Hilo is a charming mix of old and new Hawai‘i. Once a thriving town bolstered by limitless sugar revenues, the demise of the sugar industry has kept Hilo in a time warp. And that’s the charm. Though a full-fledged city, things move slower here, and the community is tight. They’ve been through a lot. Slammed by tsunamis, threatened by lava flows, racked by a changing economy, Hilo has withstood it all. Hilo is also a strikingly beautiful town. Abundant rains give the flora a healthy sheen that soothes the soul. Though the exodus of business has left many of its buildings looking worn and neglected, Hilo’s charms lie deeper.
The Hawaiian definition of the word “Hilo” is “the first night after the new moon.” The word is also the Polynesian term for “Navigator.”
Hilo Hawaii Map
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Hilo’s Achilles’ heel is the weather. Only in Hilo would water officials quake in fear and declare a drought, even encouraging water conservation, when they receive only 70 inches of rain in a year. (All you Arizona residents can stop laughing now.) This kind of Hilo weather translates to an unacceptable gamble for many visitors. People are hesitant to spend precious Big Island days with soggy Hilo weather. But they forget that even if it’s rain-city here, elsewhere along the eastern side things might be sunnier.
Hilo weather is almost always described with one word—rain. Hilo is the wettest city in the United States. Annual rainfall is rarely less than 100 inches, usually much more. But rain is not constant here. Hilo weather has times of drought like anywhere else. (Like when rainfall was a mere 70 inches one year, triggering rationing.) Most of the rain falls at night. When daytime showers do occur, they are often intense but short-lived. That said, rain or cloudiness will be a factor with Hilo weather.
For a full list of Hilo Hawaii hotels, download the Hawaii Revealed app. The Where to Stay section is free!
The Inn at Kulaniapia Falls
This inn sits on 22 acres about 4 miles northwest of downtown Hilo. Macadamia nut trees dominate the drive in on the long private road. There is no formal check-in; just arrive, and find your name on a board with your room location, and the key is in the door for waiting for you. It feels very laid back here. You can almost feel the tension melting off you. The three main buildings sit on an incredibly beautiful grassy hill above Kulaniapia Falls and pond whose sound can be heard from all rooms. A hot breakfast is included for all the guests. The Pagoda and Harmony House have full kitchens. All room decor is Asian-inspired. Rooms tend to feel smaller than at other inns in the area, but they are well-furnished and clean. There are tvs (except in residence rooms), fridges, Kuerig coffee makers, tea, and microwaves available in common area kitchens. Pupus are complimentary in the evenings. Units don’t have any phones, but you may be able to use one of the manager’s on site if needed. There is a trail to the waterfall and pond (you must check-in with the innkeeper before hiking or swimming in it) and another 20-minute hike through a bamboo garden where another three-tiered falls await you. There are stand-up paddleboards and kayaks available for free for use on the property. They have waterfall rappelling tours daily on site.
Dolphin Bay Hotel
One of the better bargain hotels in Hilo. Rooms are clean and have complete kitchens. No phone in your room, but you can always use the one in the lobby. The coqui frog problem here is particularly noticeable and they will give you free earplugs, but some guests actually enjoy the sound. Free coffee, cakes and fruit in the morning. Friendly and helpful staff. An easy place to recommend.
Things to do in Hilo Hawaii
Looking for things to do in Hilo Hawaii? Our best bets for waterfalls, including a hidden waterfall, are the following:
These falls change dramatically depending on water flow. Moderate flow is best. (Too little and the wishbone shape is gone; too much and it’s an undefined, roiling mess.) The falls are best seen in the morning when the sun is behind you. (Rainbows can only be seen when the sun is behind you, so if you ever see a photo with the sun and a rainbow in the same frame, it’s fake.) The cave below the falls is where Kamehameha is said to have buried the bones of his father. Take the trail to the left for different views and the shady comfort of a large banyan tree. From the left, a trail leads to the top of the falls, but you are on your own in assessing whether to go down there.
Many people come to Hawai‘i looking for an idyllic pool or waterfall to frolic in. Well, here it is, and it’s only a 10-minute hike to get there.
Wai‘ale Falls itself is a pretty and fairly high-volume waterfall. Above the falls lie several beautiful pools and some small falls that can be a delight to play in (if the flow’s not too high).
You start on Waianuenue Avenue past Boiling Pots. You’ll see the falls (700 feet away) from the bridge that crosses the river. The trailhead is just past the bridge; park on the shoulder. The trail itself is plagued with mosquitoes, but once at the water we’ve haven’t found them to be a big problem. Bring bug juice just in case. Follow the narrow trail up through the strawberry guava lining the north bank of the Wailuku River. There are several offshoots that allow you to visit the large pool below the falls (if you wish) and some false trails that can be confusing. The trail ends at the top of those falls. Remember that spot for your return.
At the top, rocks make little swimming pools or (cold) bath tubs for soakin’ and splashin’. We’ve always found this area to feel secluded even though the road is still visible. The footing is much less slippery than many other stream banks around the islands, thanks to the consolidated lava here.
Hilo Hawaii Beaches
Best beach of Big Island’s east side. The small inlet is protected from normal surf conditions by boulders except during high surf and at its best at low tide. The bottom is shallow, gently sloping and sandy (especially toward the left/north side of the beach), making it great for Keiki. There’s another surprise here—there are several freshwater springs feeding into the north side of the beach that rival Ice Pond in briskness. You can see it gushing out of the bank below some large trees just past where the sand ends. The land, buildings and nicely manicured lawn directly behind the beach is owned by the Shipman family, and there are plenty of signs indicating where the private property line is. Getting to the beach requires a 2.5 mile hike.
Wai’olena and Wai’uli Beach Parks
Farther east is Wai‘olena and Wai‘uli Beach Parks. This last area contains Richardson’s Ocean Center at the far end and is particularly attractive with freshwater pools sprinkled about. The county Aquatics Division is located here. This is an excellent place for a picnic, though sometimes the (James) Kealoha crowd spills over to here. There’s a small black sand cove where you can enter the water. It’ll be cold from freshwater intruding into the area. Some of Hilo’s better snorkelling is here. Dolphins often frequent the area, and turtles usually congregate a little farther down the coast toward Hilo. Check with lifeguards because this area is subject to strong surf.
Hilo Best Restaurants
Check out these downtown Hilo restaurants to get the best food during your stay. These restaurants all received an Ono in our books, meaning they stand out from the rest.
Possibly Hilo’s most popular eating establishment. This is the most successful local restaurant on the island. For nearly 70 years they’ve served cheap, tasty, artery-clogging food and are legendary for their loco mocos. (These consist of fried eggs over rice and Spam or similar meat—if there is similar meat—all smothered with brown gravy.) They have nearly a dozen varieties of loco moco, along with burgers, chili, stew, sandwiches and specials for as little as $3.50. We gave them an ono because this is quintessential local food. But if you’re watching your cholesterol or fat intake, it’ll rock your Richter Scale like no other place. Grab your food at the window and eat at one of the outdoor tables.
Hilo Burger Joint
A likable place with a great selection of burgers using lots of unusual combinations, such as the nacho burger (nacho cheese, black beans, jalapenos, tortillas and sour cream on top), kim cheese burgers, Greek burgers, etc. All served on one-third-pound patties from a local ranch. Eh, no like beef? (That’s a local phrase we hope you never hear…) Anyway, they also have turkey, salmon and veggie patties. They have a full bar and 23 beers on tap for around $6 each and a good pupu menu. The atmosphere is a cross between a bar and a restaurant and they even have some board games to amp up your meal. Service is friendly. Just south of Pauahi St. in Hilo. Parking can be a problem; check the side streets.
Frequently asked questions about Hilo
What does Hilo stand for?
Hilo stands for a Polynesian navigator. Hilo (town), possibly named for the ancient navigator.
What is Hilo known for?
Hilo is known for being less friendly to visitors than other parts of the island. Sort of a let da buggahs go to Kona mentality. Though this reputation is not entirely unearned, it is also not entirely accurate. Some of the friendliest, nicest and most helpful people we’ve run into have been in Hilo. But we’ve also gotten more blank expressions and outright nastiness here.
Which island is Hilo on?
Hilo is on the Big Island.
Is Hilo the wettest city in the US?
Hilo is not the wettest city in the US. Hilo’s Achilles’ heel is weather. Only in Hilo would water officials quake in fear and declare a drought, even encouraging water conservation, when they receive only 70 inches of rain in a year. (All you Arizona residents can stop laughing now.) This rain translates to an unacceptable gamble for many visitors. People are hesitant to spend precious Big Island days in a soggy place. But they forget that even if it’s rain-city here, elsewhere along the eastern side things might be sunnier. Hilo is the logical gateway for exploring Puna, the easternmost part of the island, where you’ll find lush rain forests, a black sand beach, thermally heated pools and volcano-ravaged towns. Puna is also famous for its outlaws from the 20th century, guerrilla gardeners and bizarre characters.