Looking for the best things to do in Kona, Hawaii? Kailua Kona, often referred to as “Kona” by the locals, is one of the best places to visit on all of the Big Island.
It’s the main town that most visitors will pass through as it’s home to the islands International airport. Kona is also known for having amazing weather with more than 300 days of sunshine a year. It has a cute town with plenty of boutique shops and restaurants to eat at. Let’s jump into the best things to do in Kona!
Best Things to do in Kona, Hawaii
1. Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park
This national park is a lesson in history & archeology, all set against the beautiful backdrop of blue skies and a bluer ocean. Not only do you get insight into early settlements that thrive along the rocky Kona coast (no small feat), you can hike the region and see sacred temples, petroglyphs, and Hawaiian fishponds. Keep your eyes peeled for spectacular local wildlife, too, like sea turtles or monk seals.
Follow the sand down towards the water to see it turn into lava rock! The impressive array of things to see – from a peek into ancient life to the wildlife that still thrives here – makes this a must-see on the list of things to do in Kona, Big Island.
- Location: Kailua-Kona
- Insider Tip: If you are driving, park at the small boat harbor.
2. Hulihe’e Palace
Hawaii isn’t really a place you’d think of as having a monarchy, but back in the mid-1800s, there was indeed a royal family ruling the island region. And every king needs a palace, which is exactly what this landmark has to offer: the totally preserved summer vacation home of King Kalakaua and Queen Kapiolani.
Built in the Victorian style, the palace displays artifacts and original furniture from the days of the Hawaiian monarchy. There are also annual live music shows one Sunday a month, free of charge, by local artists playing everything from traditional Hawaiian style tunes to folk-rock.
- Location: 75-5718 Alii Dr
- Cost: $10 for adult entry
- Insider Tip:
3. Mauna Kea Summit
Thanks to one of the planet’s most beautiful and diverse landscapes, Hawaii has no problems in the ‘views’ department, which is probably why every photo you see on your friends’ Instagram feed looks like top-tier photography. At an altitude of nearly 14,000 feet, the Mauna Kea Summit is a beautiful viewpoint overlooking the valleys, volcanoes, and sunrise if you happen to be an early riser.
Fun fact: Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world when measured from its actual base (much of which is underwater).
Mauna Loa is visible from the top (sometimes alight with magma cracks!), so even though you can expect a grueling hike to the summit, the views are worth it. Due to the altitude, the atmosphere gets thin up here! Those who are ill, in poor general health, or pregnant and/or breastfeeding should avoid this particular hike.
- Location: Kona
- Insider Tip: Access to the Visitors Center and the trail is difficult due to the local political climate and an excess of protesting, so call ahead and find out what the situation is before going all the way there.
4. Old Kona Airport State Recreation Center
This public park is pretty unique for the sole reason that it developed on the site of an old World War II airline landing strip. While it used to run nonstop and direct flights to other major cities throughout Hawaii, today it is a beautiful beach park surrounding bays of calm, warm waters – and a popular place on the list of things to do in Kona.
This region covers a lot of ground, with Pawai Bay offering unique and fascinating terrain like lava tunnels and subterranean caverns that periodically hiss out hot steam. Pawai Bay is also the site of some of the best snorkeling (best suited to advanced divers only). Go a little further down the coast to see the Keiki Ponds, which are large tidal pools perfect for swimming or just floating and watching the waves crash on the rocks a safe distance away.
- Location: 75-5560 Kuakini Hwy
- Insider Tip: Watch out for mongoose and feral cats in the area!
5. Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation
If you can’t start your day without your morning cup of joe, then maybe taking a tour of a coffee plantation is something you might enjoy. The Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation offers tours of its farm, and free of charge to boot! Every day of the week, every hour on the hour, and with no booking needed ahead of time, you can show up at the plantation and partake in a tour with a coffee tasting included! Plus, you will walk away with a lot more information about coffee that you never knew.
The 30-minute tour will show you the day-to-day of the plantation’s operations, how the coffee is made, and the entire process from the bean in the ground to the hot brew in your morning cup. Plus, who can say no to free Kona coffee samples?
- Location: 73-1942 Ha’o St
- Insider Tip: Don’t miss the chocolate covered coffee beans!
6. Kamakahonu Historic Landmark
This unassuming structure may not look like much, but it has an imposing history: it was the last residence of King Kamehameha before his death—the king who united all the islands of Hawaii into a single kingdom.
The structure left standing today was once part of an impressive compound of buildings that included the king’s residence, his personal place of worship, thatched houses for the community subjects, and the king’s retreat house. A mortuary was constructed after his death to house his remains. From the expansive community that once was, today there is little left standing, though many of the buildings have been reconstructed to show what life may have been like at the time.
- Location: Kaahumanu Pl, Kailua-Kona
- Insider Tip: The reconstruction of the king’s personal heiau (temple or place of worship) is still considered sacred and is not open to the public.
7. Kona Farmers Markets
There are many farmers markets in Kona, but the two that pack the biggest punch are the Kona Farmers Market in central Kona (near Kailua Bay), and the Pure Kona Green Market in South Kona. At the Kona Farmers Market, you have the island’s best spread of fresh fruit & vegetables, beautiful floral arrangements, and handmade crafts & souvenirs.
The Pure Kona Green Market, meanwhile, is dedicated to sustainability, ethical production, and practices that benefit the earth & community on a local scale. From handmade goods to freshly-made food, this is something you can feel good about supporting while still getting treated to a wonderful experience.
- Location: Kailua Bay & Kamakaeha Avenue, respectively
- Insider Tip: Prices are more reasonable than grocery stores for food items, so stock up on Macadamia nuts and pineapples!
8. Kailua Pier
This spot is the city’s capital of outdoor adventuring. If you’re an adrenaline junkie or water sports enthusiast, meet your next outing. Kailua Pier is the jumping-off point for all the local water activities, like snorkeling, scuba diving, party cruises, and fishing or whale watching tours.
To the left of the pier is also the starting point for the Iron Man triathlon; when not in use by race-goers, it is a beautiful spot for a swim, with a very vibrant sea life perfect for snorkeling or just observation. Whether you’re here to depart on an ocean adventure for the day or just plan to relax and enjoy your time on the shore, this is a landmark you’ll want to make a note of.
- Location: Kaahumanu Place
- Insider Tip: Take an evening dinner cruise from here if you want to make your evening plans a little more exciting.
9. Kona Cloud Forest
The name of this attraction alone probably already has your interest peaked. The Kona Cloud Forest is pretty much as cool as it sounds, but it’s more than just a neat place to see—it’s an environmental conservation project. The 70 square kilometer region is privately owned, with every inch bursting with native flora, and even some imported plants and flowers to enhance the beauty. You can even spot several species of native birds!
The grounds are open for public botanical tours, where you can learn about reforestation, conservation, and a little bit about reducing your own impact on the earth.
- Location: 73-1865 Hao St #3
- Insider Tip: Don’t miss the painted trees!
10. Aiopio Fishtrap
The Aiopio Fishtrap is, quite simply, a fascinating insight into native Hawaiians’ relationship to the ocean, and how it allowed early populations to thrive and flourish. This nearly two-acre pond is constructed using remnants of lava rock to emulate a wall-like structure, where an opening into the open sea would allow fish to enter at high tide, and be trapped once the sea level dropped. Then, it was easy to net the fish and bring them ashore.
The area also has the remnants of a longhouse, which could have been used to store boats and canoes. Nearby, there is a beautiful white sand beach that is tucked away and generally very quiet and private—an excellent spot for an afternoon picnic and swim.
- Location: Kailua-Kona
- Insider Tip: This is a great spot for spotting turtles, which will munch on the algae that lines the shore. Don’t touch them or get near, however; they are a protected species here.
11. Living Stones Church/Hale Halawai O Holualoa
One look at this ancient structure and you can tell that this is a building steeped in tradition and history. While today the building is known as the Living Stones Church, this is a recent moniker; it used to be called Hale Halawaio Holualoa. Christian missionaries first arrived in the region in 1820, and Hale Halawai O Holualoa was built in the 1850s.
During excavations from this building (made from coral lime and lava rock), game boards were found, proving that this was not just a place of worship for a new religion, but also a place of community and togetherness. With its sprawling lawn and its position right near the water, this is a unique sight to see and a marker of the immense changes in culture that arrived with the colonizers.
- Location: 76-6224 Alii Dr
- Insider Tip: There is still a Sunday mass service every week.
12. Pawai Bay
This is your one-stop-shop for all things snorkeling. Pawai Bay is widely known as one of the best places on the big island for diving, thanks to being a younger island with less sand and silt, and a rocky shore that leads to some of the planet’s clearest water—in other words, ideal conditions for underwater exploration.
If you take a catamaran snorkeling tour, you’ll be treated to some inside info on the best dive spots. When you want to take a break, your boat has a trampoline-like netting that’s perfect for lounging in the sun before jumping back in the water. Some of the wildlife you’ll be lucky enough to see includes sea turtles, eagle rays, endless types of tropical fish, and vibrant, brightly-colored coral. Check out the divots and holes in the lava rock, which often hide even more underwater life.
- Location: northern end of the Old Kona Airport
- Insider Tip: Since the water is so clear and the ecosystem here so healthy, visibility can extend hundreds of feet. If you’re really lucky, you might get up close and personal with a dolphin or two!
13. Mokuaikaua Church
Want to see Hawaii’s oldest Christian church? Good, because it’s pretty cool. American Christian missionaries first arrived in Hawaii in the 1820s, and it didn’t take long for them to begin spreading their message (with the king’s permission) and building places of worship; the Mokuaikaua Church was completed in 1837. The original structure was made of wood obtained from the upper area rainforests, but a series of fires resulted in the final structure, the one that still stands, being constructed from stone.
The church is open to the public for tours. There are artifacts and vestiges from this time in history on display, including a scale model of the Thaddeus, the ship that brought the missionaries to the Hawaiian islands.
- Location: 75-5713 Alii Dr
- Insider Tip: Admission to the church is free, whether it’s for a tour or Sunday mass.
14. Island Breeze Luau – He ‘Ohana Kakou
Is it even a trip to Hawaii if you don’t see at least one luau while you’re here? The Island Breeze Luau is one of the better-known ones on the island. It’s operated through a Marriott Hotel, so you can be sure that the quality and production value are pretty high. This is a social and very inclusive affair; you can meet the performers and even partake in craft-making. You’ll then get to see the uncovering of the traditional Hawaiian underground oven, and indulge in the vast buffet of traditional Polynesian food that will be cooked on it—plus, an open bar!
The show itself is a lesson in history; the crew of dancers will arrive by canoe, heralded by conch shell calls, and perform the luau dance under the stars—an experience you are not likely to forget in a hurry.
- Location: 75-5660 Palani Rd, in Courtyard by Marriott
- Insider Tip:
15. Ali’i Drive
While much of this list of things to do on Hawaii’s Big Island is focused on nature exploration and immersing yourself in island culture, every now and then you might just want some creature comforts and a more laid back, slower-paced day. Ali’i Drive is the Kona shopping district – the hot spot for restaurants, nightlife, clothes shopping, and more. This is the ‘it’ place to be, and where you’ll find the hub of life in Kona.
There are also lots of family-friendly places to hang out on this street, so no need to avoid it if you’re traveling with kids. The location is also right on the shoreline, so you’re never too far away from a dip in the water.
- Location: Ali’i Drive, Kona
- Insider Tip: If you didn’t manage to get a plantation tour, don’t miss out on another chance to get some fresh Kona coffee.
16. St Benedict Catholic Church
Still wondering what to do in Kona? St Benedict Catholic Church, also called “The Painted Church” is a church listed on the National Register of Historic Places near Kona built between 1899-1902 where artist Fr. Velghe depicted various biblical scenes on the ceilings and walls. It’s a beautiful place to go and admire the artwork.
This church is still in service and holds five masses per week, but is still open to the public seven days a week.
- Location: 84-5140 Painted Church Rd, Captain Cook, HI
- Insider Tip: Make sure to bring a camera to photograph all the awesome murals!
How to Get Around the Big Island?
You will 100% need a rental car to get around Big Island, this is the United States after all. Car rental companies are located at Kona International Airport. We went with Avis and were upgraded to a brand new Jeep for free while in Hawaii. The perfect car for driving around Hawaii!
Car Rental Comparison Sites
What to Pack for Hawaii
Delsey makes my favorite hard side luggage and after five years of travel around the world, they have yet to let me down. Plus their bags look extremely stylish, have heavy duty wheels, TSA accepted lock, and two full packing compartments with tie-down straps and a zippered divider. If you want something different check out our other favorite carry on luggage pieces.
Carry on Backpack
As far as design the Knack Expandable Backpack is one of my favorites in the travel world. It’s a new backpack and company for 2019 and from a number of executives who worked for the luggage company Tumi. The exterior and design of the pack are overwhelmingly positive. Compared to any of the other travel-specific bags we’ve had the chance to take a look at it delivers high quality with nice features. See our full review of the bag here.
For any day trip to the Hawaiian beaches, you’re going to want some cold drinks. After we throw our bathing suits on it’s the first thing we pack up. Traditional coolers are heavy and pain on the beach so we use a portable travel cooler like the Hopper Flip when we’re on the beach.
It claims to keep your drinks fresh for up to three days, while we’ve never tested that feature out – one day at the beach and drinks are always frosty cold. If you want to pack a more while still being portable, the Hopper Flip is an excellent investment. Yeti products are great for the beach since they are leakproof, resistant to mildew and punctures, durable, and are entirely portable. Many of their coolers have closed cell rubber insulation and robust zippers. If you want to check out some other great coolers, you can view them here.
A cover-up is one of those beach vacation clothes you should always travel within your luggage. When packing for a day at the beach, make sure you don’t forget one. Not only do they look cute, but they will also protect you from the suns harsh rays. Many establishments don’t allow beachgoers to wear just a swimsuit, so this is where the cover-up is essential. Most of my cover-ups come from Pitusa.
This all depends on where you’re heading to the beach, but a portable Bluetooth speaker is great to have when you’re in a group. We travel with a small BOOM speaker and take it with us when it feels appropriate. We say this because it’s often best to leave it at home on small secluded beaches so not to annoy anyone else with your music — no one’s that good of a DJ.
Or better known to many as a Hawaiian shirt. It can get very hot and sticky on the islands so you don’t want to bring all stiff clothes that cling to your body. This is the state where elected politicians wear aloha shirts on a daily basis and at official events.
It’s one of the few places in the world where you do not need to worry about dressing formal or wearing long pants. You can pick one up beforehand, but they’re abundant all over the island and you can buy one right at the airport when you land!
If you’re wondering what travel necessities to bring to Hawaii then good walking shoes should be your top concern.
No matter what you will need a beach bag when heading to the beach. This is to throw in anything like towels, a book, a speaker, sunglasses, snacks, and sunscreen. As full-time travelers, we often use our daypacks for trips to the beach since a tote is unnecessary.
However, a classic tote that everyone has in their closet is a great option for those on short trips or live close to the beach. They also travel well as they can fold flat and lie in your luggage. For family beach goers I recommend a large yet durable beach tote like this one.
Skin cancer is for real! Don’t forget your SPF when traveling around Hawaii. We recommend ordering some online before leaving the house as you will need it underneath the sun in the summer.
We highly recommend getting an eco friendly sun cream that does not contain harmful chemicals.
Make sure to protect your eyes from the sun. There are a lot of options for sunglasses and everyone should own at least a pair. It’s best to make sure they do have UV protection for the health of your eyes.
We made our first investment in quality polarized sunglasses with a pair of SMITH Optics Lowdown 2. Truthfully, not everyone needs to invest $150 in a pair of sunglasses, but they do make a huge difference from the crappy $10 ones.
Other Hawaii Travel Tips
- Adapter: Power sockets in Hawaii are the same as the rest of North America and are of type A and B. The standard voltage is 120 V and the standard frequency is 60 Hz.
- Currency: Hawaii uses the US Dollar. ATM’s are located all over and credit cards are widely accepted.
- Read: The Descendents
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