How to Experience Honolulu and the Rest of Oahu, Hawaii as a Local
Magnificent beaches, idyllic weather, and relaxing resorts push Hawai’i to the top of many travelers’ bucket lists, but there’s far more to the islands than most tourists ever get to see. Hawai’i is rich in history, culture, and traditions, with tons to offer no matter your travel interests. To get the low-down on all that Honolulu and Oahu have to offer, I spoke with resident and travel blogger Lisa Romanov.
Lisa is the writer and photographer behind Cultural Foodies. In 2014, after living on Oahu for 9 years, she traded her rubber flip flops, bikinis and kukui nut leis for warm boots, fleece scarves and REI gear when she moved to Seattle, Washington. Lisa lived in the Emerald City for three years where she met her now husband, Sasha. In 2017, they left their corporate careers to travel abroad for half a year, visiting 11 countries and over 50 cities. Lisa and Sasha are now back on the island of Oahu, Hawai’i, eating and traveling their way through the islands.
Thanks for speaking with me about Oahu, Lisa! What do you love about this island? What makes it special to you?
I can sum up my love for this island in one word: ALOHA. This is such a special word to us because it has such an array of meanings, including “hello,” “goodbye,” “peace,” and “love.” There is a general feeling of happiness and togetherness on the islands. Unlike a big city such as New York or Los Angeles where everyone is in their own bubble, people on Oahu are far more open and affable. Here’s a blog post I wrote on what it’s really like to live in Hawaii.
What should travelers know about Hawaiian culture and people?
As with any culture, you should respect the ‘aina (land), which is sacred to the Hawaiian people. There is a bit of contention between locals and tourists, because while tourism pays for our livelihood and runs our economy, it is also destroying the natural landscape of the islands, including reefs, beaches and wildlife. The same goes for traveling anywhere around the world; always pack your trash, don’t leave valuables in your vehicle, do smile and say “hello” or “aloha” to people when you pass them on the streets, and don’t honk whilst driving. Be patient, brah, we’re on Hawaiian time. ☺
Love it! Any cool historical tidbits or important history that visitors should be aware of?
The island of Oahu houses the only official royal residence on U.S. soil, Iolani Palace. You can take a self-guided or guided tour. Book tickets in advance on their official site here.
What’s a cool neighborhood you’d recommend to visitors looking for something a little different?
Kaka’ako is where the cool kids hang out nowadays! This up-and-coming area is now fully up and in existence! Gentrified by one of the largest Whole Foods in the country, and an awesome courtyard filled with local restaurants and shops, called Salt at Our Kaka’ako, this newest neighbor on the block is a fun and unique place to meet up with friends, go on a date night, or have a solo wander about!
Want to take photos of colorful and professional street art, chat with the owner of a local chocolatier about how they make their bean-to-bar chocolate, or enjoy a millennial-loved avocado toast at an Australian-inspired café that shares a space with a shop where you can build your own succulents? Then Kaka’ako is for you! Located just a ten-minute Uber or taxi ride from Waikiki, this off-shoot of Honolulu is easy to get to with street parking and a parking garage.
Sounds like a cool place! Tell me about your favorite restaurant (or a few of them!) in this city.
Oh my gosh, you’ve hit my sweet spot! This is my favorite topic in the world, hence my blog name Cultural Foodies! I’ve dedicated an entire blog post to the Ultimate Foodie Guide to Oahu, which you can find here.
Want to explore Oahu on a budget? Check out my post, 10 Free or Cheap Things to Do and See In Oahu, Hawaii.
That’s a great resource! Where would you recommend tourists stay when visiting?
Waikiki must be experienced at least for one night. It’s so fun to walk the strip (just over two miles long from the Zoo to Ala Moana Shopping Center) and people watch, dip your toes in the ocean, watch surfers, both beginners and regulars, try their hand at the iconic spots; check out the nightlife at fun bars such as Rumfire or Sky Waikiki, and witness a small/big city vibe that never seems to sleep. But for goodness sake, don’t spend all your time there! Waikiki is not an accurate representation of Hawaii. I recommend staying a few nights on the famed North Shore and a few nights on the East side near Kailua and Lanikai, where you can find some of the most stunning hikes and beautiful beaches on the island, spread with white powdery sand and turquoise waters.
You can check out my blog post on How to Spend a Day on Oahu’s North Shore (from a local’s perspective) here.
What tips do you have for travelers looking to avoid the crowds?
Visit a neighbor island, such as Maui, Kauai or Big Island! In all seriousness, if you’re looking to avoid crowds on Oahu, visit during off-season (January – February and October – November) and stay on the North Shore where there are fewer crowds and you’re away from the hustle bustle of Waikiki. Staying in an Airbnb is always a great way to experience life more like a local.
What should visitors know about transportation around the city?
Avoid the city bus (called “The Bus”) unless you are going a very short distance, such as from Waikiki to Diamond Head (bus #2 or #23). Oahu’s public transportation is sub-par, but they’re getting better with the recent introduction of Biki (Oahu’s bike share system), which can be found all over the city. Just use your credit card and you’re on your way! However, be very cautious as the drivers, especially around Waikiki, are typically tourists and therefore may not be accustomed to driving in the area or around bikers.
Waikiki is only 2.5 miles long and easily walkable. If you are staying in Waikiki, all activities will offer transportation to and from the hotel, included in the price, so having a car is not necessary. However, if you are staying outside of the city, a rental car is recommended. On the North Shore, with the exception of the Dole Pineapple Plantation and Waimea Bay, not much is labeled or obvious, so you’ll need to know your way around or have an idea of where you’d like to go. It’s not like you can just enter “cool spot to see turtles” into Google Maps and have it point you to an exact location on a secret beach that only the locals know about. We wouldn’t want to give away all our secrets now, would we? 😉
I work for Expedia Local Expert as a concierge, so my job is to book activities for visitors! We can often offer discounted rates, so if you’re interested in visiting any of the Hawaiian Islands and would like some advice on what to do or see around the island (either a free or paid activity), reach out anytime! Happy to help!
Thanks for all your insights, Lisa! Really makes me want to return to Hawai’i! Be sure to check out Lisa’s blog, Cultural Foodies, and follow her on Instagram and Pinterest.
Has been a while since we visited Hawaii, and your chat to Lisa really brings us up to date with the scene there now. Must revisit very soon.
Same for me! I hope we both get to go soon!
Hi Kirstie, appreciated the read! Waikiki is a must & like you mentioned, even if its for one night. Especially if its your first time visiting the island. Enjoyed it, thanks!