Word of Mouth: Honolulu

The tropical metropolis is making big waves with authentic outposts that celebrate Hawaii's rich cultural history

From the time local swimming champ Duke Kahanamoku turned surfing into a modern sport and Elvis Presley began to rock-a-hula, people have swarmed to the shores of Waikiki to soak up its prolific Polynesian sunshine. Today’s tourist seeking big waves and beautiful rainbows should know Oahu’s near-perfect weather hasn’t changed, but that the city of Honolulu has. The tropical metropolis has steadily developed into a destination in its own right, with forward-thinking chefs taking advantage of the bounty of fresh foods, street artists turning industrial areas into colorful creative enclaves and old-school outposts finding newfound popularity thanks to social media.

Exploring the island’s urban areas may seem somewhat misplaced, but then again, Waikiki’s beloved Mai Tai actually originated in San Francisco; to acquaint yourself with authentic Hawaiian history, culture and cuisines, take a step back from the resort zone. With that in mind, here are a handful of jumping off points for your next trip to the Big Pineapple.

Hyatt Centric Waikiki

Bright and airy, the recently opened Hyatt Centric Waikiki is a boutique-style hotel that makes for an agreeable home base. Located on Kuhio Street between the beach and Ala Wai Boulevard, it’s the perfect launchpad for varied adventures: walk five minutes one direction and you’re at the ocean (stop by the ABC Store to grab a $4 float on the way), walk five minutes the other way and you’ll find yourself immersed in a luxury shopping spree at the ultra glossy International Marketplace. Or just call a cab to check out the neighborhoods outlined here—each is less than 20 minutes away.

If the sun has left you in a more mellow mood the Hyatt Centric is also a great place to kick back, whether it’s in a lounge chair with your toes dangling in the wading pool or with a house cocktail while listening to the sound of a ukulele player at happy hour or simply watching the sun set over Waikiki from the comfort of your room. The Lanai restaurant is another draw, and after a few days of dinning we can wholeheartedly say do not miss the loco moco (which is an upscale take on the classic dish but a welcome one at that) nor the wonderfully fresh ahi tuna poke. Being a new property, the Hyatt Centric gets a lot of modern travel needs right—like plugs next to the bed and hydration stations to refill your water bottle—but hasn’t wasted money on extravagant furnishings or a spa you’ll likely never use, which means a night here won’t break the bank but you’ll also feel right at home.

Big Wave Dave

You would be remiss not to give surfing a go while spending time in its birthplace. Tucked behind the resorts on Koa Ave is Big Wave Dave, a bona fide local who makes the learning process fun. Dave goes through the basic maneuvers out back of his shop so you can look like a kook in private. Once in the water he’s there to correct your form and give you a push when your wave comes along.

Honolulu Museum of Art

Dig into Hawaiian history at the Honolulu Museum of Art, a palatial building from 1927 with tropical gardens and water fountains that comprise the gorgeous grounds. The museum boasts over 50,000 pieces in the permanent collection and is brimming with Polynesian artifacts, Asian works dating back to the Ming dynasty and contemporary art from across the islands alike. It also regularly hosts events like ARTafterDARK, which can be a fun way to meet like-minded locals while enriching your holiday experience.

Kamaka Ukulele

Ukulele lovers, history buffs and those who appreciate the handmade will want to spend a little time at Kamaka Hawaii, the world’s top producer of the tiny string instrument. The generations-strong business was founded in 1916 by Samuel Kamaka—who patented the pineapple ukulele—and continues to thrive today thanks to his sons and grandchildren. They offer a free, hour-long guided tour of their workshop Tuesday through Friday at 10:30AM.

Pig & Lady

If there were no other reason to visit the modern Vietnamese restaurant Pig & Lady it would be for their bathroom, a majestic shrine dedicated to the cult-loved film “Big Trouble in Little China.” But the food here is just as incredible, which is visible both on the plate and in the hard-to-come-by reservation for this Chinatown locale. Dinner standouts include bigeye ahi on Spanish toast, and uni ragu, while lunch is all about the P&L pho French dip sandwich. Whenever you visit, know you will walk away a little tipsy because their fresh cocktails—like All In The Reflexes and the P&L Sour—are impossible to resist.

Kaimuki Superette

Since opening Town in 2005—a pioneering farm-to-table restaurant that made the most of Oahu’s agricultural bounty—Honolulu native Ed Kenny has adhered to a simple mantra of “local first, organic whenever possible, with aloha always” for each new culinary outpost he conceives. The growing list additionally includes experimental dinner spot Mud Hen Water, Brooklyn-esque hipster haven Mahina & Sun’s, =and the casual eatery Kaimuki Superette. The latter is an ideal place to pick up both a healthy lunch and some non-touristy goods for friends back home. Sundries sold here are made in-house with ingredients from small-batch producers, and include pickles, fruit preserves, hot sauce, coffee beans and more.

Leonard’s Bakery

It’s best to save a stop in Leonard’s Bakery for last because you won’t be able to resist getting a little gluttonous with their deep-fried delights. Founded in 1953, the family-run bakery is Portuguese in tradition and is best known for their malasadas, which are light and fluffy dough balls coated in various types of sugar (try the li hing, made from a salty dried plum). Work off the confections—but save room for more deliciousness—with a short jaunt to Ono Hawaiian Foods, a no-frills restaurant that’s been serving local specialties for over 40 years. You can’t go wrong here, but do not miss the tuna poke, Kalua pig or lomi salmon—and of course, a side of poi. On the easy walk back to Waikiki, stop by Bailey’s Antiques and Aloha Shirts to pick up some Hawaiian threads. Their selection spans rare Indonesian work uniforms to every pattern of aloha shirt ever made.

Big Wave Dave, Honolulu of Museum of Art, Leonard’s Bakery and Kaimuki Superette images courtesy of respective venues; all others by Karen Day