Oahu Travel Guide: Where To Stay, Eat, Drink, and Shop In Honolulu

We'll admit it: we full-on stalk the #LuckyWeLiveHawaii feed when we're jonseing for some beach time. Just the waterfalls and sunsets are enough to make the most serene of us jealous as all hell. Between the hospitality, the vibes, and the people, we're all about the Aloha state and make every effort to head there as often as possible (heck, we're even planning trips there)!

And, of all the islands, we spend the most time on Oahu because there's a bit of everything for everyone. 

Why Honolulu?

Honolulu is a bit of a dark horse -- because, well, you think Hawaii and you think palm trees and Mai Tais, not highways and high rises, right? But, that's why we like Honolulu: it has the culture, conveniences, and shopping of a big city but you're always just minutes from dipping your toe in teal blue waters. And Honolulu has totally come into her own the past few years as a new generation of chefs are redefining local cuisine, creative artisans are crafting local goods, boutiques are opening that rival the best of resort shopping, and a killer cocktail scene that'll make you rethink your impression of an umbrella-clad drink.

Before You Go

Where to Stay

If you're staying longer than a few days, we highly recommend renting a home because there are all sorts of gems and it will allow you to live like a local. For a few days or a first trip, it's typical to stay in the middle of Waikiki and these are hands-down our favorite hotels in that area:

Classic Luxe: Royal Hawaiian 

As classic as it gets, walking the halls of the Royal gives you a glimpse of what Hawaii was like during its glory days.

Contemporary Vibes: The Modern Hotel 

Honestly, we’ve loved this place since the day it open, if not for its registration desk (hello, surfboard collage) than for its awesome bars, contemporary design,and overall chic feel. The only drawback? It’s on the harbor, which means there’s no beachfront to speak of. Luckily, Waikiki beach and Ala Moana beach park are just a few steps away.

Chic Boutique: The Surfjack Hotel

This newly-opened boutique hotel represents everything we love about Oahu right now: innovative food (at Mahina & Suns), local artisans (at Olive & Oliver), and creative design. It’s the smallest of the hotels here but what it lacks in size they more than make up for in hospitality.

What To Cook 

How you get in the spirit before you take off? By cooking up some local food!

And, if you haven't seen it, watch this episode of Off Menu: Honolulu

Once You're There

Must-Eat Local Food

Thanks to the Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Filipino, and Portuguese immigration over the years, Hawaii's food scene has always had a fusion element. And though you can find James Beard-nominated chefs cooking thoughtful local food, there will always be big love for the local comfort foods. Here are the classic you should try:

  • Saimin: Nearly every major ethnic group has left its mark on this ramen-like dish. Classic saimin starts with a Japanese-like dashi broth and Chinese lo mein-like noodles. There are all sorts of toppings from Portuguese linguica sausage, Filipino pancit, and Korean kimchi.
  • Boiled Peanuts: You might have only had boiled peanuts in the Deep South but they're a traditional pupu (aka appetizer) in Hawaii. Brought to Hawaii by Chinese immigrants, they're usually made with star anise.
  • Poke: The Hawaiian word poke (poh-kay), means to cut or chunk and the classic version was raw fish mixed with local sea salt, limu (a seaweed), and kukui nuts. These days, shoyu poke (with soy sauce, scallions, and sesame) is the most common, but there are all sorts of versions made with all sorts of seafood and even beef.
  • Malasadas: Brought to Hawaii by the Portuguese, these yeasty, airy donuts are made daily at numerous bakeries. Purists insist you eat malasadas plain (unfilled and sugared), but they're often filled with local flavors like passion fruit or coconut or dipped in li hing mui (salted plum powder) sugar.
  • Manapua: The word is a shortening of a Hawaiian phrase that translates as "delicious pork thing" — and that's exactly what these are. Inspired by Chinese pork buns, these yeasted buns can be steamed or baked and are traditionally filled with char sui (BBQ pork) or kalua pig. 
  • Musubi: Musubi are like a long-lost cousin to the Japanese onigiri except in Hawaii, they're usually filled with SPAM and cooked in teriyaki sauce. And the classic place to get it is at 7-Eleven. No, seriously.
  • Huli Huli Chicken: Huli huli chicken is what you would get if teri (aka teriyaki) chicken married barbecue chicken. It's sweet and tangy, with plenty of ginger, garlic, and soy — and it's delicious. Huli means "turn" in Hawaiian, so huli huli is literally "turn turn" — fitting for rotisserie-style chicken cooked over local mesquite.
  • Shave Ice: Shave ice is the same basic idea as a snow cone but lighter and airier because it's made with shaved rather than crushed ice. You can find it pretty much on every corner and while traditionalists swear by Matsumoto or Waiola, we're fans of Ailana because their syrups are homemade. 
  • Hawaiian Food: Just FYI, Hawaiian food refers to food that native Hawaiians ate and everything else is just "local food." Some Hawaiian food to look out of is kalua pork (cooked in an imu); squid luau (squid cooked with taro and coconut milk); poi (mashed taro); laulau (fish and pork cooked wrapped in taro and ti leaves); and haupia (a coconut custard).

Where to Breakfast

Serious Kanak Attack: Koko Head Cafe

Our friend, chef Lee Anne Wong, upped the breakfast game in Kaimuki when she opened this cafe a few years ago. The place is so popular, there's a wait pretty much everyday, all day but it's worth it. She makes twists on local comfort food that are sure to bring on a kanak attack (aka food coma) but we dream about the breakfast bruschetta, the daily dumplings, and the cast iron skillet dishes.

Airy and Bright: Bill's Hawaii

This place is an oasis of Instagram-worthy interiors and lots of fresh food in the middle of the sometimes overwhelming Waikiki. Yes, Aussie chef Bill Granger has such an international rep that there are outposts everywhere from London to Tokyo but that doesn't take away from the fact it's freaking delicious. It's open all day but we opt for breakfast in order to start the day with local Kahuku corn fritters or a Full Aussie brekkie. 

Toast + Such: Mahina & Suns

Speaking of spot-on breakfast, Mahina & Suns totally brings it with local fresh fruit, ricotta toasts, and coffee from one of our favorite LA-based roasters, Caffe Luxxe. This place is also among our favorite spots in Waikiki for drinks and dinner. 

Where to Lunch

Noodles & Noodles: Marukame Udon or Agu Ramen

If you like noodles like we like noodles, then Honolulu is gonna make you a very happy camper. For Sanuki-style made right before you udon, it's all about Marukame. Yes, it's cafeteria style layout isn't fancy but the food more than makes up for that. If it's ramen you're after, our go-to spot is Agu Ramen because their broth is everything. 

Lighter Plate Lunch: Diamond Head Market & Grill

If you're after a full-on real deal, kanak attack (food coma)-inducing plate lunch, you should head to Rainbow Drive In. But we just can't handle food that heavy. Instead, we head to Diamond Head Grill where they have a slightly healthier take on plate lunch (salmon with brown rice) and some of the best Plantation Iced Tea you'll find.  Save room for dessert because they have lots of local faves like Coconut Cream Pie, Sweet Potato Pie, Butter Mochi, and Pumpkin Crunch. 

Not-To-Miss Meal: Pig and The Lady 

If you have only restaurant to give you an idea of how good Hawaii's food scene is these days, our pick is The Pig and The Lady. Chef Andrew Le (and fam) opened this place just a few years ago but it has totally helped put Honolulu on the foodie map. The contemporary take on Vietnamese (among other Asian) classics are thoughtfully executed with just enough over-the-top to please even the biggest eaters. If you can't snag a table at their Chinatown location, stop by their booth at the Kapiolani Community College Farmers Market. Of, for something a little bit quirkcer lighter, head to their new sister restaurant, Piggy Smalls

Where to Dinner

Contemporary Hawaiian: Mud Hen Water

We've long been fans of chef Ed Kenney from back when he started Town to his newest place, Mahina & Suns (see above). But if we had to pick a favorite, it'd be his spot in Kaimuki called Mud Hen Water. Here he combines his passion for local produce with his love for local food and makes contemporary takes on classic Hawaiian dishes. We're fans of the beet poke, the fried chicken, the squid luau, and pretty much anything the bar is mixing.

Modern Chinatown: Fete

There are so many places worth checking out in Chinatown (from shops to dive bars to restaurants), you could spend an afternoon there. And while joints like The Pig And The Lady (see above) made the neighborhood mainstream, one of our favorites is Fete. Started by a couple who lived in New York, they brough a little of Brooklyn with them back to Hawaii. We like to sit at the chef's table/bar and sip cocktails while eating their fried chicken. 

High End Hawaii: Senia

Possibly the most anticipated opening of ever in the Honolulu dining scene, Senia is very much a newcomer having just opened a few weeks ago. Though chefs Kajioka and Rush both have uber fine dining experience (they met when working at Per se), they concentrate on making the food and experience laidback because after all it is Hawaii. This is a special occasion meal for sure but one you're not likely to forget anytime soon. 

Where to Snack and Street Food

Malasadas: Leonard's 

It's not a visit to Oahu for us until we've had one (or three!) Portuguese donuts (aka malasadas) from Leonard's Bakery. Yes, the lines are worth it -- just be sure to eat what you buy immediately becuase their best hot!

Saimin: Palace Saimin

Saimin is one of the lesser-known local dishes but so worth trying because it's an only-in-Hawaii dish. Palace Saimin is a total hole-in-the-wall in a random part of town but it doesn't get more legit. Order a wonton min with a BBQ stick on the side!

Boiled Peanuts: Tamura's

Okay, truth is we  One of my first finds in Kaimuki was Tamura's and I've been an evangelist for it ever since. This wine shop has multiple locations but this one, with a serious wine collection, tons of craft beer, artisanal liquor, and some of the best poke around, is by far my favorite. Oh, and, don't forget to get some of their boiled peanuts!

Hawaiian Food: Helena's

Two things you should know about Helena's: 1) it's cash only 2) it has such a historical place in local food history that the James Beard Foundation has given it a nod. Head here for a crash course in how good Hawaiian food— classics like pipikaula (like Hawaiian beef jerky), poi (fermented taro root), kalua pig (slow cooked smoked pork), and laulau (fish and pork wrapped in taro leaf) — should taste.  

Poke: Ono Seafood

Ask five people in Hawaii where to get poke and everyone will give you a different answer. What we can tell you is that Ono is a great place to start. 

Where to Drink

Classic Sunset Spot: House Without a Key

Yes, you can find a fancier Mai Tai (see Bar Leather Apron below) in Oahu but it's hard to get more classic Waikiki than House Without A Key. With a view looking out on Diamond Head and live local music, it's the spot on Waikiki to sip a Mai Tai during sunset.

Kaka'Ako Craft: Bevy

Bevy is hands-down one of the best craft cocktail bars in Hawaii and made a name because of their on point Mai Tai. Though we also like their Mojitos and Negronis and, well, really anything they make. They recently added a food menu so you can eat some locally-sourced food at lunch or dinner and they have a cute little East Coast-style diner that just opened next door. Oh, and btw, they're one of the original tenants of the the Salt at Kaka'ako development that has expanded to included all sorts of great locally-owned and boutique spots from Paiko and Arvo (see below) to Village craft beer spot, Hank's Haute Dogs, Highway Inn, and Moku Kitchen.

Modern Mixology: Bar Leather Apron

If you have any question about whether Honolulu's bar scene is serious, head to Bar Leather Apron and you'll get set straight. Bartender Justin Park is an award-winning bartender and they take their craft very seriously. The building the bar is in is a little too corporate for our tastes but you'll totally forget about that once you're sipping on one of their drinks. Oh, and FYI this is a pretty perfect spot to head before or after hanging in Chinatown.  

Where to Coffee

Local Style: The Curb Coffee

What started out in 2009 as a coffee truck that you could get curbside (get it??), has evolved into three cafes across Honolulu. These guys take coffee very seriously so they make everything from espresso to a pour over coffee well but look out for their flavored syrups that will change the way you think about sweetened coffee.

Coffee In Waikiki: Gorilla In The Cafe

Like so many great things in Hawaii, Gorilla In The Cafe pretty much opened because Japanese tourists wanted good coffee in the middle of Waikiki. As such, it is very much for Japanese clientele but it's a total gem with 100% local beans, decent pour overs, and a clean aesthetic. If you want something more like a flavored latte, head over to Dean & Deluca.

Aussie Vibes: Arvo

We're not sure what's more Instagrammable: the adorable Aussie coffee shop Arvo or the succulent and flower shop, Paiko, that shares the space. Head here for a real deal flat white (and some vegemite or avo toast if that's your thing) and don't be surprised if you end up making a haku lei (Hawaiian floral crown) with the ladies of Paiko.

Where to Shop

Resort Wear: Rebecca Beach 

Hawaii chic at its best, Rebecca Beach now has three locations, each carrying cheerful island-appropriate outfits.

Eclectic Finds: Owens & Company 

In the heart of Chinatown, this eclectic boutique specializes in handmade creations from independent designers, many based in Hawaii.

Vintage Vibes: Roberta Oaks 

If you need to bring something home for you man to thank him for putting up with you taking off for a girls' weekend, then head over to Roberta Oaks where you'll find updated versions of vintage aloha (read: Hawaiian shirts).

Where to Be Active

Ranch Life: Kualoa Ranch 

Jurassic Park and Lost were filmed here so this ranch has some serious Hollywood cred -- but you want to visit for the views, the pristine land, and the chance to horseback through it all.

Dive Deep: Wild Side Island Adventures 

Wild Side taught us a lot in the course of a really fun day, including how that there's this underwater shelf on the West Side of Oahu that makes dolphins very happy, that there is a method to how to best swim with dolphins and sea turtles, and that we should all swim with dolphins at least once because it's pretty special.

Canoe Canoes: Faith Surf School 

If crisscrossing the island in the name of adventure isn't in the cards for you, then just stay put on Waikiki and head over to Faith Surf School where they'll teach you the finer points of surfing, stand-up, and -- one of my new favorite discoveries - outrigger canoe surfing.

Make Sure To...

Our Favorite Locals

Let the (light) stalking begin! These are the people we follow when we need some Rome in our lives (Katie and Elizabeth’s apps are also super FYI):

  • Chuggy Bear - If it's local food you're after, Grant has you covered.
  • Frolic Hawaii - Our friends at Frolic always have the latest info on the newest restaurants and bars.
  • Contrast Mag - Honolulu is a city by the sea and no one shows the urban vibes of paradise like the kids at Contrast
  • Brooklyn Hawaii - From gorgeous models to stunning surf breaks, no one quite give us wanderlust for Hawaii like Brooke. 
  • Samudra - Yes, one of the founders is a friend but we love following them because they always show the greatest of local culture from new boutiques and brands to beaches.

More Oahu on Salt & Wind

For even more Oahu, check out our other coverage: 


Published January 2017

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