Visiting Hawaii’s Big Island: Should You Spend More Time in Hilo or Kona?

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.

sunset-tree

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.

kona-brewing

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.

kona-beach-hawaii

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-turtle-sidewalk

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.

waterfall

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.

hawaii big island kona vs 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.

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About Scott Shetler

Scott is a Chicago-based journalist and blogger who seeks out quirky sights and awesome destinations throughout North America and beyond.

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