16 Awesome Things to do in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii

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The Big Island is full of incredible places to explore, from white sand beaches to steaming volcanoes. The biggest city on the island is Hilo, located on its east coast and is known for its proximity to lush jungles, stunning waterfalls, and some of the most active volcanoes on the planet. So if your Hawaiian getaway includes time in this colorful plantation town, here’s 16 things to do in Hilo to make the most of your time on the Big Island. 

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Lava lake in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii
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Things to do in Hilo

1. Chase waterfalls at ‘Akaka Falls State Park

Located about 20 minutes north of Hilo, this state park is home to one of the tallest (and most famous!) waterfalls on the Big Island, ‘Akaka Falls, which plunge 442 feet over a volcanic cliff into an impossibly green gorge below.

'Akaka Falls cascading over a cliff in 'Akaka Falls State Park in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii

You can gaze at the waterfall yourself by walking along a paved 0.4-mile loop trail in the park, which leads you through a lush jungle, complete with banyan trees, bamboo groves, and brilliant tropical flowers. 

My husband, Justin, and I stopped here during our last time in Hilo and, given how short the trail is, assumed we’d just be here for less than 30 minutes. But we spent well over an hour here, admiring the fragrant orchids, huge primeval ferns, and, of course, the beautiful waterfalls!

Woman looking at 'Akaka Falls in 'Akaka Falls State Park in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii

2. Explore downtown Hilo

Obviously, it would be silly to go to Hilo and not explore its downtown area!

As compared to Kona, one of the other most popular places to stay on the Big Island, Hilo feels a bit more local and authentic, with a kind of hippie and even gritty vibe to it. 

Plantation buildings in downtown Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii

The downton is definitely a unique mix of colorful plantation buildings, from the early 18th century, many of which are actually on the National Register of Historic Places; vibrant street murals; and weathered buildings. It’s definitely not as picture perfect as some of the resort towns in Hawaii, but the local, laidback energy more than makes up for it. 

Stop by the Hilo Farmers Market, open every day of the week from 7 AM to 3 PM, for incredibly fresh produce and flowers and locally crafted goods. Try out local food stands, like Two Ladies Kitchen, for SERIOUSLY good mochi; Nicoco, for unique flavors of plant-based gelato (it’s SO good, y’all!); or Kula Shave Ice, which makes its own syrups from ingredients sourced from the east side of the Big Island. 

Woman holding a cup of gelato from Nicoco in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii

It’s definitely worth carving out at least a couple of hours in your Big Island itinerary to just wander around downtown Hilo and explore its nooks and crannies!

3. Step into a lava tube at Kaumana Caves State Park

One of the coolest features of the Big Island is that it’s home to some of the world’s most active volcanoes. And volcanoes mean that, all over the island, there’s lava tubes, a natural tunnel that’s formed by flowing lava that moves beneath the surface of a lava flow. And there’s actually one right in Hilo!

At Kaumana Caves State Park, you can take a short trail to the mouth of a lava tube, formed by a Mauna Loa eruption in 1881. You can actually descend into the lava tube via a metal ladder and admire a natural skylight in the ceiling of the cave and the lush greenery spilling out of the mouth of the cave above.

Plants coming into the mouth of a lava tube at Kaumana Caves State Park in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii

This will likely be a quick stop—you unfortunately can’t explore into the long tube, given that it actually runs under private property. Nevertheless, it’s definitely a unique—and free!—experience that’s worth enjoying!

4. Spot a rainbow at Rainbow Falls

Yet another waterfall that’s literally in the city of Hilo, Rainbow Falls cascades 80-feet over a volcanic cave into the Wailuku River below. It’s so-named because, if you arrive early on a bright and sunny morning, there’s a good chance that you can actually spot a rainbow in the mist surrounding the falls. 

Rainbow Falls with tropical flowers in front of it in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii

Rainbow Falls is one of the best things to do in Hilo, due to its incredible accessibility—you can literally see them right from the parking lot! There’s an overlook that you can walk to from the parking lot with a sweeping view of the falls and the surrounding jungle, or for a bit more exercise, you can walk along a short trail to an overlook over the brink of the falls.

5. Take a helicopter tour

Out of all of the Hawaiian Islands, the Big Island might have the most dynamic scenery, with the rolling green hills of Waimea, the stunning white sand beaches of Kona, and, of course, the dramatic volcanoes of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. And what could be better than taking in the landscape from 10,000 feet in the air?

Aerial view of water and volcanic shoreline on the Big Island of Hawaii

There’s several helicopter tours that depart from Hilo, like this tour that focuses on flying over the Kilaeau and Mauna Loa Volcanoes or this tour, which flies over several waterfalls and the Kilauea Volcano. 

After going back and forth on whether the price tag was worth it, Justin and I finally splurged on a helicopter tour last time we were in Hawaii—and I’m so glad we did! It seriously is one of the highlights of my year! 

Pssst…. If you’re considering whether you should stay in Kona vs. Hilo, one factor to consider is that, while Kona is closer to beaches and water activities, Hilo is a lot closer to waterfalls and volcanoes. Accordingly, most of the helicopter tours on the Big Island, which generally highlight the volcanoes, are typically MUCH cheaper from Hilo than Kona. 

6. Try a local brew

We love trying locally brewed beers, no matter what destination we’re headed to, and Hilo is no exception.

Hilo has two breweries—Hilo Brewing Company and Ola Brew, which also has a location in Kona. 

Woman holding a beer from Ola Brew in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii

Hilo Brewing is a small, laidback spot, with a nice outdoor patio (with plenty of sweet dogs when we visited!). 

And, in my opinion, Ola has the best beer on the island, made with fresh and local ingredients (the oatmeal stout is my favorite!), in addition to hard seltzers, ciders, and hard teas. If you’re hungry, they also serve upscale bar food that’s pretty decent (albeit on the pricier side!). 

7. Cruise along Pepeekeo Scenic Drive

Located just north of Hilo, the Pepeekeo Scenic Drive is the most scenic roadway on the island—and, in my opinion, one of the most underrated things to do in Hilo. The area feels a bit like the famed Road to Hana in Maui, with narrow roadways that cross over old, mossy bridges and snake past waterfalls, lush jungles, and tropical flowers.

You could either simply cruise down this roadway or, alternatively, spend a few hours and make a couple of stops along the way. 

Lush palm trees along Pepeekeo Scenic Drive in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii

For example, hike along the Onomea Bay Trail, which leads you from a stunning overlook of a rugged bay, down to the turquoise water.  Alternatively, you can also make a stop at the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Bioreserve and Gardens, which hosts over 2,000 species of tropical flora across its 25 acres. 

Just be careful to not leave any valuables in the car if you make any stops along the Pepeekeo Scenic Drive—when Justin and I drove this route, we unfortunately noticed quite a bit of broken glass in many of the parking areas.

Things to do Near Hilo

It’s worth noting that Hilo is both the largest city on the island and also considered one of its seven regions, consisting of the lush area, with jungles and waterfalls, surrounding the city of Hilo.

Stream along the Pepeekeo Scenic Drive in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii

And while there’s plenty of awesome things to do in Hilo itself, there’s even more incredible activities to enjoy—like, seeing one of the world’s most active volcanoes—-in the surrounding regions.  

8. Get crunchy in Pāhoa

Distance from Hilo: 35 minutes south

Pāhoa is a small town south of Hilo, that offers a quirky mix of hardcore hippie vibes with traditional Hawaiian culture. It’s believed to have one of the highest concentrations of historic buildings in the entire state and the wooden boardwalk that connects its eclectic boutiques and galleries is well over a century old.

While you’re here, stop by the La Hiki Ola Kava Bar, which serves up kava, a local Polynesian beverage that is believed to have a soothing effect on those that imbibe it. Alternatively, grab brunch at the colorful Pele’s Kitchen, where the chef uses ingredients literally grown in his own garden. There’s even a drum circle every Sunday at the town’s Kehena Beach, one of the best black sand beaches near Hilo.

Kehena Black Sand Beach in Pahoa on the Big Island of Hawaii

If you really want to dive into the Pāhoa culture, you can even consider staying a few nights at the Hawaiian Sanctuary Eco Retreat Center, which offers an array of hippie-ish activities, like a class about the healing properties of certain Hawaiian cooking methods, ecstatic dance sessions, and yoga classes.

9. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Distance from Hilo: 45 minutes southwest

Hilo is largely thought of as the springboard for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Kilauea Volcano emitting lava and steam in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii

The park contains two volcanoes with some serious claims to fame—Kilauea, which is one of the most active volcanoes on the planet and Mauna Loa, which holds the title of the largest active subaerial volcano in the world!

The park is home to some of the best hikes on the Big Island, like the Kilauea Iki Trail, which leads you through a lush rainforest and across a hardened lava lake from an eruption of Kilauea in 1959. Some other cool trails in the park include the Thurston Lava Tube, an easy hike through a 600-foot lava tube or the Crater Rim Trail, which passes steaming vents and stunning views of the Kilauea Crater.

Man hiking across a lava lake along the Kilaeua Iki Trail in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii

You can either drive a rental car to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park or, alternatively, there are plenty of guided tours that will take you here, like this tour, which also includes a stop at a coffee plantation and a beautiful black sand beach (plus a three course dinner!), or this small group tour, which includes three hours in the national park, as well as some other favorite spots on the east side of the island, like Liliuokalani Gardens.

10. Sip wine at Volcano Winery

Distance from Hilo: 55 minutes southwest

Located just outside the national park, the Volcano Winery is one of only three commercial wineries in the entire state. It also happens to be the southernmost winery in the entire United States and crafts up from very unique blends, including infusion tea wine, macadamia nut honey wine, and Hawaiian Guava Grape wine.

You can either just visit the winery for a tasting or tour the vineyard. To be honest, unless you’re super into quirky wineries, I’m not totally sure it would be worth the drive to get here from Hilo in and of itself, but it’s definitely a perfect stop after a day of exploring Hawaii Volcanoes National Park!

11. Take in the views at the Waipi’o Valley Lookout

Distance from Hilo: 1 hour and 5 minutes north

The Waipi’o Valley, an impossibly lush valley with cliffs that stretch up to 2,000 feet high, is the stuff of legends. 

No, really—many Hawaiian royals, including King Kamehameha I, who famously united the Hawaiian Islands in the early 19th century, lived here. Additionally, many ali’i (Hawaiian chiefs) were buried in the towering cliffs of the valley and it is still believed that their mana (divine power) protects anyone who lives in the valley today.

View of the Waipi'o Overlook with lush cliffs and the Pacific Ocean on the Big Island of Hawaii
Photo from Deposit Photos by krisrobin

You used to be able to hike down into the valley along the Waipi’o Valley Road, but the trail was indefinitely closed in 2018, due to deteriorating roadway. Still, you can enjoy the incredible, sweeping views of the Pacific and the massive scale of the cliffs from the lookout. This would be an epic place for a picnic—there’s literally picnic tables here, just waiting to be used!

Pssst… there’s some really cute fruit stands on the way to the lookout from Hilo, like the Waipi’o Fruit Shack (cash only!) or the woman-owned and operated Lilinoe Fruit Stand, that are worth a stop to try some locally-grown tropical fruit!

12. Watch the sunset at Mauna Kea

Distance from Hilo: 1 hour and 15 minutes west

Mauna Kea is an incredibly sacred place for Native Hawaiians. Standing at 13,803 feet tall, this ancient shield volcano is the tallest point in all of Hawaii—and thus, was once believed to be the realm of the gods. Only the ali’i (Hawaiian royalty) were allowed to stand at its summit. 

Today, Mauna Kea holds some other claims to fame. For one, it’s actually considered, by some measures, to be the tallest mountain in the world, as measured from its base on the seafloor to the summit. It’s largely considered to be the best place to watch sunset on the Big Island and one of the very best places to stargaze on the planet, thanks to its low atmospheric pressure, oxygen levels, and light pollution. 

Woman hiking up to the observatories at the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii

To reach the summit, you can follow in Justin’s and my footsteps and hike the grueling Mauna Kea hike, which climbs almost an entire vertical mile over the six and a half mile trail to the peak.

If you aren’t into getting your butt seriously kicked during your vacation, you can either drive up yourself if you have a four-wheel drive vehicle or join a group tour, like this option, which includes watching sunset at the summit and a guided stargazing session, or this option, which includes watching the sunset and stargazing at the summit, plus your own astrophotography photos!

13. Soak in Pohoiki Hot Springs

Distance from Hilo: 1 hour and 15 minutes south

One of my favorite things we did near Hilo was to soak in Pohoiki Hot Springs, the only publicly accessible hot springs in the entire state! 

These springs are a series of five pools, filled with volcanically-heated water, that are nestled along the shores of Isaac Hale Black Sand Beach. This is actually the newest black sand beach on the island and was formed by the 2018 Kīlauea eruption. 

Woman sitting in the Pohoiki Hot Springs in Isaac Hale State Park on the Big Island of Hawaii

These pools, which are a hot tub-like temperature, are absolutely perfect for relaxing in after a long day of exploring Hilo or hiking around Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. 

However, they’re small enclosed pools, with limited fresh water flowing through them to flush any foreign oils or other materials out—so remember to wash off any sunscreen or other types of lotion before you get in the hot springs!

14. See some honu at Punalu’u Beach

Distance from Hilo: 1 hour and 15 minutes southwest

Punalu’u Beach looks like something straight out of a movie, with a long stretch of powdery black sand surrounded by swaying palm trees. It’s actually believed that Punalu’u may have been the very first place that the ancient Polynesians landed on when they navigated across the Pacific to the Hawaiian Islands—and wow, what a first impression!

Black sand along the Punalu'u Beach with palm trees in the background on the Big Island of Hawaii

While the beach in and of itself is gorgeous, it’s known for something else—as being one of the best places to see sea turtles on the Big Island.

While the water is a bit on the murky side, it’s still an excellent place to go snorkeling with honu (sea turtles), so be sure to bring your snorkeling gear. In fact, one of my favorite memories on the Big Island is when Justin and I spent the afternoon watching a sea turtle happily munch on some algae underwater, with no one else in sight.

15. Stroll across the Green Sand Beach

Distance from Hilo: 1 hour and 50 minutes southwest

The Big Island is home to one of the most unique beaches in the United States—and really, in the world! There’s only four green sand beaches on the planet and the southern coastline of the Big Island has one of them. 

Cliffs surrounding the Green Sand Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii

Papakōlea Beach—also called the Green Sand Beach—was created 49,000 years ago, when Mauna Loa spewed olivine-rich lava into the surrounding bay. Over the years, green crystals from the olivine have slowly eroded away and, given the shape of the narrow bay, have collected onshore and created this special beach.

To reach the beach, you’ll have to hike along a 5.6-mile (roundtrip) hike on a dusty trail that follows along the coastline. It’s mostly flat and not particularly challenging, but, given its limited shade, it can feel brutally hot. So don’t forget your reef-safe sunscreen and plenty of water!

16. Hike into the Pololu Valley

Distance from Hilo: 1 hour and 55 minutes northwest

The Pololu Valley arguably offers one of the most iconic views of the Big Island, with 500-foot sea cliffs, covered with lush greenery, that jut dramatically out of the Pacific Ocean. Besides its views straight out of Jurassic Park, the Pololu Valley has played an important part in Hawaiian culture and history, serving as a home to many Native Hawaiians, including ali’i, up until the early 20th century.

Sea cliffs along the Pololu Valley on the Big Island of Hawaii

There’s a beautiful overlook here, but if you’re up for a bit of an adventure, consider taking the Pololu Trail, a moderately steep trail that leads 0.6 miles (one-way) downhill to the valley floor. 

Here, you’ll get jaw-dropping views of the incredibly lush surrounding mountains and get to enjoy the valley’s secluded black sand beach. Just be careful if you actually venture by the water—this beach is unfortunately infamous for a number of drownings each year, due to unexpected and strong rip currents.

There you have it—the very best things to do in and near Hilo. Do you have any questions about exploring this little slice of paradise? Let us know in the comments below!

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