Wreathed by the Chugach State Park, a half-million-acre natural playground with 5,000-foot peaks on one side, and the waters of the Cook Inlet on the other, you’re never too far from adventure in Anchorage. Just minutes away from shops, restaurants, craft breweries, and museums are world-class hiking routes, 100-plus miles of bike trails, and prodigious salmon fisheries.
Many travelers fly in and immediately take their car or camper rental deeper into the state, but you’d be remiss to not spend a night or two in Alaska’s most populous city. Here’s what to do in Anchorage—from where to eat and sleep, to what to see.
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Considering large-ship cruises are likely on pause for the summer and border closures mean driving through Canada into the state is a no-go, your best bet is to fly into Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. There are often direct flights from Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Chicago, and Minneapolis, as well as myriad connecting flights.
If you’re looking to explore more of Alaska, it’s also possible to fly into Fairbanks International Airport and drive (roughly six hours) or take the train (about 12 hours) to Anchorage. It’s a trek, but it passes through the bucket list worthy Denali National Park and Preserve, home to the highest peak in North America.
What to do
If you’ve come to Alaska knowing nothing about the 49th state, the Anchorage Museum is a good place to start. Exhibits distill the historical, cultural, political, social, and artistic elements that have gone into making the Last Frontier what it is. The flagship exhibition is in the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center, which houses more than 600 Alaska Native pieces, ranging from Tlingit war helmets to Iñupiaq feast bowls. Be sure to check out the Art of the North galleries—with paintings, photography, sculptures, video, and more aimed at offering a glimpse into what life in the international north has been like throughout time. For more local art, Dos Manos Gallery, an artist co-op, sells everything from handcrafted earrings and apparel to prints and ceramics.
It’s unlikely you came to Alaska to stay inside, though. Take advantage of the proximity to Chugach State Park and hit the trails. Flattop is a perennial favorite and easily the most-trafficked trail in the state; it’s rated as moderate, though there is a 200-foot scramble at the top that can be intimidating. (We’d also argue that the sweeping view of Anchorage from the parking lot is worth the drive alone.) Looking for a challenge? Try the steep 5-mile-round-trip Bird Ridge for expansive views of Turnagain Arm, or tackle the 12-mile loop to Eagle and Symphony Lakes, which are two different shades of blue and green, one mint-hued and the other aquamarine. If you’re looking for something the whole family can do, opt for walking or biking a portion of the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. The leisurely, 11-mile paved trail follows the coast from downtown all the way to Kincaid Park. Be sure to keep an eye out for moose.
In the summer, follow the fishermen to Ship Creek in downtown. From mid-May to late summer you can watch king, coho, and pink salmon battle their way upstream to their spawning grounds to complete their life cycle. You’ll know the fish are running thick if urban anglers are shoulder-to-shoulder in the river. If you’re visiting during the Slam’n Salm’n Derby (June), rent gear from The Bait Shack and try your hand at landing a prize-winning king (usually upwards of 30 pounds).
Anchorage also makes a decent base camp for day trips if you don’t mind doing a bit of driving. Two hours north is Talkeetna, the quirky hamlet that the show ‘Northern Exposure’ was styled after. There it’s possible to jump on a flightseeing tour of Denali, visit a dog-mushing kennel, rent fat-tire bikes, and visit artisans. Just 45 minutes south on the Seward Highway, often ranked one of the most scenic drives in the U.S., is Girdwood, where you can hike to glaciers, take a tram to the top of the mountain for cocktails at Bore Tide Deli and Bar, and visit the nearby Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. Go another 90 minutes beyond Girdwood and you’ll reach Seward, an outdoor lovers nirvana. There you can kayak between glaciers in Kenai Fjords National Park, go whale watching, participate in king salmon or halibut fishing, and more.
Where to eat
Showstopping and locally sourced is the mantra at Tent City Taphouse. The gastropub opened during the pandemic, no less, but is already making a name for itself as the to-go for hard-to-find craft beers from all over Alaska. Start with the caesar salad, which incorporates smoked salmon in the dressing, or the short rib braised poutine with house-made duck fat fries. Follow it with the flavor symphony that is their Halibut Alaskana, served Olympia-style with creme fraiche, smoked lemon pan jus, braised fennel, house mashed potatoes, and root vegetables. Wrap up with their Madagascar vanilla bean crème brûlée, which calls on a recipe that’s nearly 300-years-older than the state itself.
Another relative newcomer that focuses on quality, local ingredients is Altura Bistro. Don’t let the strip-mall location fool you, Altura knows what they’re doing. Lunch is take-out or delivery only these days, so swing through for a to-go order of their Spicy Mother Clucker buttermilk fried chicken sandwich and a sweet prawn bisque. At night, indulge in their red-king-crab macaroni and cheese, which is exactly as decadent as it sounds.
Other spots to keep on your radar: Moose’s Tooth for unique pizzas and locally crafted beer (expect at least an hour wait time); F Street Station, an unofficial pilot bar that’s home to the best (and most reasonably priced) halibut sandwich in town; Wild Scoops for ice cream crafted from hyper-local ingredients; Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop for treats produced by a James Beard-nominated baker; Tequila 61 for excellent cocktails; and the various reindeer hotdog stands sprinkled throughout downtown for late-night noshing.
Where to stay
The Hotel Captain Cook (from $149 per night) is an Anchorage institution. The first of the hotel’s three towers opened in 1965, just a year after the famed Good Friday earthquake—the second most powerful ever recorded worldwide, and that leveled much of downtown. Since then, the 546 guestrooms have hosted untold numbers of celebrities, dignitaries, elected officials (President Obama stayed here in 2015), and everyday travelers. The upper-level rooms have incredible views of the inlet and the Chugach Mountain Range.
Another solid choice is The Lakefront Anchorage Hotel (from $110 per night), located on the scenic bank of Lake Hood, the world’s busiest floatplane base, so you can watch two-seater aircraft take off from the water, right from your room. Just 45 minutes away in Girdwood is the Resort Alyeska (from $180 per night), a hub for summer hiking and winter skiing. If you’d rather opt for an Airbnb, but want to still be in or close to the action, shoot for rentals in the neighborhoods of Downtown, Bootlegger’s Cove, or Spenard.
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