Our 23 Favorite Sights and Destinations on the Big Island
By Love Big Island | updated
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.
It’s no secret that it will cost you a pretty penny to visit Hawaiʻi. Flights and accommodations, which are amongst the most expensive in the U.S., are just the beginning, with food, rental cars, and pricey lūʻaus, excursions, and tours piling up as well.
But, there’s a silver lining! Thanks to Hawaiʻi’s outdoor beauty and natural offerings, you’ll find there is an abundant amount of awesome, free (or close to free) activities to enjoy throughout the islands, including beaches, hikes, ocean adventures, picnics, historical sites, and more.
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.
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.
Hikers cross the floor of the Kilauea’iki crater in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Find out more about this hike on our website.
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
Top activities include seeing lava, hiking, camping, volcano viewing, and scenic drives (Chain of Craters Road). The following video shows four of our favorite stops 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.
HAWAI'I VOLCANOES National Park 8K (Visually Stunning 3min Tour)
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.
Downtown Kona and Kailua Bay. Credit: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Heather Goodman
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.
The sometimes snow topped Maunakea (with telescopes) dominates the island and can be seen from many beaches. Image credit: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Kirk Lee Aeder
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.
Napoʻopoʻo Beach is a small rocky beach in the Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park. Image credit: Nnachappa64 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link
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.
Walking towards the ʻAkaka Falls lookout point. Credit: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Heather Goodman
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.
You can hold a seahorse during the tour at the Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm. Image credit: the Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm
More kid-friendly farm tours
There are many animal-related tours on the Big Island, ranging from small insects (beehives and honey production) to large (rescued) farm animals. You can also pay a visit to a petting zoo in Volcano or get some goat therapy in Honomu, tour an octopus farm in Kona, take out a shelter dog for a day trip, or even get to see zebras and flamingos in an exotic animal shelter!
Rainbow Falls, located just minutes from downtown Hilo, is another beautiful and accessible waterfall on the Big Island. Its appearance is postcard-worthy and picturesque, the 80-foot falls framed by its rocky stream bed and the lush, green jungle that surrounds it. You can park almost within sight of the falls, making it accessible for all ages and abilities, and there’s are short staircase that brings you to the top of the falls for an alternative view.
The volume of the rainbow falls (or Waianuenue) changes on a daily basis. This is what the falls look like after a good rain upstream
Good to know: If your kids are up for a little longer walk, check out the nearby Waiʻale Trail to explore another waterfall.
When can you see rainbows at the Rainbow Falls?
The small water droplets in the mist that surrounds the falling water are responsible for the ubiquitous rainbows that can be seen at this waterfall. The main viewing area for the rainbow falls is east of the falls, so if you want to see rainbows while looking at the falls, you need to do so in the morning (because the sun rises in the east).
If you like the outdoors, you’ve come to the right place. The Big Island contains nearly every ecosystem in the world, with lots of natural wonders to explore. In addition to the national parks and other outdoor areas found throughout this article, check out these favorites:
Punaluʻu Beach is a gem on the southeast coast of the Big Island, beloved for its black sand, crescent shape, and abundance of sea turtles that are seen on shore almost daily. There’s a lifeguard on duty for swimming, and scenic portions of coastline to explore. Go in the early morning or late afternoon when the sun is not too hot.
Good to Know: Grab a to-go lunch or snacks to enjoy on the beach from nearby Punaluʻu Bakery.
Punaluʻu is a good place for swimming, taking in the sun and snorkeling (turtles!)
Thurston Lava Tube
Thurston Lava Tube is a 500-year-old underground “cave” that was once a main artery of Kīlauea Volcano, transporting lava underground along the volcanic rift zone. It is arguably the most well-preserved lava tube in all of Hawaiʻi, and definitely the most accessible, maintained by the National Park and explorable via a paved walking path. Because you can walk through the tube itself and exit at the other end, visitors are given a wonderful look at not only the geological features, but the inner workings of a Hawaiian volcano via a fun, “otherworldly” and underground walk.
Good to Know: Thurston is one of the most popular attractions in Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. Avoid visiting during the mid-day if possible. Go early in the morning or later in the afternoon, when things tend to be more quiet. Adventurous spirits with their own lighting can visit at night when the lights are off.
Explore this 500 year old lava cave that could fit a truck in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
There are a range of things to see and do at “South Point,” the southernmost tip of the Big Island. It is said to be the area where the Polynesians first landed about 1,700 years ago, and today it contains ruins of Hawaiian temples. Its views and scenery are a big draw, with tall sea cliffs and expansive views. There is also a green-sand beach, Papakolea, in this area, which requires a 2.5 mile hike.
Ka Lae is a good stop on your way to Papakolea (green sand beach)
Hāpuna beach is regularly voted as one of the best beaches in Hawaiʻi (it even made it to our list of favorite Kona beaches ;)), and it’s without question the most pristine white-sand beach on the Big Island. It’s a half mile long, almost always sunny (less than 10 inches of rain a year), and has a continuous, mellow shore break that is great fun for all ages. Snorkeling is also possible (bring/rent your gear beforehand), and a lifeguard is on duty seven days a week.
Good to Know: There is some shade at Hāpuna Beach, but we recommend arriving early to ensure that you snag a slice of it.
There is little shelter from the sun at the long white sand beach at Hapuna bay. Credit: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson
The Huliheʻe Palace, a waterfront estate featuring six rooms, showcases how Hawaiian royalty once vacationed and relaxed along the shores of Kailua-Kona. A getaway place for the royal families and their high chiefs, the palace was restored in the 1920s and it now contains artifacts and offers guided tours.
Good to Know: The Huliheʻe Palace is located in the heart of downtown Kailua-Kona. Docent-led tours take place Wednesday through Sunday and you can make a reservation online.
The Huliheʻe Palace in Kailua-Kona is a former vacation home of Hawaiian royalty that now is converted to a museum showcasing furniture and artifacts.
King Kamehameha Statue
The northern part of the Big Island – named Kohala after the volcano that built it – was the birthplace of Kamehameha, Hawaiʻi’s most famous king. Today, a statue stands in his honor, but what’s most surprising is the backstory behind the statue – it was rescued from the sea floor after its transport ship sunk near the Falkland Islands.
Good to Know: The Kamehameha Statue is not far from Pololū Valley (see below) and downtown Hawi. We recommend checking out the group of them when making the journey up north.
The Kamehamea statue in front of the North Kohala Civic Center (Kapaau, HI). Credit: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Blake Bronstad
ʻImiloa Astronomy Center
The ʻImiloa Astronomy Center is a scientific and cultural discovery center located on the University of Hawaiʻi Hilo campus. It attempts to bridge the gap between science and culture, combining, for example, the astronomical research that takes place on top of Mauna Kea with how Hawaiians have been navigating using the night sky for centuries. It features rotating special exhibits as well as a planetarium.
Good to Know: ʻImiloa is a nice 1-hour museum stop on a rainy day in Hilo. Try to time your visit with a planetarium show.
The ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawai’i in Hilo, the Big Island. Photo credits: Brewbooks on Flickr under a CC BY-SA 2.0 licence
Puʻuhonua o Honaunau
Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau is a historical site unlike most others; it is known as a “place of refuge,” or in today’s terms, a rehabilitation center for ancient lawbreakers. Staffed and run by high priests, those who had broken a “kapu,” or ancient law, could find their way to established refuges, like Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau, to seek forgiveness and perform penance. Back in the day, each district would have a place of refuge similar to Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau.
Good to Know: Ranger talks occur several times per day and it is best to time your visit with one of them in order to bring the place to life.
Reconstructed Halau that acts as a shelter for canoes on the Royal Grounds
Puʻukohola Heiau National Historic Site
Puʻukoholā Heiau is a temple that was built in honor of King Kamehameha, and it tells the story of a uniting nation. It was once a multi-purpose complex, hosting everything from ceremonies of war to sacrifices of worship, most heavily used during the time of Kamehameha’s rule and conquest of the other islands.
Good to Know: Guided tours of Puʻukoholā are available, and at the very least, we recommend reading up on it before you visit. Wear close-toed shoes to hike around the complex, and bring plenty of water, as shade is nonexistent.
The Puʻukohola Heiau National Historic Site. Image credit: NPS
Scenic and Photogenic Spots
All places in Hawaiʻi (and those on this list!) tend to be scenic, but these are especially “postcard-worthy” areas to check out:
Coffee is grown all over the Hawaiian Islands, but none has garnered the prestige and reputation of Kona Coffee. Grown in the “Kona Coffee Belt” that hangs above Kailua-Kona, Kona coffee is now known world-wide and is one of the most successful agricultural industries on the island. These lush, upcountry hillsides are loaded with coffee farms, many offering daily tours of their properties, with tastings included.
Good to know: There’s not a better way to start your morning than with a coffee farm tour. Supporting these local farms is key to the Big Island’s economy, and the coffee makes for a wonderful souvenir for all the coffee drinkers in your life. Check out some of our favorites in our list of Kona Coffee tours.
Waipiʻo Valley is the eastern gateway to the Kohala Forest Reserve. It’s best known for its scenic overlook at the top of the valley, which gives visitors an expansive view of the valley and its beautiful beach and mountain backdrop. A road allows you to drive down into the valley (four-wheel drive recommended) to visit the beach and get a glimpse of local life inside this remote paradise.
Waipio Valley road is closed
Waipiʻo Valley Road is closed to visitors and access to the valley floor and the subsequent valleys is not possible anymore. The Waipiʻo Lookout is still accessible. Read more details here.
Good to Know: Before heading to Waipiʻo Valley, inquire about the status of the road down into the valley. The lookout has been open throughout, but since early 2022 the road down into the valley has been closed indefinitely.
The views are amazing as you take the steep access road into the valley. Image credit: Georgios Tsiminis
On the west end of the Kohala Forest Reserve, bookended by Waipiʻo Valley, is Polulū Valley. Here, a short hike takes you down into an undeveloped stretch of rocky coast, with hiking trails that allow you to explore miles further. Old-growth forests line the coast, and it is as scenic as it comes, with striking views down the coast and plenty of room to spread out.
Good to Know: Accessing the valley at Pololū requires a short, downhill hike of about a half mile. Be sure to bring snacks and water with you, as no services are present at Pololū.
View of the Pololu black sand beach and the dramatic cliffs in the direction of Waipi’o valley
These places aren’t really hidden, but they remain a little off the beaten path.
Kaumana Caves Park is the home and gateway to explore parts of a 25-mile long lava tube created by Mauna Loa’s 1881 flow. You can explore the first two miles of it from the park entrance, hiking into the cave and following the tube underground. The ceiling and caverns range from just a few feet to 30 feet in height, with many beautiful rock formations and minerals on the walls.
Good to know: Visiting the Kaumana Caves requires proper preparation and a bit of caution. Close-toed shoes are a must due to sharp lava rock, and be sure to bring a flashlight, as it gets dark in the cave. Watch for low ceilings and slippery, wet rocks.
Climb down a steep ladder to get to the lava tube entrance of the Kaumana Caves
The Kahuku Unit of Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park is located in the southeast corner of the Big Island, separate from the main area of the park. It’s small in comparison, but it does have a couple trails to offer, their location giving visitors a nice view to the east and southeast. These trails wind through grassy pastures and old cinder cones, many providing panoramic views.
Good to know: This portion of the Park is for hiking only (no lava), and there are limited services. Check out all the trail options here.
Kehena Black Sand Beach
Located in the Puna District of the Big Island, Kehena Black Sand Beach reflects the laid-back, hippie culture that dominates this part of the island. Yoga classes, exercise groups, and drum circles are not uncommon to find on this beach, and it is entirely clothing optional. Whether you’re looking to meet other free spirits or rediscover your own, an afternoon at Kehena Beach is a fun jaunt into an otherwise remote part of the island.
Good to Know: The nearby town of Pāhoa was almost destroyed by an eruption in 2014. Swing through town to see where the lava stopped (behind the school), and poke around downtown to visit the local shops and restaurants.
King’s Trail (The Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail)
The King’s Trail refers to a circumnavigational hiking trail that was used in Ancient Hawaiʻi as a main travel route. It went around the entire island and it was, for the sake of argument, the coastal highway of the past.
Today, much work has been done to reprise its history and significance, including the reestablishment of many sections of trail. One of the most accessible places to check it out is at Anaehoʻomalu Bay. From Queen’s Marketplace, you hike the King’s Trail in either direction. The trail takes you directly out into the hot, dry lava fields, showcasing how tough and terse traveling this landscape was – and still is. Be sure to bring sun protection and plenty of water when exploring this area. Have a bathing suit handy for a dip in the bay afterwards.
Good to Know: Also nearby is Petroglyph Park, thought to be a resting area for travelers in old times. Here, you can see the drawings they made.
Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail is a 175 mile corridor and trail network of cultural and historical significance. It traverses through hundreds of ancient Hawaiian settlement sites and over 200 ahupuaʻa (traditional land divisions). Image source: NPS
Lists of best places to see on the other islands
Are you also visiting other islands?
If so, then we recommend to have a look at our other “favorite sights and destinations” guides for Kauaʻi, Oʻahu, and Maui. These guides use the same format as this one (a few favorites in each of the following categories: most visited, kid-friendly, hidden gems, most instagrammable/scenic, outdoors, and history & culture) and are a great introduction to where to go on those islands.