Most visitors to the Big Island (also called Hawaii) stay in Kona because it’s where the sunshine and beaches are, but if you’re not planning to at least visit Hilo for the day then you’re missing out!
The Hilo side of the island is the “non-touristy” side and it rains a lot but that’s what makes it so green and lush. Hilo is where you’ll find the jungles and waterfalls plus if you’re looking for a more convenient basecamp for exploring Hawaii Volcano National Park and the famous colored sand beaches, it’s a great place to stay.
Whether you’re spending part of your vacation in Hilo or just planning to drive over for the day, here are 25 things to do in Hilo (as well as along the Hamakua Coast/north shore) plus recommendations for where to stay and the best restaurants.
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25 Things to Do in Hilo
Take a 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 flight is this one with Blue Hawaiian.
Waipio Valley: Lush and tropical, Waipio Valley is one of the prettiest spots on the Big Island. There’s a scenic overlook or if you’re up for it you can make the SUPER STEEP hike down into the valley. But there’s not a lot to see at the bottom (mostly private property) unless you’re on a guided tour. I recommend this tour that combines Waipio Valley with some of the island’s best waterfalls.
Zipline over a waterfall: If ziplining through the jungle and seeing countless waterfalls is on your bucket list, this is the place to make it happen. Book this excursion which includes ziplining over KoleKole Falls.
Hamakua Coast Scenic Drive: The scenic route along the north shore of the island has to be one of the prettiest drives in Hawaii. If you’re staying on the Kona side of the island and driving over to Hilo (or Volcano) for the day, take the north shore route on the way over and then the more direct Saddle Road on the way back.
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.
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.
Richardson Beach 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.
Carlsmith Beach Park: There’s no sand (there is a nice grassy lawn to lay out on) but the lava rocks and reef create a nice little protected swimming area that’s good for snorkeling.
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.
Liliuokalani Park and Garden: This lovely garden is the largest authentic ornamental Japanese garden outside of Japan and is free to the public.
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.
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.
Pacific Tsunami Museum: Dedicated to the 1946 and 1960 tsunamis that devastated Hilo, the small museum is worth an hour or two of your time.
Historic Palace Theater: Built in 1925, the Palace Theater screens indie movies and also hosts concerts and other events.
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.
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.
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!
RELATED: 15 Things to Do on the Big Island
Side Note: If you’re looking for a rental car for your trip, I LOVE Discount Hawaii Car Rentals. They’re seriously the only company I ever use. They’ll give you the very best prices, you don’t have to reserve with a credit card or pay until you show up, you can cancel and re-book anytime if you find a better rate, and they usually have a special that adds additional drivers for no fee. It’s a no brainer. Click here to check rates for your trip.
Where to Stay in Hilo
Ken’s Pancake House: This Hilo institution serves breakfast all day (macadamia nut pancakes for the win!). They also do local style favorites and a full dinner menu, but go for breakfast!
Moon and Turtle: If you’re a foodie seeking out something a little trendier and a little less old school, make reservations here. It’s a small (and very popular) Asian/Hawaiian fusion restaurant and probably at the top of the “don’t miss restaurants in Hilo” list.
Two Ladies Kitchen: Famous for their strawberry mocha, if there’s one “must do” foodie stop in Hilo, this Japanese confectionary is it. Open 10AM to 4PM. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Suisan Fish Market: The best place for poke in Hilo. It’s sold by the pound at the counter with rice. There are some tables and chairs outside, but take it across the street to Lili’uokalani Park. Open 8AM to 5PM.
Sweet Cane Café: This totally vegetarian restaurant is worth a stop if you’re craving something fresh. Open 8AM to 6PM.
Café 100: You’ll find Hilo’s most famous loco moco at this walk up spot (over 30 varieties actually). Big portions at small prices. Open 6:45AM to 8:30PM.
Paul’s Place: This local café serves yummy food made with local ingredients but call for a reservation far in advance because there are only about four tables! Open 7:30AM to 1:30PM.
Hilo Burger Joint: A great casual spot (as the name implies) for a burger and beer made from locally sourced ingredients. Open 11AM-11PM.
Pho Viet: Not a fancy place, but maybe the best pho on the island and a lot of varieties. Open 11AM to 8PM. Closed Wednesday and Sunday.
Hilo Bay Café: This upscale Hilo restaurant borders a beautiful Japanese garden on one side and gorgeous Hilo Bay on the other side. If you’re looking for fine dining in Hilo, this is it.
Hawaiian Brain Freeze Shave Ice: Hilo’s favorite shave ice spot. Open 11AM to 5:30PM.