Looking for the best things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii? I’ve put together the ultimate guide after several trips to the Big Island. After my second trip there, I realized just how many things there are to do on the island. The island is magical, nature-centered, and has a bit of everything for everyone and I’m excited to share the best of what I’ve found.
While it’s often overlooked by tourists flocking to Maui, Oahu, and Kauai, the Big Island of Hawaii has tons to offer. It’s a diverse destination, with two active volcanoes, and eight different ecosystems and climate zones. This makes it an incredible place for exploration, outdoor recreation, wildlife encounters, scenic drives, and so much more.
When visiting the Big Island, it’s important to note that the two sides of the island are very distinct. The Kona side, home to most of the tourist infrastructure, including hotels and resorts, is drier, while the Hilo side is rainy but lush. I always suggest staying on the Kona side for your first trip.
There are unforgettable experiences on both sides of the island, including the unmissable things to do that I’ve listed below.
Planning a Trip to the Big Island? Here Are My Top Picks for the Best Hotels and Things to Do on the Big Island:
- The Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, for the best overall hotel
- Fairmont Orchid, for the best family-friendly hotel
- Kona Village, a Rosewood Resort, for the best new hotel
- Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, for the best beachfront hotel
- Mauna Lani, A Auberge Hotel, for the best boutique hotel
Things to Do
- Visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
- Do Manta Ray Night Dive
- Visit the Mauna Kea Summit for Stargazing
- Go on a Coffee Farm Tour
- Catamaran Sail and Snorkel to the Captain Cook Monument
For more on visiting the Big Island, don’t miss my slow travel guide!
17 Unmissable Things to Do on the Big Island of Hawaii
1. Visit the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
If you do one thing on the Big Island, make it a visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Home to two active volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Hale Ma’uma’u, there are tons of different options for visiting the park, ranging from a day trip to a multi-day stay that will allow you to explore it in-depth. Popular sites within the park include the Thurston Lava Tube area, as well as the Kilauea Iki Trail, which takes you around a crater rim. The Visitor Center is a great first place to start a visit to the park. If you prefer a guided experience, this highly-rated small-group experience is a good option. If you have a car, consider this self-guided driving tour.
For an unforgettable experience, take a scuba diving adventure to view the more than 240 Manta Rays that call the Kona Coast home. There are multiple guided tours to choose from that include guides to help you encounter these wild creatures in a safe, responsible way that protects the mantas and their habitat. In researching tour options, this night manta ray experience consistently came up as the highest-rated and most popular.
3. Visit One of the Many Incredible Beaches
The Big Island has tons of amazing beaches on all parts of the island to explore. A few I love in particular are Waialea Beach (Beach 69), which is intimate and not overly crowded and also has plenty of shade; Hapuna Beach, one of the largest public beaches with restrooms, perfect for an all-day stay; and Manini’owali Beach (Kua Bay), which has a small bay with stunning blue waters.
4. Visit the Mauna Kea Summit for Stargazing (or Sunset)
The summit of Mauna Kea Volcano is magical no matter what time of the evening you visit. Come at the end of the day to watch the sun set above the clouds or come after nightfall for epic stargazing. With the summit rising 13,796 feet above sea level, Mauna Kea Observatory offers late-night stargazing tours with incredible visibility you won’t find elsewhere.
5. Stay at World-Class Resorts
Hawaii has some of the top resorts in the world that will complete your experience in a tropical paradise. The Four Seasons Hualalai is a personal favorite—we had an incredible stay here for our 10th wedding anniversary and babymoon. The Fairmont Orchid is also a top-rated hotel, and the new Kona Village, a Rosewood Resort, looks stunning as well.
Catching sight of an active lava flow is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many visitors to the Big Island. If you’re lucky enough to be there during an eruption, I highly recommend this otherworldly experience. The Hawaii Volcano Observatory posts daily updates that can assist with planning. This highly-rated guided tour of the active lava flow is a good option.
7. Get Breakfast with a View at The Coffee Shack
If you want to dine while overlooking Kealakekua Bay and 26 miles of Kona coast, The Coffee Shack is the place to do it. But it’s not just the views that are incredible here; we came four mornings in a row for breakfast because the food was so delicious. Lines can be long, so come early to snag a good table—it’s worth it.
8. Visit the Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve & Gardens
A hidden gem on the Big Island, Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve & Gardens is a sanctuary for thousands of rare and endangered plant species from all over the world. A trip through the gardens includes paths and bridges that will lead you over streams and waterfalls and into panoramic views of Onomea Bay.
9. See the Akaka Falls on the Hilo Side
On the eastern side of the island, Akaka Falls State Park is a worthwhile stop. You can take a short, self-guided walk through lush, tropical flora to several scenic viewpoints that overlook Akaka Falls. The 442-foot waterfall cascades down into a stream-eroded gorge.
10. Get Malasadas at the Famous Punalu’u Bake Shop
Depending on where you’re staying, it can be a trek to get down to the island’s southernmost tip, where Punalu’u Bake Shop is located. But without a doubt, it’s worth the drive. The famous malasadas, Portuguese pastries similar to fluffy donuts, were outstanding. Get there at the opening if you want to snag some of the rarer flavors.
11. Go Snorkeling at Two Step Beach
Two Step Beach is one of the Big Island’s most famous snorkeling stops, and for good reason. We snorkeled here a few times on our most recent trip and saw all kinds of fish and even an octopus. I recommend bringing your own snorkeling gear and water shoes so that you don’t have to deal with rentals.
12. Make the Drive for Shaved Ice at Anuenue Ice Cream & Shave Ice
Shave ice is a staple of a Big Island vacation, and Anuenue is our family’s favorite place to get it. There’s something special about it—so much so that we drove an hour north to the Kohala Coast two days in a row to enjoy it. Make sure to order condensed milk on top for an extravagant treat.
13. Swim at Punalu’u Black Sand Beach
In the south of the island, the Punalu’u Black Sand Beach is a breathtaking sight. With jet-black sand from volcanic activity, the view is unforgettable. It’s also a great place to spot sea turtles basking in the sun. This is a perfect stop to combine with a trip to Punalu’u Bake Shop (mentioned above) for malasadas or a visit to Papakōlea Green Sand Beach. Fun fact: A drive to Papakōlea Beach takes you past the Southernmost Point of the United States!
14. Hike into the Pololū Valley
A hike in the Pololū Valley is a great experience for active travelers and will be like no other hike you’ve ever done. Located at the northernmost tip of the island, close to the town of Hawi, it features a scenic overlook and a black sand beach. To get from the overlook down to the beach, it’s about a 30-minute walk down, and while steep, it’s not overly strenuous. The Waipi o Valley is another great hiking option in the northern region of the island.
Kona Coffee is world-renowned, and it comes from the Big Island. Coffee enthusiasts should look into going on an organized coffee farm tour, which will teach you about the coffee process from seed to cup, as well as what makes Kona Coffee so special. There are many different farm tours to choose from, here’s a coffee farm tour that stood out as particularly interesting.
16. Don’t Miss the Incredible Rainbow Falls from Wailuku River State Park
Close to downtown Hilo, Wailuku River State Park is the home of the well-known Waianuenue, or Rainbow Falls. An 80-foot waterfall, it gets its name from the rainbows that frequently appear in the mist when the sun is shining. The waterfall is easy to see, with ample parking very close to the viewing area.
The Big Island is ripe with opportunities for water recreation, with so many different options for getting out on the water. Surfing, SUPing, and kayaking are all easy ways to dive in. If you want something more organized, consider a catamaran trip or a snorkeling tour. Great snorkeling spots in addition to Two Step (see above) are Kahalu’u Beach Park, Ho’okena Beach Park, and Kealakekua Bay near Captain Cook. If you like to whale watch, a whale watching tour is also a great way to get out on the water.
Frequently Asked Questions About the Big Island
How Many Days Do You Need on the Big Island of Hawaii?
How long to stay is a personal decision, but I loved my eight-night stay on the Big Island. That amount of time allowed us to slow down and get a feel for the island. You could certainly visit for a shorter amount of time, but remember that the island is Hawaii’s largest, and driving times can be long.
Is it Worth Going to the Big Island of Hawaii?
The Big Island of Hawaii is worth visiting. Less crowded and slower-paced than other Hawaiian islands, The Big Island is incredibly relaxing. It’s also a diverse destination, with the combination of volcanoes, lava beds, and white-sand beaches providing a unique landscape.
What’s the Best Part of the Big Island to Stay?
The west side of the Big Island—the Kona side—is considered the better part for visitors. It’s sunnier and more convenient, with lots of activities and places to stay clustered in the area.
Which Airport Do I Fly Into for the Big Island?
If you’re going to be exploring the west side of the island, as I recommend above, you should fly into Kona International Airport. The Big Island has a second major airport on the opposite side, Hilo International Airport, but it’s a 1.5-hour drive from there to Kona without traffic and can take much longer.
Do You Need a Rental Car on the Big Island?
When visiting the Big Island, my number one tip is always to have a rental car. It gives you the freedom to access the different areas of the island, which are quite spread out from one another. I always use Discover Cars to book the most competitive rates for rental cars on the Big Island.
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PS — Are You Booking a Trip Soon? Use My Booking Checklist!
These are the sites I use most to book my own trips. Using the links below is a great way to support Bon Traveler’s travel journalism at no extra cost to you. If you need help organizing your itinerary, get my free travel itinerary template here.
1. Book Your Flights
Use Skyscanner to find the best flights. It searches 100s of airlines and websites across the globe to ensure you’re not missing out on any route options or deals.
2. Book Your Accommodations
Use Booking.com for hotels and guest houses. They have the biggest inventory and consistently offer the best rates.
3. Book Your Tours & Experiences
4. Book Your Car
Use Discover Cars or Rentalcars.com to find the best car rental deals. I recommend comparing rental agency reviews on Google to ensure you are booking with the best company in that destination, as the reviews are often more accurate than the car rental search engines.
5. Don’t Forget Airport Lounge Access
Get a Priority Pass membership to gain access to 1,400+ VIP lounges and airport experiences worldwide. The Priority Pass app is the first thing I check when I have a layover. I’ve been a member for over a decade, and having a comfortable place to relax before and between flights makes air travel so much more enjoyable.
6. Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
I never leave the country without travel insurance. It provides comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong (ie. illness, injury, theft, and cancelations, etc.). I use it frequently for my travels to stay protected.
My favorite companies that offer the best coverage and rates are: