Honolulu stretches across the southeastern portion of O‘ahu. Its 400,000 residents are scattered along the ridges and on the valley floors of the Ko‘olau Mountains that form the city’s northern boundary or in distinct communities that grew around the area’s volcanic craters. Waikiki Beach occupies the central chunk of the city’s southern coastline and is, obviously, the main attraction and is one of the most famous Honolulu neighborhoods. To the west, a light-industrial and commercial sector called Kaka‘ako separates the beaches from the very utilitarian downtown, where the city’s business and government institutions are anchored. Adjacent to downtown is Chinatown, a booming arts district surrounded by working-class neighborhoods. Beyond these, the H-1 freeway leads to the airport and splits into multiple highways that connect Honolulu neighborhoods to other regions of the island.
Downtown is the nerve center of Honolulu. On the eastern side are all the government offices, the state capital, the courts, City Hall, and—amid these ruling institutions—the one-time headquarters of the Hawaiian monarchy, the Iolani Palace, the only royal palace in the United States. On the western side, commercial high-rises (dominated by the 438-foot First Hawaiian Center) line the main thoroughfares: Alakea Street, Bishop Street, King Street, and Beretania Street. Downtown Honolulu neighborhoods are bordered by the H-1 highway to the north and the ocean on the south. The campus of Hawaii Pacific University separates downtown from Chinatown along Fort Street Mall, a pedestrian-only corridor with student-friendly budget eateries. Drivers should note that many streets in downtown are one-way, and parking can be difficult to find and expensive.
As you travel east past Diamond Head, the houses start to get bigger and more stately. East Honolulu neighborhoods are among Oahu’s more affluent areas, where you’ll find the upper-middle class areas of Kahala, Aina Haina, Niu Valley, and the marina-side Hawaii Kai as well as the exclusive gated communities of Waialae Iki and Hawaii Loa Ridge. A few commercial centers serve local residents’ shopping needs: There’s a Costco and a City Mill home improvement center in the Hawaii Kai Towne Center and Foodland supermarkets at the Koko Marina and Niu Valley shopping centers. The area makes for a scenic weekend drive, but other than that there’s not much draw for visitors.
Just a few miles inland from the beach, the residential Honolulu neighborhoods of Manoa Valley and Makiki present a stark contrast to Waikiki. The area’s microclimate delivers rain regularly, feeding a lush landscape that overflows with tropical forest vegetation. The University of Hawaii’s main campus resides in Manoa, so naturally there’s a studious vibe at area coffee shops and vocal Warrior pride at local bars, especially when football and volleyball games are on the air. Makiki has its own favorite son—the POTUS. Makiki is where Barack Obama lived with his maternal grandparents, a few blocks from Punahou School, his alma mater.
Over the past decade, Chinatown has slowly begun to shed its seedy exterior. Former dens of iniquity—dark watering holes, strip joints, and foul brothels that catered to sailors at port—have been replaced by art galleries and hip boutiques and an eclectic mix of restaurants, night clubs, and bars. The historic Honolulu neighborhood (besides still being the cultural core of Honolulu’s Chinese community—which makes up 13 percent of Hawaii’s population) is now recognized as the arts district. It’s a great place for shopping during the day and a happening party scene after dark. Just like the adjacent downtown area, alternating one-way streets can pose frustration to unfamiliar drivers. Parking is especially challenging on the first Friday night of every month, when “First Fridays” gallery-walk-cum-pub-crawl turns Chinatown into a makeshift street party.
Waikiki is undeniably gorgeous—its impeccable, sugary-white shoreline and crystal clear water are the stuff that dreams are made of. Indeed, it’s become a tourism icon for good reason (if you find yourself picturing paradise with a mai tai in your hand and a beach umbrella over your head, you’re probably thinking of Waikiki Beach). Of course, that popularity has come at a price—the area is perpetually congested and the local flavor is practically nonexistent. Still, it’s an absolutely beautiful area for sunbathing and swimming and the area has its own brand of hospitality—shirtless beach boys, for example, still welcome guests as they did when Waikiki first became a vacation destination, giving surf lessons and taking visitors on outrigger canoe rides. The resort area extends beyond the main drag of Kalakaua Avenue, eastward to Diamond Head Crater, Honolulu’s most visible landmark, and westward to Ala Moana Harbor and Ala Moana Beach Park, where residents come to play on the weekends. This is also where you’ll find Honolulu’s best dining, shopping, entertainment and nightlife options.
To the east of Manoa is Kaimuki, a hilly grid of modest residential housing that extends inland from Diamond Head. Chaminade University and Kapiolani Community College are all proximate to Kaimuki, and students appreciate the strip of affordable restaurants sprinkled up and down Waialae Avenue, the neighborhood’s main drag. Street parking is limited, but there is a commercial parking lot with metered spaces between 11th and 12th Streets that is convenient (walking distance) to all the shops and eateries.