9 Reasons to Choose Hilo When Visiting the Main Island of Hawaii

The Big Island of Hawaii is a tale of two cities. On the arid west coast, the popular region of Kona draws nearly 1.3 million visitors each year; meanwhile, Hilo, a “second city” to most tourists, sits on the lush and rainy east coast of the island and sees about half a million visitors each year. Between the two, I much prefer Hilo.

Why does Hilo make a better destination in my heart? For one thing, compared to Kona’s nearly two and a half times as many tourists, Hilo feels much more off the beaten path. Second, you’ll save time and money by choosing Hilo, and its proximity to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and gorgeous waterfalls provides a rich and authentic Hawaiian experience.

Here are nine reasons why you should visit Hilo on your trip to Hawaii:

Banyan trees in Hilo Banyan trees in Hilo


1. Hilo International Airport

With Hilo International Airport only 10 minutes away from central Hilo town, flying into Hilo and picking up your Alamo rental car right at the airport is a piece of cake. Whether you’re arriving on the Big Island from other parts of Hawaii, from the mainland U.S., or from an international destination, the Hilo airport will streamline the travel process and take much of the stress out of getting to the Big Island’s east coast!

Onomea Bay in Hilo Onomea Bay in Hilo


2. Unique Things to Do in Hilo

Choosing Hilo means that you’ll have a large city to explore that also features lots of character and hidden gems. It has a fun college vibe thanks to the University of Hawaii at Hilo and a vibrant local community ensures that there is plenty to discover around town. Hilo also tends to be more affordable than the more populous Kona.

Hilo has countless cool activities to enjoy, from exploring the outdoor surroundings to taking in some history. Here are some ideas to help you take in the spirit of the east side of the island:

Akaka Falls State Park Akaka Falls State Park


3. Go Chasing Waterfalls

While the words of that famous song from the ‘90s are, “Don’t go chasing waterfalls,” in this case, you’ll want to do the opposite! Because the east side of the Big Island is much rainier than the west side, the Hilo area has tons of rushing waterfalls. Here’s a breakdown of some of the waterfalls near Hilo:

  • Umauma Falls is a set of three waterfalls near each other on the Umauma River, 16 miles north of Hilo on the Hamakua coast.
  • Akaka Falls is one of the most famous waterfalls on the Big Island at 442 feet tall. Find it 10 miles north of Hilo in Akaka Falls State Park.
  • Kahuna Falls, also in Akaka Falls State Park, is the smaller compliment to Akaka Falls at 100 feet tall.
  • Rainbow Falls, also called Waianuenue Falls, can be found in Wailuku River State Park, which is just a short drive from downtown Hilo. It falls over a lava cave, which is said to be the home of Hina, the Hawaiian goddess of the moon.
  • Pe’epe’e Falls, also on the Wailuku River, is smaller and less crowded than Rainbow Falls. It is located only a mile and a half upstream from Rainbow. 
Onomea Bay Onomea Bay


4. Visit Gardens in Hawaii

The difference in rainfall between the east and west sides of the island means that Hilo is lush with vegetation. Perhaps the best way to enjoy it all is to visit one of Hilo’s gardens:

  • Lili’uokalani Park and Gardens consists of 25 acres of Japanese-style pagodas, fishponds, and rock gardens on the east side of Hilo town.
  • Some say that the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens is the best botanical garden on the island because of its one-mile, self-guided hike and scenic drive. The garden also encompasses Onomea Bay, one of the island’s most beautiful stretches of coastline.
  • Five miles from central Hilo, the Nani Mau Gardens offer 20 acres of European gardens, groves and orchards, a Japanese-style bell tower, a botanical museum and butterfly house, a water garden, and even an orchid display.
  • The Botanical Gardens at the University of Hawaii at Hilo were created in the 1980s by a university professor. Today, they boast plant species from Mexico, Central & South America, Africa, Australia and China.

5. Go Snorkeling in Hilo with Diverse Marine Wildlife

Hawaii is an amazing location for underwater activities like snorkeling. Coral, hundreds of different species of fish and warm waters make time in the ocean especially enjoyable. While the western side is certainly better for dolphin and Manta swims as well as gorgeous snorkeling, there are a few great spots near Hilo as well:

  • Richardson Beach Park is a black sand beach near Hilo town. Some say that it is the best place for snorkeling south of Hilo thanks to lava rock breakwater that creates a protected swimming area. 
  • Lele’iwi Beach Park also has great snorkeling along its rocky shoreline with tide pools and abundant sea life.
  • Carl Smith Beach Park is a white sand lagoon protected by lava rock, which makes a great snorkeling and swimming spot. Look for sea turtles!

6. Historic Downtown Hilo

Hilo differs from Kona in that it’s not a resort town. In fact, Hilo is the largest city on the Big Island, which means that most of the people there are those who call it home. Learn about this special place by focusing on its history and culture:

  • The Smithsonian-affiliated Lyman Museum and Mission House tells of the Hawaiian Islands and the people who inhabit them, from ancient Hawaii to today.
  • Downtown Hilo is home to the Hilo Farmer’s Market, shops, inventive restaurants like Makani’s Magic Pineapple Shack and even cultural sites. Many of the storefronts are hundreds of years old and have landed themselves on the National Register of Historic Places.
  • The East Hawaii Cultural Center in downtown Hilo also functions as an art gallery and community theatre, which holds free and donation-entry exhibitions to the general public.

7. Imiloa Astronomy Center

The Imiloa Astronomy Center at University of Hawaii at Hilo is a full-dome planetarium with interactive exhibits illustrating the connection between Hawaiian culture and astronomy. Interestingly, it is housed in three titanium cones representing the three tallest mountains on the Big Island.

Volcanoes National Park Volcanoes National Park


8. Proximity to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

If you’re interested in visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, hop into your Alamo rental car and be there in fewer than 45 minutes. Pick one of many hikes in the 123,000 acres of protected wilderness. If you only want to visit for a day, consider taking a scenic drive like Crater Rim or Chain of Craters and follow one of the park’s short hikes like Kilauea Iki. If you plan to spend several days there, take on one or two of the longer, tougher hikes like Āpua Point or Mauna Loa.

9. Best Hotels in Hilo

Hilo offers a variety of small, unique places to stay, from charming B&Bs to historic hotels. Here are some cool options:

  • The Hamakua Guest House is an “off-the-grid” accommodation that is entirely solar-powered and rain-water-driven. It even has its own waterfall and swimming area!
  • The family-run Hilo Seaside Hotel cares first and foremost about traditional Hawaiian hospitality. Beautiful and well-priced rooms, gardens, a pool, and a koi pond add to the experience.
  • The charming Old Hawaiian Bed & Breakfast is perfectly situated just two miles from downtown Hilo. Its three peaceful and private rooms offer ample opportunity to relax and recharge while on the island.
  • The oceanfront Hale Kai Hawaii Bed & Breakfast overlooks the Honolii surfing beach and is just two miles from central Hilo. From its vantage point, visitors can sometimes spot dolphins and humpbacks offshore.
  • The Inn at Kulaniapia Falls Is another “off-the-grid” accommodation. The inn boasts Asian-inspired architecture and more than 20 acres, which include a private waterfall.

I hope this post inspired you to put Hilo on your list. On an island as big as Hawaii – large enough to fit all of the other Hawaiian Islands combined; variety is the spice of life! Enjoy your stay on this magical island. 

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About the Author

Kristin Addis is a solo female travel expert who inspires other women to travel the world in an authentic and adventurous way. A former investment banker who sold all of her belongings and left California in 2012, Kristin has solo traveled the world for over five years, covering every continent (except for Antarctica, but it’s on her list). You can find more of her musings at Be My Travel Muse