Fun and cool things to do in Hilo, Hawaii and surrounding places around town.
Wondering what to do in Hilo town when you plan a visit to the east side of the BIg Island?
Hilo, Hawaii is the state’s third largest city and feels quiet, sleepy and unchanged from all the progress made in Hawaii. But seeing Hilo’s past and present combined with same old town vibe is actually one of the best things to experience here on the island and why it really has a special charm and place to explore in Hawaii.
You’ll find that slow island pace, easy lifestyle and a real Hawaiian culture exist with the Aloha spirit is still alive in Hilo. In fact, everyplace you visit in town and around the East side of the island is filled with friendly smiles and wonderful experiences to be had.
Check out the top things to do in Hilo below and you’ll start finding out real aloha with friendly smiles and faces, quaint spots to visit around the city and a real authentic experience you’ll enjoy visiting East Hawaii.
Top things to do in Hilo, Hawaii
Why visit and stay in Hilo in East Hawaii?
Part of the Magic of living or visiting Hilo is to slow down and appreciate the simple things, daily occurrences, shopping at the farmers market, a walk around Liliuokalani gardens, smelling the amazing tropical flowers or just a lazy afternoon in an aqua colored lagoon. You’ll find things unravel and show you how special Hilo and East Hawaii is when you explore some of the beauty around the east side of the island. This Hilo guide shares all the fun, cool and off the beaten path things to do in Hilo now.
** During the Covid pandemic some of the HIlo attractions may be closed or opened with limited time frames to accommodate security or availability to visit those attractions.
Best sights and activities in Hilo
Wondering what to do in Hilo town? Start off in downtown Hilo in the historic district to walk around the Bayfront buildings, admire the architecture, cool shops, museums and some of the fun attractions in town and the surrounding areas of East Hawaii. Just around town are cool parks, waterfalls, lava tubes, botanical gardens and even the Hilo zoo called Panaewa that also a tropical botanical garden to explore.
Check out downtown Hilo
The small downtown district of Hilo is basically two parallel streets with the main waterfront buildings facing Hilo Bay. Filled with unique mom and pop shops, art galleries and boutique stores, delicious local food restaurants and fun snack shops peddling shave ice and mochi cakes, you’ll love exploring the downtown district. One of the best things to do in Hilo freee is this fantastic walking tour of the historic architecture, parks and other attractions in town.
So much color and art even on the building facades with beautiful murals and street art depicting local scenes, culture and Hawaiian traditions around the entire historic district. There’s also a profusion of art shops and boutique stores, a revised and colorful farmers market, and delicious food venues to enjoy.
Tip – while your walking around town, check out all the cool and colorful murals popping up unexpectedly around town. It makes for some fun Instagram spots around town to capture your visit down town.
Visit Hilo’s unique museums
The art scene in Hilo is alive along with some of the fantastic historic museums to visit some of the history, culture and lifestyle of this unique city. A visit to the unique Tsunami Museum, Lyman Museum and for kids the Mokupāpapa Discovery Center are perfect learning centers to understand Hawaii’s past and public awareness of ocean conservation. If you are into local arts, crafts and design on the island, check out the current exhibits and events at the Wailoa Art Center and the East Hawaii Cultural Center for more inspiration and and amazing art from the islands.
Hilo’s beautiful waterfalls
One of the most iconic waterfalls and Hilo attraction to visit is Rainbow falls which is part of the Wailuku State park system, Hilo’s waterfalls are plentiful and easy to explore. The top thing to do in Hilo and main attraction is visiting Rainbow falls just of Wainuenue avenue. Easy parking and short drive from the historic district, Rainbow falls is an iconic photo op and you can also climb up a set of stairs to see the falls from above and also walk into a forested area behind with one of the largest banyan groves on the island.
Another cool visit further down the road to the Boiling Pots and Pe’e Pe’e falls is another fantastic viewpoint to the lush canyons, rushing river and beautiful waterfalls in the background. If you are in the mood for a hike and viewing spectacular falls, check out Narnia Falls for something unique to visit above Hilo Town.
Tip – for a third waterfall to visit, keep driving up Wainuenue Avenue a half mile until you cross a bridge that will have views to another set of waterfalls called Wai’ale falls All the waterfalls are fantastic to view from the lookout points, but please do not wander off beyond the lookout points for your own safety.
Explore Kaumana Caves
A unique Hilo activity is to explore the Kaumana caves just above Hilo town off Kaumana Drive are the Kaumana Caves . The caves are dank old, dark and mysterious for those that love visiting unusual, lush and unique attractions in any city. The caves are part of Kaumana Caves State Park with free parking and entrance on site. Developed from a lava flow in 1881 from Moana Loa, this lava tube is broken into two sections that you can explore on your own. Down a short flight of ladders and stairs leads you through a lush canopy of vegetation into one of the main openings which is filled with boulders and an adventure to explore.
Tip – be sure to bring a flashlight, sturdy shoes and maybe an umbrella if weather is changing in the park area. There are picnic tables and restrooms at the park if you want to spend more time in the area.
Hilo Farmers Market
One of the fun Hilo activities is to visit the local farmers market. If you are in an exploring mode to discover some of Hilo’s unique and delicious fruits, snacks and other take away foods or just looking for some souvenirs, then check out the Hilo Farmers Market. Open daily but more active and fuller during the Saturday and Wednesday market, you’ll love exploring the market in downtown Hilo. Make sure to sample some of the unique in season tropical fruits, a refreshing lilikoi ice drink, some mochi snacks or even more filling bento box treats for a bigger meal. Wednesday and Saturdays are larger with vendors selling arts and crafts, souvenirs or other locally made goods for visitors looking to take some some treasures, t shirts or collectibles from the islands.
Tip – there is a food court at the farmers markets with food trucks if you are looking for a bigger meal and local food to try from the area.
Visit Coconut Island
Wondering what else to see in Hilo that is fun, family friendly and just off Hilo bay? A visit to Coconut island (Moku Ola – meaning island of life) is a must and easy to do crossing a short footbridge to the isolated island that used to be a spiritual place of refuge on the bay. Considered a historic place of refuge in ancient times where villagers would swim to the island for refuge from committing a taboo or broken a rule that could easily be punished with immediate death. Now the island is geared towards recreation and picnics, little beaches to lounge in and jumping off the lava rock pillars that local children flock to for a free thrill jumping from above the rock tower into the cool aqua cove that is fun to do or just enjoy watching.
Tip – a fantastic place for capturing pictures of Hilo Bay, historic downtown and views of neighboring Liliuokalani gardens and watching local kids jump off the popular lava tower into the small cove.
Scenic Queen Liliuokalani Gardens
One of the fun and scenic things to do in Hilo is to visit the Queen Liliuokalani Garden. The Liliuokalani Gardens are a beautiful and expansive Japanese botanical garden with stunning views of Hilo Bay and town. The largest ornamental Japanese garden outside of Japan, this almost 25 acre garden is named after Queen Liliuokalani who died the year the gardens were started. The botanical park is also a tribute to all the Japanese immigrants that came to Hawaii to work in the sugar plantations on the island. Featuring beautiful fish ponds, arched bridges and walking platforms over the ponds, Japanese inspired pagodas, lanterns and even an authentic tea house that offers a free tea service, you will almost be in Japanese visiting here. This is one of the most unique things to do in Hilo with great views, fantastic history and a fun walk around the historic garden.
Tip – walk the bride to nearby Coconut Island for a fun self tour of the island and lava tower that is a local favorite diving spot.
Hilo Mooheau Bandstand
One of the most unique things to do in Hilo is to visit this Victorian inspired bandstand on the waterfront area. The Mooheau Bandstand has a historic past and holds a variety of political rallies, music events, hula shows and other gatherings on a regular basis. It’s a good spot to for quiet picnics among the giant banyan trees surrounding the park and nice views of Hilo bay and photo ops of Hilo’s scenic waterfront area.
Sweet Hilo beaches
One of the fun Hilo activities is to visit some of the cool beaches which are small with family friendly spots, coves, lagoons and unique beaches in town and the surrounding areas. Most of the large canoe regattas and sailing happens right on Hilo Bay. In town you can visit Coconut Island and Reeds Bay and just down the road area beautiful little beaches at Onekahakaha Beach, Carl Smith Beach and Richardson Beach where you can spot green sea turtles and colorful tropical fish hanging out just offshore.
Top beaches to visit in Hilo now include:
1 Onekahakaha Beach Park – kid friendly protected beach
2. Carlsmith Beach – beautiful lagoons and islands to swim to
3. Reeds bay – shallow water and lagoons and family friendly downtown
4. Coconut Island – small protected coves and gravel beaches with a tower you can jump from
5. Honolii Beach – a surfing, body boarding beach with mostly gravel beach
6. Richardson Ocean Park – A local popular beach with sandy and rocky inlets and lots of turtles.
Kamehameha statue and Wailoa park
Standing proudly in the center of Wailoa State park is the statue of King Kamehameha (the first king that united the Hawaiian islands). One of four statues made of the king, this one being the tallest at 14 feet, the statue was originally to be placed at a Princeville resort in Kauai. But since Kauai was never conquered by Kamehameha, the statue was donated to the city of Hilo since it was one of his political centers of power on the island. Once a year on Kamehameha day, the statue is festooned with large gorgeous leis on his arm as a tribute to the king.
Tip – cross the unique bridges that span the Wailoa River and check out the Wailoa Art Center which features ongoing Hawaii inspired art exhibits and artists from the island and neighbor islands.
Hilo Zoo and botanical garden
The small Hilo zoo called Pana’ewa is small, sweet and a lovely visit to see some of the indigenous animals and 80 other animal species. Closed during covid, it has gone through renovations and is recently reopened for visitors to enjoy the zoo.
What makes this zoo special is the rainforest botanical garden that is fun to explore with all the animals located in this tropical garden filled with orchids, bromeliads, tropical rhododendrons, palm trees and various tropical plants and flowers that makes this a special place to explore. There is also a family friendly kid petting zoo that is fun to explore with children in the park.
Tip – the gardens and parking is free to enjoy, but they do accept donations to keep the grounds operating.
Mauna Loa Macadamia Farms
One of the one of a kind Hilo attractions is to visit the Mauna Loa Macadamia nut farm. If you haven’t been to a macadamia nut farm, one of the largest is just outside Hilo at the Mauna Loa Macadamia nut farm. Offering free DIY tours of the facility plus free tasting of their complete line of chocolate, sweet to savory macadamia nuts, you’ll enjoy the tour, samples and even a sweet garden in the back area of the tasting room for free.
** During covid timeframes, the Macadamia nut farm is not open for public visits at the moment, but you can purchase products from the online shop above.
Things to do near Hilo and outside attractions
Visit Akaka Falls
An iconic Hilo attraction to visit right away is Akaka Falls. Take a nice easy road trip down the Hamakua coastline to visit the scenic botanical garden and dramatic Akaka Falls. Along the way is the sleepy but colorful town called Honomu which is worth a stop for snacks and curio shopping. But the star Akaka Falls which is one of the most majestic and scenic vistas with a botanical garden to explore with gorgeous bamboo, tropical flowers and lush vegetation.
On the way to Akaka Falls is the small town of Honomu which is fun to stop and try some local snacks, visit the shops and art galleries and support local businesses in the area.
Explore Onomea Bay and a lush botanical garden
Just outside Hilo along the Hamakua coast is the scenic Onomea Bay with beautiful overlooking points and a short hike lovingly called Donkey trail down to the bay below. The walk is easy on paved trails down to various water areas and a small waterfall feature in the end or you can explore more of the botanical garden next door at Hawaii Tropical Botanical garden with all the extensive and lush tropical gardens located in this private estate. Further down the Onomea scenic drive is a cool tropical smoothie hut where you can sample some of the best tropical smoothies on the island with fresh Hawaiian fruits in season.
Volcanoes National Park
About forty minutes drive down Highway eleven leads to Volcanoes National Park, the top attraction to visit in East Hawaii. The national park is alive with volcanic eruptions, steam clouds mixed with lava, earthquakes happen constantly making this an ever changing national park. You can base yourself in Volcano Village which has all the amenities you need and also lots of fun attractions to explore in the village.
It is lively, colorful and historic with thousands of acres of lava fields, a huge caldera and crater in the center of the park to lush forests of Hapu’u ferns, Ohia trees and other native vegetation. Check out this post on visiting Volcanoes National Park now for more inspiration to seeing nature and the continual lava eruptions at Volcanoes National Park at its most dramatic best in the park.
Opihikao, Pahoa town and Puna’s Red Road
Old Hawaii is alive along the red road, the scenic eastern loop road filled with beautiful tree tunnels, hidden beaches, roadside and fruit stands. Starting from Pahoa town, driving here will give you a real taste of old Hawaii from Pahoa to Opihikao and even to the new black sand beach at Pohoiki that was created with the lava eruptions on the east side of Hawaii Island in 2018. Along the way to the Red Road, make sure you check out the strange lava molds and botanical garden at Lava Tree State Park, the beautiful and spooky MacKenzie State Park, and the gorgeous folk style interiors of the Painted Church in Kalapana.
If you visit the the Red Road on Sundays, check out the Maku’u Market just outside of Pahoa town, it’s the main thing to do in town on Sundays.
This is a drive to the Red road is fabulous and you’ll love seeing the lush vegetation, newly created black lava fields and windy roads under tree tunnels with ocean views to enjoy along the way.
Where to eat in Hilo
If you’re hungry, check out these popular spots around Hilo town that will cater to all your foodie needs now.
Ken’s House of Pancakes – A classic Hilo favorite spot for popular favorite foods breakfast to dinner with daily specials
Suisan Seafood Market – the food take out counter offers seafood, sushi and poke rice bowls that are so delicious and to die for
Hilo Bay Cafe – Japanese and Pan Asian modern cuisine with gorgeous views of Hilo Bay from above. Amazing bar service and really delicious dishes makes this an amazing dining venue in Hilo.
Jackie Reys – a stunning bar area and dining spot with classic Hawaiian style dishes in an upscale location. The food is beautifully presented and quite delicious with Hawaiian inspired dishes.
Cafe Pesto – a local favorite Hilo institution with delicious food, yummy pupu appetizers and delicious drinks makes this a popular venue to enjoy on the Bayfront area.
Pineapples – Indoor/outdoor dining at its best with cafe/diner foods like pastas, fish and chips and seafood dishes that are popular and the bar cocktails and drinks are to die for.
Hawaiian Style Cafe – Hearty and big style dishes are offered for those looking for local dishes that you’ll probably have leftovers because they are filling.
Where to stay in Hilo
There are wonderful local inns, BnB’s and hotels that are unique and easy to stay in Hilo as a base, check out all these well reviewed places below.
Grand Naniloa Double Tree – A fantastic location on Banyan drive with bay and ocean views and comfortable modern rooms and amenities. Includes free wifi and 9 hole golf course across from the property
Hilo Seaside Hotel – located on Banyan drive with easy access to beach, attractions and parks. Comfortable and spacious rooms, nice public areas and a wonderful and friendly staff, restaurant and services.
Hilo Bay Ocean Front Bed and Breakfast – Beautiful accommodations and location right on the bay in this classic Hawaiiana home with excellent service, strong wifi and a full Hawaiian breakfast.
Check out these top reviewed hotels on Trip Advisor here for more details, availabiity and prices.
Check out this fun video tour of HIlo and the surrounding area
Check out these other Big Island things to do around the island
Check out the Top things to do in Kona and the west side of the island
A family friendly visit to the Big Island – a guide to family adventure and activities on the island
Kona snorkel and cruise experience along the gorgeous Kona coast to the Red Cliffs area in South Kona
A visit to the beautiful Kua Bay and beach area
A gorgeous hike and beach time at Makalawena Beach
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Conclusion on the best things to do in Hilo, Hawaii
You’ll love exploring the Old town district of Hilo and the surrounding attractions and fun places just outside. Stay in Hilo as your base and enjoy some of the fun things to do in Hilo to be easy and fun in this small town that is uniquely Hawaiian and full of Aloha.
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