UPDATE: Since April/May 2018 the Big Island’s active volcano, Kilauea, has been experiencing heightened geothermal activity. While the current eruption is confined to a very small part of the island, the activity is impacting some activities on the island (most notably the closure of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and the operation of guided hikes to the lava flow). This warning is by NO MEANS to discourage you from visiting the island at this time as it’s perfectly safe. But, it’s a good idea to check current conditions on the island before planning any adventures, and as always, remain flexible as conditions can change rapidly.
If you’re heading to the Big Island, you’re going to have so much fun because there’s sooooo much to do! In fact, the island is so big that it’s usually broken up into “Kona side” and “Hilo side.” Hilo side is the island’s “non-touristy” side and it rains a lot but that’s what makes it so green and lush. Hilo side is where you’ll find the jungles, waterfalls, colored beaches, and the volcano. Here’s a list of 25 things to do in Hilo (or at least the Hilo side) of the Big Island:
1.Rainbow Falls: Located right in Hilo town, this 80 foot waterfall is almost 100 feet in diameter and best seen in the early morning when you’ll have the best chance of seeing a rainbow.
2.Akaka Falls: Hawaii’s most famous waterfall is about 11 miles north of Hilo. It’s over 400 feet tall and accessible via an easy half-mile hike through a lush jungle. $5 entrance fee for vehicles.
3.Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden: Just 7 miles north of Hilo, these botanical gardens are agreed to be the most beautiful in Hawaii and their location right next to the ocean makes for a magnificent view. Don’t miss the orchids! Admission is $20/adult.
4.Liliuokalani Park and Garden: This lovely garden is the largest authentic ornamental Japanese garden outside of Japan and is free to the public.
5.Panaewa Rainforest Zoo and Botanical Garden: This small zoo is the only zoo in the US actually built in a rainforest. Admission is free and the zoo can easily be explored in an hour or two.
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6.Hilo Farmers Market: If you’re in Hilo on a Wednesday or Saturday, you’ve got to stop by this outdoor market with over 200 local farmers and vendors.
7.Richardson Ocean Park: While there aren’t many beaches on the Hilo side of the island, Richardson’s is your best bet for swimming and snorkeling. It’s a black sand beach but it does have tiny flecks on green (olivine) in it.
8.Downtown Hilo: Downtown Hilo is charming and full of lovely shops, restaurants, and galleries. There are also several museums such as the Pacific Tsunami Museum.
9.Historic Palace Theater: Built in 1925, the Palace Theater screens indie movies and also hosts concerts and other events.
10.Lyman Museum and Mission House: The Lyman Museum is affiliated with the Smithsonian and is a world-class museum cataloging the history and culture of the Hawaiian people. Admission to the museum ($10) also includes access to the mission house next door built in the 1830s.
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11.Imiloa Astronomy Center: The world’s largest collection of astronomical observatories are housed at Mauna Kea, which is a huge nod to the correlation between ancient Hawaiian culture and astronomy. You’ll find educational and cultural exhibits as well as a planetarium at the center. Admission is $17.50.
12.Hamakua Coast Scene Drive: Driving along the scenic north shore is a must do either on your way to or from Hilo.
13.Mehana Brewing Company: Stop by the tasting room at Mehana Brewing Co to try a flight from Hawaii’s largest independent craft brewer.
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14.Papakolea (Green Sand Beach): There are not many places in the world you can see a green sand beach and the Big Island is one of them! While it’s possible to hike to the beach (full sun, 5.5 miles round trip), I suggest hitching a ride from a local from the parking lot (for a fee of course. Plan at least $20/person in cash).
15.Punalu’u Black Sand Beach: The most popular black sand beach in Hawaii is easily accessible and usually offers a guaranteed sighting of sea turtles.
16.Hawaii Volcano National Park: You can easily spend an entire day exploring Hawaii Volcano National Park and it’s honestly what most people make the trek over to the Hilo side of the island for, so plan plenty of time for hiking, stopping at the lookouts, and exploring the visitors center.
17.Helicopter Tour: The most popular helicopter tours on the Big Island depart from Hilo and include a fly over of the volcano (the easiest way to see the lava flow!) before circling back towards Hilo for a tour of the jungle and waterfalls. My favorite flights are with Blue Hawaiian.
18.Hike to the lava flow: If you’re up for a trek (sometimes including a bike ride), nothing beats seeing the lava flow up close and personal. I suggest going on a guided hike with an expert that knows the terrain since the flow is always changing.
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19.Boat tour: When the lava is flowing into the ocean (not currently happening at the time this is published), you can take a boat tour out to see it.
20.Dinner at Volcano House: Make dinner reservations at The Rim at the Volcano House (inside Hawaii Volcano National Park). You’ll be able to see the glow of Kilauea from the floor to ceiling windows.
21.Umaumau Falls and Zipline Experience: If ziplining through the jungle and seeing countless waterfalls is on your bucket list, this is the place to make it happen.
22.South Point: Ka Lae (also known as South Point) is the southern most point in the US and is believed to be the first place where ancient Polynesians came ashore in the Hawaiian Islands.
23.Ahalahui Park: This “hot pond” or “hot springs” is heated by volcanic energy. It gets crowded with locals on the weekends so it’s best to visit early on weekdays (before 9AM when the pools have just been flushed out by the tide).
24.Take an eco tour: Get off the grid and take a tour of a part of the Big Island that not many tourists explore. Kapohokine’s “Secrets of Puna” tour is one of their most popular ones.
25.Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Farm & Factory: Just a few miles south of Hilo is the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Farm and Factory. Take a self guided tour, sample some nuts, and stock up on your favorites!
Also, if you’re looking for absolutely everything you could ever want to know about the Big Island, I highly recommend ordering the Hawaii Revealed guidebook (this is an affiliate link which means if you choose to purchase I’ll make a little money). It’s worth its weight in your backpack just for its directions on finding hidden beaches, waterfalls, and trail heads. Seriously, I never would’ve found half of my favorite spots on the Big Island without it.
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