Sitting in the south of Alaska, Anchorage takes the title of the state’s largest city. Its story is a little different to that of the majority of other Alaskan larger settlements in that neither fishing nor mining played a hand. Here it was the railway which sowed the seeds of what would grow into Anchorage and it was really just a case of chance. Chosen in 1915 almost at random for its convenient anchorage, the Alaska Engineering Commission turned the spot into its main construction camp while work on the Seward-Fairbanks railroad got under way, with materials, goods and workers arriving by way of Cook Inlet. Anchorage – before it was Anchorage – was in fact simply a sea of tents.
Another defining moment in this city’s story was to arrive dramatically one afternoon in 1964 when a massive 9.2 magnitude earthquake rocked the area. Anchorage was left in ruins with pavements heaved into small hills, buildings toppled and a series of landslides. Much of the city had to be started from scratch and has shaped what you see today.
The sheer size of this large sprawling city would ensure there is always plenty to see and do. Into the more typical metropolitan mix however can be added the fact that this is Alaska and that means spectacular wilderness is right on the doorstep. Moose strolling through town are a common sight while a little effort may see you watching whales from a boat, getting up close to towering glacier faces, kayaking your way around mini ice-bergs or otherwise immersed in the plentiful natural splendors of this corner of the world.
Culture, heritage and history fans are also well catered for with the wonderful Alaska Native Heritage Center and the fantastically popular Anchorage Museum – which respectively represent the largest museum and largest cultural institution in Alaska – or a wealth of historic buildings and significant sites.
Whether you are intent on tucking into sumptuous seafood feasts or want to explore the natural magnificence from the back of a dog sled, Anchorage has a diversity of possibilities for all those on a day-long adventure.
A Morning in Anchorage
If you would like to experience a quick overview of Anchorage while also learning about the city’s past and present hop aboard a trolley tour. With departures every half hour in the summer setting off from the Visit Anchorage Information Center, these scarlet-hued trolleys give the Anchorage visitor a comfortable, relaxed and perhaps most importantly easy way to check out a collection of major city sights from both an historic and natural splendor point of view.
Each of the 55 minute rides – all fully narrated so you will not only know what you are looking at but learn a little of its story too – take you on a 15 mile journey. Highlights along the way include the historically themed such as the Alaska Railroad, Cook Inlet, Ship Creek and the first-settled neighborhoods. In the scenic category are several viewpoints of mountain and coast including Lake Hood where you can watch float-planes take-off and land and the lovely wooded Earthquake Park. This latter is the former site of a devastating landslide – one of the tragic consequences of the massive 1964 earthquake which resulted in a complete neighborhood sliding into the sea.
While wildlife spotting doesn’t typically feature on any city tour, things are a little different in Alaska. Your trolley driver will be purposely looking for moose encounters to share with you during your ride and Earthquake Park is a hotspot. Getting to see one of Anchorage’s mighty moose is not just a possibility on this tour – it is almost a foregone conclusion.
While the trolley tour is not going to give you any sort of in-depth discovery, it does makes for a great preview and introduction to this city and shows you what is on the menu. That way if something piques your interest you can go back under your own steam to explore it at length.
The Alaska Heritage Center
If there is one single thing which could be said to bring visitors to Alaska more than anything else (aside from its spectacular natural gems) it would have to be the multiple opportunities to explore native heritage.
The indigenous peoples of these lands fall into very distinct groups, each having their own traditions, arts and even language. For all those keen to explore the richness and diversity of cultures whose histories stretch back into the mists of time Anchorage is home to the wonderful Alaska Heritage Center. It is the largest cultural institution found anywhere in the state.
Located a little out of town but with a free shuttle service, this museum and cultural center’s mission is to preserve native customs and teach its visitors about what it has meant – both in the past and in modern times – to be an Alaska native. And so well does this highly-respected center deliver on its goals there is no doubt that you will leave it knowing a great deal more than when you arrived.
The Heritage Center is divided into three principal parts – its museum or artifacts section, spaces dedicated to performance and an outside area which features a reconstruction of native dwellings set around a lake.
The center will not just take you on a journey through thousands of years but is intended as an interactive experience, not simply somewhere to walk round exhibits. Alaska Native representatives from various ethnic groups can be found throughout to answer your questions, relate stories and add true value and authentic insight to your time here. The center also gives you the opportunity to watch (and sometimes participate in) demonstrations and performances of art, dance, song, games and storytelling and also has a theater which screens short informative movies. The art-focused Hall of Cultures showcases native art – including pieces for sale – with live demonstrations of certain traditional crafts such as basket weaving which you can then try your hand at.
Once you have explored what the center has to offer inside you can head outdoors to the shores of Lake Tiulana. Here you will find a handful of full-scale traditional dwellings representing several different Native groups which include Athabascan, Aleit and Haida. Each site includes examples of how day-to-day life was lived specific to one of the distinct groups and artifacts such as the huge whale bones at the Inupiaq dwelling. Guided tours around these varied sites will help you to understand what you are seeing but otherwise at each dwelling you will find an Alaskan ready to regale you with information about his or her ancestors who would once have lived in such places.
As there is such a diversity of things to see and do it is easily possible to spend half a day here. If you are intent on exploring all of these aspects it is perhaps advisable to skip the trolley tour and make this gem your first stop of the morning.
Morning Coffee in Anchorage
An often bandied about fact is that Anchorage has more coffee shops and cafés per capita than any other US city. Whether or not that is actually true it is certain that coffee culture is thriving here. Coffee spots range from drive-throughs and hidden holes in the wall to cosmopolitan spaces catering to hip crowds.
Dark Horse Coffee Co.
To put the minimal effort into getting a morning coffee fix you can just take advantage of the café at the Alaska Heritage Center which has outdoor seating and a range of snacks too. Otherwise, the downtown area – where you are headed next to visit the city’s principal museum – has a wealth of options. The museum itself has a respected café but if you want to take your coffee alfresco make your way to the Dark Horse Coffee Co. This charming and welcoming family run affair offers a lovely porch that surrounds you with flowers and plants cascading from baskets and hanging boxes. With a qualified barista in the family and a commitment to Heritage coffee you can be sure that you will also be getting a quality cup of coffee and for all the eco-conscious you may like to know that Dark Horse also has a sound environmental policy.
Another good option for the coffee connoisseur is the artisan-focused Steam Dot which loudly and proudly boasts its claim to being one of only a handful of Alaskan spots which offer light roast single-origin fair-trade coffee. This company actually has several locations in Anchorage. The closest to the Anchorage Museum is that at 609 F Street.
Kobuk Coffee Co.
If you want to combine your morning coffee break with a little souvenir or gift hunting head to the Kobuk Coffee Co. which is part quaint café, part incredible gift store and part bakery. The Kimball building in which the store and café is found is itself a slice of Anchorage history. Dating from 1915 and still displaying some original features, this city landmark was once the pioneering community’s general store and today’s café and bakery was the store’s living area in former times. Though the store and building have passed through different hands the Kobuk is still a family affair and offers coffee and tea choices along with some pastries and sweet treats freshly baked on the premises.
The gift shop has an incredible range of unique offerings which range from the lovingly handmade Alaskan kind to imported retro candies and vintage linens to Russian china.
The Anchorage Museum
Anchorage is home to a surprisingly large number of museums but none can match the size and diversity of the world-class Anchorage Museum. Claiming the title of Alaska’s largest museum and a constant addition in any lists of the entire state’s 10 most visited attractions, this museum tells the story of Alaska through its native and pioneering peoples, art, history, the land and science.
When the Anchorage Museum was born in the 1960s it housed nothing more than a small collection of loaned paintings and around 2,000 historical artifacts. Today, after several upgrades and extensions and after many donations and bequests the museum covers 170,000 square feet and is home to hundreds of thousands of photographs and tens of thousands of exhibited items.
A fascinating series of temporary and touring exhibitions from all corners of the globe can be found alongside the museum’s permanent Alaska-focused sections. This latter include the Alaska Gallery with its full-size reconstructions of life as it was for Native Alaskans, Russian explorers, gold-rush settlers and communities during World War II and the vast drawings and paintings collection found in the ‘Art of the North’ seven galleries. This treasure trove contains works by living Alaskan artists as well as pieces by official war artists and 18th century art works along with some incredible traditional craft items. These include bead-worked hide clothing, carvings from walrus ivory and woven bark and root baskets.
Other highlights include the science-dedicated Imaginarium Discovery Center galleries and the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center – the museums’ most recent multi-million dollar addition – which has a not-to-be-missed collection of native artifacts.
Anchorage Museum successfully combines the absorbingly traditional with the uber-modern – such as its controversial and mammoth-scale Antony Gormley sculpture which sits outside the museum – and is an essential itinerary inclusion for all those who want to explore all-things-Alaska in depth.
While the Anchorage Museum is undoubtedly the jewel in its museum/heritage crown, it is by no means all the city has to offer.
Also on the menu of choices within the center of town are the Alaska Jewish Museum, the 1915 restored house of the Oscar Anderson Museum, the Alaska Aviation Museum, the dinosaur fossils and geology exhibits of the Museum of Science and Nature and the Alaska Veterans Museum. This latter will be of especial interest to all those with a passion for military history with exhibits dedicated to such conflicts as Vietnam or focusing on the Eskimo Scouts.
Further out of town can be found the Alyeska Museum and the Crow Creek Historic Gold Mine. This collection of old buildings, antique mining equipment and artifacts (and incidentally surrounded by breath-taking scenery) dates from the late 1800s and, unsurprisingly, takes visitors on a journey through the gold-rush era years.
Lunch in Anchorage
Once you have completed your morning of exploring all-things-Alaska through the centuries at the Heritage Center and one of the city’s museums you will, no doubt, be starting to turn your thoughts to lunch.
Perfectly placed as it to make the most of both the rich Alaskan ocean bounty and the farm produce of the Matanuska Valley, Anchorage offers its diners an incredible variety of fresh ingredient dishes which can include everything from bison burgers to plates piled high with wild crab.
The surroundings in which you can enjoy a range of global cuisines (Japanese, Mexican, Italian and French are just some of the possibilities) are also highly diverse. You can settle down to anything from light snacks to lunch feasts in everything from a cozy café to a fine dining establishment and if you choose your spot wisely you can throw a great mountain view into the mix.
Your easiest and closest lunch venue after exploring the Anchorage museum also happens to be one of the city’s most raved about. Muse is located within the museum itself and offers both stylish contemporary surroundings and well-crafted dishes. Its space is vibrantly colored and light-filled while the American menu choices mainly revolve around seafood and steak with some inventive twists added to well-loved classics. There are also some lighter choices for those who have smaller midday appetites.
Asian food fans looking for an elegantly modern lunch-spot should make their way to Ginger where the ethos of ‘food as art’ is given full reign. The hand-crafted dishes here transport their diners into a world of Asian and Pacific Rim fusion with innovation and creativity featuring as signature watchwords for this much-respected enterprise. The brunch menu includes everything from coconut curry chicken skewers to sea scallops with soups and sandwiches offered for those who want to save their main dining event for evening. However, be aware that soup here can mean something as exciting as devilled crab combined with lemongrass so, expect the unexpected.
Midnight Sun Cafe
If you’d prefer to keep the casual in your lunch dining but still want great food check out the Midnight Sun Cafe which always has a dedicated local crowd in attendance. Everything is fresh as it comes here with sandwiches, salads and soups all prepared from scratch according to individual orders. There is also a vast range of baked-on-site mouth-watering delights for all those with a sweet-tooth.
An Afternoon in Seward and Anchorage
While different destinations in Alaska offer a wide variety of draws there is typically one common theme which keeps the first-time visitors arriving in a steady stream and ensures many of those will keep coming back. This major element is the natural splendor which fills Alaska’s every corner and the incredible wildlife which calls such an environment home. Coming to Alaska without experiencing at least an hour or two of the great outdoors and the scenic majesty it delivers in giant-size helpings is unthinkable. Quite how you enjoy this magnificent side of Alaska is entirely up to you; it comes in forms to suit all-comers – from those who want to get up close with the native fauna from the deck of a boat to those who want to take in all the dramatic glory from a scenic flight.
Water adventures – Up Close Encounters: From Glaciers to Whales
Getting out on the water around Anchorage is exceptionally easy with a plethora of companies offering everything from trips focusing simply on the scenery in general to those which aim to get you up close with whales or glaciers; some do all at the same time.
The most easily accessible departure points from Anchorage for half day cruises ranging from about three to five hours are Seward or Whittier.
Glaciers – Alaska has an incredible number of glaciers – about 100,000 to be more exact – with those within easy distance of Anchorage (and representing some of the state’s most accessible) numbering 60 alone. All those who have been in the near vicinity or floated on the water at the soaring sheer face of one of these ancient ice giants will tell you it is an unforgettable experience so imagine how it might feel to see several all at the same time. This experience is easily achievable here.
Portage Glacier is one of the closest to Anchorage so tends to be one of the most commonly visited with the many glaciers found on the protected and calm waters of Prince William Sound another popular choice. During your boat cruise guides will purposely be on the lookout for imminent signs of a ‘calving’ which is the moment when a section of glacier breaks away from the main flow to crash into the water below; this breathtaking sight is preceded by a loud cracking which becomes a deep rumble just before the main event.
Glaciers tend to be the star of the show but they are often not the only marvel of a boat cruise. Porpoises, whales, otters and bald eagles may be (and often are) all part of your adventure.
While the majority of people opt to see such sights from the deck of a boat this is not the only way to get an up-close glacier experience. Also on the menu are kayaking trips where you will have to navigate your way round small ice-bergs, glacier hiking or climbing and scenic flights which take in these Arctic wonders from above.
Whale Watching – If seeing a whale in the wild is your principle aim there are also plenty of companies which focus on making such dreams come true. Some trips, most of which operate from Seward, are entirely whale-focused while others simply aim to get you in the vicinity of a range of wildlife which might include sea-lion, otter, porpoise, seal and bird species such as puffin and bald eagle. Sometimes the wildlife spotting comes as an individual creature while certain cruises might take you to known colonies or vast nesting sites so you are surrounded by animals or birds in huge numbers.
The best tour options tend to avoid set routes (unless there are known hotspots), instead heading to locations of recent sightings already had that day or by working in collaboration with crews from other boats in the vicinity. Such a system keeps the odds of spotting a whale on a trip extremely high with different times of year presenting the highest chances of seeing certain species.
Spring is when gray whales return to Alaskan waters after a several thousand mile annual migration from Mexico and spend the summer here before heading to warmer waters again around October. Early summer is also orca season in the Seward coastal area. Often called killer whales, these distinct black and white giants travel in family groups with male dorsal fins reaching an incredible 6ft in height. Besides watching these animals at work and play you can also listen to their haunting song from your boat’s underwater hydrophones.
Other whale species found in these waters which might feature on your boat cruise include humpback whales and white beluga whales. Whale watching and wildlife cruises tend to include on-board narration by an expert crew member, often complimentary drinks and snacks and the free use of binoculars.
Be sure to choose companies which support ‘SENSE’ – a conservation program that works in conjunction with wildlife-watching companies which demonstrate ethical practices.
Other Water Adventures – While glaciers and whales make up the focus of many trips the wider water adventure menu offers a variety of other choices too. These include white-water rafting, jet boat safaris, canoeing and kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding.
Although nobody is quite sure when the first Alaskan native had the idea of using a dog to pull a sled or cargo of firewood across the icy or snow-covered Arctic lands it is certain this tradition goes back centuries. Once Alaska started to become a place for pioneers to explore the concept developed gradually into the systems and sleds seen today with the most significant advancements made during the gold rush years and wartime. Although the tradition of dog-sleds was born through practical needs, the modern day dog-pulled sled is more likely to be involved in recreation or racing than working purposes although there are places where dog teams are still used in this original way.
If you happen to be one of those Alaskan visitors who would like to experience just what it feels like to race through these lands behind a team of powerful huskies you have come to the right place.
Winter is of course the time to get the full-blown quintessential snow experience but there are also opportunities for a dog-sled journey even in summer. If you aren’t able to access the glaciers where dog-sledding continues even in the warmer months then you can still have an adventure with a dry-land husky cart. Many experiences will even allow you to drive yourself if you feel so inclined or otherwise you can just sit back and enjoy the ride and spectacular scenery.
The area’s mushers are also normally open for kennel visits no matter what the season. Here you can learn about all things dog-sled related. From cuddling a puppy from the latest litter of a champion line to discovering the ins and outs of competitive racing, kennel tours will give you an opportunity to chat with expert mushers who love to share their tales of musher life. Learn special commands and hear how each dog has a very specific role and maybe even get the chance to try your hand at hitching up a team.
Pre-dinner Drinks and Dinner in Anchorage and Seward
With a full day of Alaskan adventure behind you it is now time to turn your thoughts to relaxing with a sundowner drink. Of course here in the land of the midnight sun in the summer months ‘sundowner’ is a term not to be taken literally. The major bonus of this is of course that should you find the right spot you can still take advantage of that magnificent scenery as you enjoy your cocktail, craft beer or wine.
Drinking venue choices in Anchorage are diverse although most tend to put you shoulder to shoulder with locals. Choose from no-frills brewery bars or local pubs where everything is all about the beers and the warm atmosphere, through fashionable wine bars and onto elegant cocktail venues.
If you happen to be on the hunt for the best cocktails in town consider Williwaw’s where getting in is all part of the fun. During the day this venue functions as a restaurant, lounge and roof bar but as the day progresses there is a second floor space which is a secret unless you happen to be in the know. Head to the first floor phone booth and look for the blue light. If this is on you can lift the receiver, get the password and be granted access to the second floor Speakeasy. This hidden bar with its moody low lighting and dark corners really does make you feel as if you were in a prohibition-era speakeasy although it is doubtful the cocktails in such places could have matched the caliber of those here.
Perch on a barstool at the long, long bar or settle into one of the comfier padded seats and sofas to enjoy your hand-crafted cocktail which might be something authentically traditional and which gives a firm nod to the prohibition age or something intricate, as modern as it comes and totally new to you.
At the other end of the scale for cocktail fans is a venue which offers you incredible views rather than hides you away. The aptly-named Crow’s Nest in the elegant Captain Cook Hotel comes with 360 degree views which take in both mountains and ocean outside while the inside has a wood décor reminiscent of an old-time cruise-ship’s interior.
Another more refined choice for pre-dinner drinks is the lovely Ginger, that you may have already visited at lunchtime, which has a range of champagne cocktails.
If you are rather more intent on finding incredible craft beer instead of elegant surroundings head for one of the brewery bars. Anchorage has more breweries than anywhere else in the state so you won’t have to hunt too hard. Typically these venues tend to be no-frills rustic but if you are looking for quality and choice there is no better place to go. The possibilities here include the Anchorage Brewing Company with its sour beer range and the Midnight Sun Brewing Company which uses waters from a glacier in its brewing process and has earned itself a few awards on the competitive circuit.
Several of the venues mentioned for pre-dinner drinks also have restaurants attached or serve food so if you don’t feel like making any effort you don’t have to. Both Hotel Captain Cook and Ginger offer up-scale dining choices with the former serving as Barack Obama’s choice during his term of presidency.
Hotel Captain Cook
Hotel Captain Cook offers a choice between the tower-perched Crow’s Nest which offers fine dining with an American/French theme and wraparound views of city and mountains and Fletcher’s. This latter – which is a cozy, dark-wood space designed to recreate a traditional English pub – will be more appealing if you are an Italian cuisine fan.
And speaking of Italian one of the city’s most raved about eating venues is the Moose’s Tooth which is such a popular spot it is one of only a handful of pizza restaurants in the whole of the USA which can boast such a high grossing turnover. All bright colors and casual atmosphere, the Moose’s Tooth is all about gourmet pizzas which come in an incredible range and their own micro-brewery beer which is made on-site.
While Anchorage – Alaska’s most populated city – understandably offers the greater number of dining venue choices Seward – right on the ocean – is not short of options either. One of its local icons is Ray’s Waterfront which is an ideal choice for those who like dining with a view. As its name suggests this steak and seafood-focused restaurant puts you right on the coast with unbeatable vistas of ocean and mountains along with the harbor where the fine ingredients of your meal were probably unloaded just hours earlier.
An Evening in Anchorage
While the majority of Alaska destinations tend to limit their evening entertainment to bars and pubs, the size of Anchorage means the possibilities are a little more diverse. Also bear in mind that during the summer night never really comes in this land of the midnight sun. That means many things you can do during the day are often possible to do at night as well so if you haven’t managed to squeeze in everything you had hoped there is still time once you have finished relaxing over dinner.
Guided walking tours on a variety of themes including history and photography have evening possibilities while trolley tours also typically run during the evening in high season if you want to take in a few of the sights. Or perhaps you would prefer to take a tour around one of the city’s award-winning breweries? Both Glacier Brewhouse and the Midnight Sun Brewing Company offer tours and tasting and sometimes host special events so if you are a fan of micro-brewed beer evenings probably don’t get better than this.
Ghost tours are popular in Anchorage and while obviously taking you to the spots supposedly known for supernatural activity they will also give some great historical insight into the city too. Incidentally, the Anchorage Hotel – a common ghost tour inclusion – repeatedly appears on lists of the world’s most haunted hotels; its ghost is said to be that Black Jack Sturgus, a policeman murdered at the scene in 1921.
Anchorage attractions that stay open at night during high season include the Alaska Botanical Gardens and the Anchorage Museum which has a regular calendar of after-hours exhibitions and cultural events, some of which are free, ranging from film screenings to planetarium nights and from live piano performances to Historical Society talks.
Of course the magnificent natural world never closes and long daylight hours mean you can take full advantage of this. If you haven’t yet had your fill of such things, head out after dinner to the easy access Potter’s Marsh which leads its visitors through a wildlife hotspot via a winding boardwalk. If you still haven’t crossed a moose sighting off your Alaska wish-list then it is almost certain you can rectify that here. Kincaid Park is another moose haunt, especially in the evenings and the gates here don’t close until 10 pm.
Seeing the Northern Lights is something so spectacular it tends to feature on almost everyone’s bucket-list. If you happen to be in Anchorage anytime between September to April you may well get to have your own front row viewing for this sensational other-worldly light show. If you arrive outside of these months you can still get a taste of this mesmerizing natural display by visiting the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts and experiencing ‘AurorA’. Settle down to enjoy 40 minutes of movie – screened every hour – which streams thousands of dazzlingly beautiful photographs by Dave Parkhurst set to highly atmospheric music.
If you’re ready to experience the beauty of Seward and Anchorage in person, contact one of our vacation planners today!