Advice life hack

How to Visit Pearl Harbor Without Paying for a Tour Guide

For my 50th birthday, I wanted to visit Pearl Harbor, the location where the Japanese Empire shocked the United States out of its malaise of “mixed” neutrality, and thrust “the sleeping giant” into WWII.

The idea of walking that hallowed ground had been a dream of mine for as long as I can recall. While there is no shortage of photos, movies and stories about Pearl Harbor, there is no substitute for actually experiencing a place first hand.

The question I had was, what’s the best way to see Pearl Harbor?

I had assumed hiring a tour guide for the whole smash was the way to go. You know, get an energetic vet with the inside scoop, with all-access to the cool stuff civilians like me don’t get to see. There is no denying that might be great, and there is definitely a deeper way to see Pearl, however, if you’re taking your first run at this place, the baseline tour is probably going to be involved and long enough.

NOTE: There are SPECIAL VIP TOURS offered by the park, which, for the enthusiast, are definitely worth a look, i.e., VIP tour of the Bowfin submarine and the Heart of the Missouri tour. (I would definitely do those extended tours if I needed to go deep at Pearl).

There are four primary areas you will visit at Pearl Harbor. Yes. It makes for a long day. Wear comfortable shoes. Here is a basic outline of the day.

USS Arizona Memorial – includes 25-minute feature film, boat ride, and a few minutes on the Arizona memorial, which reopened to the public on Sunday, Sept. 1 after rennovations. The Memorial is part of the National Parks and is FREE. It takes about 75 minutes. (Attack Museum and Road to War Museum are free too) Keep in mind that additional exhibits at Pearl (the Bowfin, the Missouri, and Air museum) are run by non-profit organizations.

USS Bowfin submarine – General admission $15 adults, $7 children ages 4-12. Tour is self-guided and includes a free audio guide. Takes about an hour. (I strongly recommend accepting the audio guide). For an additional cost, you can take a VIP Captain’s Tour – Available by appointment only.

Battleship Missouri Memorial – General admission $29 adults, $13 children ages 4-12. Admission includes a free tour with a guide or you can go self-guided. You could spend a couple of hours here. (You should start with the free guided tour. The guides are enthusiastic, and full of great stories and info.) For an additional cost, there is a deeper, 90-minute Heart of Missouri Tour you can take if you have the time–and want to see the insides of the BIG GUNS.

Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum – General admission $25 adults, $12 children ages 4-12. There is a cafe here with decent food AND wine and beer—a bonus pick-me-up at the end of the day. There’s a whole menu of additional tours you can find here.

Entering the park and our recommended path

Here’s a breakdown of how our day went:

  • Park opens at 7:30a. ARRIVE EARLY. We parked right in front of the front entrance. Parking is free. We got there at 6:45a. The parking was good but the line was already long. Once they open the gates, the line moves quickly.
  • Do not bring backpacks, fanny packs, or bags. They will stop you from going into the park. If you have to, leave your stuff in a public locker.
  • Dress code. Here’s a good article about this.
  • As soon as the park opens, go directly to the Arizona ticket window. It’s straight through the security bag check. Don’t dilly dally. This ticket is considered a “walk-up” tour and they only issue 1300 of these tickets per day. Great info about pre-purchasing tickets here.
  • Your ticket will show you the time tour starts. Tours start at the theater, which is on the far end of the open-air complex.
  • If you have time before your tour, I suggest you rent a narrated tour of the Arizona Memorial. (I think it was $7) You’ll pass by the kiosk that rents these little headsets as you head towards the theater. You also get a handy map of the area. (see photo gallery below)
  • With your audio tour, visit the Attack Museum, and the Road to War Museum, which are on the left side of the complex as you are facing the theater. Do walk along the harbor and see the Arizona’s anchor–maybe do this after you return from the Arizona.
  • At the time of your tour, you’ll gather at the theater. Probably good to be there about 5 minutes early. The tour starts with a movie.
  • When the movie ends, you will be guided to a boat. This boat will ferry you out to the final resting place of the Arizona. Even after all this time, bubbles of oil (sailor’s tears) still bloom on the surface of the water.
  • You’ll be instructed when its time to get back on the boat. When you return to the docks by the theater, the tour is over. If you haven’t done so, go over to the Road to War Museum and the Attack Museum, mentioned earlier, walk along the harbor and see the enormous anchor from the Arizona.
  • Return your Arizona narrated tour.
  • Now it’s time to go see the submarine. Take the Bowfin tour. (unless you can’t do steep stairs and or are claustrophobic). If you’re hungry, grab a hot dog just outside the Bowfin gift shop.
  • I strongly recommend getting the audio tour for the Bowfin. Otherwise, you’re walking through cramped equipment-filled compartments without a clue what you’re looking at. The narrated tour (the little box) senses what compartment you’re in, and automatically plays the audio for that area. You don’t have to punch in corresponding numbers as you did at Arizona.
  • When you exit the Bowfin, you are invited to purchase a $20 photo (one they shot of you when you were boarding the sub. See Oahu Under Attack photo in the gallery below). You are then “welcome” to “pick out a free pearl.” this is NOT free. Note you are in “not-for-profit- land” once you leave the Arizona Memorial park. Lovely people welcome you to pick an oyster, tap it three times, and then upon its opening, a pearl! Hold onto your wallet for the upsell. My wife calls this “the black pearl incident.” Fair warning.
  • After you’ve done the sub, a hot dog, hit the gift shop, maybe got looped into the “free” pearl, your next stop is the Mighty Mo!
  • Exit the Bowfin area, follow the signs, and head for the bus. This is a free bus that takes you back over to Ford Island. The bus makes its first stop at the Missouri Memorial. You can buy tickets there.
  • Do the Missouri. (See my notes above in the gray boxes)
  • Get back on the bus. Your next stop is the Aviation Museum. Do this. Don’t wuss out. It’s worth it. Plus they have a good cafe and they serve beer and wine. It’s the perfect ending to a LONG day. The hangers are full of aircraft and the gift shop is the best of the bunch. More on this below.

The Aviation Museum. About now, your feet are killing you. You’ve just walked (what feels like) a few miles around the Missouri, and you’re thinking ‘do I really need to see more?’ You’re here, aren’t you? Do not miss the Aviation Museum. You’ll be tempted to stay on the bus when the driver stops and asks if anyone wants to get off. Get off the bus! This is a highlight to your day. It was for us! Did I mention they sell wine and beer here?

The Aviation Museum consists of 2 huge hangers FULL of aircraft. Including a B-25, like the ones used in the Doolittle Raid. The Douglas SBD Dauntless is beautiful. Looks like it just rolled off the set of the movie Midway (which is a movie that finally gives credit to the real unsung hero of that engagement: Joe Rochefort, the man who helped break the Japanese code, which led to their defeat at Midway). There is also a Japanese Zero, a ferocious killer all be it lacking in armor. It’s like a mini Smithsonian in there. The gift shop is beautiful. The exhibit entrance is all WWII. Hanger 79 (outside and around back) has a mix of modern and old aircraft. The Raytheon Pavilion was very cool. Build your own aircraft and fly it.

The most important note I can share with you is:


Does it really take 6 hours to tour Pearl Harbor?

If you want to see it all, yes, it takes at least 6 hours. Visiting the Arizona is only a portion of this total time. It’s a day out of your life where you immerse yourself in remembering the events that changed our lives forever.


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