Beautiful isolation and a profound sense of place meet kinetic hedonism and cultural bounty. Here are the five reasons why Hawaii’s largest city ruled our rankings for small cities, identified by populations of more than 200,000 and less than a million.
1) It’s like nowhere else. Literally
That Honolulu dominated our layered and deep Place category among the nation’s small cities isn’t that surprising. The reason? No other place on the planet houses so many people, so remote from another similarly sized city. Let that sink in for a moment. Honolulu’s population of almost a million people is the most isolated on the planet. Its extreme topography, shaped by active seismic forces over millennia, has resulted in equally dramatic city planning.
2) It’s an outdoor playground
Verdant knife edges explode into the blue sky from rolling hills every few miles, creating microclimates and hypnotic scenery. Small wonder, then, that Honolulu ranks #1 overall among Small Cities in Parks & Outdoor Activities, led by its powdery beaches, some of the best and safest ocean swimming in the state (often with sea turtles and dolphins!) and the option to head to the emerald Ko’olau Range before or after work.
The parks, trails and beaches—almost all open to the public and accessible year round—rival most cities on the planet. Combine this with the climate, fragrant trade winds and surreal geography (not to mention a deep ancient history of the Islands) and you have a city that succumbed to playing by Mother Nature’s rules a long time ago.
3) Its neighborhoods are must-sees
The city’s top finish in the Neighborhoods & Landmarks sub-category may have been led by landmarks and attractions, but it’s the neighborhoods that are creating a Honolulu for residents and increasingly demanding tourists seeking elusive authenticity in the Land of Aloha. The result: ambitious destination spots like the Kaka’ako neighborhood—Williamsburg warehouses meet the Mission’s murals, with beers that rival Portland’s.
4) Locally sourced ingredients
Speaking of breweries, there are now half a dozen in town, with Maui Brewing moving in for a piece of the Oahu action. In Chinatown, two of the city’s buzziest restaurants—Livestock Tavern and Lucky Belly—are satisfying locals and coaxing tourists from Waikiki. But Waikiki, the recently renovated epicenter of high-end retail and reimagined luxury heritage properties, just keeps upping the ante, with Michelin-starred chefs and new culinary and nightlife concepts like James Beard award-winning chef Michael Mina’s new THE STREET. Or Honolulu-born chef Ed Kenney’s Mahina & Sun’s.
This being the Islands, things will never get too precious. Case in point: the Waikiki SPAM Jam, an annual street festival where the town’s best restaurants serve up SPAM-inspired creations, is entering its 16th year.
5) Unrivalled shopping, nightlife and culture
Authenticity and locavorism are table stakes in Honolulu these days, and the city is better for prioritizing sustainability and food security, strengthening the local supply chain, creating thousands of new jobs and, more important to visiting palates, serving up intense, fresh flavors made possible only by farm-to-table that doesn’t involve a side trip in a cargo airliner.
This innovation based in place—from restaurants to breweries to cultural festivals—means Honolulu swept the top spot in our Programming category, scoring #1 in the Culture, Culinary, Nightlife and Shopping sub-categories.
Its top ranking seems safe, especially with the recent re-opening and expansion of the International Market Place in Waikiki, the ever-expanding Ala Moana—the world’s largest open-air shopping center—and the newly opened Ka Makana Ali’i.
The city’s #1 Promotion ranking, fueled by wide-eyed visitors sharing their on-the- ground experiences on Facebook and then telling everyone about it on TripAdvisor afterward, seems equally safe.
It’s also worth noting that Honolulu’s population will soon exceed a million, bumping the city into our large city ranking, up against the likes of L.A. and New York in future rankings.