Pearl Harbor Visitor Guide – The Best Way To Visit Pearl Harbor

Pearl Habour Is one of the most visited places in Hawaii. Millions of people visit the Habour every year to pay homage to the lives lost at this historic site. For us, a trip to Oahu would be unthinkable without a visit to this poignant reminder of the cost and Sacrifice of the Second World war. This Pearl Harbor Visitor Guide is written to help you find the best way to visit Pearl Harbor.

Best Way To Visit Pearl Harbor

Visiting the Pearl Harbor Memorial is a very sobering but interesting experience. The area is completely steeped in history. The Memorial and visitors center is very well put together and is informative and interesting. It is the highlight of most trips to Oahu. While most people head to Hawaii to soak up the sun, sand and Mai Tai’s the opportunity to visit one of the millennium’s most infamous sites is just too good to miss. Here is our guide on how to Visit Pearl Harbor.

History?

We will be very brief here as an attempt to not be patronizing, as we are sure most people are fairly familiar with the basic history of the harbor. As most people are aware on the 7th December 1941 The Japanese imperial Armed forces attacked the US naval base situated at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. This infamous attack led to the loss of 2335 US Service Personal along with 68 Civilians and led to the United States entry into World War 2.

pearl Harbor attack

One of the Bombs hit the Ammunition Magazine on the Battleship USS Arizona. The resulting Explosion killed Many on board instantly and cause the Giant to sink almost instantly before many could abandon ship. Almost half the total killed during the attack were on the Arizona, 1177 in total. The catastrophic nature of this attack meant the decision was taken not to recover the fallen the ship and instead leave her where she lay with the crew interned as a permanent war grave. The ship is still visible to this day as her tears still seep out into the bay.

Opening in 1980 a Visitor Center was created and is now run by the National Park Service to allow people to come and reflect on the gravity and history of the area. In our opinion out of all the incredible things to see and do on Hawaii a trip to pearl harbor has the most impact and lasting memory.

Layout

Pearl Harbor is actually the entire ocean inlet which forms a large natural harbor from the Pacific ocean. However, most people are referring to the US Naval Base that is situated within the Harbor. Ford Island was the main area of the Base which is still off-limits to civilians (unless on a tour as we discuss below) although it’s no longer a Military base. It is now used as barracks/housing for servicemen and their families.

The main Visitor Center is on the shore opposite Ford Island. From here a ferry will take you out to the USS Arizona Memorial which rests where it fell just off the shore of Ford Island. The USS Missouri and the Pacific Aviation Museum are both sited on Ford Island whereas the Bowfin Museum is within the visitor’s center itself.

The Whole memorial area consists of 5 main parts. The Visitor Center is FREE to all. as is the Arizona Memorial but the other museums/exhibits are charged. Let’s take a look at the 5 in more detail.

Pearl Harbor Visitor Center – FREE

USS Arizona Propeller

Pearl Harbor Visitor Center

The visitor’s center is the first part of the memorial you visit and is completely free of charge. The Centre contains a whole host of exhibits detailing the history of the attack and the war in general. There are missile and bomb casings, Anti-aircraft guns, artillery and more. The Bell and Anchor from the USS Arizona are also on display. All set in a beautiful garden setting. It is a fascinating and sobering place well worth an hour or two of your time to look round.

The Centre also is the site of the Crossroads of the Pacific, the name given to the Island chain as a whole.

USS Arizona Memorial Pearl Harbor – FREE

USS Arizona Memorial

While the memorial is free to visit there is a small $1.50 booking fee if booking in advance, details of which are below. The Memorial to the USS Arizona is out in the bay and straddles the sunken wreckage of the Battleship. To access the memorial a ferry is provided that shuttles you out after a brief film on the build-up of the attack, the attack itself and the consequences.

The short ferry ride out is pleasant enough, however, when at the memorial the gravity of the locale becomes apparent. You realize the rusting remains are the actual resting place of 1177 men (fact check) who went down with her all those years ago. While rusting heavily in the saltwater the ship is still intact and we felt a real connection with the past. The marble wall at the end of the memorial lists the names of the lost and it does bring it all home. As you gaze out toward the beauty of the island you also sense what they were all fighting for!

Tears of the Arizona

Tears of the Arizona

You may notice some oil on the surface of the water! this is the oil still leaking from the engines of the USS Arizona all these years later, and it is expected to continue for years still. Named the “Tears of the Arizona” it’s a poignant reminder of the sacrifice.

USS Battleship Missouri Memorial

  • $29.99 Adults $13.99 Children (4-12)

The Sight of a giant WW2 Battleship moored up at the harbor is a constant reminder of the history of the harbor. Having a Battleship is a great addition to the memorial. However, when you realize the history of this specific Battleship, it becomes even meaningful.

the USS Missouri

The USS Missouri was the actual ship that the instrument of surrender of the Japanese Imperial armed forces was signed. Yes for America the war started in peal harbor but it ended aboard the USS Missouri. Yes, it was moored in Tokyo harbor at the time but still, you can visit the ACTUAL spot the surrender was signed and view the historic documents that brought to a close the hostilities! pretty incredible.

Touring the ship, in general, is a pretty awesome experience, as you get to see what life is like aboard one of these floating behemoths. Most of the ship is open to tour, the rooms mocked up to represent life aboard. The decks complete with gun turrets are great to explore and give great views of the harbor as well.

The Battleship is moored up on Ford Island and is accessed by a courtesy bus which also services the Pacific Aviation Museum. This is really the only way civilians can get access to ford island so it’s quite a privilege.

Pacific Aviation Museum

  • $25.00 Adults $12 Children (4-12)
F43 wildcat ww2 fighter aircraft

Housed in the actual hangers of the now disused airfield of Ford Island the Pacific Aviation Museum is a homage to the large and perilous air campaign waged against the Japanese fleet. The collection of Aircraft is varied and extensive and isn’t just WW2 Aircraft it also features some more modern machines of war including an F-14 Tomcat, Bell AH-1 Cobra, F-16A (under refurbishment)  and an F-15. It also features some Russian cold war Migs. But the pride of the collection are the WW2 Birds such as the Type Zero Fighter, P-40 Warhawk and a B-17 flying fortress.

It is a good collection of aircraft but not the finest line-up available. While some relevant aircraft are included there are some important WW2 planes missing. However, the overall experience of visiting the Actual hangers of the Base, complete with bullet holes from the actual attack makes the experience very compelling. The bravery of the pilots of the Era is second to none and the Museum does an incredible job of paying homage to this.

If you love planes and flying you will love the museum, but even if that is not your interests there is still a lot to like about the museum apart from just looking at planes. The history is pretty overwhelming.

USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park

  • $15.00 Adults $7 Children (4-12)
The USS Bowfin

Like the USS Missouri, the Bowfin has a very poignant history that is heavily linked to Pearl Harbor. Known as the Pearl Habour Avenger the Sub launched exactly one year after the attack and waged war in the Pacific sinking multiple Japanese ships during its time of active service. This makes it a fitting part of the Memorial.

The Vessel is no open to tour to see what life was like aboard a Submarine of the time. The cramped conditions aboard must have been very harsh on the crew and with the added stress of constant danger from both enemy attack or the crushing ocean it’s hard to come to terms with how the crew managed. It’s another piece of the jigsaw showing how much we all owe to the heroes of the age.

The Bowfin is moored up at the visitor’s center and can be easily accessed. People with claustrophobia may be advised to avoid the tour!

Booking Tickets for the Arizona Memorial

The Arizona memorial is a very popular destination and the spaces available daily are limited. They WILL sell out. Only the very quietest days may have availability so it’s essential you book early. The NPS Website allows bookings up to 2 months out. If your trip is less than that. Stop reading this, go to the booking site here and book now! If it’s longer than two months set a reminder! Book as SOON AS POSSIBLE!

Ok so you only just found this out and your date is all sold out. Rats. Don’t despair, you have 4 possible options. In order of preference:

1: Keep checking. People do cancel and space may become available. This does happen we promise. The more ruthless in your checking the more likely you are to snag a spot. Also, make sure you check the day before you plan to travel as they do release more. The first time we went we fell into this trap and as we prepared for option 2 the day before space opened up. Keep checking.

2: If that fails you still have a good shot but you’ll need to get up early. The NPS releases a good chunk (1300) of walk-up slots on the day as the center opens. They are limited and will sell out so be there AS the center opens at 7:00 AM to get the best slot.

3: If something happens and you failed to make it in time for walk-ups there is still another final shot. Stand By. People book tickets but fail to turn up for whatever reason. The ferry has a set amount of places so the NPS operates a standby line where if people with tickets fail to show they allow entry from the line. How long you will be in this queue you can have no idea but with patience, you should get in. No shows are pretty common.

4: Enjoy the rest. Sorry if the standby line is too long for you or it’s so busy it’s just not feasible there is no just no way to get on the boat. But the rest of the memorial is still worth visiting. Pay your respects from the shore and see the rest of the Centre. If seeing the memorial is super important. Make more of an effort to PRE book and don’t leave it to chance.

Narrated Tour – $7.50

Passport to the Pacific – $72 Adult – $35 Child

If you plan to visit all 5 attractions the National Park Service offers a Pass called Passport of the Pacific which gives access to all paid exhibits as well as a booked slot Arizona Memorial and the Narrated Tour. It’s a small Saving of $6 per Adult but It all adds up.

Oahu Go Card

All the Paid exhibits, the USS Missouri, The Bowfin and the Pacific Aviation Museum are included on the Go Oahu Card. If you only want to visit pearl harbor then the card is not as good value as the Passport to the Pacific. However, If you wanting to visit a number of the attractions on the pass then Its well worth looking into for some serious savings when visiting Oahu. Check out our full Go Oahu Card review for more details.

Getting There

Map to Pearl Harbor Historic Sites

The Easiest way to get to the harbor is by car. The Visitor Center has FREE parking and is just off the Kamehameha Hwy HI-99, which is accessed from Highway1, Oahu’s main arterial highway.

From Honolulu join the H1 and follow until you reach Junction 15a and follow the “Pearl Habour Historic Sites” Signposts to join the Kamehameha Hwy. Follow this until you reach the Visitor Center.

From the west again you need the H1, this time exit at 13A and stay right heading for Aiea. Head for the Stadium before taking the first left onto HI-99 and following the Pearl Harbor signs.

Of Course, nowadays we all use SatNav/GPS. But be careful not to use “Pearl Harbor” as your destination. This will lead you to the still active Military installation. Where you will be “greeted” by armed guards. Who will not be best pleased with sending away the 400th tourist of the day. The official address is:

Pearl Harbor Historic Sites
1 Arizona Memorial Place
Honolulu, HI 96818

For Public transport, the only real option is by Bus (for now). the #20 and #42 will get you direct from  Honolulu/Waikiki. Check out our getting around Honolulu without a car post.

Of course, you can always book a taxi but this is a high-cost option.

Tour Groups

You will not struggle to find a tour group willing to pick you up and bus you to the memorial. Tour groups are BIG business. As we tend to travel there ourselves by car we have little practical experience of any tour groups. One of the easiest methods is booking through your hotel as you will have some comeback if they let you down.

Really all a tour group is giving you is transport to the location and do a little legwork in the booking. A passport for all the attractions is $72 and basic entry to the center and Arizona memorial is Free. Take this into consideration when looking at their prices and see if their markup is worth the Ride their and the legwork.

for example, this tour of Pearl Harbour includes only the Missouri + Arizona Memorial for $98.32. This doesn’t scream good value at us.

Visiting Pearl Harbor Tips and Advice

It can be a long hot day. Remember you are in Hawaii it can be very hot and sunny. As you are spending the day walking around looking at things it’s easy to ignore the sun. One of the easiest ways to sunburn is through activity days such as this where your attention is not on suncream or the time. It is important you use sun protection and maintain it throughout the day. We always use P-20 all day sun protection when doing something like this as then at least you can forget about it….to a point.

Also being Hawaii, you can also expect rain. While you may not receive any rain at all but at any point, during the day small rain bursts could wash over. That just the way in tropical climates. As the temperatures are so warm year-round we just dress very lightly so if we do get wet we dry off pretty fast, but you may consider taking a light waterproof just in case the heavens open up.

Food and drink at the site are limited and quite expensive. There are a few snack type restaurants and shops but nothing very exciting. If you are planning on doing all 5 sites then food can be an issue. The best option is to leave. The parking lots are free so you can just head out for lunch to a restaurant in the area, the Moanalua Shopping center has a large selection of chain restaurants. Then head back after lunch. The parking is free. But obviously, this only applies if you are driving. If not you are stuck with the Memorials offerings. The hotdogs at the Bowfin museum are not too bad.

Visiting Pearl Habor With Kids

For a location with such a strong history disaster and war, Pearl Harbor isn’t that heavy to visit. The Arizona Memorial is fairly hard going but without understanding why, they are likely to be just bored, unaware of the truth that 1100+ Men are interned there.

The rest of the Monument is likely to be very interesting and exciting depending on their age and interests. Large parts of the experience is looking at Planes, Guns, Ships, and Missiles. This is the kind of thing that excites most kids, especially boys. Touring around an intact Battleship would have made my year when I was 7! It still does. Of course, if your child’s interests do not revolve around this type of thing they could become easily bored.

The other issue is you should be prepared for some difficult questions. The site has a terrible history relating to an even greater terror. As such you need to be prepared for questions as to why did they bomb the harbor? Why do we fight Wars? And other such questions relating to war and death. It is a great opportunity to teach them about the history of the world and its terrible wars but being prepared for these sorts of questions would make it both easier for you and more beneficial to them.

We certainly recommend children learning about this type of history and a visit could probably be the most rewarding part of their vacation! You just need to be sure they can understand and handle any of the darker sides of the story.

Overall the Pearl Harbor Visitors center is one of our top recommendations for Any Oahu trip. It really is hard to conceive heading all the way out here and not at least checking out the visitor’s center. The history and importance of the Locale are enormous and at time overwhelming. It really is a must-see bucket list item. Whether you spend your time seeing all there is to offer of just pay your respects at the USS Arizona memorial and see the Visitors center is really up to you but you really should head over there.

Have Your say

Let us know in the comments if you have any questions about the memorial? we are always happy to help out with any queries or let us know if you have been? What sites did you visit? Which did you like best? Just drop us a comment. We would love to hear from you.

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6 thoughts on “Pearl Harbor Visitor Guide – The Best Way To Visit Pearl Harbor”

  1. There must be a lot to see at Pearl Harbor, let alone Hawaii. It sounds interesting to visit. I would like to get to Hawaii someday and Pearl Harbor sounds like a must see when I get there. If it’s like other places I’ve been, it would probably be worthwhile going on a tour. Thanks for providing this!

    • Hi Kevin,

      Yes there is an awful lot of historic sights at the pearl harbour memorial. It can easily take a full day if you spend a good amount of time at the exhibits. A more whirlwind tour can be done in a morning but that may be missing the point. A guided tour can be useful and the Audio tour helps you know what you are looking at too. We do tend to like to do our own thing and just explore but this may see you miss key things.

      Hope you get to see Pearl Harbor soon. 

      Thanks for reading,

  2. Thank you for this in depth guide! I’m planning to go to Hawaii with my mom (one day we’ll get there!) so this is really helpful. She loves visiting historical places wherever we go, so this will be right up her alley. She especially likes free stuff, so the free places will definitely be the first places for us to visit. 🙂

    • Hi Sara,

      Well it doesn’t get much more historic than pearl Harbor a place that really changed the path of the 20th Century…for the better. So we are sure your Mom will definitely enjoy it.

      Hope you get to make your long awaited trip soon Hawaii is such a fantastic place and we are sure you will love it. 

      Thanks for reading

      Steve

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