Before the Europeans came, Honolulu was insignificant; soon so many foreign ships were frequenting its waters that it had become Kamehameha's capital, and it remains the economic center of the archipelago. While the city covers a long (if narrow) strip of southern Oahu, downtown is a manageable size, and a lot quieter than its glamorous image might suggest. The tourist hotels are concentrated in the skyscrapers of the distinct suburb of Waikiki, a couple of miles east.
While its setting is beautiful, right on the Pacific and backed by dramatic cliffs and extinct volcanoes, most visitors are here simply to enjoy the sheer hedonism of shopping, eating, and generally hanging out in the sun. It's also the center of an exemplary public transportation system that facilitates exploration of the whole island.