After living in Honolulu for the last eight years, I have watched this city go from quiet and laidback to vibrant and thriving. This is thanks to the opening of many world-class restaurants and bars, new shopping and entertainment districts, and an increase in the number of festivals and community events like block parties, farmers’ markets and outdoor concerts.
Today, as it has been for decades, Honolulu is one of the most visited places on the planet, and it’s easy to see why – this trendy, modern capital is where all the fun is.
Here, the top 12 things to do and see if you’re planning to visit the Hawaiian capital.
1. Dine at one of Obama’s favourite restaurants
There’s more to local food than Spam. Lately, more and more modern Hawaiian and fusion restaurants have been popping up, one of the latest being Piggy Smalls at Ward Village (thepigandthelady.com). A spin-off from the award-winning Pig & The Lady in Chinatown, this casual eatery specialises in Vietnamese fusion dishes.
On the menu: Banh mi sandwiches with non-traditional fillings like slow-smoked pastrami with pickled mustard seeds, LFC (Laotian Fried Chicken), twice fried and served with a sticky-sweet “money sauce”, and Oyako Pho – chicken and eggs gently cooked in the restaurant’s signature pho broth and served with herbs and rice noodles. Former US president and Honolulu-born Barack Obama loves this place, too – he was spotted dining here in March 2018 after his Asian tour.
2. Check out the colourful street murals
I spend a lot of time in a neighbourhood called Kakaako, not just because it has the best farm-to-table restaurants, bars and food trucks, but also because it’s a major street art destination.
Almost everywhere you look, there are massive colourful murals on the sides of the buildings, inspired by life on the Islands. The most stunning ones are Hawaiian Monk Seal by local artist Kaiili Kaulukukui, on the side of Hanks Haute Dogs on 324 Coral St, and Tentacles by James Bullough and Ricky Watts, on the corner of Cooke St and Auahi St. Check them out – they would most definitely be Instagram-worthy.
3. Sip on handcrafted cocktails made with local booze
Going out for drinks? Moku Kitchen at SALT at Our Kakaako (www.mokukitchen.com) makes strong handcrafted cocktails made with Hawaiian booze.
I always order the Monkeypod Mai Tai, made with rum from the island of Maui and a macadamia nut-infused orgeat (sweet syrup), and the Ko Hana Hou, which uses rum made from fresh-pressed Hawaiian sugarcane.
Pair your drinks with items from their extensive menu – the Lobster Devilled Eggs and hand-tossed pizzas are awesome – and remember to stay for the live music (the musicians come on at various times, depending on the day).
4. Head to an art gallery – at night
Every last Friday of the month from January to October, I like to go to Art After Dark at the Honolulu Museum of Art (https://honolulumuseum.org/events/art_after_dark).
There’s a different theme every month, but the main purpose of the event is to celebrate art in all its forms. You can expect dance performances, guest DJs, fun themed activities, and plenty of food and alcohol. It’s fun if you want to meet people, too – everyone’s friendly and always looking to share their love of the city with newcomers and travellers. Admission is US$25 (S$34) per person.
5. Enjoy the night breeze at a rooftop bar
The Tchin Tchin! Bar (www.thetchintchinbar.com) has indoor and outdoor seating, but why sit inside when you can enjoy the gentle Hawaiian breeze out on the open-air terrace? Pick a comfy oversized couch, order some grub, admire the fairy lights, and remember to take photos of their gorgeous plant wall.
I like their cheese and charcuterie boards, and the small plates laden with pungent grilled cheese sandwiches and shrimp bruschetta, all washed down with a couple of their delicious artisan cocktails.
6. Try a refreshing “shave ice”
Shave ice is a local sweet treat, a bit like “ice kachang”. Everyone in Hawaii has his or her own favourite shave ice shop, and mine is Monsarrat Shave Ice (3046 Monsarrat Ave). Depending on the weather and time of day you may have to queue, however, the service is quick and it’s definitely worth waiting for their delicious syrups made with real fruit like yuzu and pineapple, and fillings like adzuki bean and mocha.
Tip: This is a great place to stop and cool down after you’ve hiked nearby Diamond Head.
7. Shop local fashion
Honolulu has its share of international designer boutiques and high-street fashion brands, but local fashion is just as cool.
In Kakaako you’ll find Jana Lam Studio + Shop (https://janalam.com/). Owned by artist and designer Jana Lam, who was born and raised in Honolulu, this cute store sells colourful printed bags, clutches, beach wraps and home accessories.
There are also a few good boutiques in Chinatown. I like Fighting Eel (www.fightingeel.com), which does island-sexy very well – think slouchy off-the-shoulder tops, strapless maxi dresses, rompers and jumpsuits; and Owens & Co. (owensandcompany.com), which has T-shirts, bags and Islands-inspired jewellery.
One local label that’s been making waves in the fashion world of late is Manaola (www.manaolahawaii.com). Founded by self-taught designer Manaola Yap, the line of clothing features bold, printed patterns that embody the Hawaiian spirit and evoke the beauty of the Islands’ natural landscape. Be sure to visit Yap’s boutique at Ala Moana Center.
8. Enjoy a night of live music
One spot I like to escape to with friends is Bevy (www.bevyhawaii.com) in Kakaako. The music here is worth staying out late for – every first Friday of the month they host talented DJs who spin smooth jams; and every first Saturday, you can dance to disco, nu-disco, house music and rare grooves.
When I feel like listening to live jazz, reggae, deep funk and soul, I go to the Dragon Upstairs (thedragonupstairs.com) in Chinatown. This intimate venue hosts popular DJs and musical acts like The Chris Yeh Quartet, a local jazz band, and the Gilbert Batangan Trio, headed by the well-known Honolulu guitarist.
9. Hit up a street festival or farmers’ market
There’s no shortage of festivals and block parties in Honolulu. One of the longest-running street events is called First Friday (www.firstfridayhawaii.com), held every first Friday of the month in Chinatown. This is when many of the galleries, bars, restaurants and boutiques stay open till late and the public can enjoy free entertainment, wine tastings, art exhibitions and lots more.
Honolulu also has a number of farmers’ markets. My favourites are the Hyatt Farmers’ Market (http://hfbf.org/farmers-market/) in Waikiki, where I stock up on local veggies, homemade peanut butter, and Hawaii-made body creams and soaps scented with organic jasmine, gardenia, sweet pea and frangipani oils. This market is open from 4pm to 8pm, Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Twice a week, the KCC Farmers’ Market takes over the grounds of Kapiolani Community College next to the Diamond Head State Monument. My must-buys from here include pantry staples like tropical fruit jams, fruit butters, cookies and Hawaiian coffee. The best part about the pre-made and fresh food here is that it’s locally grown or produced, and made by people who love eating as much as I do.
Plus, it’s unique – where else can you find macadamia nut hummus, sushi sliders, and local coffee infused with Hawaiian ginger syrup? This market is open from 4pm to 7pm on Tuesdays and 7.30am to 11am on Saturdays.
10. Check into a funky boutique hotel
The Shoreline Hotel in Waikiki (https://shorelinehotelwaikiki.com/) gets my vote as one of the city’s most Instagrammable hotels. Every last inch of the place is decked out in bright colours and features eye-catching wall art and décor inspired by the local landscape.
I love the custom Monstera leaf-print drapes, aloha towel bars and wall maps in the rooms, the papier-mache birds in the lobby and the neon lights at the rooftop pool. It’s worth visiting just to take pictures.
11. Feast on seafood
Photo: Off the Hook Poké
Being smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, we have access to a wide variety of fresh seafood, which we then turn into yummy dishes like poké (chunks of raw fish dressed simply with shoyu and sesame oil) and garlic shrimp.
You’ll find great seafood restaurants all over the city, but one of my go-to spots for a meal is Fresh Catch (freshcatch808.com), which offers poké and sashimi platters, poké bowls, fish and chips, fish tacos and plate lunches (meat or seafood served with rice and salad). There are many varieties of poké available here, including tako (octopus), top-shell and shrimp.
Another excellent place for poké is Off the Hook Poké Market in the university town of Manoa. They have an interesting variety of poké flavours, like Japan Deluxe (with miso, ginger and Japanese shiso leaf), Cold Ginger, the super-spicy Kilauea Fire (with a tongue-scorching hot sauce named after the Hawaiian volcano), and Wasabi Furikake.
12. Browse eclectic curios, antiques and souvenirs
Photo: Instagram/ houndandquail
If you’re looking for a unique gift, souvenir or home accessory, visit Hound & Quail, a curated space offering vintage home décor items, antique cameras and other oddities.
Interested in Hawaiiana? Tin Can Mailman (tincanmailman.net) is a treasure trove of old maps, postcards, brochures and posters, books, hula dolls, vintage clothing and jewellery, photographs and more.