Things to do in Hilo, Hawaii, and beyond

Once we decided on the third island we would visit island hopping Hawaii, in addition to Maui and Oahu, and we knew where to stay on the Big island, it was time to start planning the trip. This is the perfect Hawaiian island for families that love the outdoors and so our list of Big Island activities was pretty long. We felt pretty confident about the Kona coast but far less about the windward side. Not that there’s a lack of things to do in Hilo and nearby, au contraire, but mainly because of the climate. Hilo weather is known to be very rainy – as in pouring rain – which could have ruined our plans. But luck was on our side since the few showers we had occurred in the evening or early morning. Plus, the rainy climate resulted in such incredible natural abundance that we would have gladly put up with it.

And so the part of our trip we were most unsure about, actually turned to be the most epic and adventurous part of our Hawaiian adventure. Here’s our selection of top things to do in Hilo.


Dreaming of planning a new vacation in these uncertain times? The AXA Assistance USA Platinum travel insurance includes a CFAR (Cancel for Any Reason) option which allows you to cancel your trip without any explanation, up to 2 days before departure. Conditions apply. Click here to learn more.


This article contains affiliate links. Clicking on such a hyperlink and/or making a purchase to the website it refers to, may result in a commission for CosmopoliClan at no additional cost to you. It allows us to dedicate enough personal time and energy to this blog. For more information, visit the Disclaimer page.

For your convenience, we’ve created a map which includes the best Hilo activities, all of which are mentioned in this article. You’ll find it at the bottom of this post.

Top things to do in Hilo

Visit Hilo’s Pacific Tsunami Museum

There’s actually only one Hilo attraction that’s located in downtown Hilo and that’s the Pacific Tsunami Museum. The small museum is housed in a former bank. It not only tells the story of the 1946 and 1960 tsunamis that hit the Big Island’s windward coast but also informs visitors about the Tsunami Warning System that is now in place. You can even try it out yourself by creating your own miniature tsunami. Very hands-on and ideal for kids to learn about this natural phenomenon.

Admire Rainbow Falls

Rainbow Falls or Waiānuenue falls is where the Wailuku river plunges about 80 feet (or 24 m). It is surrounded by lush rainforest yet very accessible. The main viewpoint for the Rainbow falls is located just a few steps from the Wailuku River State Park parking lot. There’s no entrance fee.

A visit to Rainbow falls is one of the essential and free things to do in Hilo Hawaii

Rainbow falls got its name from the rainbows you can see in the morning, when the sun faces the waterfall and plays with the mist of the water. We were there around 8.30 am but, to our regret, didn’t get to see the rainbows because of the clouds. There were no other visitors at that time and so we had Rainbow falls all to ourselves.

The legend says that ancient Hawaiian goddess of the moon, Hina, lives in the lava cave over which the waterfall cascades. A set of stairs is located on the left side so you can get closer to the Wailuku river and the top of Rainbow falls.

The top of Rainbow falls where you can see the Wailuku River

About halfway, you’ll see some beautiful giant banyan trees on your left which are just as photogenic.

Enjoy a picnic at Liliuokalani Gardens

Located on Banyan Drive, along the bay in Hilo town, you’ll find the beautiful Liliuokalani Gardens. It’s the largest of its size outside Japan and features pagodas, fish ponds and even a teahouse. The park was a gift from Queen Lili’uokalani to honour the Japanese immigrants on Big Island. These gardens aren’t mentioned in the mainstream Hawaii travel guide, we just happened to discover them while exploring the direct area around our The Grand Naniloa Hotel Hilo – a DoubleTree by Hilton.

Stroll to Coconut Island

Located in the heart of Hilo Bay is a tiny island called Mokuola, mostly referred to as Coconut Island. Due to the murky waters, this is not the best place to go snorkeling but it does make for an epic picnic spot. And where to pack that picnic? Check out the next item in this list of things to do in Hilo and find out where to go shopping in Hilo.

Our hotel room came with Coconut Island views

Shop at the Hilo Farmers Market

Taste some of Hawaii’s tropical produce at the Hilo Farmers Market in Downtown Hilo. You’ll find all kinds of delicious fruits such as mango, pineapple, strawberry papaya and rambuttan but also veggies, jams, coconut treats, potted plants and local crafts.
The full-fledged market, with as much as 200 vendors, is open year-round on Wednesdays and Saturdays, on other days there’s a more limited offer. 

Pineapples at the Farmers Market in downtown Hilo Hawaii

Swim with turtles at Carlsmith beach park (a.k.a. Four Miles)

The best Big Island beaches as well as all main tourist resorts are located on the other side of the island. The windward side doesn’t really have sandy beaches but rather rocky lavapools. As a result, most tourists don’t consider going to the beach near Hilo. A local lady, working at the Hilo Hawaii botanical gardens, tipped us that Carlsmith beach park is known to often welcome turtles (honu in Hawaiian language). The beach park is mostly frequently by locals and not very known among tourists. Parking is limited. During weekends and holidays, there’s a lifeguard on duty who, in our experience, is kind enough to point out where the turtles are swimming.

Swimming at the lagoon at Carlsmith Beach Park in Hilo is one of many superb things to do in Hilo

The water is only knee-high in the areas closest to shore but might be a bit deeper elsewhere. The bottom is rocky so water shoes are recommended. The shades of blue in Carlsmith bay are gorgeous. It’s a great place for snorkeling too.

Turtle or honu swimming in the shallow waters at Carlsmith Beach Park in Hilo Hawaii

So, if swimming with turtles is on your bucket list, you now know where to travel next. It sure counts as one of the most exciting Hilo activities. But keep in mind that you can’t touch the honu. That doesn’t mean that they can’t touch you, though. We feel so lucky to have been so close to these amazing animals.

The lagoon at Carlsmith Beach Park is one of the top Hilo attractions
GoPro for your Hawaii vacation

Explore the Kaumana Caves

If you’re up for an adventure, then this Hilo activity might be right up your alley. The Kaumana caves are actually a maze lava tubes, created after an eruption of Mauna Loa in the late 19th century. You can explore a part of the lava tube for free, the other part is located on private property. You can access Kamauna caves via a steep metal staircase. Inside you’ll find yourself in a pitch-black environment with slippery rocks on an uneven soil, water dripping from the walls and tree roots that enter from above. Don’t expect signs, walkways or safety lights, this is as authentic as it gets.

Take the necessary precautions by wearing sturdy shoes and bringing your own flashlight and headlamp. Also, make sure that at least someone knows about your visit, just in case.

Take the Pepe’eko scenic drive to the Hamakua Coast

Taking the Pepe'eko scenic drive along the blue waters of Onomea Bay is one of the most spectacular things to do in Hilo Hawaii

This 4-mile scenic drive is nothing short of spectacular. The old Mamalahoa highway hugs the rugged coastline at Onomea Bay, resulting in a series of out-of-this-world views. There are several curves and one-lane bridges along this stretch of road, so drive carefully and don’t get spooked by the occasional mongoose crossing the road.

The What’s Shakin’ food shack makes for an awesome resting spot thanks to the gorgeous garden.

Travel deeper… with the Lonely Planet Hawaii travel guides. Click here to discover them.

Visit the Hilo Botanical Gardens

One of the most spectacular Hilo attractions can be found in Onomea Bay as well. We’re fans of botanical gardens and therefore the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens was on top of our list of things to do in Hilo. We arrived onsite around opening time, well ahead of the mosquitos. A meandering trail led us to the nature preserve, down in the valley.

Mother and two kids walking the trail at the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens, one of the best places to visit in Hilo in Hawaii

The more than 2000 species of tropical plants are not only native-Hawaiian but have been gathered from jungles all over the world. No matter their origin, the plants thrive here because of the fertile volcanic soil and the privileged location, protected from the trade winds. Fun fact about Hawaii: The Big Island is also known as the Orchid Isle. Head to the old water well and you’ll see why.

One of the best things to do in Hilo Big Island is visiting the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens

Tickets (and repellant) can be purchased in the shop for $20 per adult and $5 per child. We forgot to bring our mosquito repellant but luckily, even though our arms and legs weren’t covered, we didn’t see one mosquito. The Hilo Botanical Gardens are open daily from 9 am, the latest admission is at 4 pm. A visit takes about 2 hours.

Little girl smiling at a water well with purple orchids at the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens in Onomea Bay near Hilo Hawaii

Admire Akaka falls

We dreaded the pouring rain the region is known for but on the other hand, it’s what gives this side of the Big Island its appeal. After all, there wouldn’t be any Hilo waterfalls without the rain.
We first visited Rainbow falls near downtown Hilo and then continued our way to Akaka Falls State Park along the Hamakua coast. I would recommend you to plan your visit in the same order, because Akaka falls is more impressive than Rainbow falls. It’s also a quite a bit busier. The Akaka falls trail may be the one of the shortest Big Island hike but it’s just amazing. By the time we arrived the – rather small – parking lot was full but there was plenty of space to park on the side of the road. The entrance fee is either $1 per person or $5 per car.

A visit to Akaka Falls State Park is one the 10 best things to do in Hilo Hawaii

The Akaka falls hike is a 0.4-mile loop trail through tropical rainforest. The trail is well paved and does include several sets of stairs. You will first pass a small Kahūnā falls lookout before hearing the roaring Akaka falls cascading 442 feet (135 m) into the pool. It’s a spectacular sight and one of the highlights of our trip.

Get some freshly sliced coconut from a local food stall

We missed fresh fruit stands in Maui. Fruit bowls weren’t even mentioned on the resort’s lunch menu, which was so disappointing (we’re just not into burgers and grilled cheese). Only some Road to Hana stops offered freshly sliced coconut. You can imagine our joy when we found this fruit stand on the Big Island. This is what the Hilo area is all about and why we love it there so much: the authenticity. Would you resist a stand like this? You can find it on your way to Akaka falls.

Two little girls drinking fresh coconut juice out of a coconut at a food stall near Akaka Falls State Park, one of the top Hilo attractions

Go snorkeling at Richardson Ocean Park

The windward side of the Big Island Hilo area is not ideal for snorkeling but the sheltered bay at Richardson Beach Park is an exception. The warm ocean water mixes with cooler freshwater, resulting in a reef that’s teeming with fish. There’s a small stretch of black sand but the park mostly consists of lava rock. It’s such a great place to take the kids thanks to the calm waters, the interesting tide pools and the presence of a lifeguard.

Go see the lava flows

One of the most thrilling Hilo experiences is seeing the lava flows. There are two equally exciting ways to watch this epic phenomenon: boat or helicopter. Do note that lava flows are highly unpredictable so we’d advise against booking a tour too far ahead. There’s only one boat tour we know of that’s allowed to get close to the lava flows and that’s this one. A helicopter tour that includes flying over the glowing lava flow can be found here.

One of the most epic attractions in Hilo Hawaii is the lava flow spectacle which you can see during one of the helicopter tours or cruise excursions
GoPro for your Hawaii vacation

See the sunrise at Laupahoehoe Point

Laupahoehoe Point Beach Park is not your classic beach. It’s wild and untamed with waves crashing against the jagged lava rocks. If you’re an early riser looking to see a magical sunrise, then this is where you want to be. The palm-fringed park is equipped with picnic tables for your convenience.

Best things to do near Hilo, Hawaii

Day trip to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

One of the main reasons we considered Big Island as the third island on our list, was Volcanoes National Park. This magnificent Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site is home to two active volcanoes: the Mauna Loa, world’s largest volcano, and the infamous Kilauea, which erupted in the spring of 2018. We were lucky enough to visit just 2 weeks before the eruption. What an adventure! We hiked the Kilauea Iki Trail, visited the Thurston Lava Tube (which is still closed after the 2018 eruption) and admired the Halema’uma’u crater.

Visiting Volcanoes NP is one of the essential Hilo Hawaii things to do

Feel the heat at Pohoiki black sand beach

One of the newest black sand beaches on Big Island, formed after the 2018 Kilauea eruption, is Pohoiki black sand beach in Isaac Hale State Park aka Pohoiki. When nature alters landscapes, the new risks can be an unknown factor. Since warning signs are not yet in place, keep your guard up for strong ocean currents and undertow.

Visiting a black sand beach is one of the best things to do on Hilo Hawaii Big Island

Curious about the other colored beaches that intrigue visitors to the Big Island? Then check out our articles on the green sand beach in Hawaii and the best beaches on Big Island.

Day trip to Waipi’o Valley

On the windward side of the northern Hamakua Coast, in the Kohala mountains, you’ll find seven verdant valleys. Waipi’o Valley, once the home of King Kamehameha I and therefore also known as the Valley of the Kings, is the southernmost one. The Waipi’o stream winds through the valley before it enters the ocean at the black sand beach.

The view fom the Waipi’o Valley Lookout is out of this world and this alone is worth the drive. If you’re looking for some adventure then you could explore the valley. Getting there involves a very steep descent for about a mile. We would advise against driving yourself, unless you’re an experienced 4WD driver and the car rental agency has no objection.

Enjoying the gorgeous views at the Waipio Valley look-out is one of the top things to do in Hawaii Hilo

You could hike your way down to the black sand beach or try to spot the majestic Hi’ilawa waterfall, plunging down 1,450 feet (442 m) in the back of the valley, is said to be amazing. Unless you want to risk trespassing on private land, you’ll only be able to catch a glimpse of this beautiful Hawaiian waterfall. Do note that the river feeding the waterfall is dammed which can make it (almost) dry. So, it’s best to inform about the circumstances before booking a tour.

Some tips:

  • Your shoes will get muddy and your clothes wet (if you decide to cross the stream). Make sure to wear water resistant hiking shoes from a trusted brand such as Merrell or Keen. Also, pack an extra pair of clothes and shoes to change when you return to the car.
  • Pack a GoPro with Karma Grip or hand/wrist strap plus some spare batteries.
  • This is the one waterfall in this article that’s rather difficult to reach. If you’re not up for the steep descent into and climb out of the valley, consider booking this small group Waipio Valley and waterfalls adventure tour or any of the following excursions:

If there’s one thing we regret about our Big Island trip, it’s that we didn’t make it to Waipi’o Valley. It’s one of those epic things to do in Hilo that we missed because our program was packed as it was. But hey, it gives us the perfect excuse to return!

Go stargazing at the Mauna Kea

The Mauna Kea volcano is a place where you’re encouraged to have your head in the clouds. There are two platforms that each offer a separate experience:

Stargazing at the Onizuka Center VIS (9,200 ft or 2,800 m)

The Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station is open daily from 9 am to 3 pm. It is mostly known for its “The Universe Tonight” program that is organized on the first Saturday of every month. This monthly event replaces the former, highly popular, stargazing program during which telescopes invited visitors to explore the nightly skies and rangers and volunteers answered their questions. The parking does fill up quickly and once full, arriving cars will be sent away.

There’s also a monthly Observatory Experience for Hawaiian residents only, organized by Maunakea Observatories and the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center.

Milky way during a stargazing activity at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station on the Mauna Kea

Watching the sunset at the summit (altitude of 13,796 ft or 4,205 m)

Even more telescopes can be found at the Mauna Kea summit, one of the ultimate places to see a Hawaiian sunset. The summit closes right after sunset. But getting there is a challenge because of the high altitude. Health issues can occur, especially when you don’t take the time to get acclimatized to the changing conditions. A 30 to 45 minute stop at the VIS can do wonders to eliminate most of these health risks (except for pregnant women, children and persons with respiratory or heart conditions). Then there’s the matter of getting there. Driving up there yourself is only recommended if you’re an experienced 4WD driver with a car that is made and equipped for these steep gravel conditions (4WD is required).

One of the ultimate Hilo Hawaii activities is stargazing at the top of Mauna Kea

Hilo things to do on the map

For your convenience, we’ve created this map which includes our favorite Hilo activities as listed above.

Where to stay: Hilo hotels

When deciding on where to stay on the Big Island of Hawaii, make sure to spend at least a part of your vacation in the Hilo area. We stayed at The Grand Naniloa Hotel Hilo – a DoubleTree by Hilton where we got to enjoy these gorgeous scenic views from our hotel bed. But this part of Hawaii Island is also home to some of the dreamiest Airbnbs in Hawaii.

Since we’re determined to return, we’ve put together a wish list of places to stay in the future and we’d love to share it with you:

Which of these Hilo sights is your favorite?

With so many exciting things to do in Hilo and beyond, it’s no wonder why this area has conquered our heart. The Big Island was the absolute highlight of our Hawaiian trip. To us, this is the Real Hawaii: untamed, lush and pure. So, if you’re still doubting which Hawaiian island to visit on your Hawaii island hopping adventure, then take it from us: Put the Big Island, and especially the Hilo area, on top of your list. You won’t regret it for a second.


Dreaming of planning a new vacation in these uncertain times? The AXA Assistance USA Platinum travel insurance includes a CFAR (Cancel for Any Reason) option which allows you to cancel your trip without any explanation, up to 2 days before departure. Conditions apply. Click here to learn more.

Pinning this post would be much appreciated!

12 Comments

  1. Ooooh – you are making me feel so excited about our March trip back to the Big Island. I have been several times, but haven’t explored this side. It isn’t called the “Big” island for nothing! Last time I was there 4 years ago, I was on crutches (long story) so wasn’t up for a ton of exploring past the poke shack and closest beach, but this time I’m all over exploring more of the island! Definitely saving this for later! Thanks for linking up with #FarawayFiles, Erin

    1. Sarah

      How exciting that you have another Big Island adventure coming up, Erin! You’re right, there’s so much to experience on this island that it’s nearly impossible to combine it all into one trip. Kudos to you for making an attempt on crutches, I don’t know if would be up for that. We’ve given it our best shot during the week we spent there so, stay tuned for more Big Island posts. And feel free to give me a shout when you need some planning tips, I’d be more than happy to assist. Thanks for passing by! Sarah

  2. Such a great post! I’m so glad I came across it as we did almost the exact same itinerary on our honeymoon back in 2016. We were able to hike out to the Pu’u O’o lava flow and watch it flow over the cliff to the ocean. It was quite an experience. I’m glad you were able to visit Hawaii Volcanoes NP. So sad about all the homes lost in the Leilani eruption. Your astrophotography is amazing!! I love astro but couldnt go up to the summit of Mauna Kea as I was pregnant so not allowed at high altitude. Great post 🙂

    1. Sarah

      That must have been one amazing honeymoon! Hawaii Volcanoes NP was an incredible experience indeed. We had planned only one day because I wasn’t sure if this not-so-active family could handle the adventure. Now that we’ve found our inner explorer, we’d love to return and experience even more. I’ve also been following the updates about the NP’s reopening and really wonder how much the landscape must have changed. Unfortunately I can’t take credit for the Mauna Kea astrophotography: the source is mentioned at the end of the post. I’m just an amateur photographer with a mobile phone. 🙂

  3. This whole post gave me a serious case of wanderlust. Your images are beautiful and really make me feel like I’m there with you guys. Hilo sounds like it has lots of great stuff to see – those waterfalls look incredible and those trees! WOW!

  4. Really enjoyed this post. We had a wonderful trip to Hawaii and the Big Island 3 years ago. I wish we had got to The Hilo Botanical Gardens and the waterfalls which look amazing. However we did enjoy the volcanoes and as you say swimming with turtles is just amazing. Definitely a bucket list item crossed off. #FarawayFiles

    1. Sarah

      So happy to hear that you’ve had just as much fun exploring the Big Island as we did, Angela. Swimming with turtles even exceeded my expectations and made me feel like a kid all over again. This island is such a wonderful place to reconnect to nature and enjoy the simple things in life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.