Since its first Polynesian settlers farmed and fished along the Wailuku River, Hilo has been a busy port town. In the 20th century it was the trading hub for sugarcane grown in Puna and Hamakua, connecting in both directions with a sprawling railroad, the Hawaii Consolidated Railway.
Back then, townsfolk set up homes and shops along the bay. But after being slammed by disastrous tsunami in 1946 and 1960, no one wanted to live downtown anymore. Today you'll find parks, beaches and open space along Kamehameha Ave.
When the sugar industry folded in the 1980s and '90s, Hilo focused its economy on diversified agriculture, the university, retail and, of course, tourism. While downtown Hilo is still the charming heart of town, the main retail destinations are now the big chain stores south of the airport.