Visiting the Big Island of Hawaii for the First Time? Here's What to See and Do
The Big Island of Hawaii has one of the most unique landscapes on the planet. Whether you’re into hiking and outdoor activities or prefer cultural experiences, Hawaii’s largest island has something for you, from trekking volcanoes to sipping Kona coffee.
Even those that just want to relax on gorgeous beaches have plenty to see, with sands ranging from typical golden to volcanic black—and yes—even green. Here’s everything first-time travelers should see and do when heading to this volcanic Hawaiian island.
Explore Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Discover lava tubes, craters, and jagged peaks.
Simply put, no other US national park glows orange from fiery lava. Visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to drive the 11-mile (17.7-kilometer) Crater Rim Drive, hike through lava tubes, wander through fields of craggy black basalt, witness fresh rocks tumbling into the ocean, and admire the views from some seriously incredible viewpoints. When you need a lunch break, dine at the Volcano House overlooking the Kilauea Iki Crater.
If lava flows are active during your visit, plan to splurge on a helicopter tour—it’s a fantastic way to see Mother Nature doing her thing from up above.
Seek out black-sand beaches
There’s nothing like feeling volcanic particles between your toes.
If you get bored of all those picture-perfect golden-sand beaches, head to one of the Big Island's volcanic beaches, featuring gray, black, and pebbly basalt sands.
In fact, one of the newest beaches in the world can be found just northwest of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park at Isaac Hale Beach Park: Pohoiki Black Sand Beach. The beach, drenched in black sandy particles, formed back in 2018 from Kilauea’s most recent eruption.
Visit the green-sand beach
These unique olive sands are worth the trek.
Papakolea—one of only four green-sand beaches on the planet and the only one in Hawaii—is near the island’s southernmost point, carved into an ancient cinder cone. It’s a 2.5-mile (4-kilometer), fairly easy hike to the beach from the parking lot over sandy, uneven terrain. The beach appears green thanks to a special particle (olivine) inside the sand.
Skip the offer for a ride from the parking lot, as these are illegal. Make sure to bring water and snacks, and leave this rare phenomenon exactly as you left it.
Get to know Hilo
This small town will charm you.
Hilo is a small Hawaiian town with a big history—Polynesians settled there roughly 1,000 years ago. Besides wandering around to enjoy the quaint shops, restaurants, and museums, make sure to visit the nearby Wailuku River State Park, home to Rainbow Falls, where you can enjoy colorful rainbows on misty mornings.
Don’t forget to visit the peaceful, Japanese-inspired Liliuokalani Gardens and stop at the Hilo Farmers Market to pick up traditional crafts, sip Hawaiian coffee, and admire the tropical fruits and flowers.
Drink the world’s best coffee
Kona coffee is unlike any other.
Grown on the slopes of the Hualalai and Mauna Loa volcanoes on more than 650 different coffee forms, Kona coffee is one of a kind. Its earthy and rich taste comes from special Hawaiian soil, conditions, and cultivation methods.
Coffee lovers can taste and tour many local coffee farms on The Big Island. Two standouts are Kona Joe’s and Greenwell Farms, which make the process from harvest to cup interactive and fun. Or, consider taking a Kona Coffee Tour of the island to understand more about this specialty product.
Scout out the lesser-known natural gems
Escape the tourist crowds.
A tour is the best way to find the best off-the-beaten-path destinations, as they may be harder to come by without local insight. Or, consider an app-guided driving tour to avoid busy groups and big bus tours.
To give you a start, check out the underrated Pololu Valley. On your way there, stop at the Fresh Off The Grid farmstand for smoothies and treats.
Related: How to Get Off the Beaten Path on The Big Island of Hawaii
Hit the water
There’s no shortage of aquatic fun on The Big Island.
There’s so much to do in the warm Pacific waters around the Big Island—and you don’t even have to get wet. Besides the obvious, which is going for a swim, consider snorkeling or learning how to surf.
Those that prefer to stay dry can opt for a luxury dinner cruise around Kealakekua Bay, which glides down the scenic Kona coast. There are also dolphin-spotting excursions, glass-bottom boat tours, catamaran sails, and even submarine tours.
Don’t write off the night
Hawaii’s night skies and dark waters are full of wonder.
There are two after-dark experiences that are classic Big Island must-dos: night swimming with rays and stargazing on Mauna Kea. The former gets you in the island’s warm water, floating with the gentle, majestic creatures.
The latter gets you 14,000 feet (4,267 meters) high atop one of the tallest mountains on Earth (if you count what's under the ocean, that is) for some truly iconic stargazing.