If you’re planning a trip to Hawaii’s Big Island, you will discover there are two major cities: Hilo and Kona. Which one should you spend more time in?
The answer depends on your interests and the length of your visit. When I visited the Big Island, I didn’t know enough about these cities and ended up making an uninformed decision in terms of allocating my vacation days.
Kona: A beautiful, upscale vacation destination
Kona feels fairly upscale. There are breweries and expensive restaurants and shopping options. You need a car to get around because there isn’t much of a downtown. Prices are higher here, but the area is beautiful, with trees all over the place bearing bananas, avocados, and oranges.
The beaches are great in Kona, and those who snorkel prefer this side of the island. Kona has a decent-sized LGBT population as well. Add it all up, and Kona reminded me of San Francisco, Puerto Vallarta, and to a lesser extent, Key West.
Hilo: More historic with lots of nature
Hilo reminded me of Cleveland (or any Rust Belt city) with palm trees. That’s not a bad thing – I’m from the Midwest and I love those cities. The buildings are older and have some wear. The area feels more working-class and the community as a whole has a slightly grittier feel. Hilo is more affordable and has more local character.
Hilo definitely feels less touristy than Kona, which is a good thing. It does have its share of attractions, like the Tsunami Museum. And its proximity to Volcanoes National Park makes it a great place to stay before or after visiting the park.
Hilo has some great rainforests and waterfalls in the area, so it’s a good place for hiking and other outdoor activities. The Hilo side gets a lot more rain than Kona, so consider that as well.
Hilo has fewer beaches than Kona, and they are less popular. Hilo is more pedestrian-friendly, with more of a proper downtown area, whereas Kona isn’t very walkable.
Hilo vs. Kona itinerary suggestions
Usually when you’re on vacation – especially when you’re going to a tropical destination like Hawaii – you want to indulge a little. You want to relax and feel like you’re in paradise. Kona fits that description a bit better than Hilo in my opinion. That’s why I’d recommend staying in Kona longer than Hilo.
If you’ve got a week on the Big Island, try 3 days in Kona, 2 in Hilo, and 2 in Volcanoes National Park. Or consider swapping out a day in Hilo for one on the less-populated northern side of the island. Kona and Hilo are both worth visiting – just adjust your schedule based on whether you prefer beaches and upscale shops or rainforests and history.