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Heading to Hawaii’s Big Island? Skip Kona and Go Here Instead

Connect more with nature when visiting Hawaii by trading busy beaches for the dense rainforest, volcanic landscape, and unique farm experiences in and around Hilo.

The Hilo side of Hawaii’s Big Island is extremely underrated for its wide variety of wonderful experiences it offers visitors—from verdant rainforests to hiking in the shadows of ancient active volcanos. Hilo is an underrated part of the Big Island, where you’ll discover that hotels, restaurants, rental cars, and tours are often less expensive than other more popular places throughout the islands.

Although Hilo is noticeably less polished than some of Hawaii’s more resort-heavy areas, there are dozens of unique accommodations and many activities to enjoy. If you’re headed to Hawaii, here’s why you should head to Hilo.

Editor’s Note: Per the Hawaii Tourism Authority, Fodor’s recognizes “the proper use of the Hawaiian language, ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i,’ which includes the ‘okina [‘], a consonant, and the kahakō [ō] or macron.” The Hawai‘i Board on Geographic Names was created to “assure uniformity and standardize spelling of geographic names to communicate unambiguously about places, reducing the potential for confusion.” In order to ensure our readers the best experience reading our Hawaii travel guides, we follow the standardized spelling, but hope to expose readers to the importance and cultural significance of the written Ōlelo Hawai‘i language

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Explore the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Bioreserve and Gardens

You may have meandered through a few botanic gardens in the past, but you likely haven’t seen anything like the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Bioreserve and Gardens. The steep boardwalk trail winds down to the Onomea Valley, where visitors can stroll by scenic waterfalls under towering palm trees and next to the jagged coast. Along the way, admire thousands of species of plants.

Remember that the founders of the Bioreserve and Garden hand-cleared the trails while ensuring the land would never be sold or developed for commercial use. There is a $30 entry fee that helps to maintain this gorgeous place.

INSIDER TIPIf you are hungry after your visit, drive a little further north to What’s Shakin’ Cafe to grab a tropical fruit smoothie or veggie wrap. Note: the café is closed on Mondays.


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Book Flavorful Experiences With Local Farmers

Ever wonder how chocolate is made? Learn about growing and processing cacao at Hamakua, Mauna Kea Cacao, and Lavaloha. Love macadamia nuts? Stop by the Mauna Loa Visitor Center to sample their varieties and pick up some to bring home.

For an unexpected treat, stop by Baumkuchen Farm for a tour and to learn how to make their claim-to-fame “tree cake,” a German classic they’ve added Hawaiian flavors to.

At Kulaniapia Falls Farm, enjoy a farm-to-table cooking class in addition to a tour. You can even stay overnight on the property!

If a tour is out of your budget, you can still get a taste of many delicious tropical produce options and browse locally-made crafts and goods at the daily farmer’s market in Hilo or the Sunday Maku’u Market in nearby Pahoa.

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Visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Even without active lava flow, a trip to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a must for any first-time visitor to the Big Island. Plan time to take the Sulphur Banks Trail, go through the Thurston Lava Tube, and drive down to the coast. Other worthwhile short hikes include Pu‘u Loa Petroglyphs Trail and Kilauea Iki Trail.

Of course, the park’s main attraction is Kilauea (the world’s most active volcano). It is not uncommon for there to be an active lava flow, which is usually visible from Kilauea Overlook and the Kūpinaʻi Pali section of the Crater Rim Trail.

Check for volcanic activity before your visit. If there is an eruption, go back at night to see the glow. Just be safe and don’t get too close.

INSIDER TIPYou can also see the massive Mauna Kea volcano from Saddle Road or take a tour to the summit.


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See Amazing Waterfalls

The higher likelihood of rain in the Hilo area is a common reason for visitors to choose the sunnier Kona Coast as their vacation base. However, all that rain is what makes this area so abundant, with plant life and the waterfalls extra impressive.

Rainbow Falls is a beautiful 80-foot waterfall near downtown Hilo with no entry fee. Akaka Falls is just a short drive north of Hilo and is a must-stop for nature lovers. The trail to the iconic 422-foot falls is less than half a mile from the parking lot and goes through a lush rainforest. The entrance fee is $5 for non-residents, and parking costs $10.

If you are up for a more adventurous waterfall outing, you can rappel down the 120-foot Kulaniapia Falls. The waterfall can also be viewed by guests of the on-site inn or visitors with a day pass, which costs $49.

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Book a Unique Stay

Although Hilo has some nice hotels, you’ll need to venture outside the city for more unique options—often found through Airbnb.

To fall asleep in a lush jungle setting, this dreamy tropical treehouse in Mountain View has become a favorite of visitors as well as this bigger treehouse rental in Volcano. For those wanting to experience the otherworldly lava-covered landscape, there are options abound. Top-rated rentals include the gorgeous Ohana House and the Phoenix House Tiny Home.

Want a more traditional hotel experience that’s still unique? The Inn at Kulaniapia Falls, featured on Netflix’s “World’s Most Amazing Vacation Rentals,” includes access to a private waterfall. Another stunning and romantic option for waterfall lovers is the Falls at Reed’s Island.

On a budget? You can rent a cabin inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Or for something with a few more amenities, Open Gate Hostel comes highly rated.

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See the New Black Sand Beach

The 2018 eruption of the Kilauea Volcano caused immense destruction and sadly displaced thousands of residents. However, eruptions also led to the creation of a stunning black sand beach, which can be seen at Pohoiki Beach at Isaac Hale Beach Park, about an hour south of Hilo and well worth the trip.

Listen to the relaxing sound of the ocean washing over the small black pebbles and sand, which was once hot lava. Pick up a handful to admire the deep black color and interesting texture as you walk. However, swimming is not advised here due to the strong currents and dangerous shore break.

A strange feature of this beach park is the boat ramp leading into a small pond. This offered access to the ocean before the big lava flow, showing how much the eruption changed and expanded this park.


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Stroll Through a Japanese Garden

Next to Hilo Bay, off of the aptly named Banyan Drive, you can visit the largest ornamental Japanese garden outside Japan. Liliuokalani Gardens is a special place to wander along peaceful pathways, over koi ponds on red bridges, through iconic Japanese-style pagodas, and under massive Banyan trees. This is the perfect place to stretch your legs after your flight and entry to the garden is free.

While there, don’t miss the chance to cross over the bridge to little Coconut Island. It’s a short loop walk but a fun place to people watch—with kids jumping off rocks into the ocean, families having picnics, and residents fishing.

INSIDER TIPGrab some super-fresh poke bowls from Suisan Fish Market to eat in the park, then take a slight detour on your walk to go by Alii Ice Co. for unique and delicious tropical fruit ice pops.


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Learn About Hawaiian Culture and History

Hilo has multiple museums offering a better understanding of Hawaii’s past and culture. The Lyman Museum is a popular option that boasts immersive educational exhibits that look into the history and culture of the “real Hawai’i.” You can also take a guided tour of the Mission House next door (an 1830s home for missionaries). It is $10 to visit both.

The ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center shares the importance of the night sky to early Polynesian navigators as well as modern Hawaiian wayfarers. Their wonderful Planetarium Programs are also included with the $19 admission ticket.

For a fascinating look into how natural disasters have impacted the Big Island, stop at the Pacific Tsunami Museum in Hilo ($10) and the Pahoa Lava Zone Museum (free).

INSIDER TIPVisit Hilo during the annual spring Merrie Monarch Festival to learn about the Hawaiian tradition of hula and see this beautiful art form in person.


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Swim With Turtles at Carlsmith Beach Park

Kailua-Kona and the white-sand beaches on the west side of the Big Island are usually the go-tos for sunbathing and snorkeling. But that doesn’t mean the Hilo side doesn’t have some great spots for a beach day.

Carlsmith Beach Park, also known as Four Mile, is a great place to soak in some sunshine and go swimming. While there is a lawn for lounging instead of a sandy shore, the ocean bottom is sandy—unlike most other Hilo-side beaches, which have lava rocks.

You may even encounter some Hawaiian Sea Turtles (honu) in their natural habitat if you are lucky. Just be sure to keep a distance of at least 10 feet if you see one. It is illegal to harass or touch these turtles, and you can be hit with a hefty fine if you do.

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Enjoy Local Meals, Treats, and the Best Coffee

Downtown Hilo has various great meal options, including top-rated Moon & Turtle offering Asian-fusion dishes, The Booch Bar for vegetarian meals with locally-made kombucha on tap, and Café 100 for the quintessential Hawaiian loco moco.

Kaleo’s is another locally owned staple for Hawaiian-inspired meals. They have a new location in Keaau (just 30 minutes from Hilo) in addition to their original Pahoa restaurant. Pahoa is also a great place to stop for fantastic Hawaiian Gelato at Nicoco (made from coconut milk). Want to really soak up Pahoa’s free spirit vibe? Stop by La Hiki Ola Kava Bar.

For coffee lovers, Koana in Mountain View is a must. Voted the “Best Coffee Shop in the State of Hawaii” in 2022 by Food & Wine, you can feel the passion behind each pour. Add a lava shot and toasted marshmallow to set this “slow coffee” experience over the top.