How to spend a day in Honolulu's Chinatown

One of Honolulu’s oldest neighborhoods, Chinatown is a must-see. Endlessly strollable, discoveries abound in its narrow streets of 19th-century buildings and markets buzz with activity by day. Don’t miss top restaurants, hole-in-the-wall kitchens, dim-sum palaces and family-run stalls, and save time for the art galleries and trendy shops. Buy a lei while you’re here.

Chinatown’s location is no accident. Near Honolulu’s busy trading port, enterprises selling goods to city folks and visiting seamen sprang up in the 1820s. Many of the shops were established by Chinese laborers who had completed their sugarcane plantation contracts. Some opened raucous bars catering to sailors. Though the most successful families have long since moved away, new immigrants, mostly from Southeast Asia, keep Chinatown vibrant. The neighborhood’s heritage is on explosive display every Chinese New Year (late January to mid-February) when the staccato pop of firecrackers echoes off the old brick facades. Festivities include a parade with lion dances, with red-colored decorations everywhere.

A man with a dragon costume dances at a New Year festival
Time your visit to Chinatown for late January to mid-February to join the New Year celebrations © John Seaton Callahan / Getty Images

Before you go…

To make the most of your time in Honolulu’s Chinatown, we recommend a little planning ahead of time. If you’re wanting to take a guided tour or looking forward to dinner or cocktails at one of the swankier establishments, be sure to make reservations in advance. 

In the morning…

Get dim sum then stroll the gardens

Get to Mei Sum, a no-nonsense corner stop that cranks out dim sum, top-notch little plates and Chinese mains, when it opens at 8am. Then head to Foster Botanical Garden where the tropical plants you’ve only ever read about can be spotted in all their glory. Among its rarest specimens are the Hawaiian loulu palm and the East African Gigasiphon macrosiphon, both thought to be extinct in the wild. Several of the towering trees are the largest of their kind in the USA. 

The self-guided tour is excellent and celebrates plants and trees found across Hawaii. Oddities include the cannonball tree, the sausage tree and the double coconut palm capable of producing a 50lb nut. Follow your nose past fragrant vanilla vines and cinnamon trees in the spice and herb gardens, then pick your way among the poisonous and dye plants. Don’t miss the blooming orchids or the elegant – and appropriately named – royal palms.

Take a guided tour

Local volunteers with family ties to the community run the Hawaiʻi Heritage Center, a crowded gallery with changing exhibitions about Oʻahu’s Chinese, Japanese and other ethnic communities. It runs excellent Chinatown tours Wednesday and Friday mornings. Book ahead. 

Professional architects lead Chinatown walking tours on some Saturday mornings, sponsored by AIA (American Institute of Architects). The tours deconstruct Honolulu’s most historic neighborhood and its buildings. AIA also sells superb walking guides at its downtown office.

The exterior of a white building with red signs that say "Open Market", "Maunakea Marketplace" and "Food Court"
The markets are the heart of Honolulu’s Chinatown © KenWiedemann / Getty Images

For lunch, go to the market

After your tour of the botanic garden head to Kekaulike Market and the adjoining Maunakea Marketplace for a wander and lunch. It’s about a 13-minute walk down Maunakea St from the botanic garden. 

Chinatown revolves around its markets and food shops. Noodle factories, pastry shops and stalls line the narrow sidewalks, crowded with cart-pulling elders and errand-running families. In these busy warrens, you’ll see the range of O‘ahu’s bounty from the sea and the land. 

Stalls in Kekaulike Market sell whole fish, dry goods, prepared foods and Hawaii’s plethora of produce. Vendors hawk fruit and vegetables from displays on the pedestrianized street. The Maunakea Marketplace hosts popular food stalls, including the standout Maguro Brothers. Wind your way to this little stall in the back where everything sparkles, especially the fish. For lunch, sashimi comes in many forms atop rice bowls, or opt for the perfectly grilled garlic ahi or teriyaki salmon. 

A street with historic low-rise buildings and taller glass and steel modern creations in the distance
Book a guided tour to learn more about the architecture in Chinatown © Page Light Studios / Shutterstock

In the afternoon…

Shop for leis

Wearing lei dates back to the Polynesians, who wore garlands of everyday objects such as flowers and feathers for status, honor and beauty. The tradition of giving lei to visitors to Hawaii dates to the 19th-century ships that first brought tourists.

A few traditional lei-makers in Chinatown are still going strong. At the landmark Cindy’s Lei Shoppe, you can watch craftspeople create flower lei of orchids, plumeria, twining maile, lantern ʻilima (flowering ground cover) and ginger for all occasions (from $10). Several other lei shops clustered nearby will also pack lei for you to carry back home. Tina’s Lei Shop is another good choice. Why not succumb to the gentle caress of the flower petals on your skin while the fragrant floral scent envelops you? 

Make a stop at the bookstore

Honolulu’s best bookshop, Skull-Face Books & Vinyl has outlandish decor and walls lined with posters for punk shows and surf contests. The offerings are deep in noir, grunge lifestyle, sci-fi, pop culture and history. 

Have a cocktail or afternoon tea

The retro gem Tea at 1024 has a huge selection of teas and serves cutsey sandwiches, scones and cakes in the afternoon. If a cocktail is more your late-afternoon vibe, try Manifest. Its lofty space is filled with provocative decor and functions as a serene coffee shop in the afternoon and a cocktail bar come evening. Finally, for a little more class make a reservation for EP Bar. The mixologists know their way around Japanese whiskey, which they mix into incredible cocktails while spinning great tunes from the huge vinyl collection.

Enjoy a delicious dinner

Book ahead for Duc’s Bistro, a swank French-Vietnamese culinary oasis serving sophisticated fare. If Korean is more to your taste, order a bibimbap from O’Kims and sit in the garden. Finally, the crowded (think elbow to elbow) Lucky Belly crafts hot and spicy Asian-fusion bites and mains with artisanal cocktails to wash it down. 

For a cheaper alternative, head to Pho To-Chau. This Vietnamese institution serves pho and is always packed, so you’ll have to queue under the battered sign hanging outside. 

Head to N Hotel St for bars, clubs and nightlife

Long the center of Honolulu’s liveliest nightlife, Chinatown’s edgy bar and club scene revolves around N Hotel St. The svelte cocktail lounge NextDoor is a brick-walled performance space that’s drawn the likes of Shwayze and DJs of Diplo’s caliber. It books top local talent such as the jam band Backset. DJs spin tunes until 2am many nights; other nights, there’s burlesque, performance art and more. 

Right above the low-key dive Hank’s Cafe, Dragon Upstairs is a hideaway with a sedate vibe and stylized masks on the walls. It hosts a rotating lineup of jazz, blues and folk. Try the specialty drink: the pineapple upside-down cake. Just east, Scarlet Honolulu is a great LGBTIQ+ club.

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