If you haven’t had the pleasure of visiting Hawaii, you might have mistakenly imagined Honolulu as the rather calm oasis that islands promise on postcards and magazine covers. While yes, the city is home to idyllic palm trees, rainbows, and surfers at sunset, it’s a real city. Promise. It’s got traffic jams and homelessness problems, just like any other American city. But it’s also brimming with creative thinkers, makers, and doers, and there’s no place like it.
So what makes it such an alluring and generous place? The neighborhoods that speckle the city each glow with their own distinct flair. Throughout Honolulu, one can feel diverse cultures bumping into one another at every corner. Traditional Chinese markets and bakeries coexist with artists' lofts; you have The Manifest—a coffee shop by day with revolving art exhibits, and a bar with hip-hop in the evening—a stroll away from traditional Irish and family-oriented Murphy’s Bar & Grill where bartenders generously listen to long stories while polishing glassware.
Honolulu’s Chinatown, which was once the red light district, has since maintained a unique and enchanting level of edginess. That area has become the center of the city’s arts community, and is anything but a kitschy tourist zone. It is gritty and eclectic, and glows with the occasional neon sign. In Chinatown you’ll find some iconic creative spaces like Mark’s Garage, a collaborative gallery, performance, and office space for the Hawaii Arts Alliance (a nonprofit that has championed arts across the state for decades).
Then there’s Waikiki, the more touristy area that most locals might avoid but is still charming and unique in its own right. People clad in flowered shirts drink Mai Tais while they lather on sunscreen. The area is famous for its surfer-filled beaches with the glorious backdrop of Diamond Head mountain. More broadly, the city is home to everything: old-school tiki spots, artisanal chocolate shops, French-Latin fusion bars, and locally owned Ethiopian cuisine. For the culturally curious, it has it all.
“When I was 12, my brother and I moved back to Honolulu to live with our mother. Hawaii felt like another universe, and reflecting on it, I am struck by how much more open and accepting it was.”Janet MockWriter
We definitely can’t ignore the rich natural world that surrounds the city. In Honolulu, residents have panoramic views and access to the stunning Pacific Ocean, lush jungles, cascading waterfalls, and alluring volcanic hikes. In fact, if you ask someone for directions in Kauai, you may hear them use the terms Makai or Mauka to indicate on which side of the road a place is located. Mauka means on the mountainside of the road, and Makai means on the ocean side of the road.
Iconic nature is interwoven into the city itself, which offers activities for every kind of person: you have staircase climbs that wind you all the way to Koko Head Summit for the determined hiker, scuba diving tours for the adventurous type, beachy sunset yoga for the flexible friend, and surf days on Waikiki Beach for those blessed with a good sense of balance. And even if, somehow, one feels like they ran out of nature to see in Honolulu, the next island is a quick 30-minute plane ride away. It’s easy to imagine that creative inspiration comes quickly with so many natural sources of legendary beauty accessible.
But here’s the catch: a growing number of Hawaiians say that tourism isn’t working for them. We know we’ve hyped up the city a lot so far, but there’s something special and important about protecting the existing culture and people without additional interference. Hawaii's tourism industry is known to commodify Hawaiian culture, generalize the lived experiences of locals, and hide the islands’ complicated colonialist past. A survey published by the Hawai’i Tourism Authority in November of 2020 reported that the majority of Hawaii's residents didn't want to welcome back visitors. So for now, it’s probably wise to cheer for Hawaii’s creative communities from afar, and make sure we’re loud enough for them to hear it.
A city good for… incredible, mind blowing expanses of nature.