplary public transportation system that facilitates exploration of the whole island.
Honolulu is an ultra-modern city full of enormous diversity. The county of Honolulu is home to approximately 800,000 people of all races and cultures. It is what gives O'ahu the nickname, "The Gathering Place."
Waikiki Beach stretches from the slopes of Diamond Head to Ala Moana and the Ala Wai Yacht Harbor . The beach itself is a great spot for the whole family. There is a near-shore break for the children, while the more experienced swimmers surf the waves.
The main thoroughfare of Waikiki is Kalakaua Boulevard. Most of the hotels, shops, and restaurants are gathered along this well-populated strip. The Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center is a must-stop for anyone who likes to shop. Dine on pho, sushi, fresh seafood or gourmet buffets at area restaurants. As for accommodations, Waikiki hotels are some of the best in the world. You can find everything from upscale, five-star establishments such as the Westin Moana Surfrider Hotel to lodgings for the budget traveler at places like the Aqua Waikiki Pearl .
This diverse area is probably the first place business travelers will see, thanks to the presence of the enormous Hawai'i Convention Center. Be sure not to miss one of the largest open-air shopping centers in the country, Ala Moana Shopping Center , the Hawaiian Islands' premier shopping mall. Ala Moana Beach Park and Magic Island are beloved by locals and visitors alike. Restaurant Row , the stomping ground for the corporate lunch and Happy Hour crowd, is known as the "gateway" to downtown Honolulu.
Chinatown is one of Honolulu's most colorful and exciting neighborhoods. The area has been a major gateway for immigrants to Hawai'i. Chinese medicine and Eastern religion have a huge presence, with Taoist, Buddhist and Shinto temples sandwiched between herbalists, shops, and restaurants. Highlights of Chinatown include Maunakea Marketplace , a local shopping plaza complete with its own ethnic food court, and the Chinese Cultural Plaza , a spacious open-air courtyard inhabited by jewelers, Asian restaurants and cultural organizations.
From the steely skyscrapers and luxury high rises that rise up along the waterfront to the restored palaces and fascinating museums on Beretania and Bernice Streets, the downtown area proves Honolulu to be much more than the glitzy tourist town that Waikiki would have us believe. Landmarks are numerous, but a few that can't be missed are the grand and graceful bustling Honolulu Harbor and stunning Iolani Palace . After the sun goes down, the Honolulu Symphony offers entertainment to a cultured, affluent crowd. The Aloha Tower Marketplace probably throws more parties and festivals than any other place in Honolulu.
Manoa Valley, where the University of Hawaii is situated, is typical of the valleys resulting from the erosion caused by lava flows in Hawai'i. One of the best places to view Honolulu and the Ko'olau mountain range is from the Manoa Cliff Trail. The main attraction of the valley itself is the University of Hawaii, a research university founded in 1907 and the only one of its kind in the state.
Manoa and the nearby neighborhood of Makiki comprise one of the major cultural hot spots on the island. While this district isn't marketed or publicized as a cultural destination, it is home to several galleries, museums and theater companies. Among the hidden jewels in the area are Spalding House , one of the best art museums in Hawaii, and Manoa Valley Theatre , a spirited community theater group.
East Honolulu—Diamond Head Kahala, Hawaii Kai
There are several major tourist attractions spread out through this area. Diamond Head is great for hikers. This peak can be seen from many vantage points in Honolulu, but for outdoor enthusiasts, there's no better way to experience it than by hiking to the summit and gazing down at the island below. Kahala Mall , Hawaii Kai Towne Center and the Hawaii Kai Golf Course are other area attractions.
Experts agree that Hanauma Bay , on the eastern tip of the island, offers some of the world's best snorkeling. However, if you prefer more privacy, try snorkeling or diving in Hawaii Kai. And if you'd prefer to view sea creatures from the safety of land, head over to Sea Life Park .
North Honolulu—Pearl Harbor, Pearl City & Ewa
Aside from Waikiki, this district may be the one most often visited by tourists. Site of the infamous Pearl Harbor attack, it is among the most famous naval attractions in the country. Millions of people visit the Arizona Memorial , Bowfin Memorial Park and "Mighty Mo" each year, learning about or revisiting the horror — and the heroism — that made this place what it is. Locals and in-the-know tourists often bypass Ala Moana Center and the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center in favor of Pearl City's famous Pearlridge Center .
If you visit Honolulu or even read about it, you'll likely find that the term "Windward" is tossed around quite a bit. Windward, to clarify, is the Eastern shore of the island. It's a quiet, laid-back place, devoid of all the glitz and noise of Honolulu. Most locals will also tell you that it's the best part of the island.
There are no major hotels or malls here, but there are plenty of restaurants and shops, and there seems to be a B&B tucked under every hillock and at the end of every street. Kailua Beach Park offers some of the world's best windsurfing, while Lanikai is simply one of the world's best beaches. Oh, and golfers...are you paying attention? Three words: Ko'olau Golf Club . It's the best on the island; Golf Digest said so.
Leeward O'ahu & Central O'ahu
Like Windward O'ahu and East Honolulu, Leeward (that's Western to all you mainlanders) is a quieter district with a few outstanding visitor attractions. Smart tourists—at least, the ones who can afford it—pooh pooh the jam-packed hotels of Waikiki, knowing that true paradise awaits at JW Marriott Ihilani Resort & Spa at the serene Ko'olina Marina. Near Ko'olina is Hawaiian Waters , a water amusement park on a grand scale. At Makaha Beach Park , swimmers, surfers and sun-worshipers congregate every day in the spring and summer months. In winter, daredevil surfers test their skill against swells that reach 20 to 30 feet.
Central Honolulu isn't much of a visitor destination, although the famous Dole Plantation draws its fair share of tourists.
It seems like every Hawaiian island has its own North Shore, where surfers from around the world come to brave the big waves in winter time. It doesn't stop there: It has great beaches, famous parks and a mellow lifestyle. Waimea Valley Adventure Park is a great place to hike, ride horses and watch people dive off cliffs. There is also the Polynesian Cultural Center , which recreates seven Polynesian villages, each with their own activities and attractions.
Honolulu is a city that is rich in dining and drinking choices. Cuisine from all cultures can be found here in abundance. The competition to capture part of the tourist market (5 million people annually) makes restaurants innovative and very conscious of quality. Whether you are in the mood for seafood, Chinese, Italian, French, Thai, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese or good old American fare, Honolulu will not disappoint you.
Hawaii's premier vacation destination, Waikiki, boasts every imaginable kind of dining establishment. Every large hotel has at least one restaurant and some boast five or six; most are very worthwhile. For great steak, your choices are many. Seafood places are also just about everywhere in Waikiki. La Mer is a nouveau French seafood restaurant that is one of the top-rated establishments in Hawai'i.
Duke's Restaurant & Barefoot Bar is also in a class all by itself, offering great food, live Hawaiian music and a fantastic beachfront location. This is the place to be on a Sunday afternoon after a refreshing dip in the blue Pacific. A Honolulu institution and an absolute "must" for any foodie is the original Chart House Restaurant overlooking the Ala Wai Yacht Harbor. The food, service and sunset are simply wonderful. For Japanese Teppan-yaki, try Tanaka of Tokyo , with three locations in Waikiki.
As might be expected, Honolulu's Chinatown features some of the best Chinese restaurants in the Pacific Basin. In addition to regional Chinese establishments, you'll find other authentic Asian eateries here. Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean and Indonesian food is available and in most cases, very reasonably priced. There are about ten restaurants in and around the Chinese Cultural Plaza on King Street. Enjoy buffets, dim sum, or inexpensive a la carte meals from all regions of China. One of the best known restaurants in the Plaza is Legend Seafood Restaurant . As the name suggests, seafood of all kinds is in the spotlight here. It's a noisy place reminiscent of modern-day Hong Kong. The dim sum lunch is not to be missed. Many excellent Vietnamese restaurants are in this district; the most famous is probably Pho 97 on Maunakea. It's easy to confuse them, but don't worry too much about it; the menus and prices are comparable. Anyone sampling Vietnamese cuisine for the first time should order a huge, steaming bowl of Pho, the ubiquitous Vietnamese soup.
The center of this fascinating melting-pot city offers a wide choice of dining establishments. Straddling the border of downtown and Ala Moana is Restaurant Row on Ala Moana Boulevard. Several blocks away, the Aloha Tower Marketplace at the Port of Honolulu also boasts a number of excellent dining choices. Chai's Island Bistro is the place to go for upscale Hawaiian dishes and contemporary Pacific Basin cuisine.
Another gourmet hot spot is the Chef Mavro Restaurant . Under the stellar direction of the culinary wizard who was formerly executive chef at La Mer, this restaurant has garnered accolades from the likes of Gourmet Magazine and The New York Times. In the center of Honolulu's old town, you'll find Murphy's Bar and Grill on Merchant Street. As might be expected, the corned beef and cabbage are great and there's plenty of Guinness on tap. Palomino Euro Bistro on Queen Street usually wins prizes for decor and cuisine every year. The Pavilion Cafe at Honolulu Academy of Arts is a wonderful place for lunch. Have a delicious, healthful meal and a glass of wine in a tropical courtyard, surrounded by many wonderful works of art.
Ala Moana & Kaakako
There are some great places to dine on the stretch between downtown Honolulu and Waikiki. The two main thoroughfares that span this four-mile distance are Ala Moana and Kapiolani Boulevards. The many-sided Victoria Ward Centers on Ala Moana has some of the best spots in town. In the Ward Center , visit Ryan's Grill , a great saloon with excellent food. This is a favorite watering hole for the downtown business crowd. One of the area's premier seafood restaurants is John Dominis on Ahui Street near the Ward Center.
In the huge Ala Moana Shopping Center , there are over 30 choices for dining. Bubba Gump Shrimp Company on the second level serves up shrimp dishes of all kinds in a fun atmosphere. Delicious Italian food can be enjoyed in the contemporary setting of Assaggio's , easily distinguishable by the modern-art fountain out front. The Ala Moana Food Court, also known as the Makai Market , has over 20 stalls that serve American, Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and local cuisine. Singha Thai Cuisine , across from the Ilikai on the Ala Moana/Waikiki border, is one of the best Thai places in Hawai'i. It's a large restaurant with excellent food and authentic Thai dancers performing twice every evening.
East Honolulu (Kahala & Hawai'i Kai)
This upscale stretch of coastline features many dining opportunities. The elegant Kahala hotel offers numerous dining choices, most notably Pan-Asian gourmet room Hoku's . The Kahala Mall at the end of the H1 freeway has several excellent choices.
Farther down the coast toward the beaches near Coco Head, the community of Hawai'i Kai boasts one of the best restaurants in Hawai'i, Roy's . The cuisine is a mixture of Continental, Japanese and local Hawaiian. It's very pricey, but well worth it.
This lovely area is home to the University of Hawaii and is one of Honolulu's nicest suburban neighborhoods. In the center of the Valley, the Ala Manoa Shopping Center is a gathering place for students, professors and residents. The most unusual of the restaurants in the valley is Paesano , a top-notch Italian bistro owned and operated by a family from Laos. The comfortable eatery serves food to rival any Italian dining spot in town. It's located in the Center, on Woodlawn Drive.
These dining establishments represent just a small cross-section of the hundreds of great places in Honolulu and its home island of O'ahu. Wherever you turn in this Pacific metropolis, you'll find opportunities to enjoy wonderful cuisine. Bon Appetit!
Because Hawai'i, the island of O'ahu, and the city of Honolulu are all major tourist areas, tours and places to visit abound. A tourist could stay within the district of Waikiki, explore the most highly trafficked areas of Central Honolulu, or spend time hiking the hills, woods and beaches of the Windward Coast or the North Shore.
There is no better way to begin a tour of Honolulu than with a look at the famous Iolani Palace , a carefully restored 19th-century edifice that was home to Hawaii's last king and queen. The palace is located on King Street, and is a place that is full of mana (spirit). An interesting fact: the palace had electric lights before the White House.
Close to the Iolani Palace on King Street, you will find some of Hawaii's oldest structures, the original Mission Houses Museum . The cluster of buildings includes the Frame House, prefabricated and shipped from Boston in 1821. The grounds are well kept, and descendants of the original missionaries conduct tours on certain days.
After lunch in one of the many downtown restaurants, head to the Bishop Museum . Located on Bernice Street, this interesting place contains more than 20 million artifacts of Pacific history, making it the largest collection of its kind in the world. The museum also has a planetarium that features daily shows produced mostly by the Big Island of Hawaii's Keck Observatory.
Honolulu's Chinatown district provides the perfect foil to its nostalgic downtown neighbor. While the historic buildings and museums are only blocks away, this part of town is a distinctly modern melange of cultures and lifestyles. You can start your tour of Chinatown with a quest for lunch. On Maunakea Street sits one of the best Vietnamese dining establishments in town, A Little Bit of Saigon . Other options include Legend Seafood and upscale Indigo . Afterward, browse the jewelry and craft shops around the Chinese Cultural Plaza and find some of the best bargains in Waikiki.
There are a couple of temples that are worthy of a visit: the Izumo Taishakyo Mission Cultural Hall on Nu'uanu Street and the Kuan Yin Temple on Vinyard Street. For a formal tour of Honolulu's Chinatown, choose between the Hawai'i Heritage Center or the Chinese Chamber of Commerce.
Just three blocks away from Chinatown is the lovely Aloha Tower. Built in 1926 to welcome Hawaii's burgeoning tourist industry, it has a 10-story spire meant to convey the Hawaiian tradition of "Aloha," meaning love, welcome, a fond good-bye, and a plea to come back. The observation tower at the top has fantastic views of Honolulu's harbor and waterfront. The Marketplace behind the tower has numerous fine restaurants, boutiques and gift shops.
Pearl Harbor Memorials
Home to the United States Pacific Fleet, Pearl Harbor is rich with sights and history. The main tour attractions are the Arizona Memorial , the Battleship Missouri Memorial and the Bowfin Memorial . All three memorials are a proud tribute to the US Navy and other armed forces that gave so much to protect the freedom of the Pacific during the middle of the 20th century.
You need to plan a full day to take in all three sights and a short tour of the Pearl Harbor base itself. See the Arizona Memorial first; the lines in the morning are shorter than the ones later in the day.
Start at the "First Lady" of Waikiki, the graceful Sheraton Moana Surfrider Hotel . Operating since 1901, this grand old structure has aged beautifully. Continuing north on Kalakaua Avenue, Waikiki's main street, you can visit dozens of other hotels and shopping areas among them the International Marketplace and King's Village . Finally, you'll come to the other great lady of the strand, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel . Shoppers won't want to miss the adjacent Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center , a three-block paradise complete with every designer boutique and specialty retailer imaginable.
When the commercial bustle of Waikiki becomes altogether too overwhelming, make a trip to The Honolulu Zoo . Relax on a bench while listening to the huge variety of tropical birds and watching the antics of chimps in their large home. If you are traveling with children, this is the place to bring them if they tired of the beach. Close to the Zoo and opposite Kapiolani Park is the Waikiki Aquarium situated on a living reef. Founded in 1904, it is one of the three oldest aquariums in the United States. It's not large by mainland standards, but it is home to more than 2,000 sea dwellers representing 350 different species. As one might expect, the heaviest concentration of species is Pacific tropical fish.
Above downtown Honolulu sits dramatic Punchbowl Crater , home to the National Cemetery of the Pacific. Native Hawaiians call this place Puowaina, which translates to "hill of sacrifice." The view from the rim of the crater is dramatic. Outward, you can take in a vista from Diamond Head on the right all the way to Barbers Point on the left. In between, you can see Waikiki, Ala Moana, the skyscrapers of downtown, the airport, Pearl Harbor and the beaches of the Ewa and Kapolei area of leeward O'ahu. In the crater is a verdant resting place for more than 25,000 victims of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Most of the military personnel that perished in the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941 are buried here. The Court of the Missing is dedicated to those whose remains were never recovered from World War II. There is also a monument to Ellison Onizuka, the Hawaiian astronaut who perished in the Challenger space shuttle disaster in 1986. A visit to this impeccably maintained memorial is a moving experience.
Snorkeling by Hawaii Water Sports Center (+1 808 395 3773 / http://www.hawaiiwatersportscenter.com)
Kailua Sailboards and Kayaks (+1 808 262 2555 / http://www.kailuasailboards.com/)
Nature and Location Tours
Oahu Nature Tours (+1 808 924 2473 / http://www.oahunaturetours.com/)
Hawaiian Escapades (+1 808 366 0400 / http://www.hawaiianescapades.com/)