Heading to Honolulu? Then you’re probably going to spend time in Waikiki. For many people, the popular beachfront district is all they see of the Hawaiian capital. However, there’s more to the city than tourist-thronged streets and beaches. When you feel like a break from the crowds, take time to check out these hidden Honolulu highlights.
Kaka’ako isn’t actually that hidden, situated as it is between Waikiki and Honolulu’s bustling downtown. But visitors rarely give it a second glance, breezing by on their way from the airport. A historically industrial district on a stretch of flat land, it might seem an unlikely place to hang out. Over the past few years, however, Kaka’ako has developed into Honolulu’s coolest ‘hood.
Each February it hosts the Pow!Wow! Hawaii festival, a celebration of street art that invites top artists from around the world to paint the area’s walls with huge colorful murals. These vast paintings are left in place until the following year, so there’s always something to look at. It’s great fun to track them down, camera in hand, to assemble your own street art collection – and they make fantastic photos to share online.
For the best results, start from the corner of Auahi and Cooke Streets and head northwest along Auahi, making sure to duck into Lana Lane as you reach it on the left. This small side street is home to the Lana Lane Studios (327 Lana Lane), the hub of artistic activity in Kaka’ako. It’s not usually open to the public, but you may see its members at work on the surrounding walls.
There are also plenty of good refreshment options near this eclectic stretch. For hip street food, drop into Hank’s Haute Dogs, for locally-brewed beer, check out Honolulu Beerworks, and for cutting-edge bar food and great cocktails, visit Bevy.
For more murals and a dose of pre-gentrification Kaka’ako, walk along Queen Street between Ward Avenue and Cooke Street. In addition to spotting murals on the walls of automotive workshops, you’ll find Fresh Café, a trendy hang-out and the original home of Pow!Wow! Hawaii.
Another local highlight is the weekly Kaka’ako Farmer’s Market, featuring fresh Hawaiian produce. And once a month, the Honolulu Night Market takes over Auahi Street, creating the vibe of a big street party with stalls selling locally produced food, art and fashion.
The Honolulu Museum of Art is rightly praised for its impressive collection housed in its main building, not far from Waikiki. However, there are two lesser-known museums on the edge of the city.
The first, Spalding House, is situated above the city’s concrete sprawl in attractive Makiki Heights. This former home is now a small but impressive museum of contemporary art, with changing exhibitions often featuring local artists. There’s also a separate pavilion which houses a permanent installation by artist David Hockney, an interpretation of his stage designs for a 1981 Metropolitan Opera production of L'Enfant et les sortilèges by Maurice Ravel. As fascinating as the art is, the extensive gardens almost surpass it with their sloping lawns and gullies, dotted with tropical plants and trees. On a sunny day you could spend hours here, looking at art then relaxing amid the greenery.
The other hidden museum is Shangri La, located on the eastern side of Diamond Head in the upmarket Black Point neighborhood. This magnificent house once belonged to Doris Duke, a wealthy heiress who traveled the world and fell in love with Islamic art. She filled her Hawaiian home with pieces bought and commissioned in the Middle East, specifically from Iran, Egypt, Morocco, Turkey and Syria. The result is a stunning tribute to Islamic artwork: the building is crammed with beautiful décor both old and new, including such rare items as 13th-century Persian tiles.
The exterior is just as stunning, with a garden overlooking the Pacific and a former guest house in which Duke once hosted stars such as Elton John. Shangri La can only be visited on a bus tour from the Honolulu Museum of Art. It’s well worth it.
There are plenty of good restaurants in Waikiki, serving everything from informal poolside snacks to upmarket dishes – a top choice here is the remodeled Bali Steak & Seafood Lounge at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, with its Asian-Hawaiian cross of décor and food.
If you go further afield, things get even more interesting. One way to find the places locals eat is to join Aloha Food Tours, which guides members to the best eateries found north of the vast Ala Moana shopping mall.
Alternatively, head out on your own. For authentic Hawaiian dishes, drop into Highway Inn, a classic diner dishing up items such as poke (raw tuna salad), butterfish stew and squid luau. For a contemporary spin on a classic, check out Shokudo, a sleek, bustling restaurant serving cutting-edge Japanese food with twists of Chinese, Korean and even Italian and French cuisine. For dessert, you can’t go past its honey toast, a heavenly construction of toasted bread, honey and vanilla ice cream.
Chinatown has its own share of reinvented Asian cuisine, best sampled at the Pig & the Lady. This restaurant serves tasty Southeast Asian fusion food with strong Vietnamese influences, all in a cool interior of bare brick and suspended tree branches.
Look up beyond the shop fronts and you'll find Goofy, the place to head for café-style meals. Decorated in old-school beach hut style, it serves creative but inexpensive dishes with locally sourced ingredients. Just check the traceability report on the menu, then tuck into your Kahuku garlic shrimp like there’s no tomorrow.
Finally, to win the inside knowledge award from your fellow travelers, lead them to the bar at La Mariana Sailing Club, nestled on the shores of Keehi Lagoon in Honolulu. The decor, harkening back to the 1950s, is pure Tiki – everywhere you look there are grimacing wooden masks and carved timber panels, not to mention a leafy terrace with a view of the Pacific. It’s as hidden as Honolulu gets.
This article was originally published in May 2014. It was updated in August 2017 by Andy Beth Miller. Updated July 2019.