Honolulu is an ultra-modern city full of enormous diversity. The county of Honolulu is home to approximately 800,000 people of all races and cultures. It is what gives O'ahu the nickname, "The Gathering Place."
Waikiki Beach stretches from the slopes of Diamond Head to Ala Moana and the Ala Wai Yacht Harbor. The beach itself is a great spot for the whole family. There is a near-shore break for the children, while the more experienced swimmers surf the waves.
The main thoroughfare of Waikiki is Kalakaua Boulevard. Most of the hotels, shops, and restaurants are gathered along this well-populated strip. The Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center is a must-stop for anyone who likes to shop. Dine on pho, sushi, fresh seafood or gourmet buffets at area restaurants. As for accommodations, Waikiki hotels are some of the best in the world. You can find everything from upscale, five-star establishments such as the Sheraton Moana Surfrider Hotel to lodgings for the budget traveler at places like the Honolulu Prince Hotel.
This diverse area is probably the first place business travelers will see, thanks to the presence of the enormous Hawai'i Convention Center. Be sure not to miss one of the largest open-air shopping centers in the country, Ala Moana Shopping Center, the Hawaiian Islands' premier shopping mall. Ala Moana Beach Park and Magic Island are beloved by locals and visitors alike. Restaurant Row, the stomping ground for the corporate lunch and Happy Hour crowd, is known as the "gateway" to downtown Honolulu.
Chinatown is one of Honolulu's most colorful and exciting neighborhoods. The area has been a major gateway for immigrants to Hawai'i. Chinese medicine and Eastern religion have a huge presence, with Taoist, Buddhist and Shinto temples sandwiched between herbalists, shops, and restaurants. Highlights of Chinatown include Maunakea Marketplace, a local shopping plaza complete with its own ethnic food court, and the Chinese Cultural Plaza, a spacious open-air courtyard inhabited by jewelers, Asian restaurants and cultural organizations.
From the steely skyscrapers and luxury high rises that rise up along the waterfront to the restored palaces and fascinating museums on Beretania and Bernice Streets, the downtown area proves Honolulu to be much more than the glitzy tourist town that Waikiki would have us believe. Landmarks are numerous, but a few that can't be missed are the grand and graceful Aloha Tower, bustling Honolulu Harbor and stunning Iolani Palace. After the sun goes down, the Honolulu Symphony and Hawaii Opera Theatre offer entertainment to a cultured, affluent crowd. The Aloha Tower Marketplace probably throws more parties and festivals than any other place in Honolulu.
Manoa Valley, where the University of Hawaii is situated, is typical of the valleys resulting from the erosion caused by lava flows in Hawai'i. One of the best places to view Honolulu and the Ko'olau mountain range is from the Manoa Cliff Trail. The main attraction of the valley itself is the University of Hawaii, a research university founded in 1907 and the only one of its kind in the state.
Manoa and the nearby neighborhood of Makiki comprise one of the major cultural hot spots on the island. While this district isn't marketed or publicized as a cultural destination, it is home to several galleries, museums and theater companies. Among the hidden jewels in the area are The Contemporary Museum, one of the best art museums in Hawaii, and Manoa Valley Theatre, a spirited community theater group.
East Honolulu—Diamond Head Kahala, Hawaii Kai
There are several major tourist attractions spread out through this area. Diamond Head is great for hikers. This peak can be seen from many vantage points in Honolulu, but for outdoor enthusiasts, there's no better way to experience it than by hiking to the summit and gazing down at the island below. Kahala Mall, Hawaii Kai Towne Center and the Hawaii Kai Golf Course are other area attractions.
Experts agree that Hanauma Bay, on the eastern tip of the island, offers some of the world's best snorkeling. However, if you prefer more privacy, try snorkeling or diving in Hawaii Kai. And if you'd prefer to view sea creatures from the safety of land, head over to Sea Life Park.
North Honolulu—Pearl Harbor, Pearl City & Ewa
Aside from Waikiki, this district may be the one most often visited by tourists. Site of the infamous Pearl Harbor attack, it is among the most famous naval attractions in the country. Millions of people visit the Arizona Memorial, Bowfin Memorial Park and "Mighty Mo" each year, learning about or revisiting the horror — and the heroism — that made this place what it is. Locals and in-the-know tourists often bypass Ala Moana Center and the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center in favor of Pearl City's famous Pearlridge Center.
If you visit Honolulu or even read about it, you'll likely find that the term "Windward" is tossed around quite a bit. Windward, to clarify, is the Eastern shore of the island. It's a quiet, laid-back place, devoid of all the glitz and noise of Honolulu. Most locals will also tell you that it's the best part of the island.
There are no major hotels or malls here, but there are plenty of restaurants and shops, and there seems to be a B&B tucked under every hillock and at the end of every street. Kailua Beach Park offers some of the world's best windsurfing, while Lanikai is simply one of the world's best beaches. Oh, and golfers...are you paying attention? Three words: Ko'olau Golf Club. It's the best on the island; Golf Digest said so.
Leeward O'ahu & Central O'ahu
Like Windward O'ahu and East Honolulu, Leeward (that's Western to all you mainlanders) is a quieter district with a few outstanding visitor attractions. Smart tourists—at least, the ones who can afford it—pooh pooh the jam-packed hotels of Waikiki, knowing that true paradise awaits at JW Marriott Ihilani Resort & Spa at the serene Ko'olina Marina. Near Ko'olina is Hawaiian Waters, a water amusement park on a grand scale. At Makaha Beach Park, swimmers, surfers and sun-worshipers congregate every day in the spring and summer months. In winter, daredevil surfers test their skill against swells that reach 20 to 30 feet.
Central Honolulu isn't much of a visitor destination, although the famous Dole Plantation draws its fair share of tourists.
It seems like every Hawaiian island has its own North Shore, where surfers from around the world come to brave the big waves in winter time. It doesn't stop there: It has great beaches, famous parks and a mellow lifestyle. Waimea Valley Adventure Park is a great place to hike, ride horses and watch people dive off cliffs. There is also the Polynesian Cultural Center, which recreates seven Polynesian villages, each with their own activities and attractions.