During your visit to Hawaii’s Big Island, you’re most likely using Kona or Hilo as your home base. As the two largest cities on the island, they make for great starting points as you explore the island.
Now, you might be wondering, what’s the difference between Kona vs. Hilo?
In general, choose Kona if you want to have sunny weather, beautiful beaches and lots of tourism infrastructure. On the other hand, Hilo is a good option for those who want easy access to the National Park, are looking for a more affordable stay and don’t mind a bit of rain.
Here we’re diving into everything you should know when choosing which city to fly into and where to stay during your Big Island itinerary.
Kona is located on the “dry” side of the island. It’s usually easier to find affordable flights into Kona and most of the island’s big resorts are located nearby. It’s closer to the Big Island’s most popular beaches. Generally speaking, Kona tends to be more popular to fly into and sees more visitors than Hilo.
If Kona is your first stop on your Hawaiian vacation, you’ll arrive at the Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport. If you book flights a few months in advance, you can find direct flights from west coast cities like Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco. If you’re coming from further away, plan to have a layover in one of these cities or Honolulu.
Once you arrive in Kona, you can take an Uber, taxi, or rent a car to reach the town of Kona. The drive is about 30 minutes and the Kona airport is located just a bit north of Kona town itself.
Having a car to get around Kona — and the rest of the island — is a must. Depending on where you stay in Kona, getting around the town itself is relatively easy as most restaurants and bars are clustered near each other. You can browse car rental options here.
Driving around the Big Island is straightforward. However, if you’re driving at dusk or after dark, go slower than usual as most streets aren’t well-lit. Roads tend to be windy and inclement weather isn’t uncommon. It’s best to drive slowly to both ensure your safety and take in the beautiful sights.
Hands down, Kona is more expensive than Hilo. You can find affordable accommodations in Kona, but when comparing accommodations of the same quality in both cities, Hilo is noticeably more affordable. Food in Hilo also tends to be more budget-friendly, though there are fewer options.
When you compare Kona vs. Hilo, Hilo caters more to the local crowd whereas Kona caters more to tourists.
The island’s large resorts are in and around Kona, which increases the prices at most restaurants and bars. Throughout all Hawaiian Islands, the touristy areas are going to be more expensive.
Things to do in Kona
Kona is home to some of the best beaches in Hawaii. The Kona side of the island tends to see more sunshine, as is made evident by the stark contrast in landscapes between both sides of the Big Island.
With beautiful beaches and weather along the Kona Coast, this is the perfect part of the island to enjoy sunbathing and relaxing. Hapuna Beach and Makalawena Beach are two of the most famous beaches, but you really can’t go wrong.
Swimming with manta rays is an experience you can only have on the Big Island. You can snorkel at night or scuba dive, if you’re certified. It’s often considered one of the best and more unique things to do for your trip to the Big Island. You can book a tour here.
There are several historical sites and coffee farms around the town, as well where you can sample Kona Coffee. Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation is the closest to Kona and offers visitors free tours of the plant.
However, if you’re willing to drive 20 minutes away, you’ll arrive at a huge number of farms that provide tours such as this short private tour.
Kona is larger than Hilo, so it’s worth it to spend some time checking out the town and eating at local restaurants. If you want more nightlife during your visit to the Big Island, Kona is going to be your best bet.
Within the town of Kona, visit Hulihe’e Palace, Kailua Bay, and the Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park. If you have some time to spare, head up to the Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary, located near Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation, and take a stroll through the Kona Farmers Market.
If you’re up for a nighttime adventure, book a tour to the summit of Mauna Kea. This mountain summit rises far above the clouds and houses active telescopes. From the top, you’ll get exceptional sunset views and stargazing opportunities.
It’s recommended that you book a tour to reach the summit. Most vehicles aren’t allowed to drive on their own to the top. A tour will pick you up mid-afternoon, take you to the visitor’s center to acclimate to the altitude and have dinner, and then drive you to the summit.
They’ll provide all the gear and information you need for a comfortable visit. It’s one of the most unique things you can do on the Big Island. Mauna Kea can be accessed from Kona or Hilo and it’s a really cool experience on a trip to the Big Island.
Where to Stay in Kona
Kona Tiki Hotel – Mid-range visitors to Kona will love this little hotel located within easy reach of all Kona has to offer. They have a number of great rooms to choose from and a lovely on-site swimming pool to enjoy. Click here to check availability
Aston Kona By the Sea – If you’re after a luxury option while staying in Kona, then you can’t go wrong with this swanky hotel. They have an array of bright, clean and comfortable rooms to choose from, a perfect swimming pool and a private beach area, as well. Click here to check availability
Private Rental – Having your own apartment or house in Kona is a popular option and there are plenty of options to choose from – such as this fully-furnished condo – on offer in Kona. Click here to browse Kona private rentals
My Hawaii Hostel – Those visiting Kona on a tight budget will love this cool hostel in central Kona. They have both dorms and private rooms to choose from, great common areas along with easy access to the beach! Click here to check availability
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Kona hotels!
Where Kona has beaches, Hilo has stunning rainforests, waterfalls, and valleys. Hilo is located on the “wet” side of the island, and upon arrival, you’ll quickly see why it’s called this. It’s thick with rainforests filled with natural wonders that will fill your Hilo itinerary to the brim.
If you’re flying into Hilo, you’ll land at Hilo International Airport. It’s more likely you’ll have a layover in Honolulu if you’re flying into Hilo versus Kona.
Regardless of your origin city, direct flights from the mainland to Hilo aren’t common. If you’re flying to Hilo from a different Hawaiian Island, you can usually find a direct flight.
Once you arrive at the airport, you can call a rideshare, taxi, or rent a car to drive into town. It takes about 15 minutes to reach the main section of Hilo. Like Kona, it’s highly recommended you have a rental car at your disposal.
This is perhaps even more important in Hilo as you’ll want to be able to drive to different natural sites, beaches, and national parks in the area. Within the town of Hilo, you can easily get around on foot as most restaurants and bars are clustered near each other.
Driving around the Big Island is relatively easy. The most direct route between Hilo and Kona is Saddle Road, which cuts through the center of the island. It’s the fastest opinion to get between the cities, clocking about 1.5 hours of drive time.
However, if you have some time to spare, the Mamalahoa Highway is the most scenic route. It takes about three hours in total, but takes you by stunning coastal landscapes.
Whether you stay in Hilo or Kona will make a difference for your budget. The Hilo side tends to be more affordable than Kona. This applies to restaurants, lodging, and transportation.
If you’re renting a car, keep in mind that where you pick up and return the car will have an impact on its cost. Hilo is one of the most affordable cities in all the Hawaiian Islands.
If you’re looking for an affordable Hawaiian city with modern amenities and a small-town charm, Hilo might be your place. It might also be helpful to plan your trip during the shoulder travel seasons, which land during spring and fall.
Things to do in Hilo
Hilo is a great jumping-off point for exploring many of the Big Island’s natural sites. First, pay a visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. We recommend visiting from Hilo because it’s a 45-minute drive compared to visiting from Kona, which is a 2.5-hour drive one way. You can also join a small group tour.
Within the park, you’ll find lava tubs, steam vents, and active volcanoes. If you’re staying in the area overnight, consider taking a tour of the park after dark. You’ll have a higher chance of seeing lava if you visit once the sun goes down.
This side of the island is known for its waterfalls. Akaka Falls north of Hilo and Rainbow Falls are two of the most famous ones. You can access them by driving to their respective trailheads and then taking a short hike to the viewpoint.
Hawaii is known for its black sand beaches, and you’ll find most of them nearer to Hilo. Punalu’u Black Sand Beach and Pololu Valley Beach come highly recommended. You can visit Punalu’u in tandem with Volcanoes National Park.
During your visit, keep an eye out for green sea turtles as they’re known to lounge on this beach. You can also stop by the Southernmost Point in the United States—a park where you can find excellent views in all directions. If you’re feeling daring, you can leap from the cliff into a relatively calm section of ocean.
Pololu Valley Beach sits at the base of a massive canyon. Be careful on the hike down to the beach as the trail is steep and uneven. Likewise, it’s recommended that you don’t swim here because the tides are unpredictable and riptides have been known to occur.
Within the town of Hilo, check out the farmers market, Pacific Tsunami Museum, Kaumana Caves, and Imiloa Astronomy Center. There are also botanic gardens and local history museums.
Where to Stay in Hilo
Hilo Bay Oceanfront Bed and Breakfast – This quaint bed and breakfast is the perfect place to base yourself if you want to be located in the center of Hilo. Offering a range of delightful rooms to choose from, they also offer breakfast each morning. Click here to check availability
The Inn at Kulaniapia Falls – Located just outside the town of Hilo, this tranquil inn is the perfect base for those looking for something a bit more upmarket. They have both regular guest rooms and cabins available and offer breakfast in the mornings. Click here to check availability
Private Rental – Those looking for a self-catering option on this side of the island will find plenty of options — like this beach studio — available to choose from in Hilo across multiple platforms. Click here to browse Hilo private rentals
Big Island Hostel – Budget solo travellers will love this hostel in the center of Hilo. Offering traditional dorm beds (with some female-only options), they also have great self-catering facilities, and good common areas to enjoy. Click here to check availability
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Hilo hotels!
Kona vs Hilo: Which is Better to Visit
If you’re seeking a resort-focused vacation, Kona is your best bet. You can rent a car to visit other select parts of the island. Kona is also a larger area, so if you’re seeking nightlife and prime sunset watching, Kona is a great choice.
If you’re after a more adventure-focused visit to the Big Island, consider making Hilo your home base. It’s the perfect jumping-off point for the island’s most famous waterfalls, valleys, and Volcanoes National Park.
Hilo is also the better choice for those on a budget. Accommodations and transportation tend to be cheaper in Hilo than in Kona. This is due to it being smaller with fewer resorts, so fewer people overall.
Generally speaking, Hilo is quieter as it caters more for locals than tourists, so keep that in mind as you’re choosing where to stay. If you want a more laid-back and quiet city that still has all the amenities for a comfortable stay, Hilo is a good choice.
Weather should be a factor as you’re deciding if you should stay in Hilo vs Kona. Should Hilo be your home base, or you plan to spend any substantial time there, make sure you pack a rain jacket and comfortable walking shoes.
A rain jacket that can easily be rolled up into your daypack is ideal. Hilo sees significantly more rain than Kona, so plan and pack accordingly.
That said, for both destinations, make sure you have sunscreen, comfortable walking shoes, and a swimsuit. Just because it’s cloudy in Hilo, doesn’t mean you won’t get burned. Bring any beach essentials.
Shorts, t-shirts, and sandals are perfect for casual days in both cities. If you plan to have a nice dinner out, bring an outfit that allows you to dress accordingly. Don’t forget a sweater or light jacket for breezy evenings once the sun has gone down.
The best time of year to visit both Kona and Hilo is during Hawaii’s shoulder seasons. This includes April, May, October, and November; although Hawaii has near-perfect weather year-round. If you want to avoid crowds and find slightly more affordable travel options, aim to plan your trip during the off-peak tourist season.
Both Kona and Hilo have pros and cons. Which one you decide to stay in depends on your budget and how you want to spend your time during your trip to Hawaii.
Are you choosing between Kona and Hilo? Have any questions? Let us know in the comments!