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The island of Oahu is world-famous as the home of Waikiki Beach and Hawaii’s capital and largest city, Honolulu. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: Honolulu is located on the southeast coast of Oahu, the third largest Hawaiian island.

In this comprehensive guide, we will dive deep into everything you need to know about what island Honolulu calls home. We’ll explore Oahu’s geography, history, culture, and reasons why Honolulu developed into such an iconic Pacific city over the last two centuries.

Geography of Oahu

Size and location

Oahu is the third largest island in the Hawaiian island chain, covering an area of about 600 square miles. It lies in the central Pacific Ocean, about 2,500 miles from the U.S. mainland. Honolulu, the capital and largest city in Hawaii, is located on the southeast coast of Oahu.

Landscape and climate

Oahu has a diverse landscape ranging from sandy beaches to volcanic mountains. The island consists of two separate shield volcanoes – the Waianae and Koolau Ranges, which create a lush, green interior valley where Honolulu lies.

The north and eastern shores feature world-famous beaches like Waikiki, while the eastern side is home to the small but stunning Koolau mountain range.

Oahu enjoys a tropical climate year-round, with average temperatures in the 70s and 80s Fahrenheit. Conditions vary between its windward (east) and leeward (west) sides – the windward side gets more rainfall while the leeward side is drier overall.

The northern shores are great for big wave surfing in the winter when storms generate huge swells.

History of Honolulu

Pre-contact era

The area known as Honolulu today has a long history going back centuries before Europeans arrived. Archaeological evidence indicates Native Hawaiians were living in villages along the shoreline dating back to at least the 11th century.

Fishing, farming, and trading were important activities in these early communities. According to myths and legends, the chief Kākuhihewa declared the area his kingdom in the 15th century, establishing Honolulu as a center of power and influence in the islands.

Early development

The first Europeans to arrive in Honolulu were British captain William Brown and American captain Ebenezer Townsend in 1794. They opened Honolulu harbor to Western trade, ushering in a new era. Whaling ships, merchants, and missionaries soon followed.

The influx of Westerners led to the establishment of the Sandalwood trade and the first permanent Western settlement in 1821. By the 1850s, Honolulu began developing into a modern town with roads, schools, churches and government buildings.

Major commercial ventures such as sugar plantations drove rapid economic expansion. Immigrant laborers from China, Japan, Portugal and the Philippines significantly boosted the population. Due to its strategic location, Honolulu became the center of business and governance in the Hawaiian Islands.

Becoming a world city

The 20th century witnessed incredible change in Honolulu as new technologies and ideas transformed the landscape. Electric trolleys, telephones, automobiles and airplanes accelerated the pace of daily life.

Mass tourism began booming in the 1960s, cementing Honolulu’s status as an iconic global vacation destination. Fueled by global trends, pop culture and immigration, Honolulu evolved into a cosmopolitan mecca blending development with a laid-back tropical vibe.

Today, the greater metro area has close to one million residents from all walks of life. Honolulu has cemented itself as a world-class city rooted in rich culture and heritage.

The Vibrant Culture of Honolulu Today

Multi-ethnic society

Honolulu is one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse cities in the United States. Its location in the Pacific has made it a melting pot of Asian, Pacific Islander, European, and American cultures over the centuries. Today, there is no ethnic majority group in Honolulu.

According to census data, Asians make up over 43% of the population, white people account for around 25%, native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders about 10%, people of mixed ethnicity around 18%, and Hispanics about 11%.


The diversity of Honolulu’s population has led to a vibrant food culture incorporating influences from around the world. Iconic Hawaiian dishes like poke, kalua pork, loco moco, and haupia often feature on local menus alongside Asian specialties like sushi, ramen, pho, and dim sum.

You’ll also find Portuguese malasadas, Puerto Rican mofongo, Filipino adobo, and American burgers and hot dogs. Food trucks serving this fusion cuisine are popular, while upscale restaurants provide fine dining with an island twist featuring fresh local seafood, tropical fruits and vegetables, and flavors like guava, lilikoi, and macadamia nuts.

Arts and music scene

From hula dancing to slack key guitar music to graffiti art, Honolulu has a flourishing arts scene showcasing both native Hawaiian cultural art forms as well as more contemporary creative expressions.

The First Fridays art walk in the popular Chinatown district features open galleries, street performers, live music, and food vendors. Local artists fuse modern media with traditional styles, like Murals Hawaii’s designs combining graffiti with Pacific motifs.

Distinctively Hawaiian slack key guitar can be heard at various music venues, while the islands’ ukulele music also remains popular. The art and culture of Honolulu’s various ethnic groups – including Japanese taiko drums to Filipino folk dance – also enrich the city’s vibrant creative landscape.

Why Honolulu Emerged as Oahu’s Main City

Natural Deepwater Harbor

Honolulu’s emergence as Oahu’s dominant city can be attributed in large part to its natural deepwater harbor. This harbor provided a protected anchorage for ships sailing across the Pacific Ocean. As early as the 12th century, Tahitian and other Polynesian voyagers used Honolulu’s harbor as a stopover point.

In the 19th century, Honolulu became a favored port of call for American and European merchant ships and whalers plying the waters of the Pacific.

The harbor enabled the development of trade and commerce in Honolulu, transforming it from a small village into a bustling port town. Ships could easily dock to load and unload cargo. The calm waters also facilitated the repair and provisioning of vessels.

With its ideal harbor, Honolulu became the center of business not just for Oahu, but for the entire Hawaiian island chain.

Influx of Tourism

Another factor in Honolulu’s rise is tourism. Starting in the 1860s, steamships made leisure travel to Hawaii feasible for the first time for American and European tourists. As Hawaii’s capital and chief port of entry, Honolulu was the gateway for most visitors.

Hotels, restaurants, tour providers and other tourism businesses set up shop in Honolulu to cater to this burgeoning market.

The opening of Waikiki Beach to outsiders in the late 19th century established Honolulu and Waikiki as Hawaii’s premier tourist destination. Waikiki’s famous crescent beach and offshore reef, creating gentle and safe swimming conditions, proved hugely popular.

As tourism numbers boomed in the 20th century, fueled by the Pan American clipper service and later jet airplanes, tourism became the dominant industry in Honolulu and Oahu’s main economic driver.

Seat of Political Power

As capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii beginning in 1845, Honolulu was the center of royal power and government authority. Iolani Palace, completed in 1882, replaced earlier wooden structures as the official royal residence.

After the 1887 Constitution, the Hawaiian Legislature convened in Aliʻiōlani Hale across the street from Iolani Palace. These two buildings remain symbols of Hawaiian sovereignty today.

The location of major political institutions in Honolulu reinforced its stature as Oahu’s preeminent city. It remains Hawaii’s capital and seat of government following U.S. annexation in 1898. The Hawaii State Legislature meets in the original Aliʻiōlani Hale building.

ʻIolani Palace and associated structures comprise the only royal palace in the United States.

This history of political leadership, centered in Honolulu’s historic core, further solidified its dominant position on Oahu. Mauka to Makai, Honolulu’s capital region grew over time into Hawaiʻi’s largest and most powerful metropolitan area.


As we have seen, Honolulu’s prime location on the south shore of Oahu in proximity to exceptional natural harbors positioned it perfectly to become Hawaii’s center of trade, politics, tourism and culture over the last 200 years.

There’s a reason Oahu is nicknamed ‘The Gathering Place’ – and Honolulu, meaning ‘sheltered bay’ in Hawaiian, will likely continue to gather people seeking adventure, business and paradise in the middle of the Pacific for many generations to come.

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