Historic Hilo

By Jeanette Foster


Venture into Hawaii’s past by taking a walk through historic downtown Hilo. Archeologists can trace Hawaiian to this verdant area back to 1100 A.D., especially the vicinity around Hilo Bay and the Wailuku River.

When the missionaries arrived in 1824, they too settled close to the river, as Hilo began to grow to service the number of whaling ships and other ships of commerce putting in at Hilo’s new port. By the turn of the 20th century, a new crop was being grown – sugar, and Hilo was center for harvesting and shipping this cash crop. Railroads connected Hilo with other parts of the Big Island. It had become the center of commerce, government and finance for the entire island.

Even two destructive tsunamis, one in 1949 and the other in 1960, were not enough to shut down the town. After the second tsunami, Hilo pulled its buildings back from the waterfront, rebuilt itself and remains one of Hawaii’s largest cities (second only to Honolulu) and, perhaps, the most historic city in the state.

But to really appreciate Hilo, you have to wander through its streets laden with the past and walk into the historic buildings and imagine the ghosts telling their stories.

Start your talking tour at the corner of Kame-hameha Avenue and Mamo Street, the sight of Hilo Farmers Market, the state’s best farmers market, with more than 120 vendors from around the island bringing their flowers, produce, and baked goods to this teem ing corner of Hilo every Wed-nesday and Saturday from sunrise to 4pm.

From there saunter down Kamehameha Ave. to the historic S. Hata Building, 308 Kame-hameha Ave., a great example of renaissance renovations to this 1912 building, which is filled with interesting restaurants and shops and the National Marine Sanctuaries’ Mokupapapa Discovery Center for Hawaii’s Northwestern Hawaiian Island Coral Reef Reserve. Stop by Tuesday – Saturday, open 9 am 4 pm for the interactive exhibits and displays on the Northwest Hawaiian Islands.

Continue down the street to Haili and turn mauka (toward the mountains) to the Palace Theater, 38 Haili St., built in 1925 and decorated in the classic Art Deco style. The theater has been complete restore to its old glory days and is the venue for plays, musicals, cultural entertainment and films.

Continue up Haili for several blocks to Lyman Museum & Mission House, 276 Haili St. (at Kapiolani St.), open Mon – Sat 9am – 4:30pm. This is oldest wood-frame house on the islands, buil in 1839 by David and Sarah Lyman, a missionary couple who arrived from New England in 1832. This hybrid combined New England – and Hawaiian-style architecture with a pitched thatch roof.


The well-preserved house is the best example of missionary life and times in Hawaii. You’ll find lots of artifacts from the last century, including furniture and clothing from the Lymans and one of the first mirrors in Hawaii. The 21st century has also entered the museum, which now offers online computers and interactive, high-tech exhibits. Admission is $10 adults, $8 seniors over 60, $3 children 6–17 or $21 per family.

Retrace your steps down Haili to Kinoole, turn left to the historic building on the corner of Kalakaua. Today it is the East Hawaii Culture Center, 141 Kalakaua, but when it was built in 1932, it house the Hilo County Police Depart-ment. The building is designed to look like a Hawaiian building of the 1800’s. Step inside the Culture Center always has interesting art and cultural exhibits.

Across the street is the Kalakaua Park, named after Hawaiian King David Kalakaua. Wander through this quiet oasis, looking for the sundial, erected in the “Fourth Year of the reign of King Kalakaua, A.D. 1877.”

Continue down Kalakaua to Kamehameha Avenue to the Pacific Tsunami Museum, 130 Kamehameha Ave., open Mon–Sat 9am–4pm. The most interesting artifacts here are not the exhibits, but the volunteers who survived Hawaii’s most deadly “walls of water” in 1946 and 1960, both of which reshaped the town of Hilo.

Visitors can listen to their stories of terrorand view a range of exhibits, from interactive computers to a children’s section to a display on what happens when a local earthquake triggers a s e i s m i c wave, as it did in 1975 during the Big Island’s l a s t tsunam i .

Admission $8 adults, $7 seniors, $2 students and children. Head back towards the Farmer’s Market on Kamehameha Ave to the S.H. Kress Co. Building, another great example of Art Deco when it first opened in 1932. Totally renovated today, it houses a movie theater and an ice cream parlor.

Cross the street to the Bayfront, the port of Hilo. Some 21-years in construction (from 1908 to 1929), it took 951,273 tons of rock to build the barrier wall to the ocean. Walk over to the Mo’oheau Park and Bandstand, where several county events are held with the Hawaii County Band providing the music.

If you need more information about Hilo, head for the Mo’oheau Bus Station, where the Hilo Main Street Program is headquartered, 252 Kamehameha Ave., staffed by Hilo residents happy to share their historic town with visitors. Or give them a call at 935-8850. www.downtownhilo.com