Me walking on the beach in Kona Hawaii with white sand and perfect blue waters.

Hilo vs. Kona: Which Side is the Best?

Are you planning a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii but don’t know if you should stay in Hilo or Kona?

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

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 the important question below. Should you stay in Kona Vs.? Hilo? Is there a clear winner between Hilo and Kona?

Well, it depends on what type of experience you’re looking for. 

Hilo is located on the east side of the Big Island, while Kona sits on the west side. If you want to relax in nature and get the feel of small-town charm, then Hilo is your best bet. It has gorgeous waterfalls, lush jungle hikes, majestic black sand beaches, and more budget-friendly accommodation options.

On the other hand, Kona is the choice if you prefer perfect sunny weather and want to be close to shopping, luxury resorts, and more touristy attractions. Kona also offers excellent opportunities for exploring the nightlife and trying out a variety of cuisine. 

Overview of The Big Island of Hawaii

Here’s a quick overview of the Big Island to better understand the differences between Hilo and Kona.

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 most tourists spend their time in these regions.

Me walking at the Hawaii Volcanos National Park close to Hilo enjoying the lava field and mountain views.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Overview of Kona

Kona is known for its sunny days, beautiful beaches, and perfect weather year-round – making it an excellent place for tourists. While most people associate Kona with the golden sands of Kailua Beach and the clear turquoise waters, there are also plenty of cultures here too.

Kona has a vibrant nightlife, world-class resorts, and plenty of activities to try, such as snorkeling, whale watching in the winter, and fishing. You’ll also find some of the best shopping, coffee farms, macadamia nut orchards, and even a cattle ranch in Kona.

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!

Overview of Hilo

Hilo is located on the eastern side of the Big Island and offers an entirely different experience than Kona. Compared to Kona, Hilo gets more clouds, rain, and less sunlight. 

Due to the amount of rainfall Hilo gets, it’s less popular with tourists who want to bask in the warm sun all day long.

Hilo is known for its laid-back atmosphere and breathtaking natural beauty. It’s prevalent amongst nature lovers, as it boasts a variety of waterfalls, parks, and trails that are perfect for exploring the island’s tropical rainforest. Hilo also offers plenty of cultural attractions, such as the Pacific Tsunami Museum and the Hawaii Museum of Contemporary Art.

However, it’s less developed than the Kona area. You’ll find charming mom-and-pop restaurants, rusty surf shacks, vibrant murals, and small villages – making it feel worlds apart from Kona.

In a nutshell, 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. It also offers excellent access to the Puna district, known for its volcanoes.

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

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.

We recently visited the Big Island and stayed on the Hilo and Kona sides. We 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 primarily pop-up showers that dissipated quickly. Mostly, it rained between midnight and sunrise, so it didn’t interfere with our daytime plans.

The breaks in between were sunny and allowed us to do everything we had planned outside. In our opinion, the rain is just as beautiful; also, waterfalls are a lot more beautiful after it rains.

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

Kona vs. Hilo: Activities

When it comes to activities, the Big Island offers a wide range of options and plenty of things to do. Depending on where you are staying, more activities may be available on one side than the other.

When it comes to activities, Kona wins this section. Overall, there is much more to do and see on the Kona side compared to Hilo.

Things to do in Kona

This area offers resorts that are well-equipped to handle your vacation. If you envision spending your holiday relaxing by the pool while sipping Mai Tais, participating in various water activities, and enjoying the finer things in life, then Kona is an excellent place for you.

Below are some of the best things to do in Kona:

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 our favorite beaches to visit are Hapuna Beach, Spencer Beach, and Makalawena Beach.

Me walking on Hapuna Beach with perfect white sand and blue waters.
Hapuna Beach in Kona

Swim with Manta Rays

Kona is one of the few places in the world where you can swim with manta rays. This is an experience that you don’t want to miss! 

We did this experience while we were in Kona, and it was one of the highlights of our trip. By far, it’s one of the most surreal and unique experiences we’ve ever had.

Manta Ray swimming in the ocean during our snorkel tour in Kona.
We took this during our Manta snorkel tour 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 cultivating and processing coffee. 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 and 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 Hulihe‘e Palace. 

The Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park City of Refuge is also a top-rated historical site, and it’s located right next to Two Step Beach (which has fantastic 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 known for its breathtaking views and the many ancient ruins still standing today.

Me walking on lava rock at  the Pu'uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park
Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park
Cody in our Jeep posing for photos at the  Pu'uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park.
Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park

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 has a unique blend of locals and tourists. If you are looking for nightlife, Kona offers some great spots to have dinner and drinks.

Whale Watching

If you’re in Kona between December and April, whale watching is a must. During this time, humpback whales migrate to the warm waters of Hawaii from Alaska to give birth and mate. This is another experience we highly recommend, and it is one of the most majestic sights you’ll ever witness.

Things to Do in Hilo

As mentioned above, Hilo offers stunning waterfalls, lush greenery, and many activities for those who love nature. Hilo is underrated and deserves more credit than most people give it.

Here are some of the best things to do in Hilo:

Go to a Black Sand Beach

Hilo is home to some of the best black sand beaches in Hawaii. These picturesque shorelines provide an incredible backdrop for a day at the beach.

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.

We highly recommend visiting at least two black sand beaches on the island. You will thank us later! Punaluʻu Black Sand Beach, Polulu Valley Beach, and Poihiki Beach are our favorite black sand beaches in Hilo.

Also, if you want to see the magnificent green sea turtles, don’t skip Punaluʻu Beach! They frequent the beach almost every day.

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

Chase the Waterfalls

With all the rain that Hilo gets, it’s no surprise that some of the most beautiful waterfalls are here.

Take a short hike and explore Hawaii’s tropical rainforest while chasing after some impressive cascades. Akaka Falls and Rainbow Falls are two of the most popular ones to visit, but there are many other smaller waterfalls worth exploring. Almost all are easily accessible by car or even a short hike.

The tall beautiful Akaka Falls on in Hilo with lush scenery all around.
Akaka Falls
The beautiful Rainbow Falls in Hilo with lush scenery all around and a pool below
Rainbow Falls

Visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

While you can visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park from both Hilo and Kona, it’s a great experience to drive from the Hilo side since it’s only a 45-minute drive. The drive from Kona will take you 2.5 hours one way. While doable, it’s a long drive, leaving less time to explore the park.

The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has a lot to offer: spectacular hikes, impressive lava tubes, and mesmerizing views from the summit of Mauna Loa. It’s also one of the few places in the world where you can experience (from a distance) an active volcano (if erupting).

Me entering the Thurston Lava Tube close to Hilo on The Big Island.
Thurston Lava Tube
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 if you have kids. The zoo has a variety of animals, like spider monkeys, giant anteaters, lemurs, and even two tigers! There are also botanical areas and petting areas.

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

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 our opinion.

Plus, you can find delicious food for cheap. We all know a trip to Hawaii is costly, and finding ways to save money is how many of us afford to travel.

We stayed in Pahoa on our most recent trip to the Big Island, and we are glad we did. We rented an Airbnb on Leilani Avenue, which was less than five 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.

Hilo vs. Kona: Which is Cheaper?

Without a doubt, Hilo is the cheaper option. We’ve stayed on both sides of the island and can confidently say that Hilo has more affordable accommodations than Kona. That’s not to say that all accommodations in Kona are expensive, but you will generally find more budget-friendly options in Hilo.

For example, we paid about $106 per night for our Airbnb in Hilo and $160 for similar accommodation in Kailua Kona.

In addition to the lower accommodation prices, eating and drinking out in Hilo is much more affordable than in Kona. As mentioned, Hilo caters to the local crowd, while Kona caters to the touristy crowd.

Generally speaking, all touristy locations are more expensive, and Kona is no exception.

Hilo vs. Kona: Accommodation Options

In terms of accommodation, Kona has a lot more to offer. There is something for everyone, from resorts, luxury villas, and beachfront hotels to some budget-friendly options.

The resorts on the Kona coast are very luxurious, so keep in mind the prices are higher. We recommend staying in Kailua town if you want something more affordable.

Hilo also has plenty of accommodation options available, but it’s not as varied as Kona’s. You can find some hostels, budget-friendly Airbnbs, and affordable hotels.

If you’re looking for a bit more of a luxurious experience, we recommend staying in one of the resorts near Hilo Bay. These are pricier than the budget-friendly options, but the views and amenities make it worth it.  

We 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 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 Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport (KOA) is about 30 minutes from Kailua-Kona. It’s the biggest airport on the island and is most often used by tourists visiting The Big 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 only staying on one side of the island, the airport closer to your destination will be more convenient. However, check the prices on Google Flights to see which offers a better deal.

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

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

It was cheaper to drive back to Kona and return the car where we rented it than return it in Hilo. The drive was only 1 hour and 45 minutes, which is okay.

Not only that, the drive is very scenic, and we caught one of the best sunsets on the Big Island. 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: Is a Car Rental Needed?

Yes, a car rental is needed regardless of which part of the island you decide to stay on. Compared to Maui, Oahu, or Kauai, the Big Island is enormous, and you must travel long distances to get from one point to another.

We will be the first to admit that we underestimated how big Hawaii’s Big Island was until we arrived. 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 give you the flexibility to go wherever you want at any time.

Hilo vs. Kona: Which Is the Biggest?

Kona (the sunny side) is the bigger of the two regions. It covers a larger area, is 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.

Frequently Asked Questions

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.

If you are on vacation on the Big Island, we 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.

Is it Safe to Drive From Kona to Hilo?

Yes, it is safe to drive from Kona to Hilo. We’ve done this drive multiple times and never felt unsafe. You will enjoy incredible views on the drive, and you’ll get to see a lot of the Big Island’s countryside too.

Hilo vs. Kona: Which One Should You Choose?

It’s best to stay in both parts of the island since Hawaii is massive. We highly recommend doing so if you have enough time to visit both.

However, if your time is limited and you want a sunny beach vacation, we 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.

Both places have pros and cons, but it’s up to you on what appeals to your interests the most. Ultimately, it all depends on your preferences and how long you plan on staying.

Until next time, Aloha!