Nestled on the east side of the Big Island of Hawaii sits the large town of Hilo. While Hilo lacks the glitz and glamour of the Waikiki resorts, we love its authentic, unpretentious Hawaiian experience.
Having lived in and around Hilo for three plus years in the early 2000’s, we were very excited to bring our kids back and explore all the things to do in Hilo. It’s no secret that Hilo holds a special place in our hearts, and we hope you are able to experience that Big Island aloha too.
Things to do in Hilo
Between museums, restaurants, beach parks, and shopping, there are plenty of things to do in Hilo for both kids and adults. Downtown Hilo sites are all within walking distance, with the remaining things to do in Hilo just a 15-20 minute drive from each other.
If you decide to visit Hilo for more than a day, plan for two very full days in town to cover the best of what to see in Hilo. For slower travel, spread out your visit to four days to see all of the Hilo highlights.
There are plenty of day trips from Hilo as well. Plan for one day driving up the Hamakua coast towards Waimea. Another day driving up towards Volcano. For things to do in Kona, it’s best to base yourself out of the Kona coast to avoid half the day of driving!
Trying to plan what to do in Hilo? Take a look at the following Hilo activities that include the best of food, museums, and kid friendly exploration!
Hilo Farmers Market
As a family of local food lovers, the Hilo Farmers Market was our first stop when we made it back to Hilo. We even often talk about the market when comparing other markets of the world. It is that great! There are always some produce vendors set up daily, but the main market days with a full spread of vendors are Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Stock up on staples for family snacks, and let your kids explore unique tropical fruits such as rambutan or dragon fruit. Flower bouquets are available on most days. If you’re looking to shop for Hawaiian souvenirs, there are many craft vendors set up on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
- Located right along Hilo bayfront at the corner of Mamo St. and Kamehameha Ave.
Pacific Tsunami Museum
The history of modern Hilo, especially the bayfront area, has been dramatically shaped by tsunamis. The Pacific Tsunami Museum is packed with exhibits detailing the history of the Hilo tsunamis and personal stories of the devastation.
The museum exhibits are packed with photos, allowing even younger kids to follow along on the historical timelines and science behind a tsunami, while giving the adults plenty of information to digest.
- Open Tuesday – Saturday 10 AM – 4 PM
- Adults: $8
- Children 6-17: $4
- Children 5 and under: Free
- Kama’aina discounts available
- Located along Kamehameha Ave. (Bayfront)
Mokupāpapa Discovery Center
The Mokupāpapa Discovery Center is the interpretative center for the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. The center is filled with exciting, interactive exhibits about the marine world of the Hawaiian Islands.
With older kids, you could get lost in reading the exhibits for an hour or two. Hopefully the salt water aquarium and life sized replicas keep even your littlest ones busy long enough for the adults to enjoy!
- Open Tuesday – Saturday 9 AM – 4 PM
- Tickets: No entrance fee
- Located along Kamehameha Ave. (Bayfront)
‘Imiloa Astronomy Center
With some of the most advanced telescopes in the world located an hour from Hilo, a visit to the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center is an absolute must. Catch a glimpse into the world of astronomy with their many exhibits.
Each admission tickets includes entrance to one of their planetarium presentations that are sure to be enjoyed by both kids and adults. Overall, the center creates a perfect blend between modern science knowledge and the history of Hawaiian navigators and their knowledge of the stars.
- Open 9 AM – 5 PM
- Adults $19
- Children 5-12 $12
- Children 4 and under Free
- Kama’aina discounts available
- 10 minute drive from Hilo Bayfront close to the UH Hilo campus
Free Things to do in Hilo Hawaii
We all love free activities, but let’s face it, family travel is expensive! In order to take advantage of as many things to do in Hilo and Hawaii as possible, free things to do in Hilo (or anywhere) are a must on any Hawaii itinerary.
One of the most iconic photos from Hilo is of Rainbow Falls. When the sun is out, there is typically a rainbow halo in front of the falls and cave.
Best of luck capturing your own version of those photos! Between large groups of tourists seemingly always present, and intermittent Hilo sun, your imagination may have to help you out a little. The falls are still a beautiful sight to see, and worth the stop regardless.
- Located off Waianuenue Ave, about 10 minutes from Hilo Bayfront.
Leave the shops and stores along Kamehameha Ave. and head over to the actual bayfront. Let the kids run along the black sand. Watch sailing and outrigger canoe paddling in the afternoons and weekends. Set your gaze beyond the breakwater and watch for whale spouts during the migratory season.
Queen Lili’uokalani Gardens
Head from Hilo Bayfront/Kamehameha Dr. and turn down Banyan Drive. Wander through the gorgeous Japanese landscaping of the Queen Lili’uokalani Gardens, and admire all of the giant banyan trees lining their namesake road.
From the north edge of the Queen Lili’uokalani Gardens, let the kids burn off some steam and take the walk over the bridge towards Coconut Island. On a clear day you can see all the way up to the summit of Mauna Kea.
Keaukaha Beach Parks
From Banyan Dr., head east along Kalanianaole Ave into Keaukaha (just a few minutes from Hilo Bayfront). Once you leave the industrial area, there are numerous little beach parks along the ocean side of the road.
Overall, Keaukaha beach parks have grassy shores rather than long, sandy beaches. Most parks have shallow areas for easy kid safe swimming. Hilo has lots of fresh water input along this coast line, so water is chilly, but still has decent snorkeling.
There are lots of rock and tidepools for exploring, and it is fairly common to hear Humpback songs while snorkeling during whale season! Definitely take advantage of these free gems while planning things to do in Hilo.
Our favorite parks, from west to east:
- Onekahakaha Beach Park
- Kealoha Beach Park
- Carlsmith Beach Park
- Richardson Ocean Park
What to do in Hilo When it Rains
It rains in Hilo. A lot! Embrace the rain when traveling to Hilo and recognize that all of the rain creates the incredible rainforest surrounding Hilo. Most days will see a rain-sun pattern throughout the day. For the days of constant rain (most likely during the rainy season from November-March), keep some of the following saved for what to do in Hilo when it rains to maintain happy travelers!
Downtown Hilo Hawaii Shopping
Take the time to explore all the specialty shops along Hilo’s Bayfront. Explore art galleries, surf shops, and hunt for souvenirs while walking under the store overhangs. The Pacific Tsunami Museum and Mokupāpapa Discovery Center (described above) are located along this stretch of shops as well.
Escape inside the historic Palace Theater, right off the Bayfront shopping on Haili St. Watch a daytime movie, or if your schedule allows stay for a show in the evenings.
Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Factory Tour
Travel 20 minutes outside of Hilo, towards Volcano, to the Mauna Loa Macademia Nut Factory. Drive through their fields of macademia nuts when you are navigating to the factory, and take the tour and tastings to get inside knowledge of one of Hawaii’s main agricultural crops.
Best Food in Hilo
Hilo is not lacking restaurants, and a great variety of food options! From authentic Mexican to a few different delicious Thai food restaurants, to coffee and kombucha, we are positive you’ll find something exciting to feast on.
Here are a few of our favorites, but we hope you explore and find a few other favorites of your own:
Cafe Pesto has been a constant along the Hilo Bayfront since 1992. The beautiful restored building creates a wonderful dining experience. The upscale cafe menu includes the best wood fired pizza in Hawaii, so there is plenty for both parents and kids to enjoy.
Big Island Kombucha
We were able to enjoy some bottled Big Island Kombucha in a local health food store, and loved it! We were so excited when we stumbled upon their cafe one afternoon for lunch. They offer a nice selection of “draft” kombucha for dining to couple with super fresh lunch options that are generous in size.
Hilo Brewing Company
Are you like us and try to sample local craft beer on your travels? Take the time to stop in at the tasting room of Hilo Brewing Company on Kawili St. for some samples and fun conversations with this relatively new brewery even with kids in tow!
Puna Chocolate Company
While walking the streets of Hilo to get from parking to our lunch spot, we stumbled upon the Puna Chocolate Company. Of course a chocolate company will keep most kids thrilled, but us adults really enjoyed their innovative chocolate combinations and nice sized chocolate bars for friend presents.
They also offer a delicious selection of hot and cold coffee/mocha drinks to go, which you might decide to pose with alongside their wall art!
Things to do Near Hilo
While the things to do in Hilo can easily occupy two or three days, the days trips from Hilo are practically endless. The following things to do near Hilo are all day trips if you would like to stay parked at your Hilo hotel.
Driving From Hilo Towards Volcano & South Point
Panaewa Rainforest Zoo
Located just 15 minutes on the way out of Hilo, the Panaewa Rainforest Zoo is a small, free (donations accepted) zoo that is a great spot for kids to explore. Panaewa is generally not crowded, which allows kids to get up fairly close to each exhibit. There is even a bonus small jungle gym at the end to help kids burn off the extra steam before getting back into the car.
Akatsuka Orchid Gardens
Located on the drive from Hilo to Volcano, and just about 20 minutes before you hit the National Park. Browse all of the incredible orchid varieties in their greenhouses, and maybe even ship a plant home for your slice of Hawaii.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Most likely a visit to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is the main stop on your long list of things to do near Hilo. Dedicate at least a few days to exploring Hawaii Volcanoes, and it’s located an hour drive from Hilo.
Driving From Hilo up the Hamakua Coast Towards Waimea
Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve and Garden plus Onomea Bay Scenic Drive
On your drive from Hilo to Waimea, take the time to drive along the scenic drive to Onomea Bay (Old Mamalahoa Highway). The views of the bay are absolutely stunning, and this simple little stretch of road is one of our favorite drives on the Big Island!
Hopefully you also find the time to stop at the Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve and Garden. The walking trails through the garden lead through idyllic, lush rainforest and streams, complete with every imaginable tropical plant. Allot a few hours for a trip, as there is both plenty of walking and and sights to soak in.
Akaka Falls State Park
Just north of Onomea Bay is the turn off for the popular Akaka Falls State Park. Akaka Falls is likely the most well known waterfall on the Big Island, and the paved (but steep) short trail makes it easy to take in the beauty of the 400+ foot waterfall. You will also come across a small bonus waterfall on your hike, Kahuna Falls.
Waipio Valley Overlook
Almost to Waimea on the drive from Hilo, is another turn off to the Waipio Valley look out. The look out is another Big Island iconic sight, so you will likely share the view with at least a handful of other visitors. The steep cliffs surrounding the valley make for incredible view.
For the adventurous with extra time, you can walk down the 3/4 mile road into the valley, but beware. It is very steep! The grade is 25%+ all the way down, which makes both the downhill and uphill walk a huge accomplishment. We walked this hill quite a few times in our 20’s, but opted not to take our hiking savvy kids down on our recent trip. The paved road makes it much harder than a typical steep hiking trail.
Alternatively, you can also join a tour that will drive you down into the valley in their robust 4×4 vehicles. Once in the valley, you can explore the black sand beach, camp, or hike back to the tall Hiilawe Falls at the back of the Valley, where you just might get a glimpse of a wild horse!
Driving From Hilo up Saddle Road Towards Kona
Just as you are leaving Hilo on the drive up Saddle Rd., take a quick stop at Kaumana Caves. The cave is an old lava tube, with access through the collapsed tube roof, or skylight. Only a little bit of the cave is explorable (bring a flashlight!), but it’s a really fun stop that the kids will enjoy exploring. Plus, so cool to stand where lava once flowed to the ocean!
Mauna Kea Visitors Center
You learned about the Big Island’s tallest mountain, Mauna Kea, and it’s advanced telescopes at the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center. The visitor’s center on Mauna Kea, is just an hour drive from downtown Hilo. Located at 9000 feet in elevation, be sure to pack all the extra layers you traveled to Hawaii with, as temperatures will be cold!
Plan to visit in the late afternoon so you have a chance to see the handful of exhibits in the visitor’s center before closing. Stay for sunset, and the absolutely incredible array of stars that appear overhead.
Where to Stay in Hilo
When you are visiting the Big Island in Hawaii, you will find that you have many options when it comes to accommodations. However, Hilo is the best area when it comes to choosing a place to stay. There are multiple reasons for this, but let’s begin with its close proximity to major attractions like Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Add in the lush surroundings, rushing waterfalls, and how close it is to the Hilo airport and you will wonder why anyone would choose to stay anywhere else!
Hotels in Hilo
Hilo Seaside Hotel
A stay at the Hilo Seaside Hotel will have you close to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Rainbow Waterfall, Akaka Waterfall, and the Hilo Heritage Museum. They offer three types of rooms for families of up to four. While each option is amazing, you may prefer the deluxe room due to the outdoor seating area. Free Wi-Fi and breakfast are included with your stay. Plus, the on-site swimming pool is perfect for those lazy afternoons and evenings after a full day of exploring the island.
Hilo Hawaiian Hotel
Charm is everywhere at this Hawaiian hotel. As soon as you arrive, you will see Maunakea in the distance. Most of the guest rooms sleep up to four people and include a coffee maker, refrigerator, and free Wi-Fi. This is perfect for those mornings when you are looking for a quick bite to eat and coffee before you head out on your next adventure. The swimming pool, café, and on-site shops are nice for those days when you are staying closer to your room. However, with twenty-five waterfalls, Panaewa Rainforest Zoo, Onekahakaha Beach, and so much more within a short drive, you will probably be out exploring the island most of your stay.
The Inn at Kulaniapia Falls
The Inn at Kulaniapia Falls is on twenty-two acres of lush landscape, but you can reach town in no time at all. Your family will easily fit in the large family suite or one of the guest houses, but Harmony House is the recommended option due to the gorgeous views of the waterfall. This is an eco-friendly resort, so you may not find as many amenities as you would at the other hotels in the area. However, you will have breakfast and Wi-Fi included in your stay.
Ready to Explore all of the Things to do in Hilo?
Hopefully this post will convince you to add a stop to your Big Island itinerary to explore all of the things to do in Hilo! If you are wanting to discover an authentic slice of Hawaii outside of the resorts, then Hilo is sure to please.
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This post was first published in July 2020, and most recently updated in June 2021.