Situated at the base of not one, but two volcanoes, and set around a curving bay on the east side of the Big Island, Hilo is well positioned for some real adventures. It’s known for its pretty downtown district, astronomical observatories, and easy access into nature right on its doorstep.
Working out where to start here – in the oldest city in the Hawaiian archipelago – isn’t always easy. If that’s you and you’re wondering where to begin, don’t worry: this guide is here to add inspiration to your itinerary.
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Where to rent your car in Hilo?
- You can rent from Hertz, Enterprise, Budget, Avis, and others from the airport in Hilo and did you know that they all have their own secret codes that you can use to save money on your car rental?
Here's what we're covering:
- The Best Things To Do In Hilo
- 1. Explore downtown Hilo
- 2. Hit up the Lyman House Memorial Museum
- 3. Hike the Halema’uma’u Trail to Kilauea Caldera
- 4. Explore Hilo Bay by kayak
- 5. Head inside a lava tube
- 6. Admire the Wailuku River Falls
- 7. See Humpback Whales
- 8. Chill out at Honoli’i Beach Park
- 9. Explore ‘Akaka Falls State Park
- 10. Look up at the stars
- 11. Go on a road trip
- Map of Top Activities in Hilo
- Top Tours On Big Island
- Frequently Asked Questions
The Best Things To Do In Hilo
Hilo may not be the sprawling hub of Honolulu over on Oahu, but on this side of the island, there’s still a lot to do here. Whether you’re staying in the town itself, or you’re springboarding right into the heart of the Big Island, there’s never a dull moment staying here.
1. Explore downtown Hilo
First up on your list of things to do in Hilo is simply to take a walk around the downtown area. Here you’ll find historic wooden storefronts, galleries, coffee shops, and restaurants, making it ideal for an afternoon or morning of strolling around. For the best of Hilo’s quintessential old architecture, head down Kamehameha Avenue.
Also here is Hilo Farmers Market, which makes for a particularly good way to soak up the atmosphere of Hilo and pick up local crafts and souvenirs from vendors. They're open 7 days a week but their best days (called Big Market Days) are on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
There are also a number of fascinating local attractions such as the East Hawaii Cultural Center, where you’ll get a chance to see some local art and traditional culture. You can also learn about Hilo’s precarious position on the coast at the Pacific Tsunami Museum, which tells the tale of the destruction caused by the 1946 and 1960 tsunamis that hit Hilo.
2. Hit up the Lyman House Memorial Museum
It may be in Downtown, but this place deserves its own mention. Founded in 1931, this natural history museum is situated in an original mission house built in 1838. It’s actually the Big Island’s oldest surviving wooden building, and is worth paying a visit simply for its own history. Famous guests here include Mark Twain and Isabella Bird.
Today, however, the old house has been converted into a museum. Affiliated with the Smithsonian, it aims to preserve and celebrate Hawaiian culture, and tell the story of the islands and their people.
3. Hike the Halema’uma’u Trail to Kilauea Caldera
Kilauea, or more accurately Kilauea Caldera, is an active volcano on the southeast shore of the Big Island that's part of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It’s very active, erupting regularly with the last eruption in September 2021. For the most updated news on the volcano's eruptions, make sure to check the National Park Service.
Getting there from Hilo is simple enough, especially if you book yourself onto a hiking tour (complete with a knowledgeable guide), and it’ll be worth it to do so.
Visiting Kilauea is a surreal experience, and one way to get the whole experience is to hike along a former highway (trail is called Halema'uma'u), across a recent lava flow, through pine forests, and past new black sand beaches and recently formed coastline.
There are a lot of viewpoints along the trail of the caldera for visitors, where you can spot ancient rockslides and past eruptions. This truly an awesome thing to do in Hilo that allows you to see just how much volcanic activity has shaped Hawaii – and continues to carve out the islands to this day.
4. Explore Hilo Bay by kayak
Being the lush coastal area that it is, one of the best things to do in Hilo is to explore the water itself. A kayak is a good way to go, with relatively calm waters to paddle around in – go with a guide and you’ll have the added benefit of insider information (and history) as you discover the Hilo coastline.
One particularly interesting part of the shore here is Coconut Island, or Mokuola (“Island of Life”) in Hawaiian (depicted above). This local hangout is a relaxing place, featuring two sandy beaches lapped by calm waters; there’s a tower here that children like to jump from into the sea.
Another interesting part of Hilo Bay are the Japanese gardens of Queen Liliuokalani, with views out across the bay. And all of this with the peaks of Kilauea in the distance.
5. Head inside a lava tube
If adventurous things to do in Hilo are what you’re looking for, take note of this place. Kaumana Cave is a two-mile long lava tube formed in 1881 thanks to the lava flow of a then-erupting Mauna Loa. It’s the 57th longest lava tube in the world.
Though you may not be able to explore the whole lava-cave, a collapsed part of the tunnel allows access to this subterranean passageway. Reaching the caves is a simple matter of parking up and then heading down some stairs. A flashlight or headlamp is a must, and make sure to wear sturdy shoes and a jacket if you’re attempting this (make sure to go prepared). There’s also no entrance fee, but there are amenities such as a bathroom and picnic tables.
If you're not comfortable in tackling the cave yourself, there is one full-day tour that combines the Halema’uma’u Trail and Kaumana Cave.
6. Admire the Wailuku River Falls
Looking for some things to do in Hilo that allow you to experience the great outdoors? Look no further than this stunning waterfall. Also known as the Rainbow Falls, the Wailuku River Falls are to be found in Wailuku River State Park, Wailuku.
WANT TO GO CHASING WATERFALLS?
Big Island is full of waterfalls so make sure to not miss our guide!
They’re believed to be the home of the Hawaiian moon goddess, Hina, and are called Waiānuenue (roughly “Rainbow Water”) in Hawaiian. It turns out they’re appropriately named: when the sun hits the streaming water in the morning, it creates dazzling rainbows across the cascade.
Seeing these falls along Hawaii’s longest river is cool – especially if you choose to explore it on a raft.
7. See Humpback Whales
Head out along Hilo’s Hamakua Coast, and you may just be able to catch a glimpse of the marine life that lives in this part of Hawaii. Definitively one of the best things to do in Hilo for nature lovers, getting out on a whale watching tour is an unforgettable experience.
Humpback whales pass by the warm Hawaiian waters in the winter months to breed – a stopping point along their 6,000-mile migration from Alaska. Twelve thousand North Pacific humpbacks make their way to Hilo every year, making seeing these majestic creatures almost a certainty.
While looking for the humpbacks, you may also be able to spot pods of spinner dolphins playing and frolicking around the boat. What more do you need?
8. Chill out at Honoli’i Beach Park
Just north of Hilo you’ll find Honoli’i Beach Park, a popular surfing spot and all-round beautiful place to relax with a bite to eat or a coffee. The surf here features good waves all year. In winter, waves can be pretty gnarly, but it’s always fun to go and watch the pros in action (one of the coolest things to do in Hilo, even if you are just watching).
However, in the summer months things tend to get a bit calmer, which is great for beginners; there are also lifeguards on duty, too. The beach itself is backed by a shady grove of trees, where you’ll also find picnic benches to make as your base for the day.
If you're looking for an alternative beach park, there's also Carlsmith Beach Park which is great cove for snorkeling and swimming. Those that are lucky might even spot sea turtles! Further away, you also have Richardson Ocean Park which locals rave about.
9. Explore ‘Akaka Falls State Park
Truthfully, this attraction is not quite in Hilo but its 11 miles drive northeast of town is totally worth it.
‘Akaka Falls State Park offers up a great place to soak up lush tropical scenery and hit a hiking trail or two. The park itself is named for its centerpiece: the ‘Akaka Falls. Plunging from 442 feet (135 meters), water cascades in a single torrent into a deep gorge lined with thick vegetation.
You can visit by yourself, or on a self-guided hike, stopping off at scenic viewpoints along the way. The trailhead is close to a parking lot, after which the route is paved for most of the way and is easy to follow. Visiting this famous waterfall is one of the most fun things to do in Hilo – the scenery alone really makes it feel like an adventure.
While you're making the drive up, you also might as well visit the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens, 40 acres of tropical sanctuary with its collection of plants, education programs, living seed bank, waterfalls, and blowholes. Onomea Bay and its coastal hike can't be missed either!
10. Look up at the stars
Hawaii on the whole is famous for its clear skies, and the place to go for stargazing is right here on the Big Island. The dormant volcano of Maunakea is home to the W. M. Keck Observatory, which is made up of the largest optical and infrared telescopes on Earth.
You can visit the observatory which has tours that allow you to see the stars through a large aperture telescope or go on this incredibly popular stargazing tour right by the volcano.
You may be able to spot galaxies, planets, star clusters, nebulae and double star systems. And what’s more, all of this is narrated by expert astronomers. Things to do in Hilo don’t get more out of this world than stargazing from Maunakea.
For those that want to learn more about the skies above Hawaii, another attraction in Hilo you can't miss is the Imiloa Astronomy Center.
11. Go on a road trip
Hawaii Route 200, also known as Saddle Road, cuts across the Big Island from downtown Hilo all the way to the junction with Route 190 near Waimea. This iconic road was once thought of as one of the most dangerous roads in Hawaii, but today it’s a very popular scenic drive.
The road passes through the mountains of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa for 54 miles, taking in some breathtaking scenery along the way. You’ll pass by old lava flows, wide sweeping desert-like landscapes, rolling fields and verdant rainforests. It really allows you to see the true diversity of the Big Island, and climbs up as high as 6,632 feet (2,021 meters) above sea level.
Map of Top Activities in Hilo
As you can see from the map, Hilo is on the eastern part of the Big Island of Hawaii and a great hub to be to explore some of the best attractions. You can use the map below to get a sense of where everything is in relation to each other.
Top Tours On Big Island
Beyond the tours mentioned above, there are still a number of other experiences that you can't miss while you're based in Hilo or any other part of Big Island. These are our picks for the top 3 tours you have to look into!
To truly appreciate the size and scale of Big Island, you need to be up in the sky. If you've always wanted to do a helicopter tour, this is the place to do it and this is one of the most popular and safest companies on the island.
Based on Hilo and looking a way to see the entire island in a day? This is a whirlwind tour that takes you to see all of the major highlights including the volcano, waterfalls, gorgeous scenery, Kona coffee, and more. You'll also learn a ton of history on this small group tour.
One of the most popular activities for those that like to snorkel is this manta ray experience. Led by a local guide, you'll go to a very specific spot on the island where you'll be able to see manta rays up-close.
Frequently Asked Questions
Hilo is on the northeastern side of Big Island that is best known for being a vibrant town that's surrounded by incredible natural beauty including waterfalls, rainforests, and beautiful gardens. You will also find Hilo International Airport as well. Hilo is also an excellent gateway to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
If you love volcanoes, waterfalls, and rainforests, then yes, Hilo is absolutely worth visiting as you'll be able to use the town as a gateway to not only stock up but also use it to orient yourself with what you'll see in the area thanks to the cultural gems of the Hilo Farmers Market, Lyman Museum, Imiloa Astronomy Center, the Liliuokalan Gardens, Wailuki River State Park, and more!
Kona and Hilo are on two separate sides of the island. Ultimately, Hilo is cheaper to stay with more access to outdoor activities, waterfalls, and volcanoes but the flip side is that it has more rainfall throughout the year, less sunnier days, has fewer beaches, less dining options, and has fewer of the bigger hotel properties.
If you're spending let's say a week on Big Island, you can spend 2-3 days in Hilo and 4-5 days in Kona if you don't mind jumping between two accommodations.
The primary difference is that Hilo is closer to volcanoes, waterfalls, rainforest, and overall outdoor adventure. Kona on the other end has better beaches for snorkeling, bigger resorts, better weather, and where you'll find Kona coffee. You could say that Kona is more touristy.
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