If you’re wondering what things to do in Hilo, Hawaii during a cruise vacation then this article is just for you. We’ve done the work so you don’t have to and we’ve considered how far everything is from the port and the availability to cruise visitors.
Based on the island’s windward side, this town is greener and bears more tropical beauty than its counterpart Kona. It is the volcanic capital of Hawaii and it features the state of Hawaii’s most active volcanoes. With some volcanoes continuously erupting like the Kilauea Volcano.
Frequent rain keeps this side of the island lush and boasting of tropical rainforests, dramatic waterfalls, and beautiful botanical gardens. We’ve also got a great article for Kailua-Kona which is also on the Big Island.
With all this beauty it’s easy to see why this town remains the most authentic Hawaiian town, and you will too. However, just as the name suggests, the Big Island is huge and you might not get to see or do everything. But with proper planning, you can have a great time on this port. That’s why we recommend these 30 things to do in Hilo, for cruisers.
Where is Hilo, Hawaii?
But first, you might be wondering where Hilo is exactly? Hilo is located on the north-eastern side of Hawaii’s Big Island. It is found on the windward side of the island’s volcanic ranges.
This side of the island overlooks Hilo Bay, a funnel-shaped bay that is vulnerable to Tsunamis. Another tragic but interesting thing that you will learn about this side of the island. It has a population of approximately 44,000 people and is the county seat of the Island.
Where Do Cruise Ships Dock in Hilo, Hawaii?
Cruise ships to Hilo dock at a cargo facility located 2 miles east of downtown. There is not much to see or do at the cruise port. So, the natural thing to do is head to the exit and catch a bus or taxi into town.
A free ride into town is also offered on the Hattie bus which takes cruisers to Hattie’s shopping center and back. You can skip this, to go see other parts of the island by renting a car, hailing a taxi, or taking a bus into town. Look for the Hale on Bus or Keahuaea Bus, which are mass transit buses.
1. Stroll Around Downtown Hilo
Hilo is not a touristy town. It’s authenticity, history, and culture makes it an interesting place to explore. Downtown Hilo boasts of old wooden storefronts dating centuries back. These stores are designated as National Historic Places. They house quaint shops, restaurants, galleries, and museums.
Take a stroll around the town. You will enjoy the island’s culture at centers such as the East Hawaii Cultural Centre. Enjoy the hustle and bustle of the town on Kamehameha Avenue which faces the beautiful Hilo Bay. You can do this tour on your own or as a guided trip. You will get taxis and tour companies offering you many tours including a Hilo city tour at the port.
2. Explore Hilo’s Farmers Market
Explore Hilo Farmers Market located at the corner of Mama Street and Kamehameha Avenue. This is where you will find fresh fruit, vegetables, and locally grown flowers.
There are plenty of food stands in the market as well. Stop and enjoy an authentic Hawaiian dish. While perusing stalls of woodwork, glasswork, clothing, and jewelry. Opened Wednesday and Saturday 6 a.m. to 4 p.m, you can visit Hilo Farmers Market, stroll around checking out its over 200 stands.
3. Shop at Hilo Hattie
Take advantage of the free ride into town on the Hilo Hattie bus. This bus takes you into town to shop at the Hattie shop.
Known as the largest shopping attraction in all of Hawaii, the Hilo Hattie store offers a wide variety of Hawaiian souvenirs, clothing, and craft.
While it’s a very touristy thing to do in Hilo, it’s still a nice stop for all your shopping purposes including refilling on supplies necessary for your life onboard your cruise ship.
4. Visit the Akaka Falls State Park
Rated one of Hawaii’s top 5-most beautiful waterfalls, Akaka waterfalls are a must-see when in Hilo. The falls are located 11-miles north of Hilo at the end of the Akaka Falls Road, on Highway 220.
A short hike is required to access the falls, but it’s all worth it. The 0.4-mile loop trail takes you to not only the Akaka falls but the Kahuna falls as well.
Your adventure to the falls starts at this trail. The Akaka falls loop trail winds through a lush tropical rainforest setting with a variety of plants such as orchids, hanging ferns, and trees.
But the highlight of it all is the 442-ft high Akaka falls. Enjoy watching the roaring power of the falls as they cascade down into the gorge below. This, coupled with the scenery and pleasant scents from the plants in the park, will make the trip to Hilo worthwhile.
Akaka falls park charges $5 per car and $1 per person for admission. It’s open from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. You can visit the Akaka falls on your own or on a guided tour. The guided tour to the falls is mostly combined with other Hilo attractions.
5. Rainbow Falls State Park
Speaking of waterfalls, another famous fall is the Waiānuenue (rainbow falls state park). This is one of the most accessible waterfalls in Hilo which makes it a lovely stop while on the island.
Located on the north-western border of Hilo, just a mile from town, this 5-minute-drive falls are among the most popular attractions in Hilo.
The Rainbow falls or Waiānuenue in Hawaiian, which means rainbow water, are best known for forming rainbows on sunny mornings. The falls are 80 feet tall and 100 feet wide. To see the rainbow, get to the falls by 10 a.m in the morning on a sunny day. There is a short hike to the falls on a paved path through a lush forest. Enjoy the views and see the beautiful waterfalls at the lookout point.
If you are thereafter a rainy period, you will enjoy the waterfalls full potential, a roaring massive fall, showing the might of the Wailuku river.
Don’t attempt to swim in the falls, however, no matter how calm they look, there are unpredictable flash floods that can suck you into lava tubes and caves and trap you there.
To get to the falls, head west of town and take the Waiānuenue Ave, stay on your right until you come to rainbow falls. There is a parking lot at the park.
6. Panaewa Rainforest Zoo
Visit the Panaewa Rainforest Zoo located 4 miles south of Hilo. This 12-acre zoo is the only natural tropical rainforest zoo in the United States.
Panaewa Zoo is home to more than 80 animal species, some of which are endangered. You’ll see white tigers, spider monkeys, giant anteaters, and more at the park.
The zoo also features stunning botanical gardens with over 100 varieties of palms, bamboos, and orchids. Enjoy taking walks along the paved paths winding through the park, seeing and learning about the animals in the zoo.
The zoo is free and lacks amenities so bring your own food and enjoy a picnic at the picnic gardens. There is also a petting zoo opened on Saturdays only. It’s great for the little ones. However, they can enjoy the kid’s playground on any other day of the week.
This little zoo is free. Do consider leaving a donation to the maintenance and upkeep of the place.
7. Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden
Located on the 4-mile scenic drive off of highway 19 on the Hamakua coast is the Hawaii Tropical Botanic Garden. This 40-acre valley botanical garden hosts over 2000 species of tropical plants from all over the world.
Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden features boardwalks that wind through the lush gardens. These boardwalks take you to waterfalls, ponds, and the shores of Onomea Bay.
Along the path enjoy hundreds of different species of plants including orchids, bromeliads, palm trees, and more. This garden represents Hawaii; as the tropical gem, it is.
Located approximately 9 miles north of Hilo, a short 20-minute drive takes you to this botanical garden. Enjoy exploring different varieties of plants, and wildlife. Entry fee for adults is $20, $5 for children between 6-16 years, and free for kids below 6.
8. Hawaii Volcano National Park
Visit one of the world’s most interesting biospheres, the Hawaii Volcanoes National park. Located 45-minutes south of Hilo, Hawaii Volcanic National park is a world heritage center, that features two of the most active volcanoes in the world. The volcanoes are Kilauea and Mauna Loa (the earth’s largest volcano).
The park features over 150-miles of hiking trails. It’s impossible to hike them all in a day. Choose one and do your best.
Start your tour of the Volcanoes at the visitor’s center, where a park ranger teaches about the volcanoes before taking you on a guided trip. They can also give you helpful information for a DIY trip of the volcanoes.
Most interesting attractions include the Chain of Craters Road, Halemaumau Crater, Crater Rim Drive, Puu’Oo Vent, and the Kilauea’iki crater. You can also checkout Devastation trail, Scalded Deserts, Jaggar Museum (closed), and the nearby rainforest areas.
A great place to eat at the park is at Volcano House Crater Rim Drive. The Park charges $10 parking fee and $5 per person entrance fee.
9. Imiloa Astronomy Center
Learn about the skies above Hawaii. Imiloa Astronomy Center is located a few minutes from downtown Hilo at the technology park of the University of Hilo.
This Astronomy center showcases astronomy and Hawaiian culture. There are plenty of exhibits and shows about Hawaiian history, culture, and astronomy.
Of interest is their 120 seater planetarium which offers a full-dome video experience. Ensure you check out the film titled “Maunakea: Between Earth and Sky.” It’s a great place to learn about the observatories at Mauna Kea, which is deemed the best place in the world to observe outer space.
The center which is denoted by the 3 titanium-clad cones representing the island’s largest volcanoes, is the best place to learn how Polynesian communities used astronomy to navigate the Pacific Ocean. Imiloa charges an entry fee of $17.50 adults and $ 9.50 children.
10. Lyman Museum and Mission House
Visit Hilo’s natural history museum at the Lyman Museum and Mission House. The museum has two amenities, the Lyman Museum, and the Lyman Mission house.
The Lyman Museum showcases large Hawaiian land and water exhibits detailing the island’s people’s culture and history. Of interest in the rock and precious mineral collections.
The Lyman Mission house boasts of being the oldest wooden house in the island. It showcases the lifestyle of the Lyman family, the first missionaries to the island. Checkout past household items, furniture, artifacts, and tools.
You can only visit the mission house as part of a guided tour. Lyman museum charges an entrance fee of $10 per adult and $3 per child, 6 years and above. https://lymanmuseum.org/
11. Waipio Valley
One of the most breath-taking places on the big island has to be Waipio Valley or the valley of curved waters. This lush scenic valley is located in Hamakua district, northeast of the big island.
This was the home of Hawaiian Ali’is (royals) back in the day. Today however it’s a hiking attraction with scenic views of the surrounding cliffs, cascading waterfalls, and the bay.
The valley has a lookout point that gives you incredible views of the valley. Ensure you carry your camera. You can get a closer look at the valley’s floor by hiking 6.5-miles down into the valley. This hike is not for the faint of heart, it’s rather steep.
If hiking is not your forte, you can drive down the paved road into the valley, but only with a 4WD. Make sure you are comfortable driving narrow winding steep roads before attempting this drive.
12. Helicopter Tour
Enjoy a Bird’s eye view of Hilo from a Helicopter tour. See the Big Island’s scenic treasures like the lush rainforests, volcanoes, and lava flow.
Enjoy a tour of the breath-taking coastlines, lush valleys, and cascading waterfalls on a guided tour of the island. Though pricey a helicopter tour is one of the things you should splurge on in Hawaii. It’s the best way to see the island’s beauty.
13. Pacific Tsunami Museum
Learn about Hawaii’s devastating tsunami history at the Tsunami Museum located at the corner of Kamehameha Avenue and Kalakaua Street.
The museum is hosted in an on old bank building that survived the tsunami of 1946 and 1960. It provides information about tsunamis and their effects on the Pacific Islands.
Pay your respects at this living monument and learn how this helped shape Hilo’s cultures to date. For a charge of $8, this is a neat place to stop by especially when it’s raining.
14. Pepeekeo Scenic Drive
Go on a road trip along Hilo’s most scenic highway, the Pepeekeo Scenic Drive. This drive is located 11-miles north of Hilo on highway 19 between mile marker 7 and 8.
Pepeekeo is a 4-mile drive that meanders through a lush rainforest setup that has great canopies and even better views of the surrounding bay. Enjoy the scenic overlook of Onomea bay from the drive.
This drive spots one-lane bridges and an old donkey trail that leads to the water. You can do native bird watching here or take advantage of the abundance of photo ops at the place.
Hawaii tropical gardens are midway along the drive. Stop by to explore the big island’s colorful flora and fauna. Don’t forget to wear bug repellent on this drive and drive slowly and carefully. The narrow drive has many sharp corners and bends.
15. Coconut Island
Seated opposite the cruise pier, coconut island is one of Hilo’s best attractions. This palm-filled island is located on the famous Banyan Drive. It has two sandy beaches with calm waters protected by the Hilo Pier. The island has lovely grass gardens and paved walkways perfect for picnics. It’s connected to the main island by a long footbridge.
The best thing to do on Coconut island is jumping off the rock ruin that was a pillar for the original footbridge. Another highlight here is watching turtles crossing under the bridge. They come here seeking shade.
Enjoy swimming, turtle watching, cliff jumping, and the scenic views of downtown Hilo. On a clear day, you can see the volcanic mountains in the background.
It’s free to access the island. Amenities like parking, showers, and, picnic tables are also available. The island has a weekend lifeguard.
16. Queen Liliuokalani Park and Gardens
Located on Hilo’s Banyan Drive is the largest ornamental Japanese garden outside Japan. The 24.4 acres, Queen Liliuokalani Park Garden is dedicated to honoring the Japanese community of Hawaii. This community migrated to Hilo during the sugarcane and pineapple plantation era.
The garden features arching bridges crossing lovely ponds, flower gardens, rock gardens, and pagodas. It’s a nice place to enjoy Japanese architecture, tea, and culture. The Banyan drive alone is worth a visit on its own.
17. Cruise Along Hilo’s Walk of Fame.
Banyan Drive in Hilo is a drive lined with Banyan trees that were planted by celebrities. Hence the name, walk of fame. These Banyan trees were planted in the early 1930s and survived the tsunamis of 1946 and 1960. A fact that makes them quite interesting.
The peculiar trees which feature aerial roots are intriguing to explore. Take a closer look at the banyan trees and their thick canopy, which adds to the charm of the place. Banyan Drive is located on the shoreline of Hilo and quite easy to locate.
18. Carl Smith Beach Park
Carlsmith beach park, also known as four miles, is located south of Hilo about a 10-minute drive from town. The beach features a large pool protected by a lava rock reef. It’s calm, clear waters are perfect for swimming and snorkeling.
A major highlight here is catching a glimpse of the Giant Honus or sea turtles often seen at the beach. Amenities like freshwater showers, restrooms, and picnic tables are readily available at Carlsmith and a lifeguard is also present on weekends and holidays.
19. Richardson Beach Park
Another great beach park is Richardson beach park, also located south of Hilo along the Kakalanianaole highway. Its highlight has to be the black/green sandy beach. It’s the only black sand beach in Hilo.
Protected by a wall of lava offshore, Richardson has a large calm, clear pool for swimming, snorkeling, and kayaking.
The beach park also doubles as a marine conservation area with tide pools and springs. You can also see sea turtles on this beach. Or explore the Richardson ocean house nearby to learn more about marine conservation. There are plenty of amenities at Richardson beach and a lifeguard is present daily.
20. Go on a Zipline Adventure
See Hilo from a bird’s eye view. Enjoy stunning views of the jungle, waterfalls, craters, and beautiful coastlines on a Zipline adventure in Hilo. There are several Zipline adventures in the town, all offering different scenic Big Island landscapes.
Book a tour with one of these operators and explore the island on several zipline courses. Or test your balance on a suspension bridge.
21. Take a Scenic Ride Along Hamakua Coast
Enjoy a scenic drive along Hamakua coast to some of Hilo’s most fantastic attractions.
Receiving an average rainfall of 84 inches annually, Hamakua coast boasts of stunning waterfalls, lush tropical forests, and peaceful green valleys.
To get there, take highway 19 which is built on the slopes of Mauna Kea and enjoy the incredible views of Waipio Valley. There are chances to explore Hilo’s sugarcane plantation history and even see the aftermaths of a tsunami at Laupahoehoe. This is an incredible highlight of Hilo, that you shouldn’t miss.
22. Explore Kaumana Caves State Park
Ever wondered how the inside of a lava tube looks like? Then check out a lava tube from the 1881 Mauna Loa flow. The caves located past mile marker 4 on Saddle Road or Highway 200 towards the west of Hilo are a must-see when in the Big Island.
At the park, there is a steep steel staircase leading to the collapsed skylight of the lava tube. Inside the caves, you’ll have a chance to explore different lava rock formations seen on the ceiling and walls of the tube. The tube is divided into two sections, the right, and the left. The left side of the tube tends to be narrower but is still as adventurous as the right.
Best of all, it’s free to access the Kaumana caves state park. There is parking across the park, but it’s limited. Please wear sturdy shoes, the tube’s floor can be slippery and carry a bright flashlight.
23. Visit Wailuku River State Park
Just a short distance west of downtown Hilo is the Wailuku River, State Park. The home of popular Rainbow falls and the boiling pots. Wailuku River is the longest river in the entire state of Hawaii and flows between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea’s lava flows.
Stop at this lush park and check out the 80-foot rainbow falls. If you are there by 10 o’clock, you’ll get to see why the waterfall is called Rainbow Falls.
Just a short distance away are the peepee falls, another beautiful waterfall, which feeds the boiling pots. The boiling pots are pools that bubble as if the water is boiling. The basalt lava rock below them cooled slowly forming terraces, that causes the water to roll.
All in all, Wailuku state park is a glimpse into Hawaii’s phenomenal attractions. Don’t leave without checking out the Banyan tree on the other side of the falls.
24. Boiling Pots
Just a mile upstream from Rainbow falls is Peepee falls. Peepee falls on Wailuku River feeds the boiling pots.
Wailuku river flows over the point where Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea lava flows met. The river formed gorges on the basalt lava creating the boiling pots. During a storm or flash floods, the water rages in the gorges and seems as if it’s boiling.
While this site if beautiful, tranquil, and a must-visit when in Hilo, it’s pretty dangerous too. So, don’t attempt to swim here. Being on the rainy side of the Big Island, flash floods are frequent and unpredictable. What might look like calm inviting waters on a nice sunny day might turn into a big nightmare when it has rained upstream.
During flash floods or rising water levels, swimmers are sucked into concealed lava tubes and caves. This place accounts for 25% of river deaths in Hawaii.
25. Pe’epe’e falls
Pe’epe’e falls pronounced as Pe-eh pe- eh falls, is another waterfall on Wailuku state park. It’s located about a mile and a half above the rainbow falls. Its name means hidden, and the falls are partially hidden by huge lava rock.
The Pe’epe’e falls feed the boiling pots and are a nice alternative to the rainbow park falls. This area seldom gets crowded but still affords the beautiful scenery we have come to expect of Hawaii.
26. Mokupapapa Discovery Center
On the corner of Kamehameha and Waianuenue Avenue is the Mokupapapa Discovery Center. A center that showcases the science, history, and culture of the Northwestern islands of Hawaii.
Located in the historic Koehnen building, the discovery center features a 3500-gallons-seawater-aquarium that houses a sample of wildlife from these Hawaiian Islands.
The center also has interactive exhibits, showcasing artwork that describes these islands. It also features real-life model size of the wildlife of the region. This is a great place to take the kids for an hour of learning and exploring. Best of all, it’s free.
27. Go on a Kayaking Adventure
Explore Hilo’s beautiful coastline. A gorgeous landscape of black lava sands with a green jungle background meeting the dark blue pacific waters.
Your guided kayak adventure starts at one of Hilo’s black sandy beaches found near the cruise pier. The adventure then takes you all the way to a beautiful waterfall. Learn a lot about Hilo’s history, landscape and marine life on this guided kayak tour.
28. Checkout Lava Tree State Park
Lava tree state park features tree trunks covered in an ancient lava flow. Explore this mysterious lava landscape and its eerie results. The park has paved paths and shaded picnic areas, perfect for family time. Please note due to the latest Kilauea eruption, the park is currently closed.
29. Taste Hilo
As is popular with other Hawaiian destinations, the ‘plate lunch’ is a favorite dish in Hilo too. Made up of rice with a side of tasty meat and a topping of macaroni salad, the delicious plate lunch never gets old.
Hilo is an authentic Hawaii town bearing the old Hawaiian vibe. Why not try something traditional like a laulau dish (made of steamed taro leaves pockets filled with pork and fish). When you need to cool off, try the popular shave ice.
Nice places to stop for lunch include Pineapple’s island, Moon and Turtle for the best Poke (poh-key) and ahi tuna. Or paul’s place for brunch.
30. Visit Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Factory
Learn interesting facts about macadamia nuts. See how they are processed and packaged. But, best of all get to sample not only one flavor of macadamia nut but 12.
Afterward, visit the gift shop and buy a few flavors to take back home. You can also purchase the famous Kona coffee from this place. The center is not only about macadamia nuts, enjoy exploring the beautiful outdoor garden too.
The garden features a variety of colourfull flowers and large well maintained green spaces, perfect for a picnic.
Hilo, Hawaii Weather
Hilo receives a lot of rainfall throughout the year, to the extent that it’s labeled the 2nd wettest town in the US. However, it’s temperatures remain warm throughout the year. Winter and Spring are the best seasons to visit this part of Hawaii. The temperatures are nice and warm and the rain is not as frequent as in the other seasons. Winter runs from December to February, while spring runs from March to May.
Over to You…
There you have it, 30 things to do in Hilo, Hawaii for cruise visitors. With this list, you are guaranteed to experience the best the Big Island has to offer on your day in port. Happy Cruising!!