Oahu doesn't look like much on a map. At roughly 600 square miles, it's only about one-seventh the size of the Island of Hawaii, and just barely cracks the list of 20 largest islands in the U.S. But still it's home to more than 900,000 of the state of Hawaii's 1.3 million residents.
What accounts for this imbalance? What attracts so many people to an island that takes less than an hour to drive across? In a word: Honolulu.
Like the rest of the state, the city is rich in natural beauty: Waikiki’s white-sand beaches, Makapuu Point’s 600-foot sea cliff, the Koolau Range’s awe-inspiring foothills. But as Hawaii’s capital and home to the lion's share of Oahu’s population, Honolulu also contains the institutions of culture you'd expect to find in any major urban area. The Honolulu Museum of Art presents Japanese woodblock prints, centuries-old Hawaiian pottery, and landscape paintings of Maui by Georgia O'Keefe. And at the Waikiki Aquarium, which is stationed alongside a living reef, more than 3,500 Pacific marine creatures glide throughout glassed-in galleries.
Of course, the swarms of tourists who sweep through the city each year aren't just there for the museums. They come to sunbathe on Waikiki Beach, snorkel among the tropical fish in Hanauma Bay, and surf the North Shore's gigantic waves. Much of the local economy is built around tourism, so in beachfront neighborhoods such as Waikiki, the look and feel of an urban resort prevails. Upscale boutiques and nightclubs line the sunny avenues, and street performers entertain pedestrians as they peruse craft booths.
Fifteen minutes west of Waikiki, the Aloha Tower stretches 10 stories skyward. When it was built in 1926, the tower gained fame for being the tallest building on the islands (a distinction it held for four decades thereafter), and also for housing one of the largest clocks in the U.S. But today it’s better known for the 170,000 square feet of shopping and fine dining that surround it. Just a short jaunt away, Chinatown similarly bustles with commercial activity, as herbalists, antique dealers, and even lei-makers hawk their wares. The neighborhood's markets hold a bounty of seafood and outlandish fruits, and its restaurants showcase cuisine from all over Asia.