Hilo Hawaii is the largest city on the Big Island but has a more laid back feel than Kailua-Kona. It's home to a major branch of the University of Hawaii and Hilo International Airport (ITO), which is basically right next to the downtown area. While not the tourism hub that Kona is, it is a great base for exploring the northern Hamakua coast of the island, the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, lush tropical rain forests and waterfalls.
When in Hilo Hawaii and the surrounding area, you'll notice that the lush green landscape on this eastern (or windward) side of the Big Island is a stark contrast to the dry lava fields that surround Kona on the west (or leeward) side. This is basically because, while the west side of the island is known for getting the most sun and the least amount of rain, the east side are well known for getting the most rain and the least sun in Hawaii. What does this mean? Well, it means that Hilo is a very different city than Kona. Most visitors to the Big Island don't want to risk a rainy vacation, so the Kona side is their destination of choice. A one time booming capital of Hawaii's sugar industry, the area now has a quieter vibe. While Kona caters to tourists, this side of the island quietly goes about its business in what sometimes feels like a world away.
The downtown area has somewhat of a nostalgic feel to it with its old wooden storefronts and, while there aren't as many stores and restaurants as there are in Kona, there are more and more places popping up that appeal to visitors including shops and galleries. It's a nice walk along the water where the Bayfront Park stretches for more than half a mile along the bay. On Wednesdays and Sundays, check out the farmers market (open 'till 4 pm) where more than 200 local vendors sell fresh fruits and vegetables, arts and crafts, and flowers.
You'll definitely want to check out several spectacular waterfalls that are located nearby, including Rainbow Falls (just a mile from downtown) and Akaka Falls (15 miles north). Garden lovers might want to check out some of the beautiful gardens that thrive in this tropical climate. There's the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden just north near the town of Papaikou, or the authentic Japanese Liliuokalani Gardens on Banyan Drive, which is also where most of Hilo's hotels are.
Hilo Bay on a sunny day in Hilo Hawaii
Even if your trip to the Big Island is mainly focused on enjoying the sunny Kona side, it's well worth a trip around the Island to see some of the sights in the Hilo Hawaii area. If you're already taking a trip to Volcanoes National Park, why not go a little further and see Hilo too? Or, consider a road trip around the whole Big Island. It's about 5-6 hours of driving to circle the island on the Hawaii Belt Road (Highways 11 and 19). That leaves plenty of time to stop and smell the plumeria and take in the sights. It makes for a long day but a fun experience. You really get to see the change in the landscape as you drive through lava fields, ranch land, rain forrest and more—all in one day.