Honolulu Is the Eclectic Island Metropolis You Need to Visit (or Revisit) Right Now
We probably don’t need to sell you on Hawaii’s beauty: With tropical landscapes, rugged coastlines, white and black sand beaches (not to mention gold, red and green), the entire archipelago is an obvious vacation choice for many West Coasters. But Hawaii’s capital has tons to offer beyond just nature—in fact, if you’ve never been, you’ll be surprised to see just how big this place feels with its vibrant art scene, culture and dining. Here’s how to spend a getaway in the Big Pineapple (yes, it’s actually called that).
WHEN TO GO
If you ask us, there’s never a bad time to plan a trip to Hawaii. But 2019 is a particularly good year, thanks to an increase in flights to Oahu that’s driving down prices. That said, the very best times to visit are during the shoulder seasons—that’s April, May, September and October for Oahu. You’ll get ideal temps and better rates, and you won’t have to contend with the crowds found in peak season (December through March). Skyscanner shows round-trip options from as low as $500 in March and April, even from the East Coast. FYI, Southwest has plans to start flying nonstop between California and Hawaii in 2019, so expect even more options by year’s end.
You can’t leave the Aloha State without at least attempting to ride some waves. After all, Hawaii is known as the birthplace of big wave surfing and Oahu is home to some of the best surf spots in the islands (and the world). The gentle waters and calm surf breaks in Waikiki are ideal for beginners. Sign up for lessons at one of the beachfront booths or at Moniz Family Surf, recently opened in the Billabong store near the Duke Kahanamoku Statue or Faith Surf School on the beach near the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort.
Whales are also attracted to the waters off the coast of Hawaii from December through May—humpbacks head to the warm waters to breed and birth new calves. Book a whale-watching cruise through Atlantis Cruises to learn all about the giant mammals from a naturalist on board. (The trip also comes with lunch.)
The rugged volcanic landscapes, coastal cliffs and scenic waterfalls will inspire you to lace up your hiking boots and hit the trails—like Diamond Head (Leahi in Hawaiian), one of the area’s most beautiful treks. Hike to the top in less than an hour for 360-degree views of the island below. Manoa Falls is about a half-hour drive from downtown Honolulu. Get both a history and geology lesson with a bird’s-eye view of Oahu by booking a guide through Hawaii Forest & Trail.
Waikiki Beach may have been the playground of Hawaiian royalty, but the Iolani Palace iswhere they lived. Built in the late 1800s, the National Historic Landmark is the only royal palace on U.S. soil., home to Hawaiian monarchs. You can learn about the islands’ royal culture and heritage with a visit to the restored palace and its grounds.
With a variety of museums and galleries, Oahu has a vibrant art scene and Honolulu is at its center. Get your fill at the Honolulu Biennial: Focusing on art and artists from the Pacific, the Americas and the Asian continent, the festival runs from March 8 to May 15 at a dozen locations throughout the city. The hub is Ward Village, a shiny new neighborhood that’s home to year-round public art displays, pedestrian-friendly shopping opportunities and enough dining options to keep any belly full.
EAT & DRINK
For classic Hawaiian cuisine, Helena’s in Kalihi is a local favorite. The family-owned, cash-only spot has been serving up old island favorites (like the pipi kaula short ribs) since 1946. Another traditional dish you have to try—one that’s probably already a staple in your diet—is poke. Takeout spots Ahi Assassins and Ono Seafood serve up some of the best. For Japanese cuisine, which is popular on the island, hit up one of the city’s many izakayas. Japanese locals love the inventive Sushi Izakaya Gaku (the spicy negihama tartare alone is worth the pilgrimage).
Newer hot spots include The Pig & the Lady (modern Vietnamese) and Mud Hen Water (inventive, globally inspired Hawaiian). The buzzed-about Senia is ambitious and impressive, opened by two Per Se vets. For brunch, try the breakfast bibimbap at Koko Head Cafe or the dark-chocolate butter mochi waffle at Mahina & Sun’s in the Surfjack Hotel. If you’re a street-food fan, head to The Street Food Hall, Michael Mina’s upscale complex in the International Market Place for everything from poke to burgers to tacos. Blue Hawaii Private Tours offers a food and sightseeing tour for visitors wanting to learn while they sample.
Book a room at Waikiki’s first hotel, the Moana Surfrider, a Westin Resort and Spa. This historic hotel grand dame dates back to 1901, with comfortable contemporary rooms and a prime location. Another Waikiki classic will fully reopen later in the spring/early summer after a renovation: The White Sands Hotel, one of the area’s only remaining walk-up hotels, is being restored to its original 1960s glory. (Rooms will start at $109 a night.) You can also get off the strip and opt for more remote and private accommodations with rentals found on VRBO or Airbnb. The options run the gamut from urban condos with varying decorsensibilities to a cozy cottage two blocks from the beach in Kahala ($149 per night) to even this luxe contemporary seaside bungalow, walking distance to Diamond Head Beach Park ($1,750 per night).