Every American of a certain age knows what happened at Pearl Harbor. Visiting the memorial, though, takes that knowledge to the next level.
This isn’t one of those historical sites that you can inspect quickly before moving on to the next activity. If you truly want to honor history, here’s how you should experience Pearl Harbor.
A tour we think you'll love
The History of Pearl Harbor: A Brief Overview
At 7:48 AM local time on December 7 1941, the Japanese military launched an attack on Pearl Harbor. The siege went on for a little under two hours, during which time the US ships were beset by no fewer than 353 Japanese airplanes.
The Pearl Harbor attack took the lives of over 2,300 Americans, wounding over 1,100 more. The destruction of the USS Arizona was responsible for the majority of the casualties, but the horror was widespread and mind-boggling.
At the time of the strike, there were eight US battleships residing in Pearl Harbor; all were damaged, and four were sunk. In total, 21 ships suffered damage in the attack. Thanks to the shallow water, however, most were salvageable. Only three of the ships – the USS Arizona, the USS Oklahoma, and the USS Utah – were lost, with the Arizona and the Utah resting in their watery graves to this day.
Though the attack steals most of the spotlight (and rightly so), there are other reasons to tour the Pearl Harbor memorial. The end of World War II was heralded aboard the Battleship Missouri, another of the historical sites that you can visit during your time here.
Visiting Pearl Harbor Tips And Recommendations
If you’re going to tour Pearl Harbor, you’ll want to start with a good plan. In this guide, we’ll take you on a virtual tour of the Pearl Harbor National Memorial so you’ll know what to expect when you arrive.
Let us help you plan your visit with one of our unique customized tours. These experiences take the guesswork out of the process and allow you to fully enjoy your time at Pearl Harbor. Check our website for more information.
The USS Arizona Memorial
By far the most popular spot at the Pearl Harbor National Memorial, the USS Arizona is free for all visitors. It’s worth noting that the other three sites aren’t affiliated with the National Park Service, so entrance fees apply. This one is the beating heart of the memorial. Also note that while it’s free to visit, you’ll need to make advance reservations.
What exactly happened to the USS Arizona during the attack on Pearl Harbor? When the ship was hit by the Japanese bombs, munitions onboard the craft exploded. The vessel sank as a result, and over 1,100 Marines and sailors were killed.
Though the remains of the boat remain submerged, a small building marks its resting place. You can take a boat to the site, as the park service runs these tours every 15 minutes. We highly recommend taking this boat ride, as it gives you a real sense of the tragedy that unfolded on December 7 1941.
The USS Arizona Memorial program also includes a 23-minute film, another must-see. A comprehensive tour of the site (including the boat ride) will take about 1-1/2 hours. There are usually two tours offered per day: one in the morning and one in the afternoon. We would suggest taking the earlier tour, as you’ll want to reserve plenty of time to visit the rest of the Pearl Harbor historic sites as well.
It’s easy to spot the mooring quays where the battleships were docked on that fateful December day. You don’t even have to leave the visitor’s center in order to view them. Battleship Row is also visible from Ford Island and the USS Arizona Memorial.
Pearl Harbor Exhibit Galleries
Take some time to explore these galleries next to the Pearl Harbor visitor center. “Attack” and “The Road to War” both paint a comprehensive picture of the events that led the Japanese military to attack Pearl Harbor.
USS Oklahoma Memorial
A total of 429 crewmen were killed aboard the battleship Oklahoma. Since this is one of the boats that was recovered after the Pearl Harbor attack, you can take the free shuttle to Ford Island to pay it a visit.
Battleship Missouri Memorial
Even if Japan had never drawn the United States into the war by bombing Pearl Harbor, the USS Missouri would still have a rich backstory. Built in 1941 and commissioned in 1944, it was the last US battleship to be constructed.
In 1945, a Japanese kamikaze aircraft struck the side of the ship. While you can still see the mark it made when it struck, it’s a surprisingly small dent, illustrating the sturdy craftsmanship of these ships. Ask a guide to show you the dent if you can’t find it yourself.
As we pointed out, the official end of World War II took place aboard this vessel when the Japanese surrendered to the Allied Powers on September 2, 1945. Since then, the Battleship Missouri has participated in the Korean War and Operation Desert Shield. She was decommissioned in 1992 and donated to the USS Missouri Memorial Association a few years later.
Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum
When you visit Pearl Harbor, don’t neglect this evocative site, which is located on Ford Island.
The Pacific Aviation Museum was founded in 1999 with the aim of developing a museum that would function as a Pearl Harbor memorial and a tribute to the local aircraft in general. Start by getting oriented in Hanger 37, where you can learn more about the history of Pearl Harbor.
When you visit Hanger 79, you can view more than 50 aircraft, some of which date all the way back to World War II. The walls of the hangar are still marked with bullet holes, remnants of the attack on Pearl Harbor all those years ago.
The museum is open from 9 AM to 5 PM daily. Tickets are available at the visitor center and can be customized to include a one-hour tour of the facility, along with the chance to board a C-47 transport plane.
Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum
No trip to Pearl Harbor would be complete without a stop at the Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum. Here, you can view the USS Bowfin submarine before exploring the Waterfront Memorial and, of course, the museum itself.
Check out the USS Bowfin, an impressive vessel that went on no fewer than nine war patrols for the United States during World War II. Although the submarine wasn’t built yet when the Pearl Harbor attack occurred, it came to be known as the “Pearl Harbor Avenger” and stands as a reminder of America’s resolve in the days that followed.
While aboard, you’ll get a sense of the claustrophobic conditions that the men faced during these hazardous missions. Don’t miss the torpedo room! Once you’ve explored every nook and cranny, you’ll be glad you included the USS Bowfin submarine museum in your Pearl Harbor itinerary.
The Waterfront Memorial honors the 52 submarines and 3,500 American lives that were lost during World War II. The price of admission is included in your ticket.
How To Visit Pearl Harbor: The Practical Side
Now that you have a basic idea of what you can expect to see once you arrive, here are a few general tips for visiting Pearl Harbor.
Getting To Pearl Harbor
It will be easier to get to Pearl Harbor if you have a car. From Waikiki, it should take about 45 minutes to an hour, depending on traffic. By entering “Pearl Harbor Visitor Center” into the Google search engine, you should find your way easily.
Pro Tip: Be sure not to just enter “Pearl Harbor” into your search engine or GPS system. This will take you directly to the active military base instead of the Pearl Harbor historic sites.
Make sure to arrive early enough in the day to get a decent parking spot – say, by 10 AM. Around lunchtime, the lot tends to fill up. Arriving early will also give you ample time to take in everything that Pearl Harbor has to offer.
Don’t have a car? No problem. The public bus system runs directly from Waikiki. Look for buses #20 and #42. Again, try to get an early start if possible!
You might also consider signing up for a guided tour of Pearl Harbor. These usually include admission to the USS Arizona Memorial in addition to transportation. Some might even offer a side trip of sightseeing in Honolulu.
Exploring Pearl Harbor
All of the following attractions are within walking distance of the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center parking lot:
Shuttle to the USS Arizona Memorial
Shuttle to the Battleship Missouri and the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum (both located on Ford Island)
USS Bowfin submarine
If you get hungry during your visit to Pearl Harbor, there are concession stands located outside the Bowfin Submarine Museum and the USS Missouri. Laniakea Cafe at the Pacific Aviation Museum and Restaurant 604, located by the visitor’s center, round out the on-site dining options.
We hope you’ve found our virtual tour of Pearl Harbor to be entertaining and enlightening. While the tour evokes a somber mood in most visitors, it would be a shame to travel all the way to Honolulu and miss out on this important slice of United States history.