I recently returned from another trip to the Big Island. But there is so much to do there that I am already planning to go back in December. So, I’ve got the Big Island on my mind a lot lately.
The Big Island is rightly named because it is very big. In fact, it’s bigger than all of the other Hawaiian islands combined! What that means is that you have to plan out your trip to the Big Island in advance. When you visit Oahu, Kauai, and Maui, you can pick one place to stay and take day trips to the other part of the island. You can see everything from just one home base because it won’t take you more than an hour and a half really to get anywhere by car.
When you visit Oahu, Kauai, and Maui, you can pick one place to stay and take day trips to the other part of the island. You can see everything from just one home base because it won’t take you that long to get anywhere by car.
But the Big Island is so large that you cannot do that. People who want to see everything that the Big Island has to offer will often turn it into a road trip, staying in a couple of different hotels in different areas, so that they can rake it all in. Or, they will choose to just stay in one place on the Big Island and skip some of its other attractions.
Because it takes so long to get places, you have to decide where you want to spend your time. Today, I’m going to talk about Hilo. Many people come to Hilo on their way to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. There is a lot to do here, and it’s close to two of the Big Island’s main attractions – Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Mauna Kea. If you arrive in Hilo and just have one day to explore, here’s what I think you should do.
Get your coffee fix
Begin your day with coffee and a light breakfast at Hilo Sharks Coffee. Out of all of the coffee shops I went to in Hilo, this was by far my favorite.
Hilo Sharks Coffee is open every day. They serve freshly roasted Hawaiian coffee, food, Hawaiian chocolate, lattes, frappes, smoothies, ice cream and more!
You might have to go back in the afternoon for your second coffee fix and some ice cream. I went every single morning I was in Hilo…. and a few afternoons, too.
There are three different waterfalls to choose from, depending on what you want to see and how much time you have. Maybe you can even see more than one.
Located 30 minutes outside of Hilo, Akaka Falls opens at 8:30 am. The .4 mile Akaka Falls Loop Trail is well worth a visit. During the trial, you will see beautiful plants. At the end, you a 422-foot waterfall awaits you.
The Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden is a bit closer to Hilo, about 20 minutes. I believe that if you have time, this is something everyone should do on the Big Island. The path along this 40-acre valley is a botanical garden that will take you to Onomea Falls. Along the way, you will see bubbling streams, a collection of over 2,000 species of tropical plants from all over the world, and an incredible view of the Big Island’s rocky coastline. A visit to Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden could be a quick stop or a longer visit, depending on how much you want to see and how long you spend looking around. I easily spent a couple of hours there.
If you prefer to stay in Hilo, you can see Rainbow Falls instead, so-named for the rainbows that come up through the mist. Pro Tip: You have to get there in the morning in order to have a chance to see the rainbow. You will only be able to see it when it’s sunny. But it’s still worth a visit no matter when you go!
Explore Downtown Hilo
The Hilo Farmers Market is a Big Island must-do. It is located at the corner of Mamo Street and Kamehameha Avenue in downtown Hilo. It is open every single day. On Wednesday and Saturday, it is open from 6:00 am – 4:00 pm. Wednesdays and Saturdays are known to be the best days to visit the farmers market, with over 200 local farmers and crafters in attendance selling produce, crafts, gift items, and tropical flowers.
But if you are not going to be in Hilo on those days, don’t worry! The farmers market is open on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Sunday from 7:00 am – 4:00 pm. On these days, over 30 farmers and crafters are there. No matter what day you go, it’s worth taking a stroll through to get some locally grown fruit and crafts.
The Hilo Farmers Market is a great jumping off point to explore the historic downtown Hilo. Many of the buildings have a rich history that you can learn more about in the local museums.
When walking around downtown Hilo, make sure you stop at Abundant Life Natural Foods on Kamehameha Avenue, just a few blocks away from the farmers market. Why am I telling you to go to a grocery store? Because you can purchase many locally made items, snacks, and the best fresh smoothies around. Grab some snacks there to bring to the beach later.
Visit a Museum or a Zoo
In Hilo, there are many educational museums that you can visit, depending on how much time you have and what you are interested to see. There is so much to learn here, and it’s a great way to learn about the history and culture of the island. Because many of these museums are small, you might be able to see a couple in one day, depending on how you want to spend your time.
The Lyman Museum is a restored missionary house on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. The mission statement of the Lyman Museum is “To tell the story of Hawaii, its islands, and its people.”
The Mokupāpapa Discovery Center is a free museum where you can learn about marine life. It is so small that everything is contained to one room. But this free center is worth a short visit. The purpose of the Mokupāpapa Discovery Center is to interpret the natural science, culture, and history of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and surrounding marine environment. It aims to raise public awareness of the region and ocean conservation issues.
Surprisingly, the Pacific Tsunami Museum is well worth the visit. Why bother learning about tsunamis? Because they have greatly shaped the history of Hilo and the Hawaiian islands. View pictures, learn about how tsunamis form, learn about why Hilo is so susceptible to tsunamis, learn about how Hilo has rebuilt itself, and watch a video where you can hear stories from people who survived some of Hilo’s worst tsunamis.
The Imiloa Astronomy Center is a family-friendly museum that provides a unique experience for visitors to explore the connections between Hawaiian cultural traditions and astronomy. Visit the planetarium as well as their native garden and interactive exhibits. “Origins” is about the beginnings of life on Earth, and “Explorations” where you can learn about how native Hawaiians used the sky to explore, and how the observatories on Mauna Kea continue to help us learn about the world.
The Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo And Gardens is another free family-friendly attraction. It boasts a beautiful botanical garden and over 80 animal species, including a white tiger, spider monkeys, lemurs, and nene geese (the Hawaii state bird). This is another small attraction, at only 12 square miles. But if you have animal lovers in your group, it’s worth checking out, especially since this is the only tropical zoo in the United States.
Lay on a black sand beach
After all of that walking around at waterfalls, farmers market, and museums, it’s time to relax on the beach. Bring the snacks or picnic lunch that you got from the farmers market, relax, and enjoy the unique beauty of the Big Island.
The most famous black sand beach is Punalu‘u Beach, located on the south side of the island. It’s over an hour’s drive from Hilo.
But if you want to see black sand and don’t have time to go that far, you can look no further than Hilo. Richardson Beach Park is a great place to start. The black sand is an amazing sight to see, and the water is so warm!
Carlsmith beach park is more of a place to swim and snorkel than to lay on the beach. But, it ended up being my favorite beach in Hilo. The rocky coastline doesn’t make for the best lazy day. But there is a reef and lava rock that protects the swimming area, making it a great place to snorkel and swim. The water is so clear, too. You might even see Hawaiian green sea turtles!
Have dinner at Hilo Bay Cafe
After a long day, it’s time to reward yourself with a fantastic meal! Hands down, the best food I’ve had in Hilo is at the Hilo Bay Cafe. With a stunning view of
Hilo Bay Cafe is open Monday – Thursday from 11:00 – 9:00, Friday – Saturday from 11:00 – 9:30 (closed Sunday).
Hilo Bay Cafe serves lunch from 11:00-2:30. On the menu, you will find small plates and appetizers, specialty sushi rolls, classic sushi rolls, nigiri, and sashimi, salads, fresh, locally caught fish, and sandwiches.
The afternoon menu is available from 2:30 – 5:00. Although this menu is smaller, you can still get small plates, sushi (cut/hand roll), and burgers.
And finally, from 5:00 on, dinner is served. You will find small plates and appetizers, specialty sushi rolls, classic sushi rolls, nigiri, and sashimi, salads. There are also larger main dishes including surf and turf, catch of the day, ribeye, and more.
Planning a trip to the Big Island?
Although I live on Oahu, I’ve written a lot about the Big Island. Be sure to check out these recent posts: 10 Free Things To Do On The Big Island, How To See Lava On The Big Island, 5 Questions To Ask Before Heading To The Big Island In Hawaii, as well as our podcast, Big Island Vacation Ideas.
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