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Nestled along the eastern coastline of Hawaii’s Big Island lies the charming town of Hilo. With its rainbow eucalyptus trees, thriving farmers markets, and a plethora of waterfalls, Hilo has plenty to keep you enchanted. If you only have 24 hours in Hilo, don’t worry.

We’ll guide you through the must-see attractions and activities to help you make the most out of your quick stopover.

If time is limited, be sure to walk along the bayside Liliuokalani Gardens, watch the hammerhead sharks at the Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo, and view the powerful ‘Akaka Falls during your brief but beautiful day in Hilo.

Take a Stroll through Liliuokalani Gardens

Breath in the Fragrance of the Queen’s Garden

As you meander along the meticulously landscaped pathways of Liliuokalani Gardens, take a moment to breathe in the sweet floral scents wafting on the breeze. Over 500 varieties of flowers, trees, and shrubs grace this tranquil park dedicated to Hawaii’s last ruling monarch, Queen Liliuokalani.

Inhale the heady fragrance of plumerias, gardenias, orchids, and more as you wander through the Queen’s beloved sanctuary.

Cross the Iconic Japanese Footbridge

One of the most iconic sites in Liliuokalani Gardens is the bright red Japanese footbridge arching over a koi-filled pond. As you cross the arched bridge, pause to admire the Japanese stone lanterns dotting the water’s edge.

Look for the brilliant flashes of color as koi fish circle lazily below your feet. On the other side, continue along the meandering path as it winds its way through lush foliage and past historic statues and memorials.

Snap some Photos of Coconut Island

No visit to Liliuokalani Gardens is complete without capturing a photo of the small island situated picturesquely in the midst of the park’s largest pond. Spanning just 0.2 acres, Coconut Island is home to five coconut trees and is accessible only by bridge.

Frame snapshots of the island with the verdant park landscape in the background. For another unique photo opp, catch one of the park’s black swans gliding gracefully across the pond with Coconut Island in the distance.

Grab a Bite at the Farmer’s Market

No trip to Hilo is complete without a visit to the lively Hilo Farmer’s Market, open daily from sunrise to around 4pm. This sprawling market stretching along Kamehameha Avenue offers a bounty of fresh tropical produce picked that very morning from local farms as well as tasty snack options.

It’s one of the best places to soak up Hilo’s culture while enjoying fantastic farm-to-table cuisine.

Sample Fresh Tropical Fruit

Marvel at the rainbow of colors and flavors as you wander the farmer’s market stalls overflowing with tropical fruit. Choose ripe, fragrant mangoes, papayas, rambutans, mangosteens, and more for under $5 a bag.

Don’t miss the chance to try fresh lychees, longans, starfruit, jackfruit, and durian too if they’re in season. The farmers gladly offer samples so you can experience the incredible sweetness before you buy.

Sip Local Coffee and Listen to Live Music

After stocking up on fresh produce, grab a cup of rich Kona coffee grown on the slopes of Mauna Loa volcano at one of the farmer’s market pop-up cafes. Find a seat on a hay bale or tree stump while you soak in the sights and sounds, with local musicians often playing traditional Hawaiian music and hula dancers swaying to the island rhythms.

It’s a delightfully casual way to experience local culture.

Grab a Quick, Cheap Bite from the Hot Food Stalls

When hunger strikes, head straight to the covered food stall section of the farmer’s market where you can grab a hot, hearty meal for around $5-10. Choose from staples like fried saimin noodles, spicy Korean barbeque, Vietnamese pho soup, or Filipino lumpia rolls.

Don’t leave without trying local specialties like saimin stuffed won tons and piping hot Spam musubi, a slice of grilled Spam over rice wrapped in nori seaweed.

The Hilo Farmer’s Market truly has something for everyone. Wander through the rainbow of tropical bounty, enjoy great local cuisine, and experience Hilo’s rich culture for an unforgettable start to your day exploring Hawai’i Island’s biggest city.

Visit the Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo

The Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo is a unique and affordable family activity to enjoy during your day in Hilo. As the only outdoor zoo in the United States, it offers a one-of-a-kind experience to get close to exotic animals in a natural rainforest environment.

Check Out the Only Outdoor Zoo in the USA

Unlike traditional zoos enclosed behind cages and buildings, the Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo spans 12 acres of lush tropical vegetation. You can observe Bengal tigers, Hawaiian monk seals, reptiles, and more roaming in open-air enclosures surrounded by gorgeous rainforest scenery.

It creates an immersive experience for visitors while also providing good living conditions for the animals.

As you explore the zoo grounds, you’ll also see free-roaming peacocks showing off their feathers, giant African tortoises foraging around enclosures, and Brazilian agoutis scurrying across pathways. The outdoor environment allows you to get surprisingly up close and personal with Pana’ewa Zoo residents!

See Wild Hawaiian Birds

In addition to its mammal and reptile collection, the Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo is home to various endangered Hawaiian birds. There are dedicated aviaries and open-top enclosures housing Hawaiian crows, Hawaiian ducks, Hawaiian gallinules, Hawaiian hawks, and nēnē geese.

These vulnerable endemic bird species are exceptionally rare to witness in the wild nowadays. By visiting their habitats at the zoo, you gain awareness about Hawaii’s exceptional biodiversity and efforts being made to conserve native birds on the brink of extinction from habitat loss and invasive predators.

Don’t Miss the Bengal Tigers and White Rhinos

Two main highlights of the Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo are the Bengal tiger enclosure and white rhinoceros habitat. These are among the largest land mammals on display that will surely impress.

At Tiger Kingdom, you’ll observe magnificent Bengal tigers like Namaste, Luna, and Isaiah lounging and prowling through their open-air enclosures. Over in Rhino Reserve, white rhinos Nola and Stanley graze and wallow in mud pits under the shade of rainforest trees.

These habitats demonstrate the zoo’s mission to shelter endangered species.

As the Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo says, “Extinction is forever, conservation starts here!” By visiting, you directly support this unique zoo’s operations and wildlife conservation efforts.

Be Wowed By the Power of Akaka Falls

Take the Short 0.4 Mile Hike to the Overlook

The journey to see Akaka Falls starts with a mere 0.4 mile hike through lush rainforest overflowing with tropical flowers and plants. Along the paved trail, you’ll cross over a narrow stream on stepping stones as you make your way to the falls overlook.

The short hike is perfect for people of all ages and activity levels.

Marvel at the Plunging 442 Foot Waterfall

As you emerge from the rainforest, prepare to be awestruck as you catch your first glimpse of astonishing Akaka Falls. Plunging 442 feet in a single breathtaking drop into a gorge, Akaka Falls is one of the most stunning waterfalls in Hawaii.

The waterfall is fed by the rains on the slopes of Mauna Kea volcano, and the cascading water thunders majestically onto the rocks below.

Seeing Akaka Falls firsthand gives you a true sense of the raw natural beauty and power of the Hawaiian islands. No wonder Akaka Falls is considered one of the must-see attractions on the Big Island!

Continue to Kahuna Falls for Another Breathtaking Vista

After marveling at Akaka Falls, continue just a short way down the trail to see the almost hidden Kahuna Falls. Plunging nearly 100 feet through lush foliage, Kahuna Falls has an entirely different character from Akaka Falls.

Take the time to view both waterfalls to appreciate the diversity of Hawaii’s wondrous natural landscapes.

The Akaka Falls area is also home to beautiful botanical gardens and scenic overlooks to take in panoramic rainforest vistas. With amazing waterfalls, lush scenery, and opportunities to spot native birds, the Akaka Falls State Park lets you experience the vibrant beauty of Hawaii all in one place.

Fill Up at a Plate Lunch Spot Before Heading Out

No trip to Hilo is complete without filling up on a hearty plate lunch meal to power your day of exploration. Plate lunches are extremely popular in Hawaii, offering generous portions of proteins like beef, chicken or fish accompanied by rice and macaroni salad.

You’ll find plate lunch joints all over Hilo serving up local specialties at very reasonable prices.

Choose from Hawaiian, Japanese, Filipino Cuisine

Hilo’s cultural diversity means you can taste flavors from across the Pacific. For classic Hawaiian plate lunches, head to Hilo Bay Cafe near the waterfront and try their Kalua pig with cabbage and mac salad. At Cafe Pesto, enjoy Japanese-inspired plates like teriyaki chicken or fried mahi mahi.

And for Filipino fare, check out Jhovany’s Drive Inn for favorites like beef adobo, pancit noodles and lumpia egg rolls.

Try Popular Dishes Like Loco Moco, Fried Saimin, and Spam Musubi

Some iconic Hawaii plate lunch items are essential eating during your stay. The classic Loco Moco features a hamburger patty and fried egg smothered in rich brown gravy and served over rice. At Ken’s House of Pancakes, try their unique pineapple macadamia nut Loco Moco.

For a local spin on ramen, order the popular Fried Saimin, wok-tossed egg noodles loaded with veggies, meat and shrimp topping. North Shore Grindz and Café makes an addictive version with Portuguese sausage and kamaboko fish cake.

And no plate lunch is complete without Spam Musubi – slices of pan-fried Spam on top of rice, wrapped in seaweed. The fast food chain Zippy’s serves some of the most craveable Spam Musubi in town.

Loco Moco meals sold per week statewide 150,000
Spam cans eaten every year by Hawaii residents 7 million

Waiakea Villas Offers Large Portions at a Great Value

One beloved local spot to fill up on plate lunch classics is Waiakea Villas Restaurant and Lounge. Conveniently located right in downtown Hilo, this casual diner-style restaurant has been serving up plate lunch favorites and local comfort food for over 50 years.

They are known for their generous portions at affordable prices – just $12 gets you a hearty plate with proteins like hamburger steak, fried mahi mahi or teriyaki chicken. Their macaroni and potato salads are always on point too.

It’s a great spot to sample local flavors and fill up before a busy day of sightseeing around Hilo.

Conclusion

Although your time in Hilo may be short, this itinerary packs the town’s top sights into one unforgettable day. From strolling through lush gardens to gaping at powerful waterfalls, you’ll get a delightful taste of Hilo’s natural beauty and local culture.

With this handy guide in hand, you can confidently maximize your 24 hours to create special memories amid Hilo’s island charm.

The next time your travels take you to Hawaii’s Big Island, be sure to allow a few extra days to further unwind in one of the most refreshing and rejuvenating towns in Hawaii. But even if you only have a quick stopover on the way to Volcanoes National Park, Hilo certainly won’t disappoint.

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