Alaska’s only interior city and second in size only to Anchorage, Fairbanks and its surrounds served as a summer camp location for Athabascan people for thousands of years, long before any outsiders arrived. However, its present metropolitan scale can be traced from the days when the gold rush hordes descended in the early 1900s. Much of this gold mining pioneering past can be explored through the historical buildings of downtown, a choice of excellent museums and the huge Pioneer Park. Interestingly, and unlike so many of the Alaskan towns which were founded on the discovery of gold, Fairbanks still has a lucrative gold mining industry to this day.
For the visitor Fairbanks offerings are incredibly diverse with something for everyone – you can cruise or dine beside the Chena River which flows through town, marvel at ice sculptures, make friends with reindeer or champion dog sled teams, pan for gold, tour one its distilleries or breweries, wander through botanical gardens or hike nature trails and wildlife refuges.
Fairbanks is a solid mix of both times past and the decidedly contemporary. It is hard to go far in this city without finding some reminder of the gold rush era days whether it is an old cabin, a church or some mining relic. But the modern age is also very evident too in the city’s unique and sometimes award-winning architecture, quirks such as the series of brightly painted giant ventilation pipes, the famed Antler Arch, a thriving arts scene and the engineering marvel of the 800 mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline which runs past Fairbanks. Whether you are a wildlife enthusiast, an art and culture fan or outdoors lover Fairbanks really does offer the visitor the best of both worlds – all the conveniences and vibrancy of a modern city with all the welcome and atmosphere of a small town.
The entirety of Fairbanks is spread out over a wide area and is served by a bus system known as the MACS Transit. Many of its main attractions however are within walking distance of each other to make exploring that much easier. With so much to see and do not just in the city but in the surrounding area such as the magnificent Denali National Park you will have to be selective about what to include in a day here. The following itinerary helps you fit in as many of the highlights as possible with some alternatives suggested depending on your tastes and interests.
A Morning in Fairbanks
Your Fairbanks adventure starts with an historic or art-filled walk around town which you can theme according to various routes and how much energy you want to spend. After a coffee break your morning will continue with a river discovery which can be done on land or water.
An easy way to get a great overview of Fairbank’s history which costs nothing besides a small fee for a map and brochure is to take a self-guided walking tour. There are several themed route options depending on what most interests you which include the gold rush past or art but the most popular is the Downtown history tour. The borough in total boasts more than 30 entries in the National Register of Historic Places. Today many of the city’s historic buildings in the area from which the entire city grew are now private homes but in former times they served as bars, banks, brothels and so forth – each with a story to tell. Some are still just modest homes while others – such as the original Art Deco courthouse or theater – are somewhat grander affairs and can sometimes be enjoyed inside as well as from their exteriors.
If you want to take in all the points of interest – more than 40 in total – you will need at least two hours to follow the route across the Chena River and back, visiting cemeteries, monuments and a church along the way. However, if you don’t want to commit so much time or expend so much energy you can tailor it however you choose.
Highlights of your history discovery tour include:
- The Immaculate Conception Catholic Church – With a history dating back to the early 1900s, this pretty church was once sited the other side of the river but moved here by sledge in 1911.
- Clay Street Cemetery – The graves in this cemetery date back to Fairbanks’s earliest times and include that of Italian immigrant Felix Pedro – the first man to discover gold here after which the Fairbanks Gold Rush began.
- The Lacey Street Theater – Now the home of the Alaska Ice Museum this building was once a movie theater from the 1930s until the 1970s.
- The Falcon Joslin Home – Once the private residence of the man who established the Tanana Valley Railroad, this two-storey building dates from 1905 and represents the town’s oldest house of its kind.
- Courthouse Square – Although the current 1930s Art Deco office-occupied building here is not the original it sits on the same site as the first 1904-constructed courthouse and jail which perished in the fire of 1906.
Other points of interest include the early 1900s Masonic Temple, early 1900s homes, the former red light district known as ‘The Line’, the old school building and the log-built former public library constructed in1909 which was the site of an historical meeting in 1915 between native clan chiefs and government officials.
Besides the very popular historic tour route you have other choices around which to base your walk. A gold rush-themed tour will take you into Pioneer Park where many historic buildings such as log cabins, shops or lodgings which were once found downtown have been re-sited. Here you can discover what day-to-day life was like for the very earliest settlers of Fairbanks with several buildings furnished as they would have been during the early 1900s.
If art is more your thing take a downtown stroll to discover each of the thirteen highly-colored giant ventilation pipes, drain covers and murals of the ‘Art Tour’. Completed in 2012 as part of a community art project the bold colors and often humorous art pieces include a Marilyn Monroe on a candyfloss-pink pipe, snowflakes, wildflowers and Alaskan wildlife and landscapes.
Before setting out on any of the walks simply pop into the Fairbanks Visitors Information Center where you can pick up some literature and maps which will help you both navigate your walk and understand what you are looking at. You can also opt for a voice-guided tour (free) or hire the services of a guide to take you round.
Morning Coffee Break in Fairbanks
Whether you are looking for connoisseur-standard coffee, somewhere with cozy or artsy surroundings or an alfresco spot to enjoy a morning refreshment break Fairbanks has a little bit of everything.
Those who don’t consider it a satisfying morning without some top-notch coffee in the mix should head to Venue which is a cafe and gallery and also a music and arts space. One of only two places in town which serve the highly-respected SteamDot coffee from Alaska’s Anchorage, the Venue also offers a choice of sweet treats such as muffins and cakes.
Another choice for the coffee purist is the bright and cozy McCafferty’s, a coffee house, etc who roast in-house. The other venue which uses SteamDot beans is the lovely Little Owl Cafe which not only has a good range of coffees but also a large tea menu along with hot chocolate and smoothies. The in-house baked selection of pastries and sweets is also impressive and there is outdoor seating too if you would prefer. The inside houses a constantly revolving display of local artwork pieces.
Exploring the River
100 miles long in total, the Chena River runs right through Fairbanks – joining the Tanana River and eventually the mighty Yukon – and is an integral part of the city’s character. There are multiple ways to enjoy it ranging from a walk along its banks to a trip on an historic paddle-wheeler boat and you can even paddleboard your way up or down the river.
Boat trips range in length and the type of craft and will typically aim to give you some insight into the town’s history as you go. One of the most popular tours is on-board one of the old-fashioned paddle-wheel boats which are authentic replicas of the late 1800s boats which plied the Chena and Tanana Rivers. You will need to check departures that coincide with your visit and also be aware that some of these type of options are half-day trips which make several stops along the way to visit villages, dog-sled kennels or historical places.
If you would like to get a little more active it is possible to rent canoes and kayaks from a variety of places while guided kayak trips and raft floats suitable for total novices upwards are also on the river activity menu. This is a great way to make the most of the area’s nature and tranquility and enjoy a little wildlife spotting such as fox and moose.
If you would prefer to keep your feet on dry land you can still enjoy the river with a scenic stroll along the paved River Walk. Meandering its way alongside the river for the whole of its 3.5 length from Pioneer Park to Airport Way you will encounter a number of interesting sites, parks and scenes and pass by some of the downtown area’s historic points of interest. If you don’t have the time or inclination for the whole thing which is a riot of blooms in summer you can just take in a scenic section such as that which runs by the Immaculate Conception Church. Be sure to check out 1st Avenue’s historic buildings and churches if you haven’t already seen them as you make your way to the Golden Heart Plaza. Here you will find some lovely flower displays and the ‘Unknown First Family’ statue. A little further still brings you to the WWII Lend-Lease Monument and 200 meters from here the famous Antler Arch which you may have seen earlier in the grounds of the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center. This distinctive Fairbanks landmark is constructed from 100 giant moose and caribou antlers artistically woven together with a skull forming the centerpiece.
Lunch in Fairbanks
After a morning of Fairbanks discovery on foot and some fresh river air you will no doubt have built up a lunch appetite and be ready for a relaxing pause. Fairbanks offers plenty of choice both with regard to cuisine type and setting no matter whether you are a light luncher or looking for something substantial.
While Alaskan fare, American diner-type dishes and seafood are the more usual finds Fairbanks has a few rather less expected offerings too such as a wealth of Thai establishments and the Jazz Bistro which in the words of its Cuban owner ‘brings Havana to town’.
Small, cozy and simply decorated, this downtown restaurant serves up authentic Caribbean dishes and although a relatively new arrival to the city’s restaurant scene has already earned itself a reputation as a place which offers a warm welcome and friendly service. The lunchtime menu which features organic and fresh ingredients in generous portions is relatively small and includes both paninis and full meals with dining accompanied by live jazz performances in the summer.
Something which has been around for far longer is the Cookie Jar Restaurant which was once just a bakery – hence the name. Bright and casual, this three decades-established locals’ favorite has a vast menu of choices raging from soups and salads to steaks with a huge selection of hot and cold sandwiches and wraps.
If it is a fine Fairbanks day a fantastic lunch spot is one which puts you outside by the river – something offered by Pike’s Landing. Take your seat on the vast redwood deck here, peruse a menu which has a great number of appetizers along with soups, salads, sandwiches, burgers and hearty mains and watch the lunchtime crowd arrive by kayak or boat. Another of the Fairbanks restaurants which has been around for several decades, the focus here is Alaska seafood and salmon, the setting tranquil and the views lovely – all of which enhance the dining experience. Inside tables can also be found in a casual and cozy log cabin–setting. Liquid refreshment includes a choice of Fairbanks and Alaska beers along with cider straight from Anchorage.
An Afternoon in Fairbanks
Once you have recharged your batteries after a lunch break either short or rather more indulgent another helping of Fairbank adventure awaits. Your afternoon hours have been broken down into museum time and outdoor and wildlife discoveries and although it is possible to do both you may want to commit to one or the other and fully enjoy that experience.
A Choice of Museums
Fairbanks is home to a great selection of museums including the vast world-class University of Alaska Museum of the North with its 1 million+ items, the magnificent museums-within-a-museum Pioneer Park attraction which takes you on a journey through the gold mining years and some smaller gems such as an ice museum or an antique car collection.
Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center
If you don’t want to spend too long inside a large museum the riverside-located Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center is rather more than just somewhere to get tourist information and literature. Totally free to explore, the center is home to a walk-through interactive museum which serves as a brief but complete introduction to Alaska. The displays focus on the area’s natural history, the cultural heritage of its people from the first native people onwards and their ways of life both past and present including the gold rush era.
Three life-size dioramas backed by beautiful hand-painted murals, which took a world-specialist 15 months to complete, showcase the people and the land themed according to the seasons of summer, winter and autumn. Summer is a native fish camp, autumn features a bear unearthing its prey and the winter scene puts you in a log cabin with the Northern Lights blooming through the sky outside. Another section – the Elder’s Hall – is a collection of native artifacts and art both ancient and modern which offers an insight into the culture of this land’s first people.
Along with the exhibits there is a film-screening and a calendar of daily events which might include native dance displays or an opportunity to touch and try on traditional Athabascan clothing and costumes.
University of Alaska Museum of the North
Representing Alaska’s only research and teaching museum the Museum of the North’s collection numbers 1.4 million items and has been a part of the city scene since the 1920s. On arrival you will be greeted by Otto Geist – a huge bear named for the naturalist whose donations helped create the museum’s first natural history section.
This award-winning museum tells the story of not just Fairbanks and its region but the entire state of Alaska. Highlights include ancient artifacts such as tools, crafts, masks and clothing, a huge display of Alaskan gold, a vast art collection and a 36,000 year-old mummified ice-age bison uncovered by gold miners in 1979. So well-preserved was this ancient animal nicknamed ‘Blue Babe’ that specialists were even able to establish that it had died after an attack by an American lion – a panther-like animal now extinct.
A new wing unveiled in 2005 gained as much attention for its architecture as for anything else. Intended to reflect the lines and evoke images of Alaska’s mountain ridges, glaciers, weaving river courses and the Aurora Borealis, this elegant building is truly unique and has become a much-loved landmark. Housed inside is the treasure-filled Rose Berry Alaska Art Gallery which showcases 2,000 years of Alaska art ranging from ancient ivory carvings to the contemporary artwork of living artists.
A much-lauded exhibit is that entitled ‘The Place Where You Go to Listen’ which is a sound-and-light show led by the positions of the sun and moon along with seismic and aurora activity.
The museum also has its own movie theater which screens films entitled ‘Dynamic Aurora’ and ‘Winter’. The first unsurprisingly focuses on explaining the fantastical natural light show of the Aurora Borealis, not just from a scientific angle but also with regard to cultural beliefs and has some sensational footage. The second gives you insight into what winter truly means for an Alaskan and how the challenges of its extreme climate are adapted to and overcome.
Audio guides are available to rent from the reception and, unusually for audio tours, add a wealth of information and enhanced experience which cannot be discovered from simply looking at the exhibits and their explanations. The audio includes landscape sounds, animal calls, commentary by Native elders, language excerpts and even a real radio broadcast aired during the time of the massive 1964 Alaskan earthquake.
The University of Alaska Museum of the North is located a little outside of downtown but is on the MACS Transit blue line.
If you want to explore the past of Fairbanks but would prefer not to be cooped up inside or you have an interest in the area’s gold rush and gold mining history Pioneer Park is an essential inclusion in your day. Often billed as an amusement park and therefore dismissed by those without an interest in such things, the huge Pioneer Park is more accurately a themed showcase of Fairbanks history.
Opened in 1967 to mark the 100th anniversary of Alaska ownership passing from the hands of the Russians to that of the United States, Pioneer Park in its entirety is a museum with several other dedicated museums found within its huge sprawling grounds.
The park’s visitor center is found on-board the Riverboat Nenana – an old paddle boat which plied an almost 900 mile route between Nenana and Marshall from the 1930s until the 1950s. This impressively large watercraft with her huge stern-placed paddle-wheel is a National Historical Landmark, one of the largest vessels of its kind in the world and rumored to be haunted.
The 44 acre park includes a full-size replica of Fairbanks as it was during the gold rush-era incorporating restored original buildings, the city’s first church and private pioneer dwellings moved from downtown. Some of the interiors of the buildings house gift and souvenir shops while others – such as the Judge Wickersham House – are home to small museums.
Other attractions within the park include the Harding Car traveled in by President Harding in 1923, ‘Mining Valley’ where you can view some early gold mining equipment and replica workings, a replica native village and Pioneer Hall which replicates a 1900s community hall. Within this building can be found the ‘Big Stampede’ feature where audiences seated on a revolving platform can view some painted murals depicting gold rush scenes while listening to a narration accompaniment.
Pioneer Air Museum
The park is also home to the Pioneer Museum, the Pioneer Air Museum and the Tanana Valley Railroad Museum. The free-to-enter Pioneer Museum, found within Pioneer Hall, houses gold rush memorabilia and household items which belonged to the residents of that era. These are made up of items from far and wide – those that the gold-seeking hopefuls brought with them in cases, on boats and by river cargo – as well as items which show the inventiveness adopted once these settlers found themselves without conveniences they were used to.
Other Museums in Fairbanks
The Aurora Ice Museum
Rather more an ice art and sculpture gallery than museum, the Aurora Ice Museum can be found within the old historic Lacey Street Theater. Operated by Ice Alaska who stage the Fairbanks-hosted World Ice Art Championships, the museum is home to some of the work created by the championships’ master-carver competitors. If you don’t want to brave the chill and see the sculptures up close you can view them in warmth and comfort from behind glass.
The Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum
While this museum will undoubtedly appeal to the car enthusiast with its collection of 85 rare antique motors dating from 1898 to the 1930s it is actually so much more than that. As one of the city’s most consistently raved about attractions this museum also takes you on an historical journey and has an all-encompassing audience appeal. Period-relevant photos are found throughout showing innovative customizing work which would make a car all-weather ready or which would even allow it to travel on rails in the snow. There is also a large vintage clothing collection – paired with each car – showing what was fashionable for both men and women during the time in which the autos on display represented the very latest in cutting edge technology. Together they tell a history of Alaska.
Each of the cars here despite their incredible age are still in working order and often taken out by the owner to give them an airing.
Wildlife, Reindeer and Dog-Sledding
It is easily possible to spend an entire afternoon exploring one or more of the city’s museums but if you want an outside alternative or a mix and match afternoon Fairbanks has plenty of choice whether it is a wildlife-rich hike or an encounter with domesticated reindeer.
The Fountainhead Wedgewood Wildlife Sanctuary
If tranquility, lovely scenery and the chance to see a range of animal and bird species in the wild appeals head to the 75 acre nature reserve of The Fountainhead Wedgewood Wildlife Sanctuary. The reserve has a choice of easy-walking trails to follow, each punctuated with interpretative signs explaining the lives of the area’s animals and birds you may meet along the way. The sanctuary is home to beaver, flying squirrel, fox, hare and moose among other species and, connecting as it does to the 2,000 acre Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge, is something of a birder’s paradise. This Waterfowl Refuge offers a two mile boardwalk trail while the wildlife sanctuary has a choice of walks and hikes.
The main trails are the forest-rich Taiga Trail which touches the shores of Wander Lake with its large observation platform and runs for one mile. The two mile loop Wander Lake Trail takes you round the lake with a beaver hut, photography spots and water meadow to be discovered along the way.
Located a stone’s throw from the auto museum, it is especially easy to combine the wildlife sanctuary with a visit here.
The Running Reindeer Ranch
The Running Reindeer Ranch – If you’d like a nature walk accompanied by reindeer consider a visit to the family-owned Running Reindeer Ranch. As you make your way through the forest, learning about its flora and fauna you will also be regaled with reindeer facts and hear about each individual reindeer’s personal characteristics, quirks and history.
Dog-Sledding – Using dogs to transport both people and goods has long been part of the Alaska story. These days dog-sledding thrives but today more with a view to raising champions than for practical means. The ultimate prize is to be crowned winner of the annual 1,000 mile Iditarod dog-sled race. The Fairbanks area is home to many kennels which offer tours and dog-sledding experiences so you can learn directly from the competitors and mushers what is involved in raising, caring for and training potential champions. Afterward you can take a thrilling wilderness ride which is even possible during the summer when there is no snow on the ground and actually an authentic training method used and not just something devised for tourists.
Pre-dinner Drinks and Dinner in Fairbanks
As Alaska’s second largest metropolitan area by population you are going to have plentiful choices for drinking and dining venues. Whether you want down-to-earth and lively or sophisticated and tranquil Fairbanks has it somewhere. There are also several river-view and alfresco spots along with cuisine choices covering everything from authentic Greek to a choice of around 20 Thai restaurants. There is even the possibility of taking a dinner cruise on board a paddleboat – a replica of those which plied the river in the gold rush days carrying both passengers and cargo.
If you really want to make life easy pick a venue which offers both drinks and dining so you can smoothly transition from one to the other with almost no effort involved. Fairbanks has plenty of such places.
In the land of the midnight sun it seems a shame to hide away indoors for a pre-dinner drink and Fairbanks has a few choices for enjoying your craft beer, cocktail or wine in the open air. Riverside makes for an especially lovely view and one choice here is Trackers Bar and Grill – part of the Fairbanks Princess Lodge. The crowd is vibrant and casual with regular arrivals by skiff or kayak to the huge waterside deck. Choose from classic cocktails such as Manhattans or martinis made using the city’s distillery-produced spirits, select from a range of Fairbanks or other Alaskan craft beers, pick a favorite from the wine list or opt for one of their impressive range of single-malt scotches and bourbons.
Another choice for cocktail fans looking for sophisticated and relaxing surroundings should head to the Express Room Lounge – located upstairs at the Sophie Station Suites and paired with Zach’s Restaurant. Filled with either two-seater tables or comfy leather chairs to recline in as you sip your preferred tipple you will be surrounded by bookshelves and artwork.
If fun, quirky, casual and authentically Alaskan are what you are looking for in a drinking environment check out Ivory Jacks which is known throughout the state and has a reputation for a warm welcome. There is plenty to keep you entertained here with paraphernalia, art, newspaper clippings and random items either hanging from the ceilings or covering every inch of shelf and wall space.
To make for effortless dining simply transition from drinks to a meal at any of the options listed previously. Trackers Bar and Grill offers American dining with salmon and steak choices and a decent wine list. If you enjoyed the comfortable space of the Express Room Lounge for a relaxed pre-dinner drink this operates in conjunction with Zach’s Restaurant. With an Alaskan-themed upscale menu which includes such things as steaks, fish, lime curry chicken and Thai salad you can choose from a choice of dining settings. You can order directly from the lounge, enjoy an alfresco experience on their deck or opt for an indoor restaurant which plays soft music. Ivory Jacks has a large menu that focuses on steak and seafood.
For a fun and highly sociable dining experience head to the Alaska Salmon Bake inside Pioneer Park. This isn’t simply some tourist-trap aimed at visitors but a place beloved by locals since 1979 in which they can enjoy an open-air or cozy cabin all-you-can-eat feast surrounded by Fairbanks history. The set-up is multi-station buffet-style with a choice of Alaskan salmon, beer battered Bering Sea cod or prime rib along with entrees, salads, pasta and sides. The refreshment is a good choice of wines or Fairbanks own Silver Gulch Brewery craft beers.
The Alaska Salmon Bake draws quite a crowd every night of summer but occupies a huge space so it never feels overfull. You can choose to be sociable and find your space at the tree-surrounded tables or grill or dine somewhere away from the masses for a more intimate meal.
If you have a special occasion to celebrate or are just a fan of fine dining and elegant surroundings Fairbanks has a handful of choices. Downtown Lavelle’s Bistro offers modern art and wine rack-surrounded indoor dining or a lovely patio for fine weather. While the focus is seafood the menu is extensive and also includes rack of lamb, duck, steaks and pasta with a truly impressive wine list which runs into the thousands.
The beautiful historic Pump House with its lovely deck and the chandelier-hung Edgewater Dining Room – both on the river – are two more choices for the more gourmet-inclined diner while those who enjoy Italian food can head to Vallata. Located a little out of town in the Goldstream Valley, Vallata offers a sophisticated and under-statedly elegant setting in which the diners are serenaded with live piano music at weekends. Choose from a diverse menu of Italian fare along with options for seafood and steaks.
An Evening in Fairbanks
Aurora shows, theater and comedy, art exhibitions, live music and even the chance to play golf late into the night in summer when the sun never sets – Fairbanks has a lot going on in the evenings for an Alaskan town.
Music plays a big part in the Fairbanks evening entertainment scene but unlike most Alaskan towns the offerings here are more diverse than perhaps the more usual local group playing in a bar or pub. Fairbanks has the 900-seat Davis Concert Hall – part of the University’s Fine Arts Complex – which is home to the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra and the Arctic Chamber Orchestra. During the summer there is a classical performance of some kind several nights of the week with many events staged by visiting artists too. An entirely free outside musical performance can be enjoyed every night during summer with ‘Gazebo Nights‘ held in Pioneer Park.
Of course if you do want something a little more causal and earthy many Fairbanks bars, restaurants and pubs offer live music in a range of musical genres from jazz to open mic nights. Some of the places which most regularly stage live music are the Blue Loon which screens art-house films when a band isn’t booked, McCafferty’s, Ivory Jacks and the Jazz Bistro.
Theater and performing arts are also part of the city’s nighttime scene with the Fairbanks Concert Association coordinating a season of theater, arts, and musical performances. Classic theater fans can check out the Fairbanks Shakespeare Theater’s calendar of events which stages the famous bard’s plays as well as other high-quality dramas, most often at the Palace Theater.
Those in search of a little more light-hearted entertainment can take their seat in the Pioneer Park’s Palace Theater for the Golden Heart Review. Consistently voted Alaska and Canada’s number one show, this musical gold-rush period comedy – staged every night in summer – is a popular place to head after feasting at the Alaska Salmon Bake.
Although if you visit Fairbanks in summer you won’t get to see the fantastical display of the Northern Lights you can still have a beautiful aurora experience at the Ice Museum’s nightly Aurora Show. Featuring 40 years of Aurora Borealis captured images by the professional photographer Leroy Zimmerman and accompanied with an atmospheric soundtrack, the show is described as a wide-screen masterpiece.
If you’re ready to experience the beauty of Fairbanks in person, contact one of our vacation planners today!