Gearing up for a vacation to the Big Island? Give yourself plenty of time for the best things to do in Hilo. On the east coast of the largest Hawaiian island, Hilo has been shaped by volcanoes and tsunamis. Today, the town gives travelers access to a spectacular natural world.
Away from major resorts and popular towns like Kailua-Kona, Hilo can be both slow and relaxed and also full of adventure. The charming town is minutes away from quiet beaches and tumbling waterfalls. But the rugged coast of Hawaii Island also leads to protected parks, memorable hikes, and verdant canyons.
Not sure what to do in Hilo? Read on and plan your ultimate Big Island adventure with this guide to the best places to visit in Hilo, Hawaii.
Best places to visit in Hilo, HI
Akaka Falls State Park
Slightly inland from the Hilo Coast, Akaka Falls State Park is home to the Big Island’s most famous waterfall. But before the main attraction, travelers will first be treated to the park’s lush rainforest.
As you wander along the hiking trail leading to Akaka Falls, you’ll meander through wild orchids, set under overgrown ferns, and through dense groves of soaring bamboo. Birds jump around the canopy, singing as they go, leading to a memorable trek.
After a short while, the sounds of the 442-foot waterfall will float by. Soon, you’ll find yourself at elevation looking at the towering white veil slice through the dark green forests and along the moss-laden cliff into the pool below. It’s one of the best things to see in Hilo.
But the fun isn’t over. The loop trail swings you to views of the fabulous Kahuna Falls before returning you to the trailhead.
Just out of downtown Hilo, hiking to the Rainbow Falls is one of the best things to do in Hilo. Also known as Waianeuneu Falls, the site is smaller than Akaka but no less beautiful. For such a natural wonder, it’s remarkably easy to access. Only a brief drive from Hilo, you’ll find easy parking and a short trail to magical views.
The falls are along the surging Wailuku River, dropping over ancient lava caves into a deep refreshing pool. Unsurprisingly, you’ll likely see one if not two rainbows at the falls, creating a memorable photo opportunity.
Rainbow Falls is best seen in the morning, where the early light creates spectacular colors as the 80-foot waterfall tumbles over the cave.
Kaumana Caves State Park
Speaking of caves, get ready to experience an incredible underground labyrinth at Kaumana Caves State Park. Four miles from Hilo, Kaumana Caves Park features a 20-mile lava tube formed after the 1881 eruption of Mauna Loa.
Not all of the cave is open for visitors. However, the initial section of Kaumana Caves Park will be more than enough to get a true understanding of this epic place.
From the parking lot, you’ll venture down a staircase leading to two separate entrances. Ferns droop over the side of the cave, giving it a mystical aura.
RELATED: Best Big Island Hikes
In the blink of an eye, the Hawaiian sun disappears, and you’re cloaked in darkness. Wear sturdy shoes and keep your flashlight handy to help explore the cave filled with boulders and stalactites.
Want to do some island hopping? Coconut Island is one of the best places to go in Hilo. The small island is in the center of Hilo Bay and doesn’t require a boat to access. Instead, you can simply wander along the short footbridge to discover why Coconut Island is known as the Island of Life.
Upon arrival, you’ll find an island encased in palm trees and sparkling white sand. It’s the perfect spot to relax, in what is an otherwise remote and adventurous section of Big Island. Bring the picnic basket and lounge on the lush lawns. Go for a swim in the tide pools or circumnavigate the island on a SUP.
Wherever you are, you’ll have splendid views back to Hilo and the volcanic mountains of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea.
Hamakua Coast Scenic Drive
For some epic Hilo sightseeing, load up the tank and embark on the Hamakua Coast Scenic Drive. The forty-mile adventure will take you to some of the best spots along the coast, affording you endless views and unforgettable memories.
The winding coastal road connects Hilo to the captivating Waipi’o Valley. From start to finish, you’ll discover the full breadth of the local scenery. See vast canyons teeming with waterfalls and charming valleys once coated in lava that now lead to black sandy beaches.
Highlights of the journey include Akaka Falls, the quaint town of Honoka’a, and the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden. Once you reach Waipi’o Valley, stick around to discover the historic political center of Hawaiian culture.
Wailuku River State Park
Wailuku River State Park is home to the longest river in all of Hawaii. But the 16-acre park is much more than just the so-called “River of Destruction”. Within the state park, you’ll find some of the best local waterfalls, including Rainbow Falls and Pe’epe’e Falls.
Rainbow Falls is renowned for its colorful beauty, but also for several legends, including that the lava cave is home to a Hawaiian goddess. Pe’epe’e Falls is 1.5 miles upstream and unique sight. The 80-foot falls are split into several sections that tumble into a series of small pools.
This part of the Wailuku River was formed by lava flow. The old lava tubes are now eroded to form what looks like a natural water slide. At times, the river becomes so turbulent that the water appears to be boiling, hence its other nickname, the Boiling Pots.
Imiloa Astronomy Center
Located on the University of Hawaii’s Hilo campus, Imiloa Astronomy Center is a unique look into Hawaiian culture, history, and the stars. The intriguing building is surrounded by lush gardens. Once inside, you’ll embark on a journey through local history, heritage, and science, which are all connected to the world above us.
The more you travel, the more museums can start to feel alike. But the Imiloa Astronomy Center is one of few you’ll really remember. After discovering the connection between Hawaiian religion and astronomy, you can learn about the amazing observatory that is on the summit of Mauna Kea.
The center is a family-friendly attraction with a 120-seat planetarium, ready to take you on a breathtaking astronomical journey.
As you explore Coconut Island in Hilo Bay, leave time to head to the nearby Liliuokalani Gardens. The stunning Japanese garden is the perfect complement to your tranquil experience on Coconut Island.
The 25-acre gardens were established by Queen Liliuokalani to celebrate the Japanese immigrants who worked among the local sugarcane fields. If you aren’t on Coconut Island, you can head straight to the gardens found along Banyan Drive.
As you wander through Liliuokalani Park, you’ll see everything that makes a Japanese garden so serene. Walk over charming bridges to pagodas, teahouses, and old stone lanterns as the banyan trees provide ample shade.
Richardson Ocean Park
Wondering where to go in Hilo for a beach day? Richardson Ocean Park is your answer. The beautiful beach features sparkling black sand from old lava flow. Pick up a handful to spot glistening green specks of sand, derived from a cinder cone explosion.
But after admiring the sand, turn your attention to what makes Richardson Beach Park the go-to local beach. Head into the translucent water, which is great for swimming and snorkeling, because of a lava rock wall mitigating the swell. Discover the vibrant local marine life before walking along the beach to the fascinating tide pools.
To learn more about the underwater world around Hilo, pay a visit to the Richardson Ocean Center.
Hilo Farmers Market
Open six days a week, all year long, the Hilo Farmers Market is your opportunity to try delightfully fresh local produce. The market has a central location in downtown Hilo, making it easy for you to load up on tasty goods before returning to your accommodation or venturing further afield.
Although open Monday to Saturday, the best days to visit the Hilo Farmers Market are Wednesday and Saturday. On these days, the market opens an hour early at 6 am and boasts over 200 vendors. This is the best time to experience the busy market, with locals around the island coming together.
Aside from amazing fruit and veggies, keep your eye out for macadamia nuts (a local specialty), baked treats, fresh herbs, and artisanal jams.
Carlsmith Beach Park
Carlsmith Beach Park is a brief ten-minute drive from Hilo and differs from many beaches on the Big Island. The “beach” has no sand. Instead, its sprawling lawn leads to volcanic rock and, eventually, the crystal-clear water.
The unique beach is a magnificent spot for families, as the lava flow has created a natural lagoon to explore. Forget waves, enjoy nothing but tranquil green-blue water.
Despite its rocky edge, the bottom of the water is nothing but soft sand, making it great for swimming and snorkeling. The calm water also makes it perfect for kayaking and SUPs.
Carlsmith Beach is also home to shaded pavilions, picnic areas, restrooms, and a lifeguard station.
Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Farm
Hilo is home to one of the biggest macadamia nut farms in all of Hawaii. Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Farm started in 1946. It’s grown to become one of the preeminent farms in the state and is now owned by Hershey.
Begin at the visitor center to get the lowdown on the farm, its history, and modern-day production. Afterward, embark on a tour of the hundreds of macadamia trees before exploring the plant where the nuts are first husked and then dried.
With a full understanding of the process, have your choice of freshly produced nuts along with Mauna Loa’s famed macadamia-inspired ice cream.
Panaewa Rainforest Zoo
As the only tropical zoo in the United States, the Panaewa Rainforest Zoo is a rare look into this ecosystem. The zoo is the home of 80 different animal species, including native and endangered animals such as spider monkeys and nene geese.
As you roam, you’ll realize the zoo also functions as a botanical garden, showcasing the best a tropical rainforest has to offer. Walking paths lead you through groves of bamboos and orchids, along with 100 types of palm trees.
Along the way, you’ll see distinct geographical enclosures such as the African Aviary and the Amazon Parrots. Not to be missed is the large exhibit home to white tigers from India.
One of the best places to see on the Big Island, the Panaewa Rainforest Zoo is just 15 minutes south of downtown Hilo.
Pacific Tsunami Museum
Established in 1993, the Pacific Tsunami Museum is a somber yet worthwhile experience in downtown Hilo. It explores the events of two tragic tsunamis that hit Hawaii in 1946 and 1960. The natural disasters caused a startling loss of life, with the eastern seaboard of Big Island changed forever.
You’ll find the museum in what used to be a local bank building on the corner of Kamehameha Avenue and Kalakaua Street in downtown Hilo. Many of the former staff are survivors of the tsunamis, providing guests with firsthand insight.
Although small, the Pacific Tsunami Museum doesn’t lack exhibits. It offers a slate of multimedia displays, photographs, and a look into the former tsunami warning system.
Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden
Hilo has no shortage of access to gorgeous tropical forest. But it’s the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden that puts all the pieces together, combining each aspect of the region’s incredible scenery in one place.
Wander through the stunning Hilo attraction that’s more of a preserve than a traditional botanical garden. Comprising 40 acres of lush landscapes, you’ll find more than just palm trees with over 2,000 plants and trees from around the world.
Among the trees are lava tubes and lakes fed by such beauties like Onomea Falls. The hiking trails take you to vast viewpoints where you can gaze over the garden and Onomea Bay below.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
No list of Hilo tourist attractions would be complete without mentioning Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. In fact, it’s likely to be the reason to arrive here in the first place.
The Big Island is the youngest Hawaiian island and has the most active volcanoes, with four of the state’s six. Exploring the park is an enthralling adventure, taking you through an active landscape that continues to shape the island.
The 4-mile Kilauea Iki Trail is one of the most popular hiking trails on the Big Island, taking you to a lava lake created in the 1950s. Afterward, visit the Thurston Lava Tubes and complete the epic Crater Rim Drive.
After exploring Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, if you’re inspired by the world around Hilo, pay a visit to the Lyman Museum. This cultural and natural history museum was first established in 1931.
The Lyman Museum has continued to grow and now offers a great guide to the local geography, including a simulated lava tuba and a fascinating mineral collection.
Originally located within the Lyman Family Mission House, the museum has since moved next door. As a part of the museum experience, you can also check out the home which is the oldest residence on the Big Island.