Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, is a touchingly beautiful place to visit. The attack of the Japanese on the United States military base at this location sparked America’s involvement in WWII. Since the attack was so unexpected, many lives were lost, and Pearl Harbor is itself a tribute to the brave soldiers who fought there. Let’s explore together my favorite things to do at Pearl Harbor.
Although Pearl Harbor remains the home of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, it has also become a National Historic Landmark, with several museums and historic sites. These locations demonstrate a timeline from the beginning of the War in the Pacific all the way to its conclusion, and you should expect to spend an entire day exploring the many things to do at Pearl Harbor. Planning your trip to Pearl Harbor will be beatiful, historical and sobering all at the same time, as this place is packed with meaning.
Favorite Things to Do at Pearl Harbor
Depending on your interests, you should expect to spend a good 5 hours visiting the Pearl Harbor museum complex. There are few main things to visit, each of which is interesting in its own right. If you visit everyting you can easily spend an entire day immersing yourself in World War 2 history at Pearl harbor. It is best to read before visiting Pearl Harbor so you know what will fit your expectations.
As there are many things to see, you will get tired. For us, after visiting the main museum and USS Arizona Memorial, I took my son and headed over to USS Missouri for a great visit, while my wife and daughter stayed more around the Visitor Center and took in the views. My son loved USS Missouri and my daughter enjoyed the boat ride to USS Arizona. With our map in hand, let’s put on some comfortable walking shoes and explore my favorite things to do at Pearl Harbor.
Map of favorite things to do at Pearl Harbor
Red: see, Blue: drive
1. Pearl Harbor National Memorial
The National Memorial overlooking the Ford Island is one of the best things to do at Pearl Harbor
See my photos from Pearl Harbor
The Pearl Harbor National Memorial is a sobering area composed of multiple exhibits. The U.S.S. Utah Memorial, the U.S.S. Oklahoma Memorial, and, most famously, the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial immortalize three battleships that went down, while three mooring quays and six officer bungalows give visitors an idea of what it was like to be a naval officer in the 1940’s.
The Visitor Center has a small historical museum that easily accessible, along with beautiful walkways that provide amazing views of the Pearl Harbor. The museum features four main galleries: first, The Road to War, which showcases American life before the war; second, Oahu 1941, which gives visitors an insight into native life in the 1940’s; and finally, the Attack and Aftermath exhibits, which tell the story of the war and give context to the poignant memorials throughout the harbor. Often, veterans and survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack will be present to share stories and answer questions, giving visitors a meaningful living link to the past. Undoubtedly, you must come here before you explore any of the other things to do at Pearl Harbor because it adds significance to every other area of the lagoon. Viewing the exhibits to their fullest extent generally takes about an hour and a half, so make sure to work this into the beginning of your schedule.
Plan Your Trip to the Visitor Center
Once you’ve completed a tour of the museum and are back outside, you can venture past the U.S.S. Arizona’s bell and stroll down a chain of walkways until you reach the Pearl Harbor Remembrance Circle. This area celebrates those who lost their lives in the attack, so it is a solemn place to visit. However, it also provides a stunning prospect of the area and is one of the best places to photograph the harbor. You can snap a shot of the U.S.S. Arizona with the Battleship Missouri in the background that will reignite your memories in future years.
2. USS Bowfin Submarine
The USS Bowfin submarine museum
See my photos from Pearl Harbor
The U.S.S. Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park is a very unique attraction at Pearl Harbor. Comprised of the U.S.S. Bowfin submarine, a small museum, and a well-maintained grassy park, this is certainly one of the more interesting things to do at Pearl Harbor. The entire experience normally takes about 90 minutes, and although you must buy tickets, you won’t be disappointed.
The U.S.S. Bowfin submarine was launched on December 7, 1942, exactly a year after the initial attack on Pearl Harbor and commissioned on May 1, 1943. The Bowfin was an active participant in the War in the Pacific, spending its time near Australia, Indochina, and other major areas in the Pacific Theater. The submarine was re-commissioned for training during the Korean War and was finally retired on December 1, 1971, only six days short of the 30-year anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. Public tours of the Bowfin became available in 1981, and now, she rests near the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial Center. Visitors can take an audio tour of the submarine and experience the cramped quarters where the naval soldiers spent their days and nights.
The museum displays artifacts that tell the story of the United States Submarine Service and immortalizes more than 52 submarines and 3,500 submariners who were lost in the Second World War. You can learn about a submarine’s weapon system, the daily life of a submariner, and the most important submarine battles of the war. In addition to WWII history, the museum also features exhibits displaying artifacts from the Cold War era.
3. USS Arizona Memorial
The iconic USS Arizona Memorial is one of the popular things to do at Pearl Harbor
See my photos from Pearl Harbor
From the Visitor Center, take a peaceful ferry out to the U.S.S. Arizona. One of the most popular things to do at Pearl Harbor, the boat ride can be reserved or spontaneous, but I highly recommend reserving a spot at a specific time in order to avoid an indeterminate wait in line. The trip is only a couple minutes long, so there’s no need to worry about seasickness. As you spend those sober moments on the ferry, don’t forget to appreciate the magnificent view.
The U.S.S. Arizona is the most poignant remnant of “the day that will live in infamy“, December 7, 1941, when the War in the Pacific began, but the story of the ship began even before WWII. Completed in 1915, this battleship also saw the First World War, and she was part of President Woodrow Wilson’s escort to the Paris Peace Conference. At a length of 608 feet, the Arizona was a large ship, but when the Japanese attacked, it was irreparably damaged, and the wreck remains beneath the sparkling cerulean waves. 1,177 officers and crewmen lost their lives aboard the Arizona that day, and most of their bodies were never recovered. Instead, they rest in peace below the memorial that honors their sacrifice.
The Arizona Memorial itself is a beautifully designed piece of architecture, representing the United States’ attitude during WWII: a confident peak before the war began, followed by a burst of low spirits as a result of the devastating Pearl Harbor attack, and ending with an ascent of the victory over Japan. The gun turret of the sunken ship still rises above the surface, rusted but not destroyed. As with most Pearl Harbor exhibits, you can book an audio tour of the memorial for added emphasis.
4. Battleship Missouri
USS Missouri museum ship seen from the Arizona Memorial
See my photos from Pearl Harbor
Now, let’s take a shuttle across the Admiral Carey Bridge and make our way inside the military base on Ford Island. Previously known as Rabbit’s Island and Little Goats Island, it has an area of over 440 acres and was once a sugarcane plantation. Because of its strategic military location, Ford Island appealed to the U.S. Navy, and eventually, by 1939, the entire island was under military control. It was one of the primary targets of the Japanese during the Pearl Harbor raid, and by 1964, it had been cemented as a National Historic Landmark, although it still is home to active military areas, such as the Pacific Warfighting Center. The island showcases officer bungalows, the remains of the U.S.S. Oklahoma displayed on the island, and the U.S.S. Utah underwater off the coast, as well as a fascinating aviation museum. However, the Battleship Missouri is its most popular attraction, and exploring its decks is one of the most interesting things to do at Pearl Harbor.
While the U.S.S. Arizona is the site that symbolizes the beginning of WWII with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Battleship Missouri is the vessel that marks the end of the War in the Pacific. The Missouri, commissioned in 1944, was the last battleship ever built by the United States, and she played an active role in many battles, including the iconic battle of Iwo Jima. On September 2, 1945, in Tokyo Bay, Japanese envoys and General Douglas MacArthur signed the document of Japan’s surrender, officially ending World War II. Both group tours and self-guided tours are available for visitors to the Battleship Missouri, and if you plan on going over the entire ship, I recommend scheduling at least two hours to do so.
Plan Your Trip to Battleship Missouri
You can get to USS Missouri by car, but if you’re visiting Pearl Harbor Museum and USS Arizona, there is a shuttle from the parking lot to USS Missouri. The shuttle leaves every 15 minutes making it very convenient to get to Ford Island. Remember that you are going inside an active military base, so you can only take pictures at the USS Missouri attraction only, and nowhere else while you’re traveling there.
As one of the most popular things to do at Pearl Harbor, you can buy a combo admission ticket when purchasing your entrance to Pearl Harbor.
5. Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum
F4F-3 Wildcat on display at the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum
photo by Pacific Aviation Museum
The final attraction we’ll be visiting is the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum, where many Japanese aircraft attacked the runways. The museum is located on Ford Island and is a captivating experience, especially if you’re already on Ford Island visiting other areas. A non-profit, the museum opened on December 7, 2006, fifty-five years after the first attack on Pearl Harbor. The museum is composed of multiple artifact exhibits, WWII-era aircraft, and a ten-dollar simulation flight experience, which combine to make it a phenomenal thing to do at Pearl Harbor.
Two World War II hangars display aircraft that were once active participants in the war, including rare and iconic planes such as a B-17 Flying Fortress. Aircraft that participated in the Korean War and the Vietnam War are also featured in the museum, as well as some present-day models like the Blue Angel and the F-16A Viper. As you discover all that the museum has to offer, don’t forget to keep your eyes peeled for real bullet holes in the hangar walls from the December 7 attack.
After paying the general admission price, you can choose to take a self-guided tour, or book earlier for a guided tour. For a special experience, take a tour to the top of the iconic Ford Island Control tower, from which there are magnificent views of the entire harbor.
Is Pearl Harbor Worth Visiting?
Pearl Harbor is an amazing site to visit, especially if you’re interested in war history. At Pearl Harbor you can see harsh reminders of the beginning of the War in the Pacific as well as the end of it. This site encompasses the bloodiest part of US modern history. You will do best if you take it all in and allow you to be transported during those war times. Pearl Harbor is great for kids as well as there are many interesting to see and feel. Our family loved our visit to Hawaii and enjoyed Oahu’s botanical gardens and all the historical sights around Pearl Harbor. For us, the best things to do at Pearl Harbor were the Visitor Center, USS Arizona and Battleship Missouri in addition to all the amazing harbor views.
Take My SMART Travel Course and learn how to plan your travel confidently through step by step videos. Save money and frustration and become a SMART traveler using my time-tested travel strategy.
Read My SMART Travel Book and learn my best travel tips from 20+ years of international travel experience in less than 40 pages. These will save you lots of money and frustration on your next trip.
My Travel Resources page will help you save money. These are the tools I use for planning all my trips.