Entering the Thurston Lava Tube close to Hilo

Hilo vs. Kona: Which Side Should You Choose?

You’re planning a trip to Hawaii and you want to visit the Big Island, but you don’t know if it’s worth visiting Hilo or Kona.

Which one of these places is better? Should you go to Hilo or Kona? Is one more beautiful than the other? What are some things that you should do at each place?

Will there be enough time for you to see both cities on your vacation? How much time should you spend in each location?

We’ve got answers! This article will discuss what makes each place unique and why we think they make great destinations for your next trip.

Before we begin, let’s answer some important questions below.

Is it better to stay in Hilo or Kona?

The answer depends on your interests and what you want from your vacation.

If you’re interested in seeing volcanoes, waterfalls, black sand beaches, and experiencing small-town charm, then Hilo is your place. If you prefer perfect sunny weather and want to be close to nightlife, shopping, and more touristy attractions, Kona is a great choice.

If it were up to me, I would stay in both locations if I had enough time. More on this later in this article.

What are the main differences between Hilo and Kona?

Kona feels more like a touristy suburban town, while Hilo has the vibe of an antique small town.

Hilo is older and more tropical looking with all the plant life, and Kona is newer and less tropical.

How long does it take to get from Kona to Hilo?

Depending on where you are staying in Kona, it can take anywhere from 1 hour 40 minutes to 2 hours to get to Hilo.

Is there a bus from Hilo to Kona?

Yes, a bus runs from Hilo to Kona Monday-Saturday with service between Downtown Hilo @ Mo’oheau Bus Terminal and Kailua-Kona @ Kona Commons Shopping Center.

Please, visit the Heloeon website for more information and hours of operation if you are interested in riding the bus.

If you are on vacation on the Big Island, I highly recommend renting a car instead. Traveling by bus will make it hard for you to see all of the fantastic attractions that the island offers, and buses take longer and make too many stops.

A car, on the other hand, will give you the flexibility to do whatever you want.

Overview of the Big Island

The Big Island of Hawaii is home to six main regions: Kona, Hilo, Kohala, Hamakua Coast, Kau, and the Puna district.

This article will mainly focus on Hilo and Kona since this is where most tourists stay.

Me walking at the Hawaii Volcanos National Park is close to Hilo enjoying the views.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

It’s worth noting that almost all these small regions have unique attractions, but these two in particular are where most tourists spend their time.

Overview of Kona (The West Side)

Located on the west side of the island, Kona is known for its dry, sunny weather and where tourists visit to enjoy the beaches and incredible scenery.

Visitors often choose to stay in resorts like those at Kona Village or the Four Seasons, however, several smaller establishments cater to budget travelers.

Those who come here often spend their time lounging around at the pool, catching some sun on the beach, and (of course) drinking Mai Tais!

Kona is a popular spot for snorkeling and a fantastic place to experience Hawaiian culture.

You can also find coffee farms, macadamia nut orchards and even a cattle ranch at Kona.

See Also: 21 Best Coffee Shops in Honolulu You Need to Try

Overview of Hilo (The East Side)

Hilo is located on the eastern side of the island, which gets more clouds and less sunlight than Kona.

It also receives more rain than other parts of the island due to its location within a rainfall area.

Due to the amount of rainfall Hilo gets, it’s not quite as popular with tourists who want to bask in the warm sun all day long.

Visitors to this side of Hawaii tend to be nature lovers who are looking for cultural experiences.

Me walking on Punalu’u Black Sand on The Big Island.

Hilo is known for its beautiful waterfalls and lush greenery. It has more green spaces than any other region on the island, making it a popular destination for nature walks near waterfalls during springtime. Spring is also when flowers are most colorful; they’re in bloom during this time of year.

The Hilo side is still a popular destination due to the breathtaking waterfalls and access to Puna. However, it’s less developed than the Kona area.

Hilo has a much more tropical feel than Kona; expect to see lots of bamboo and other plants that thrive in the hot, wet climate.

Hilo Vs. Kona: Which Has the Best Weather?

Temperatures are mild year-round, but Kona tends to be slightly warmer.

As mentioned previously, there is less rainfall in Kona. The average rain amounts for each region vary significantly due to their different elevations. On average, Hilo gets about 127 inches of rain a year. On the other hand, Kona only gets around 18 inches of rain, which is a huge difference.

The Weather Atlas website is a great resource for weather forecasts. Be sure to visit their website directly if you want to get an idea of what the weather will be during your trip.

We recently visited the Big Island in September of 2021 and we stayed on both the Hilo and Kona sides.

Me hiking at the Volcano National Park close to Hilo with gorgeous mountain views with lava rock.

I can 100% confirm that it rained a lot more in Hilo than in Kona, but that did not bother us at all. Even though it rained, it didn’t rain 24 hours a day — it was mostly pop-up showers that dissipated quickly.

The breaks in between were sunny and allowed us to do everything outside that we had planned.

In my opinion, the rain is just as beautiful; also, waterfalls are a lot more beautiful after it rains.

If you hate the rain and prefer a sunny vacation, I recommend staying in Kona.

Hilo Vs. Kona: Which Airport is Best?

There are two main airports on the Big Island of Hawaii, and you guessed it right — one in Kona and one in Hilo.

The Kona International Airport (KOA) is located about 30 minutes from Kailua-Kona. It’s the biggest airport on the island and is most often used by tourists visiting Hawaii island.

While the Hilo International Airport (ITO) may be smaller, it still offers daily flights from major cities all over North America.

If you are staying on both the Hilo and Kona sides and are thinking about flying into one airport and leaving from the other, I highly discourage this.

I thought about it myself, but with the cost of car rentals and having to return your car rental to a different location than where you rented, it will cost you a lot of money.

Me entering the Thurston Lava Tube close to Hilo
Thurston Lava Tube

It was cheaper for us to drive back to Kona and return the car where we rented it than returning it in Hilo. The drive was only 1 hour 45 minutes, which isn’t terrible.

Not only that, the drive is very scenic, and we caught one of the best sunsets on the Big Island we have ever seen. See the below picture for proof.

Beautiful sunset views on the side of the road on our way back from Hilo to Kona

Hilo Vs. Kona: Which is the Biggest?

Kona (the sunny side) is the bigger of the two regions. Not only does it cover a larger area, but it’s more developed and has more tourism amenities (beaches, hotels, etc.) than Hilo.

On the other hand, the Hilo region (the rainforest side) isn’t far behind; it has the largest city (Hilo) on the Big Island and it takes less time to drive across than its counterpart.

For travelers who like touristy areas, Kona is a more popular choice; however, if you’re looking for a more authentic Hawaii experience, then Hilo is the place for you.

Kailua-Kona (the biggest city in Kona’s region) has many restaurants and shops, but it’s also very crowded with mostly tourists. On the other hand, Hilo has more of a small-town feel.

Hilo Vs. Kona: Is a Car Rental Needed?

Yes, in my opinion, a car rental is needed regardless of which part of the island you decide to stay on.

See, compared to Maui, Oahu, or Kaui, the Big Island is enormous, and you have to travel long distances to get from one point to the other.

I will be the first to admit that I underestimated how big Hawaii’s Big Island was until I got there.

It takes a lot of time to get to attractions, and many tourists tend to underestimate it when visiting the Island.

A car rental will save you lots of time and will give you the flexibility to go wherever you want to go at any time.

Things to Do in Hilo

As mentioned above, Hilo offers stunning waterfalls, lush greenery, and lots of activities for those who love nature.

I think Hilo is underrated, and it deserves more credit than what most people give it.

Here are a few things that Hilo offers:

Visit Some of the Best Black Sand Beaches

If you want to see some of the best black sand beaches on Hawaii Island, be sure to spend some time in Hilo. The beaches here are spectacular and will leave you in awe.

I highly recommend visiting at least two black sand beaches while on the island. Trust me, you will thank me later.

Me walking on the black sand beach at Kehena Black Sand Beach on the Big Island

Visit Waterfalls

Hilo has some of the best waterfalls in Hawaii. From Rainbow Falls to Akaka Falls, Hilo does not disappoint when it comes to waterfalls.

Beautiful  Onemea Falls. and a pool below with two waterfalls.


Hilo is the perfect place to visit if you’re interested in volcanoes. The best part is that you don’t have to travel far. Visit the Thurston Lava Tube, see the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Farm or Volcanoes National Park (get there early in the morning to avoid the crowds). There’s also plenty of old and dried lava fields that you’ll come across when exploring around Hilo.

Cody entering the Lava tube in Hilo on The Big Island.
Kaumana Caves

Visit the Pana’ewa Zoo

Pana’ewa Zoo is a must-visit, especially if you have kids. The zoo has a variety of animals like spider monkeys, giant anteaters, lemurs, and even two tigers! There’s also botanical areas and petting areas, although the petting areas were closed when we went (likely due to the pandemic).

See also: The Top 5 Hawaiian Children’s Books

The zoo underwent a $10 million renovation recently, in part to make it compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act’s standards.

Trust me, it’s worth checking out. Oh, and did I mention it’s FREE?!

Visit Pahoa Town

Hilo is close to Pahoa Town. This little town is located North of Hilo and is filled with small shops, eats & grocery stores. It’s the place to go if you want to experience REAL Hawaii, in my opinion.

Plus, you can find delicious food for cheap. We all know a trip to Hawaii doesn’t come cheap, and finding ways to save money is how a lot of us afford to travel.

We stayed in Pahoa on our most recent trip to the Big Island, and I am glad we did. We rented an Airbnb on Leilani Avenue, which was less than 5 minutes down the road from where the 2018 eruptions occurred.

Watch the Sunrise on Hilo Bay

Since Hilo is on the eastern side of the Big Island, this is where the sun rises. If you are a morning person, get up and catch one of the best sunrises on the Big Island.

Things to do in Kona

This area offers resorts that are well-equipped to handle your vacation.

Go to the Beach

Kona has some of the best beaches in Hawaii, making them very popular among tourists who want to relax by the ocean.

Some of my favorite beaches to visit are Hapuna Beach, Spencer Beach, and Makalawena Beach.

Hapuna Beach in Kona

Tour a Coffee Farm

Kona coffee is world-famous for a reason. The vast majority of Hawaii’s coffee beans are grown here in the mountainous areas due to its high elevation, consistent cloud coverage, and nutrient soil from the volcanoes.

You can visit a coffee farm in Kona and get a comprehensive education about how coffee is cultivated and processed. Not to mention you’ll also get free samples of their exquisite coffees!

We thoroughly enjoyed our free tour at the Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation. They also have a gift shop where you can purchase their pristine beans, along with other cool items and gifts.

Visit Historical Sites

Kona offers important historical sites such as Captain Cook Monument, King Kamehameha Statue, Old Kona Airport, and Iolani Palace.

The Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park city of refuge is also a very popular historical site, and it’s located right next to Two Step Beach (which has amazing snorkeling).

This park is one of the best historical sites in Kona. It offers visitors great insight into Hawaii’s history and culture. This place is also popular for its breathtaking views and the many ancient ruins that are still standing today.

Go Snorkeling

Kona has some of the best snorkeling on the island, such as Snorkeling at Two Step Beach and Captain Cook Monument at Kealakekua Bay. There are plenty of colorful fish and coral, and if you’re lucky you’ll see some sea turtles and dolphins too!

Visit the Town of Kona

The town of Kona is quite attractive, and it has a unique blend of locals and tourists.

If you are looking for nightlife, Kona offers some great spots to have dinner and/or drinks.

Where to Stay in Kona

There are many resorts in Kona where you can stay. These resorts on the Kona coast tend to be very luxurious, so keep in mind the prices might be on the higher side.

If you’re looking for something more affordable, I recommend staying in Kailua town.

Cody in our Jeep posing for photos at the  Pu'uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park.

Where to Stay in Hilo

There are not as many resorts in Hilo as there are in Kona. I recommend staying at the Grand Naniloa Hotel (a Hilton hotel) or the Mauna Lani Resort. Otherwise, you can search for other places on Airbnb.

Hilo Vs. Kona: Which One Should You Visit?

I think it’s best to stay in both parts of the island because Hawaii is massive. If you have enough time to stay in both, then I highly recommend doing so.

However, if your time is limited and you want a sunny beach vacation, I recommend staying in Kona and making a day trip to the Hilo side.

Hilo is an excellent place for those who want to relax, slow things down, and don’t mind the slightly rainy weather.

There are pros and cons to both places, but it’s up to you on what appeals to your interests the most. In the end, it all depends on what your preferences are and how long you plan on staying.

Until next time, Aloha!