1 Perfect Day in Hilo: Things to Do in Hilo for the Day
My first trip to Hilo made me not want to return. It rained the whole time. Even our hotel sheets felt damp. So when we were driving to Volcano National Park last month, I debated stopping in Hilo for the day. I’m glad we did.
Hilo, Hawaii is worth a trip. If even for a day. Rain or shine, you can fill your day-long itinerary with things to do in Hilo.
My second visit was sunny but I also found what to appreciate about this hamlet on the windward side of the Big Island. My wife won’t move with me, but I prefer Hilo over our place on Maui.
One day in Hilo is enough time to do everything one should do in Hilo. Here is what you can do in Hilo for the day – rain or shine.
Table of Contents
- 1 Perfect Day in Hilo: Things to Do in Hilo for the Day
- How to Spend One Day in Hilo
- Things You Can Do in Hilo for the Day: When it is Raining
- How Many Days Do You Need in Hilo?
- Closing Thoughts on What Can You Do in Hilo for the Day
- Maui’s Best Whale Watching Tour: Ultimate Whale Watching Rafts
- The Best Whale Watching Tour from Puako Bay, Big Island
- Whale Watching Adventure from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii
How to Spend One Day in Hilo
For Erica and me, our ideal place to stay on Hawai’i is Kailua-Kona. We use Kailua-Kona as our launching pad to explore the Big Island. During our last visit in January, we made a last-minute decision to visit Volcano National Park.
We could have done the visit with a long day on the road but we decided to spend the night outside of Volcano Village in Fern Forest. Henry, our toddler, and our dog Hattie don’t appreciate long car trips. I don’t blame them. There is too much to see in Hawaii to spend all that time on the road.
We left our Airbnb in Kona Coffee Country and got a one-night Airbnb in Fern Forest.
I mapped out the drive. We would go north. We opted to drive through Waimea (Parker Ranch cowboy country) and drive the Hamakua Coast. This route is north of the Saddle Road (Route 200). Visting the Mauna Kea Visitor Center wouldn’t have been of interest to Henry but we will go back!
One can also go to Volcano National Park from Kona via the southern route around the island. The northern or southern route will take you through Hilo. Hence Hilo is an ideal place to stop and check out the town.
With the drive to Hilo and then to your final lodging, you won’t get a full day in Hilo. This itinerary is meant for people like us, folks who will have about 8-hours to explore Hilo.
This is itinerary is the best way to spend your day (or 8-hours) in Hilo to fully appreciate this charming, historic Hawaiian town on Hilo Bay.
Our Favorite Hilo 1-Day Itinerary
This is the itinerary the world has been asking for. You’re on the Big Island for vacation. This is the island that invented island time. Kauai did actually (they are so chill there). But still, you don’t need a frantic itinerary.
Take in the main sites Hilo has to offer so you can say, “Yeah, I’ve been to Hilo. Great place.”
I don’t want to short-change Hilo, it is a wonderful community with so much to do. But, even big cities like Singapore and Chicago don’t need more than a day to get a feel for the place.
Here is what you can do in Hilo for a day. Erica, Henry, and I did this and it made me start looking at Zillow for homes for sale in Hilo.
Downtown Hilo is dense. It has amazing stores, cafes, and restaurants all within a 5 to 10-minute walk. So this itinerary may sound like a lot but it is all walkable.
You must see a waterfall when in the Hilo area. It is a non-starter. You have two wonderful waterfall options depending on your route into or leaving Hilo.
From the North:
If you are coming from the north, down the Hamakua Coast on Mamalahoa Highway (Route-19) then you must stop at ‘Akaka Falls. 11-miles north of Hilo is a 442-foot tall waterfall. Located in ‘Akaka Falls State Park, you pay $5 in parking to get access to a scenic walking trail through the jungle with multiple viewpoints of ‘Akaka Falls and its less known little brother Kahuna Falls (300 feet tall). Kahuna Falls is hard to see through the jungle but it is still impressive.
The trail is paved and has safety handrails so we felt very comfortable letting our toddler Henry do the walk.
From the West:
If you are going across the saddle road (Route 200), then you must stop at Rainbow Falls. Located 1.7-miles west of Hilo, this is a perfect first stop in Hilo. The falls rainbow name comes from the fact that it makes rainbows. The rainbows appear in the morning, around 10:00 am.
The parking lot is next to the falls so no hike required. The Wailuku River State Park next to the falls is a good place to stretch your legs though.
We get waterfall crazy so we managed to see both Akaka and Rainbow falls, albeit a quick pic only at Rainbow falls.
Now head straight into the heart of Hilo Town. Park at public parking lot 301 Kamamehama Avenue Parking.
Surf Break Cafe is a place to re-charge with an ice coffee or smoothie after the cross-island drive. Surf Break Cafe is the cute cafe you were expecting in Hilo with art on the walls, ocean views, and a couple of tables on their side street.
The location is primo for strolling the town with a coffee in hand.
Save your money (food is pricey) as you will go elsewhere for lunch. Enjoy the free WiFi though if you need it.
In a hurry? Drive over to Just Cruisin Coffee if you spent too long at the waterfall or if your toddler is sleeping in the car, like what happened to us. This is a drive-thru coffee shop servicing the local County government workers. There will be a line but it moves fast and the coffee is worth it.
Stroll Downtown Hilo
Stroll the storefront downtown strip on Kamehameha Avenue, directly across from your parking spot. The line of historical, colorful buildings is full of eclectic stores, vintage Hawaiian apparel, health food stores (like Abundant Life Natural Foods) and The Most Irresistible Shop in Hilo.
You can venture deeper into Hilo Town if you have time to explore. The stores get more local and interesting as you walk away from Hilo Bay.
Raining on you? No problem, check out our indoor activities for downtown Hilo below.
Lunch in Hilo
Puka Puka Kitchen
This place is legit Hawaiian food and in a place one would expect in Hilo Town. The bento boxes sell out fast but don’t worry, their specials are worth the trip to Hilo.
Try their Hawaiian plates like sauteed Ahi, katsu curry, and whatever other specials the chef/owner yells at you through the kitchen window. Only three tables and some stools inside so if it is full, head to my second favorite spot for a hotdog.
Henry and I gave Saucy Dogs a try while Erica and Hattie were shopping. We got a veggie Nacho Dog. Most dogs are $6.95, great value for the size of the dog, all the toppings, and a side of chips.
It is down a side street from the downtown strip of stores.
Hilo Farmer’s Market
This is a 10-minute stop. Maybe 5-minutes.
I gotta be frank. This is more of a tourist farmer’s market than a local market. For example, multiple vendors told us they only worked days when the cruise ship is in port. It is only a 2-minute walk from Puka Puka Kitchen so worth a stop to grab snacks for the beach.
But, it is a cute and convenient market with fresh Hawaiian fruit and local artisans. It is open 7-days a week with big market days on Wednesday and Saturday with over 200 vendors.
Grab some fresh fruit for the beach. That is where you are headed to next in Hilo for your one day.
Coconut Island (Mokuola) and the connected Queen Lili’uokalani Gardens is the ideal place to relax in Hilo Bay. Time to soak up the sun, snorkel, and jump off a 20-foot tower.
The island and park is a 7-minute drive from 301 Kamehameha Parking Lot or downtown Hilo Town.
There is ample parking in the park. Spend a few hours enjoying the bay, strolling through the tropical gardens, splashing in the tide pools and enjoying your pick of two beaches.
Dinner in Hilo
If you have time, stay for dinner. We had to get Henry to bed so we grabbed groceries at Abundant Life Natural Foods and headed to Fern Forest.
During my previous trip, we ate out more as we stayed multiple nights. I recommend the following two places for dinner in Hilo.
Cronies Bar and Grill is known for its burgers and laid-back attitude. The vintage storefront got me in the door and the food and drinks made me go back.
Cafe 100 says it invented the loco moco and they have it trademarked. I am skeptical but as a loco moco connoisseur, we had to check out this place. Serving over 30 types of loco moco in a walk-up, low-key location away from downtown it is worth a trip. Hawaiian plates for less than $10 is what I’m all about.
After dinner, head out of Hilo for the 1-hour 30-minute drive to Kailua-Kona or head to Volcano National Park as we did.
If it is raining, check out our indoor substitutions for our Things to Do in Hilo for the Day list.
Things You Can Do in Hilo for the Day: When it is Raining
It may rain during your one day in Hilo.
🍍 Hilo is the fourth wettest-city in America.
🍍 Hilo has a tropical rainforest climate.
🍍 272 rainy days a year.
If I was a betting man, I’d put money on you getting wet during your one day in Hilo. So let’s prepare your itinerary for rain!
Here are rain substitutions for the itinerary above so you can enjoy Hilo even if it is raining during your one day.
Hilo Rainy Day Activities in Hilo Town
Since you only have a few hours in Hilo, stay in Hilo Town if it is raining with these activities.
Pacific Tsunami Museum
Hilo Bay forms a funnel directed at downtown Hilo. This makes Hilo susceptible to tsunamis and it has been hit hard in the past. Learn the fascinating history of Hilo and how it came back after the devastation.
You can walk to Pacific Tsunami Museum as it is right off the main drag.
General admission $8.
Hilo Brewing Company
Formerly Mehana Brewing Company, this small but growing brewery offers $4 tastings and sells cans for $1. It is a fun spot to stop for a local craft beer. The tasting room is tiny but never busy so grab a beer and talk up the bartender at Hilo Brewing Company.
Lyman Museum and Mission House
Located 4-blocks up from the beach, Lyman Museum is a natural history museum of the native Hawaiian people. The museum is in a restored missionary house so the place oozes with ancient and post-contact Hawaiian history.
General admission $8.
Hilo Rainy Day Activities Outside of Hilo
If you want a little more adventure during your day in Hilo, check out these attractions.
‘Imiloa Astronomy Center
The Big Island is all about the cosmos with its array of telescopes on Maua Kea. Located in Hilo, you can get your fill of space at the family-friendly ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center. With interactive exhibits, learn how Polynesian voyagers would navigate the stars and see a planetarium show.
‘Imiloa Astronomy Center is an 8-minute drive from downtown Hilo.
General admission $19.
Bring a flashlight or use your phone. You are about to enter a lava tube. Kaumana Caves Park is a skylight in a 25-mile long lava tube that was created by the 1881 flow from Mauna Loa. Explore the lava tube by going left or right at the bottom of the stairs. After 100 feet into the tube, the ceiling gets low and there are ledges. A little adventure if you dare.
This is a great free activity in Hilo! Bring older children as it is a steep staircase and it gets slippery in the lava tube.
Kaumana Caves Park is a 10-minute drive from downtown Hilo.
How Many Days Do You Need in Hilo?
1 Day. Spanning 4 blocks by 7 blocks, Hilo’s charming downtown, restaurants, and beaches can be seen in a day. This makes Hilo an ideal stop on your way to or from Volcano National Park.
There is so much more to do around the greater Hilo area. If you wish to see the telescopes or tour the Hamakua Coast or spend multiple days at Volcano National Park, then I highly recommend staying in Hilo for a few days to see more of the windward side of Hawai’i.
Closing Thoughts on What Can You Do in Hilo for the Day
What can you do in Hilo for a day? Have a great time, that is what. This one-day Hilo itinerary will quench your thirst on Hilo Town.
Rain or shine, enjoy the town and the lovely people who call Hilo their home. Hilo is the ideal Hawaiian town with its historic town center, a beautiful bay with swimming holes, and a lush tropical forest surrounding it. It is an urban planner’s dream city.
Erica, Henry, Hattie, and I had a lovely day touring the city. We will stop again to check out more cafes and beaches during our next trip to the Big Island.
I'm the co-founder, with my wife Erica, of The Hawaii Vacation Guide. We live on Maui with our toddler Henry and our sweet but quirky dog Hattie. I have a thing for photographing pineapples and learning to surf.
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