18 Best Things to do in Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii

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The Big Island of Hawaii is an absolute paradise, combining stunning beaches, massive volcanoes, with incredibly diverse and abundant wildlife. The most popular home base for travelers on the Big Island is the town of Kona on the west side of the island, known for its hot, sunny weather and beautiful beaches. But besides soaking up the sun, what exactly is there to do in Kona? After having personally visited the Big Island four times and diving into almost everything this incredible place has to offer, we’ve compiled the 18 best things to do in Kona.

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Man hiking the Green Sand Beach Trail on the Big Island of Hawaii
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Before we dive into the best activities on this side of the Big Island, you may hear the area being referred to as either Kona or Kailua-Kona—so what’s the difference?

Technically, Kona is basically the entire area along the island’s western coastline, inarguably one of the most popular places to stay on the Big Island. On the other hand, Kailua is the largest town within the region of Kona, with plenty of hotels, restaurants, and shops for visitors to enjoy. 

Aloha sign with the "O" shaped like the Big Island and Kona identified with a star

There is actually a town in Oahu (Hawaii’s third largest island) called Kailua, as well, so to distinguish the town on the Big Island, it’s often referred to as Kailua-Kona. However, this has frequently been shortened by locals to simply Kona. A bit confusing, but I’d generally assume that when people say “Kona”, they’re referring to the main city on the west coastline of the Big Island!

Things to do in Kona

1. Manta ray snorkeling

If you’re looking for the most unique activities on the Big Island, snorkeling with manta rays in Kona should absolutely be at the top of your list. 

Kona is one of the only places on the planet where you can be almost guaranteed to swim with manta rays almost any night of the year. On a manta ray snorkeling tour, like this one that my husband, Justin, and I took, you’ll be taken out in a boat at night to Manta Ray Village, right in front of the Outrigger Resort and Spa, just south of Kona. 

Manta ray snorkeling underwater

Once you reach Manta Ray Village, you’ll be led out to a floating raft, with lights that shine down into the water. The lights attract photophilic plankton, which, in turn attract the plankton-loving manta rays. These gentle giants will then tumble and soar through the water just inches under you in the water, as they feast on plankton. 

It’s incredible to watch these beautiful creatures somersault below you—it’s definitely one of the best things to do in Kona! 

2. Go whale watching

If you’re visiting from December through May, you can have the chance to see a different kind of gentle giant in the Pacific —humpback whales! 

Every year, more than 12,000 humpback whales migrate to the warm lagoons surrounding the Hawaiian Islands to breed and raise their calves. And you can see these school bus-sized creatures leap and splash in the water by taking a whale watching tour, like this one or this one, that departs from Kona or another nearby harbor along the island’s eastern shore. 

Humpback whale calf breaching in the water

It’s seriously a magical experience and a must-do on any Big Island itinerary if you’re visiting during the right season—when Justin and I went on a Hawaiian whale watching cruise, I may or may not have had tears streaming down my face as we watched a mother humpback whale teach her baby how to breach. 

3. Snorkel at Two Step

I’ve been to each of the main Hawaiian Islands at least four times and can confidently say that the Big Island has the best snorkeling, with crystal clear waters and colorful coral reefs that love growing on the volcanic rock that’s constantly being deposited around its coastline.

Two Step Beach in Kona on the Big Island

One of the best places to snorkel on the Big Island is Honaunau Bay (or “Two Step”), located in Captain Cook, about 40 minutes south of Kona. There isn’t much of a beach here and, instead, just a big ol’ lava field.

But what Two Step lacks in a white, sandy beach, it more than makes up for in a beautiful coral reef, which you can access directly offshore. Bring along your snorkeling gear to enjoy the underwater world here, with dozens of varieties of tropical fish, vibrant coral, and, if you’re lucky, even sea turtles! 

Word of warning—the bay is quite deep and the waves can be a bit choppy here, so this spot is probably better suited for intermediate snorkelers.

4. Explore Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park

Directly to the south of Two Step is the Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, a cultural site that’s sacred to Native Hawaiians. Out of all the Hawaiian Islands, the Big Island has the most historical sites of the islands’ modern history. This is due, in part, to being the birthplace of King Kamehameha the Great, who fulfilled many ancient prophecies as he ascended to the throne, including uniting the Hawaiian Islands. 

Historical buildings at Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park in Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii

Centuries ago, Pu’uhonua O Honaunau was a place of refuge for Hawaiians that broke kapu, a framework of strict rules that the islanders were required to follow or, alternatively, face death. Some of the kapu would be considered rather innocent today—for example, a woman could face a death sentence for eating a banana (*gasp*).

However, if you broke kapu, you could head to Pu’uhonua O Honaunau as a sanctuary, avoid getting killed, and eventually be absolved of your wrong-doings. The catch—offenders had to get to the sanctuary by swimming for miles around the island’s choppy, rocky, and deadly shoreline. 

Carved statues at Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park on the Big Island of Hawaii

Today, you can stroll around the National Historical Site to get a feel for what the refuge looked like hundreds of years ago, including several heiaus (shrines) and a hālau waʻa (thatched roof canoe house). There’s even an ancient temple, Hale o Keawa, that is the final resting place for the bones of 23 Hawaiian Chiefs, including Kamehameha’s own great grandfather.

5. Go on a coffee tour.

Kona is quite famous for its coffee, which offers a fruity and nutty flavor. It’s grown on what’s known as the Kona Coffee Belt, on the Hualalai and Mauna Loa volcanoes that tower over the area. This is the perfect environment for coffee plants to thrive, thanks to the volcanic soil that’s rich in minerals, like iron and manganese and the sunny mornings and cloudy (or even rainy!) afternoons that are typical here. 

Heavenly Hawaiian Coffee Farms in Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii

Get to see—and more importantly, taste—Kona coffee at any of the 650(!!) coffee farms in the area. There’s tons of tours to choose from, ranging from options that are totally free to a $1,200 VIP tour in a Mercedes Benz

Justin and I went on the tour of Heavenly Hawaiian Kona Coffee, which cost $15 per person—it had quite a few samples and was totally fine, but, in all honesty, I’m not totally sure it’s worth the price point. Greenwell Farms has an excellent free tour option or Hula Daddy and Kona Joe have awesome tours at slightly higher price points (between $30-$50). 

6. Taste some locally grown chocolate.

It would be silly to talk about Kona’s coffee production without mentioning one of the Big Island’s other exports—chocolate!

Given its tropical climate, Hawaii is the only place in the United States where chocolate can be made with locally-grown ingredients and thus, the only place in the country where you can enjoy true American-made chocolate! Plus, it’s the perfect accompaniment for a good ol’ cup of Kona Coffee. 

You can actually tour a chocolate farm to see how the cacao pods turn into the tasty treats that we enjoy today—like, for example, chocolate-covered coffee beans or macadamia nuts! Go on a tour of the Lavaloha Chocolate Farm, where you’ll follow the chocolate making process, from growing in a pod on a tree to the delicious snack we all know and love—-with plenty of opportunities to sample different types of chocolate along the way, of course!

Cups of chocolate covered coffee beans at a plantation in Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii

Or, if you want to combine going on a tour of a coffee and chocolate plantation (plus a working soap factory!), you can do so at the Kona Natural Soap Company, which specializes in using all organic and fair trade ingredients in everything they create. 

Alternatively, if you just want some yummy souvenirs to bring home, the Old Hawaiian Chocolate Factory was the first company on the Big Island to start producing chocolate with 100% Hawaiian-grown cacao beans.

7. Take a helicopter tour. 

The Big Island has almost every kind of tropical landscape feature you can imagine—-stunning waterfalls! Steaming volcanoes! Dramatic beaches! So what could possibly be better than taking in these views as you zoom across the scenery, 10,000 feet in the air? 

Aerial view of the coastline of Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii

There’s several helicopter tour companies that will fly you around the island, from shorter (and much cheaper!) tours, like this option, that focus on Kona’s stunning coastline to longer (and more expensive) tours, like this option, that lead you around the entire island, including over Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to the south and the lush jungles and waterfalls to the east. 

Justin and I weren’t sure whether a helicopter tour would be worth the high price tag the last time we were in Hawaii, but I’m SO glad we bit the bullet—it’s one of the coolest experiences of my life!

Psssst… if you’re struggling to decide whether you want to spend time in Kona vs. Hilo, the other most popular city to stay on the Big Island, one thing to consider is that Hilo is a lot closer to the island’s volcanoes and waterfalls. Accordingly, helicopter tours departing from Hilo tend to be quite a bit cheaper!

8. Hit the Beach

Of course, one of the best things to do in Kona is to enjoy its incredible beaches! While many of the Big Island’s beaches have hardened lava fields or rugged volcanic sand that aren’t exactly the most comfy to relax on, you can still definitely find plenty of beautiful white sandy beaches to enjoy. 

Families enjoying Kahalu'u Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii

Some of the best beaches in Kona include:

  • Manini’owali Beach: You can only access this beach by climbing down about 10 feet along a volcanic wall, which makes its stretch of white sand feel that much more secluded and pristine. When the waves are calm here, this is an excellent place to snorkel, with crystal clear water and all kinds of marine life, like tropical fish and even sea turtles.
  • Kikaua Point Beach Park: Accessible along a trail through the Kukio Golf Resort, this beach offers a calm lagoon that’s perfect for kids to swim or learn how to snorkel in.
  • Kahalu’u Beach: Okay, okay—so the sand here is definitely more like coarse salt and pepper, than the fine white sand that beachy dreams are made of. But the incredible snorkeling at this beach more than makes up for it. A 3,900 foot breakwall, constructed by ancient Hawaiians, still protects the shallow bay, offering a calm lagoon for beginner snorkelers.
  • Kamakahonu Beach: Located right behind the Courtyard by Marriott King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel, this small and sheltered beach is perfect for a quick swim, stand-up paddleboarding, or kayaking. 

9. Snorkel at Kealakekua Bay

Kealakekua Bay is perhaps most well known for being where the famous explorer, Captain Cook, was killed by the Native Hawaiians, as a result of his attempt to kidnap the ruling chief on the island. But it also happens to be one of the best places to snorkel in all of Hawaii, thanks to its crystal clear waters, incredibly colorful coral, and SO much wildlife.

Tropical fish swimming in Kealakekua Bay in Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii

The kicker?

It’s kind of challenging to get to (which is likely why its beauty has been maintained)—you cannot drive to it and, instead, can only reach it by hiking along the challenging Captain Cook Monument Trail or, alternatively, cruising there on a boat. If you aren’t lucky enough to have a friend with a boat on the Big Island (and, if you do, can you adopt me?), you can cruise out here on a Captain Cook snorkeling tour, like this morning tour or this afternoon tour (both of which come with their very own waterslides!).

Once you get here, though, it’s worth all of the trouble—it’s an excellent place to spot honu (sea turtles) and spinner dolphins (while we didn’t quite see any, I definitely heard several dolphins while I was snorkeling here!).

Pssst... looking for a hike around Kona but wanting something a bit less intense than the butt-kicking Captain Cook Monument Trail? 

Consider joining the Kohala Waterfalls Adventure Tour- this small group option leaves from Kona and takes you to a private ecological reserve, where you'll hike along a trail that snakes past several stunning waterfalls (some of which you can swim in!) in a private ecological reserve. It also includes some other fun adventures, like ziplining through a lush rainforest!

10. Go to a luau.

Luaus are an interactive way to learn a bit more about Hawaiian culture, through song, dance, music, and best of all, food!

Man and woman in Polynesian dress at a luau in Hawaii

There’s plenty of luaus to choose from around Kona, but I’d recommend checking out Voyagers of the Pacific at the Royal Kona Resort.

First of all the location of the luau is stunning—after you’re greeted with a shell necklace upon arrival, you’ll get to watch the sunset over the beautiful Kailua Bay. It also offers an all-you-can-eat buffet of luau favorites, like poi, a pudding-like dish made of taro, and an open bar all night. As you feast and dine, you’ll get to watch incredible performances, describing ancient Polynesians’ voyage across the ocean to Hawaii. Of course, no luau is complete without the Samoan fire dance at the end!

11. Drink a local brew.

One of my favorite things to do in any new destination is check out its local breweries. Luckily, Kona is home to two of them—the nationally distributed Kona Brewing Company or the much smaller Ola Brew Company. 

Woman holding a beer from Kona Brewing Company in Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii

You can visit Kona Brewing Company to try some of its famed Kona Longboard Island Lager, a variety of other beers, and pub food, all with a Hawaiian twist. If you do want to enjoy lunch or dinner here, be prepared to get here on the earlier side—when we visited, the brewpub was ABSOLUTELY packed and the wait time for a table was well over an hour. 

Additionally, if you’re a big beer lover, consider going on a tour of the factory—for $25, you’ll get an hour-long tour of the brewery, including four four-ounce samples of beer.

Beer from Ola Brew in Kona on the Big Island

We also loved Ola—the beer is made of fresh ingredients and the brewery has a much more cozy, local vibe to it than the busy Kona Brewing.

12. Enjoy the local restaurants.

No trip would be complete without exploring the local food scene! The Big Island has some excellent restaurants that focus on creating dishes with hyper local and fresh ingredients.

Truck parked in front of the Shaka Tacoz in Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii

Some of our favorite restaurants in and around Kona include: 

  • Huggos on the Rocks: Huggos is one of the most iconic restaurants in Kona and has pure Hawaiian vibes—in fact, you can literally dine with your toes in the sand here! This restaurant offers casual food with tropical twists (think tacos, topped with mango and coleslaw) and they have a pretty killer happy hour from 3 PM to 5 PM. 
  • Shaka Tacoz: This was one of our favorite restaurants in Kona and it’s earned the title of the best tacos in Hawaii for three years running! There’s actually two locations of this laidback taco stand—one that’s near Kealakekua Bay south of Kona, with spectacular views overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and another in the heart of Kona, in the Ali’i Gardens Marketplace.
  • Kaya’s Coffee: This organic bakery and coffee shop is absolutely adorable and feels like you’re eating a big ol’ cinnamon bun in your cool aunt’s kitchen. The bakery offers staples, like soups, salads, and sandwiches, plus Hawaiian favorites, like haupia pie. There’s also plenty of options for vegan and gluten-free friends and a sweet little gift shop of locally made crafts and souvenirs. 
  • Basik Acai: Of course, the Big Island has tons of fresh fruit, so the acai bowls here are next level. Plus the portion sizes are generous, to say the least—Justin ordered a large Drifter bowl, which comes with bananas, strawberries, granola, and cacao nibs, and it was literally the size of his head!
Cinnamon roll at Kaya's Coffee in Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii

13. Watch the sunset in Ali’i Saltwater Swimming Pool

To be honest, this hidden gem isn’t going to be for everyone, but I’m including it anyway, given how unique it is. 

The Ali’i Saltwater Swimming Pool, located here, is a saltwater infinity pool, right along the Pacific. As waves crash over the volcanic rock surrounding the pool, new saltwater splashes into it—however, the pool is totally unmaintained so its water is rather murky, with quite a bit of algae and even some other organic items you’d find in the ocean, like sticks, rocks, or shells. 

Woman floating in the Ali'i Saltwater Swimming Pool in Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii

In all transparency, unless you don’t mind swimming in, like, REALLY dirty pools, it’s not exactly a place I’d recommend to go for splashing around. But if you’re into aerial photography, the pool’s location in a lava field right near the Pacific is absolutely unbeatable and it’s a favorite spot amongst locals to watch the sunset. 

Things to Do Near Kona

While there’s tons of things to do in Kona itself, I’d absolutely recommend getting a rental car and exploring the surrounding area so you can enjoy the massive volcanoes, colorful beaches, and wildlife that the Big Island is so famous for. Here are some of the best day trips from Kona. 

14. Learn about ancient history at Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site

Distance from Kona: 39 minutes north

This National Historic Site is home to one of the largest restored heiau (temples) in the state and played an important part in the unification of the Hawaiian Islands. 

Woman looking at a stone temple at the Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site on the Big Island of Hawaii

In the late 18th century, King Kamehameha was told by his highest religious advisor that he should build and dedicate a large temple to the war god, Kūkāʻilimoku, in order to fulfill a historic prophecy and unite the Hawaiian Islands.

It’s believed that the temple was built over the span of a year, using volcanic stones that were literally passed, hand-by-hand, from the Pololu Valley, some 25 miles away. At its completion, the temple stretched over 220 feet wide, with walls up to 20 feet tall. Less than 20 years after its completion, the Hawaiian Islands were finally unified under one kingdom.

Temple at Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site on the Big Island of Hawaii

We stopped at this National Historic Site on a whim on our way to the Pololu Valley and were so glad we did! There’s a lovely walking trail around the temple, which was once trodden by King Kamehameha himself, and an interesting (and free!) audioguide with fascinating history of the site. There’s also a small but informative visitors center that’s absolutely worth a stop!

15. Hike into the Pololu Valley 

Distance from Kona: 1 hour and 15 minutes northeast

If you want to follow in the footsteps of even more kings, head to the Pololu Overlook, which offers some of the most postcard-worthy views of the Big Island, with enormous sea cliffs surrounded by a lush jungle. 

Sea cliffs along the Pacific Ocean at the Pololu Valley on the Big Island of Hawaii

From here, you can head out on the Pololu Trail, which is a moderately challenging hike along a road that once led to where ali’i (Hawaiian royalty) lived. The endpoint of the hike is a secluded black sand beach, with jaw-dropping views of the surrounding valley and 500-foot cliffs. It seriously looks like something straight out of Jurassic Park!

Just be sure not to go swimming here—it’s considered one of the most dangerous beaches in Hawaii, due to unexpected rip currents.

16. Walk across the Green Sand Beach

Distance from Kona: 1 hours and 35 minute south

There’s only four green sand beaches on the planet—and the Big Island is home to one of them! 

Along the southern coastline of the island, you’ll find Papakōlea Beach, which was formed after Mauna Loa erupted 49,000 years ago and spewed olivine-rich lava into the surrounding water. Ever since then, the green crystals of the olivine have accumulated along the shore of the narrow bay, creating this unique beach. 

Woman standing overlooking the Green Sand Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii

The only legal way to access the trail is along a 5.6-mile (roundtrip) hike. The trail itself isn’t particularly challenging, but with minimal shade along the path and low humidity, it can definitely feel HOT. So be sure to bring along plenty of sunscreen and water (we take our enormous Nalgene bottles everywhere!)!

Pssst…. While you’re visiting the Green Sand Beach, consider stopping by the southernmost point in the United States, located just a five minute drive from the trailhead. While the views of the dramatic cliffs here are beautiful, it wouldn’t be worth driving all the way from Kona to only see the point (in my opinion, anyway!)—but definitely worth a five minute drive just to check it off your bucket list. 

17. Watch the sunset at Mauna Kea

Distance from Kona: 1 hour and 40 minutes northeast

Mauna Kea, a one million year old shield volcano, is pretty special. At 13,803 feet tall, it’s the tallest point in the state of Hawaii and, by some measures, even considered the tallest mountain on Earth (as measured from its base along the seafloor). Because of its enormity, the summit of Mauna Kea is sacred to Native Hawaiians and was once considered the realm of the gods.

Beyond its impressive superlatives, the summit is known as one of the best places to see the sunset in Hawaii and, due to the lower atmospheric pressure, oxygen levels, and light pollution, is one of the best places to stargaze on the planet. 

Woman hiking up Mauna Kea with astronomical observatories in the background on the Big Island of Hawaii

Justin and I reached the summit along the very challenging Mauna Kea hike. If you’re not into extremely grueling physical activity, you can alternatively take a four-wheel drive vehicle up the rugged road, or join a sunset and astrophotography tour, like this option or this small group option.  

18. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Distance from Kona: 2 hours

Justin and I have been to over half of the U.S. National Parks—and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is definitely one of the most unique. In fact, it’s home to some of the most active volcanoes on the planet!

Floor of the Kilauea Iki Crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii

The park is home to some of the best hikes on the Big Island, like the Kilauea Iki Trail, where you can hike through a solidified lava field from 1959; the Thurston Lava Tube, which leads you through a 600-foot lava tube; or the Crater Rim Trail, where you pass steam vents and jaw-dropping views of the Kilauea Crater. If you’re lucky enough to be visiting during an active lava flow, be sure to plan a visit during the night—it’s wild to see the orange glow light up the steamy night sky!

You can either drive to Volcanoes with a rental car or, alternatively, go on a guided tour, like this evening tour for stargazing or this small group afternoon tour

Steaming lava at the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii Volcano National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii

There you have it—18 awesome things to do in or near Kona on the Big Island. Do you have any questions about any of these activities? We are happy to answer your questions in the comments below!

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