On the eastern side of the Big Island, you’ll find Hilo, the Hawaii County seat of government. It’s one of the biggest population centers in the state. The town lays claim to an estimated over 43,000 residents, putting it in Hawaii’s top 5. Hilo also hosts a number of attractions and activities to enjoy during your leisure time on the Orchid Isle.
In this article, we’ll run down our top 10 list of things to do in and near Hilo. Enjoy the island’s natural beauty, explore its history, admire the work of its artists, and taste the bounty of the aina (land). Let’s dive into experiencing the Big Island at its absolute best.
Note: Due to COVID-19 restrictions, hours and availability of these attractions may change. Make sure you check the websites listed or call ahead to get up-to-date information before planning your visit.
#1: The Imiloa Astronomy Center
Kicking off our top ten activities in Hilo, check out this celestial experience. The Imiloa Astronomy Center, is dedicated to Hawaii’s legacy of exploration. The center focuses on Hawaiian astronomical research at Mauna Kea. At the center, you’ll find exhibits that trace Hawaii’s original settlers from Polynesia. You’ll learn about the crucial role celestial navigation played in guiding that voyage. Admission includes your choice of one of the center’s planetarium shows which showcases the incredible sights you can see in the sky above the Big Island.
- Admission: $19 for adults, $12 for children twelve and under. Children four and under are free. Kamaaina discounts available.
- Website: Imiloa Astronomy Center
#2: Lyman Museum and Mission House
The Lyman Museum and Mission House make an excellent rainy-day activity in Hilo. Note that they’re located next door to each other but require separate bookings.
Within the Lyman Museum, you’ll find two main galleries. The Island Heritage Gallery focuses on the different people and traditions that have created the complex culture you’ll find on the islands. The Earth Heritage Gallery focuses on the ecosystem so you can understand the natural features that make these islands so special.
At the Mission House, you’ll tour a family home built for missionaries David and Sarah Lyman in the late 1830s. All tours are guided by a docent. You’ll enjoy a snapshot into what life was like for families who left everything behind for the Hawaiian Islands.
- Admission to Lyman Museum – $7 for adults, $5 for seniors, and $2 for children.
- Admission to Mission House – $3 for adults, $3 for seniors, and $1 for children. Kamaaina and university student discounts available.
- Website: Lyman Museum and Mission House
#3: Rainbow Falls
Just five minutes from downtown Hilo, you’ll find the most convenient waterfall on the Big Island. Rainbow Falls, or Waianuenue (translation: rainbow water) got its name for the rainbows that appear in the mist of this 80-foot waterfall. According to legend, the Hawaiian goddess of the moon, Hina, lives in the caves behind the falls. For the best chance of spotting these ephemeral phenomena, visit on a sunny morning. The size of the falls changes depending on the amount of rain that’s fallen recently. If you stop by after a particularly intense shower, the waters might not be as clear—and you might not see those famous rainbows—but you will be treated to the sight of a powerful rush of water.
- Admission: Free
- Website: Wailuku River State Park
#4: Hilo Farmers Market
Although the Hilo Farmers Market is open daily, Wednesdays and Saturdays are the biggest days, with the most vendors in attendance. The Big Island’s rich soil makes for plentiful crops year round, so you’ll be able to choose from a wide variety of locally grown fruits and vegetables. Our favorites sweet treats are mangoes, papaya, pineapple, strawberries and lychee. Or try jack fruit, avocados, bok choy, eggplant, or sweet corn. The variety all depends on the season. The market is a great place for specialties like jams, jellies, and fresh fish, plus it’s an excellent stop for locally-made souvenirs and crafts.
- Admission: Free
- Website: Hilo Farmers Market
#5: Kaumana Caves
Just four miles out of town and down a steep set of stairs, you’ll find this lava tube formed by an eruption of Mauna Loa in the 1880s. You’ll have the best experience if you gear up with a pair of good shoes, grip, and headlamp or flashlight. While you can use your phone’s light in a pinch, the volcanic rock is not a forgiving surface if you to drop your phone! Athough the cave is believed to be as long as 25 miles, only about two are open to the public. Expect to scramble, crouch, and tread carefully during your visit to enjoy the full experience.
- Admission: Free
- Website: Kaumana Caves State Park on Google Maps
#6: Explore Hilo’s Art Galleries
The Hawaiian Islands have long inspired artists, both those born here and those attracted by the island’s natural beauty and slower, thoughtful lifestyle. If you’re an art lover, you’ll find plenty of galleries to explore in downtown Hilo, which feature a range of artists, mediums, and prices. Below, you’ll find three of our favorites:
- One Gallery – An artist collective featuring paintings, sculptures, Ni’ihau dyed gourds, gifts, and prints from local Big Island artists.
- Above the Equator Gallery – One of the newest additions to the Hilo art scene, Above the Equator promotes artists working from the countries and cultures near the equator, with a strong focus on artists of Hawaii.
- Banyan Gallery – Both a gallery and a working studio, the gallery features gourds and art local artist Jelena Clay, in addition to other Big Island artists. If you’re looking for a unique hand-crafted gift to bring (or send) to a loved one, Banyan Gallery is a perfect option.
#7: Mokupapapa Discovery Center
Established by NOAA in 2003 and renovated in 2014, the Mokupapapa Discovery Center highlights the marine environment and history of the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Because the area is a Marine National Monument, it’s only open to scientists and a limited numbers of other visitors by permit. As a result, the Mokupapapa Discovery Center is the only way that most people will get to experience this remarkable area, which contains some of the world’s most pristine coral reefs, which act as the home for 7,000+ species of fish, turtles, mammals and more, some of which are only found in the Hawaiian Islands.
- Admission: Free
- Website: Mokupapapa Discovery Center
#8: Hit the Beach
Even though the Kona side of the Big Island might be more famous for its sunny, white sand beaches, you’ll still find plenty of shoreline to enjoy in Hilo. Discover more in our guide to the best beaches in Hilo.
#9: The University of Hawaii at Hilo Botanical Gardens
If you love the idea of strolling through a lush, tropical landscape while admiring a variety of plants, trees, and flowers, you’ll find plenty of botanical gardens along the Hilo and Hamakua Coasts. Bonus: There’s even find one in downtown Hilo, at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. Admission is free, although you will need to buy a permit if you want to park on campus. Get all the details in our article on the best botanical gardens on the Hilo side of the Big Island.
#10: Bonus: Take a Little Trip
In addition to offering you these attractions and things to do right within Hilo town, the area is also a great jumping off point for a number of activities you’ll find on the windward side of the Big Island. Two of our favorites include:
Volcanoes National Park – Although Kilauea is quiet (for now), the park’s otherworldly landscapes will still take your breath away. Take a scenic drive to experience the sights from the comfort of your car or get up close and personal hiking through the park’s extensive trail system.
Drive the Hamakua Coast – Waterfalls, botanical gardens, farm stands, and more await you on this journey up the northeastern side of the Big Island. There’s plenty to see and do, but we encourage you to take it slow and savor every stop. It’s the journey that makes this trip special, not the destinations.
Making the Most of Your Time in Hilo
Whether you’re in Hilo for a few days, a few years, or a lifetime, you’ll find a wide variety of activities to keep you busy. We hope this list of top ten activities in Hilo has been helpful – it’s just a starting point to explore unique landscape, history, culture, art, and the natural bounty that this side of the Big Island has to offer. Considering a move? We’ve got teams in Kona and Hilo wo are happy to help your transition! Just get in touch with us for a complimentary quote.
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