Just past the gleaming high-rises of Hawaii’s capital, in traditional neighborhoods such as Chinatown and Kakaako, locals keep the heart of aloha beating in Honolulu’s art-filled galleries and island-themed bars.

Here’s the best this tropical haven has to offer:

Where to Stay 

The recently renovated Lotus Honolulu (from $350) is ideally located at the far tip of Waikiki, an easy walk to the beach bustle but far enough to be peaceful. From $212. For digs with a pedigree, reserve a room at the Royal Hawaiian, a Waikiki landmark nicknamed “the Pink Palace of the Pacific.”

Where to Eat

Performers at First Friday in Chinatown (Photograph by madmarv00, Flickr)

Performers at First Friday in Chinatown (Photograph by madmarv00, Flickr)

For an introduction to what Honolulu eats, visit the Saturday Farmers Market at Kapiolani Community College, where local growers sell their coffee, honey, and more (7:30-11 a.m.).

Everyone has to try at least one plate lunch at Yama’s Fish Market; it’s takeout, but you can’t beat the Hawaiian dishes, such as lau lau, pork steamed in taro leaves.

For dinner, grab 
a seat at Ono Hawaiian Foods, which dishes up kalua pig, squid, and other island fare; or at Roy’s, Roy Yamaguchi’s 
original eatery, where he introduced his famed misoyaki butterfish. Want to know more about the seafood? Register for a tour of the Honolulu Fish Auction with Hawaii Seafood.

What to Buy

Anyone interested in quality Hawaiian shirts should visit Tori Richard, a Honolulu fixture that opened in 1956 and has six branches. Vintage Hawaiiana—tiki mugs, hula dolls, posters—brings collectors to Tin Can Mailman, a store in Chinatown.

Arts and Crafts

There may be no better place than Arts at Mark’s Garage for an overview of what local artisans and artists are producing, from photography and watercolors to music and theater. This community arts center in Chinatown also is a sponsor of First Friday Honolulu, a grab bag of special arts events and refreshments on Kamani Street.

A view of Ala Moana Beach and Diamond Head from Kewalo Basin  (Photograph by Brazilfox, Flickr)

A view of Ala Moana Beach and Diamond Head from Kewalo Basin (Photograph by Brazilfox, Flickr)

You may recognize the work of Pegge Hopper—her richly colored paintings of island women adorn numerous hotels in Hawaii—but it’s at her 
Chinatown studio that the softly silhouetted portraits really shine. Cedar Street Galleries focuses on established and emerging area artists such as Geoff Lee, who is known for his glass creations.

Local’s Beach

Waikiki Beach gets the headlines, but locals skirt it for nearby Ala Moana Beach, a long, flat ribbon of sand that curves around a placid stretch of the Pacific Ocean.

What to Read

The city’s early days, when immigrants from Asia were reshaping Oahu’s growing port, come alive in Alan Brennert’s novel Honolulu (2009). Award-winning author Gaellen Quinn evokes Hawaii’s capital during its final years as the seat of the Kingdom of Hawaii in her 2009 historical novel, titled The Last Aloha.

This piece accompanied a feature story about Honolulu that appeared in  National Geographic Traveler’s December 2013/January 2014 issue.

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