The oldest city in the Hawaiian archipelago sits on the east coast of the Island of Hawai’i, at the foot of two immense shield volcanoes.
One, Mauna Loa is active, and gives you the rare chance to see volcanic activity up close at the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.
The other, Mauna Kea, is dormant and has the world’s most important land-based astronomical observatories on its 4,200-metre summit.
The landscapes around Hilo are all lush rainforest and farms producing macadamia, papaya, sugar cane, coffee and taro root.
This produce is sold at one of the best farmers’ markets in the state, in business seven days a week, while there are ample opportunities to get out and discover primal rainforest, waterfalls and an enchanting coast with black sandy beaches and lava reefs.
1. ‘Akaka Falls State Park
One of those things you simply have to see on the Hilo side of Hawai’i is this breathtaking waterfall around 11 miles north of the city.
‘Akaka Falls plunges 135 metres into a stream-eroded gorge lined with ferns, and can be admired from a few angles along a walking loop.
This trail also takes in Kahuna Falls, which can be seen with a little less clarity, cascading down the side of the gorge from a similar height to its more famous neighbour.
The walk itself is also a treat, taking you through bamboo groves and past wild orchids and lush ferns.
2. Liliʻuokalani Park and Gardens
In 1907 Queen Lili’uokalani (1838-1917), the last sovereign monarch of the Hawaiian Kingdom, donated the land east of downtown for this lovely waterfront park.
The plot was expanded, and in 1919 opened as a Japanese-style garden as a tribute to Hawaii’s first Japanese immigrants who arrived in the 1860s to work in the island’s sugar cane fields.
At just under 25 acres, Liliʻuokalani Park and Gardens is the largest Edo-style garden outside Japan.
Many of the park’s monuments, including bridges, Torii gates, stone lanterns, gazebos and a traditional Japanese teahouse, were imported piece by piece from Japan, while species common in Japan like black pine, camellias and azaleas, feature throughout.
Bordering the park is Banyan Drive, known as the “Hilo Walk of Fame” for its impressive old banyan trees planted by historic figures like Amelia Earhart, Louis Armstrong, Cecil B. DeMille, FDR, Richard Nixon and Earl Warren.
3. Hilo Farmers’ Market
Hilo lays claim to one of the best open-air markets in Hawaii, and there’s no better spot to pick up colourful local produce and authentic Hawaiian specialities.
Being on the fertile, east side of the Island of Hawai’i you’ll be in the perfect location to try fruit like papaya, almost of which are grown close by and harvested from around April to September.
See if you can find a strawberry papaya, loved for sweet and juicy pink-orange flesh, while macadamia nuts, notoriously expensive everywhere else, are a bit more affordable closer to the source.
For an indulgent sweet treat, look for butter mochi, made with coconut milk and glutinous rice flour, which goes great with coffee, picked and roasted within a few miles of Hilo.
The Hilo Farmers’ Market trades every day of the week, but the big days are Wednesday and Saturday, with upwards of 200 vendors.
4. Richardson Ocean Park
A favourite place to go swimming and snorkelling around Hilo is this beach about five miles east. Richardson Ocean Park has stretches of black sand broken up by lava outcrops.
The sand is unusual for its green flecks, caused by olivine crystals, and there are patches of coral, swarming with tropical fish out in the bay.
You’ll find some tree cover on the shore if you want to relax in the shade, while the water is clear and mostly safe thanks to a line of reefs a short way out.
Sea turtles and monk seals are regular visitors to the park, and there’s a ridge by the beach where you stand a good chance of spotting a humpback whale between December and May.
5. ʻImiloa Astronomy Center
Ever-visible from Hilo, the lofty peak of the dormant Mauna Kea volcano is one of the best locations on the planet for ground-based astronomical observation.
The summit’s 13 high-tech observatories sit at more than 4,200 above sea level, so are off-limits for a day trip, but if you want to tap into that spirit of discovery there’s a great science museum attached to the University of Hawai’i at Hilo.
The ʻImiloa Astronomy Center interweaves cutting-edge astronomy with Hawaiian history and culture.
One overlap comes from the navigational prowess of the Polynesians, who would have used the stars to sail from the Marquesas Islands to populate Hawaii.
You can find out about the discoveries made at Mauna Kea, and learn just what makes the summit’s conditions so favourable to observation.
A highlight is the 120-seat, fulldome planetarium, screening the dazzling show, “Maunakea: Between Earth and Sky”.
6. Rainbow Falls
Closer than ‘Akaka Falls, this scenic waterfall is just a few miles up the Wailuku river, which empties into Hilo Bay.
Rainbow Falls is altogether different, but no less appealing, dropping 24-metres over a lava cave. Where ‘Akaka Falls has a single, narrow jet, Rainbow Falls is almost 30 metres across and thunders into a large pool.
The time to come is early in the day, when a rainbow is created by the sun catching the waterfall’s mist. Also try to be here after a period of heavy rain, when the mist is thicker.
The trail to the top of the falls is well worth walking, guiding you past some huge banyan trees, including some centuries old and almost encased by fig vines.
7. Carlsmith Beach Park
Not a beach in the traditional sense, this spot east of Hilo proper has a shoreline fringed with black lava rocks.
A reef not far offshore keeps the waves low, and small lava outcrops create a chain of crystalline lagoons with sandy bottoms, ideal for snorkelling.
These are patrolled by lifeguards on weekends and holidays. Sea turtles are a common visitor and are well-accustomed to humans, so tend to swim up close.
On land, Carlsmith Beach Park has a grassy space for sunbathing in the shade of trees, as well as picnic tables, showers, drinking water and restrooms.
8. Coconut Island
Next to Liliʻuokalani Park and Gardens there’s a footbridge carrying you to this small, green island in Hilo Bay.
Ringed by palms and almond trees, Coconut Island has a large, well-kept lawn, picnic tables and several little beaches.
Looking back to shore there’s a gorgeous view of Hilo, backdropped by the Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea volcanoes.
Children will love exploring the island’s tide pools and paddling at the beaches, while bigger kids can leap into the bay from a stone tower on the island’s north side, with platforms at around 10 and 20ft.
9. Mokupāpapa Discovery Center
The remote northwestern islands of the Hawaiian archipelago possess an incredible variety of wildlife and are home to the largest fully protected conservation area in the United States.
And since most people will never be able to experience this region firsthand, in 2003 the Mokupāpapa Discovery Center was founded to foster public awareness and bring ocean conservation issues to light.
The center is in the historic Koehnen building, dating back more than a century, with Hawaiian hardwood floors and a beautiful koa staircase.
The exhibition includes lots of interpretive panels going into the region’s biodiversity, artwork inspired by Hawaiian culture and authentic ambient sound.
The showpiece is a 3,500-gallon saltwater aquarium displaying some of the species inhabiting the coral reefs in the island chain.
10. Panaewa Rainforest Zoo
This attraction, only four miles from the centre of Hilo, has the distinction of being the only zoo in the United States to be enclosed in tropical rainforest.
For this reason, the Panaewa Rainforest Zoo doubles as a botanical garden, and has more than 100 palm varieties, as well as a water garden, bamboos and orchids, to go with its 80 different animal species.
The zoo, updated in 2020-21, is relatively compact and can be covered in a couple of hours, during which you can expect to see marmosets, capuchins, spider monkeys, skinks, coatis, giant anteaters, lemurs and an array of tropical birds and turtles.
There’s a petting zoo, open on Saturdays, a playground and a gift shop supporting local conservation.
11. Pacific Tsunami Museum
Hilo sits in a rather precarious position, partly due to lava flow from the active Mauna Loa volcano, but also because of tsunamis caused by earthquakes further north and east in the Pacific.
In the 20th century, Hilo’s tin-roofed cityscape was devastated twice by this phenomenon, in 1946 and 1960.
After the last tsunami the bayfront was never redeveloped, which is why you’ll encounter mostly empty grassland today.
The Pacific Tsunami Museum was founded in 1993 in memory of these events, and explains the science and the terrifying facts and figures behind tsunamis.
In this former bank building, you can delve into a large library of photographs and survivor accounts and view a riveting 25-minute video.
12. Kaumana Caves State Park
A couple of miles out of town you can descend into a lava tube formed by an eruption at Mauna Loa in 1881.
You’ll enter via a collapsed skylight wreathed in rainforest plants like philodendrons and ferns.
After lowering yourself on the metal ladder you’ll be free to explore about two miles of the tunnel, although this comes with a few hazards in a seismically active area.
The tube continues for some 20 miles, but passes through private property and is only partially open to the public. Remember to wear sturdy shoes and bring a flashlight.
13. Lyman Museum
This Smithsonian-affiliated museum is a worthwhile rainy day activity and incorporates the oldest-surviving wood-framed building on the island.
The Lyman Museum has two separate tickets: There’s the immersive modern museum building where you can get the background on topics like Hawaii’s botany, volcanology, as well as its human history, culture and diversity of ethnic groups.
Next door, the Mission House was built in 1838 for the Reverend David Belden Lyman (1803-1884), is in the New England style and composed of ohia and koa wood.
On a guided tour you can find out about the lives of Hawaii’s 19th-century missionaries and view furniture, household appliances and personal effects belonging to the Lymans and other missionary families.
14. Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
Hilo’s history has been moulded by the volcano Mauna Loa, which, along with the island’s most active volcano, Kīlauea, is encompassed by a national park.
The Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park lies about 30 miles south-west of Hilo, and is a day-trip that needs to be made if you want to witness the constant cycle of destruction and creation that marks this ever-changing landscape.
The scent of sulphur wafts across scorched terrain, and on memorable hikes you can check out vents, lava tubes, old roads overwhelmed by lava, ancient petroglyphs, the Keanakāko’i Crater and cooled lava flows from eruptions in the 1950s and 60s.
There are more than 150 miles of hiking trails for self-guided adventures, but also compelling ranger-guided experiences, like viewing glowing lava flow after sunset.
The 500-year-old Nāhuku (Thurston Lava Tube), is a wonderful day-hike, embedded in rainforest and supporting remarkable ecosystems among the tree roots that hang from the ceiling.
15. Hamakua Coast Scenic Drive
Hawaii’s north-eastern coastline is nothing short of spectacular, with lush green canyons, waterfalls and rainforest nourished by more than 80 inches of rainfall each year.
The Hamakua Coast is also highly fertile, and where it was given over to sugar cane in the 19th century there’s now a diversity of farms for tropical fruit and vegetables like taro root.
Setting off from Hilo you can take a 40-mile trip through this unforgettable scenery, pausing at a succession of natural beauty spots and visitor attractions.
As well as ‘Akaka Falls, there’s the Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve & Garden just a few miles out of Hilo and the quaint old sugar town of Honoka’a.
A fitting way to end the adventure is the Waipio Valley, which was once Hawaii’s political and spiritual heart, but is also magnificent, with steep walls up to 2,000 feet high.
There’s a lookout at the conclusion of the Hamakua Coast Scenic Drive where you can gaze down into the valley and the black sandy beach where it meets the ocean.