When I traveled to Honolulu this summer, my main worry was that I’d be unable to escape a “tourist” version of the city, characterized by hula girls and overpriced mai tai drinks. My quest for discovering a more layered experience of the city led me to Honolulu’s unique neighborhoods beyond Waikiki, Honolulu’s most bustling area. By choosing less traveled routes, I found beautiful old buildings, rare flora and cultural richness.
In short, I found the Hawaii I’d been searching for: an urban city that thrived in paradise, where artists and creative types found interesting ways to liven things up, day and night. Here are five of my favorite haunts that I discovered while exploring the real Honolulu beat in the heart of Hawaii’s capital.
Chinatown Artist Lofts
Honolulu’s Chinatown may have gone through a period of neglect, but the neighborhood has recently seen a resurgence. In many ways, it owes its cool vibe to artists who’ve made the area their canvas. You can feel the energy at the Chinatown Artist Lofts (chinatown artistslofts.com), which, on a monthly basis, opens its studios to visitors for a fun evening filled with art, entertainment and unique drinks and eats.
The architecture of the Lofts’ 1901 building, built in an Italianate style with open windows that mark its stucco exterior, adds to the ambience. The building’s courtyard, filled with sweeping trees, provides a private, tropical backdrop. I hobnobbed with artists while voices from the Hawaii Opera Theatre rose up between the brick walls to the second-floor balcony, which had a perfect view of the singers below.
I also took some time to meander around the studios. One of my favorites, the Fishmarket Studio, exhibited artist Sergio Garzon’s “underwater drawings” and large-scale prints filled with dense imagery — a face here, a big pineapple there and a surfer emerge from the abstract, intricate lines. Garzon, a native of Colombia, described his labor-intensive process: It required 50 people and a steamroller to create one giant print.
He’s found a receptive audience in Honolulu. “I wouldn’t want to move, that’s for sure,” Garzon said. “It would be professional suicide.”
This majestic structure sits at the edge of Hotel Street downtown, surrounded by twisting banyan trees. Iolani Palace is the only royal palace in the United States, as Hawaii is the only state that was once a monarchy.
The palace once housed an imprisoned Queen Liliuokalani, the last ruler and only queen regnant of the 19th-century Kingdom of Hawaii.
The main building is made up of Romanesque pillars that line the open-air corridors on the first and second floor. Nearby stand the barracks that once housed the royal guard.
Take a tour to learn about the rich history of the palace and soak in the grand staircases, throne rooms, and a kaleidoscope quilt of irregular shapes that the queen sewed during her captivity (1-808-522-0822; iolani palace.com).
Hawaii State Art Museum
Kitty-corner from Iolani Palace is the Hawaii State Art Museum, which, like many buildings in the area, was built in the Spanish Mission style. A sculpture garden in the courtyard, along with a wading pool, and a colorful mix of contemporary and historic art on the inside, is an inviting setup that seems to embody the spirit of Honolulu.
The permanent collection draws from Hawaii’s diverse cultural landscape. You’ll find Masami Teraoka’s satirical 1982 watercolor “Ronin Samurai,” which depicts a Japanese Ronin or “master-less warrior” discussing unemployment rates with a blond scuba diver. The place is also chock-full of wonderful textile works as well as pottery showing native designs and many contemporary works (1-808-586-0900; sfca.hawaii.gov).
Ala Moana Beach Park
While I had set out to get to know the urban side of Honolulu, I found that the lure of the ocean called me continually, and I ended up spending quite a bit of time hanging out on the beach. I was on a mission to find my favorite waterfront area.
There were many to choose from, but Ala Moana stood out, partly because it boasts so many great perches from which to watch the waves rolling in. It was also fun to see such a happening scene. The beach seemed especially popular with locals, who were having picnics, playing Frisbee, soaking up the sun or alternately finding refuge in the shade of the lush tropical trees.
The park can be found just outside of the Ala Moana shopping center, a destination on its own. The open-air mall is a splendid place to shop, watch colorful fish swimming in aquariums, and try out exotic treats. You can also take a walk to Magic Island, a small man-made peninsula created in the 1960s as a resort complex and later converted into a public park. Magic Island hosts fireworks on July 4, and occasionally has live music and other performances (1-808-768-4611; honolulu.gov).
Chinatown features a number of outstanding restaurants that cater to residents as opposed to tourists, so the prices are reasonable. Lucky Belly is a high-end ramen spot with superb cocktails and a cozy feel. A dimly lit place with red brick walls decorated with provocative paintings, it had a trendy aesthetic that attracted a hip, young crowd.
I chose the Shrimp Kim Chee Bowl, a delicious soup that was spicy and filing, and had a layered, flavorful broth. It came with several large pieces of shrimp and a soft-boiled egg that melts in your mouth. The oxtail dumplings were also killer. The friendly bartender made my group some fancy cocktails that were fruity without being overdone. The staff was all very friendly, and it was the kind of place where you could strike up a conversation with a stranger without feeling awkward about it (1-808-531-1888; luckybelly.com).
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis-based arts writer.