Magic Sands Beach Kona and Rainbow Falls Hilo

Kona Vs Hilo: Where To Stay On Vacation

Wondering whether to stay in Kona or Hilo while on the Big Island? You’ve come to the right place.

I have visited the Big Island three times now, both staying in a resort in Kona, and in a vacation rental in Hilo.

The most noticeable difference I’ve experienced is that Hilo has more of a small town local vibe, whereas Kona is more developed, and catered to tourists. 

Additionally, the climates differ quite widely. Kona has a hot and dry climate, whereas Hilo has a humid tropical climate that’s more likely to rain. 

So, should you stay in Kona or Hilo? And which is cheaper?

Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about staying in Kona and Hilo. 

Kona vs Hilo: A Brief Overview

Kona is a sunny, dry town on the west side of the Big Island where most of the big family-friendly resorts and white sand beaches are located.

Hilo is a humid, tropical town on the east end of the island with rainforests, waterfalls, and more of a local feel. 

It takes around 1.5-2 hours to drive from Kona to Hilo, depending on the route you take. If you want to explore all of the Big Island, I highly recommend renting a car. 

On my first two trips to the Big Island, I stayed in the Hilton Waikoloa resort in Kona. This is a large oceanfront resort with a gym, pools, lazy rivers, private beach, and lagoon filled with tropical fish.

This is an amazing resort for families wanting to relax on vacation, since you can rent out water sports equipment and snorkel directly on the property. 

In contrast, Hilo doesn’t have resorts but it has a few 3-star oceanfront hotels with pools. When I recently stayed in Hilo, I stayed in a small budget-friendly vacation rental through VRBO.

This was a completely different experience than staying in a Kona resort, but it helped me keep vacation costs low. 

If you are wanting to explore the entire island, staying in Hilo for a night or two can be beneficial. Hilo has many unique natural attractions, and is around an hour closer to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. 

But, if you’re seeking a more luxurious experience, I recommend staying in Kona. 

Kona has oceanfront resorts on white sand beaches with events like yoga and nightly luaus. 

In general, Kona has a wider variety of accommodation options whereas Hilo is more limited.

Continue reading to learn how they compare in terms of climate, beaches, tourist attractions, cost and accommodations.   


One of the most significant differences I’ve noticed between the towns is the climate. Hilo has a humid, tropical climate, and it rained nearly half the days I was there. 

Hilo Bay
Hilo Bay

On the other hand, Kona is sunny, hot, and dry. It only rained once when I was in the tropical rainforest area in east Kona.

Magic Sands Beach, Kona Hawaii
Magic Sands Beach, Kona


Kona has a variety of white sand beaches and beautiful bays, whereas Hilo has more small beach parks with tide pools and rocky shorelines.

If you’re visiting the Big Island to enjoy the beaches, Kona is without a doubt the place to be at.

Hapuna Beach, Kona Hawaii
Hapuna Beach, Kona Hawaii

Some of the most beautiful beaches I visited in Kona were Hapuna Beach, Magic Sands Beach, and Spencer Beach Park. These beaches have restrooms, showers, picnic areas, and lifeguards. 

Magic Sands Beach, Kona Hawaii
Magic Sands Beach, Kona

If you want to snorkel on vacation, Kahalu’u Beach Park and Kealeakeau Bay in Kona are some of the best places to snorkel on the Big Island. 

In Hilo, some of the best beach parks I visited were Carlsmith Beach Park and Richardson Ocean Park. These beach parks have protected lagoons and tide pools filled with sea turtles. 

Carlsmith Beach Park, Hilo Hawaii
Carlsmith Beach Park, Hilo Hawaii

Tourist Activities

When it comes to activities, Kona has more touristy things to do. Kona has a walkable downtown area, farm tours, historic parks, picturesque bays, and more.

Kona Shopping Inn Village along Ali‘i Drive
Kona Shopping Inn Village along Ali‘i Drive

In Kona, you can tour a coffee farm, vanilla farm, honey farm, sea salt farm, and even a seahorse farm!

Greenwell Farms Kona
Greenwell Farms Kona

Most of these farm tours require an admission fee, with the exception of a few free coffee tours (Greenwell Farms and Mountain Thunder Coffee). 

If you love history, you can spend time exploring historic parks like Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park, and Puʻukoholā Heiau National Historic Site.

Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park
Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park
Structures at Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park
Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park
Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park
Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park

In terms of excursions, the most popular tours in Kona are night time manta ray tours and Kealeakeau Bay snorkeling tours

Night time manta ray tours involve going on a short cruise at night to a manta ray feeding site to swim with huge manta rays up close.

The tours only take place in Kona, and it’s one of the most unique experiences the Big Island has to offer.

If you want to go snorkeling on the Big Island, Kealeakeau Bay is the place to go.

Kealakekua Bay, Big Island Hawaii
Kealakekua Bay

This is a beautiful secluded bay in south Kona that’s only accessible by boat or hiking. It’s home to the Captain Cook Monument and an incredible diversity of marine life.

The monument marks the site where the first westerner that discovered the Big Island, Captain James Cook, was killed.

The bay has crystal clear waters filled with tropical fish, and is a resting site for spinner dolphins.

Coral reefs at Kealakekua Bay, Big Island Hawaii
Kealakekua Bay

You can go on a morning or evening snorkeling tour to spot dolphins, and learn all about the history of the area. 

If you don’t want to pay for a tour, you can hike to Kealakekua Bay for free.

Overall, Kona has many interesting cultural and historically significant places to visit beyond the beaches.

Hilo offers a wider variety of cheap activities when compared to Kona. Hilo has a zoo, waterfalls, botanical gardens, a lava tube, beach parks, and more. 

The Panaewa Rainforest Zoo, Rainbow Falls, and the Kaumana Caves are some of the most popular places to visit in Hilo.

Tiger laying at Panaewa Rainforest Zoo and Gardens, Hilo Hawaii
Panaewa Rainforest Zoo and Gardens, Hilo Hawaii

The Panaewa Rainforest Zoo is a great zoo for kids that’s free to visit, and houses around 200 animals. 

Rainbow Falls, Hilo Hawaii
Rainbow Falls, Hilo Hawaii

Rainbow Falls is a stunning 80-foot waterfall surrounded by lush greenery and ancient banyan trees.

It’s free to visit, and is one of the most beautiful and easily accessible Big Island waterfalls. 

Rainbow Falls, Hilo Hawaii
Rainbow Falls, Hilo Hawaii

The Kaumana Caves is a 2 mile lava tube created from a volcanic eruption in 1881, just a few miles away from Rainbow Falls. It’s just off the side of the road, and is free to explore.

The inside of the cave is dark, and has interesting lava rock patterns from centuries old lava flows. Unlike the Thurston Lava Tube at the Volcanoes National Park, the lava tube is not lit up during the day so it’s important to bring a flashlight if you plan on visiting. 

The downtown area of Hilo is not as developed as Kona, but it has museums, restaurants, and the Liliuokalani Gardens and Coconut Island.

Liliʻuokalani Gardens, Hilo Hawaii
Liliʻuokalani Gardens

The Liliuokalani Gardens is a peaceful little park with arched bridges, Japanese stone lanterns, and fish ponds.

Coconut Island is a tiny island located across a bridge that has picnic areas, a few sandy beach areas, and a tower where you’ll often see local kids jumping off into the water.

Coconut Island, Hilo Hawaii
Coconut Island, Hilo Bay

You can stroll around the gardens, then cross over the bridge to Coconut Island for a picnic. 

The last popular place just north of Hilo is the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden.

Hawai‘i Tropical Botanical Garden, Big Island Hawaii
Hawai‘i Tropical Botanical Garden

This is a spectacular 17-acre botanical garden in the rainforest with waterfalls, tropical plants, and paths along the ocean.

Hawai‘i Tropical Botanical Garden
Hawai‘i Tropical Botanical Garden

This was the only place in Hilo I paid an entrance fee to visit ($25 per person), but it was well worth visiting. 


In general, Hilo is cheaper than Kona in terms of accommodations and activities. Most of the places in Hilo like the zoo, Rainbow Falls and the beach parks are completely free to visit.

In Kona, you have to pay entrance fees to visit certain national and state parks like Hapuna Beach or Pu`uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park. 

However, there are still many excellent free beaches and historic parks to visit in Kona. 

Hotels and accommodations

In terms of accommodations, Kona has a much wider variety of resorts, hotels, and vacation rental options. 

I’ve stayed at the Hilton Waikoloa resort in Kona twice, which costs around $300-500 per night. The resort has pools, lazy rivers, waterslides, a large lagoon with water sport rentals. It’s in a great location near shops, restaurants, and Hapuna Beach. 

They also have events like nightly luaus, and a Dolphin Quest where you can pay to swim with dolphins. If you’re traveling with family and want to relax at a resort, this is an excellent place to stay.

If you’re looking for a mid-range hotel, the Royal Kona resort is a great option in downtown Kona. Rooms cost around $200–$250 per night, and it’s within walking distance to shops and restaurants. 

In contrast, Hilo has a few mid-range oceanfront hotels, but no large family-friendly resorts.

I stayed in a small vacation rental in Hilo for $80 per night booked through This was a cozy home with a full kitchen, right next to Hilo Bay. 

If you want to save money on your trip, staying in a vacation rental in Hilo for a night or two is a great option. It will also eliminate the need to drive back from Hilo to Kona as many times if you want to explore the whole island. 

Should you stay in Kona or Hilo?

If it’s your first time visiting the Big Island, I recommend staying in Kona. Kona is the resort town of the Big Island, so it’s where most tourists stay.

It has spectacular white sand beaches, great restaurant and hotel options, shopping centers, and many unique activities.

But, staying in Hilo for a night or two is a great option if you want to explore the entire island.

Since the drive from Kona to Hilo is around 2 hours, staying overnight in Hilo can help you save time, and gas money!

Hilo has waterfalls, botanical gardens, beach parks, and an amazing farmer’s market.

Kona vs Hilo FAQs

Is it cheaper to fly into Kona or Hilo?

There isn’t a notable difference between the flight costs for flying into Kona or Hilo.

Both Kona and Hilo have small airports, with Kona being the more busy airport given it’s the resort town of the Big Island. 

Is Hilo or Kona closer to Volcanoes National Park?

Hilo is around an hour closer to the Volcanoes National Park than Kona.

The Volcanoes National Park is around a 45 minute drive from Hilo, and nearly 2 hours from Kona

Volcanic crater at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Crater Rim Trail, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

How far is Hilo from Kona?

Hilo is around 1.5-2 hours from Kona, depending on the route you take. 

How do you get from Hilo to Kona?

There are three routes to get to Kona.

  1. The fastest route: Taking Saddle Road, which cuts through the middle of the island, and takes around 1.5 hours.
  2. The most scenic route: Taking highway-19 along the Hamakua coast (the northern route), which takes around 2 hours.
  3. The longest route: Taking highway-11 along the Ka’u coast (the southern route), which takes around 3 hours.

Should you rent a car on the Big Island?

Yes, I recommend renting a car on the Big Island if you want to explore the different beaches, waterfalls, and hidden gems outside of the resort.

With the exception of the downtown areas, most places in Kona and Hilo are not within walking distance. Additionally, the public transport in the Big Island is limited.

The Hele-on bus is the primary transportation system on the island, and is mainly used by locals to commute to work.

It’s free to use, but it has a very limited schedule and range of places it visits.

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