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Visiting Pearl Harbor: Attractions, Tips & Tours

Written by Lana Law and Lura Seavey

Pearl Harbor, the site of one of the most defining moments in American history, is one of the biggest tourist attractions on the island of Oahu. The Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, which is open to the public free of charge, is the gateway to this 17-acre park, which is part of the WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument. The park is home to the USS Arizona Memorial, the Battleship Missouri, the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park, and the Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor. The main highlight is the USS Arizona Memorial, which was built over the remains of the Battleship USS Arizona, sunk on December 7th, 1941 in the Japanese attack that began American involvement in World War II. The Battleship Missouri, where the Japanese surrendered and the war officially ended, is docked nearby.

In addition to major historic attractions, the park has a variety of interesting features, including exhibits within the visitor center. These exhibits include photographs, artifacts, and recordings of personal stories and accounts of the attack and World War II. The visitor center also houses a book store, which specializes in a variety of media concerning the Pacific war efforts. Tourists are welcome to explore the park's numerous paths, which look out over the harbor, and along the way learn more about the attack through wayside exhibits. A highlight on the grounds is Remembrance Circle, a lovely memorial dedicated to all who lost their lives during the attacks, both civilian and military.

See also: Where to Stay near Pearl Harbor

USS Arizona Memorial

U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor

U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor

The USS Arizona Memorial is the most visited attraction in Hawaii, with more than 1.5 million visitors a year. The memorial, located above the sunken battleship, was opened in 1962. With parts of the battleship still projecting from the water below, the memorial stands in memory of those killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor. The gleaming white floating building, about 197 feet long and accessed by Navy shuttle boats, contains a large semi open-air room, where visitors gather. At the end of the memorial is a shrine with the names of the 1,177 victims, including the commander and his deputy, engraved on a wall of Vermont marble.

The Visitor Center, built in 1980, can accommodate up to 4,500 visitors daily. Tours, which are free, apart from a nominal convenience fee, include a documentary film, a boat trip to the USS Arizona Memorial, and time to wander around. They begin every 15 minutes and last 75 minutes. Only a certain number of tickets are handed out each day, some of which are reservable and some of which are available for walk-ins, but they usually fill to maximum capacity, so it's best to either reserve in advance or arrive early in the day to secure a tour.

Official site: http://www.nps.gov/valr/index.htm

Battleship Missouri

View from the top deck of the Missouri Battleship in Pearl Harbor

View from the top deck of the Missouri Battleship in Pearl Harbor

Docked just down the shore from the USS Arizona Memorial is the USS Missouri, the place where the Japanese officially surrendered, ending WWII. Nicknamed the "Mighty Mo," this 58,000-ton ship was the last American battleship built, serving as an intimidating force for fifty years before being decommissioned. Multiple tour options are available, with general admission including a 35-minute narrated historic tour of the upper decks, an audio guide tour, and self-guided tours. For an extra fee, tourists can take an additional 90-minute tour that goes into the engine room and explores the inner workings of the vessel. There is limited ticketing for the more extensive tour, and tourists should be prepared to navigate a variety of narrow spaces and steep steps; children under 10 years old may not participate.

In addition to knowledgeable staff who are posted throughout the ship to answer questions, there are a variety of exhibits and informational stations, which provide background on the ship's history. An admission fee is charged to visit the USS Missouri, but a number of passes cover multi-sites at Pearl Harbor and are a good option if you plan on seeing more than just the Missouri and the Arizona Memorial.

Official site: https://ussmissouri.org/

USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park

Memorial in Pearl Harbor with submarine USS Bowfin in the background

Memorial in Pearl Harbor with submarine USS Bowfin in the background

The USS Bowfin was a submarine built during the Second World War and later restored by a private organization, the Pacific Fleet Submarine Memorial Association. This association also maintains the park as a memorial to the 52 U.S. submarines and their crew, sunk during the war.

The Bowfin is known for having sunk a total of 44 Japanese ships and was one of the most sophisticated submarines produced by the US during World War II. As tourists explore the ship, volunteers are stationed throughout to explain how equipment was used and answer questions. One of the most popular things to do while aboard the USS Bowfin is to climb the command tower and gain a 360-degree view of Pearl Harbor through a periscope. Visitors will see photographs and other memorabilia that illustrate life aboard a submarine, both on friendly patrols and in wartime situations. A variety of torpedoes and the conning tower of another historic submarine are in the exterior collection, as well as the Kaiton, a World War II Japanese suicide manned torpedo.

In the USS Bowfin Museum building, which covers all aspects of submarine history, are artifacts and models that trace the history of U.S. Navy submarines and submarines in general.

Official site: http://www.bowfin.org/

Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor

Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor

Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor | Pacific Aviation Museum / photo modified

This museum, located on Ford Island and accessed by shuttle bus from the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, features two hangars displaying aircraft related to World War II and the attack on Pearl Harbor. Aircraft range from those in pristine condition to those that still show destruction caused during the war.

The tour begins in Hangar 37 and starts with a 12-minute video on the attack on Pearl Harbor. Afterwards, you can take your time exploring the aircraft and photos on display. The second hangar, Hangar 79, showcases the "MiG Alley Korean War Exhibit." Also on-site are combat flight simulators, which allow you to try your hand taking off from a runway and landing on an aircraft carrier.

Where to Stay near Pearl Harbor for Sightseeing

We recommend these highly rated hotels in Honolulu with easy access to Pearl Harbor:

Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Pearl Harbor

  • Pearl Harbor Day Trip: An easy way to see the sights of Pearl Harbor is on a USS Missouri, Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor, and Punchbowl Day Tour. This tour offers hotel pickup and drop-off from various hotels in Waikiki, admission and skip-the-line access to the USS Missouri, and a visit to the USS Arizona and the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (Punchbowl Cemetery). This seven-hour tour also includes important sites in downtown Honolulu.
  • If you are only planning on touring the USS Arizona Memorial, be sure to book in advance or arrive early to secure a tour. If you plan on visiting a combination of sites or all of the sites, including the USS Missouri, the Submarine Bowfin, and the Aviation Museum, a tour or multi-pass is your best option.
  • Tours of the USS Arizona Memorial are free; all other attractions here have admission fees.

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Exploring Oahu: In addition to Pearl Harbor, Oahu is home to several historic sites, including Diamond Head Crater and Iolani Palace. Learn about these places and other things to do with our article on top attractions in the Honolulu area. Tourists also flock to Oahu to enjoy its stunning beaches, the most famous of which is Honolulu's own Waikiki. If you are staying in Waikiki, exploring our article on things to do in Waikiki, including family attractions like an aquarium and a zoo, as well as a staggering number of shops and restaurants.

The Hawaiian Islands: While Oahu is steeped in history, tourists will find that Hawaii's other main islands have their own personality and unique features. Those visiting the Big Island will find that its geography and landscape dominates; it's home to Mauna Kea; the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park; and the Kailua-Kona region, which is famous for its excellent coffee. The island of Kauai is known as the "Garden Isle" thanks to its lush green vegetation and stunning natural attractions like the iconic cliffs of the Na Pali shore. Maui, the second-largest of the Hawaiian islands, is best known for its amazing beaches and is a top resort destination.

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