For most people, if there’s one “not to be missed experience” on Oahu, visiting Pearl Harbor is it. It’s educational, it’s moving, it’s insightful. And there’s surprisingly a LOT to see and do here.
Before I go on, let’s start with this…this isn’t a post where I’m going to try to convince you that Pearl Harbor is worth visiting and tell you all the reasons why you should spend some of your vacation time there. I actually get very few questions about whether Pearl Harbor is a “must see” on Oahu.
And here’s why…most people fall into one of two camps: 1) It’s one of the major reasons they’re going to Hawaii or they at least couldn’t imagine going to Hawaii and NOT visiting Pearl Harbor or 2) People who wouldn’t really even think twice about spending one of their vacation days doing something other than tropical island activities.
Neither is really wrong, but you pretty much know who you are.
On my first trip to Oahu, I was there less than 48 hours and we spent part of it at Pearl Harbor. On the other hand, I have MANY friends who have been on multiple weeklong vacations to Oahu and never been to Pearl Harbor. We’re both happy : )
So obviously, this post is for those of you who are planning to visit Pearl Harbor.
Tips for Visiting Pearl Harbor
Most people associate Pearl Harbor with the USS Arizona Memorial, and while it’s definitely the most noteworthy thing to see, there is so much more than just that.
Here’s the lay of the land…
You’ll park at the Pearl Harbor Visitors Center and enter for free. There are no bags allowed so make sure you just bring the essentials.
The Visitors Center is kind of the main hub and it’s where you’ll find information, ticket booths, audio guides, the gift shop, a few small memorials and two museums.
The first museum fills you in on what life and the political climate were like in Hawaii in 1941.
The second museum covers the events of December 7, 1941.
At the Visitors Center, you can board a boat operated by the Navy to go out to the USS Arizona Memorial.
Ideally, you’ll want to book your tickets for this in advance. Tickets are free (there’s a $1 service charge when booked online), but they’re limited and sell out quickly. Tickets are released 8 weeks in advance at 3PM HST. If you miss that booking window, your only option is to show up the day of and wait in the standby line. On the day I visited, people who made standby for my tour time said they waited about an hour. I’ve heard of people waiting only 20 minutes and as long as 3 hours.
NOTE: This is a change in procedure from how tickets used to be distributed. You don’t show up in person and get tickets anymore. And, at least right now, they’re also not releasing more tickets the day before to the online reservation system. Pay attention to the current rules because sometimes things change quickly and also if they’re having problems with the dock (it’s a thing), they change up how they do things.
Reserve tickets here in advance to visit the USS Arizona Memorial.
Also at the Pearl Harbor Visitors Center, you can purchase tickets to the Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum (which includes access to the USS Bowfin) for $22/adult.
From the Visitors Center, you can hop on a (free) shuttle that takes you over to Ford Island (an active military base so you can only go on the shuttle) where you can buy tickets for:
The USS Missouri (the battleship where the treaty to end WWII was signed) for $35/adult.
Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum (including an upgrade option for the Top of the Tower tour where you can access an original air traffic control tower) for $26/adult.
So that’s four separate “things” you can tour. You can buy a Pearl Harbor Passport for $90/adult which includes admission to everything EXCEPT the USS Arizona, which you’ll either have to reserve separately or wait in line once you arrive.
It’s a lot. Really, more than I think you can do in one day.
Unless you are EXTREMELY DEDICATED tourists (who regularly do things like 12 hours in a Disney theme park), I think if you want to see everything you should break it into two days.
I am a “history person” with a pretty high tolerance for museums/tours and after we did the Visitors Center, the USS Arizona and went out to the USS Missouri, I was DONE.
So I would recommend going through the two small museums at the Visitors Center, taking the boat out to the USS Arizona, and then picking ONE extra thing to do.
As far as which you should pick between the Bowfin, the Missouri, and the Aviation Museum, I think it mostly depends on your interests. They’re all “worth doing” and high quality experiences. If you made me choose, I think I would go with the USS Missouri because it really packs a punch. You pretty much get to walk all over every inch of that ship.
In my mind, the USS Missouri and the USS Bowfin are kind of similar (they’re both WWII era watercraft) so I wouldn’t feel the need to do them both. However, the submarine museum is at the Visitors Center and you don’t need to ride the shuttle so it would simplify the logistics.
You do NOT want to be out on Ford Island at the USS Missouri or the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum and mismanage your time and miss your time slot for the boat to the USS Arizona.
I think your choice may come down to if you’re more interested in boats or planes. If it’s boats, go with the USS Missouri. If it’s planes, go with the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum and add on the option to go up in the air traffic control tower.
More Tips about Visiting Pearl Harbor
There are lockers you can rent to store bags near the entrance. While I NEVER recommend leaving bags in your car anywhere (especially Hawaii), the parking lot isn’t isolated and there’s a lot of activity, add in the component of the military base, and it doesn’t make it a place where your car is super likely to get broken into. But gain, never leave anything in plain sight. There are also conflicting reports about if clear bags are sometimes allowed inside.
If you’re thinking about booking a tour to Pearl Harbor, check double check and triple check that it actually includes access to the USS Arizona, because since they changed up the policy about how the USS Arizona tickets are distributed, most tour companies don’t have access like they used to.
If you’re an avid National Parks visitor, don’t forget to bring your passport to collect your stamp. The stamps are outside near the ticket counters not in the gift shop and when I was last there they didn’t have any scraps of paper to use if you forgot your passport.
If you’re planning to spend a good part of the day at Pearl Harbor, food options are a little limited. At the Visitors Center there’s a snack stand that serves basically whatever you could find at a gas station. Drinks, chips, candy, premade sandwiches, etc. And there’s usually a hot dog stand near the submarine museum. But that’s it.
There were a lot more options at the USS Missouri, including some food trucks and stands.
If you want a sit down restaurant (if you’re going to be there all day, you may want a break), you can walk over to Restaurant 604 at the marina. The food is pretty hearty and they have great views.
If you’re only going for half a day, have a big breakfast before you go and then I would plan to have lunch at Aiea Bowl when you leave. It’s a great local spot not too far away.
Okay, I’ve saved the most valuable information for last. Pearl Harbor now has OFFICIALLY LICENSED HELLO KITTY MERCHANDISE. Don’t sleep on this! Kitty as Rosie the Riveter! Kitty in a sailor hat! Also a peace crane design. There is some generic Hawaii Hello Kitty merchandise that ABC Stores have a license for, but other than that Pearl Harbor and Diamond Head are the only spots that offer exclusive Hawaii Hello Kitty merch.
Pictures from the USS Missouri
Want to read more? Don’t miss some of my most popular (and favorite) posts about Oahu:
If you’re trying to figure out where to stay, you’re going to want to look at my favorite boutique resort in Waikiki and the lowdown on where to stay on Oahu besides Waikiki. Plus I’ve got the scoop on how to avoid illegal vacation rentals and a roundup of where to stay in Ko Olina and reviews of the Laylow and Disney’s Aulani Resort. And a LOT more on Aulani like is Aulani worth it?, tips for staying at Aulani, how many days to spend, and the best things to eat and drink at Aulani.
If you’re researching luaus on Oahu, I’ve written quite a bit. First, I’ve got a full breakdown of the best luaus (and the worst) on Oahu. Then I’ve got complete reviews of Paradise Cove, the Polynesian Cultural Center, and Aulani’s Ka Wa’a Luau. And if you’ve narrowed it down to the top two most popular on the island and still can’t decide, here’s Paradise Cove vs Polynesian Cultural Center.
If you’re trying to put together an itinerary full of the best things to do, take a look at my best 5 day itinerary, and roundups of the best things to do in Waikiki, “secret” things to do on Oahu, plus my favorite things to do in Kailua and the windward coast, in Ko Olina, and on the north shore. And if you’re looking for food recommendations, I’ve got the best restaurants in Ko Olina and where locals eat in Waikiki.
And last but not least, some of my favorite things on Oahu like Jurassic Park at Kualoa Ranch, Shangri La and the Honolulu Museum of Art, tips for visiting Pearl Harbor, easy hikes on Oahu, and the best spas on Oahu. And everything you need to know BEFORE you go to Oahu.
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