A trip to Honolulu simply is not complete without a visit to the Chinatown district. What was once considered one of the more “seedy” areas of Honolulu has blossomed into a rich, culturally diverse mecca for food, shopping, and the arts. The charming combination of world-class dining and nostalgic mom-and-pop eateries gives this neighborhood an even more eclectic flair, and the whole area’s embracement of local art to distance itself from the previously-poor reputation is really quite beautiful. Set some time aside to explore the colorful markets and unique street blocks in Chinatown to get a true taste of Hawaii’s history.
A commercial and residential hub in the middle of Honolulu’s downtown area, Chinatown is one of those rare places that had kept its original charm and sense of community while simultaneously attaching itself to more contemporary ideals, embracing art and an amalgam of different cultures.
The neighborhood was first established in response to the area’s whaling industry, with a nearness to the Honolulu Harbor that created a centralized hub for busy fishermen and whaling ships. Once the island’s sugar plantations began to replace the whaling industry in Hawaii’s economy, immigrants from China started traveling to Oahu on five-year labor contracts. Eventually after their contracts had run out, many of them settled in Honolulu’s Chinatown to work, live, and build their own businesses in the 1840s.
The famous Chinatown fire of 1886 began in a local restaurant and ended up burning for three days straight and destroying eight blocks. Later in 1899, a bubonic plague outbreak spread throughout the district among vulnerable citizens still attempting to rebuild their lives after the devastating fire more than a decade before. The disease spread so quickly that the Honolulu Board of Health quarantined the area and ordered for the destruction of any building that had housed an infected person. A series of controlled fires in 1900 destroyed 41 structures intentionally, but after complications arose and the fire grew too quickly, it ended up burning for 17 days and destroying 38 acres of the city—taking nearly all of Chinatown with it.
In the 1930s, Chinatown became known as a hotspot for nightclubs, brothels, and illegal activities, but after it became listed in the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district in 1973, the city began to invest in the area, and Chinatown started to revitalize and evolve into what it is today.
Plan your visit to the neighborhood with these seven great things to do.
Sample the Local Cuisine
It would be a travesty to come all the way down to Chinatown and miss out on the wide selection of Asian cuisine. It’s no surprise that Chinese restaurants have reigned supreme around these parts since the area was originally established in the 1840s and 1850s (especially the local favorites that have been around for generations), but the neighborhood has since attracted a wider selection of trendy eateries as well. And its proximity to the harbor always made it a prime destination for fresh fish. Maguro Brothers inside the Kekaulike Market serves fresh poke from its fish counter delivered daily straight from the Honolulu Fish Auction less than two miles away.
When it comes to more traditional Chinese food, the Little Village Noodle House specializes in Cantonese food in shareable family-style portions. Then, make sure to sample the delicious butter mochi at Sing Cheong Yeun Chinese Bakery.
For dim sum, head to Tai Pan Dim Sum on North Beretania Street for a casual sit-down lunch and a BYOB drink policy, or Char Hung Sut for a quicker, walk-in and walk-out counter service. Both places serve arguably the best manapuas (soft Chinese-Hawaiian pork buns) in the neighborhood and boast ridiculously low prices to keep your dining budget down. For a more hands-on experience, go to Yat Tung Chow Noodle Factory, where you can make your own noodle bowl.
Experience the Nightlife
One of the beauties of nightlife in Chinatown is that a majority of the best bars are next door to each other, making bar hopping and meeting up with friends a breeze. Hop from trendy cocktail bars, such as Tchin Tchin Bar (a stylish upstairs lounge with a great wine list, menu of small bites, and romantic outdoor patio) and Manifest (good for live music), to livelier dive bars, such as The Dragon Upstairs and Smith's Union Bar. True booze aficionados will find a home at Bar Leather Apron, which has the largest whiskey list in Honolulu, and craft beer fans will appreciate the variety of artisanal brews at Bar 35.
Encore Saloon is a creative, contemporary Mexican joint where customers are equally as welcomed ordering a canned Tecate as they are a top shelf mezcal. And, a little further towards the harbor, O’Tooles and Murphy’s Bar and Grill are a couple of Irish pubs popular with the locals (hint: this is definitely where you will want to be on St. Patrick’s Day).
Time Your Visit for First Fridays
On the first Friday of every month, Chinatown is the home to the biggest party on Oahu. Every bar, gallery, restaurant, and shop opens its doors with exhibits and entertainment for the community. Live musicians play along the sidewalks, and local eateries offer special first Friday prices. The main event goes from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., but the party atmosphere continues long into the night as the neighborhood's hippest bars fill with visitors. Make sure to check out the interactive map and list of happenings on the First Friday website to get the most out of the event.
Chinatown is home to plenty of antique and vintage stores, as well as eclectic shops with collectibles and unique gifts. You’re sure to find a treasure or two inside Barrio Vintage or Tin Can Mailman on Nu’uanu, while nearby In4Mation provides a selection of Hawaii-themed more current styles. Chinatown has also seen an influx of new boutiques in recent years; popular ones include Ginger13 selling handmade jewelry and Hound & Quail for vintage oddities.
And no Chinatown would be complete without its traditional markets. Originally opened in 1904, Oahu Market is one of Chinatown’s undisputed highlights. Easily recognizable by its red sign and shades, the building still stands as it was first built with the original stone foundation, bricks, and wooden roof. The open-air market has become the nucleolus to Chinatown’s outdoor market district, full of colorful tropical fruits, fresh flower leis, exotic vegetables, and so much more. Be sure to wander further into the main Oahu Market building where you’ll discover fresh fish, whole suckling pigs, and a variety of proteins being sold. Another popular option is Maunakea Marketplace, which dates back to the 1980s—wander through rows of shops and stalls filled with Chinese goods and souvenirs, produce, jewelry, and more.
Take a Break in the Plaza
Surrounded by shops and restaurants, the Chinatown Cultural Plaza is the heartbeat of the neighborhood, and it's where many locals go to hang out and socialize; it's a great spot for some people-watching. You'll often find ceremonial altars in the center, and during Chinese New Year, the plaza plays host to several celebratory activities.
Visit the Foster Botanical Garden
If you're looking for a green oasis in the Honolulu's bustling downtown area, Foster Botanical Garden is the place. Covering 13.5 acres, this garden dates back to 1853 when Queen Kalama leased a portion of the land to a German botanist who built his home on the site and founded the garden, making it one of the oldest in the state. The garden then went on to include thousands of new species of plants and trees to the Hawaiian islands, including the "corpse flower," named for its strong odor, that only blooms every five to seven years.
On the same grounds as the Foster Botanical Garden lies the oldest Chinese Buddhist temple in Honolulu, Kuan Yin Temple. The temple is dedicated the bodhisattva of compassion and mercy. You'll find burning incense and offerings from visitors as well as a calming setting for you to meditate, rest, or admire the setting.
Explore the Local Art Scene
Most galleries are located along Bethel Street and Nuuanu Avenue, making it easy to gallery hop around Chinatown; be sure to stop inside the Louis Pohl Gallery to see works from Hawaiian artists. Also, be sure to check out the schedule for the Hawaii Theatre Center; almost 100 years old, this establishment is home to several mediums of entertainment, including musical theater acts, comedy sets, and more.