Tips for Visiting Pearl Harbor

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Pearl Harbor is one of the most popular spots in Hawaii, and the USS Arizona Memorial is a particularly moving experience. This post offers our tips and ticket recommendations for seeing the memorial, and also some info for visiting. If you’re visiting Oahu, it’s pretty much a must-do. Operated by the National Park Service, Pearl Harbor is part of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, which is also in California and Alaska.

The first thing you need to know is that even in Hawaii, Pearl Harbor is not simply the USS Arizona Memorial. That’s a common misconception, likely because the USS Arizona Memorial is the main draw at Pearl Harbor, and the one most visitors to it see. However, Pearl Harbor also includes the Visitor Center, USS Bowfin Submarine, USS Missouri Battleship, and Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor. This post pertains to the USS Arizona Memorial; I’ll have future posts covering the other sites in the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument.

Another thing that can be confusing is the ticket situation. There are multiple options for tickets, some just for the USS Arizona Memorial and some that include everything. The minimum option that we recommend is the reserved tickets for the USS Arizona Memorial. These are $1.50 (we’ll call it free* since they are $0 with a $1.50 processing fee), and can be reserved 2 months in advance starting at 7 a.m. On our most recent visit, this is what we did. Pearl Harbor’s .gov site lists ticket options.

Alternatively, if you only want to visit the USS Arizona Memorial but don’t reserve tickets in advance, you can show up at Pearl Harbor and hope for standby tickets. Pearl Harbor gives away 1,300 of these tickets per day, and guests often form a line in advance of Pearl Harbor’s 7 a.m. opening time. We have never done this, but we were at Pearl Harbor at 7 a.m. once, and saw this standby line. It already had–easily–400 people in it.

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The other thing I’ve done (and recommend to some people) is the Passport to Pearl Harbor. At $65, this is considerably more expensive than the free* USS Arizona Memorial tickets, and that’s because they include all of the other sites referenced above), plus transportation, and an audio headset for the USS Arizona Memorial, all of which are not free.

The reason I’d only recommend this option to some people is because it’s a lot of dense military history in one day. When I did this a couple of years ago, I started this experience at 7 a.m. and wasn’t done until after 2 p.m. That’s a pretty big time commitment. While these other elements are more substantive than the USS Arizona Memorial, that is still the highlight–and the aspect that will be the most moving.

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Before we dig into the substance of the USS Arizona Memorial experience, we have one other big tip that could save you significant headache: there is a standby line for the USS Arizona Memorial not many people know about. This is outside of those 1,300 same-day tickets. It’s located on the far left of the USS Arizona Memorial theater holding area, and people are admitted as space allows (presumably due to no-shows).

We actually took advantage of this because we arrived over an hour early to our mid-afternoon timed ticket entry. There were maybe 10 people ahead of us, and we ended up waiting in line exactly 30 minutes. My guess would be that this line is longer in the morning with people who are unable to score one of those 1,300 tickets using it, but by afternoon, it was a good option.

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Now, I wouldn’t recommend this as your primary option, but as a last resort if you are unable to get reserved tickets and don’t want to get up at 5 am to make the trek to Pearl Harbor from your hotel…it’s not a bad idea to try. Your luck might be way different than ours (a National Park Service Ranger we asked about it suggested our experience was about the norm), but it’s worth a shot if the USS Arizona Memorial is a must-do and you didn’t plan ahead.

There are a few other ticket options, including using the Go Oahu card and other third party offerings, but dealing directly with the National Park Service (via the above recreation.gov site) is the most straightforward way to make sense of any already convoluted process.

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The visitor experience at Pearl Harbor either starts or ends with the Visitor Center, which includes a number of exhibits and displays, and will take around 30 minutes to experience at your leisure.

Now, for the USS Arizona Memorial experience itself. The tours run every 15 minutes, and take a little over an hour. The experience begins with an introduction and some rules outside the Pearl Harbor Memorial Theater, followed by a film in the theater. Visitors exit the back of the theater and immediately board a Navy shuttle boat, which takes guests to the memorial where there’s some time to look at the memorial before the boat returns to the Visitor Center.

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The film mentioned above is 23 minutes long, providing context for the memorial for those who never took an American history course (or need a refresher). The film is dramatic and emotional, but fairly deferential to both the United States and Japan. (Many visitors to Pearl Harbor are Japanese.)

The historical film is incredibly well-made, and features a mix of actual footage from the attacks on Pearl Harbor juxtaposed with interviews from Pearl Harbor survivors along with a powerful narration on top.

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After the film, the Navy shuttle boat is next, and this is fairly straightforward. If you have a headset as part of a narrated tour, it continues on the boat. If not, it’s just a leisurely boat ride.

The memorial building itself is open and understated, rather than being packed with substantive displays or information. It’s elegantly designed, and is not all that large. It floats above the broken remains of the USS Arizona, with parts of the broken vessel visibly protruding from the water below.

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The most sobering part of the experience for me was seeing the rainbow residue of perpetually-leaking oil coming to the water’s surface. This makes it all very “real” and is a reminder that December 7, 1941 is not the “ancient” past. It’s hard to convey this without potentially sounding disrespectful, but it’s one thing to learn about history in the abstract; it has much more gravity when you see it in person.

I think for people my age and younger, who didn’t live through World War II, its occurrences are almost surreal, something that could never happen today. The fact that oil still leaks from the vessel is a powerful reminder that Pearl Harbor did not occur that long ago, and its lessons should still serve as powerful ones today.

In addition to the open-air main portion of the memorial where visitors can look out onto the remains of the Arizona, the rear of the memorial features a Shrine Room with a wall listing the name of each of the 1,177 Navy sailors and Marines who went down with the ship. This wall also honors the 41 USS Arizona’s survivors who have since passed and have elected to be interred below with their former shipmates.

A few other notes and tips for visiting Pearl Harbor…

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Parking is free and there are a series of pretty large lots, but the closer ones can fill up early. If you’re arriving later in the day, save some time by just going directly to the more distant ones unless you like to waste time waiting for spots to open.

No bags of any kind (including purses) are allowed past the security checkpoint, which is before the Visitor Center. Pearl Harbor has signs up discouraging people from leaving valuables in cars, but the lots seemed pretty safe to me. (I’m not a skilled criminal, but Pearl Harbor would not be my first choice as an easy mark for breaking into cars.)

I can’t believe I have to type this tip, but I suppose it’s a sign of the times: be respectful. This is a memorial and, essentially, grave site. It honors something that is not the distant past, and is still a haunting memory for many Americans. Kids shouldn’t be playing Candy Crush on iPads, you shouldn’t have loud conversations about getting wasted at the bar the night before, etc. Use some sense and don’t be an ass.

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Unlike other points of interest, I do not think it appropriate or necessary to “review” the USS Arizona Memorial. I view visiting Pearl Harbor less as an enjoyable tourist spot and more as a civic responsibility to help us learn lessons from our past. With that said, it is an interesting experience and everything from the Visitor Center to the USS Arizona Memorial are incredibly well-done. It’s definitely a good way to spend around 2-3 hours when you’re in Hawaii. Whether you should allocate additional time for the other World War II Valor in the Pacific Park sites depends upon your level of interest in history–I felt the other sites are interesting as a one and done, but if I had the chance to do those over, I’d probably spread them over 2 days.

If you’re planning a visit to the Big Island or Oahu, please check out my other posts about Hawaii for ideas of things to do. There are a ton of incredible, under-the-radar experiences in Hawaii, and I highly recommend the Oahu Revealed Guide. It’s written by a Hawaii resident, and is far better than other books we’ve read.

Your Thoughts

Have you been to Pearl Harbor? Which aspects of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument did you do? The USS Arizona Memorial, or anything else in addition to it? If you visited other spots, which would you recommend? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Please feel free to ask any questions you might have or share additional thoughts in the comments!

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21 replies
  1. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    I “enjoyed” Pearl Harbor much more than I even expected. It truly is incredibly well done! We visited just after they started selling advance reserved tickets, so were unable to do the Arizona (huge bummer!) but we still spent hours there doing other tours. The audio tour was excellent. I was appaulled by the behavior of some people (most foreigners I hate to say). It’s not the place to take goofy selfies with your friends!!

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      The whole experience is very well-done, I agree with that. The National Park Service usually does a great job with memorials/monuments like this (those in Washington DC are another great example).

      I see poor, self-absorbed behavior from people everywhere. It’s not unique to foreigners, just as it isn’t unique to Americans.

      Reply
  2. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    I was there this past summer – in June. I did not have advance tickets and arrived right at 7:00 a.m. The line was LONG, but moved really quickly and we only had to wait 45 min for the Arizona tour. I think if you get there no later than 7:00 am you will not have an issue getting a tour. I also toured the Missouri, Bowfin and Aviation Museum and enjoyed all of them. It took me about 6 hours to see everything with teenaged kids.

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Yeah, I suspect a 7 am arrival pretty much guarantees tickets, except maybe the busiest of holiday seasons. That’s still an early wake-up call to get there at that hour, particularly for those staying in Waikiki.

      Thanks for your thoughts on the experiences!

      Reply
  3. Melanie Ghantous
    Melanie Ghantous says:

    Beautiful memorial and great for the older kids. Need more lunch options though. Happy to miss the morning rush and still plenty of time if you get there by lunch 😉

    Reply
  4. Clara
    Clara says:

    Great post! We did the whole shebang and spent the entire day there, and found it very worthwhile. I would note to plan ahead about food if you’re like me and get cranky when you’re hungry! We had a really tough time finding food at the visitors center beyond a hot dog stand. In the end we found out there is a cafeteria–actually a pretty good one–at the aviation museum, which you have to take a bus to. But if you save the aviation museum for after you’ve done the main sites you might find yourself starving and eating lunch at 3 in the afternoon.

    Reply
  5. Jen
    Jen says:

    Great post. Plan to take the kids next summer to visit Pearl Harbor. It is a very moving experience. I’m here to enter the ShellieMae, too.

    Reply
  6. Denise Citarelli
    Denise Citarelli says:

    We visited Pearl Harbor on Memorial Day 2016 and met two of the survivors from that fated day. My kids rank the Pearl Harbor visit over several other excursions we did pn our Hawaii trip because of the reverence shown and solemnity of the experience. This is a must do.

    Reply
  7. Kim Williams
    Kim Williams says:

    Thank you for all this info re Hawaii. We’re planning a cruise there next year and I’m kind of overwhelmed by excursion choices.

    Reply
  8. Richard Keilson
    Richard Keilson says:

    Everything about Hawaii is great, but the Memorial is awe-inspiring for young and old and it between. Thanks for all the additional info I wasn’t aware of 🙂

    Reply
  9. Liz Thering
    Liz Thering says:

    Will be in Aulani in a few months. Thanks for the heads up on the ‘free’ tickets. I’ll definitely be setting my calendar for the 2 month window. Hopefully I’ll be taking ShellieMay along!

    Reply
  10. E Naville
    E Naville says:

    This is a must see for me and all my family. Neat trivia fact Elvis Presley help to raise quite a bit of money for the memorial.

    Reply
  11. Todd B
    Todd B says:

    I would heed the warning about not leaving valuables in your vehicle in Hawaii. The photo tour company that I always book a trip with goes one step further and suggest just leaving the doors of your vehicle unlocked so you end up with a broken window or punched door lock on your vehicle. Basically they said “They are going to get into your car one way or another so make it easy and don’t leave anything in the car that you don’t want stolen.”

    Reply
  12. Kerri
    Kerri says:

    I also very much enjoyed my trip to Pearl Harbor. It is humbling to see a sight of such devastation, but it is one of the best memorials that I have seen done. On par with Omaha Beach in France.

    Reply
  13. John
    John says:

    If you have a military ID so you can drive yourself to Ford Island, take a few minutes to visit the USS Utah memorial on the other side of the island. I rarely see more than a few people there at one time.

    Reply

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