Hilo is a charming town on the Windward side of the Big Island. It is the Hawaii County seat and a wonderful place to visit for history, culture, food, shopping, and beautiful sights.
The name Hilo comes from a rope made by Kamehameha the Great’s men who thought they needed to rescue him near the mouth of the Wailuku River and created a twisted rope from ti leaves. Hilo town sits on Hilo Bay and is a stop for the cruise ships. The town has been hit by two historic tsunamis, in 1946 and 1960, but charming architecture still is well used. I recommend spending some laid back time in Hilo if you are visiting the Big Island.
Big Island Candies: This is the factory and store for beloved candies and cookies. You can find so many forms and varieties of chocolate and macadamia, along with other flavors such as coconut, green tea, mochi, and arare. Browsing the modernist showroom is peaceful (you can sip a beverage as you look) and the large glass windows into the factory allow you to see the whole process. My favorites: lemon shortbread dipped in dark and white chocolate, macadamia nut biscotti with dark chocolate waves, and dark chocolate macadamia nut rocky road candy.
Edith Kanakaole Stadium: Home of the yearly Merrie Monarch hula festival, this tennis facility is in the Ho’oluu Park. Merrie Monarch honors King David (Kawika) Kalakaua who did so much to restore Hawaiian culture. The festival usually happens the week after Easter every year and is televised and streamed online. If you decide to attend, you have to enter the lottery for tickets on December 1. Merrie Monarch highlights from KFVE.
Ken’s House of Pancakes: Open 24 hours a day, this is a homey meal stop, especially if you like pancakes or loco moco (rice, eggs, ground beef, and gravy). The restaurant has a diner-style welcoming vibe with fantastic wait staff. Sandwiches, salads, chili, buttermilk pancakes, malted Belgian waffles, benedicts, imaginative egg combos, saimin, tacos, prime rib, spaghetti, and some amazing pies are just some of the offerings. I could go there twice a day!
Hilo Hawaiian Hotel: Part of the Castle Resorts and Hotels group, the Hilo Hawaiian is perched on the edge of Hilo Bay in the Lili’uokalani Gardens. The large rooms have balconies looking out on the Bay and Coconut Island. The Wai’oli Lounge is a friendly bar with sports TV and grill dining. The Queen’s Court Restaurant offers fine dining and renowned breakfast buffet and weekend seafood buffet. Down on the parking level is a handy laundromat (you need change and detergent). A few steps out on Banyan Drive are convenience and quick food shops. You may also want to check out the nearby Hilo Naniloa Hotel (scheduled to finish renovations in late summer 2016) and other smaller hotels and bed & breakfasts. Just be aware that not everyone has air conditioning.
Coconut Island (Mokuola): You can reach Coconut Island by a footbridge in Lili’uokalani Gardens. This ancient place of healing was known for its spring and was used to bury babies’ umbilical cords (piko). There are small beaches, an old tower that folks use to jump into the ocean, picnic tables, and restrooms. It’s a good place to look for turtles (honu).
Lili’uokalani Gardens: This Japanese-style garden was created in the early 20th century and covers 30 acres of the Waiakea peninsula. There are statues, bridges, fishponds, and a tea house. Banyan Drive is the loop road on the peninsula and is known for the banyan trees planted by visiting celebrities, starting in the 1930s. The trees have plaques with the names. You could make up a great scavenger hunt game to seek and map the trees. Some of the famous celebrity planters are Cecille B. DeMille, Babe Ruth, Amelia Earhart, Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, and Thomas Jaggar.
Hilo Bay Café: This café overlooks Hilo Bay from Lihiwai Street on Waiakea peninsula. The second floor dining room and lanai make a romantic setting with a great wine list and craft beers to match. Sushi and fresh local ingredients are the stars. If you park in back, there is an elevator to get you to the main floor. We sat at the bar and had delightful service. They had well-designed drinks: St. Germaine and grapefruit! The chef did a super job with the best ono fish (wahoo) we have ever eaten. The menu had healthy offerings with quinoa, kale, etc. This is a nice place for a high-end dinner, but you can also do burgers, salad, or fish and chips.
Kamehameha the Great statue: This majestic bronze and gold leaf statue stands in the Wailoa River recreation area. It honors the King who united Hawaii as a sovereign country in 1810. He is one of two statues on the Big Island. He is wearing the feather cape of the ali’i (royalty), a spear, and feather helmet (mahiole). The feather cape and mahiole given to Captain James Cook by Kalani’opu’u, the chief of the Big Island, is currently on exhibit at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.
Two Ladies Kitchen Mochi Manju Confectionary: Two Ladies is one of the most famous shops in Hilo. A wide variety of mochi are packaged beautifully to use as gifts (omiyage). Mochi is a sweet made with pounded short grain Japanese rice. The delicious strawberry and azuki bean mochi is a best seller. Other flavors include sweet potato, peanut butter, brownie, and passion fruit (lilikoi). You can get a sampler set tied in ribbon like a pretty bento box. Be sure to call ahead if you are going. They are supposed to be closed on Monday, but the week we were there, they were closing on Tuesday. Also, the mochi are freshly made, so you may want to tell them your order ahead, especially if you want more than one strawberry mochi and don’t want to wait in a long line.
Lyman Mission House and Museum: Two buildings make up this museum: the home of the missionary Lyman family from the 1830s and the modern museum with nature and history displays and outstanding gift shop. The Lyman home is the oldest wooden structure on the Big Island and has a great collection of Lyman and other missionary family artifacts. David and Sarah Lyman were part of the Congregationalist wave of missionaries sent to Hawaii from New England by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. The Lymans pastored the Haili church, Hilo Boarding School, and a girls’ school for the Hawaiians. The docents give an excellent guided tour of the home. The museum is very well done for a small museum. You can learn about the many peoples of Hawaii and sea shells, minerals, and other natural history.
Downtown Hilo: The main area for shops and other businesses is along Kamehameha Avenue facing the bay and the streets behind it. There are fantastic bookstores and galleries. For clothes, stop by the Hawaiian Force or Sig Zane Designs. Sig Zane is one of the most famous designers in Hawaii and his son Kuha’o is carrying on the tradition. Sig and his wife Nalani Kanakaole (Halau O Kekuhi) are part of the cultural practitioner and hula culture on the Big Island. The clothing and accessories for men and women at the shop all have a native Hawaiian story behind the design. The art is inspired by the nature of the island: ‘ohi’a, palapalai, koa, laua’e, and more.
Cronies Bar and Grill : This friendly bar has an excellent liquor program with Russian Standard, Goslings Black Seal, and Japanese whiskies. Fun martinis: I loved the lilikoi (passion fruit) with li hing mui rim (dried sweet and salty plums). The chef really knows how to prepare fresh fish and the steaks are delicious too! Be sure to read the whole menu. They have a nice long list of pupus (appetizers). The sports bar set up is very well for watching surfing and basketball.
Rainbow Falls: This gorgeous spot is right outside downtown Hilo. You can enjoy the beautiful vegetation, the double waterfalls, and the cave below. Try to visit when there is not a tour bus there so you can really enjoy the beauty and power (mana) of the spot. The falls are part of the Wailuku River State Park. There is a large, free parking lot.
More to do, see, and eat in Hilo Big Island: ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center, University of Hawaii Hilo, Pacific Tsunami Museum, MokuPapapa Discovery Center, Kalakaua Park, Hilo Farmers Market, Hilo Palace Theater, Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo and Gardens, Shipman House
Resource links for Hilo Big Island
- Hilo Town from Love Big Island
- Downtown Hilo from Hilo Downtown Improvement Association
- Hilo and the Big Island from University of Hawaii Hilo
- Map of out-of-this-world Hilo from Every Trail
- Historic Hilo walking tour from Peter Young’s Ho’okuleana
- Look at all the songs (mele) for Hilo on Hawaiian Music and Hula Archives
- Kimo Henderson Hula with Raiatea Helm and Keola Beamer
Let’s talk story
I love the mele Kimo Hula by Helen Desha Beamer. This beautiful song was a musical thank you note to James ‘Kimo’ Henderson and his wife Leimakani for a stay in their home above Hilo.
In the uplands of Piʻihonua
A flower garden in beautiful array
There I see the beauty
Of the flowers, fragrant, in great profusion
I’ll be looking for comments below, or contact me at lisa [at] casabouquet[dot]com. What are your favorite things in Hilo?
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|Ka’u and Puna regions||Kilauea volcano eruption||Hamakua Coast|
Winifred p elberson
We just got back from Hilo and Kona. It feels like a trip back to 1960. They even had working phone booths on the beach!!!, Hilo is a very old somewhat dirty town. Some homeless people sleeping on the sidewalks during the day. The buildings are very old and run down. I was not impressed. Kona was a little nicer with sections of restaurants. Some are on the beach. The ocean was magnificent. The Hilo side has lots of black lava rock which is not very pretty and over grown jungle. We had a wonderful vacation and did many fun things. I just expected it to be prettier from what people say.
I’m sorry you didn’t like Hilo as much as I do!
That is so beautiful with the rainbow! I have always wanted to visit Hawaii (any of the islands!).
Hey Joanne, Hilo is a great town to visit and not too far from the volcanoes national park. I hope you get to plan a trip someday – I’ll be glad to help you!