Photos by Dawna Robertson
As if it’s in a time warp, the Island of Hawaii’s capital town of Hilo is a contrast of culture and funk – especially in the charming downtown (which isbest discovered on foot). Instead of flash and glamor, you’ll find a mellow demeanor that flows with a colorful farmer’s market, coffee shops and buildings brimming with history inside and out.
Most visitors use Hilo as a springboard to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, plotting full day trips to explore that wonderland and then returning to Hilo accommodations that are predominantly sprinkled on Banyan Drive.
What’s important to remember is that the scenic Hamakua Coast north of Hilo is also worth exploring on a day trip or while driving to the Kona Coast on the island’s sunny west side.
While strolling along Hilo’s streets, keep in mind that this harbor town has bounced back from two devastating tsunamis that altered not only its landscape, but day-to-day life as well. These days, it’s low-key business as usual.
Below are eight great ways to explore Hilo. You can also download a walking map with 21 significant landmarks tucked within six square blocks at the Hilo Downtown Improvement Association website.
Hilo Farmers Market
When it debuted in 1988, the Hilo Farmers Market was modest with just a handful of local farmers selling products from their vehicles. While it still maintains the plantation feel of yesteryear, today’s version showcases 200-plus vendors hawking everything from organic vegetables and fruits to tropical jams, coconut pastries and Portuguese bread.
Food aside, you’ll find stalls brimming with large buckets of orchids and anthurium, handmade jewelry, koa wood crafts and etched glass art. Check out the action at the corner of Mamo Street and Kamehameha Avenue on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Pacific Tsunami Museum
On April 1, 1946 and May 23, 1960, Hilo was pounded by tsunami waves generated from earthquakes rattling the Aleutian Islands and South America respectively. While not a museum at the time, the 1930-built structure that today houses the Pacific Tsunami Museum withstood both of these natural disasters.
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Today, you can explore this chronicle of defining moments via photography, interactive exhibits, documents, documentaries, scientific instrumentation, videos and artwork. Even more impactful are recordings by tsunami survivors as they share personal accounts. The museum is located at 130 Kamehameha Avenue.
Lyman Museum and Mission House
Built in 1939, Lyman House is one of the oldest wood-frame structures on the Island of Hawaii. Depicting a multi-cultural past, it houses a collection of fine art, Hawaiian artifacts, and the resorted home of David and Sarah Lyman.
In the Island Heritage Gallery, visitors witness examples of how the Hawaiian people lived via tools and implements for hunting and fishing. Other items on exhibit include poi pounders, basketry, wooden bowls, and a wood and cord framework for the typical grass-covered hale they lived in. You’ll find the museum at 276 Haili Street.
Mokupapapa Discovery Center
At the Mokupapapa Discovery Center, the nature and culture of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands transports visitors to this remote ocean wilderness where predators rule the reefs and the sky brims with swooping, screeching seabirds.
Located at 76 Kamehameha Avenue in the historic Koehnen Building, the center is highlighted by a 3,500-gallon saltwater aquarium, interactive educational exhibits, life-size models of wildlife found in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, island-inspired artwork, and interpretive panels in both Hawaiian and English.
Exquisite in itself, Koehnen Building has been preserved and refreshed to display its majesty via a koa wood staircase, Hawaiian hardwood floors and high ceilings.
Admission to the center is free, although donations are accepted to support all of the National Marine Sanctuaries.
In the Neighborhood
If you’re into hole-in-the wall refueling, Hilo delivers nirvana. Check out Bears coffee shop that’s lauded for serving the best Belgian waffles outside of Belgium. Since the filling “loco moco” was created in Hilo, it’s hard to pass up Café 100 for this concoction of white rice topped by a hamburger patty, fried egg and brown gravy. Sports enthusiasts are appeased with pub food and brews at Cronies, while those with a sweet tooth can savor specialties at PukaPuka Kitchen.
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Liliuokalani Park and Gardens
Adjacent to Hilo’s hotels on Banyan Drive, the 30-acre Liliuokalani Park and Gardens was built in the early 1900s on land donated by Hawaii’s Queen Liliuokalani for honoring the hardworking Japanese immigrants who came to the Island of Hawaii to work on the Waiakea Sugar Plantation. This sanctuary always seems to be quiet and peaceful regardless of how many people are strolling along its paths.
Connected to the park via a footbridge, the small island of Mokuola (aka Coconut Island) is ideal for picnicking and small-scale swimming. Facing the east, it’s also frequented at sunrise – especially by locals who “throw net” Hawaiian-style to catch hungry fish searching for food near the water’s surface early in the morning.
Imiloa Astronomy Center
Located on a nine-acre campus above the University of Hawaii at Hilo, the stellar Imiloa Astronomy Center is a 42,000-square-foot treasure sharing the connections between early Polynesian star navigators and modern-day astronomers. Exhibits are divided into "Origins" and "Explorations" areas that highlight both scientific and Hawaiian theories, beliefs and practices.
Astronomy enthusiasts are also privy to the world’s first planetarium with 3-D stereoscopic capabilities. Rotating shows feature a live presentation of the Hawaiian night sky.
Outside the facility, Imiloa’s landscape is comprised of more than 50 native plant species from Hawaii's unique microenvironments. While some are commonly found throughout the island chain, several are extremely rare and endangered. Among the latter are a few endemic species that are more than 150 years old.
Imiloa’s website features an updated schedule of special events and presentations so travelers can time visits appropriately. Located at 600 Imiloa Place, the contemporary facility is on the heels of celebrating its 10th anniversary.
East Hawaii Cultural Center
Resembling an 1800s-era Hawaiian hale (house), the East Hawaii Cultural Center is dedicated to sharing and preserving culture, plus traditional and creative arts on the Island of Hawaii. View art exhibits within three public galleries, attend performing arts events and shop for local art.
Be sure to check the website for details on current happenings at the center that’s located at 141 Kalakaua Street. As with Mokupapapa Discovery Center, admission is free and donations are welcomed.