Millions of travelers visit Honolulu every year. Oahu, its home island, welcomed nearly 5.2 million visitors in 2014—no doubt drawn there by the tepid, turquoise waters of Waikiki, Ala Moana, and Diamond Head beaches, among others. And while Honolulu’s beaches are arguably among the world’s most beautiful and swimmable (not to mention surfable), the city blocks, vibrant parks, and verdant neighborhoods that lie beyond offer adventures and cultural experiences of their own that promise an unforgettable Honolulu visit even if you never set foot on the sand. From an internationally inspired historic home to eye-popping street art, here are five fun ways to experience Honolulu beyond the beach.
1. Diamond Head Summit Trail
Diamond Head State Monument (pictured above) is one of Oahu’s most iconic landmarks, and its summit trail gives visitors a blood-pumping workout with breathtaking views. Happily for hikers, the trail isn’t just a steep, straight climb. It’s rife with switchbacks, many of which will take you along the steep interior slope of the crater wall. Other features include steep stairs and a 225-foot lit tunnel. The trail was built in 1908 as part of Oahu’s coastal defense system, so you’ll also get a peek into Hawaii’s military past. A seasonal tip: hike to the summit in the winter to up your likelihood of spotting humpback whales in the water below.
2. Doris Duke’s Shangri La
Photo by Lindsay Lambert Day
If you love architecture and art, don’t miss a visit to Shangri La, the oceanfront former estate of heiress Doris Duke and her first husband, James Cromwell. The wealthy young couple married in 1935 and went on a subsequent yearlong honeymoon around the world, during which Duke became captivated by Islamic art. After their honeymoon, the couple planned to build a permanent home in Palm Beach, Florida, but when they reached the last stop on their honeymoon—Honolulu—Duke decided that’s where she wanted to stay. So, together with prominent Florida architect Marion Sims Wyeth, they built Shangri La, and Duke spent years traveling and filling her home with authentic Islamic art. Visitors can take guided tours (but few photos) of the home exclusively through the Honolulu Museum of Art.
3. The Honolulu Museum of Art
The Honolulu Museum of Art itself is deserving of a spot on any Honolulu to-do list. The museum’s permanent collection includes 50,000 objects, and houses art and textiles created up to 5,000 years ago and originating from Hawaii, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. With its peaceful courtyards, it’s also a great place to sit and relax—and its cafe is a popular lunch spot for in-the-know locals and professionals who like to nibble on chef Jacob Silver’s contemporary dishes while enjoying garden and waterfall views and sculptures by Jun Kaneko. While you won’t be charged a museum admission fee if you visit simply for lunch, you should plan to reserve a table in advance. If you can’t score a spot, opt for the museum’s second location, Spalding House, which is home to its own popular cafe, where you can BYOB and order a picnic lunch to enjoy on its sprawling lawn.
4. Street Art in Kaka’ako
Photo by Lindsay Lambert Day
To capture some of Honolulu’s best Instagram opportunities, take city bus 19, 20, or 42 (or your drop-top rental) to Kaka’ako, an industrial neighborhood and creative haven between Waikiki and Downtown. The up-and-coming neighborhood’s myriad garages, warehouses, and body shops are emblazoned with Technicolor murals, put in place every February during the week-long street art festival Pow! Wow! Hawaii. The event brings hundreds of local and international artists—along with a slew of parties and exhibits—to Honolulu in celebration of art. If you can’t get there in February, don’t worry; visitors to Hawaii’s capital city can enjoy the murals all year long, until the next Pow! Wow! comes along, bringing a whole new crop of colorful art with it.
5. Really Good Restaurants
In Honolulu, you can toss a bar of surfboard wax in any direction and hit a drool-worthy restaurant serving anything from upscale Asian dishes to more approachable comfort food. The Modern Honolulu is home to Morimoto Waikiki, but you don’t have to be a hotel guest to tuck in to a plate of the Iron Chef’s crunchy Hamachi tacos or a piping-hot stone bowl filled with ishi yaki buri bop. At locavore chef Ed Kenney’s Mud Hen Water in Kaimuki, nouveau Hawaiian comfort food and craft cocktails are served up in a cozy but lively dining room that would fit in equally in a hipster-friendly pocket of Brooklyn or San Francisco. Order liberally, as dishes like the Lup Cheong Madeleines with Miso Whipped Lard, the Yaki o Pa’i’ai, and the I’a Lawalu are ideal for sharing. If you’re looking for a spot to refuel while wandering around Downtown, grab a table at the light-filled Fresh Cafe, which opened in Chinatown in July, 2014, and uses local farm-sourced ingredients in everything from kimchi pizzas to Kauai beef burgers. The cafe’s freshly made, frosty iced teas do much to combat killer temps on some of Honolulu’s hotter, humid days.
Lindsay Lambert Day
is an Atlanta-based freelance travel and lifestyle writer and, thanks to her stay in Honolulu, street art addict.