Worlds away from the kitschy tourist zone of Waikiki and the rural surf paradise of the North Shore, Honolulu’s Chinatown has recently become the center of the city’s arts community—bringing with it the requisite cafes, music venues and even a whiff of the cool kid aura that permeates other bohemian enclaves in the rest of the country. Of course, you won’t be mistaking the neighborhood for Williamsburg, Brooklyn or the Mission District in San Francisco anytime soon—and that’s a good thing. Like many things in Hawaii, the area is a unique blend of local Asian-American and immigrant cultures, with a dash of edge mixed in (it was formerly the city’s red light district) and its downtown location gives it just the right amount of urban grit, albeit with palm trees and 80-degree tropical weather.
Here are a just a few places (both new and established) that are worth a visit:
Chinatown Boardroom: A hybrid surf shop and art gallery with a friendly staff and unique events, such as a monthly surf discussion series and parties that benefit local charities. 1160 Nuuanu Ave.; 808/585-7200.
Otto Cake: If you’re craving a slice of cheesecake while making your way through the neighborhood, head straight to this little bakery. Otto makes over 100 flavors that change on a daily basis. $4 a slice; 1160 Smith St.; 808/834-6886.
Etown: An eco-conscious boutique and showroom, Etown specializes in creating extraordinary handbags, swimwear and jewelry—often with unusually sourced materials. Co-owner Pia Boone’s nautical-inspired handbags, for example, are made from re-purposed sailcloth. 1164 Smith Street.
Thirtynine Hotel: Popular with Honolulu’s young night owls, 39 Hotel is a mixed-media space that attracts a constant rotating amalgam of art and music. The outdoor rooftop bar is the place to be on weekend evenings. 39 N. Hotel St.; 808/599-2552.
The Arts at Mark’s Garage: This is arguably the nexus of the Hawaii arts scene. A collaborative gallery and performance space for the Hawaii Arts Alliance, Mark’s had been vital in developing the neighborhood as a thriving creative center of the city. 1159 Nuuanu Ave.; 808/521-2903.
Char Hung Sut: Any local will have their favorite place for manapua (steamed buns containing chopped or minced meat), but you’ll most likely hear Char Hung Sut mentioned more than any other as the best in town. 64 N. Pauahi St.; 808/538-3335.
John Wogan is a freelance research editor at Travel + Leisure.