Traveling to the Big Island for the first time? We want to help you get the lay of the land with this list of the most popular sights and destinations. Developing familiarity with these places will help you become more comfortable with the island and assist in mapping out where you want to go and what you want to see.
Below, we break down the Big Island into different categories to help you digest it, including the most visited places as well as outdoor, cultural, and kid-friendly points of interest. We conclude with a couple hidden gems that we think are well worth a visit.
The Big Island’s large, spacious landmass and low population bodes well for its top attractions. “Crowds” are relative here, with plenty of room to spread out and very few congested areas. In most cases, a savvy traveler can get around any hustle and bustle by visiting at off-peak hours. Where appropriate, we include this advice and information to help you have the best experience.
Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park
One of two national parks in Hawaiʻi, Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park is located on the Big Island’s windward side, occupying a large area in the southeast. The Park was designated as an International Biosphere Reserve in 1980, a World Heritage Site in 1987, and a National Park in 1916.
Today, it covers more than 500 square miles of land. Centered around the active volcano of Kīlauea, it is a hub for both recreation and scientific discovery. Throughout the park, you can see the aftermath of past eruptions and lava flows, and the Park’s visitor center is located adjacent to Kīlauea’s summit crater, Halemaʻumaʻu, where volcanic activity has been on-going almost continuously since the mid-80s. Parts of Mauna Loa – the island’s largest volcano – are also within the boundaries of the National Park.
Good to know: The National Park is the most-visited attraction on the Big Island, and at certain times, many of its easy-accessible areas, such as Thurston Lava Tube, can become congested. However, visiting earlier or later in the day can avoid those “rush hours,” and in general, the Park is so big that there is plenty of room to spread out.
Favorite activities in the park
- The Halemaʻumaʻu crater overlook at the Jaggar museum (now closed, but several great overlooks remain)
- The Thurston lava tube
- The Kīlauea Iki crater
- Part of the Chain of Craters road.
Kailua-Kona is the main hub on the Big Island’s west coast, located about 15 minutes south of the Kona airport. It is by far the largest town on this side of the island, teeming with local life as well as visitor accommodations. The Kona waterfront runs along Aliʻi Drive, home to a myriad of bars, restaurants, kiosks, hotels, tour operators, and shops, most with clear views of the ocean.
Good to know: If you’re staying in Kailua-Kona, you’ll enjoy the accessibility and walkability it provides. Sunset is a wonderful time to take a stroll down Aliʻi Drive, perhaps settle into a seaside restaurant for dinner and drinks. Kailua Pier is home to several boat tour operators, making it easy to jump on a snorkel tour from town.
The Mauna Kea Summit
The Big Island is made up of five volcanoes. Two of them – Kīlauea and Mauna Loa – can be experienced within Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. But Mauna Kea, the island’s tallest volcano, soars to 13,800 feet above sea level, and is an attraction all its own.
Featuring a visitor center and a summit road, Mauna Kea is open to explorers every day. By day, you can explore the visitor center (located at 9,000 feet), drive to the summit (4-wheel drive vehicle required), or traverse the volcano via its hiking trails. At night, stargazing becomes the main priority. The summit of Mauna Kea is home to many telescopes and observatories that study the night sky, and park rangers often hold stargazing tours at the visitor center.
We think stargazing from Mauna Kea is one of the coolest things you can do on the Big Island; you will be amazed at the amount of stars you can see.
Good to know: Mauna Kea means “white mountain,” named for the snow that is often found at its high-elevation peak.
In 1778, British explorer Captain James Cook arrived in Hawaiʻi, becoming the first westerner to arrive in the islands. He visited several of the islands, but made frequent stops at Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island. The deep bay allowed him to bring his big ships close to shore, providing protection from the rough open waters. While at Kealakekua, he did repairs on his ship, and met and mingled with the local Hawaiian communities that lived nearby, exchanging gifts and pleasantries.
The story is a much longer one – which we suggest you read up on – but eventually, things went south for Captain Cook at Kealakekua: One day a skirmish broke out, and he was killed. Today, a monument stands along the shore in his honor, and the bay is a protected marine sanctuary. It is one of the best places to snorkel on the Big Island, featuring a mix of shallow and deep water, tropical fish, sea turtles, and coral.
There are lots of epic family-friendly places to visit on the Big Island.
Families will love exploring ʻAkaka Falls State Park, home to the majestic 422-foot ʻAkaka Falls. A paved walking paths runs about a half mile through the Park, which is akin to one big botanical garden, featuring massive banyan trees, tropical flowers, and bamboo.
Good to Know: ʻAkaka Falls has limited parking, so arrive early or late to beat the mid-day rush. An entrance fee is required.
The Hawaiʻi Ocean Science and Technology Park’s research campus houses a number of small business that focus on emerging renewable energy, aquaculture, and other ocean-based sustainable technologies. Among them is the Seahorse Farm, where you get to see how seahorses are hatched and raised. Kids love this experience because you even get to hold one during the tour. Adults will enjoy learning about their development, cognitive abilities, diet, and lifespan.
Good to Know: This tour should be booked in advance online, as it tends to fill up fast.