Honolulu Travel Guide
The beating heart of the Hawaiian Islands, Honolulu is the beloved gateway to golden-sand beaches, extinct volcanoes, misty mountains, and laid-back island vibes. But this comlex Polynesian capital is more than a string of postcard-worthy backdrops. Honolulu is chaotic yet charming. Boisterous yet beautiful. Here, bustling industrial districts coexist alongside picture-perfect natural wonders. The juxtaposition is striking, even more so when trading in the city limits for Oahu’s strong country roots and quiet, rugged coastlines. Honolulu is proud of its multicultural heritage; expect a mosaic of cultures all embracing the “aloha” lifestyle—and a diverse, innovative culinary scene to match. World-famous Waikiki Beach doubles as the epicentre of gay Honolulu. From Queen’s Surf Beach (Honolulu’s famed gay beach) to a healthy smattering of gay bars and nightclubs, come for a tantalizing tropical getaway deserving of its rank as one of the world’s friendliest LGBTQ cities. Looking for the ultimate Honolulu gay guide? Mr Hudson has got you covered.
Where to stay in Honolulu
Let’s start this gay Honolulu travel guide with a roundup of the best hotels in Honolulu. When you have a name like Halekulani (Hawaiian for house befitting heaven), expectations are going to run sky high. But with its first-rate service, elegant rooms and exceptional palm-fringed location on Waikiki Beach, Halekulani doesn’t disappoint. Most rooms on the historic five-acre property boast large lanais (patios), sumptuous deep soaking tubs, and serene Pacific Ocean views. And while it might boast a central Waikiki address, Halekulani still feels like a secluded escape. Don’t skip the SpaHalekulani, where indulging in any one of the native Polynesian-inspired treatments is bound to melt away any last remaining stress you carried across the Pacific. (We speak from the first-hand experience.)
Long a heralded mainstay in the Honolulu hospitality scene, few hotels can boast the same array of distinguished guests as the Kahala Hotel. Think: international royalty, A-list celebrities, and every U.S. President from Lyndon Johnson to George W. Bush. With its vintage mid-century design, private lagoon, and ample amenities, it’s easy to see why discerning travellers have been choosing the Kahala Hotel since 1964. Another premiere Honolulu hotel, Prince Waikiki provides a swanky hotel experience steeped in traditional native Hawaiian culture. Of particular note is Prince Waikiki’s extensive collection of artwork by Native Hawaiians—the most comprehensive in all of Waikiki. The mesmerizing 800-piece copper fish artwork display by celebrated artist Kaili Chun that hangs in the lobby is impossible to miss. Head to Waikiki’s southern edge to find The Lotus Honolulu, a hip boutique hotel that exemplifies relaxed island living and upscale adventure. Located near Honolulu’s iconic Diamond Head, the phenomenal mountain and ocean views are only made better by the complimentary evening wine parties and free bicycle rental service.
The Four Seasons Ko Olina might technically lie about an hour outside of Honolulu, but this newly minted luxury resort delivers five-star service in a lesser-known side of paradise that is still within easy access to the highlights of the capital. Rumour has it that King Kamehameha once vacationed in this sacred area, revered for its beach coves, nature preserve, and tranquil lagoon. Today the royal treatment continues, whether at the adults-only infinity pool, lounging in your sun-filled room, or exploring the island via a private chartered yacht cruise.
With over 24 million artifacts, The Bishop Museum is home to the world’s most extensive collection of Polynesian treasures
Things to do in Honolulu
For a deep dive into Hawaii’s rich cultural heritage, Iolani Palace is a must-visit. The only official state residence of royalty in the United States, the meticulously restored palace dates back to 1882. King David Kalakaua spared no expense in the construction of the European-inspired royal residence—even surpassing The White House at the time for its use of electricity, indoor plumbing, and telephone service. Today the national historic landmark doubles as a cultural icon and a fascinating museum, telling an enchanting story of Honolulu throughout the decades. Further your appreciation of the paradisiacal Polynesian islands with a visit to the Bishop Museum. With over 24 million artefacts, it’s the world’s most extensive collection of Polynesian treasures. The crown jewel? A feathered cloak and helmet gifted by chief Kalani’opu’u to James Cook upon his 1779 arrival to Kealakekua Bay.
You didn’t travel all the way to Honolulu to stay inside. With your cultural palate satiated, head to Hanauma Bay to discover a kaleidoscope of marine life. The stunning curved bay and ancient volcanic crater provide serene conditions for snorkelling alongside vibrant fish and thriving reefs. Even better, Hanauma Bay is a designated Nature Preserve, so you can explore Honolulu’s underwater bounties while also safeguarding its fragile ecosystem. Many credit the Hawaiians for pioneering the art of riding waves, with ancient Hawaiian royalty using the “Sport of Kings” to demonstrate their strength and finesse. Regardless of its roots, surfing in Oahu is more than a diversion. For locals, it’s a way of life—a vital shared cultural identity in a melting pot of people. While it’s undeniably satisfying to watch ripped surfers shred the waves on the North Shore and Waikiki, it’s even more rewarding to join them on the water. Hans Hedemann Surf School is Oahu’s premier surf school, with private lessons for any level.
Even if this is your first visit to Honolulu, you’ve likely glimpsed the captivating beauty of 4,000-acre Kualoa Ranch before. The verdant mountains and emerald Ka’a’awa Valley have made an appearance in a plethora of high-profile shows and cinematic adventures, from Jurassic World to Hawaii Five O. Today Kualoa Ranch is a sixth-generation nature preserve that doubles as a working cattle ranch and farm. Visitors can experience the beauty of the dramatic windward coast via horseback, zip line, catamaran or a jungle ATV tour. It’s a popular tourist attraction, but one glimpse of the bewitching scenery reveals why it remains a Honolulu must-visit.
What to see in Honolulu
It’s time we talk about beaches. You are in Hawaii, after all, and Honolulu doesn’t want for silky sands and sexy, sun-kissed men. Waikiki is Honolulu’s most famed beach, and while it gets undeniably busy, the subsection of Queen’s Surf Beach is also gay Honolulu headquarters. Come here when you want to meet and mingle, or for a dip in the crystal-clear calm waters. Not far from here is Kuhio Beach, a beloved spot to enjoy Honolulu’s famed red and orange sunsets. Ala Moana Beach Park is popular with the locals for its white sand and tree-shaded picnic areas. It’s conveniently located across from the Ala Moana Center, the world’s largest open-air shopping centre. From here you can also walk to Magic Island, a small man-made peninsula made unique by the spectacular Honolulu skyline soaring in the background.
Diamond Crater is well worth the trek, but don’t overlook one of Oahu’s best-kept secrets: The Kuliouou Ridge HIke
Oahu is a hiker’s dream destination, and the famed Diamond Crater hike is easily one of Honolulu’s most sought after trails. While it’s certainly worth the trek, don’t overlook one of Oahu’s best-kept secrets: The Kuliouou Ridge Hike. This intermediate dirt path crosses through multiple ecosystems, promising an exciting change in scenery as you make your way to the true highlight of the experience: insane 270-degree views of Hawaii Kai and East Oahu. A less strenuous hike, the Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail takes you to Oahu’s picturesque Makapu’u Lighthouse and promises lovely views of Makapu’u beach toward North Shore. Insider tip: Combine the walk with a dip in the Makapu’u tide pools, which are a short rock scramble down from the trail and an undeniably cool Honolulu point of interest.
Kakaako is Honolulu’s most hip and happening district, bursting with cool shops, innovative restaurants and—most importantly—the city’s best cutting-edge street art. Once an area defined by its drab warehouse buildings, today the vibrant neighbourhood is home to gorgeous graffiti, thought-provoking murals, and several art studios and galleries. Don’t miss Lane Lane, headquarters to the renown Pow! Wow! week-long arts events. There’s plenty to do in Kakaako, so we recommend taking an afternoon to explore the trendy area. For a day trip to what might very well be Oahu’s most fabulous beach town, head to Kailua. Here, generations-old establishments and trendy, creative boutiques coexist in a walkable downtown that’s surrounded by verdant mountains and peaceful beaches. It’s a serene escape from the frenzy of Honolulu that will still have you back to Waikiki for all the best action post-sunset.
Where to eat in Honolulu
Many of Honolulu’s best restaurants are hidden inside hotels, and The Royal Hawaiian’s Azure is no exception. Come for the spectacular seafood in a next-level romantic atmosphere. The team at Azure hand-pick fresh fish each morning from the Honolulu Fish Auction to ensure only the highest quality ingredients make it to your plate. Exquisite Spanish-Moorish decor and Pacific Ocean views round out the experience. Inside the Haleakala Hotel, you’ll find La Mer, a neoclassic French restaurant—and the only Hawaiian restaurant to receive Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star accolade. Here, local ingredients get south of France spin, with drool-worthy dishes like mango and garden ratatouille with King Crab and a mango vinaigrette. Then there’s Chef Mavro, where French chef (and James Beard award-winner) George Mavrothalassitis brings Hawaiian-French fusion to Honolulu’s gourmet food scene. Splurge on the six-course meal and wine pairing to fully appreciate the expertly-crafted menu. Just don’t request a wine menu—the chef prefers to masterfully match a specific wine to each dish.
Piggy Smalls is the latest restaurant from award-winning chef Andrew Le (also known for his ever-popular The Pig & The Lady.) The avant-garde menu features eclectic takes on classic Vietnamese cuisine. Vegan pho, truffle shuffle quiche, and pho-strami banh mi are just a few of the creative dishes you’ll find on the menu. The atmosphere is unpretentious yet also undeniably on point. For authentic Hawaiian cuisine that’s been going strong since 1946, it doesn’t get any better than Helena’s Hawaiian Food. The menu is straightforward but delicious, with homestyle classics like smoky kalua pig and creamy luau squid taking centre stage. Don’t be fooled by the no-frills atmosphere; chef Helen Chock picked up a James Beard Award in 2000 for her expert takes on regional cuisine. If you’re craving modern takes on classic American dishes, 12th Avenue Grill is a cosy restaurant serving farm-to-table, artisanal cuisine. Think deep-fried brussel sprouts salad and baked macaroni and cheese. The grill also offers an extensive craft cocktail and wine list, with highly skilled mixologists crafting fun, boozy custom drinks.
Get your brunch on at Mahina & Sun’s, a self-dubbed “purveyor of elevated home cooking inspired by Hawaii’s people and place.” Ingredients are sustainably sourced from Oahu’s countryside to create signature dishes like the Surfjack Breakfast, a delightful combination of hapa rice and kimchi, and the U’lu Pancake, which comes smothered in coconut brown sugar syrup and lilikoi. Didn’t make it in time for brunch? Mahina & Sun’s doesn’t disappoint any time of day. Another classic Honolulu brunch is over at Koko Head, where Top Chef finalist Lee Anne Wong serves Asian-inspired breakfast specials like congee bowls and cornflake-crusted French toast. You’ll find a horde of locals working through the profoundly satisfying, homegrown menu on any day of the week.
The pop of bright colors at Roberta Oaks is perfect for the islands, yet classy enough to slay on the day-to-day back home, too
Shopping in Honolulu
Hawaii’s reputation for first-rate shopping precedes it, so you’ll want to leave ample room in your suitcase for all of your proud “made in Hawaii” purchases. Start at Roberta Oaks, a local designer known for her signature style that takes the iconic floral-print Aloha shirt and elevates it to new sophistication. Expect modern Hawaiian designs that take on slim, clean-lined silhouettes. The pop of bright colours is perfect for the islands, yet classy enough to slay on the day-to-day back home, too. Inside Waikiki’s Surfjack Hotel is Olive & Oliver, a fashion shop with on-site artisanal coffee bar. The husband and wife owners hand-pick each and every item on display here, with a special emphasis on beach essentials and authentic Hawaiian gift items. Then there’s Sixty-One, the kind of menswear shop that we travel the world for. The refined boutique has everything the modern gentleman needs to look and feel his best—from handcrafted clothing to sumptuous skincare products to high-end barber services.
We love a quirky vintage shop, especially when a pair as charming as Bradley Rhea and Jonathan Saupe own it. Barrio Vintage is all that plus retro fabrics, colourful prints, and flashy accessories giving us tangible 70s – 90s vibes. Try to coincide your visit with one of Barrio’s boozy events for a memorable shopping experience. Another eclectic Chinatown shop that’s cemented itself as a Honolulu must-visit is Hound & Quail, a unique antique shop and gallery with everything from taxidermy to vintage cameras to ancient-looking mirrors. It’s a treasure trove of wonderful oddities from Hawaii and around the globe. The shop also hosts art classes, workshops and other creative events in its underground space: The Outpost. Dukes Lane Market & Eatery is a lively upscale food court showcasing a large variety of gourmet foods and fresh produce. While you can’t go wrong at any of the mouth-watering eateries that call the market home, Duke Lane is also an excellent spot to source gastronomic pleasures like Hawaiian craft beer, elite pastries, local coffee, and home-baked bread. Nightly live music and top-notch drink specials attract both locals and travellers to the concept market, turning the shopping experience into a real entertainment event.
And now for Mr Hudson’s Honolulu gay scene guide. Sexy bartenders, friendly neighbourhood vibes, and strong drinks at fair prices—that’s Bacchus Waikiki, and it should be the first stop on any evening of Honolulu gay bar hopping. Expect a casual atmosphere with plenty of natural wood details, far removed from the over-priced tourist haunts downtown. A Waikiki icon and global LGBTQ legend, Hula’s Bar and Lei Stand has been a mainstay in Honolulu’s gay bar scene for over 44 years. There’s live music or cabaret shows most nights, along with expansive views of Diamond Head that pull in a crowd for sunset and happy hour. You don’t have to love karaoke to appreciate Wang Chung’s, a gay karaoke bar that caters to an attractive, fun-loving crowd. Whatever you do, don’t miss Wang Chung’s Sunday drag brunches—an insanely fun twist to everyone’s favourite weekend activity. For a tried and true gay dance club experience, Scarlet Honolulu is the answer. The gay club is loosely based on a dollhouse theme, which is just as campy as it sounds (in all the right ways.) The music sways towards EDM and pop, with regular drag shows and dancers for entertainment.
Pint + Jigger is a cosy gastropub and obvious crowd pleaser, delivering seasonal craft cocktails, an extensive craft beer selection, and yummy, shareable bites. Unlike most other bars, Pint + Jigger even offers a range of high-quality cocktails on tap, so you can happily imbibe without the dreaded wait. Described as a speakeasy-style gentlemen’s den, Bar Leather Apron is swanky without being pompous, high-end while still feeling welcoming. No detail is left unaccounted for, from the smooth background music to the hand-shaped ice and custom coasters to the island’s largest whiskey selection. It’s an intimate spot to start or end your evening with strong cocktails and quiet conversation. For Honolulu’s best rooftop lounge, SKY Lounge sits atop a 19-story building in Waikiki, delivering outstanding views of Diamond Head and Waikiki beach. Come for the sunset, or enjoy the glittering city lights and light tropical breezes after dark.
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Hula's Bar and Lei Stand
Roberta Oaks | Photo: Paul Strouse
Mahina and Sons | Photo: Laura La Monaca
Photo: Paul Trienekens
Photo: Jeremy Bishop
Photo: Michelle Spollen
Photo: David Emrich
Bar Leather Apron