Best Things to See and Do in Hilo, Hawaii

"Hilo Farmers Market"
Looking for Big Island Local Cuisine? Check out Hilo Farmers Market

Similar to Rodney Dangerfield, Hilo, on Hawaii’s Big Island, sometimes gets no respect. People pass up a visit to Hilo for a trip to Kona on the Big Island. I was recently in Hilo, Hawaii for a holiday weekend as United Airlines is offering non-stop flights from San Francisco International Airport  (SFO) to Hilo, Hawaii.  If this is your first time visiting Hilo, I’ll share my “Insider Tips” for things to see and do in Hilo.

When I have a visitor from out of town, I take them to Rainbow Falls. Everyone’s first look at Hilo should be this beautiful waterfall not far from downtown, up Waianuenue Avenue (Waianuenue means Rainbow in Hawaiian). Go at the right time in the morning and maybe you’ll see the rainbow that forms at the bottom of the falls.

If you are looking for Big Island, local cuisine, I recommend The Hilo Farmers Market. I like to graze my way through different types of food, starting off with coconut juice served “in the nut” with a straw, and finishing off with green papaya salad from Ratana’s Green Papaya Salad. The Spam musubi (only $1.25) is something else too. Not to mention the aisles & aisles of exotic tropical fruits like rambutan, jackfruit, strawberry papayas, apple bananas  and poha berries.

Ratanas Food Cart "Hilo Farmers Market" travel, Hawaii
Ratanas Food Cart is a must visit at the Hilo Farmers Market in Hawaii

Looking for a quiet place to escape and unplug, check out Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. 333,000 acres of pure Hawaiian nature. One of the few places you can hear the joyous songs of native forest birds like apapane. Don’t forget to bring water and a jacket. When I visited it was windy!

When you come to Hilo get your picture taken at Jaggar Museum, at the Halemaumau Crater overlook. Halemaumau is the home of Pele the volcano goddess, and her home has been erupting since 2008. A beautiful mystical plume of gas and ash is wafting into the sky, making a dramatic backdrop. If you’re lucky, you can see the glow from the lava lake below the surface after dark.

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The best item on the menu at Restaurant Hilo Bay Cafe, is the Blue Bay Burger. Local grass-fed beef fed topped with Gorgonzola. Or any of the fresh island fish specials. MMMM!

Seeing a lot of colorful tropical flowers? Hilo is best known for its rich volcanic soil, perfect for growing orchids, anthuriums, ginger and other gorgeous tropical flowers, And fruits. Visit Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden. Director James Cameron and the animators from the movie Avatar came here to be inspired!

Looking for cheap food in Hilo, besides the Farmers Market,  Café 100 on Kilauea Avenue has amazing history and is everyone’s favorite place to grab plate lunch or loco moco.

"Onomea Falls" "Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden"
Visit Onomea Falls in Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden or Rainbow Falls in Hilo, Hawaii

For fine dining with a local and organic push, nothing is better than Hilo Bay Café. Fresh fish specials, signature martinis and much more.

In Hilo, take your picture with Namaste, the white Bengal tiger at Hilo’s Panaewa Zoo!

The best vantage points are taken by walking to the top of Hilo, really great views of downtown and the coast/ocean from Imiloa Astronomy Center , which looks down on them. And Hilo Bay views are incredibly beautiful from Queen Liliuokalani Park, you can see snow-capped Maunakea in winter.

Summit and lower levels of Maunakea offeres great views of Maunaloa, Hualalai and Halekaka (Maui) mountains, and is the best place in the world to go stargazing. Book a guided tour or drive on your own. But unless you have a 4WD you can’t go past the Visitors Center at 9300 feet. The vc offers FREE guided stargazing every night! It gets really cold  so be sure to back warm clothes.

"Donald Pascual" "Paani Ranch" horseback ride
Go horseback riding in Hilo, Hawaii at Pa’ani Ranch with owner Donald Pascual

In Hilo outdoor enthusiasts will want to hike Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Kilauea Iki,  horseback ride at Paani Ranch in Mountain View and  surf or SUP at Honolii Beach in Hilo.

Looking for a little exercise? Walk along  Hilo Bayfront’s black sand beach and along Banyan Drive and Queen Liliuokalani Park or all of them if you need a lot of exercise.

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If you are a museum lover, Hilo’s best museums are Imiloa Astronomy Center and Lyman Museum and Pacific Tsunami Museum

Enjoy a night out on the town? For a night of dancing, go to Hilo’s 100 %  Moxies on Kinoole Street.

Ken’s House of Pancakes is the spot for late night dining. It’s open 24 hours a day, and their saimin, served with a generous side of Chinese hot mustard, hits the spot!

The  Hawaii Tribune-Herald, 50 cents daily/ $1 on Sundays will keep you posted on what’s happening in Hilo. They even have an events section on Saturdays to keep you on top of everything happening around town, and there’s plenty! Also Big Island Weekly, a free weekly alternative paper is another must-grab.

You can tell a lot about Hilo from visiting  Palace Theatre and watching a Hawaiian music performance.

In the spring you should attend  the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival, which starts Easter Sunday and lasts a week. Tickets to the final competitons are snatched up a six months ahead of time, so register online early for tickets, or if you don’t get any, don’t fret, there’s a week’s worth of free festivals, events and performances throughout Hilo.

In the summer you should attend Hawaii Volcanoes National Park’s annual Hawaiian cultural festival.

"Filthy Farmgirl Soaps" "Hilo Farmers Market" travel, hawaii
Filthy Farmgirl Soaps -Fun gifts to bring back from Hilo, Hawaii

Did you know that Hilo is known for Polynesian navigation and wayfinding? Plan a visit on the fall. Imiloa Astronomy Center’s week long events around this in the fall.

Come to Hilo for whale watching and seeing “snow in Hawaii” on top of Maunakea and Maunaloa  in the winter.

Go to Puff City in downtown Hilo on Kilauea Avenue for a great breakfast treat or coffee.

Just outside of  Hilo you can visit Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden and have lunch at What’s Shakin’

The best way to see Hilo is to walk – especially downtown Hilo and the Queen Liliuokalani Park/Banyan Drive area.

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Don’t miss Panaewa Rainforest Zoo if  you have kids traveling with you.

What are your favorite things to do in Hilo, Hawaii?

Thanks to Big Island Visitors Bureau and Jessica Ferracane  for assistance with this post. You may also follow the Hawaiian Island on Twitter or become a Facebook Fan of Hawaii. I was a guest of Big Island Visitors Bureau. Article, YouTube video and photos by Nancy D. Brown

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3 thoughts on “Best Things to See and Do in Hilo, Hawaii”

  1. Grant@travel management

    I thought Hawaii is all about beaches, they also got falls and mountains.

  2. We currently live in Hilo, as Patti took a temporary position at a local life care center. This is a beautiful place that still captures much of the Hawaiian Aloha spirit, and has some incredibly beautiful places to visit. You have listed many highlights well. The delight for us has been finding “treasures” that seem to have remained hidden from the usual tourists; Waiale Falls further up beyond Rainbow Falls, hawksbill turtles hanging out at Carlsmith Beach Park, Suisan Retail Market near the Queen’s Gardens, and so much more. I hope to do our own “travel log” with photos soon. 🙂 BTW, been to Kona side once . . . that was enough, give me Hilo and environs for Hawaii kine feel any day!

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