Though it's named for the Hawkeye State, battleship USS Iowa has found its permanent home in California. Decommissioned on October 26, 1990, the battleship now cuts a stately figure amid the sea of passenger vessels and shipping containers at the Port of Los Angeles.
As the only battleship open to the public on the West Coast, it serves as the main attraction at its namesake museum in San Pedro, located 20 miles south of downtown Los Angeles. With educational exhibits, self-guided or docent-led tours, and immersive activities such as an escape room, the museum offers visitors a deep dive into naval history.
History of the USS Iowa
Originally ordered in 1939, the USS Iowa sailed the Atlantic as part of the fastest class of battleships ever designed. It withstood bomb lines and bombardments, earning nine World War II battle stars and two during the Korean War over the course of its nearly 50 years of service.
Having escorted three commanders-in-chief—Franklin Roosevelt, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan—it’s often referred to as the “Battleship of Presidents.” Fun fact: The USS Iowa is home to what may be the only bathtub installed for an American president on a U.S. warship, used by FDR on his journey to and from the 1943 Tehran conference. On select behind-the-scenes tours, visitors can catch a glimpse of this historic feature.
The decorated battleship took one final journey in July 2012, traveling along the L.A. waterfront to begin its second life as a floating maritime museum.
Must-See Exhibits at the USS Iowa
Veterans, history buffs, and families will all find something of interest on board, where exhibits draw from an archive gallery holding hundreds of historic photographs and naval artifacts like a ship compass and dress blues. Walk through spaces like sailors’ quarters and the captain’s cabin, a luxe escape where President Roosevelt lived, slept, and welcomed visiting dignitaries. Inside, you can see the actual table where the commander-in-chief and his cabinet planned strategic moves during WWII. There’s also a military aviation showcase with one of the last-remaining HUP-2 helicopters from the Korean War.
Other interior spaces look beyond the battleship, like the Lost at Sea exhibit featuring the explorations of Dr. Robert Ballard, who discovered the RMS Titanic. Photos and objects from his underwater expeditions accompany model displays that shed light on the downed vessels long claimed by the seas.
Tours and Activities
When you’re on an 887-foot battleship, go big or go home with a guided tour that grants access to areas not available to the general public. The gun tour winds through one of the usually closed main turrets, taking visitors down hatches and up ladders to see nine massive 16-inch guns that helped shape the USS Iowa’s legacy.
Those interested in the inner workings of the warship can descend deep into the depths for an engineering experience. Navigate narrow passageways once walked by thousands of sailors while learning about the four engine rooms, the boiler room, and other compartments that kept the ship charging forward.
Explore at your own pace by downloading a mobile app that includes a free kid-friendly scavenger hunt led by the ship’s canine mascot Vicky. Or challenge yourself with an onboard Escape the Mothball Fleet Experience (the ultimate upgrade at a cool $200 per team of six). With two hours on the clock, explore restricted areas of the ship and work your way down a daunting checklist of tasks and clues to solve before the historic warship is lost forever to the scrapyard. End your experience by choosing a style, sausage, and side for your custom hotdog at Vicky’s Doghouse Cafe.
What to Explore in San Pedro
The growing seaside town of San Pedro, located between Manhattan Beach and Long Beach in Los Angeles County, is home to the busiest port in the country—the Port of Los Angeles. Stick to the nautical theme and see hundreds of vessels at the Los Angeles Maritime Museum and local sea creatures at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium. Then shop for wares by more than 100 independent artisans at Crafted, a marketplace housed in 1940s Port of Los Angeles warehouse, before enjoying one of the famous shrimp trays at the San Pedro Fish Market & Restaurant.