14 Unique Things to Do on the Big Island

by Paul Joseph  |  Updated December 13, 2023

Fringed by sandy beaches, picture perfect bays, verdant rainforests, and exotic birdlife, when it comes to unique attractions, Big Island in Hawaii has more than its fair share.

Smouldering lava at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (Photo: National Park Service via Flickr / PDM 1.0 DEED)

The largest island in the Hawaiian archipelago in the Central Pacific, it’s fair to say that when Big Island was born it caught mother nature in an exceedingly generous mood. But there’s a whole lot more to the island than raw natural beauty; it’s also packed full of man-made attractions, including a sprinkling of exceptional museums. If you’re planning to visit Big Island and are in need of some inspiration, check out our list below of 14 of the most unique things to see and do.

Explore a volcanic national park 

Offering a fascinating insight into the world of active volcanism and biological diversity, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is one of Big Island’s most impressive natural wonders. The park can be traversed by car in just a few hours or explored in greater depth over several days, with several hiking trails that take in landscapes of solidified lava and lush tropical rainforest. More intrepid visitors can even reach the summit of Kīlauea volcano via Crater Rim Drive, a gruelling 11-mile stretch of road. However, it’s advisable to check the status of the volcanoes in advance, as they are capricious beasts.

You can book a helicopter tour over Hawaii Volcanoes National Park at GetYourGuide

Visit one of Hawaii’s most sacred sites

Situated at Hōnaunau Bay on Big Island’s western coast, the 180-acre Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park was once the home of royal grounds and a place of refuge for Hawaiian lawbreakers. Hundreds of years old but pristinely restored, today the park remains one of Hawaiʻi‘s most sacred historic places and can be visited via a self-guided walking tour that lets you explore the grounds including the Great Wall, which stands some 12-feet high and 18-feet thick. Fierce wooden images of gods guard the Hale o Keawe Heiau, a sacred temple that once housed the bones of 23 native chiefs.

Totems on the shore at Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park (Photo: Terry Ott via Flickr / CC BY 2.0 DEED)

Observe the final frontier 

In addition to its natural wonders, there’s no shortage of man-made delights to enjoy on Big Island, either. Among them are the internationally-renowned Mauna Kea Observatories where astronomers from across the globe come to peer far beyond the surrounding palm trees at the skies above Hawaii. One of the observatories boasts the world’s largest and most scientifically productive optical and infrared telescopes and with so few city lights polluting the night skies, the view through these industrial scale contraptions is something to behold. Individual visits are not permitted, but if you’re on Big Island as part of an organised group tour with an educational slant, you may gain access.

Mauna Kea Access Road, Hilo / Mon-Sun 9am-9.30pm

A giant telescope observatory perched roadside at the Mauna Kea Observatories (Photo: chris favero via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

Get up close and personal with manta rays

Among the most common marine life to be found in the waters around Hawaii are manta rays, and they are at their most abundant close to Big Island and in particular the west coast town of Kailua. Manta Ray Village is the most popular spot for seeing giant manta ray in the area, with a steady stream of snorkellers flocking here to see these fascinating ocean creatures gracefully gliding through the water, feeding and interacting with other underwater species. Manta ray snorkelling can also be enjoyed as part of guided tours, with all equipment and wet suits provided.

You can book a night-time manta ray snorkelling tour at GetYourGuide

Discover the island’s rich coffee heritage

The district of Kona is intrinsically linked with the coffee trade and this long-standing relationship can be discovered by joining a number of Big Island coffee tours. Among the venues integral to this heritage is the Kona Coffee Living History Farm, with visitors invited to explore the 5.5-acre working coffee and macadamia nut farm through its ‘Hands On History’ program, featuring a variety of activities focused on cultural traditions and practices that have been vital to Kona’s coffee industry down the years. There are exhibitions, coffee bean harvesting demos, animal husbandry, gardening, lauhala weaving and even Japanese calligraphy – a nod to the large number of Japanese immigrants who came to work in Hawaii’s coffee trade during the early to mid-19th century.

82-6199 Hawaiʻi Belt Road, Captain Cook / Tues & Fri 10am-2pm

Take a stroll around a botanical garden

Think of Hawaii and you’re very likely to imagine lush, dense rainforest – and that’s exactly what you’ll find at the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden. Positioned 15 minutes outside of town in the scenic Onomea Valley, the nonprofit reserve is spread across some 40 acres of natural garden brimming with tropical plants, as well as beautiful streams, waterfalls, a bird aviary, orchid garden, and mesmerising ocean views. There is a self-guided tour which takes about 90 minutes.

Go whale watching

A large cohort of humpback whales make their annual journey to Hawaii between the months of November and April each year and Big Island is one of the most popular islands to see them. There are many ways to experience these majestic animals, from listening to them under water, to spotting them from shore, to seeing them up-close from the vantage point of a boat far out at sea. For the latter experience, there are a number of Big Island whale watching tours that take place on vessels of varying sizes and often include snacks, drinks and other on-board amenities. As well as catching sigh of whales, you might also see dolphins, turtles, or even whale sharks during your excursion.

You can book a Big Island whale watching tour at GetYourGuide

A whale puts on a show for the cameras off the coast of Big Island (Photo: Hang Loose Boat Tours / Courtesy GetYourGuide)

Get some traditional body art

The word tattoo comes from the Polynesian language, with this form of body art originally hailing from the region. However, for those who don’t like the idea of growing old with a marking that also starts to look its age, what better souvenir from your Big Island adventure than a temporary Henna tattoo? The staff at Kona Henna Studio, in historic downtown Kailua Kona, are masters of the art, using only natural ingredients to embellish your body with striking art-work. The studio has thousands of designs to choose from, so you’re guaranteed to find something that suits your tastes, and the tattoos are guaranteed to last up to four weeks, depending on the body part. Walk-ins and appointments are both accepted.

75-5744 Ali‘i Drive #25, Kailua-Kona / Mon-Sat: 10am-8pm Sun 12pm-8pm

A man decorated with a distinctive Henna design created by Kona Henna Studio (Photo: Kona Henna Studio)

Learn about nature’s other face 

Depicting the history of the 1946 Pacific tsunami and the 1960 Chilean tsunami, which devastated much of the east coast of Big Island, the Pacific Tsunami Museum is well worth a look around. While most tectonic activity takes place along the edges of plates as they interact, Hawaii sits right in the middle of the Pacific Plate. However, it is considered one of the world’s rare non plate-boundary hotspots. The infamous Ring of Fire is on all sides of Hawaii, hundreds of miles removed, but that won’t stop a tsunami, which can cross entire oceans. The museum also acts as an important education facility to locals and visitors. For a companion activity, the museum also helps co-ordinate self-guided walking and driving tours of sites hit hardest by the tsunamis.

130 Kamehameha Avenue, Hilo / Mon-Sun 10am-4pm

An exterior shot of the Pacific Tsunami Museum (Photo: Pacific Tsunami Museum)

Attend an authentic luau

One of Hawaiian culture’s most popular draws is the traditional luau, which involves a feast of local delicacies like poke and hog roasts, surrounded by traditional entertainment with music and dancing, such as hula. Naturally many people come to Big Island with a luau high on their ‘to do’ lists, so there are a good number of options to choose from, with many taking place at the big resorts. These are open to all, but advanced booking of tickets is often encouraged.

You can book tickets to the Island Breeze lau at Viator

A traditional Luau performance on Big Island (Photo: Island Breeze Luau / Courtesy Viator)

Marvel at the island from up high

A sight to behold from any vantage point, there’s nothing quite like witnessing Big Island’s sublime scenery from the sky – and there are a number of Big Island helicopter tours that offer this very opportunity. During the experience, you’ll get to peer down at volcanic peaks, active lava flows, steep cliffs, verdant rainforest, sandy beaches and many other sites of natural beauty. Most flights depart from Kona and tend to range from between 1 and 3 hours in duration.

Try the produce at a local market

Sometimes, even in Hawaii, the weather lets you down and you need something for a rainy day. Located in the Queens’ MarketPlace within the beautiful grounds of the Waikoloa Resort, Island Gourmet Markets are without question Big Island’s premier shopping destination and the ideal solution for when the elements drown out the outdoor activities. Whether its apparel, beach needs, cosmetics, gifts, local foods or souvenirs you’re after, there’s plenty to satisfy most customers here.

Hike out to a set of stunning waterfalls

Known locally as Waianuenue, Rainbow Falls boasts an awe-inspiring 80-foot drop and is renowned for the stunning rainbows that form amid the surrounding mist. Situated just outside of Hilo city, it’s easily accessible to visitors and a popular excursion point, so to avoid the crowds, head there for early morning or late afternoon. And be sure to take a camera. The special viewing platform is the best spot to get a glimpse of the rainbow, which tends to form only in the mornings. As for the goddess who resides in the falls, there’s no guarantee of a sighting.

A scenic view of Rainbow Falls (Photo: Eric Tessmer via Flickr / CC BY 2.0 DEED)

Try a local tipple 

An independent microbrewery, Kona Brewing Company has become something of a tourist hot-spot, giving visitors the chance to sample local brews and enjoy an informal tour of the building. Perpetually busy, there’s outdoor seating and live music to keep guests entertained. Food is also in ample supply, including some of the best pizza to be found anywhere on the island. But it’s the craft beer that is naturally the biggest reason to visit, with a good variety of beers on tap.