20+ Of the Very Best Things to Do on the Big Island

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Rachel Off Duty: The Best Things to Do on the Big Island

This massive island of volcanoes, black sand beaches, and rainforests is well worth the visit. No doubt, you’ll find so many things to do on the Big Island! 

If you’re wondering whether the Big Island is the right island for you, it is if you’re looking for a wide variety of natural wonders, multi-colored beaches, easy-access waterfalls, and small town vibes. Of course, to do the Big Island justice means you’ll do more driving on this island than any other. So, for scenic adventures on a more compact scale, check out my Kaua’i guide next to compare and help you choose the right Hawaiian island for you

Read on for my list of the 24 best things to do on the Big Island, and check out my recommended Big Island itinerary next to plan your trip! 

RELATED: The Ultimate Full-Circle 5 Day Big Island Itinerary

20+ of the Very Best Things to Do on the Big Island

1. Spend a Day in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Rachel Off Duty: Things to Do Big Island – Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Rachel Off Duty: Things to Do Big Island – Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Rachel Off Duty: Things to Do Big Island – Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Rachel Off Duty: Things to Do Big Island – Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

One of two national parks in the Hawaiian islands, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park can’t be missed! 

This national park is home to two active volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa. Not only is this massive national park a must-see, but it’s also a place of huge cultural and spiritual significance for Hawaiians. You’ll find everything from volcanic crater hikes, to lava tubes, to ancient petroglyphs in this 523 square-mile park. 

The best way to experience Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is to rent a car and spend at least one full day hiking and driving around. Some of my favorite activities to do here include hiking the Kilauea Iki Trail, visiting the Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs, and seeing the Steam Vents

PRO TIP: To get the most out of a visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, spend a night camping or staying in nearby Volcano Village.

2. Take a Stargazing Tour of Mauna Kea, The Tallest Point in Hawaii

Rachel Off Duty: Stargazing in Hawaii

The tallest point in the entire state of Hawaii, Mauna Kea looms over the Big Island at 14,000 feet. This is one of the most popular places in the world for stargazing just after sunset, or just before sunrise. 

Stargazing Tours like these take you from sea level to summit to witness the celestial sights. Some tours include food and beverages, while others allow you to bring your own snacks. Either way, bring layers and plenty of water! Altitude sickness isn’t common, but it isn’t impossible considering how high you’ll drive on your tour. 

3. See the Big Island from Up High with a Helicopter Tour

I don’t like the idea of bucket lists, but if I had to make one, a Big Island helicopter tour would be high on that list. 

It’s one of the most popular things to do on the Big Island, and is especially coveted during volcanic eruptions. Seeing fresh lava flow from up high is something I dream of doing! 

Whether or not you’re lucky enough to see active lava flows, you’ll no doubt see dried lava beds and steam no matter when you visit. You’ll also be able to witness many waterfalls and tropical forest vistas that can only be viewed from up high. Depending on the time of year, you might also be able to catch snow on the summit of Mauna Kea! 

You’ll find many helicopter tours on the Big Island, but I can personally recommend Mauna Loa Helicopters from experience. Use this link to book one of their tours, or see more helicopter tour options on the Big Island here.

4. Visit the Southernmost Winery in the USA

Rachel Off Duty: Volcano Winery Big Island
Rachel Off Duty: Volcano Winery Big Island
Rachel Off Duty: Volcano Winery Big Island

Rich volcanic soil and the distinct flavors of tropical fruit combine to create unique Big Island wines at the southernmost winery in the country. You’ll find Volcano Winery in Volcano Village, just a short drive from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. 

These wines are a bit sweet for my liking. But, I still recommend this as a top thing to do on the Big Island because of its uniqueness. Tastings are cheap, the staff is very nice and welcoming, and who doesn’t like the idea of sampling local wine?

5. Discover Ancient Hawaiian Petroglyphs

Rachel Off Duty: Petroglyphs in the Big Island

The Big Island is home to the most preserved petroglyphs of any Hawaiian island! 

These petroglyphs – estimated to be 400+ years old, are believed to carry everything from bird records, to cultural ceremonies, to significant events. For a culture without a written language, petroglyphs offer some of the best windows into ancient Hawaiian life.

Places to see petroglyphs on the Big Island include:

6. Learn More About Hawaii’s History

The petroglyphs are just one way to learn a bit about ancient Hawaii. There are tons of other ways you can immerse yourself in Hawaii’s rich history and culture when visiting the Big Island! I recommend taking some time to do so if you visit – it’ll help you appreciate this island and its people even more. 

7. Snorkel in Kealakekua Bay and Honaunau Bay

Rachel Off Duty: Woman Going for a Swim in Kealakekua Bay

In addition to being important historical sites, Honaunau Bay and Kealakekua Bay are equally amazing snorkeling sites! 

I’ve snorkeled in countless beaches in Oahu, Kaua’i, Maui, and even near Ni’ihau, and I gotta say – these sites are some of the most spectacular.

To see both sites on the same day (plus some other hidden gems), I recommend booking a South Kona Expedition tour with SeaQuest Hawaii! You’ll explore the entire south Kona coast, with a good amount of time dedicated to both of these locations. 

As you do more Big Island research, you might see ways to do self-guided kayaking visits to Kealakekua Bay (Captain Cook Monument). Local guidance has told me that this is frowned upon due to tourists showing up and damaging the fragile reef environments. So, save yourself the trouble and go with a guided and reef-friendly tour instead!

8. Take a Wa’a Ride Along the Kona Coast

Rachel Off Duty: Canoe Rides in the Big Island

Canoes are very special cultural icons in Hawaii with a history that dates back to the first Polynesian voyagers to reach these shores. Before roads and planes were built, canoes were used to transport people and supplies from coast to coast and island to island. 

Outrigger canoes continue to be a popular sport and recreational activity to this day. It’s one that’s near and dear to my heart, because I competed in canoe racing all throughout high school. Looking back, I wish I realized then that I was contributing to the preservation of such a special practice (in addition to getting a killer shoulder workout!). 

Some hotels throughout the Big Island will offer canoe or wa’a rides. You can also find wa’a tours at Kamakahonu Bay offered by Kona Boys. The Kona Boys combine the ages-old traditions of canoe rides and ‘talk story’ (basically, pidgin for storytelling) to give visitors a taste of Hawaiian history and hospitality. And, don’t worry about physical ability – these wa’a tours are quite gentle and doable for pretty much anyone!

9. Swim With Manta Rays at Night

Rachel Off Duty: Anelakai Adventures Double-Hull Canoes

Besides the national park, I consider this to be one of the very best things to do on the Big Island. 

Manta rays are beautiful, ethereal creatures. Never in my life did I think I’d get to swim with them… at night! 

Off the Kona coast, a population of more than 100 manta rays call this area home, attracted by the wave-illuminating lights that the former Sheraton Kona Resort would cast onto the ocean. Today, these mantas have evolved to associate this light with food, because the light attracts higher concentrations of plankton. 

Rachel Off Duty: Swimming with Manta Rays in Kona

While you will find many manta ray tours on the Big Island, I recommend Anelakai Adventures. They’re locally owned, eco-friendly, and take you out in small groups of just six or less, so you have a more intimate experience. 

See reviews here and book your experience in advance using this link.

10. Other Ways to Experience the Big Island’s Marine Life Up Close

Rachel Off Duty: Snorkeling Two Step in the Big Island

In addition to snorkeling, there are so many ways to experience the Big Island’s marine life. Here are just a few other opportunities to experience Hawaii’s underwater worlds up close: 

  • Snorkel at Honaunau Bay, Kealakekua Bay, Kahalu’u Bay, and Richardson Ocean Park 
  • Take a scuba lesson with Hilo Ocean Adventures
  • Admire humpback whales during the winter months on a catamaran or zodiac tour 
  • Try to spot honu (Hawaiian sea turtles) at Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, Honaunau Bay, Kahalu’u Bay, and Waialea Bay

11. Take a Surfing Lesson

Taking a surfing lesson is a must no matter which Hawaiian island you visit! Who knows? You might surprise yourself and start catching waves right away! 

Where to Take Surfing Lessons on the Big Island:

12. Explore Big Island Beaches

Rachel Off Duty: Best Beaches on the Big Island

Big Island beaches are unique because you’ll find everything from picturesque white and black sand (with a couple other colors in between!). Whether you’re into snorkeling, surfing, or just hanging out on the sand, you’ll have endless opportunities on the Big Island. 

Here are a few of the best Big Island beaches to keep on your radar! 

  • Kona Beaches: Honaunau Bay, Kahalu’u Beach Park, White Sands, Kamakahonu Bay, Kuki’o Beach, Kekaha Kai State Park, Ho’okena Beach 
  • Kohala Beaches: Hapuna Beach, Spencer Beach, Waialea, Kaunaoa Beach 
  • Hilo Beaches: Carlsmith Beach Park, Onekahakaha Beach, Leleiwi Beach, Richardson Ocean Park
  • Black Sand Beaches: Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, Pohoiki Beach
  • Good Beaches for Snorkeling: Holoholokai Beach, Kealakekua Bay, Honaunau Bay, Carlsmith Beach, Onekahakaha Beach, Leleiwi Beach, Richardson Ocean Park, Anaeho’omalu Bay, Spencer Beach
  • Good Beaches for Surfing: Honoli’i Beach, Kohanaiki County Beach

13. Attend a Luau

In Hawaiian culture, luau are big gatherings to commemorate special occasions and to welcome visitors.

Though pricey, attending a luau on any Hawaiian island is regarded as a ‘must’ for first-time Hawaii visitors, and generally comes with an evening of entertainment, tons of local Hawaiian food, and drinks.

Best Big Island Luaus to Consider:

  • Voyagers of the Pacific Luau: Located in the Royal Kona Resort in downtown Kona, this well-rounded luau includes a buffer dinner, entertainment, and a variety of educational classes set in an oceanfront venue.
  • Island Breeze Luau: A popular luau in Kona, this option features an outrigger canoe arrival of the festivities’ ‘royal court,’ as well as an open bar.
  • Sunset Luau: Known for its delicious food and open bar, the Sunset Luau in Waikoloa is another crowd favorite and well-suited for anyone staying in the Kohala coast.

Big Island luau are popular events. Be sure to book in advance! 

14. Admire Hawaii’s Unique Plant Life at a Botanical Garden

Rachel Off Duty: Biodiversity and Botanical Gardens on the Big Island
Rachel Off Duty: Biodiversity and Botanical Gardens on the Big Island
Rachel Off Duty: Biodiversity and Botanical Gardens on the Big Island

Thanks to its remoteness, rich volcanic soil, and frequent rainfall, Hawaii is home to some of the most unique biodiversity in the world. You’ll see plant species here that simply can’t be found anywhere else! 

Some Botanical Gardens, Farms, and State Parks to Check Out on the Big Island:

15. Discover a Big Island Waterfall

Rachel Off Duty: Big Island Waterfalls

The Big Island is home to some absolutely spectacular waterfalls. Most of these falls are found on the wetter windward coast near Hilo. Try to see as many as you can when you’re here! 

Some of the best Big Island waterfalls include:

  • Akaka Falls: A 442-foot waterfall, Akaka Falls can be found in Akaka Falls State Park via 0.4-mile scenic loop trail.
  • Kahuna Falls: Best visible after heavy rain, you might be able to catch a glimpse of Kahuna Falls from a lookout point on the Akaka Falls scenic loop trail.
  • Waianuenue (Rainbow) Falls: This massive 80-foot waterfall can be found within Hilo town itself. If you come in the morning there’s a chance you’ll catch a rainbow refracting from the mighty falls’ mist. 
  • Pe’epe’e Falls: 1.5 miles upstream from Rainbow Falls, this often uncrowded waterfall is smaller but equally impressive.
  • Umauma Falls: A beautiful triple-tiered waterfall located on private property. You’ll need to pay an entrance fee of $12 to view the falls. Or, book an organized zipline, kayak, and / or swim tour.
  • Kulaniapia Falls: Another waterfall located on private property, this one can be accessed via $49 daypass. In addition to waterfall viewing + swim access, this property also has hiking trails, bamboo gardens, and more falls to explore.
  • Onomea Falls: A cascading waterfall within the Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve, which costs $25 to enter.

16. Hike Your Way Around the Island

Rachel Off Duty: Hiking on the Big Island

Hiking is one of the best things to do no matter which Hawaiian island you visit. In the Big Island, you’ll have everything from volcanic crater hikes to scenic waterfall trails, which so many more options in between no matter your skill level. 

Choose a hike that matches your abilities, your interests, and your location during your Big Island trip. Always check the weather forecast in advance!

Here are some of the best Big Island hikes:

17. Get Caffeinated on a Kona Coffee Farm Tour or Tasting

Even if you haven’t been to the Big Island, there’s a chance you’ve heard of Kona coffee. 

The Leeward side of the Big Island is home to the Kona Coffee Belt – a 30-mile-long region proven to have naturally ideal coffee growing conditions. 

You’re bound to find Kona coffee at pretty much any coffee shop or restaurant you visit on the Big Island, but I recommend going to the source itself – a Kona Coffee farm!

Here are some Kona coffee farms you can visit or tour:

18. Savor the Big Island’s Rich Culinary Scene

While the volume of restaurants on the Big Island won’t be as high as Oahu (which I coin the Foodie island), the variety is just as rich. From Kona coffee, to local grass-fed beef, the Big Island prides itself on its local growers, paniolo (Hawaiian cowboys), and unbeatable agricultural conditions. 

Of course, dining in Hawaii isn’t always the cheapest thing to do. If you’re concerned about your Hawaii budget, pick a day or two to splurge on a nicer restaurant. For the rest of the trip, you’ll have endless food trucks and casual eateries to choose from. 

If you’re wondering where to eat on the Big Island, add these suggestions to your list: 

  • Taste traditional Hawaiian food at Big Island Grill
  • Grab a local plate lunch at L&L Hawaiian Barbecue and Ippy’s Hawaiian BBQ 
  • Savor locally grown, grass-fed beef at Foster’s and Village Burger 
  • Taste the original loco moco at its birthplace, Cafe 100
  • Get a taste of Hawaii’s food truck scene at Fresh Off the Grid, Island Style Grindz, Da Fish House, and The Rendezvous Truck 
  • Enjoy a bowl full of fresh poke at Da Poke Shack and Umekes 
  • Order a mai tai or two at Merriman’s Big Island and Huggo’s 
  • Try Hawaii Regional Cuisine at Brown’s Beach House Restaurant, Manta, Honu’s on the Beach, Don the Beachcomber, Merriman’s, Huggo’s, Ulu Ocean Grill, Hualalai Grille, Kamuela Provision Company, Beach Tree Restaurant, or The CanoeHouse
  • Support tasty woman-owned business and get some of the best handmade mochi in Hawaii at Two Ladies Kitchen 
  • Pick up some malasadas and sweet bread from the Punalu’u Bake Shop 
  • Fix your sweet tooth with a shave ice from Anuenue Ice Cream & Shave Ice, Kula Shave Ice, One Aloha Shave Ice, and Scandinavian Shave Ice

19. Uncover the Big Island’s Nightlife, Beer, and Wine Scene

Rachel Off Duty: Beer and Wine on the Big Island - Ola Brew

After sunset, the Big Island is relatively relaxed compared to Oahu. But, that doesn’t mean you won’t find some great things to do after dinner. 

Kailua-Kona and Hilo are where you’ll find the highest concentration of bars and restaurants, many of which have nightly live entertainment.

Places like Huggo’s, Humpy’s Big Island Alehouse, Hilo Town Tavern, Don’s Mai Tai Bar, Gertrude’s Jazz Bar, and Blue Dragon Tavern & Musiquarium are well known for their live music (and in some cases, like with Blue Dragon Tavern, dance floors!). 

If you’re seeking out a craft cocktail, check out the Copper Bar, hBar / Huggo’s On the Rocks, Cafe Pesto Hilo Bay, and Hilo Bay Cafe.  

For the island’s only bar on the beach, look no further than Lava Lava Beach Club. 

And last but not least, for wine, beer, and seltzer lovers, you need to have Kona Brewing Company, Ola Brew Co, Big Island Brewhaus, and Volcano Winery on your radar! 

20. Attend a Big Island First Friday Art Walk

Friday nights are when the islands’ arts and culture scene comes to life after dark, and the Big Island is no exception. If you happen to find yourself on the Big Island for the first Friday of the month, be sure to check out one of these local First Friday Art Walks.

Best Big Island First Friday Art Nights:

  • Holualoa First Friday Art Walk 
  • Hilo Aloha First Friday Art Walk

Not in town for First Friday? Every Wednesday, you can also check out the Kalapana Night Market in Pahoa!

21. Go to a Big Island Farmers Market

For an island state that largely relies on imported food, farmers markets have become a sort of local celebration in recent years. It’s a way for people to come together, support growers, taste new ‘ono foods, and possibly even enjoy local artisans and live entertainment along the way. 

For both locals and visitors alike, visiting a farmers market is the perfect way to directly support the local economy, so be sure to add one of these to your list! 

Big Island Farmers Markets, Produce Stands, and More:

  • Kona Village Farmers Market (Kona, Weds – Sun, 7 am – 4 pm)
  • Ali’i Garden Market Place (Kona, Tues – Sun, 10 am – 5 pm)
  • Ho’oulu Community Farmers Market (Kona, Wednesdays, 9 am – 2 pm)
  • South Kona Fruit Stand (Kona, open every day of the week)
  • Pure Kona Green Market (Kona, Sundays, 9 am – 2 pm)
  • Kalapana Night Market (Pahoa, Wednesdays, 5 pm – 9 pm)
  • Laupahoehoe Farmer’s Market (Laupahoehoe, Sundays, 9 am – 1 pm)
  • Hilo Farmer’s Market (Hilo, Wednesdays and Saturdays, 6 am – 4 pm)
  • Maku’u Farmer’s Market (Pahoa, Sundays, 8 am – 2 pm)
  • Volcano Village Farmers Market (Volcano, Sundays, 6:30 am – 10 am)
  • Hamakua Harvest (Honoka’a, Sundays, 9 am – 2 pm)

22. Attend the Merrie Monarch Festival

The most prestigious hula competition in the world, the Merrie Monarch Festival is one of the Big Island’s most distinguished attractions. 

The first Merrie Monarch Festival was introduced in 1964. Today, the festival serves as not only a competition, but a public statement perpetuating Hawaii, its culture, and its people. It commemorates King David Kalakaua, who was passionate about the arts and the preservation of the oli (storytelling chant) and the hula (storytelling dance). This is important, because in the early 1800s European and Christian missionaries actually banned hula for several decades before King Kalakaua saved the cultural practice in 1874. 

Today, this annual showcase sells out every year, and is watched around the world online and on TV! 

While the Merrie Monarch Festival won’t be selling tickets to the public in 2022 (in light of the pandemic), keep an eye out here for future updates. Anyone interested in learning more about Hawaiian culture and seeing some of the best hula in the world should have Merrie Monarch at the top of their list! 

PRO TIP: Even if you can’t see the festival in person, visitors can head to Hilo for free entertainment and public events during the three-day competition. Also, the festival is live-streamed online!

23. Visit Kohala, the Birthplace of the Big Island

The Kohala volcano is the oldest volcano on the Big Island. It’s also the birthplace of King Kamehameha I, the man responsible for bringing the Hawaiian islands together under one unified Kingdom of Hawaii. Once a thriving hub of native Hawaiians and ali’i, this region is now largely based on agriculture and home to farmers and paniolo

Today, the northern Kohala region of the Big Island offers some of the most beautiful vistas and small town charms on the island. Come for the breathtaking views, leave with a greater appreciation for Hawaii history.

Places to visit in Kohala:

  • Pololu Valley: Visit the Pololu Valley Lookout and the Pololu Trail
  • Waipi’o Valley: Visit the Waipi’o Valley Lookout or take a guided tour
  • Historic Hawi Town: Wander the boutiques and eateries of this small historic town near King Kamehameha I’s birthplace
  • The Original King Kamehameha Statue: Snap a photo with the original King Kamehameha statue (the more well-known statue is located in Honolulu, Oahu). This statue was commissioned in Florence, Italy in 1880, but the boat transporting it actually sank en route to Hawaii! Somehow, the statue was recovered from the ocean in 1912 and finally made its way to the Big Island, where it stands today.

24. Give Back by Volunteering on the Big Island

Rachel Off Duty: Black Sand Beaches on the Big Island

It would be impossible for me to write a whole post about the best things to do in the Big Island without mentioning the impact tourism has on the Hawaiian islands.

To combat that, and help preserve this beautiful state for future generations, I highly recommend dedicating a morning of your visit to giving back! From helping reforest Hawaii by planting native trees, to participating in self-guided beach cleanups, there are endless volunteering options you can get involved with.

In fact, at the time of writing this post, some participating accommodations on the Big Island (like the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel and the Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa) will even give you a free night’s stay if you do a beach clean-up during your visit. 

It’s all a part of Hawaii’s Malama Hawaii Program, which encourages visitors to connect with the ‘aina (land) in a deeper way, and leave the islands better than they were when you arrived. 

See all participating Big Island hotels, and volunteer opportunities, here.

There you have it! Of the 20+ of the very best things to do on the Big Island that made this list, which are you most excited to do? Be sure to check out my Hawaii Trip Planning Guide and the rest of my Hawaii series next!

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The Best Things to Do on the Big Island - Rachel Off Duty
The Best Things to Do on the Big Island - Rachel Off Duty

Hey there! I’m Rachel, a travel writer and a full-time advertising / marketing expert. In 2019, I traveled more than 25 times while working 9 to 5, and since then I’ve committed myself to living a more adventurous life, even if it means bringing my laptop along for the ride.

Are you hungry to travel more, but overwhelmed with how to juggle work and play? You’ve come to the right place!

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2 Responses

  1. I love your diving photo into the sea off the boat, it looks so graceful! I wish you would have taken more diving photos whenever you meet the water. It could become such a cool collection of dives from all those tropical destinations, you already have the diving talent by default so why not to take more photos like this? 🙂

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