Are you going to the Big Island of Hawaii and wondering if Hilo is worth visiting? The short answer is yes! There are so many spectacular things to see and do, and you won’t regret adding Hilo to your itinerary.
Compared to Kona, the laid-back atmosphere of Hilo is a welcome change. Whether you’re looking to explore the lush rainforest, visit a historic site or relax on a black sand beach, Hilo has something for everyone.
In this article, we’ll go over some of the must-see attractions in Hilo and why we recommend adding them to your list of things to do on the Big Island.
Why Should You Visit Hilo? What Is Hilo Known For?
When most people talk about vacationing on the Big Island, they mainly think of Kona. While Kona is a great place to visit, there’s another side of the island that people often overlook: Hilo! Here are a few reasons why Hilo is a great vacation destination.
Laid Back Side
Hilo is the largest city on the Big Island but maintains a small-town vibe. It’s much less developed than Kona and offers visitors a more laid-back atmosphere. You can wander around for hours without feeling overwhelmed by crowds or traffic.
For Nature Lovers
Hilo is home to some of the most stunning natural attractions in Hawaii. The rainforest is stunning, with its lush greenery and cascading waterfalls. There are plenty of outdoor activities throughout the area where you can take in epic views of the nearby mountains.
Perfect Home Base
Hilo makes a great home base for exploring the rest of the island, specifically the east side.
It’s close to several popular attractions, including Kilauea Volcano and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which is 43 minutes away. Driving from Kona will take about two hours and 8 minutes to get to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
You can also take day trips from Hilo to nearby towns like Pahoa (30 minutes).
Best Things to Do in Hilo
Now that you know why Hilo is worth visiting, let’s look at some of the best things to do in the area.
Best Things to Do in Hilo: Map
Waterfalls and Natural Beauty
Below are some of the breathtaking waterfalls and natural attractions you’ll find in Hilo:
(1) ‘Akaka Falls
‘Akaka Falls is a natural wonder that should not be missed during your visit to Hilo. Standing at an impressive height of 442 feet, this breathtaking waterfall offers a spectacular sight that will leave you in awe.
The lush surroundings of ‘Akaka Falls State Park provide a serene atmosphere as you hike along the well-maintained trail. The paved path takes you through a tropical rainforest, where you’ll encounter lush vegetation, colorful flowers, and the soothing sounds of nature.
As you approach the viewing area, the sheer power and beauty of ‘Akaka Falls will take your breath away, making it a must-visit attraction for nature enthusiasts and photographers alike. The trail is easy and perfect for the whole family.
(2) Rainbow Falls
Standing 80 feet tall, Rainbow Falls creates a larger-than-life spectacle that lives up to its name. The mist from the falls often forms rainbows, casting a colorful glow over the surroundings.
Try visiting during the morning to maximize your chances of witnessing the vibrant rainbows that make Rainbow Falls magical.
One of our favorite things about Rainbow Falls is that it does not require a hike. You can view the falls from a lookout point, making it much more accessible than other waterfalls in Hawaii.
(3) Pe’epe’e Falls
Located within Wailuku River State Park, Pe’epe’e Falls is a not-to-be-missed destination for waterfall enthusiasts. This majestic waterfall features multiple tiers, creating a stunning river water display.
Surrounded by lush vegetation, Pe’epe’e Falls offers a serene and picturesque setting for visitors to enjoy.
While swimming is no longer allowed due to flash floods and strong currents, you can still capture the beauty of the falls from the viewing platform.
(4) Liliuokalani Park and Gardens
Hilo’s Liliuokalani Park and Gardens is a beautiful Japanese-inspired park named after Hawaii’s last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani.
Its tranquil ponds, picturesque bridges, gorgeous views of Hilo Bay, and colorful foliage offer visitors a peaceful retreat.
Liliuokalani Park is also one of our favorite places to watch the sunrise on the Big Island and is part of why we keep coming back.
The park also hosts cultural events and festivals throughout the year, adding to its cultural richness.
(5) Kaumana Caves
Kaumana Caves offers a thrilling adventure for nature enthusiasts and those seeking underground exploration. The caves were formed during an eruption of Mauna Loa in 1881.
Come here to witness the stunning lava formations that have created an otherworldly atmosphere within the caves.
Whether you’re a seasoned spelunker or a first-time explorer, the Kaumana Caves provide a unique and unforgettable experience in Hilo.
(6) Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve & Garden
Located about 5 miles north of Hilo in Oneamea Valley, the Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve & Garden is a true haven for nature lovers.
This botanical gem showcases over 2,000 worldwide plant species amidst lush pathways, vibrant blooms, towering palm trees, cascading waterfalls, and breathtaking ocean views.
Whether you’re a botany enthusiast, a nature photographer, or seeking a tranquil escape, the Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve & Garden offers a slice of paradise in Hilo.
(7) Onomea (Pepe’ekeo) Scenic Drive
The Pepe’ekeo Scenic Drive is the most famous scenic drive on the Big Island, as it offers some of the most breathtaking views of the island.
The drive is four miles long on Old Mamalahoa Highway. Along the way, you’ll be surrounded by lush vegetation, a small waterfall, rustic bridges, and a rushing stream.
As you drive through charming rural communities, you’ll get a glimpse of local life and the authentic charm of Hawaii.
Note: While the road is paved, it is narrow in some areas and requires extra caution when driving. Do not take pictures while driving. Instead, pull over to the side of the road or have someone else take pictures for you.
Best Activities in Hilo
Hilo is a great place to explore the outdoors and enjoy some of Hawaii’s most stunning natural beauty. Here are some of the best activities in the area:
(8) Umauma Experience
If you love ziplining, then you’ll love the Umauma Experience. This is where you need to go to experience the ultimate adventure on the island!
During the tour, guests will fly above the Umauma River and Falls on an exhilarating zipline or get down and dirty on an ATV while taking in stunning views of the Pacific Ocean.
You can choose from the 9-line, 2-mile zipline, 4-line zipline tour or tackle the 5.5-mile private ATV course. For those looking for a more relaxed option, exploring the tranquil palm forest and garden along the scenic Umauma River is a great idea.
No matter your adventure level, The Umauma Experience has something for everyone.
(9) Take a Helicopter Tour
Discover the wonders of Hawaii Island through a helicopter tour. Gain a deeper appreciation for the island’s uniqueness as you witness its incredible biodiversity, boasting over 25,000 distinct species.
From tropical jungles and dry coastal steppes to misty mountains and volcanic craters, there is something for everyone. Experiencing these diverse ecosystems from above is truly one of the top things to do in Hawaii.
Notably, Kīlauea, one of the most active volcanoes on Earth, adds to the island’s captivating allure.
Paradise Helicopters offers multiple tour options for you to choose from, so you can explore Hawaii’s mesmerizing landscapes in style.
Choose from a variety of tours, such as:
- Doors-Off Lava & Rainforest Adventure Tour
- Kohala Coast & Waterfalls & Exclusive Remote Landing
- Kohala Coast & Waterfalls Tour
- Volcano Kohala Landing Tour
(10) Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens
If you love botanical gardens or have kids in your travel group, visit the Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens.
Whether you’re a nature enthusiast, an animal lover, or simply seeking an escape into the tropical wilderness, Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens is a must-visit destination in Hilo.
What better way to spend your day than exploring a zoo situated within a rainforest? The gardens surrounding the zoo feature a variety of exotic plants and flowers, providing a serene and picturesque backdrop for your visit.
As you explore the zoo, you’ll encounter diverse wildlife, including endangered species like the nēnē goose, lemurs, spider monkeys, and over 80 other animal species.
Visiting the Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo is free, but donations or purchases at their gift shop are welcome and very much appreciated.
(11) Take a Chocolate Farm Tour
Did you know that Hawaii is the only state in the US that can sustain commercial cacao production due to its tropical climate and rich soil?
Fun Fact: The Big Island is where all locally produced American chocolate is grown and processed.
If you’re a fan of chocolate, then exploring one of Hilo’s cacao farms is an absolute must. During the tour, you’ll learn about the fascinating process of turning cacao beans into chocolate and sample some freshly made treats.
There are many tours available on the island. Here is our favorite: Tree-to-Chocolate Tour
(12) Hilo Farmers Market
If you love farmers’ markets as much as we do, you should check out the Hilo Farmers Market.
This vibrant market is held Wednesdays and Saturdays from 7:00 am to 3:00 pm. There are over 200 vendors selling everything from fruits and vegetables to flowers, arts and crafts, gift items, baked goods, and more.
While there, engage with friendly vendors, sample exotic flavors, and discover unique handmade crafts and artwork.
Open year-round, this Farmers Market offers an authentic and flavorful experience that embodies the vibrant spirit of the Big Island.
Best Beaches in Hilo
While Kona has the lion’s share of the best white sand beaches in Hawaii, Hilo has its own set of beautiful beaches:
(13) Richardson Beach Park (Four Mile)
Richardson Beach Park is a great place to spend the day swimming or snorkeling. This picturesque beach park in Hilo Bay features a black sand beach and clear waters, perfect for swimming and snorkeling.
Visitors can also explore tide pools, which are safe and perfect for the whole family.
(14) Carlsmith Beach Park
Carlsmith Beach Park is the perfect spot if you are looking for a place to snorkel close to Hilo. While it doesn’t have a sandy beach, the calm waters and rocky shores make it an excellent spot for swimming and snorkeling.
It almost feels like you are swimming in a pool due to the lava rock walls that form a natural barrier, keeping the waters calm and crystal clear.
(15) Coconut Island (Moku Ola)
Connected to the mainland by a footbridge, this small island offers lush greenery, swaying coconut palms, and breathtaking views of the bay.
It’s the perfect place to unwind, swim, explore the walking paths, and find secluded spots to enjoy a picnic or soak in the natural beauty.
With its cultural significance and beautiful atmosphere, Coconut Island is a must-visit destination for those seeking a peaceful escape in Hilo.
Historic and Cultural Sites in Hilo
(16) Pacific Tsunami Museum
Hilo’s Pacific Tsunami Museum is committed to preserving history and promoting public tsunami education. With the goal of preventing loss of life in future tsunami events, the museum serves as a living memorial to those who tragically lost their lives.
By offering educational resources, exhibits, and interactive displays, the museum raises awareness and deepens understanding of the devastating impact of tsunamis.
Through its efforts, the museum strives to ensure the safety and preparedness of coastal communities, emphasizing the importance of proactive measures in mitigating the risks associated with tsunamis.
Visiting the Pacific Tsunami Museum allows visitors to engage with the past, honor the memory of those affected, and contribute to the mission of promoting public safety.
(17) Lyman Museum and Mission House
The Lyman Museum and Mission House in Hilo have a rich and intertwined history. Originally built as the home for missionaries David and Sarah Lyman in 1839, the Mission House now serves as a restored historic site open for guided tours.
In 1931, their descendants established the Lyman Museum, located next door to the mission house, housing a remarkable collection of artifacts, natural history exhibits, special exhibitions, and a gift shop.
Visitors can explore the preserved mission house, providing a glimpse into life as it was 150 years ago, while the Lyman Museum building offers immersive exhibits on Hawaiian natural history and culture.
In addition to its exhibits, the museum offers a variety of educational programs, including lectures, workshops, and group tours, catering to visitors of all ages and interests.
For those seeking more profound research, the Lyman Museum Archives holds a collection of historical documents, books, and photographs accessible by appointment.
You can book tours here: Lyman Museum
(18) East Hawai’i Cultural Center (EHCC)
Located in downtown Hilo, the East Hawai’i Cultural Center (EHCC) has been a pillar of support for arts and culture in the community for over 50 years.
As a non-profit organization, EHCC relies on dedicated volunteers to nurture creativity and showcase local artists.
With programs like the Youth Arts Series, Kahua’ Elua Theatre, Gamelan of the Molten Blossom, and engaging exhibitions, EHCC offers diverse artistic experiences for all ages.
EHCC serves as a vibrant hub of artistic expression, promoting the cultural richness of Hilo to residents and visitors alike. Visiting the East Hawai’i Cultural Center is free, but donations are welcome and very much appreciated.
Frequently Asked Questions
Now that you know what Hilo offers, here are some frequently asked questions about visiting the area:
What Is the Best Way to Get Around in Hilo?
We recommend renting a car so you can explore the island at your own pace. If you want more flexibility and to visit more attractions, renting a car is best.
We use Discount Hawaii Car Rentals since their prices are the most competitive.
How Many Days Should I Stay in Hilo?
We recommend spending at least two days in Hilo, but if you have limited time and are already staying in Kona, you can make a day trip to Hilo.
We usually split our time between Hilo and Kona to explore the best of both cities. On our recent trip to the Big Island, we spent six days in Kona and four days in Hilo. This allowed us to explore both cities and get an authentic experience of the Big Island.
How Far Is Hilo From Kona?
Hilo is located approximately 78 miles (via Saddle Road and HI 190) from Kona. Depending on traffic, the drive takes about 1 hour 30 minutes to 2 hours.
It’s best to take Saddle Road since it is the most direct route between Kona and Hilo. You can also take Hawaii Belt Road, but it is a much longer drive at 2 hours to 2 hours and 30 minutes, depending on traffic.
Are Hilo and Kona on the Same Island?
Yes, Hilo and Kona are located on the Big Island of Hawaii. They are located in different parts of the island; Kona is on the West Coast (Kohala region), and Hilo is on the East Coast.
Each city offers unique attractions and experiences, making it worth visiting while exploring the Big Island.
Which is Better, Hilo or Kona?
It depends. 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 scenery, a few beautiful black sand beaches, and more budget-friendly accommodation options.
Kona is the perfect choice for those who prefer perfect sunny weather, beautiful sunsets on the beach, luxury resorts, shopping, and touristy attractions. If you also want to snorkel with manta rays, Kona has the best tours for snorkeling with manta rays.
Final Thoughts: Is Hilo Worth Visiting?
The answer is a resounding yes! Hilo is an incredible destination that offers something for everyone. It has everything from gorgeous waterfalls to lush forests, historic sites, and cultural attractions.
It’s also a great place to experience authentic Hawaii, away from the hustle and bustle of tourist-packed Kona. So if you’re looking to get off the beaten path and explore a different side of the Big Island, Hilo is definitely worth visiting!