Your Travel Guide to Hilo, Hawai’i (USA)
The pleasant town of Hilo is situated on the windward side of the Big Island of Hawai’i. With a population of 45,000, it is the perfect size to offer visitors a thriving local culture and supremely laid-back vibes. It frequently appears on lists of “coolest towns in America”.
Hilo has an airport, is within close proximity to waterfalls, Volcanos National Park, various adventure activities, a fantastic local food scene, and is also home to a thriving Hawaiian culture. It is also green and lush with agriculture and farmers’ markets. Despite all this, Hilo only receives a fraction of the overnight visitors to the Big Island.
Many tourists come to Hawai’i for resorts next to white sand beaches. For this, they fly to Kailua – Kona and stay on the leeward side of the island. Kailua – Kona is drier, more touristy, has more snorkeling opportunities, and several world-class resorts.
What kind of trip to Hawai’i do you want?
It’s best to know what kind of vacation you want before you decide where to stay on Hawai’i. It is a big island and takes a few hours to encircle. It might be best to plan some time on both the windward and leeward in order to situate yourself close to all the activities you want to do.
If you don’t spend time in Hilo, you are missing out on one of the funkiest small cities in America. Hilo has a cool, independent vibe with lots of small businesses, street art, and parks along with all the aforementioned natural attractions nearby. It’s also more affordable to eat and stay here.
Hilo and its environs are lush and fertile, naturally beautiful, as well as historic. The town grew with the expansion of the sugar industry and has a long history of Asian immigration as well as being a center of Hawaiian culture. Hilo is also a college town, home to the University of Hawai’i at Hilo.
Why don’t more people visit or stay in Hilo? Maybe it’s the rain…Hilo is cited as one of the rainiest places in America. But don’t let that turn you off! You can’t have a rainbow without the rain!
Your Travel Guide to Hilo Hawai’i
Things to Do in Hilo
There are lots of activities to do in and around Hilo. The historic downtown is fun to explore by foot and there are lots of independent shops and excellent cafes. Here are some things to do right in Hilo:
Hilo Farmers Market – Located in downtown Hilo, open 7 days per week 7 am-3 pm.. Lots of locally-grown fruit. Wednesday and Sat are Big Market Days when vendors show up with other locally-made goods.
Lyman Museum – The Lyman Museum takes you through the geologic, natural, and cultural history of the Hawaiian Islands. The excellent exhibits have been recently redone and the friendly staff is more than willing to explain in more detail. Great on a rainy or too-hot day, but don’t leave the Big Island without stopping here. You’ll leave with a greater understanding of the Hawaiian culture and what makes these islands unique to our planet.
Visit the next-door Mission House (1839) on a guided tour with a separate ticket. Open Monday-Friday 10-4:30 pm, book ahead online.
East Hawai’i Cultural Center – Cultural center with arts-centric programs & workshops, plus a print studio & shop for unique goods. Open Tues-Friday 10-4 pm, Sat 10-2 pm.
Picnic on Moku Ola (“Island of Life”) – Pick up some morning takeout from Kawamoto Store (see food section) and come to Moku Ola, a little island off the coast of Hilo, accessible by a pedestrian bridge.
Liliʻuokalani Gardens – After relaxing on Moku Ola walk around Liliʻuokalani Gardens. Located near the Grand Naniloa Hotel and dedicated in 1917, this 30-acre park showcases Edo-style gardens, koi ponds, and a Japanese teahouse.
‘Imiloa Astronomy Center – The ʻImiloa Astronomy Center beautifully combines Hawaiian culture and astronomy. ʻImiloa means “exploration driven by a sense of wonder and imagination” in the Hawaiian language and the center creates a link between science and culture through the stars and the sacred Mauna Kea, where the world’s greatest collection of astronomical observatories is housed. Located at the University of Hawai’i at Hilo, the ʻImiloa center offers educational and cultural programs for visitors, students, and local residents through exhibits, activities, and a full-dome planetarium. Open Thursday – Sunday (9-4:30 pm).
Wailuku River State Park A mile and a half above downtown Hilo you can view Rainbow Falls from a viewpoint only steps from the parking area. There is no entrance fee.
Things to See and do Around Hilo
Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens is fun for families with small children. This small 12-acre zoo is the only one in the United States located in a rainforest. Best of all it’s free and easy to get around in a couple of hours or less. The zoo has more than 80 species of animals, including a Bengal White Tiger, and the grounds feature more than 40 different species of plants, flowers, and trees. Open all days of the week: 10 am-4 pm. Closed the first Thursday of each month.
Kaumana Caves – Here you can descend on a metal ladder into a lava tube created by an 1881 flow from Mauna Loa. You can’t go very far beyond that because it immediately travels underneath private property. Bring a flashlight. No admission fee.
Cacao Farm Lavaloha – Cacao is cultivated on the hillsides around Hilo. The Lavaloha Chocolate Farm offers visits or interactive Tree-to-Chocolate adventures. Adults $40
Volcanos National Park – Hilo is a 45-minute drive from Volcanoes NP and makes an essential day trip if you don’t plan to overnight in the National Park. Hiking opportunities abound. Go inside a caldera or walk a coastal trail to view petroglyphs. See Hawai’i’s native goose, the nene. Stop by the visitor’s center for essential natural, cultural, and geologic information.
There are several Botanical Gardens and Arboretum on the Big Island.
Hawai‘i Tropical Bioreserve & Garden – Located fifteen minutes drive north of Hilo, this non-profit botanical garden and nature preserve is a “living classroom” that attracts photographers, gardeners, botanists, scientists, and nature lovers from around the world. Containing over 2,000 species, representing more than 125 families and 750 genera, the 20-acre valley is a natural greenhouse, protected from buffeting trade winds and blessed with fertile volcanic soil. Open daily 9 am-5 pm. Adults $25, children $12.
Botanical Garden at University of Hawai’i – If you’re on a smaller budget and want to beat the crowds, make your way to the lesser-appreciated Botanical Gardens at the University. Most of these species come from around the world and you’ll have to navigate on your own. Free admission. $3 parking pass if you park on University parking.
Ziplining – Although I have no personal experience with any of the local operators, ziplining is a popular and exhilarating way to see the rainforest of Hawai’i.
Hot Springs at Pohoiki Black San Beach – Officially known as Isaac Hale Beach Park, this is an extremely diverse natural area in the beautiful and lush Puna district about an hour’s drive from Hilo. Along with a black sand beach, you’ll find several ocean thermal ponds. This is also the terminus of the 2018 eruption where Hawai’i’s newest created land is located.
Ocean Parks / Beaches in the Hilo Area
Carlsmith Beach Park – Escape to Carlsmith to relax on grassy areas shaded by palm trees here where hardened lava meets the ocean. There is a nice protected cove that is regularly visited by sea turtles and is great for snorkeling. Shade, a sheltered picnic area, calm clear water, and bathroom facilities make this a great option for families. If you’re looking for a white sand beach, this is not what you want.
Richardson Ocean Park – Ten minutes drive east of Hilo and just one minute past Carlsmith is another excellent coastal recreation area. Richardson has a nice, but small black sand beach and the calm waters here are part of a marine conservation area which make it great for snorkeling. There are also picnic areas, showers, restrooms, and parking.
Honoli’i Beach Park – Just two miles north of Hilo is Honoli’i Beach Park. This is an ideal spot for experienced surfers (or to watch them!). The waves are also good for bodyboarding and offshore fishing. Parking, restrooms, showers, picnic area, and lifeguard are available.
Go here for more info on Hilo area beaches.
Hikes close to Hilo
Akaka Falls State Park – Take a scenic half-mile hike through the rainforest to see the 442-foot Akaka Falls at this state park. Entry fees: $5 per person + $10 parking fee.
Hawai’i Volcanos NP – Kīlauea Iki Trail + Crater Rim Trail – This is a fantastic hike, descending through a lush rainforest onto the solidified lava lake on the floor of Kīlauea Iki crater. Return via the Crater Rim trail with views over the edge of the crater.
Read more Big Island hikes.
Where to Stay in Hilo
Grand Naniloa Hotel Hilo – We stayed at the Grand Naniloa for five nights, which made an excellent base for exploring Hilo and the windward side of the island. It’s a DoubleTree by Hilton property with a beautiful lava-rock coastline and views of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. The Grand Naniloa is keen to promote Hawai’ian language and culture and hold nightly music and hula dancing events. They also host the celebrated Merrie Monarch Festival.
Where to Eat in Hilo
Hilo has the best eats on the Big Island. Restaurants definitely lean toward Hawaiian and Asian / Asian fusion, which is probably a big reason I loved eating here. Native Hawai’ians accounted for more 50% of the plantation labor force until the mid-1800s when thousands of immigrants arrived from China, Japan, Korea, and the Philipines. This history is reflected in the ethnic makeup of Hilo today and its food. The staff at Grand Naniloa suggested some of their favorites which we incorporated into this list.
Read: Top 10 Hawaiian Foods
Kawamoto Store – Storefront selling Japanese, Hawaiian, Filipino, and Chinese buffet-style food excellent for picnics. Try the fried fish, musubi, shoyu chicken, tempura, or anything else; it’s all great. Takeaway only. (784 Kilauea Ave)
Hawaiian Style Cafe – Classic Hawaiian comfort dishes served up in a casual atmosphere. Get the loco moco, saimin, or any of the ‘local’ or ‘house’ favorites. (681 Manono St)
Tetsumen – Authentic Japanese ramen served up in a cafe just as if you were in Japan. Rich and delicious varieties of broth for your ramen, plus sides. (697 Manono St)
Puka Puka Kitchen – This tiny, no-frills downtown eatery serves up curry, bento, fish dishes, pita sandwiches, and more. (270 Kamehameha Ave)
New Chiang Mai Thai Cuisine – Delicious Northern Thai dishes made from locally sourced vegetables in an airy, wood-paneled cafe. (2870, 110 Kalakaua St)
Kuhio Grille – Tasty Hawaiian food, plate lunches, and laulau (look for their famous 1lb laulau) in a casual family dining atmosphere. (80 Pauahi St)
Ken’s House of Pancakes – 24-hour old-fashioned diner with good comfort food options and macadamia-nut pancakes. (1730 Kamehameha Ave)