The city of Honolulu holds the award for most populous in all the Hawaiian Islands, with over 390,000 folks, so it’s easy to forget that in most tropical locales everything moves slowly, lazily, and maybe not at all. This tendency to happily loiter into perpetuity is known as “Hawaii Time,” but it doesn’t seem to apply to Oahu the same as other islands. Honolulu is a major business hub, with a downtown area that boasts skyscrapers Los Angeles would be jealous of, and the active military base ensures a constantly rotating selection of uniformed beefcakes strolling through the touristy areas.
That doesn’t mean everyone is high-tailing it to the financial sector with a briefcase in one hand and coffee cup in the other. Count on seeing designer suits stained with shave ice syrup and more than a reasonable amount of Aloha shirts, regardless of the day of the week. Locals hit the hot spots as often as travelers do, but that’s because they get a discount on all the fun activities, delicious fresh seafood, and souvenir shopping (no one can resist a mini ukulele). If you hope to enjoy those sweet island discounts too—and you’ll need it at these prices—it helps to “look” the part. People of Asian descent have an easier time snagging a deal than a “haole,” or Caucasian. And this will apply to apartments for rent in Honolulu too.
What is Shangri-La for your spirit may be Hades for your bank account. Hawaii as a whole is far more expensive than the mainland, but Honolulu especially so. Compared with Denver, Colo., for instance, housing is 123%, groceries 52%, utilities 80%, and transportation 13% more expensive. Still, stress is rare when surrounded by a perfect seascape and endless summer weather. Just make sure whatever job you’re moving to can make those new expenses feasible.
Living the dream is exciting, but the reality of moving to an island is incredibly complex. Do you have a pet? Get ready for 120 days of quarantine, and you’re footing the bill. Do you have a car? Shipping it is still less expensive than buying new, but that takes planning and a reputable company (and you know, time). There is TheBus, the local transportation (which is pretty great) but you’ll wish you had a car if you don’t. No national bank chain operates in Hawaii either, so get ready to switch accounts to a local option when you get here. Furniture, personal items and any other household goods that you plan on keeping long term should also be shipped. Start cruising container companies for deals now.
Speaking of now, it’s just not reasonable to think anything will get done quickly. Ideally, you’re two months ahead of moving with a solid job offer, an acquired residence, and ties to local communities. But, barring that miracle, finding places to live in Honolulu may be a multi-step process of arriving at a hotel, grabbing the first short-term lease that will have you, and then slowly seeking out truly appropriate accommodations from there. Things can be pretty loosey-goosey; it’s important to be flexible.
On the Plus Side Hawaiians are some of the warmest, most welcoming people on the planet. Get involved in community activities like sports, volunteer groups, or dance classes and become “ohana.” “Ohana” means family, and family means nobody gets left behind. Plus, “no shirt, no shoes” is totally primo.
Only a handful of districts in Honolulu offer more than a small village area and residential housing. If you’re dreaming of living within walking distance of cool shops and modern conveniences, your best bets are in Ala Moana and Waikiki, or probably back on the mainland. Locals aren’t big on boutique shopping, and they make due with weekly trips to the grocery store, which may be 20 minutes away by car. Still, there’s always the Internet if you have a desperate need for Forever 21’s disposable fashion.
Ala Moana: It’s all about high-rise apartment buildings and the biggest shopping center on the island. Ala Moana can almost pass as the real world, but it comes at a cost. It’s not quite as pricey as Waikiki, but you should still consider making friends and going bigger to save some cash.
Chinatown: No neighborhood varies as much in quality and price as Chinatown. You can find updated, modern, and open concepts and get gouged, or find others that are not nearly as nice. Or sometimes, you might discover problems as well as high prices. The point is, you can find a deal here if you hunt, plus it’s close to interesting sights.
Diamond Head: There are condos, single-family homes and apartments in Diamond Head, and each offers something different. But it ain’t inexpensive. It’s as expensive as Waikiki and further away from…everything. However, it’s a prettier location with fewer ambling tourists (but not much fewer).
Downtown: Parking is a big old mess here, and tickets pour out like pina coladas, so make sure you find a building that has reserved spots. Otherwise, Downtown is a great middle ground, as far as price and location, and it’s perfect for those who like walking to work. Pet friendly apartments are rare, though.
Makiki: If you don’t mind driving to the beach, grocery store, and restaurants, and you have detached-home dreams and overdraft realities, Makiki is the place to be. Purely residential, Makiki has a strong community feeling and a delightful inland separation from the melanoma-pink hordes of tourists by the water.
Manoa: Another budget option, Manoa has property rentals with spacious lanais and comfortable if not recently updated amenities that should suit anyone with a hunger for true Hawaiian living, which is to say, quiet.
Waikiki: The brass ring of places to live in Honolulu, Waikiki Beach is full of active people from both nearby and around the globe. Clothing stores, chain restaurants, and luxury services pepper the streets lining the white sand beaches. So, yeah it’s hella expensive, dude. But through the nose is how you’ll pay if you want the best of everything.
Hawaii is serene, slow-paced, and sociable; everyone is welcoming and they want you to join in on their activities. The lifestyle is very laid back, but outdoor living is a requirement. Lanais, which are outdoor covered patios or balconies, are an essential element of the home, and the place most house dwellers spend the majority of their time when not actually outside in the water, hiking the mountains, biking the trails, in the water, meeting up with friends, eating at shrimp trucks, or swimming. Hawaiians want for very little; they’re happy with the bare necessities, which include Spam musubi, a swimsuit, and a smile. To really be happy in Honolulu, you have to be happy with very little.
Honolulu is absolutely a paradise on Earth, and it’s just this side of plausible that anyone can pick up and move there on a whim and make it. If you’re planning on whimming it to Waikiki, just remember Heaven has high tariffs, but the ocean, sun, and sand really do offer all you need.