Honolulu and Waikiki from Diamond Head on O'ahu. Image by Ignacio Palacios/Getty Images.
Honolulu and Waikiki from Diamond Head on O'ahu. Image by Ignacio Palacios/Getty Images.

Most people think of O’ahu strictly as a beach vacation interspersed with hiking and awash with cocktails. But what they don't realise is that there is a lot going on that has nothing to do with the island’s sandy beaches, flip-flopped feet, or the big, sugary, impossibly coloured drinks of Waikīkī. Venture off the tourist track, and there are many hidden secrets to discover, be they cultural, foodie or simply places to hang out. Here are some alternative things to see and do that only the locals know about.

Cultural events

First Friday Art Walk: Started in 2003, the First Friday Art Walk is credited with helping make Chinatown into Honolulu’s hip and funky urban district. Galleries and performance spaces like Loading Zone and The Louis Pohl Gallery open their doors from 5pm-9pm to thousands of art and music fans, while many of the surrounding bars and restaurants offer special deals and stay open late. Although the whole scene can get a bit crowded, it’s the place to be for anyone looking for a little bit more culture in their vacation.

Aloha Festival’s Floral Parade: Once a year in September, Waikīkī’s Kalākaua Avenue doubles as a parade route celebrating the culture and traditions of each of Hawaii’s main islands. Floats are made by hand and showcase island flowers (O‘ahu’s official color is golden yellow). One of the highlights is the equestrian procession, with each horse wearing a garland of flowers and mounted by pā’ū riders in traditional costumes. Snag a seat on the curb to take it all in.

Art After Dark: Occurring from 6pm-9pm the last Friday of the month (Jan-Oct), Art After Dark at the Honolulu Museum of Art is the perfect event for anyone who has ever wanted to party in a museum. Each month has a different theme that ties the evening together as well as live music or DJs. Plus food and booze are on sale if you like a nibble and a cocktail with your art and music.

Foodie spots

Poke with macadamia nuts and seaweed. Image by Ann Cecil/Getty Images.
Poke with macadamia nuts and seaweed. Image by Ann Cecil/Getty Images.

Kapi‘olani Community College Farmers’ Market: While there are other farmer’s markets in Honolulu, the Saturday morning (7:30am-11am) Kapiolani Community College market is the only one to boast a selection of food that is entirely Hawaiian-grown and produced. An impressive array of local edibles, from heirloom tomatoes to sweet corn to grass-fed beef, can be found here, as can the Pig & the Lady, Andrew Le’s excellent Vietnamese inspired food pop-up.

Corner Kitchen: Don’t let the sports bar look of this Japanese-inspired restaurant and bar fool you. Corner Kitchen has some of the best food on O’ahu. Besides serving incredibly fresh sushi, Chef Mitchell Uyeno also whips up creative dishes like fried oxtail and soft shell crab salad. Plus he often creates surprise off-menu items for curious customers. Put your fate in his hands -- he’s brilliant. Another amazing aspect of Corner Kitchen is that they often have live Hawaiian music during the evenings. Many of the acts have won Nā Hōkū Hanohano awards, the Hawaiian version of the Grammys, and many of the musicians play in the yearly Mele Mei Festival.

Kahuku Superette: Blink and you might drive right by this unassuming grocery store on O’ahu’s fabled North Shore. But don’t let the exterior fool you. Step inside toward the back counter and order what many say is the island’s best poke, a raw fish salad made from ahi tuna, soy sauce, lime juice and other fresh seasonings. If you’re feeling adventurous, you won’t regret ordering the octopus.

Sweet E’s Café: Tucked away in a little shopping center by the H1 highway, Sweet E’s Café serves up excellent brunch food seven days a week. While locals sometimes wait more than an hour to get a table on weekends, you’re on vacation, which means you have the luxury to go whenever you please. Munch on corned beef hash eggs benedict or blueberry cream cheese stuffed French toast while listening to Jack Johnson sing about beachy things on the stereo.


Banzai Sushi: Off the beaten track on the North Shore lies this Brazilian-owned sushi spot with tatami mats that encourage lounging. After a long day on the swells, surfers come here to swap stories, sip sake and share that post-surfing glow. Wednesday happy hours in particular tend to attract locals, and on Saturdays there’s often live music. Whether you sit indoors or outdoors on the lanai, be sure to try the South American-style ceviche.

Mercury Bar: Part dive bar, part music venue, part art space, the Mercury Bar is the last thing you’d expect to find while wandering down a random Chinatown alley. On any given night you can find DJs spinning underground hip-hop, an indie dance party, a soul singer, or an open mic where any rapper can join the cypher. Even though Honolulu has little pretention as it is, people really let it all hang out at the Mercury. Be open-minded and you’ll have a great night.

Explore related stories