From pro-grade ukuleles to genuine aloha fabrics to life-changing mochi, it's all here in Hilo Town on Hawaii Island
Funky little Hilo Town on Hawaii Island tends to attract two kinds of tourists: cruise ship passengers on a stopover who chose town over the longer trip up into Volcanoes National Park, and more independent and adventurous visitors seeking a less touristy Hawaii.
Hilo’s weathered appearance is part of its charm, and it comes by its shabby-chic style honestly. This is the windward side of the island, so there’s lots of rain. Also, the town has been hit twice by tsunamis, once in 1946 and again in 1960.
The town has slowly evolved into a cultural center for this part of Hawaii—there are a handful of museums, the Pacific Tsunami Center, and the renovated beaux arts–style Palace Theater. And there’s shopping, plenty of it. Kamehameha Avenue runs parallel to Hilo Bay and is lined with a mix of shops selling touristy kitsch and genuinely authentic Hawaiian goods. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, there’s a farmers' market with piles of bright produce, tropical bouquets, preserves, and street food.
Heads up, Hilo is pretty much closed on Sundays, though restaurants will still be open. Evenings are quiet, too—your best bet is a Saturday, late morning, when all the businesses are open and the market is still lively.
Here are seven of the most interesting shopping spots in Hilo.
1. Hilo Farmers' Market
You won’t be able to take produce purchased here back to the mainland, but there are flowers for your hotel room (or cruise ship cabin) and the people-watching is excellent. Buy in season to get a better shot at local produce, since not everything is grown on the island. There are good snacks here—macadamia nut baklava (get this, it’s amazing), Hawaiian sweet rolls, coconut peanut butter, guava lemonade. At the craft market across the street you’ll find sarongs and palm leaf hats and kukui net leis. Small bills are appreciated but many vendors take cards now. —Tuesday and Saturday, corner of Kamehameha and Mamo St.
2. Bryan Booth Antiques
Once a furniture refinisher in Connecticut, Bryan Booth now devotes his time to giving new life to items he finds in the Hawaiian islands. When I visited, he had an all koa wood bedroom set built at the Hilo Boarding School and another gorgeously restored koa dining set. A glass case held a finely woven hat with a feathered headband, and tucked away on a shelf in one of the cluttered rooms I found a '60s serving platter in the shape of a humuhumunukunukuapua’a, a type of triggerfish. And yes, he’ll ship. —94 Ponahawai
4. Hawaiian Force
Cookie cutter aloha wear is all over the islands, but at Hawaiian Force you’ll find original designs that express Hawaiian pride. Fabric patterns are inspired by the life of the islands—plants, animals, and human-made objects that express what it means to be Hawaiian. There are t-shirts and beanies, too. —184 Kamehameha
3. The Locavore Store
It’s not often you come across a gallon jar of macadamia nut oil. You probably won’t take that home with you (it’s an awful lot of bother to pack it safely), but you’ll find things that will travel well, such as Hawaii Island–grown coffee, chocolate, sea salt, tea, and some cosmetic products, too. Hawaiian sea salt makes a nice souvenir. Look for the volcanic black salt; it’s beautiful when used on bright green veggies like asparagus or broccoli. Everything here is from the island, guaranteed. —60 Kamehameha
If you don’t go early in the day, you might miss out. The Two Ladies strawberry mochis—a fresh strawberry wrapped in a mush of chocolaty azuki beans wrapped in Two Ladies' perfect rice cake mochi paste—are a hot ticket. There are other flavors (tangerine, sweet potato, brownie) that remain available, but on the strawberry, you take your chances. Cash only. Wrap your to-go box tightly in plastic if you want it to last a few days. Locals know that if Two Ladies is closed, you can sometimes find their goodies at the KTA on Keawe Street. —274 Kiluea
6. Sig Zane Designs
For 30 years, Sig Zane has been making fabric from Hawaiian textiles—and a name for himself. You may see his work gracing the walls of your hotel room, or perhaps you were lucky and caught a pop-up shop when you were on Oahu, but his flagship store in Hilo is where you’ll find the best selection of his trademark aloha wear. The shop is a gallery-like environment that’s worth visiting just to see the bright colors all lined up together. It’s also one of the few places you’ll find long-sleeved aloha shirts, perfect for under a sweater once you’ve left the Hawaiian climate behind. —122 Kamehameha
7. Hilo Guitars and Ukuleles
If you’re taken in by the sound of the ukulele, that iconic Hawaiian instrument, do yourself a favor and visit a real music store. Hilo Guitars and Ukuleles sells the full range, from gorgeous island-built koa ukes for pros to very reasonably priced starter ukes. They’ll patiently help you find the one that’s right for your level and budget. —54 Ponahawai