34 Reasons to Visit O'ahu Now

Great food, shopping, and entertainment come together in these four O‘ahu neighborhoods

There’s more to O'ahu than great beaches and Pearl Harbor. Hawai’i’s most populous island—its nickname is “The Gathering Place”—is experiencing a creative boom. Chefs, farmers, and artisans are embracing locally grown ingredients, innovative techniques, and their multiethnic roots, including Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese influences. Here are four distinct O'ahu neighborhoods spotlighting this delectable gathering of talent.

Chinatown

Old meets new in Chinatown, where an eclectic mix of imaginative restaurants and independent art galleries are found alongside antiques shops and bustling markets.

1. Per Se alums Chris Kajioka and Anthony Rush brought New York’s fine-dining sensibility to Oʻahu when they opened Senia in 2016. Dishes like hot-smoked king salmon and charred cabbage with shio kombu (salted kelp) and green goddess dressing are culinary works of art. Entrées, $10–$24. 808-200-5412; restaurantsenia.com.

2. The Maunakea Marketplace is a sensory hodgepodge of exotic fruits and vegetables, fresh seafood, and meats and poultry, as well an international food court. 808-524-3409.

3. Gifted young chef Andrew Le delivers an elevated Vietnamese experience at industrial-chic The Pig and the Lady. Start with the addictive twice-fried chicken wings and roasted peanuts ($11), followed by the house-made pho with grass-fed, locally sourced beef and fresh rice noodles ($15 at lunch; $18 at dinner). 808-585-8255; thepigandthelady.com.

4. On the first Friday of every month, restaurants, galleries, and boutiques stay open later and Chinatown’s nightlife comes alive with free entertainment, music, art openings, and demonstrations. firstfridayhawaii.com.

Hawaii Theatre in Oahu, Hawai'i

5. Catch a concert, musical, or dance performance at the 1922 art deco Hawaii Theatre (pictured above), which is on the state and national Registers of Historic Places. 808-528-0506; hawaiitheatre.com.

6. Sign up for a bean-to-bar chocolate-making class or learn about pairing chocolate with various spirits at Madre Chocolate. 808-377-6440; madrechocolate.com.

7. Visitors can light incense and make an offering to Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, at Kuan Yin Temple, the oldest Buddhist temple in Hawai'i. The temple’s proximity to Foster Botanical Garden adds to the lush, serene setting. 808-533-6361.

8. Sing Cheong Yuan Bakery is an old-school Chinese bakery that’s been a Chinatown staple since the ’70s. Die-hard fans rave that its manapua (barbecue pork buns) are the best in town. 808-531-6688.

9. Sip an In the Mood cocktail (Raynal brandy, lime juice, egg white, and bitters made with pineapple and kiawe wood) at the rooftop patio Tchin Tchin Bar. $10. 808-528-1888; thetchintchinbar.com.

Waikiki

Recent culinary offerings make a pleasant surprise for visitors to this tourist mecca. The arrival of food halls means budget-conscious visitors now have even more choices at mealtime.

10. Food halls such as Waikiki Yokocho Gourmet Alley (808-926-8093) and The Street (808-377-4402) are great options for thrifty visitors.

11. Spam musubi is a local go-to snack after an afternoon of surfing. At Musubi Cafe Iyasume, sticky rice is hand-molded around Hawai’i’s favorite canned meat, along with toppings like kimchi, eel, cheese, or avocado and bacon. $1.88–$4.58. 808-921-0168; tonsuke.com/eomusubiya.html.

12. Get into vacation mode with a slushy $5 piña colada during happy hour (3–6 p.m. and after 10 p.m.) at The Myna Bird, one of 13 venues at the 1-1/2-year-old food hall The Street. 808-377-4402; thestreetsocialhouse.com.

13. Shoppers and other visitors to the Royal Hawaiian Center near the Royal Hawaiian Resort can enjoy complimentary Hawaiian music and hula performances, ‘ukulele lessons, and lauhala leaf–weaving classes. royalhawaiiancenter.com.

14. The ever-present line outside Marukame Udon and Tempura might be intimidating, but it moves quickly. Pick a broth for the thick, house-made noodles ($3.75–$7.25) and add an assortment of crispy tempura items ($1.25–$1.75) from zucchini to pumpkin. 808-931-6000; toridollusa.com.

15. The iconic Royal Hawaiian Resort (“The Pink Palace of the Pacific”) is home to ’Aha‘aina, the only oceanfront lu’au in Waikiki. Take in ancient tales, mele (chants and song), and dance, and feast on slow-roasted kalua pig, poke (raw-seafood salad), and galbi ribs. Mondays and certain Thursdays. $187.43. 808-921-4600; royal-hawaiianluau.com.

16. At midcentury modern–inspired The Laylow, thoughtful touches include a welcome gift basket with candy, cookies, and flip-flops; fruit and infused water by the pool; complimentary shave ice; cruiser bikes; and ‘ukulele lessons. Rates start at $299. 808-922-6600; laylowwaikiki.com.

Moana Surfrider

17. Tour the historic Moana Surfrider (pictured above). Built in 1901, the majestic Beaux-Arts resort, nicknamed “The First Lady of Waikiki,” was the first hotel constructed in Waikiki. The Banyan wing is on the National Register of Historic Places. 11 a.m. Mondays and Wednesdays. Free. 808-922-3111; moana-surfrider.com.

18. Patient and experienced instructors at Hans Hedemann teach first-time surfers to ride gentle waves in the crystal-clear waters off Waikiki. $75 per person for group lesson of three to four people. 808-924-7778; hhsurf.com.

Kaimuki

At first glance, there’s not much to Kaimuki, one of Honolulu’s oldest residential neighborhoods. But looks can deceive. Peek behind the humble facade and you’ll discover inventive eateries, darling boutiques, and old-timey charm.

19. Brunch is served all day at Koko Head Cafe, helmed by former Top Chef contestant Lee Anne Wong. You can’t go wrong with the breakfast bibimbap (crispy rice topped with Portuguese sausage, kimchi, ong choy greens, carrots, fried egg, and more, nestled in a sizzling hot skillet). $16. 808-732-8920; kokoheadcafe.com.

20. Every Saturday morning and Tuesday evening, farmers, artisans, and food vendors gather at the Kapi’olani Community College parking lot for the KCC Farmers Market. Peruse Hawai’i-made products such as honey, pickled vegetables, liliko‘i (passion fruit) ice cream pops, and fresh-squeezed juices. tinyurl.com/kccmkt.

21. Oenophiles head to Tamura’s Fine Wine and Liquors for the well-curated wines, spirits, and cigars, while food connoisseurs head to the back of the store for a remarkable selection of poke, ranging from traditional tuna and salmon to hamachi, scallops, and crab. Free samples available. 808-735-7100; tamurasfinewine.com.

22. Want to snack like an umami-loving local? Substantial glass jars of assorted salted plums, dried squid, and candied fruit line the cramped Crack Seed Store. A Big44 Icee float with three scoops of ice cream is the perfect antidote to a hot day. 808-737-1022.

Kaimuki Dry Goods store

23. Kaimuki Dry Goods (pictured above) started out as a general store in the 1920s and now exclusively carries fabrics, patterns, and sewing supplies. Looking for an aloha-shirt pattern or a whimsical pizza-print fabric? Chances are you’ll find it here. 808-734-2141; kaimukidrygoods.com.

24. Chef Ed Kenney is a four-time James Beard semifinalist with a string of successful restaurants on O’ahu. His Kaimuki Superette is a cheery café serving healthful salads, soups, and sandwiches on metal trays. Breakfast, $6 and up; lunch, $7 and up. 

25. The beachy, eco-friendly Sugarcane Shop is stocked with quaint jewelry, vintage housewares, plush throw pillows, and trendy clothes. 808-739-2263; fb.com/sugarcanehawaii.

26. At Pipeline Bakeshop and Creamery, light and fluffy malasadas (Portuguese doughnuts) are delivered straight from the fryer and dusted with sugar. $1.25 each. 808-738-8200; pipelinebakeshop.com.

North Shore

North Shore’s monster winter waves are legendary. Year-round, the coastal area 35 miles north of Waikiki also boasts beguiling shops and memorable meals.

27. Overlooking picturesque Kuilima Cove, Roy’s Beach House at the Turtle Bay Resort is but one of celebrity chef Roy Yamaguchi’s many culinary ventures in Hawai‘i. His signature misoyaki butterfish (miso-marinated black cod) is served with greens and tomato for the sambal (condiment). $45. 808-293-7697; turtlebayresort.com.

28. Shrimp trucks and shacks dot the North Shore coastline. Step up to the graffitied Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck in Hale’iwa or Kahuku and order the shrimp scampi that’s drenched in lemon butter and topped with chopped garlic. Feeling brave? Double down on the “No Refunds” hot and spicy shrimp for a fiery kick. $14. 808-293-1839; giovannisshrimptruck.com.

29. Stop by the Haleiwa Bowls stand along Kamehameha Highway for a refreshing Hapa Bowl, a frozen breakfast of blended acai, strawberries, blueberries, and bananas that’s topped generously with hemp granola, coconut flakes, bananas, and honey. $8–$11. haleiwabowls.com.

30. Founded in 1951, Matsumoto Shave Ice is a North Shore institution serving inexpensive icy treats. Popular flavor combinations include strawberry, lemon, and pineapple. Make like a kama‘aina (Hawai‘i born) and request a drizzle of condensed milk (an additional 50 cents). $3 for small. 808-637-4827; matsumotoshaveice.com.

31. Adjacent to the Polynesian Cultural Center, the Courtyard Marriott Oahu North Shore is a short drive to Sunset Beach, Waimea Bay, and the famous Banzai Pipeline surf break. Amenities include free Wi-Fi, Netflix access, a fitness center, and a waterfall pool. Rates start at $229. 808-293-4900; marriott.com.

32. Climb rope bridges, rappel down platforms, and zip line over banana fields during Climb Works Keana Farms’ three-hour tour. $169. 808-200-7906; climbworks.com/keana_farms.

Polynesian Cultural Center

33. The Polynesian Cultural Center’s (pictured above) well-choreographed show Ha: Breath of Life features Polynesian dances, music, acrobatics, and fireworks. Island Buffet dinner and show, starting at $89.95. (800) 367-7060; polynesia.com/ha-show.

34. Pose in front of artist Colette Miller’s iridescent Angel Wings. 62-620 Kamehameha Highway.

Rachel Ng is food editor for Westways magazine.

Photos from top to bottom: Waikiki beach by Rachel Ng and Hawai'i Theatre, Moana Surfrider, Kaimuki Dry Goods, and Polynesian Cultural Center by Ann Cecil.

For more stories about Hawaii, go to AAA.com/hawaiianislands.

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