Due to its historical significance, visiting Pearl Harbor was very high on my list of things to do in Oahu. I knew it wouldn’t be the cheeriest day out but I, like the millions of others who visit Pearl Harbor each year, felt a compelling need to go.
Frustratingly, Pearl Harbor isn’t the easiest place to visit since the four main sights are run by four different organisations, meaning four different ticketing options. Don’t worry, I’ve written a guide to How to Visit Pearl Harbor – Tours, Tickets and tips for visiting. In this guide you can read about the best things to do in Pearl Harbor to help you plan your visit.
The Pearl Harbor Attractions Overview
While most visitors consider Pearl Harbor to be one sight and might be searching for the Pearl Harbor Museum, it is actually four sites located together. The Pearl Harbor historic sights are:
- Pearl Harbor National Memorial – USS Arizona
- Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum – USS Bowfin
- Battleship Missouri Memorial – USS Missouri
- Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum
Quick Links For Pearl Harbor Tours & Tickets
Up to your eyeballs in trip research and would rather pour a glass of wine? Me too, so here’s my quick guide.
Best ticket for the main attraction – USS Arizona Memorial. Ideal if you want a quick, half day visit to Pearl Harbor. The tickets are free but you must book online in advance. Booking fee $1. This is the best thing to do at Pearl Harbor.
Best tour – Pearl Harbor Tour With USS Arizona Memorial. This Pearl Harbor tour is one of the few tours where your USS Arizona ticket is included. Price, $55.
Best combination ticket – Passport to Pearl Harbor. Access to the 3 ‘other’ main Pearl Harbor attractions. This does NOT include access to USS Arizona. You only save $1.99 versus separate tickets so all you gain is simplicity. Price, $79.99.
In the next section I’ll explain what to see at Pearl Harbor.
Tip: it’s easy to visit Oahu without a car. If you’re visiting a few Hawaiian islands but you’re on a bit of a budget, ‘you can I’d save car hire for the Haleakala National Park on Maui, exploring Volcanoes National Park and Green Sand Beach on Big Island, and Waimea Canyon on Kauai. You might also like my guide to The Best Hostels in Hawaii. Most have private rooms.
Pearl Harbor National Memorial – USS Arizona
If you only get one ticket to see Pearl Harbor, make it the Pearl Harbor National Memorial (you might be calling it the Pearl Harbor monument). This site is run by the National Parks Service and includes the main USS Arizona Pearl Harbor Memorial. The memorial is offsite and reached by boat. Here’s what you can see at the memorial.
Pearl Harbor Visitor Center
The Pearl Harbor Visitor Centre is the entrance to Pearl Harbor and contains ticket desks and some historic exhibitions about Pearl Harbor. The Pearl Harbor visitor centre is free to enter even if you don’t have a reservation. Here is a handy map of the Pearl Harbor visitor centre. There are the usual facilities – restrooms, cloakroom and gift shop. If you plan to visit Ford Island for USS Missouri and The Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum, the free shuttle leaves from the visitor centre.
Road To War and Attack Exhibition Galleries
There are two exhibitions at the Visitor Centre – Road to War and Attack. The names are pretty self-explanatory and the exhibitions are worth a look, especially if you don’t have much knowledge about the history of World War II and the attack on Pearl Harbor. Don’t miss the USS Arizona Bell.
Did you know? USS Arizona is considered to mark the beginning of the war while USS Bowfin represents the middle and USS Missouri marks the end.
Pearl Harbor Memorial Theatre & Documentary
The Pearl Harbor Memorial Theatre is the gathering place for boarding the boat to the USS Arizona Memorial. You should be there 10 minutes before your reservation time. When I visited, we were shown an excellent 23-minute documentary about the attack on Pearl Harbor. The film features some video footage, photos and newspaper clips from the time of the event, providing excellent immersion before taking the journey out to the shrine. The film felt kind of compulsory when I visited as you had to go through the theatre to get onto the boat, but I wasn’t complaining because it was an excellent film. I believe the documentary is now shown separately in a different theatre area, meaning you can you can view it at any time, and people who don’t have memorial tickets can also see it.
USS Arizona Memorial
USS Arizona Memorial is the main Pearl Harbor attraction and should be at the top of your list. USS Arizona is the boat that sunk in under 9 minutes after a direct hit with 1,177 men onboard. The boat remains at the bottom of the water and the shrine is kept in honour of the fallen military members.
The memorial is a platform that has been built across the spot where USS Arizona lies. You can see parts of the sunken ship from both sides of the viewing windows. Even now, oil continues to seep from the wreckage, floating to the surface and presenting an oil slick of rainbow colours that make the sight look more cheerful than it is
I was surprised to learn that the remains of some of the crew members are still inside the ship. I stared over the edge of the memorial thinking about that for a long time, imagining what that day must have been like for everyone involved. I suspect even my most harrowing thoughts came nowhere close.
The names of all those who died are engraved in marble on the far wall of the shrine, inside Pearl Harbor memorial.
It was pure coincidence that the next memorial I visited after Hawaii was Hiroshima in Japan. Prompted by the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US retaliated on 6 August 1945 by dropping the world’s first nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. It felt poignant to see both sides of this battle and left me feeling selfishly relieved that I grew up in a different time.
As part of your ticket you will be taken to the memorial by a US Navy shuttle, departing from the Theatre at the Visitor Centre. The USS Arizona Memorial Program is the official name for the 45-minute visit to USS Arizona and includes the return-boat journey and time at the USS Arizona Memorial.
Contemplation Circle & Remembrance Circle
When you get off the boat from the memorial you will come to the Contemplation Circle then the Remembrance Circle, which are there to remember and honour all of the people who died at Pearl Harbor.
If you’re anything like me, you struggle to imagine how things were. That’s where the Wayside Exhibition is useful. When you get off the boat, look for the exhibition plaques along the port which show you what Pearl Harbor looked like on the day of the attack.
Pearl Harbor Virtual Reality Centre
You have to upgrade to the USS Arizona Memorial Deluxe Tour to get access to the Pearl Harbor Virtual Reality centre. However, it’s only $12.50 if you book direct and you’ll get three virtual experiences: Walk the Deck of the USS Arizona Before the Attack, Witness the Attack on Battleship Row, and Experience the USS Arizona Memorial. It’s one of the most interactive activities.
What if you can’t get Pearl Harbor Memorial Tickets? Tickets to the USS Arizona Memorial are free but they’re limited and you must reserve tickets online – gone are the days of turn up and go in. If you’re unable to get tickets to the memorial, there are free exhibitions in and around the visitor centre as well as the free documentary. I have some more suggested alternatives in my post about How to Visit Pearl Harbor – Tours and Tickets.
Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum – USS Bowfin
The USS Bowfin Submarine and Museum Park is next to the Pear Harbor National Memorial site. It’s such a seamless stroll I didn’t realise I’d passed from one area to the other until someone said, “ticket, please.” The main attraction is the submarine, which you can board. There is also a museum and memorial.
USS Bowfin Submarine
USS Bowfin is known as the “Pearl Harbor Avenger”. It’s a WWII submarine that was launched a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor and played an important role in the war. Today, you can enter the submarine and take either a guided or self-guided tour. If you’ve never been on a submarine (most people haven’t), it’s one of the best experiences after USS Arizona. You’ll get an idea of how cramped and complex the inside of a submarine is. The submarine is great for kids.
USS Bowfin Museum
The USS Bowfin submarine is a pretty big deal since is it one of the few submarines that is still around after World War II. The museum tells the story of USS Bowfin and the US Submarine Force. Most people are at USS Bowfin for a chance to go inside a submarine but the museum is worth a look. The exhibits continue outside where you can see cruise missiles, torpedos and a rescue chamber. Just one look at that made me not want to step foot near a submarine again.
USS Bowfin Waterfont Memorial
The Waterfront Memorial has been erected in honour of all the submariners who lost their lives during World War II. The submarines are honoured too, which is a nice touch.
Battleship Missouri Memorial – USS Missouri
Not only is USS Missouri, known as “Mighty Mo”, a gigantic WWII battleship, it is the place where General Douglas MacArthur accepted surrender from the Japanese, marking the official end of the war. You can take a guided tour of USS Missouri. The battleship is the main event at the Battleship Missouri Memorial but it’s certainly impressive enough all on its own. USS Missouri is located off Ford Island which you can only access Ford Island via a compulsory shuttle service. I guess they don’t want us common folk wandering freely around the Pearl Harbor naval base, which is fair enough. The shuttle is free and runs from the Visitor Centre every 15 minutes.
Pacific Aviation Museum
The Pacific Aviation Museum describes itself as the place to discover “how aviation rose out of the ashes to inspire hope, redefine freedom and galvanize a nation to overcome.” The museum is less of a museum and more a series of aircraft hangars filled with war planes of historic significance. If you’re a fan of aircraft, this should be on your list. The Pacific Aviation museum is also located on Ford Island.
Unsurprisingly, the Pacific Aviation Museum has one hangar dedicated to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Hangar 37 is filled with artefacts from the attack, including restored US and Japanese planes. There is an award-winning, 12-minute documentary called East Wind Rain, and fighter flight simulators if you dare.
Following on from Hangar 37, Hangar 79 tells the story of life after World War II. It features exhibits from the Korean War, the Vietnam War and Gulf Wars. There is also a restoration shop where you can see vintage aircraft being repaired.
There is an ever changing program of exhibit at the Raytheon Pavilion event space. Just outside the pavilion you can see more airplanes as well as a collection of helicopters.
Liberty Luau at Pearl Harbor
New at the time of writing, the Liberty Luau is the Pacific Aviation Museum’s twist on the very popular Hawaiian Luau. Not only can you expect the usual dinner and dancing, but it’s all delivered with a 1940s, 1950s and 1960s theme. If you get to try this, let me know in the comments whether it’s any good. I wish it had been running when I visited.
That’s my guide what to do at Pearl Harbor guide. Got any questions or suggestions, let me know in the comments below.
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