Top sights in Hilo


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Located on the eastern side of the Big Island, Hilo is the largest town on the "island of Hawaii." Though, it does not need too many residents to get the "largest town of the island" crown – only 45,000 people live in an area of roughly 60 square miles. Hilo is also the oldest town in the Hawaiian archipelago. In the early 20th century, the coast of Hilo was the hub of thriving sugar-production facilities. Traders from around the world used to frequent Hilo for business purposes. The sugar industry gradually declined over the 20th century ultimately disappearing by the 1980s. It's not a bustling commercial town anymore. Still, downtown Hilo has a lot of character with funky eateries, gift boutiques, thrift stores, and the smell of pot – quite a contrast to the manicured Kona coast with its fancy resorts!!!!

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How to get there:


Hilo has an airport, but it only serves inter-island flights. The quickest way to reach Hilo from the island's principal airport, Kailua-Kona, is via the Saddle road. The Saddle road gained its notoriety due to its poor conditions in the early 1990s. But now, the entire route is well-paved and nicely maintained. Some car rental companies still do not allow rental cars to be driven on Saddle road due to some arcane reasoning. I suggest you clarify the rules with your car rental company while picking up the vehicle.

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Things to see in Hilo:


Though more reasonably priced than the western side of the island, Hilo sees only half the number of tourists than Kona. Most of them are day-visitors. With much to offer, I would highly encourage you to spend at least a couple of nights at Hilo and explore the surrounding area.


Hilo is one of the wettest places on the earth; it receives an average of 157 inches of precipitation per year. The volcanic mountains located in the middle of the island protect the western side from the rainy north while exposing the eastern part to wet weather. After arriving at Hilo from Kailua-Kona, the first thing we noticed is its Eden-like vibrant green landscape - filled with tropical flowers, rainforest, and waterfalls.

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Rainbow falls park is a few minutes' drive from downtown. The waterfall viewpoint is right across the parking spot. I was there in the latter half of the day, but if you manage to go there early on a sunny morning, you might be able to catch the rainbow on the waterfall. There is a short trail starting right from the parking area that one can climb to see the falls from the top. During our visit, the trailhead was closed due to COVID. We drove a bit further down the road, parked on the roadside, and took an alternative trail that took us to the top of the falls. This trail goes through a grove of ancient banyan trees covered with fig vines. The aerial prop roots give the appearance of a gigantic creature with countless trunks – mind-blowing!!!

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Akaka Falls state park is another local favorite. At 442 ft height, this majestic waterfall is massive compared to the Rainbow Falls. An easy 0.5 miles loop trail starts from the parking lot. I started counterclockwise on the path. Only a few minutes’ walk from the trailhead is Kahuna falls. I continued the loop through the lush rainforest filled with orchids, ferns, and bamboo groves - to the Akaka Falls. There is a shaded area with benches in front of the waterfall - a perfect place to sit, relax, and enjoy the views of this towering waterfall from.

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Hilo does not have those expansive, beautiful white sandy beaches Kona is famous for. If you are looking for sandy beaches around the Hilo downtown, the Coconut island area is your best bet. It's a small island on Hilo bay connected to the mainland by a pedestrian bridge. Coconut Island is a popular spot among locals for jogging and picnicking. Instead of parking right across the bridge, I would recommend the adjacent Liliʻuokalani Park and Gardens area. It is a Japanese themed garden with Koi ponds and Japanese tea houses. It is a bit of a longer walk from here to the island but if you decide to take this longer route through the sidewalk lined with coconut trees, you will be rewarded with spectacular views of the Hilo bay and the Hilo downtown across the bay. There is a 20 ft tall stone tower on the northern tip of the island - popular among local kids - jumping from the tower into the water performing all sorts of acrobatics.

Kalopa state park is another nearby destination not to be missed. It is 40 miles north of Hilo and a bit off the route. In regular times, maybe the park sees a lot of visitors but, believe it or not, the day we visited, two of us were the only people in the park – the entire time! There are a bunch of trails in the park. We hiked the "native forest nature trail," which is roughly a mile loop and offers a fascinating experience of a real Hawaiian rain forest. The most noticeable thing in the entire trail was the smell of common guava crushed on the forest floor– which is funny because it is not a "native" species of Hawaii, but somehow is the most dominant character of the native forest trail!! The large old Ohia and Kopiko trees form a high canopy, their shades creating dramatic light and shadows on the forest floor and an ideal thriving place for Hoio ferns on the ground. The forest was very dense in certain parts making it difficult to follow the trail. White markings on the trees kept us on track. Keep in mind that this is a high cool rainforest. I would recommend full pants and rain jackets. And don't forget mosquito repellants!

Kaumana caves state park is a hidden gem of Hilo. The entrance to the cave is literally “hidden” behind the bush. We parked our car, crossed the road, and found a narrow suspicious staircase going underground. Kaumana Cave is a lava tube formed by a lava flow from the Mauna Loa volcano hundreds of years back. This lava tube is 25 miles long, but only a mile or so is open to the public. Inside the cave, there was no light, and the bedrock was precarious. So, come prepared with a flashlight and sturdy shoes. Once we entered into the darkness, it was stuffy and muggy. We hiked a short distance and caught sights of some cool lava formations. Few local companies offer lava tube tours. We went with James from “epic tours” and had a nice time. Plus, we got some cool pictures!

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Hawaii tropical botanical garden is also a star attraction of Hilo. It showcases over 2000 species of tropical plants on over 40-acres of property. Unfortunately, during our trip, it was closed due to COVID restrictions.

If you are up for some off-the-beaten-path experiences, a local chocolate farm tour is a great option. Lavaloha chocolate farm is located only a few miles from the Hilo downtown. They grow a variety of cacao trees and make chocolates from them right there on the farm! We took the "tree to chocolate tour." Advanced booking is recommended for the tour. It lasted for roughly two hours. Our guide was very knowledgeable, funny, and we had a great time. We walked across the farm; got introduced to different varieties of cacao trees, tested fresh cacao fruit (which is bitter, by the way!) and saw the entire chocolate-making process. The tour ended with testing farm-made fresh yummy chocolates.

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Where to stay:


Hilo offers a lot of options from fancy resorts to budget hotels. We stayed in a bed & breakfast located 15 minutes away from downtown Hilo- the Inn at Kulaniapia Falls. It sits on a 42-acre vast, beautiful property. The hotel ground itself qualifies for a Hilo attraction!! One day we did the hike through the bamboo gardens to the bottom of the waterfall. We booked for one of the waterfalls facing rooms falling asleep to the mediative sound of the falls!!

Where to eat:


Though tourist-deprived, surprisingly, Hilo downtown has a lot of exciting food options. These three are our top choices – Pineapples, Jackie Ray's, and Café Pesto. Pineapples is hands down the best place in the town. Delicious food. Fish dishes deserve a special mention. Also, don't forget to try their signature drink – Pineapple Pow! Please keep in mind that they are swamped during dinnertime, and I would recommend reserving a table. Jackie Ray's, a couple of blocks away from Pineapples, is a bit more upscale joint. Limited menu options, but the food tasted great. Café Pesto is an excellent choice for comfort foods. If you fancy having coffee and dessert after the meal, this is the place to go! A quick note – at Café Pesto, they asked us to show for the proof of the COVID-negative test. For breakfast, Hawaiian style café at Hilo is a decent choice. If you are in the mood for an espresso, my recommendation is - The Booch Bar.


We had a great time in Hilo! For your next big island trip, don't miss this fascinating town with all its natural beauties!

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