There’s much more to do in Honolulu other than going to the beach.
Despite being a small city on an island Honolulu does in fact have different neighborhoods, each with its own vibes and style, with loads to offer. These neighborhoods prove that there’s much more to do in Honolulu other than going to the beach, so explore as much as you can the next time you’re in Hawaii’s dynamic capital city.
Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki is basically our version of The Strip. It’s extremely swanky with lots of bright lights, luxurious shops and gourmet food. Oh yeah, and it comes with a beach! (What many people don’t know is that Waikiki Beach isn’t a natural beach and in fact it was actually manmade) Waikiki is a marvel to walk around in at night as the entire area comes to life, with tourists and locals alike, buzzing with excitement as lifelong memories are made.
Of course Waikiki has the highest density of hotels and it’s an enjoyable experience to admire the beautiful and elegant interiors of the most distinguished hotels such as the Halekulani, Hilton Hawaiian Village and the Moana Surfrider. Fine dining is easy to find as famous restaurants like Nobu, Ruth Chris and Roy’s have Waikiki locations and you’ll find no shortage of amazing Japanese cuisine, from sushi to udon to tonkatsu. Many luxury fashion brands like Chanel to Dior have multiple retail shops in Waikiki alone as do popular local brands such as 88 Tees and Alter Ego.
Just because Waikiki is the most touristy place on earth, doesn’t mean it’s any less exciting or magical to be there. Be sure to lounge on the beach and catch a couple of sunsets during your stay!
2. Ala Moana/Ward
The polished, high-fashion districts of Ala Moana and Ward make up the main commercial zones of Honolulu. Ala Moana Shopping Center is an open-air mega mall that never stops growing. Any brand you’re looking for, you can find in Ala Moana from Diane Von Furstenburg to Jimmy Choo to Harry Winston along with Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom. The secret food court that you have to check out is on the 2nd floor of Shirokiya, a Japanese product and appliance store, which has stands selling different types of authentic Japanese street food as well as cheap pints of beer. There are some lavish, high-quality restaurants located in the shopping center as well, such as Mariposa on the top floor of Neiman Marcus, Morton’s Steakhouse, The Pineapple Room and Tsukiji Fish Market which has an amazing fresh Japanese seafood and sushi buffet. The District, one of Honolulu’s newest nightclubs is right around the corner from the shopping center and caters to a young, stylish, bottle service type crowd.
Just a couple blocks down on Ala Moana Boulevard is Ward Center which also has many different shopping and dining options. Ward offers much more affordable shopping at huge outlets such as TJ Maxx and Nordstrom Rack along with an array of local artisan product stores. Ryan’s is a favorite stop among locals as they’re rumored to have a great happy hour and delicious Li Hing Mui margaritas, a sweet and sour plum flavor that visitors must try.
Kahala is an upscale, bourgeoisie area with some of the most coveted real estate in Hawaii. Just drive through the extravagant and lavish mansions and vacation homes to see what I mean. Slyly tucked behind these gorgeous residences is the Kahala Hotel & Resort, where celebrities often check in to relax and treat themselves to a truly luxe, island vacation. There’s a spa, golf course, beautiful waterfront restaurants, a quiet beach and a grotto where you can swim with dolphins!
Just a couple of streets up from the Kahala Hotel & Resort is Kapiolani Community College, the location of the KCC Farmer’s Market, which has become immensely popular with the rise of Hawaii’s sustainable food movement. The KCC Farmer’s Market is definitely worth checking out as it’s teeming with unique, organic produce grown on the islands and the delicious pop-up food stands are always the talk of the town. Right in front of KCC is the famous Diamond Head, now an inactive volcano, where you can hike up the trail and get a gorgeous view of downtown Honolulu and Waikiki Beach.
The residential neighborhoods of Kaimuki and Kapahulu aren’t much to look at but they have the BEST local food and restaurants in the city. Town, a trendy restaurant which highlights the use of organic island produce, has been a star attraction in Honolulu for years since its opening and is located in Kaimuki on Waialae Avenue alongside other beloved locally owned eateries. Sprout Sandwich Shop is an adorable, tiny hole in the wall that cranks out bomb sandwiches, Happy Days is a long standing establishment with yummy dim sum and Fresh Catch is like heaven with various types of fresh ahi poke with different marinades to choose from.
At the bottom of Waialae Avenue just past the freeway ramp is the neighborhood of Kapahulu which is also jam-packed with deliciousness. It’s home to Leonard’s, the legendary bakery that sells countless malasadas each day, as well as Side Street Inn where you can experience the most authentic comfort food which Hawaii locals love. My personal favorite is Tenkaippin, a hole in the wall ramen shop that usually has a line out the door, which serves the most delicious Japanese homemade ramen with the richest broth ever.
Chinatown has turned itself into Honolulu’s premier art district, making it a very hipster locale to go out in. First Friday in Chinatown is the place to be on the first Friday of every month, where you can check out the work of amazing local artists, drink, listen to music and hang out at the Chinatown Artists Lofts which opens up the space where various artists live and work to the public.
A number of cool, trendy bars like Manifest and Taproom have young people swarming Chinatown every weekend as the bars themselves have displays of cool murals and street art and a good selection of artisan beers and cocktails. And of course there is AMAZING food. There’s lots of legit dim sum and Chinese family style restaurants, and locals love going to Chinatown to eat Vietnamese pho. The Pig and the Lady, an incredibly popular food stand at the KCC Farmer’s Market just recently opened a sit-down restaurant in Chinatown which no doubt has locals flocking—so check out what the hype is about and treat yourself to some Vietnamese home cooking.
Manoa is where the main campus of the University of Hawaii is located. Thus it’s a bustling area with lots of students and traffic and many cafes and restaurants to cater to them. The UH campus is actually quite nice and like any flourishing university it offers many cultural exhibits available to the public all year round. If you want to catch university athletic events check out the athletics website for ticketing and schedule information.
Just a bit down the road from the university is Manoa Valley, a magical place full of pristine nature, gorgeous hiking trails and a constant layer of mist that adds to the magic. If you’re feeling up for a challenge, Manoa Falls hiking trail is a two hour hike that will take you through lush green forests, serene mountains and finally to the beautiful waterfall after which the trail is named. There are some really good hole in the wall eateries hidden throughout the valley where you can get an amazing brunch, particularly at Morning Glass Coffee + Café. Manoa is the best place to experience some stunning nature within the city for those who wish to get away from the hustle and bustle of downtown for a while.
Kaka’ako is an up and coming industrial area, otherwise known as Honolulu’s warehouse district. It has been the site of huge rave and EDM events in recent years and every few months famous DJs and artists play shows at Kaka’ako Waterfront Park.
The big pull is the amazing street art that flanks the sides of the warehouses. Kaka’ako serves as the headquarters and location of the annual POWWOW! Hawaii event, a huge arts festival that invites street artists, musicians and other creatives from around the world to showcase their work in Honolulu.
Across the street from the warehouses is Aloha Tower, a swanky commercial plaza by the port, where you can eat, drink and shop away from the busier districts of Ala Moana and Waikiki. Alongside the warehouses you can also find The M, one of Honolulu’s most upscale nightclubs, which feels slightly classier and more refined than the other clubs around the city.
8. Hawaii Kai
Hawaii Kai is the most eastern part of Honolulu which hands down has the best local beaches. It’s an affluent residential community with lots of outdoor, family-friendly activities. Here you will find Hanauma Bay, a popular tourist spot for snorkeling and playing in tide pools rich in marine life. There are multiple lookout points along the Kalanianaole Freeway with some of the best views on the island so driving along the cliffs of the freeway is a must.
There are a lot of great hikes located in Hawaii Kai that are all pretty difficult but pay off with amazing views, including the Koko Head Crater trail otherwise known as the Stairway to Heaven, the trail up to Makapu’u lighthouse and the trail at the top of Mariner’s Ridge, a gorgeous residential area on a high mountain. And of course the beaches where locals actually like to surf, body board and hang out in such as Sandy’s, Makapu’u, Sherwood’s and China Walls are all located on the east side as well.