Are you planning a trip to visit Big Island for the first time, and wondering which side of the island to stay at, Hilo or Kona? You must have heard of both regions and must be wondering how to decide between the two.
I understand how overwhelming it is to plan a trip to the Big Island on your own. Big island is huge, over 4,000 square miles, and it takes around 2-3 hours one way to drive from east to west.
When I first started researching for my family’s Big Island trip, I was so amazed (and very overwhelmed!) that it had these two distinct regions on west and east side of the island, and how visitors had to decide before hand where they want to stay and how many days at Hilo vs Kona.
To experience the best of both west side and east side I recommend splitting your stay between Kona and Hilo, with slightly more days in Kona than Hilo. This will reduce the driving time daily and give you more hours to explore.
I stayed 5 nights in western region of Kona and 2 nights in eastern region of Hilo with my family and had an amazing time! It was the perfect split of days between the two regions and we saw the entire Big Island!
I am hoping after reading this post you will have all the information needed to decide between Hilo vs Kona.
Overview of Big Island
Big Island is over 4,000 square miles and is almost twice the size of all Hawaiian islands combined! It has 6 distinct regions, but most of its population and tourism is centered around the western region of Kona and the eastern region of Hilo.
Big Island has so many wide variety of unique things to experience like black, green and white sand beaches, active and dormant volcanoes, tropical rainforests and roaring waterfalls, snorkeling with manta rays, sacred valleys and villages, and historic parks.
You really would want to make the most of your visit to Big Island and maximize your exploration here and minimize driving.
Splitting your stay between the 2 sides gives you enough time to explore the various regions without having to drive all over the island every day if you just stay one one side.
Hilo vs Kona – How are they different?
Big Island’s west and east sides are so different in what they offer! Each is unique and important in its own ways and a must visit.
Unique things about Kona
Western Kona region has a touristy vibe and this is where all the main Big Island tourist attractions are. Here you will find the famous white sand beaches like Hapuna beach and Mauna Kea beach, and brand name resorts.
Kona is home to some of the best snorkeling spots and popular activities like snorkeling with the manta rays. Kona also has the famous Kona coffee farms and produces the world famous Kona coffee.
Check out my post about the best Kona tourist attractions to learn more about everything that Kona has to offer.
If your vision of a perfect Hawaii vacation is just chilling at a beautiful white sand beach, then Kona is where you should be.
Unique things about Hilo
Hilo region is more laid back, with a more local vibe. Hilo is full of lush green rainforests and waterfalls, because of the heavy rain it receives. The scenic Hamakua coast and Waipio valley will take your breath away.
Hilo is closer to the Hawaii Volcanoes National park where you can see the recently erupted Kilauea volcano crater. It is also closer to the most unique Punaluu black sand beach and the Papakolea green sand beach.
Hilo has more natural attractions like volcanoes and waterfalls which make Big Island unique as compared to the other Hawaiian islands. Hilo should definitely be on your list, even if you are in Hawaii for the beaches.
Hilo vs Kona Weather
Big Island has a lot of different climate zones and the weather here can be vastly different from one region to another.
You can go from dry and sunny, to wet and rainy, to cold and snowy all in one day by travelling to the different regions. Yes, you read that right, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa volcano peaks receive snowfall in Hawaii!
Kona is more drier and sunny and has the perfect weather year round for beaches and snorkeling. Hilo receives the most rainfall and that is what makes it so green and beautiful.
But it does not rain all day in Hilo and never interfered with our vacation plans. It would just start and stop abruptly and never lasted more than 30 minutes at a time. You can just go about your day as planned.
The weather in Hawaii averages between 70 to 85 degrees throughout the year making it ideal for a winter getaway.
Only the Mauna Kea summit has cooler temperatures and you should definitely pack warm clothes if you are planning to visit Mauna Kea summit in Big Island.
Hilo vs Kona – Which airport to fly into?
The best way to reach Big Island from US or internationally is to fly in and out of Kona International airport on the west side of Big Island.
Kona airport services more destinations than the smaller Hilo airport on the east side.
Kona airport is where most of the tourists land in Big Island. It is around 20 minutes from downtown Kona hotels and around 30 minutes from Waikoloa resorts.
If you are island hopping then you also have the option of flying into Hilo International airport on the east side of the island. Hilo airport has some flights coming in from the mainland as well but Kona airport has more options than Hilo.
Hilo airport is only a few miles from downtown Hilo, 45 minutes from Hawaii Volcanoes National park, and around 2.5 hours drive from Kona.
You can rent a car from the car rental agencies at either airport.
Hilo vs Kona – Where to spend more time?
Ideally you should try to plan for at least 7 days in Big Island to see everything that Big Island has to offer, since there is so much to explore.
You should plan to spend at least 2 nights in Hilo and 4-5 nights in Kona. This will give you enough time to see the most popular attractions on Big Island, and reduce driving time.
Hilo is closer to the volcanoes, waterfalls, black and green sand beach, Hamakua coast and Waipio valley, making it an ideal base to enjoy the lush green landscape.
Kona needs more days to enjoy the true Hawaii vacation spirit, the beaches, resorts, luaus and have some snorkeling adventures. You can still drive to the southern and northern parts of the island and to Mauna Kea from Kona.
Hilo vs Kona – Where to stay?
Most hotels/resorts in Big Island are in the western region of Waikoloa and Kona. Hilo has only a couple of name brand resorts and some smaller hotels.
To minimize driving time daily, I would recommend splitting your stay between the west and east part of the island. Going to the Hawaii volcano Volcano Park from Kona can easily be 1.5 to 2 hours driving each way whereas it’s only 45 minutes from Hilo.
Stay at least 1-2 nights in Hilo, to visit the Hawaii Volcanoes national park on one day, and the waterfalls and black and green sand beaches the second day. Stay the remainder 4-5 nights in Kona to enjoy resorts and beaches.
We first spent 2 nights in Hilo, and then 5 nights in Waikoloa which is north of Kona. You can also stay in Waikoloa/Kona first, and then in Hilo.
I will list down some recommendations for hotels/resorts in each region.
Where to stay in Waikoloa (north of Kona)
Waikoloa region, which is around 20 minutes drive North of Kona, is where all the brand name resorts are and very popular with tourists.
Hilton Waikoloa village is the grandest resort I have ever seen! They even have their own little train to transport guests between buildings! They have a dolphin lagoon as well, with shows. We saw spectacular sunsets there in the evenings. If you want to stay in a happening place and want to never have to leave the resort than Hilton Waikoloa village is a great option.
Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa is another great resort option in Waikoloa. Great pool, spectacular sunsets to come back to after your excursions.
Hilton Grand Vacations Club at Waikoloa is a great family friendly option with suites, full kitchens and views of the golf course. This is where we stayed and had a nice 1 bedroom suite with a wrap around lanai and golf course views.
✅Check prices and book your stay in the Waikoloa region of Big Island by clicking here. This is where the brand name resorts are with all the amenities and excellent pools!
Where to stay in Kona
Kona has a variety of accommodations for every budget as compared to Waikoloa region which has all the bigger and more expensive resorts.
Courtyard by Marriott King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel is a mid-range resort at a great location and has a beachfront. This is a popular option with families.
Royal Kona resort is an oceanfront resort at a great location with lots of food options nearby. This is a mid-range resort.
Outrigger Kona Resort and Spa (formerly the Sheraton Kona) is a great resort overlooking the Keauhou Bay. From the resort you can see the nightly manta ray feeding lights shine into the ocean.
✅Check prices and book your stay in the Kona region of Big Island by clicking here. Compared to Waikoloa, Kona has more affordable options and excellent snorkeling nearby!
Where to stay in Hilo
Banyan drive is where most of the better hotels are on Hilo side. There are fewer hotel options in Hilo than Kona, but you can definitely find something for a couple of nights.
We stayed at the Hilo Hawaiian hotel for 2 nights and it was comfortable with great views of the Coconut Island and Mauna Kea summit. This was a very affordable hotel price wise.
Grand Naniloa Hotel Hilo by Doubletree Hilton is the only brand name hotel on the Hilo side. It is on Banyan drive with ocean views.
✅Check prices and book your stay in the Hilo region of Big Island by clicking here. Hilo is a great base for exploring the east tropical side of Big Island and to visit the Volcanoes National Park.
Where to stay for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
The Volcano house is the best place to stay if you want to spend the night in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It has guest rooms, cabins, and campsites, and you can find something for all budgets.
Alternatively, Hilo makes a great base to stay for a couple of nights and do day trips to Volcanoes National Park and Punaluu Black sand beach. This is what we did.
Do you need a rental car in Hilo or Kona?
Yes, you will need a rental car if you want to explore most parts of Big Island. Big Island is huge and it takes anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours to reach different regions from Kona or Hilo. Without a car you will be very limited in what you can explore.
In Kona you can still manage without a car by using Uber / taxi, and booking tours to various excursions. But to truly explore the various unique attractions, a car is very much needed in both Hilo and Kona.
How far is Hilo from Kona?
Kona and Hilo are around 1.5 hours drive apart. You can also take the longer northern shore route via Waimea which is around 2 hours, or the southern route which is around 3 hours.
Things to do in and near Hilo
Hilo receives a lot of rainfall throughout the year and is green and beautiful. When you think Hilo, think rainforests, waterfalls and beautiful vistas.
Hilo is also only 45 minutes away from Hawaii volcanoes national park, and an hour away from Punaluu black sand beach. In the north the scenic Hamakua coast is 30 minutes drive.
Explore Hilo – Coconut Island, Banyan drive, Liliuokalani Park
Coconut Island which is a small island accessible by a pedestrian bridge on Banyan drive. You can see incredible views of Mauna Kea mountain peak from Coconut island on a clear day. We could see the snow covered mountain peak with the observatories on top.
Walk along Banyan Drive which is lined by massive banyan trees. The Banyan drive is called the ‘Hilo Walk of Fame‘ as these banyan trees were planted by celebrities. In front of each banyan tree is a plaque that lists the celebrity who planted it. Each banyan tree with its roots hanging from the branches and touching the ground seems like a mini forest!
Liliuokalani Park is a beautifully landscaped park in a Japanese garden style near Coconut island. The park is free to visit and is very beautiful and relaxing with its ponds and bridges and rock
Visit waterfalls in Hilo – Akaka falls, Rainbow falls, Peepee falls
If you have time to visit only one waterfall in Big Island then it should be Akaka falls and Akaka state park.
There is a short easy paved trail through a beautiful and dense rainforest to get to the falls overlook. Akaka waterfall has an impressive 422 feet drop with lush greenery surrounding it. The trail loop is only half a mile.
Rainbow Falls is a very accessible waterfall and just a few steps from the parking lot. There is a nice overlook area to admire the falls. If you visit before noon you can sometimes see a rainbow in the spray of the waterfall.
If you love waterfalls and have time, Peepee falls is another falls a short walk from the parking lot.
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
In your trip to Big Island, you should plan to spend at least one day in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, as it is a very unique place with amazing things to do.
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is only 45 minutes from Hilo. Here you can visit the Halema`uma`u crater Overlook at the Volcano House and see the steam rising from the crater.
If you have time you can do the Kilauea Iki Crater hike. This is a very unique hike as you walk inside a volcano crater and also through a beautiful lush rainforest. Plus at the end you can visit a lava tube!
Drive on the Chain of Craters scenic drive all the way to the end of the road, which ends at the sea. At the end of the Chain of Craters road is the Holei Sea Arch which is 90 feet high arch carved in the lava rocks due to erosion and is impressive to see.
In the evening, just before dark park at the Devastation trail parking lot and walk the short and easy paved trail to the Kilauea overlook. From here you can see Halema`uma`u crater and any lava activity and glow.
Check if there is any volcanic activity happening before visiting. You can check the current conditions at the Hawaii Volcanoes Nation Park official website.
Punaluu Black sand beach
Punaluu Black Sand beach is on the south east part of the Island and around an hour drive from Hilo. No matter how many days you are spending on Big Island, I believe the Punaluu black sand beach must be on your to do list for sure. The sand is actually tiny particles of black lava rocks and looks like black sand.
There are only four black sand beaches in the world I have heard of, so you do not want to miss your chance to see one of them on your Big Island trip. You can spot some sea turtles in the water if you are lucky.
Stop at the Punaluu Bake Shop which is nearby for some Hawaiian sweet breads and other baked goods. This is a very famous bakery in the southern part of the island.
Take a Helicopter tour on Big Island
Take a helicopter tour to see an aerial view of the Hawaii Volcanoes national park, rain forests and waterfalls. Many of Big Island’s waterfalls are on private property and helicopter tours can take you to some incredible waterfalls.
Try ziplining over waterfalls or ATV adventure
The Umauma experience in Hilo has zipline tours over 14 Umauma waterfalls and lush green rainforests. If you love ziplining, this is a must do activity. Umauma experience also has ATV tours for a 4 wheel adventure.
Drive the scenic Hamakua coast
If you have an extra day in Hilo consider driving north of Hilo on the scenic Hamakua coast. The drive between Waipio valley and Hilo is the scenic Hamakua coast. You will pass many small plantation towns, waterfalls and incredible views and vistas along the way.
Explore Hilo farmer’s market
The Hilo farmers market in downtown Hilo is the biggest farmers market in Big Island with over 200 vendors! Shop for local goods, arts and crafts and try local food. Its open on Wednesdays and Saturdays till 3PM.
Things to do in and near Kona
Kona region is more touristy and has the best brand name resorts, beautiful white beaches and snorkeling spots. In Kona you will have your Hawaiian vacation of relaxation, beach fun and water activities.
Try Snorkeling in Kona
Big Island is a snorkeling heaven and there are several world class snorkeling spots for every interest. Snorkeling is must do activity in any Big Island itinerary.
Big Island’s main snorkeling attraction is snorkeling with the manta rays. Keauhou Bay in Kona is world famous for its resident manta rays. There are several tour companies that provide night time snorkeling experiences where you get to see the giant manta rays up close.
A famous snorkeling area in Big Island is the Honaunau Bay (also called Two Step beach) which is right outside the Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park. There are some great coral reefs here to explore.
The Kealakekua Bay and Captain Cook Monument is another popular spot for snorkeling in Big Island. You can reach the Captain Cook monument for snorkeling by boat tours, by hiking or by kayak. You cannot drive to the monument. Going by boat tours is recommended as the hike is quite strenuous.
Visit Pu`uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park
The Pu`uhonua o Honaunau National historical park is in Kona and has historic significance as a place of refuge for Hawaiian ancestors. It has beautiful ocean views.
You can fit this in your itinerary whenever you have a couple of hours in Kona. Take some time to read about the history and cultural significance of this park. The walk through the park is just a gentle stroll suitable for all ages. The palm trees and historic artifacts make for some great pictures.
Relax on the white sand beaches in Kona
The western coast of Hawaii is home to some of the best white sand beaches, apart from the snorkeling spots mentioned above.
Hapuna beach is one of the best beaches on Big Island. It has a beautiful stretch of white sand, and is very family friendly. It is right next to the The Westin Hapuna beach resort and has a huge paid parking lot.
Mauna Kea beach is another great family friendly white sand beach and part of the Mauna Kea resort. Parking is paid here too, but the lot is smaller and it is hard to find parking in the mornings.
Visit the beautiful Waipio valley lookout
The Waipio valley is one of the most beautiful places in the world, and is sacred to the people of the island. There is an overlook at the parking lot for some breathtaking views of the valley. From the lookout you can see Waipio black sand beach.
Stargazing at Mauna Kea mountain
You can go to the Mauna Kea summit and visit the observatories by booking a tour through the many tour operators in the region. Kids under 16 are not allowed to go to the summit because of the altitude change and health risks associated with that.
You can also do stargazing at Mauna Kea visitor center. You do not need a tour for this. There is a small hill opposite the visitor center parking lot from where you can do stargazing. It is really cold up there so make sure to bring some warm clothes.
Visit a Coffee or Cacao farm
Kona coffee is world famous and if you are a coffee enthusiast then you are in luck on your trip to Big Island. There are several Kona coffee farms in the Kona region that offer tours and coffee tasting that coffee lovers will really enjoy.
There are several Cacao orchards on both Kona and Hilo side that offer paid tours of their cacao orchards and explain how they process their cacao beans and turn them into delicious chocolate. You even get to sample some of the chocolate.
Attend a luau
No trip to Hawaii is complete without attending a luau where you can experience the traditional Hawaiian culture, songs, dance rituals and unlimited Hawaiian food buffets. All the popular luaus are in the brand name resorts in the western Kona region.
Enjoy magnificent sunsets on the west coast of Kona
On the western side of the Big Island you can see magnificent sunsets no matter where you are on the western coast. Sit down anywhere along the western coast and admire the sunset hues in the sky!
Explore Kona’s farmer market
In central Kona, Kona farmers market is popular where you can buy fresh produce, flowers, and handmade arts and crafts as gift items.
Visit Papakolea green sand beach
Papakolea green sand beach is on the southern most part of Big Island and it is far from both Hilo and Kona. It takes around 2 hours each way from either Hilo or Kona. Visiting the southern part of the big island takes an entire day trip from either side of the island!
Kona vs Hilo – Which is more expensive?
Kona is generally more expensive than Hilo in terms of hotel accommodations. Food also is a little more expensive on Kona side.
In Kona everything is centered around tourists and prices are usually high. Hilo has more locals than Kona and the prices are generally a bit cheaper than Kona.
Kona has big box stores like Walmart and Costco from where you can get essentials a little cheaper if needed.
In Conclusion – Hilo vs Kona, which side of Big Island to stay?
To conclude Hilo vs Kona, I recommend splitting your stay between Hilo and Kona/Waikoloa, with spending fewer nights in Hilo than Kona/Waikoloa.
- 👉Check prices and book your stay in Waikoloa region of Big Island by clicking here. Brand name resorts with amenities.
- 👉Check prices and book your stay in Kona region of Big Island by clicking here. More affordable options than Waikoloa and great snorkeling.
- 👉Check prices and book your stay in Hilo region of Big Island by clicking here. Great base to explore the tropical east and to visit the Volcanoes National Park.
Both Kona and Hilo are important regions in Big Island with a lot of amazing and unique things to do. To truly experience everything that Big Island has to offer, you must visit both regions.
Visiting Big Island, Hawaii? Check out my other posts in the Big Island series: