I left Hilo wishing I’d spent an extra day there.
Even though the city is a little less exciting for tourists than the west side of the Big Island, I still felt like it deserved a few days for exploration. There are definitely some cute-looking shops, restaurants, museums, beaches and parks that I didn’t have enough time to explore. It would have been great to see the city at a little more of a relaxed pace.
Whether you love exploring nature, are a history buff, or are just looking for some interesting things to do around your flights in/out of the Big Island of Hawaii, Hilo has something for everyone. If you’re wondering about the best things to do in Hilo, here’s my suggestions for the top Hilo activities!
The best activities in Hilo, Hawaii
Take a look at Rainbow Falls
Rainbow Falls is one of the most popular attractions in Hilo. The waterfall is 24 metres (80 ft) tall and is surrounded by lush greenery in a rainforest setting. Apparently the falls reveal a rainbow in the mist on sunny mornings, though unfortunately it didn’t appear for us on the cloudy morning that we visited. Still, it was a nice spot and very easy to access as the parking lot is right beside the viewing area.
Visit Akaka Falls
Drive outside of Hilo to get to Akaka Falls, located in the nearby Akaka Falls State Park. The falls are 135 metres (442 ft) tall and are surrounded by dense rainforest, through which visitors follow a walking loop to access the falls viewpoint about 20-minutes in. There are some great photo spots on the walk and facilities at the trailhead.
The $20 we paid to access this spot ($5 each for site entry and $10 for parking) seemed a little steep for this activity, though you can probably save on the parking by pulling over further up the road from the entrance (in hindsight, that’s definitely what we should have done!). If you won’t have a car to drive out to this spot, there’s the option of seeing it on a majestic waterfalls tour.
Grab a beer at Ola Brew
We went to this brewery because it was one of the only places open in Hilo on a Monday, but we were incredibly impressed with their offerings! Ola Brew had a nice selection of beers in a variety of sizes, with the 4oz taster being my fave for trying a few options.
The food was the biggest hit though – an Asian-American fusion menu from which we ordered Japanese curry fries with mango and pickled onion, followed by ice cream bao which tasted like churros (we paired it with the porter – great choice!).
Have a drink at Pineapples
Pineapples is one of those places that everyone will tell you to visit if you’re in Hilo! They have a great open air bar in the middle of town with a fabulous cocktail menu. Famous for the ‘pow’ which is served in an entire pineapple! We tried some of the other options such as the hibiscus coco, pineapple mojito, and the coconut mocktail with rum… and ended up staying for hours while enjoying the live music (a hobo guitarist) and lively vibes.
Seek out sea turtles
I hadn’t seen a green sea turtle at any of the other snorkelling spots in Kona/Captain Cook, so I was ecstatic to see multiple turtles while swimming at Carlsmith Beach Park in Hilo! Two turtles (one of which was absolutely massive – over 1m long!) swam right past us and we lounged in the shallow waters of the lagoon. We saw another two frolicking next to the rocks after we got out of the water, so we stood by the shore to watch them for a good 10-15 minutes.
It’s important to note that if you spot a sea turtle in Hawaii, keep at least 10 ft (3m) distance to avoid disturbing them. These ocean dwellers are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and Hawaii has laws around purposefully getting too close.
Check out Coconut Island
In the middle of Hilo Bay is Coconut Island, which is connected to the mainland by a footbridge. This is a popular spot for both locals and tourists to visit.
The island is very small, so it takes all of 5 minutes to walk around, but it’s a generally known as cool place to hang out and relax on a nice day. People will take picnics to have on the grass, go fishing, swim in the shallows, or even jump off an old stone tower into the deeper water below.
Visit the Pacific Tsunami Museum
It’s an unfortunate fact that islands in the Pacific Ocean are susceptible to tsunamis, and this little museum is designed to raise awareness and explore the science behind these natural yet impactful events through interactive exhibits, videos, and artifacts. The purpose of the museum is to make people better prepared when a tsunami warning is issued, as well as acting as a memorial for past events. Opening hours are Tuesday–Saturday, 10AM-4PM.
Take a day trip to Volcanoes NP
Hilo is the closest city to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and you should absolutely plan a day trip out there while you’re in town! It’s honestly one of the most incredible places I have visited. Home to one of the most active volcanoes in the world, Hawaii Volcanoes NP offers opportunities for hiking, sightseeing, and learning about the history and geology of a volcanic area.
If you’ll have a car in Hawaii, it’s just a 45-minute drive to the park entrance so it’s easily do-able in a day. If you won’t be driving, you can book a guided day tour that will take you out to the national park.
Drive up to Waipio Valley (optional)
When I was researching things to do around Hilo, Waipio Valley Overlook came up a few times a good day trip. Rob and I ended up doing a drive out there one of the days that we were in Hilo, and although it was a fairly easy drive at about 1-hour each way, I found the overlook itself to be kind of underwhelming. We were greeted with a fairly pretty view from the lookout point, but I wish I’d planned time to do the hike down to the black sand beach as well. It just would have been better to spend more time there than just drive out and back.
If you’ve got the time, then I’d suggest this activity as part of a day trip up the coast, but if you’re running short on time (like I was) then I’d suggest skipping it for some of the more nearby Hilo activities.