25 Best Things to Do in Hilo (HI)

Source: Unsplash / Chloe Leis | CC BY 2.0

Big Island, also known as the Island of Hawaii, is the largest and newest island of the archipelago. It has two very distinct regions, one of which is the Hilo region on the east side. Hilo itself is a friendly city, where you can see the city movement with bars, restaurants, art galleries and beautiful beaches. But what it is best known for is its proximity to the Volcanoes National Park.

Around Hilo region you can explore from green forest to desert areas. Besides, Hilo is full of history given its tragic past by being devastated by two major tsunamis.

Interactive Map of 25 Things to Do in Hilo (HI)

Source: Map data @2022 Google

1. Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park-1
Source: Flickr / Janice Wei | Public Domain

The two active volcanoes on Big Island, Kilauea and Mauna Loa are located inside the Volcanoes National Park. This is the third largest American national park, just behind Yosemite and Yellowstone. Other than these two volcanoes, there are over 150 miles of trails that pass through craters, deserts and tropical forests. Even if you cannot see the lava coming out of the volcano, it is still a fascinating place and you can even get into lava tubes!

Although active, the volcanoes are also predictable, and the tour is safe, provided that you respect all the demarcations of the trails. There are also two paths you can drive along: the Chain of Craters Road and the Crater Rim Drive.

2. Akaka Falls State Park

Akaka Falls State Park-1
Source: Flickr / ayelienne | CC BY-ND 2.0

Between Hilo and Waipio, near Honomu, ‘Akaka Falls is part of an exotic and lush tropical canyon formed along the Kolekole Creek. This is one of the most recognizable and accessible waterfalls in Hawaii. From the parking lot of Akaka Falls State Park, there is a paved trail to view the 422-ft tall scenic waterfall. The whole trail is a 4-mile loop which does not require any kind of hiking experience.

The park also features the Hakuna Falls, which is 100-ft tall within the amazing rainforest filled with wild orchids, bamboo groves and draping ferns. Try to listen to the birds singing and spot the feral cats that live in the area.

3. Carlsmith Beach Park

Carlsmith Beach Park
Source: Flickr / Scot Nelson | Public Domain

Unlike most of the eastern coast of the Big Island, which is made of lava rock, Carlsmith Beach Park has a smooth and sandy ocean bottom. This is a great place for swimming given the coral reef protected waters and snorkeling because of its crystal clear coves. Interestingly, there are also several large lagoons with freshwater springs and bubbles.

Additionally, the beach park has a spacious grassy area with trees, so there is plenty of shaded room for a picnic. And as a special treat, you might also see some sea turtles there, given that these are frequent visitors in the area.

4. Nāhuku – Thurston Lava Tube

Nāhuku – Thurston Lava Tube
Source: Flickr / Family Herrera | CC BY-ND 2.0

The historical landmark of Nāhuku offers the unique experience of walking through the Thurston Lava Tube. To explore the lava tube there is a very short, paved trail which can be easily accessed by everyone. In less than 30 minutes you walk the entire path starting at the parking lot and back. Some tunnels are huge and you can touch cold lava walls.

The subterranean cave formed by ancient lava is surrounded by a tropical forest, with birds singing and information guides along the way. Besides the cave trail, there are many other longer trails in the area.

5. Steam Vents

Steam Vents
Source: Flickr / Ken Lund | CC BY-SA 2.0

The Steam Vents are part of the Volcano National Park, and this is where you can see steam coming out of the ground. Nowadays, all the lava flow on the Big Island happens underground, so it can be quite interesting to witness this thermal volcanic activity. This is also the starting point to several hikes, including a nice walk down to the vents and a trail to the central crater.

For those who are interested in the matter look out for the many scientific boxes around this area, they show the volcanic activity measurements. And at the visitor center you can watch a video about the last Kīlauea eruption.

6. Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve & Garden

Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve and Garden
Source: Flickr / RDPixelShop | CC BY-SA 2.0

With over 1,800 species of tropical plants, the Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve & Garden is more like a rainforest with a boardwalk. So do not expect perfectly manicured flowers. At this botanical garden you can admire nature as it is with unique flowers amongst a tropical paradise.

The nature trail composes of over a mile of winding paths with many beautiful orchids, banana groves, mountain-fed streams and waterfalls. Not to mention the inspiring views of Onomea Bay along the Hamakua Coast! It can take around 2 hours to explore the garden with its exotic flora.

7. Lava Tree State Monument

Lava Tree State Monument-1
Source: Flickr / niksnut | CC BY-SA 2.0

The Lava Tree State Monument was formed in 1790 when rapidly moving lava flow reached a forested area, leaving behind odd lava formations with hollow core. When lava flows and cools down very quickly it can form lava trees by becoming hard and molding tree trunks.

The park has a 0.7-mile trail loop, the Lava Trees Loop Trail, offering an amazing view of these unusual volcanic formations. Although the trail is short, it can be tricky for kids and elderly people because of the uprooted trees separating the path. Besides the trees burned with lava flow, the park has walking trails, picnic areas and restrooms.

8. Panaewa Rainforest Zoo

Panaewa Rainforest Zoo
Source: Flickr / Makuahine Pa’i Ki’i | CC BY 2.0

The Panaewa Rainforest Zoo is the only natural tropical rainforest zoo in the US and features over 80 species of animals and 100 varieties of palms. In other words, plants are at least as much an attraction as the animals are as the zoo is also a botanical garden. Designed as a recreational and educational facility, their main focus is on native flora and fauna.

With manicured paths around the zoo, cute animal themed benches and a big playground for the kids, this is definitely a must on the Big Island. If you can, try to visit the zoo when they open. This way you can see the animals emerging as well as see them up close while they are not yet overwhelmed by crowds of people.

9. Kaumana Caves

Kaumana Caves-1
Source: Flickr / John Loo | CC BY 2.0

Have you ever thought about going down into a cave and go on a trail inside a lava-tube? In Kaumana Caves, visitors get the chance to descend to a massive lava-tube formed by Mauna Loa volcano back in 1881. The 0.5 mile trail takes only about 20 minutes to complete.

However, even though the trail is short, at some points you might need to bend down not to hit you head. The trail is steep and narrow, so make sure to wear sturdy shoes. And remember to take a flashlight with you.

10. Hilo Farmers Market

Hilo Farmers Market-1
Source: Flickr / John Loo | CC BY 2.0

The Hilo Farmers Market is your typical vibrant little market with fresh fruits and veggies. Besides produce vendors, you will also come across arts and crafts from local artisans as well as clothes and jewelry. This is the perfect spot to get your Hilo souvenir, such as the famous island fresh honey.

In addition to the popular stalls, there is also an indoor food court and food trucks where you can try all the different Hawaiian flavors right there. Interestingly, the stock changes depending on which vendors are selling that day. So, even if you have been there before your experience will always be unique.

11. Mauna Kea Volcano

Mauna Kea Volcano-1
Source: Flickr / Chris Favero | CC BY-SA 2.0

The Mauna Kea is an extinct volcano on the Big island, which last erupted 4,500 years ago. It is the highest point in all of Hawaii and the only place in the world where you leave sea level and arrive at the top in just two hours. However, it is impractical to drive up without a 4×4 vehicle with snow or rain.

Given the 14000 ft altitude at the top, it is recommended to stop at the visitor center (which is approximately 9400 ft high) to adapt. The low atmospheric pressure that is normal at high altitudes can cause discomfort and the famous altitude sickness.

12. Onekahakaha Beach Park

Onekahakaha Beach Park
Source: Flickr / blueant808 | CC BY-ND 2.0

The former Machida Beach, Onekahakaha Beach, is the most popular beach around Hilo amongst families with kids. The end of the Lihikai Street provides the most common access to this area. The calm waters of the tide pools during low tide make it the perfect spot to go snorkeling with the kids in search of sea turtles and sea urchins.

However, this natural pocket of white sand with calm tide pools can also be dangerous. The offshore currents beyond the breaking zone are very strong so respect the lifeguards’ recommendations.

13. Pacific Tsunami Museum

Pacific Tsunami Museum-1
Source: Flickr / dronepicr | CC BY 2.0

The Pacific Tsunami Museum tells the story and educate the locals regarding the history and science behind tsunami events in the region. Located inside the Pacific Ring of Fire, Hawaii is a chain of volcanic islands in the path of many tsunamis. The museum has exhibitions focused on the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, 2011 Japan tsunami and other locally generated tsunamis.

The museum is dedicated to the two famous tsunamis which devastated the Big Island, the 1946 and 1960 events. Of these two tsunamis, only one building stood on the edge of the Hilo Bay. Today this old building houses the Pacific Tsunami Museum without great beauty, but with the mark of history on the walls.

14. Rainbow Falls

Rainbow Falls-1
Source: Flickr / Richard Merlander | CC BY 2.0

Moving a little further into the city of Hilo, you will find one of the city’s natural beauties, the Rainbow Falls. It is curious that this beautiful waterfall is near the city center and right next to several schools. But, no matter how urban Hilo is, it is embedded in nature, like everything on Big Island and the Rainbow Falls is yet another proof of that.

Given its location it is easily accessed with several signs showing how to get there by car. Using repellent is essential.

15. Liliʻuokalani Park and Gardens

Liliuokalani Park and Gardens
Source: Flickr / daveynin | CC BY 2.0

With a beautiful view of the Hilo Bay and Mauna Kea Volcano, Liliʻuokalani Park and Gardens is one of the most popular parks in Hilo. In its 30 acres you will find several gardens, a small bamboo “grove”, ponds and a Japanese teahouse. Established in 1917, the park is also very close to Coconut Island and with a short walk you can go for a swim after a walk through the park.

The park is very big, but also very quiet and peaceful. At Lili’uokalani Park you will come across families fishing, jogging and having picnics with an ocean view.

16. Richardson Ocean Park

Richardson Ocean Park
Source: Flickr / dronepicr | CC BY 2.0

The black-sand beach of Richardson Ocean Park is a popular spot for snorkeling and swimming. With calm warm water and tide pools this beach provides lifeguards and picnic areas. Besides being the closest black-sand beach to Hilo, Richardson Beach also has green sand. In addition, there is a marine conservation area with cold freshwater springs feeding the warm beach.

Even with the mix of waters and different types of sand, the wildlife at Richardson Beach is its highlight. When snorkeling you can spot dozens of different colorful fish and many sea turtles.

17. Kīlauea Visitor Center

Kilauea Visitor Center-1
Source: Flickr / Hawaii Volcanoes National Park | Public Domain

The Kīlauea Visitor Center should be your first stop at the Volcano National Park to learn more about the history of the different lava flows in this region. The center displays information regarding the park’s environment, history and culture. There are also several short trails close to the center, and the park rangers are very knowledgeable and willing to answer to any question.

There is also a nice crater view at the lodge across the street, and next door is the Volcano Art Center Gallery, a rustic gallery exhibiting local art.

18. Onomea Bay Trail

Onomea Bay Trail-1
Source: Flickr / Terry Ott | CC BY 2.0

The Onomea Bay seems more like a hidden gem in a beautiful ravine area along the Hamakua Coast. This bay is home to the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden and several waterfalls and streams. One of the best ways to explore the bay is simply to take the 600-ft easy Old Donkey Trail through a lush forest of palm trees down to the ocean.

Once you are down at the bay, watch out for the incredible red lava rocks and the Hala trees with their unusual roots and pineapple shaped fruit.

19. Isaac Hale Park

Isaac Hale Park
Source: Flickr / Hawaii County | CC BY 2.0

The Puna district is quite famous for its hot springs and hot pools in the Isaac Hale Park. When rainwater sinks down into the ground and reaches warm volcanic rocks, it creates these hot ponds. So, when the water flows towards the coast, it is warmer than the ocean water, creating hot pools. The most famous hot pond around Puna is the Pohoiki Warm Springs.

But be aware that many of these pools have a coral bottom, so do not stand or touch the ground as to preserve the reef and avoid cuts.

20. Blue Hawaiian Helicopters

Blue Hawaiian Helicopters-1
Source: Flickr / Alan Light | CC BY 2.0

On Big Island, flying over the Kilauea volcano is undoubtedly one of the most fantastic experiences you can have and Blue Hawaiian Helicopters provides this unique activity. Departing from Hilo Airport, you can fly over volcanoes, lava fields, black sand beaches and tropical waterfalls. Tours range from 30-minute flights to a few hours. So, you can choose to do a short flight or a circle island tour, which is the best choice if you have the time and resources.

But being on an island means the weather can change at any moment. So, be prepared for flight conditions to change dramatically in a matter of a few hours (sometimes minutes).

21. Imiloa Astronomy Center

Imiloa Astronomy Center
Source: Flickr / brewbooks | CC BY-SA 2.0

The Imiloa Astronomy Center is part of the University of Hawaii at Hilo and concentrates on sharing Hawaii’s legacy of exploration. The exhibitions focus on Hawaiian history and astronomy with several interactive displays. One of the highlights is the dome-shaped planetarium which offers modern inspiring shows such as laser presentations. In addition, the garden surrounding the center is also full of information.

You can easily spend an afternoon visiting the astronomy center. But it is recommended checking their website for scheduled programs and exhibitions when planning your visit..

22. Honoli’i Beach Park

Honolii Beach Park
Source: Flickr / Jenn Kahalau Photography | CC BY-ND 2.0

The rocky beach of Honoli’i is the most popular spot with surfers besides being known for the sea glass present there. So, if you want to go surfing and you are close to this beach it is definitely worth going. However, given its popularity amongst the surfers, it can be hard to find a parking space.

At this beach you can see the Honoli’i stream meeting the ocean near a beautiful bridge with a rope swing. This makes for an incredible backdrop for your photos! In addition, there is a perfect tree-shaded grassy area for picnics and shower facilities.

23. Uncle Robert’s Awa Bar and Farmers Market

Uncle Roberts Awa Bar and Farmers Market-1
Source: Flickr / Sarah-Rose | CC BY-ND 2.0

In the district of Pahoa, once a week there is the Night Market of Kalapana, also known as Uncle Robert’s Awa Bar and Farmers Market. This environment is full of artisans selling local production, ranging from jewelry to Hawaiian foods, not to mention all the different drinks and live music.

The Night Market is the club on the side of Hilo that you need to know if you want to feel what Hawaiians are like. The event usually ends around 10 pm, with everyone dancing and having fun in full swing. Just remember to arrive early in the evening and bring cash.

24. Big Island Candies

Big Island Candies
Source: Pexels / Kim Cruz | CC BY 2.0

The most famous sweets shop on the island is also the oldest and biggest of its type, where you can get all the sugary treats you can imagine. The store was established in 1977 intending to create macadamia chocolates and cookies. Nowadays the Big Island Candies is mostly known for its chocolate-dipped cookies.

In addition to free samples and coffee, you can also watch how they make their amazing desserts through a window. As soon as you arrive, you receive a nice brochure with pictures and descriptions of all the items they hand make on site. They also sell online and ship the products to other locations.

25. Pineapples Restaurant

Pineapples Restaurant
Source: Pixabay / SweetMellowChill | CC BY 2.0

Featuring New American dishes and cocktails, the Pineapples Restaurant is an open and breezy island style restaurant. They serve locally-produced beer and specialize in fresh cuisine with local caught fish and local beef.

This fairly crowed and outdoors restaurant also offers live music at night. Located in Downtown Hilo, their signature drink is the Pineapple Pow, which is served in a pineapple as both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. However, their Mai Tais and Pina Coladas are not far behind as the favorite from the public.