10 Funky Things To Do In Hilo

Hilo is a laid-back hippy Hawaiian city with 10 funky things to do during your stay on the Big Island, known as the Island of Inspiration. If you are lucky enough to fly into Hilo International Airport, you can easily do a whirlwind tour before you check into your hotel.

But we were staying at the Fairmont Orchid on the Kohala Coast, so we had a two-hour drive to Hilo. Our hotel concierge recommended the scenic beach route on Route 19. This meant that we left the harsh desert landscape of black lava rocks and saw rolling green hills, grazing cows, and 80-feet waterfalls.

Shop Hilo Farmers Market

The Hilo Farmers Market is a must-see destination when you visit Hilo.

The sign at the entrance of the market announces “Hilo Farmers Market: From Dawn Til It’s Gone.” I think the slogan captures the thrill of the scavenger hunt. What unknown fruits, veggies, and homemade bakery goods will be discovered.

Since my daughter-in-law Carla and I had already sampled the elixir of fresh coconut milk dipped out of a hairy coconut hull, we bypassed the vendor selling “doobie.” (We purchased the coconut from a vendor selling pineapples and coconuts from a truck near Rainbow Falls. Despite the hefty price tag, the coconuts were selling quickly.)

A vast array of produce is sold at the Hilo Farmer’s Market

My recommendation is to slowly roam the market, stopping at each vendor’s table to peruse the produce. You don’t want to touch the fruits or vegetables as they can be easily bruised. But I did lean down to sniff the fruit.

Multiple vendors sold homemade individually-wrapped cakes and breads. I couldn’t resist sampling the Hawaiian honey.

Buy Hawaiian Handmade Jewelry

After buying our bags of 100% Kona coffee and nuts, we crossed the street. There are more tents selling clothes, jewelry, artwork and t-shirts.

Unlike the expensive necklaces and earrings sold at hotel gift stores, the Hilo Farmers Market features real deals. I bought a lovely silver pearl (facsimile) necklace for $15.

Stroll Japanese-Style Garden

After leaving the farmer’s market, our next stop is the Liliuokalani Gardens, located off Banyan Drive. It is a short 5-minute drive from the market. Admission is free. Trip Advisor rates it #7 of 77 things to do in Hilo.

It is the largest authentic ornamental Japanese garden outside of Japan.

It was named after Queen Liliuokalani, Hawaii’s last monarch. Dedicated in 1917, the 24.67-acre Japanese garden pays tribute to Japanese immigrants who settled on the island to work in the sugar cane fields. The park overlooks Waiakea Peninsula in Hilo Bay.

I would recommend purchasing homemade island tacos or poke at the market so you can picnic at Liliuokalani Gardens.

Befriend Island Cats At Japanese Tea House

Now a must-visit site in the Liliuokalani Gardens is the “Shoroan” Tea House. Currently, it is closed. But the sign indicates that the tea house is used for tea tastings as well as a cultural center.

Despite the temporary closure, we were greeted by a feline ambassador. This tabby met us on the porch and gave a tour around the building.

Credit: Carla La Fleur

If you don’t get to take your picture with a real “Neko” (Japanese for cat), you can pose with two stone lion sculptures that guard Liliuokalani Gardens.

Two lion statues stand guard at Liliuokalani Park and Gardens

Indulge in Hawaiian Shave Ice

After we finished touring the park, we treated ourselves to an authentic Hawaiian shave ice dessert at Kula Shave Ice. A dish is expensive ($9-$13) but two people can easily share it.

Carla and I shared a shave ice dessert.

The Kula shave ice difference is using handcrafted syrups made from fresh ingredients. Kula Shave Ice makes all of their syrups in-house from scratch, using the highest quality ingredients and “plenty of love and aloha.”

The history of this signature island dessert can be traced to Japanese immigrants.

“Descended from Japanese kakigori, it was brought to the island by Japanese plantation laborers.”


Today, the Hawaiian version will frequently include a scoop of ice cream at the bottom of the mound of shave ice. We chose the Big Island Love flavor ($10) at Kula Shave Ice, which features coconut and lime, doused in condensed milk with fresh strawberries.

The Big Island Love dessert

Other flavors at Kula Shave Ice include The Kula Rainbow, The Lilikoi Dreamsickle, The Local, the Chocoholic, and the Lava Flow. The staff favorite is The Local (with soursop and lilikoi topped with haupia cream). You can add poi for $3.

People Watch In Shopping District

If you can find an outdoor table at a poke cafe or restaurant, you definitely want to people-watch in Hilo. During the operating hours of the Hilo Farmers Market, there are hundreds of people roaming the streets.

Stores are decorated in bright pastel shades

The architecture is 50s-style beach retro. Buildings are frequently painted in bright pastels.

Hunt For Street Art

Hilo is a big beach town for street art lovers. There is a whole brick wall at the Hilo Farmers Market featuring fish and turtles underwater. You almost get the sensation of scuba diving when you walk through the market.

Bright street art is backdrop for Hilo Farmers Market

We also saw an exterior store wall next to a Shell gas station painted with a brunette (mermaid) floating in a coral pool.

Drive Hilo’s Old Mamalahoa Scenic Road

Naturally, it is hard to leave Hilo if you only get an afternoon to visit this lovely town. But you can stall your departure by driving down “Old Mamalahoa Scenic Road,” also known as Pepe’ekeo Scenic Drive or Onomea Scenic Drive.

This four-mile Onomea route once connected Hilo, Waimea, and old sugar-era plantation towns located on the Hamakusa Coast.

Dense vegetation on the Onomea Trail

This four-mile detour takes you past old Hawaiian homes and past Hilo Bay. Park your car at the first spot available. You will get to hike down the Onomea Trail to Donkey Head.

This rocky path winds past wild vegetation, palm trees, and tropical flowers as well as the fenced perimeter of the Botanic Garden. A guard on a bridge will direct you down the path to the beach.

Discover Secret Swimming Hole

So we inched our way down the path to a rocky beach. We had to jump across the stones to reach the water. It was a “picture postcard” Instagram moment when we saw the view.

You should bring “waterproof swimming shoes or “water socks” if you want to wade in the water. There are a lot of rocks and gravel so you can easily cut the bottom of your feet or scrape your toes. You should pack a towel in your car so you dry off before the long drive home.

Sing “Over The Rainbow”

No visit to Hilo is complete without stopping to visit Rainbow Falls, which is part of Hawai’i State Park. Unlike Afuna Falls, this 80-foot waterfall is free to visit. The diameter is 100 feet wide. Parking is also available on-site.

Rainbow Falls

According to Hawaiian folk tales, the demigod Maui fought the trickster lizard because Kuna tried to drown his mother Hina. Maui trapped the lizard in a pool of boiling rocks by calling on Pele (Goddess of the Volcano). He was turned into a stone.

I wanted to burst into song as I stood looking across at the rainbow that dissected the waterfalls. Judy Garland’s voice just roared in my ears – like the sound of the pounding Wailuku River thundering into the pool below the falls.

“Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue, and the dreams you dare to dream, really do come true.”

Harold Arlen / E. Harburg
A waterfall that creates rainbows

Hilo will steal your heart. It is worth the long drive to visit this northeastern section of the Big Island. Seek out Hawaiian blue skies. Chase the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow falls. Eat like a native at the Hilo Farmer’s Market. Swim in the quiet waters at Hilo Bay.

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  • Lisa
    September 16, 2022 at 7:10 pm

    I’d never heard of Hilo until I read this post. Looks like a great place for a little vacation. Thanks for sharing!

    • Terri
      September 17, 2022 at 4:01 pm

      I think Hilo as well as the Big Island are less well known than Oahu and Maui. But both are truly amazing.

  • Hannah
    September 17, 2022 at 3:54 am

    What a great list of things to do in Hilo! I’d absolutely be making friends with the cats! I’m such a crazy cat lady! I’d love to shop for handmade jewellery too, it would make a great souvenir and gifts! Thanks for the great guide!

    • Terri
      September 17, 2022 at 4:00 pm

      Hawaii is a cat lover’s dream destination. I met so ment outdoor island cats. I wanted to bring them all home.

  • Alanna
    September 17, 2022 at 1:08 pm

    I’ve only visited Hilo as a kid so didn’t really decide what we did. But, those gardens look lovely and I still need to try shaved ice! What a fun spot.

    • Terri
      September 17, 2022 at 3:59 pm

      I can’t say enough good things about Hilo. I wish I had two days to explore. The Japanese gardens are so gorgeous.

  • Krista
    September 17, 2022 at 6:06 pm

    I can’t say that I’ve heard of Hilo before, but I love the relaxed atmosphere it has. That fruit all looks great and I’d definitely be heading to the waterfall!

    • Terri
      September 17, 2022 at 6:37 pm

      I saw so many fruits and vegetables at the Farmers Market that I never heard of before. It was fascinating. I wish I had a kitchen so I could buy the fresh veggies & then roast and cook for dinner. Hilo is a laid-back town. I loved it!

  • simplyjolayne
    September 17, 2022 at 6:53 pm

    What a fun day you must have had. I am always a sucker for markets wherever I travel in the world, so I would definitely include the farmer’s market in my visit!

    • Terri
      September 18, 2022 at 7:42 am

      Hilo is rightfully famous for its Farmers Market!

  • Amelia
    September 17, 2022 at 9:06 pm

    Oh my goodness, this all looks so fabulous but I can’t go past a good farmer’s market. So colourful!

    • Terri
      September 18, 2022 at 7:43 am

      Thank you!

  • Patricia
    September 17, 2022 at 9:22 pm

    I had never heard of Hilo, but it sounds like a nice place to stroll around, especially the Japanese garden and the tea house, which I am a fan of!

    • Terri
      September 18, 2022 at 7:44 am

      If I lived in Hilo, I would walk every day in the Japanese gardens. The area is so serene.

  • Elizabeth
    September 17, 2022 at 11:26 pm

    I had a great time visiting the cats in Turkey. I had no idea Hilo had their own resident kitties too. I have to swing by and say Aloha.

    • Terri
      September 18, 2022 at 7:44 am

      I know the cats in Hilo would appreciate a meow!

  • Kathryn
    September 18, 2022 at 12:05 pm

    Waterfalls and shaved ice? I’m in!! Looks like another beautiful corner of Hawai’i to add to our list. Thanks for the tips!

    • Terri
      September 18, 2022 at 12:43 pm

      I honestly had no idea that shave ice could taste so delicious. They use real fruit to make it.

  • Jill
    September 18, 2022 at 3:50 pm

    Wow, when researching about Hawaii you barely hear about Hilo, but now that I’ve read your guide it looks like a must! Especially the Onomea Trail sounds amazing. Thanks for sharing!

    • Terri
      September 18, 2022 at 5:34 pm

      I wish I had done more research about the Big Island before my trip. But I did know that Hilo was a nice day trip. It turns out it was my favorite day spent on the island. The best part was accidentally discovering the 4-mile Onomea Trail scenic route.

  • Jenn | By Land and Sea
    September 18, 2022 at 7:50 pm

    We didn’t have the best experience on the Big Island, but we were on the Kona side. This post gives us plenty of reasons to go back!

    • Terri
      September 20, 2022 at 7:02 pm

      I found the desert side (Kona) rather bleak due to the lava rock landscape. But traveling around the island to see the other ecosystems, such as the mountains and the rainforests, really impressed me. And I did love visiting the Volcanoes National Park in the center of the island.

  • tiffy roxxx
    September 19, 2022 at 2:41 pm

    Lovely! So many Japanese influences and great that it’s being preserved.

    • Terri
      September 20, 2022 at 7:04 pm

      I agree. A lot of Japanese immigrated to Hawaii. You especially see the influence in the popularity of some foods, such as shave ice and sushi.