Washed over by the icy North Pacific and beset by the snow-mantled peaks of the Coast Mountains, Anchorage – Alaska’s most populated city – really is a place shrouded on all sides by wilderness. Earthquakes have rattled it, oil industries, gold rushes and railroads have all boomed between its streets, while the settlements of native Dena’ina people have flourished along its rivers and ice creeks for far longer.
Today, the town is the cultural hub of the Last Frontier State, offering all the outdoorsy draws you’d expect of a city so deep in the wilds of the north, along with bustling microbreweries and raucous pubs, open-air markets, state museums and heritage centers to boot. Add to that some top-notch skiing in the Chugach ranges, glacier walking and sea kayaking and bingo: it’s easy to see why this far-flung town is a real favourite on the northern circuit around the United States. Oh, and don’t forget the boots and bobble hats folks – this one’s chilly!
Let’s explore the best things to do in Anchorage:
1. Hike the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail
Fringed by wild fir trees and walked by galumphing moose and stalking wolves alike, the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail can be found ringing its way around the edges of Anchorage city. Easily accessible from the heart of the town, the 11-mile track weaves along beautiful, salt-sprayed sections of the Pacific coast, around the runways of the Ted Steven’s International Airport, past the profile of Fire Island out at sea, and down to where the dunes of Kincaid Park meet the more rugged reaches on the edge of Point Campbell. Closed to cars and trucks, the track is great for cross-country skiing, hiking, biking and snow-shoeing – depending on the season.
2. See polar bears at the Alaska Zoo
Alaska Zoo is a curious thing. It started when local Anchorage-based grocery man Jack Snyder won a baby elephant called Annabelle back in 1966. By the 1970s, this trunked creature in the stables had grown into the main attraction at Alaska Children’s Zoo, while donations of other crawlies meant the exhibitions just kept getting bigger and bigger. Today, Alaska Zoo sits in the shadow of the mountains just south of the city’s Far North Bicentennial Park, where its attractions range from Nigerian dwarf goats to lynxes, from black bears to wolves and snow leopards. The piece de resistance though? Well, that has to be the polar bears, Ahpun and Lyutyik, whose home at the zoo is currently undergoing a hefty renovation.
3. Sip local craft beers at the Midnight Sun Brewing Co.
Staying true to the rule that there’s no American city too small to support a microbrewery (or three), Anchorage offers up this acclaimed beer depot. Situated on Dimond Hook Drive just to the south of the center, the menu touts a range of creative hops concoctions, going from the Pacific dweller’s favorite, Arctic Rhino Coffee Porter, to the warming, peppery tones of Sockeye Red IPA. Real hops heads can also look forward to finding a range of seasonal brews adorning the menu, all alongside a medley of all-American bites, from mozzarella sticks to grilled-cheese sandwiches to double-fried chips. It’s great for a post-hike unwind!
4. Hit the trails of the Chugach State Park
Few cities in the world can boast such a beautiful back garden as Anchorage, and the Chugach State Park is the jewel in the crown of this city’s wilds, encompassing the urban sprawl to the south, east and north. It is home to soaring mountains and empty valleys, icy lakes and alpine forests; all of which make for some fine hiking and biking! There are countless marked trails currently weaving into the hinterlands here from the city too. Favourites include the Lakeside Trail, which cuts along the edges of Eklutna Lake and across the ice fields to Girdwood in the east. Then there’s the uber-popular Hillside Trail System, which boasts mile upon mile of track, the famous Flattop Mountain climb and even panoramic viewpoints overlooking Anchorage itself.
5. Celebrate regional culture at the Alaska Native Heritage Center
Complete with its own cluster of reconstructed native dwellings, made out of local timbers and decorated with colossal whale bones, along with regular exhibitions, events and performances of local dance, language, cooking and heritage, the Alaska Native Heritage Center is the best place to go to learn about the range of native people who inhabited this corner of America alone, before the great migrations of the Gold Rush. The spot is located just to the west of downtown Anchorage, and also hosts a regular line-up of different workshops and shows, going from world music gigs to al fresco drumming to film festivals for indigenous productions.
6. Hit the pistes of the Hilltop Ski Area
Draped over the small foothills of the Chugach ranges just a short 15-minute drive from the heart of the Anchorage downtown, the Hilltop Ski Area is a fine place to strap on the skis or wax down the snowboard while visiting. Suited perfectly to beginner skiers, the resort has just one piste, a humble chairlift and a couple of drags. There’s also a small terrain park for adrenaline-seekers on-site, along with a ski school and rental facilities if you’re in need of gear. And if the terrain here just isn’t challenging enough, then be sure to shoot southwards out of town to Alyeska – one of North America’s most acclaimed winter resorts where the snow is powder-perfect!
7. Sharpen your Inuit knowledge at the Ulu Factory
Situated just on the edge of the Knik Arm waterside in downtown Anchorage, the Ulu Factory has been churning out fine examples of the northern ulu knife for more than 25 years. Today, it’s not only one of the prime places to pick up one of these traditional blades of the north (used classically by Yup’ik and Inuit peoples for speedy skinning, ice carving and cutting snow blocks for igloos), but also something of a heritage museum in its own right. Visitors can come to watch experienced craftsmen producing the knives in the same way they were made centuries ago, while there’s also an on-site gift shop and garden area to enjoy.
8. Drive the Seward Highway and back
It’s fair to say that the delights of visiting Anchorage start long before visitors even arrive in the city, at least – that is – if you intend to come by road on the iconic Seward Highway. This famous stretch of scenic tarmac weaves and dips and dodges its way through the snow-topped peaks of the Chugach Mountains, offering up sweeping panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean and glacier fields along the way. Close to Anchorage, travelers on the route can wonder at the rugged peaks of the great Turnagain Arm fjord, along with snow-dusted mountains along the Gulf of Alaska and moose-stalked forests alike.
9. Delve into Alaskan history at the Anchorage Museum
Drawing in just shy of 200,000 visitors each year, this sprawling exhibition space of more than 170,000 square feet is hailed as the finest museum in all of Alaska. It’s loaded with everything from landscape portraiture of the wild Alaskan backcountry (just check out that Romantic rendition of craggy Mount McKinley by the famed Sydney Laurence) to collections of tools and relics from the Frontier State’s native tribespeople of centuries gone by. A journey through the attraction promises to tell tales of Alaskan history from its earliest years, ranging through Russian settlement, to the great gold rushes, to the curious undercurrent of artistic modernism found today in Anchorage itself.
10. Scale sand dunes and play disc golf at the Kincaid Park
Accessible from the city via winding Raspberry Road, the Kincaid Park is a fine place to glimpse Alaska’s beautiful coastal wilderness. A patchwork of undulating hills and fir groves, the area is now perhaps the prime outdoor recreation spot in the city, drawing in hikers, runners, and bikers, not to mention view seekers who come to watch the sunsets over the Cook Inlet. There are two other major attractions at Kincaid though: the great Kincaid Dunes and a full 18-hole disc golf course. The former are great for exploring, rising and falling and offering beautiful views over the Chugach and the woods, while the latter is a new addition to the area that’s perfect for travelers with kids in tow.
11. Breakfast in the Snow City Café
Stacks of pancakes doused in Canadian maple syrup, gluten-free breakies galore, one of the most acclaimed eggs Benedict dishes in the state, crab-flavored omelettes and sockeye salmon cakes with that uber-fresh Anchorage edge all add up to make Snow City Café unquestionably the top spot in the city for starting the day. The joint is located on the corner of 4th Avenue in the downtown, boasts a sunny interior with plenty of natural light and a staff that is perpetually smiling. Don’t miss the regular community events that take place here either, ranging from summertime street parties to charity fundraisers.
12. Shop for local produce at the Saturday Market
Anchorage’s famous Saturday Market is a hubbub of local chatter, drawing people in from the surrounding Chugach valleys and the city’s suburbs to mingle and talk and – most importantly – eat! Yes sir, this is the place to be if you’ve come to Alaska for the cuisine. Stalls pop-up selling all kinds of regional delicacies, including smoked salmon, fresh salmon that tastes plucked straight from the mountain streams, fresh veg, fruit and even Caribbean and Polynesian curries. There are craft stalls too. These tout a medley of Russian dolls and painted Fabergé eggs, Native American trinkets and Anchorage-related souvenirs.
13. Take a plane ride with Rust’s Flying Service
With decades of experience offering flight tours over the Alaskan backcountry, Rust’s is arguably the go-to place for travelers eager to case out Anchorage and its breathtaking surroundings by air. The various packages offered at Rust’s is now eclectic to say the least, while the added flexibility of flying adds a whole range of attractions to the mix. There are bear viewing excursions to the sandy bays and rugged valleys of Katmai National Park across the waters of the Alaskan Gulf. There are fly-in fishing trips to some of the top salmon-catching spots in the country. There are altitudinous tours of the great Denali National Park and the snow-mantled peaks of Mount McKinley. The possibilities are endless!
14. Go bird spotting on the Potter Marsh
A kaleidoscope of Canadian geese, red-necked phalaropes, ducks, signet swans and eagles is what awaits bird spotters at the beautiful wetlands of the Potter Marsh, sat just on the edge of the Seaward Highway a short drive from Anchorage central. Perched neatly on the side of the Chugach Mountains, in a small section of the city’s protected coastal reserve, the area comes with oodles of songbirds and nests between its trees, beautiful swathes of riparian habitat and rolling meadows spotted with rare creatures. There are also winding boardwalks to hike on, making this one great for outdoorsy types of all kinds.
15. See planes and seaplanes at the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum
Chronicling the curiously prolific aviation history of this far-flung section of the United States, the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum makes its home on the banks of Lake Hood; Anchorage’s prime seaplane port (and the largest of its kind in the world) that sits right in the heart of the city. The on-site exhibitions contain the rusting shells of planes and fuselages from times gone by, along with oodles of photograph collections and a hall of fame dedicated to Alaska’s aviator elite. Children get reduced rates.