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Things to do in Hilo Hawaii
The town of Hilo lies on the east side of the island of Hawaii. Also known as the “green” side, this lush area of the Big Island is famous for beautiful rainbows, waterfalls, and, well, rain.
When most people think of the Big Island of Hawaii, they think of Volcanoes National Park or the sunny beach resorts along the Kohala Coast.
Many visitors don’t venture into Hilo as it’s more of a local town. That’s a shame because there are so many incredible things to do in Hilo!
From gorgeous waterfalls to museums and breweries, Hilo offers something for just about everyone.
The Big Island is… well, very big! You’ll definitely need a rental car; I recommend Discount Hawaii Car Rental. You’ll find the best prices on rental cars in Hawaii. You can reserve a car now and pay upon arrival.
Things to do in Hilo
I am considering “things to do in Hilo” to be things to do on the East side of Hawaii. I have a post with 25 things to do in Kona (or the west side of Hawaii), too, so make sure to check it out if you’re planning a Big Island vacation.
You might also want to check out the 7 best things to do on the Big Island, where I highlight some of my favorite things to do on Hawaii Island.
Believe it or not, some of the best restaurants on the Big Island are located in Hilo, so make sure to plan where to eat before you drive over!
Akaka Falls is one of the most familiar sites in Hilo. Well, near Hilo. This 442-foot tall waterfall about 11-miles north of town.
At 442-feet, Akaka Falls is probably the most famous waterfall on the Big Island and one of the easiest to access.
There is an entry fee of $5 per car or $1/per person for pedestrians.
Rainbow Falls is also one of the most easily accessible waterfalls on the Big Island. On a sunny day, you’ll see why it’s called Rainbow Falls as rainbows appear in the mist.
Just a fair warning, it does rain a lot in Hilo, which means that you won’t always see the rainbows. However, the wider and louder falls on a rainy day are pretty impressive too!
Hamakua Coast Scenic Drive
The Hamakua Coast Scenic drive stretches 40 miles from Hilo all the way up to Waipio Valley. This is a beautiful drive that many visitors never see! Everything is so green, and there are so many waterfalls.
Some points of interest along the Hamakua Coast include:
- Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden
- World Botanical Gardens
- Umauma Falls
- Akaka Falls
- Kahuna Falls
- Honokaa, a cute little town that is the gateway to Waipio Valley
- Waipio Valley Lookout
Unfortunately, but understandably, Waipio Valley has been closed to non-residents. There were too many instances of trespassing, leaving trash, and general “not being a good tourist” behavior. While I am sad about the closure, I completely understand.
Please do not try and enter Waipio Valley at this time. Pololu Valley is a good alternative. I hope that eventually some responsible guided tours may be allowed and I will update if this happens.
I’ll be honest for a minute; I actually have Waipio Valley in my 25 things to do in Kona list too.
Well, Waipio Valley isn’t in Kona or Hilo, but I guess it’s technically “Hilo side” since it’s at the very end of the Hamakua Coast.
Waipo Valley, or the Valley of the Kings, is formerly a religious and political center in ancient Hawaii. Now less than 100 residents call this beautiful valley home.
Take a tour or (carefully, with a 4-wheel drive) drive yourself down to visit beautiful Waipio Valley. Please be respectful of those who live in the valley and do not trespass.
Hiking into Waipio Valley is allowed, but I would not recommend it. Driving is scary enough.
Looking down into Waipio Valley from the Waipio Valley lookout.
Waipio Valley is almost like another world with stunning waterfalls and wild horses. A small group tour is the best option if your rental agreement does not allow you to drive into the valley.
You’ll also find a stunning black sand beach in the valley, Waipio Beach.
Magical Creatures of Hamakua
Since we’re visiting the Hamakua Coast, let’s talk about the Magical Creatures of Hamakua. If you’ve read my posts before, you might know that I love animals, and I’m very into animal rescue.
My friends at Magical Creatures of Hamakua rescue, rehabilitate, and offer life-long sanctuary to animals on the Big Island.
You can get to know the resident animals on the website or visit in person! Reservations are required, and a donation of $30 per adult is requested. Go here to make a reservation.
Photo courtesy of Magical Creatures of Hamakua and used with permission.
Lyman Museum and Mission House
You might know that I love museums, and I’ll add them to “things to do in Hawaii” lists whenever I can!
The Lyman Museum explores the history and culture of Hawaii. It’s a small museum but worth a stop, especially on a rainy day. There are lots of rainy days in Hilo. 😉
Tickets are $10 for adults, $3 for children, or $21 for the entire family. The museum also offers Kama`aina rates for locals.
Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden
There are many botanical gardens and arboretums on the Big Island. That said, Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden is the best and most popular.
The 40-acre gardens house over 2000 species of plants. If you love hiking, this is a beautiful place to hike.
Admission is currently $20 for adults and $5 for children.
Other botanical gardens in or near Hilo include:
- Botanical World Adventures
- Liliuokalani Park and Gardens
- Nani Mau Gardens
- Botanical Gardens at the University of Hawaii at Hilo
- Panaewa Rainforest Zoo (mentioned earlier, also has botanical gardens!)
Photo courtesy of Hawaii Tourism Authority | Daeja Fallas
Richardson Beach Park
Hilo doesn’t have the picturesque white sand beaches that you’ll find on the West Side. It does, however, have black sand beaches! While you’re in Hilo, make sure to check out the newest black sand beach on the Big Island, Richardson Beach Park.
More beaches in Hilo:
- Carlsmith Beach Park – a great spot to find sea turtles.
- Onekahakaha Beach Park – family-friendly beach park with wading pools
- Coconut Island – Mostly rocky shoreline with some sandy beach
- Reeds Bay Beach Park – white sand and lava rocks
- Wai’olena Beach Park – Rocky shorelines with tidepools; be cautious of currents.
Zipline over KoleKole Falls
If you want to fly over tropical forests, you can do just that at Skyline Hawaii. This 7-line zipline is one of the longest in all of Hawaii.
Kaumana Caves State Park
Located just outside of Hilo, Kaumana Caves State Park offers a quick look into a lava tube. Seeing a lava tube is a Big Island must-do, so add this to your list of things to do in Hilo.
This lava tube was created by the 1881 lava flow of Mauna Loa. Unfortunately, you cannot explore the entire lava tube due to part of it going under private property, but it’s an incredible sight nonetheless.
There are no admission fees, but I would recommend bringing a flashlight.
Mehana Brewing Company
You’ve probably heard of Kona Brewing Company, but Hilo has the largest independent craft brewer in Hawaii and is the only local bottler.
Mehana Brewing Company offers a tasting room and is a must-do in Hilo for beer lovers.
Farmers Markets (Hilo Farmers Market)
One of the most popular things to do in Hilo is to visit a farmer’s market.
The Hilo Farmers Market is a twice-weekly outdoor market with over 200 vendors selling produce, artisanal foods & crafts. If you can’t make it on either of those days, there are 5 more farmers markets in Hilo!
Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Farm
My husband is obsessed with Mauna Loa macadamia nuts. I like them too, but maybe not as much as he does! The onion and garlic flavor are the best; you’re welcome. 🙂
One of my earliest memories on the Big Island is visiting Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Farm. You can take a self-guided tour, enjoy some samples, and stock up on snacks for your Big Island road trips.
Important note: Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Farm is more like a big gift shop and not truly a “farm tour,” so while it’s definitely one of the best things to do in Hilo, it probably won’t take very long.
If farm tours are what you’re interested in, check out where to find pineapple farms in Hawaii.
Imiloa Astronomy Center
The Imiloa Astrology Center is a great activity for families in Hilo. It offers educational and cultural activities along with a full-dome planetarium.
Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo
The Pane’ewa Rainforest Zoo is the only tropical zoo in the United States.
The zoo is home to various rainforest animals and endangered animals, including the Nene goose, the Hawaiian State Bird.
If you’d like to learn more about the animals of Hawaii, check out my ultimate guide to Hawaiian animals post.
Helicopter tour with Blue Hawaiian
The Big Island is spectacular, and the best way to see it is from the air. The “Circle of Fire” tour with Blue Hawaiian takes you over Kilauea, Mauna Loa, and many of the Big Island waterfalls.
If you’ve read my blog posts before, you know that Blue Hawaiian is my favorite helicopter tour company in Hawaii. You can read my Hawaii helicopter tour review here. Don’t worry; it’s on another island, so there are no spoilers. 🙂
If you’re feeling even more adventurous, you can check out a full Big Island helicopter tour out of Kona that will show you everything the island has to offer.
Where to stay on the Big Island
Now that you know you want to visit Hilo let’s talk about where to stay on the Big Island.
The first thing that I’m often asked about the Big Island is if visitors need to book hotels/resorts on multiple parts of the islands. After all, Big Island IS big.
However, I always say no.
Yes, the Big Island is Big, especially compared to the other islands, but it isn’t that big. It’s a very driveable island, and it’s completely fine to stay in one place.
Should I stay in Hilo?
Hilo is more of a local town, and while there are a few hotels, they aren’t like what you’ll find on the west side of the island.
There’s a reason for this. The best weather on the island is on the west side. You are probably planning a Hawaii vacation to get some sunshine. The people who build resorts in Hawaii are smart, and they build them in the best areas!
If you are set on staying in Hilo, you do have some options! Here are some of the best places to stay in Hilo:
There are a lot of Airbnb accommodations in or near Hilo. That is probably your best bet for a short stay. You can use my link to save $55 on your first Airbnb booking.
I also found some condo-style accommodations on Expedia near Hilo.
Again, I should stress that I recommend staying on the “Kona side” of the island. Check out the best places to stay on the Big Island for more recommendations.
Things to do on the Big Island
If you’re planning a Big Island vacation, here are some other helpful Big Island vacation tips:
- 4-day Big Island Itinerary
- 7 day Big Island Itinerary
- The 10 best tours on the Big Island
- Where to find sea turtles on the Big Island of Hawaii
- The Best Happy Hours in Kona
The best things to do in Hilo Hawaii
Although I am a Hawaii Travel Agent, I am only taking on a few clients for 2021. You can contact me if you’d like more information. I would recommend starting with my Hawaii travel guide if you plan to DIY your vacation!
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My wife and I are leaving our home this Wednesday in Tucson for an weeks vacation on the Big Island. Thank you for your webpage “20-things to do in Hilo” I did follow your recommendation to rent a car from discounthawaiicarrental.com (Thrifty) and this morning received an email from you about that rental. I also did incorporate many of your activity and restaurant recommendations in our plans. We are staying 2 nights in Kona and 5 nights in Hilo so we did not follow your recommendation of staying on the west side – but, being from Tucson, we have had enough sunshine and looking forward to some rain. Thank you for your expertise. Roger Bedard
I hope you have a great time!!! Hilo is great but just not what most people are looking for. Sounds like it might be a better fit for you. I am so glad all the blog posts helped!