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Hawaii Island, also known as the Big Island, is the largest and easternmost island in the Hawaiian archipelago. It is home to a diverse landscape of volcanoes, rainforests, black sand beaches, and snow-capped mountains.

The capital of Hawaii Island is Hilo, a vibrant city located on the island’s northeastern coast. Hilo is known for its lush rainforests, waterfalls, and proximity to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

In this article, we will explore everything you need to know about Hilo, from its history and culture to its top attractions and best places to eat and stay. Whether you’re planning a trip to Hawaii Island or simply curious about the capital city, this article is for you.

History and Culture of Hilo

Hilo, Hawaii

Early history

Hilo has a long history as a settlement in Hawaii. Archaeological evidence shows it was a bustling village as early as 1100-1300 AD. Early inhabitants likely arrived by canoe from other Polynesian islands. The area offered plentiful fresh water, fertile soil for farming, and access to ocean resources.

Hilo Bay became an optimal settlement location. The original name may have been “Waiāhole” meaning “new water.”

Arrival of missionaries

In the 1820s, Christian missionaries arrived and established churches in Hilo. They developed sugarcane and mills, a seminary school, and introduced concepts of Western civilization. This influenced the Hawaiian language, political leadership, and modernization of the region.

However, diseases introduced by foreigners caused major population declines. Despite this, Hilo continued growing with missionary roots ingrained in the community.

Growth and development

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Hilo saw growth in business and infrastructure. Several wharf piers were constructed to accommodate the sugar industry.

Roads and railroads improved connections between Hilo and other parts of Hawaii. Major landmarks like the historic Moʻoheau Bandstand were built.

Tourism began bringing visitors interested in experiencing the beauty of Hilo. Over time, it evolved into the largest population center in the Hawaiian Islands outside of Honolulu.

Culture and heritage

Hilo proudly preserves its Hawaiian culture and heritage. Popular events include the Merrie Monarch Festival, which honors the history of hula, and the King Kamehameha Celebration Festival. Hilo’s also known for hula halau schools, Hawaiian music, and locally-owned restaurants serving traditional Hawaiian dishes like kalua pork and poi.

The Lyman Museum displays artifacts of Hawaii’s natural and cultural history. From ancient Polynesian roots to the influence of missionaries, plantation workers, and today’s diverse population, Hilo has a rich cultural tapestry.

Also read: A Comprehensive History Of The Rulers Of Hawaii

Top Attractions in Hilo

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is located on the Big Island and is one of Hilo’s top attractions. The park is home to two active volcanoes – Kilauea and Mauna Loa. Visitors can hike through volcanic craters, walk through lava tubes, and see the site where red hot lava meets the sea.

The best time to visit is at night to see the glowing lava. This incredible natural wonder is a must-see for anyone visiting Hilo.

Mauna Kea Observatories

At the summit of Mauna Kea, 13,796 feet above sea level, are the Mauna Kea Observatories. This is one of the best places in the world for astronomical observations thanks to clear skies, dry air, and minimal light pollution.

The site hosts 13 telescopes operated by astronomers from 11 countries, making exciting discoveries about space. Stargazing tours allow visitors to gaze into the universe through professional telescopes. For an out-of-this-world experience, check out the Mauna Kea Observatories.

Akaka Falls State Park

Akaka Falls State Park is home to two stunning waterfalls – Akaka Falls and Kahuna Falls. Akaka Falls drops 442 feet into a stream-eroded gorge, making it one of the most scenic falls on the island. The easy 0.4-mile loop trail takes you through lush tropical rainforest filled with orchids, bamboo trees, and draping ferns.

It’s a short and family-friendly hike that rewards you with jaw-dropping valley views. Akaka Falls State Park is a peaceful nature getaway you won’t want to miss.

Rainbow Falls

Rainbow Falls is named for the way sunlight reflects off the mist at the base of the waterfall creating rainbows in the air. 80 feet tall and 100 feet wide, Rainbow Falls is one of the most picturesque waterfalls on the Big Island.

Swimming is prohibited but there are viewing areas to take in the natural beauty. According to Hawaiian legend, Hina, the goddess of the moon, lives in the cave behind these magical falls. For great photo ops, go in the morning when the rainbows are at their brightest.

Liliuokalani Gardens

Built to honor Hawaii’s last reigning monarch Queen Liliuokalani, these stunning Japanese gardens are a serene oasis in the heart of Hilo. Stroll across arched bridges, see carp swimming in ponds, and take in gorgeous views of Hilo Bay.

Check out the 30-foot high pagoda built in the early 1900s gifted from Hilo’s Japanese sister city. With bamboo, bonsai trees, stone lanterns, and waterfalls, these gardens provide a tranquil setting to reflect and rejuvenate your spirit.

Imiloa Astronomy Center

At the Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii, visitors can learn about Hawaiian culture and astronomy discoveries that have taken place from the summits of Mauna Kea. This family-friendly center has a 120-seat planetarium with shows and presentations daily.

Interactive exhibits allow you to virtually visit Mars or see a simulation of the Big Bang. Imiloa celebrates the connection between Hawaiian navigators and modern astronomers. It’s both an enriching cultural experience and cool science center.

Pacific Tsunami Museum

The Pacific Tsunami Museum educates visitors about tsunami science, preparedness, and the history of tsunamis in Hawaii. The museum is housed in the former Hilo Public Library building which survived the 1946 and 1960 Chilean tsunamis.

Exhibits include artifacts, stories from survivors, interactive displays, and information about tsunami warning systems. There is also a tranquil garden to honor victims. By spreading awareness, this unique museum hopes to prevent future loss from tsunamis.

For a thoughtful look at how natural disasters have shaped Hawaii, go to the Pacific Tsunami Museum.

Best Places to Eat in Hilo

As the largest city on Hawaii Island, Hilo offers a delicious array of dining options. From fresh local cuisine to tasty plate lunches, here are some of the best places to eat when visiting this coastal town.

Pineapples Island Fresh Cuisine

Using locally sourced ingredients, Pineapples Island Fresh Cuisine serves up contemporary dishes with an island twist. Their signature macadamia nut crusted fish is a customer favorite. With an atmosphere reminiscent of Old Hawaii, it’s a great spot for a romantic dinner.

Don’t skip the lilikoi cheesecake for dessert!

Jackie Rey’s Ohana Grill

Jackie Rey’s Ohana Grill is known for its tasty plate lunches, featuring mouthwatering kalua pork, tender teriyaki chicken, and flaky fish paired with steamed white rice, macaroni salad and thick slices of pineapple.

Pop in for a casual lunch or dinner, with friendly service and large portions at affordable prices. Be sure to try their famous hamburger steak!

Cafe Pesto

For gourmet pizzas with creative toppings, head to Cafe Pesto. Their delightful thin-crust pies are baked in a wood-fired oven, producing a crisp exterior and chewy interior. Menu standouts include the chipotle chicken pizza topped with mango and macadamia nuts, and the Hamakua mushroom pizza with garlic cream sauce.

Cafe Pesto also offers pastas, calzones and salads.

Pineapples Fresh Island Cafe

Another great breakfast spot in Hilo is Pineapples Fresh Island Cafe. Their homemade macadamia nut pancakes stacked high with a ladle of coconut syrup make a memorable meal. For something truly decadent, try one of their tropical French toasts drenched in passionfruit or guava compote.

They also serve tasty omelets, Benedicts and loco mocos.

Ken’s House of Pancakes

No visit to Hilo is complete without stopping by the iconic Ken’s House of Pancakes. A local institution since 1949, Ken’s serves up affordable diner fare in a casual setting 24/7. Their giant pancakes and waffles hit the spot during any meal.

Be sure to also try their popular oxtail soup and fried rice. It’s no wonder Ken’s has been a beloved late-night haunt for generations.

From laidback plate lunch spots to upscale dining with an island vibe, Hilo has lots of tasty options to satisfy every craving. When visiting Hawaii’s largest island, be sure to check out these best places to eat in Hilo!

Best Places to Stay in Hilo

DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Hilo

Overlooking Hilo Bay, the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Hilo is conveniently located in downtown Hilo near beaches, shopping, and restaurants. This modern highrise hotel has 186 spacious guest rooms and suites with private balconies, mini-fridges, WiFi, HDTVs, and amazing ocean views.

The hotel’s outstanding amenities include an outdoor pool, 24-hour fitness center, business center, gift shop, and on-site dining at the Hilo Bay Café. Guests praise the friendly staff and comfortable accommodations. It’s a fantastic option if you want to stay right in the heart of Hilo.

Also read: Why Is Ocean View Hawaii So Cheap?

Grand Naniloa Hotel Hilo

Overlooking scenic Hilo Bay, the Grand Naniloa Hotel Hilo is a local landmark known for its distinctive double tower design. This Hawaiian hotel has 407 rooms and suites decorated in a contemporary Island style with lanais.

Onsite dining options include the Hawaii Island Café for casual American fare and Kenichi Pacific for upscale Japanese cuisine made with locally sourced ingredients. The large palm-fringed pool area features a hot tub, poolside bar, and evening entertainment.

Other amenities include a fitness room, golf privileges at the Hilo Municipal Golf Course, and 26,000 square feet of meeting space. The hotel’s shuttle provides transportation around Hilo. Overall, it’s a solid pick for convenient access to downtown Hilo.

Hilo Hawaiian Hotel

Overlooking scenic Coconut Island and Hilo Bay, the family-owned Hilo Hawaiian Hotel has been welcoming guests since 1924. This historic 281-room hotel retains its vintage Hawaiian charm while offering modern amenities like flat-screen TVs, WiFi, and Keurig coffee makers.

Dining options include the elegant Queen’s Court restaurant and more casual Shipman’s Bar and Grill. Guests praise the friendly service and Friday night hula shows. The outdoor pool has awesome bay views, and the grounds feature lovely koi ponds and orchids.

The central location provides easy access to downtown shops and restaurants. Overall, it’s a delightful Hawaiian hotel with old-world atmosphere and charm.

The Hilo Coast Hotel

Nestled on Mauna Kea Beach along the scenic Hamakua Coast, the Hilo Coast Hotel offers comfortable accommodations away from the crowds. This peaceful hotel has 154 rooms and suites decorated in warm earth tones with lanais overlooking the palm-fringed grounds.

Onsite dining includes Kai Restaurant which serves Hawaiian-inspired cuisine using fresh local ingredients. Guests enjoy the large outdoor pool, hot tub, tennis courts, putting green, and fitness center. The grounds also feature lovely koi ponds and a walking path to the beach.

Shuttle service is provided to downtown Hilo. With its tranquil setting, this hotel is ideal for those wanting to relax away from busy Hilo.

Naniloa Oceanfront Condominium Hotel

Overlooking scenic Coconut Island and Hilo Bay, the Naniloa Oceanfront Condominium Hotel offers condo-style accommodations with full kitchens and washers/dryers.

The low-rise buildings house 132 individually owned one and two-bedroom units, ranging from cozy studios to luxurious penthouses. All units have private lanais and amazing ocean views. On-site amenities include a restaurant, outdoor pool, hot tub, fitness center, and tennis courts.

Guests can walk to downtown Hilo or drive just 10 minutes to scenic Rainbow Falls. With spacious condo-style units and a prime oceanfront location, it’s one of Hilo’s finest places to stay.

With stunning ocean views and easy access to Hilo’s top attractions, these hotels provide amazing accommodations. Whether you want modern conveniences at the Hilton, old Hawaiian charm at the Hilo Hawaiian, or condo-style amenities at the Naniloa, Hilo offers outstanding places for an unforgettable Hawaii Island vacation.

Getting to and Around Hilo

By plane

The primary airport serving Hilo is Hilo International Airport (ITO). Several major airlines offer direct flights to Hilo from various cities in the continental US including United, Delta, American and Alaska Airlines.

Flights take about 5 to 6 hours from the west coast and about 10 hours from the east coast. The airport is located just outside of Hilo, about 3 miles from downtown and many hotels offer airport shuttles. Hilo airport is relatively small but very nice and easy to navigate.

By car

Driving to Hilo from other parts of the island like Kona is very straightforward. The drive takes about 1.5-2 hours depending on traffic conditions along the Hawaii Belt Road (HI-19). The speed limit is mostly 50-55 mph.

Having a rental car offers the greatest flexibility for getting around Hilo and exploring areas outside of town. Parking is generally easy to find. Just be sure to pay attention to any no parking signs, time limits and parking meters, especially in busy areas.

By bus

The main bus system servicing Hilo is called Hele-On Bus. It offers public transit routes all around Hilo with stops at popular spots like the beaches, parks, shopping centers, university and more.

The buses generally run every 1-2 hours. The bus website ( has schedules and routes. Fares are $2 per ride for adults or $1 for kids. An excellent low-cost option for getting around!

By taxi

There are a few local taxi companies like Hilo Taxi and Paradise Taxi that provide transportation services around Hilo. This is the most convenient option if you don’t have a rental car, though also the most expensive. Fares start at $3 plus $3 per mile.

You can call for pick-up or find taxis waiting at popular hotspots like the airport. Keep in mind that you may need to wait during peak times as there are only a limited number of taxis running in Hilo.

Also read: Can I Fly To Hawaii And Then Cruise The Islands?


Hilo is a vibrant and diverse city that offers something for everyone. Whether you’re interested in history, culture, nature, or simply relaxing on the beach, Hilo is the perfect place to visit.

With its convenient location and easy access to other parts of Hawaii Island, Hilo is a great base for exploring all that the Big Island has to offer.

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