On the northeast side of the Big Island of Hawaii, you’ll find beautiful Hilo, a scenic town that’s rich in history and Hawaiian culture. Hilo is quaint and vibrant, embracing both its rich history and the visitors who come here to see its beauty.
Hilo offers many stores, restaurants, and hotels – all the things visitors look for – but it also has a strong sense of place and a small-town charm.
You may choose to spend your entire Hawaii getaway in Hilo, or split your time between here and Kona. No matter how you decide to vacation on the Big Island, your time in Hilo will become a treasured memory.
Keep reading to discover the top things to do in Hilo, Hawaii.
PACIFIC TSUNAMI MUSEUM
Tsunamis have claimed more lives in Hawaii than any other natural disaster, and no area of the state has been affected more than Hilo. Tsunamis devastated the town in 1946 and 1960, and survivors helped create the Pacific Tsunami Museum under the belief that nobody should die from a tsunami.
Many residents living in Hilo have never experienced a tsunami or fully recognize its dangers. The museum stands as a place of understanding for the local community, so everyone can prepare for future natural disasters.
It’s also a place for visitors to appreciate Hilo and its vibrancy. It rebuilt again and again, each time stronger, each time better, and is now the place you can enjoy today.
The Pacific Tsunami Museum is located inside a renovated bank that withstood both tsunamis. You can find it at the corner of Kamehameha Avenue and Kalakaua Street.
Admission is relatively affordable, and the knowledge you’ll gain here will help you better appreciate your experiences in the area.
LILIUOKALANI PARK AND GARDENS
Nearly 25 acres large and over a century old, Liliuokalani Park is a beautiful place to enjoy the natural beauty of the Big Island. It features ornate gardens, fishponds, pagodas, and a tea house.
Come to the garden to unwind and catch beautiful views of Hilo Bay and Mokuola (also called Coconut Island). It’s a tranquil place to walk around and appreciate Japanese-inspired landscaping and architecture.
The park is a tribute to the Japanese immigrants who are an intricate part of the island’s 19th century agricultural economy.
This is one of the prettiest places on the east side of the island. Come for a few minutes or spend hours walking around the gardens. Admission is free, and there is lots of parking.
MOKUOLA (COCONUT ISLAND)
Mokuola offers calm waters and a unique vantage point of Hilo. This small island in Hilo Bay features a few small beaches and picnic tables. Swimming conditions are excellent here – wade in one of the sandy beaches or join the kids who jump in from the two-tiered tower.
The small island is a culturally and historically significant place. It was used as a site of healing and safety for Hawaiians, and King Kamehameha frequented the area. Each year in June, a Kamehameha Day celebration around Mokuola honors the chief who united the Hawaiian islands under one rule.
Mokuola is accessed via a pedestrian bridge. You can park in the lot on Kelipio Place or meander over as you walk around Liliuokalani Park.
WAILUKU RIVER STATE PARK
Anyone who wants to see a beautiful Hawaii waterfall without a big hike should go to Wailuku River State Park. This scenic area is home to Pe’epe’e And Rainbow Falls, along with a magnificent Banyan tree.
There are two separate areas of Wailuku River State Park, each with different parking lots and access points.
Rainbow Falls, or Waianuenue, is the more popular area. On sunny mornings, the fall’s mist creates a vibrant rainbow. The combination of lush waterfall and colorful rainbow is a distinctly Hawaiian sight.
A trail toward the top of the falls features one of my favorite Banyan trees in the state, so definitely check that out if you like getting an up-close look at these unique trees.
Just over a mile upstream from Rainbow Falls is Boiling Pots, a series of pools with smaller falls, which create a whitewater effect. Pe’epe’e is the larger fall that feeds Boiling Pots.
You’ll find both viewing areas along Waianuenue in Hilo. The parking lot for Rainbow Falls is on Rainbow Drive, and parking for Boiling Pots and Pe’epe’e falls is on Pe’epe’e Falls Road, so they’ll be easy to find.
It’s an easy walk from the parking lot to the viewpoints. The river can get very dangerous, so we recommend you enjoy these waterfalls from the safety of the viewing areas.
Read More: 11+ BEST HILO WATERFALLS YOU DON’T WANT TO MISS
AKAKA FALLS STATE PARK
We love Akaka Falls State Park because it’s an easy yet other-worldly hike, allowing you to view two Hawaii waterfalls in one journey. Plus, it’s a loop trail, so your entire trek will be filled with unique sights.
Of course, the ease of access makes Akaka Falls a popular destination, so you may not get the serenity you’ll find along more strenuous hikes. But if you want to explore a deep jungle setting, view magnificent falls, and enjoy a scenic walk, Akaka Falls is the place for you.
The loop is less than a half mile long, and you’ll be treated to sights of Kahuna and ‘Akaka Falls, along with beautiful tropical plant life. A visit here is one of the best things to do in Hilo!
You’ll find Akaka Falls State Park near the town of Honomū, about 10 miles north of Hilo. It’s a popular stop along the Hamakua Coast Scenic Drive.
LYMAN HOUSE MEMORIAL MUSEUM
Anyone who wants a better understanding of Hawaii’s culture should include a visit to the Lyman Museum and Mission House. Exhibits here tell the story of Hawaii’s unique ecosystem and history.
Missionaries have a controversial yet notable place in Hawaii’s history, and the Lyman House tells the story of Hilo missionary families who traveled to the islands from abroad.
You can visit both the house and museum as part of two separate tours. They’re conveniently located in Hilo, at the corner of Haili and Kapiolani streets.
We recommend visiting the Lyman House toward the middle of your Hilo vacation, as you can come with a base knowledge of the area and leave with a better understanding of the cultures and values that shaped the town.
RICHARDSON OCEAN PARK
If the skies have clouded over your Hilo adventures, you may be surprised to find sunshine nearby at Richardson Ocean Park. This black sand beach park is great for snorkeling and swimming, as it’s one of the calmest areas in town.
It will take you less than 15 minutes to reach Richardson’s from Hilo, but you may feel worlds away. Check out the unique mixture of green and black sands, explore the many tide pools, and relax in the idyllic setting.
Richardson Ocean Park is the last beach along the stretch of shoreline on Kalanianaole Street near the airport. Come early on a weekday for the best conditions and parking availability.
NANI MAU GARDENS
A visit to Hilo feels like a tropical escape in itself, but a visit to Nani Mau Gardens will usher you into even more beauty and tranquility. Home to tropical flowers, fruit orchards, and an orchid garden, Nani Maui Gardens packs a lot of plant life in its 22 acres.
There’s a restaurant on site, and a meal there also includes access to the gardens. It’s kid-friendly, but also popular with seniors. Locals and visitors alike reserve the area for weddings and events.
Nani Maui Gardens is on Makalika Street in Hilo, about 2.5 miles south of Walmart.
HAWAII VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK
It’s what brings most people to Hilo: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. This incredible wonder is unlike anything else you’ll find in the U.S., and it’s worth an entire vacation to the Big Island just to see it.
There are two volcanoes in the National Park: Kilauea and Mauna Loa. You’ll likely spend more time at Kilauea, as its lookout is easier to access and features views of the incredible lava flow.
You can get live updates on the eruption at the National Parks website. Go at night to see the lava glow, but it’s also an incredible trip when the volcano is not erupting. Just don’t take any lava rocks home with you! It’s not only illegal to remove them from the national park, but many people believe taking one will cause you to be cursed.
Arnott’s Lodge and Hiking Adventures offers guided tours so you can enjoy the sightseeing while letting someone else worry about driving and navigating.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is about 45 minutes from Hilo, though you could spend hours driving around the scenic routes within the park. There are also many hiking options here, along with a restaurant that overlooks Halema’uma’u Crater.
HAWAII TROPICAL BOTANICAL GARDEN
Immerse yourself in a lush rainforest setting while walking among tropical plants like orchids, ginger, and ti-leaf. Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden is a nice little piece of nature tucked away just outside of Hilo.
The garden is a nonprofit that charges admission to enter its grounds. Admission is pricey, but helps keep the garden serene and quiet for visitors like you. The 1.25-mile walking trail through the gardens will take you alongside a peaceful stream and to a beautiful ocean overlook.
Bring your camera for endless photo opportunities and pack snacks or a light lunch to enjoy in the gardens.
HILO FARMERS MARKET
If you can’t get enough of Hawaii’s fresh fruits and vegetables, then you must check out the Hilo Farmers Market. Located right in downtown Hilo, the market is open every day of the week and features produce, tropical flowers, and craft items.
Stop here to pick out healthy, colorful snacks for a day of sightseeing. You’ll also find souvenirs, like clothing and coffee beans.
Visit on Wednesdays or Saturdays when there are more vendors. Bring your cash and a reusable shopping bag to store all your local treasures.
HONOLI’I BEACH PARK
Honoli’i Beach Park is an incredible location to sit back on the shoreline and watch the waves roll in. You’ll especially like a visit here if you enjoy watching surfers take on the waves, as this is a popular spot for the Hilo surfers.
Unfortunately, this black sand beach isn’t great for swimming. The water can be rough with a strong current, and the pebbly sand is uncomfortable on your feet. But what it lacks in swimming opportunities, it makes up for in sightseeing.
On sunny days, the black sand glistens in the sun, and tropical trees provide shade near a stream.
Honoli’i Beach Park is about five minutes away from downtown Hilo. Look for it on Kahoa Street, right off Hawaii Belt Road.
HAMAKUA COAST SCENIC DRIVE
A drive along the Hamakua Coast feels like you’re driving through the heart and soul of Hawaii. You’ll pass through thick layers of rainforest, friendly small towns, and scenic overlooks.
Begin your journey in Hilo and prepare to spend the entire day taking your driving tour. About 45 miles later, you’ll end up at Waipio Valley Lookout, which offers incredible views of the remote agricultural community and the bright blue ocean beyond it.
There are stops along the way for food, restrooms, and sightseeing.
KAUMANA CAVES PARK
In 1880 and 1881, a lava flow from erupting Mauna Loa threatened to reach Hilo. Prayers were made to Pele, the goddess of volcanoes and fire, and to the Christian God in hopes that the steady flow would stop before it reached the city. People built walls and planned a dynamite diversion for the flow.
The lava flow did stop before reaching Hilo, with the farthest branch of lava ending about a mile from Hilo Bay.
Today, Kaumana Caves Park holds a natural landmark created from the near-disaster. Visitors can descend into this 140-year-old lava tube through a steep stairway, though you’ll want to bring flashlights or headlamps to light your way.
The lava caves extend about 25 miles underground, but much of that is on private property. Follow the signs here, and don’t go farther than you’re comfortable with. Even if you don’t explore much inside the lava tubes, the surrounding rainforest is worth the visit alone.
Kaumana Caves Park is on Kaumana Drive. If you visit Rainbow Falls and then Boiling Pots, you can use Akolea Road to get to Kaumana Caves. The route makes a triangle as you return to Hilo.
IMILOA ASTRONOMY CENTER
Astronomy has always played an essential role in Hawaiian lives, from wayfinding to farming and fishing. The Imiloa Astronomy Center offers incredible information about stars’ significance to Polynesians and scientists worldwide.
The center is on the University of Hawaii at Hilo campus, and it showcases some of the discoveries made at their observatories at Mauna Kea’s summit. Pair a trip here with a tour of the mountain, or skip the big drive and simply explore the stars from the Imiloa’s convenient location.
Admission to Imiloa Astronomy Center includes a full planetarium show. Kids typically enjoy their visits here, as many exhibits are interactive, and the docents are accustomed to working with local field trips.
PANA’EWA RAINFOREST ZOO
If you’re looking for a memorable and free activity in Hilo, you should check out Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo. This municipal park features tigers, monkeys, peacocks, and many other species.
While the animals are the main attraction for most Pana’ewa Zoo visitors, it’s the botanical garden that really shines. Native and tropical plants thrive thanks to Hilo’s ample rainfall and the park’s attentive staff.
Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo and Gardens is a small park, but definitely worth a visit. Consider offering a donation to help support the team who maintains and promotes it.
MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP TO HAWAII
- YOUR HAWAII VACATION
- WAIKIKI: 24 Best Things To Do In Waikiki You’re Gonna Love
- HONOLULU: 22 Absolutely Amazing Things To Do In Honolulu
- OAHU: 17 Best Beaches In Oahu You Definitely Can’t Miss
- HAWAII BEACHES: 14 Best Beaches In Hawaii For Fun In The Sun
WHERE TO STAY IN HILO
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