To find Honolulu's most exciting new entertainment district, keep your eyes peeled for graffiti.
Kaka'ako, a once industrial neighborhood wedged between the shoreline of Ala Moana, Waikiki, and Downtown, has now become a must-see for visitors to the island of Oahu. You'll know you've arrived when you see the buildings covered in huge, museum-quality spray paint art, much of it created during the yearly Pow! Wow! festival; the pivot local arts event has served as a catalyst for the area's growth, transforming unsightly rows of auto shops into gallery walls.
“In a lot of ways, Kaka’ako was a forgotten district. No one spent time there outside of buying office supplies or getting their car fixed,” says Jasper Wong, creator of Pow! Wow! Hawaii. “Foot traffic didn’t exist and it definitely didn’t attract tourists.”
With the boom of eye-catching murals came businesses to match the youthful energy. The cornerstone of the area is the mixed-use development SALT at Our Kaka'ako, named for the salt ponds that used to fill the area. One could spend all day at SALT browsing boutiques and eating everything from small-batch chocolate at Lonohana Estate Chocolate to lobster sausage at Haute Dogs, but there's much more to see.
"Kaka‘ako has a diverse community and demographic,” says Jimmy Ventura, general manager at SALT at Our Kaka'ako. “The challenge was to create a place that could serve a unique neighborhood and its visitors. We have created a diverse mix of tenants to support the community."
When visiting Oahu you can't go wrong with a full day of sitting on the beach, but an extended stay on the island should include time to explore this vibrant new neighborhood. Luckily, we've put together an itinerary of highlights to explore in just one day.
8 a.m.: There's still not much in the way of hotel lodging in Kaka'ako, so most visitors will start their morning waking up in Waikiki. If you're not averse to sweating a bit (don't worry, there's swimming later!), hop on one of the city's public Biki bicycles for a short 20-minute ride through what's essentially outdoor street art gallery. Start along a pleasant inlet on Ala Wai Blvd to the Ala Moana Park Path to avoid traffic, then head a few blocks north to park the Biki station outside SALT.
9 a.m.: You'll be seeing the new side of Kaka'ako all day, so start off old-school with breakfast at the Highway Inn, a no-frills institution since 1947. The hearty menu features Hawaiian proteins like Kalua pig and a seafood “catch of the day” paired with eggs, rice, and gravy, plus local flavors seldom seen elsewhere like poi pancakes.
10 a.m.: If you've made it this far without coffee, congratulations. But those who require caffeine fuel will have no shortage of options. Stop into Arvo Cafe for a latte made using beans from San Francisco roaster Sightglass, and sip while browsing the attached plant shop Paiko, a botanical Instagrammer's paradise with a DIY terrarium bar and diverse collection of succulents. If you're afraid of sabotaging your carry-on by purchasing an adorable miniature cactus, check out Milo or Stoke House for a souvenir from the city's best upscale clothing boutiques.
11 a.m.: Music-lovers have no shortage of options in the area, with two notable destinations catering to vinyl diggers and casual listeners alike. The upper level of SALT houses Hungry Ear Records, which boasts the state's largest selection of vinyl. Don't miss the Hawaiian section that features rare CDs and cassettes, as well as reissues of obscure surf classics by the Aloha Got Soul label. Across the street Idea's Books and Music feels more like a dusty treasure trove, with every type of media one could want, including an especially diverse selection of music from Asian countries.
12:30 p.m.: For lunch head to Ward Village, an upscale cosmopolitan development that houses Piggy Smalls. A casual offshoot of chef-driven Vietnamese restaurant The Pig and the Lady, it's become a booming lunch spot, so the hangry-hearted might consider skipping record shopping to beat the crowds. Start with an order of the LFC wings, then one of the banh mis filled with smoked brisket with pho and pastrami spices or fried Kauai shrimp. Non-meat eaters shouldn't miss a chance to order a rare bowl of vegan Pho.
2:00 p.m.: Since this is Hawaii, no day is complete without a trip to the beach, so head to Ala Moana Regional Park, a strip of beach that's far less crowded than Waikiki alternatives. The steady but modest waves make it a perfect spot for a surf lesson, with groups like Surf HNL offering private or group instruction which include gear rentals and some true beach boy expertise. Even novices will be riding waves within minutes, but don't be surprised if your ribs feel wiped out tomorrow morning.
4:00 p.m.: After hitting the waves you've earned yourself a beer, and Hawaii's vibrant craft scene has you covered. Every bar and restaurant in town pours suds from the state's original craft brewery Kona, but why not try a few of the city's newer upstarts. Honolulu BeerWorks opened their brewpub in 2014, showcasing barrel-aged beers, Belgian-style farmhouse ales, and seasonal fresh-hopped offerings for IPA drinkers. Waikiki Brewing Company also has a pub in Kaka'ako, serving their trailblazing Skinny Jeans IPA and unique flavored beers like a spicy green chili Jalapeno Mouth and Black Strap Molasses Porter. If you're craving a snack, split one of their barbecue plates, which pairs with sauces made using their beers.
6:00 p.m.: It's impossible to talk about the progression of Hawaiian cuisine without mentioning Chef Peter Merriman. He opened his first restaurant on the Big Island of Hawaii in 1988, pioneering a locavore style of dining that has now swept the nation. It's resulted in five locations of his eponymous restaurant, plus Moku Kitchen, which opened in Kaka'ako in 2016. The star of the show is a rotisserie oven that creates “Upcountry Fire” like rosemary roasted pork, herb roasted jidori chicken, or shoyu-glazed rotisserie duck with mole. Plus, you're just in time for the nightly live music at 7 pm.
8:00 p.m.: Cap the night with a cocktail at Bevy, who take an innovative approach to crafting cocktails that incorporate local flavors while embracing molecular gastronomy experimentation. It's been ages since head bartender Christian Self won an award for “World's Best Mai Tai” from Bacardi back in 2010, but it's still a must order thanks to mixologist touches like lemongrass and candied ginger foam. If you've brought a crowd, don't miss their punch bowls.
10:00 p.m.: If your legs are sore, there's no shame in catching an Uber, and Honolulu recently capped surge pricing so it won't kill the budget. You'll undoubtedly have been mural-spotting all day, but we'd suggest one more meandering ride through the neighborhood to take in the cool evening breeze and explore the quiet back streets. Cruise a block north of SALT to Coral Street where you'll find some of the best work as a halo'd Hawaiian woman on a starscape backdrop, by local tattoo artist Jesse “Dak1ne” Velasquez.” Next cruise to Pohukaina St. to scope Roxanne and Matt Ortiz's sunset-soaked camper van mural as well as a pastel sea damsel by Audrey Kawaski. Let your eyes be your guide, but don't be afraid to veer off the beaten path.