If you're traveling to Alaska, Anchorage is almost certainly listed somewhere in your itinerary. Yes, despite being the largest city in the state, it can be surprisingly difficult to find things to do in Anchorage. So, if your trip calls for spending a couple of days in the city - like ours did last summer - I hope you'll find this list of things to do in Anchorage helpful.
Since I'm getting questions about visiting Anchorage, via this blog and elsewhere too, I updates this post with more information. If you scroll past the list of things to do in Anchorage, you'll find tips based on in-depth research and advice from locals. These tips are about when to visit Anchorage, what the weather there is like and what to wear while visiting.
Visiting Anchorage is a strange experience
Anchorage is an strange travel destination. On the one hand, it may not be the capital but it is the largest and most important city in Alaska. On the other hand, let's face it, it's kinda drab. And when you visit, you see why -
- Alaska is far away and separate from the rest of the continental USA.
- Alaska is cold. Really cold.
Which means keeping an actual bustling American city in that location is an ongoing challenge. Consider this: Anchorage is a city where tens of thousands of people live, yet there are still frequent sightings of Grizzly bears and moose within city limits.
Visiting Anchorage last summer, we had the distinct sense that its inhabitants focus on creating a life for themselves there. Tourists? They come second and for all the best reasons. That isn't to say that anyone was rude or inhospitable, just that the city has this practical vibe to it. At least, that was our impression.
Travelers often view Anchorage as a snow-shrouded city with few modern amenities where wildlife roams the streets, but this isn't entirely true. While moose, bears, and other wild creatures are actually a common sight in the city's residential districts, Anchorage is a truly modern city in many other ways, and snow is only a part of the picture during the winter months. Summer weather tends to be pleasantly mild, and the super long daylight hours of that time of year ensure that everyone gets to enjoy as much of it as possible. If snow is your thing, though, you're likely to find plenty of it if you visit Anchorage during winter. Again, more about the weather and when to visit after my list of things to do in Anchorage.
What to See in Anchorage
One thing Anchorage doesn't have is a stunning cityscape -- the entire place was leveled by a 9.2 earthquake in 1964 and therefore lacks the old buildings full of character and charm found in other major West Coast cities. Nonetheless, there's still plenty of fascinating things to see in the city. The Alaska Native Heritage Museum provides an in-depth look into the lives of the indigenous people of the north, and you won't see just artifacts behind glass cases here -- you'll also have a chance to vibrant living history demonstrations of Native dancing, food preparation, carving, and storytelling.
Other must-sees while visiting Anchorage include Earthquake Park, which is located on a site where an entire neighborhood was destroyed during the big earthquake of 1964, the Alaska Zoo, the Alaska Botanical Garden, and the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge. Anchorage also offers an incredible trail system -- the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail begins in the heart of downtown and winds through 11 miles of gorgeous northern scenery. The Bartlett Ski Trails provide winter visitors with a convenient way to get in some brisk cross country skiing during winter, and the flat, paved Chester Creek Trail is ideal for those seeking an easy, scenic walk.
What to Do Downtown Anchorage
Although the majority of activities in Anchorage revolve around the city's outdoor culture, visitors can nonetheless enjoy urban amenities in downtown Anchorage. Craft beer lovers, for instance, will find locally handcrafted ales at Glacier Brewhouse, Humpy's Great Alaskan Alehouse, 49th State Brewing Company, and King Street Brewing Company. Try Snow City Cafe for classic comfort food, and if the occasion calls for fine dining, you can't go wrong with Jens' for creative cuisine with an Alaskan flair. Other options include Ginger, where you can get fabulous Pan-Asian fare, Club Paris for classic American steakhouse food and ambiance, and Kincaid Grill and Wine Bar for seafood and fine wine.
Why Anchorage is fascinating
Did I use the word "drab" earlier? Yes, I did. But honestly, I mean that in a positive sense. I really do. As we traveled through the lands of the north, I fell in love with Whitehorse in the Yukon, and with every Alaskan city and town we visited. Yes, they all have a practical down-to-earth vibe. But there is something so intrinsically authentic about that, it's totally captivating.
With that in mind, we totally enjoyed Anchorage. There were no fancy or flashy attractions yet there were so many things to do in Anchorage that kept us fully engaged in an ongoing Alaskan experience. Which made the entire visit anything but boring or drab.
And if you're willing to drive a short distance out of town, you'll find even more great places to visit. Since these can all be easily incorporated into your visit, I included them in this list of fun things to do in Anchorage. We did quite a few of them when we visited last summer. And we're definitely going to be back to Anchorage in the future to see and do even more. For now, I hope other travelers will find this list useful.
Fun things to do in Anchorage - in and around town
1. Ulu factory
This is one of the very few things to do in Anchorage that are geared specifically at tourists, so I put it first on this list. If you visit Anchorage as part of a tour group, they will almost certainly get you to see the Ulu factory. Here you will get to see how the traditional ulu knife is made and encouraged to buy it as a gift to your friends and family. The "factory" tour also includes an instructional talk about caring for for ulu knives, how to sharpen it, how to use it etc.
During the months of July and August, the Ulu Factory offers visitors free rides in their vintage trolley from downtown Anchorage to the factory. Expect the place to be busy, especially if there's a large group coming in from one of the cruise ships.
Location: 211 W Ship Creek Ave, Anchorage, AK Website: http://www.theulufactory.com/ Opening Hours: Sundays through Saturdays from 10:00 A.M. to 7:00 P.M. Admission Fees: FREE
*Ma'am, I could not find a photo in Wikipedia or nps.gov for this
2. Alaska Native Heritage Center
If you want to know more about Alaska’s indigenous people, visit the Alaska Native Heritage Center. The center - first opened in 1999 - it aims at providing information about the 11 major cultural groups in the state. It is located just 10 miles from downtown Anchorage.
The center features six life-size villages that represent some of the cultural groups. Check their website for information about demonstrations. These include traditional dancing and storytelling sessions. You can also view the works of local artists and enjoy a coffee and snacks in the cafeteria.
Location: 8800 Heritage Center Dr, Anchorage, AK Website: http://www.alaskanative.net/ Opening Hours: Sundays through Saturdays from 9:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. Admission Fees: Adults: $24.95 – Seniors/Military: $21.15 – Children: $16.95 (Ages 7-16) – FREE for children six and younger
3. Eklutna Village Historical Park
The Eklutna Village Historic Park is often on the itinerary of guided tour groups visiting Anchorage. Getting there takes a 30-minute drive but it is well worth the trip and if you have a car, add it to your own list of things to do in Anchorage. Visiting the park, you will get to see and learn about the history, culture, and customs of the Dena'ina Athabascans and how Russian Orthodox traditions influenced them.
One of the interesting things to see at the Eklutna Village Historic Park is the Spirit Houses, which are unique to Athabaskan tradition. Per the cultural beliefs, these houses were built by families of persons who already died and this serves as marking of the deceased person’s grave.
Free parking is provided so the only thing to worry about is the admission fee. There's some walking to do around the place, so wear comfortable shoes, bring rain gear (just in case) and don't forget bug spray.
Location: 26640 Eklutna Village Rd, Chugiak, Anchorage, AK Website: http://www.eklutnahistoricalpark.org/ Opening Hours: It is only open to the public from May 15 through September 15; The guided tours are from Monday through Fridays from 10:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. Admission Fees: Adults: $5 – Those aged 60 and above: $2.50 – Children aged 12-18: $2.50 – Those 11 years old and under are FREE
4. Earthquake Park
A devastating earthquake took place in Alaska in 1964 and young Anchorage took a big hit too. The quake affected one area in particular and the place was turned into a park that commemorates the dramatic event. Initially, the city made plans to develop the area but because of the instability of the soil, they decided to avoid buildings and turn this into an open park with a long walking trail.
When we visited Earthquake Park, we spent a while reading the plaques which explain a lot about the earthquake and how it happened.
The rest of the park is a long and quite beautiful walking trail. Part of the trail is fully shaded, going through a serene forest. The trail then gets closer to the shore, allowing for great views of the bay.
If you're looking to learn a little bit about the impact of the Good Friday earthquake in Alaska and enjoy a pleasant stroll in the middle of the city, add Earthquake Park to your list of things to do in Anchorage.
Location: 4306 W Northern Lights Blvd, Anchorage, AK Website: http://anchorageparkfoundation.org/directory/earthquake-park/ Opening Hours: Sundays through Fridays from 6:00 A.M. to 11:00 P.M. – Saturdays from 6:00 P.M. to 11:00 P.M. Admission Fees: FREE
5. Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
Another place that's not within city limits. This one is in Girdwood, so just under one hour drive south of Anchorage. Well worth it though, both for the center as well as for the beautiful scenic drive along the Seward Highway next to Turnagain Arm.
In fact, here's a tip. Almost a #12 for my list of things to do in Anchorage but it's really a short stop so I'll include it as an "en route" stop on your way to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.
Stop in Beluga Point, on your way. Take in the views of Turnagain Arm and just enjoy the place. And yes, it's called Beluga Point because you might even be able to spot whales from the shore. We didn't see any, but my husband and boys enjoyed climbing the huge rocks and throwing stones into the ocean.
Back to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
According to their mission statement, the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center is dedicated to preserving wildlife through conservation, research, education, and quality animal care. So, you can go there and enjoy the wildlife while contributing towards noble goals.
You will see bears (black and brown), moose, wolves, reindeer, musk ox and many other native Alaska animals. They provide lifelong shelters for wild animals rescued from dangerous situations and you can read the stories of some of these adorable critters right next to their enclosures.
The center is also responsible for introducing the elk back into Alaska. They are currently in the process of reintroducing wood bison.
Visitors can walk or drive around the center to see the animals. We chose to walk - it's really not that huge a place and you can cover the walking trails in 5-10 minutes. There's also a busy and friendly shop that's worth a stop in its own right. Lots of unique merchandise and you can buy your souvenirs there, knowing you're helping to support an important cause.
Bring rain gear if the weather forecast is iffy and get appropriate footwear even on a sunny day. The area is muddy and it might drizzle anytime. Don't let the rain stop you from visiting though. We had rain there during our entire stay and it didn't really bother us much. I even managed to take a Mooselfie in the rain!
Location: Mile 79 Seward Highway, Girdwood, Anchorage, AK Website: http://www.alaskawildlife.org/ Opening Hours: Fridays through Mondays from 10:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. Admission Fees: Adults: $15 – Youth (Ages 7 to 17): $12 – Children six years old and below: FREE – Seniors: $65 – Military: $12 (Please bring your U.S. Military ID)
6. Potter Marsh Bird Sanctuary
If you are a bird enthusiast or just want to see beautiful types of birds and sceneries, Potter Marsh Bird Sanctuary in Anchorage, Alaska should be on your list of things to do in Anchorage. The best time to visit is from late April through September. You may spot Canada geese, gulls, shorebirds, trumpeter swans, canvasback ducks, red-necked phalaropes, northern pintails, horned, red-necked grebes, and more. If you want to witness the spring and fall migration, visit Potter Marsh Bird Sanctuary from May through August.
Aside from the birds, moose also frequent the area. The best times to see these large animals are from May to June.
If you can, bring binoculars or spotting scopes for better viewing. Fishing is prohibited in the area. Visitors are advised to use clothing fit for cold weather as it is windy here even during summer.
Location: 154th Ave, Anchorage, AK Website: http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=viewinglocations.pottermarsh
7. Portage Glacier
One of the most beautiful glaciers that you can see in Alaska is about one hour away from the city of Anchorage.
Granted, getting this view will take you more than an hour because you'll need to take a cruise on the lake to get close to the glacier. Still, it's so beautiful, I had to include it in this list of things to do in Anchorage. Hiking may also be an option but the cruise takes visitors close to the glacier at a shorter time.
Whether or not you're taking the boat to see the glacier, don't miss out on the lovely visitors center right by the lake. The Begich-Boggs Visitors Center is quite wonderful. Lots to see and do, including a movie about Alaska. If you have the National Parks pass, the movie is free and if you don't, they'll ask you for $5 to see it. Do yourself a favor and see it. I don't usually mention movies in visitors center but the one we watched at Begich-Boggs was hands down the best visitors center movie we have ever seen. Great content in a super modern theater. Don't miss that one and come back here to thank me later.
Location: Portage Lake Loop, Girdwood, Anchorage, AK Website: https://www.travelalaska.com/Destinations/Communities/Portage%20Glacier.aspx Opening Hours: Sundays through Saturdays from 8:00 A.M. to 8:00 P.M. Admission Fees: There is no admission fee but there are guided tour and cruise fees if you choose to take them. Tour Fee: Adults: $89.95 – Children: $49.95 Cruise Fee: Adults: $39 – Children: $19
8. Westchester Lagoon
Of you want a quick escape from urban Anchorage, you might want to go to Westchester Lagoon. It is just 15 minutes away from downtown Anchorage. Locals go here to relax, walk, run, jog, paddleboard, kayak, and the like, and you can do the same. The Westchester Lagoon is especially great for families because it is also equipped with an outdoor exercise station, slides, and more.
You may also spot any number of animals here. Moose, red foxes, otters, muskrats, minks, shorebirds, geese, and other kinds of birds consider the lagoon as their home.
This is actually a good item for a wintertime list of things to do in Anchorage. Ice skating is one of the biggest attractions from January through March and many people go there during on weekends to enjoy the frozen lagoon.
Location: 1824 W 15th Ave, Anchorage, AK Website: http://www.alaska.org/detail/westchester-lagoon
9. Oscar Anderson House Museum
Constructed in 1915, the Oscar Anderson House Museum is one of the oldest homes in the area. Oscar Anderson lived here from 1915 to 1974. After his death, his widow, Elizabeth Anderson, donated the house to the Municipality of Anchorage. So, not very ancient but still interesting to see the home of the 18th person in history to set foot in Anchorage.
The preserved indoors allow you to step back in time and see what life was like for Alaskans in the previous century. Tours are available in season - between Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend.
Location: 420 M St, Anchorage, AK Website: http://www.aahp-online.net/oscar-anderson-house-museum.html Opening Hours: It is not open now but it will reopen by June through August 2018. It will be open on Tuesdays through Sundays from 12 noon to 4 P.M. Admission Fees: Adults and Teenagers: $10 – Children Aged 3to 12: $5 – Residents of Alaska: $5
10. Chugach State Park
This state park offers one of the most beautiful and scenic views in Anchorage, Alaska. It is home to wildlife and different kinds of vegetation. There's a nice trail near the river where visitors may spot beavers and salmons from viewing decks specifically put up for that purpose.
Many a bear call this park home, so the rangers sometimes close certain areas where the bears are active. Follow the signs and notices to give the bears some space.
If you wish to experience more of the beautiful nature around Anchorage, you can rent cabins in Chugach State park or camp there. There are plenty of hiking trails, making this a wonderful park to explore, right by the city.
Location: Mile 115 Seward Highway, Girdwood, Anchorage, AK Website: http://dnr.alaska.gov/parks/units/chugach/ Opening Hours: 24 Hours Admission Fees: Fees depend on the type of activity you want to do at the park
11. Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum
Aviation is not only part of Alaska's history, it's also a common and crucial mode of transportation in the state today. For a glimpse of this important aspect of Alaskan life, add the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum to your list of things to do in Anchorage.
You'll find many educational exhibits here, including a couple of dozens of old airplanes. Or you could pop into the restoration hangar where volunteers work to restore these vintage aircraft. This is also a great chance to see seaplanes take off and land nearby.
Location: 4721 Aircraft Dr, Anchorage, AK Website: https://www.alaskaairmuseum.org/ Opening Hours: Tuesdays through Saturdays from 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. – Sundays: 12 P.M. to 5 P.M. Admission Fees: Adults: $15 – Seniors and Veterans: $12 – Children (5 to 17 years old): $8
12. Kincaid Park
This is another park in Anchorage that locals love and you can enjoy, too. The park is very large and it's frequented by runners, bikers, hikers, dog lovers, parents, soccer players, and many more. When it's not covered in snow, that is.
The park is huge and there's a paved road that takes you close to the seashore where you can just enjoy the view.
Look out for wildlife. If you're going out jogging, avoid headphones so you can be aware of your surroundings at all time. People frequently come across moose and bear in this park, and you could too.
Location: 6998 Raspberry Rd, Anchorage, AK Website: http://www.muni.org/departments/parks/pages/parkdistrictsw.aspx Opening Hours: Open daily from 10:00 A.M. to 10:00 P.M.
The map for these things to do in Anchorage
As always, I try to wrap up these long posts with a map. If you click on the icon in the top left corner, you'll be able to bring up the list of things to do in Anchorage that were mentioned in this post. Again, note that some of these attractions require leaving the city limits and driving a car. Nothing that goes beyond a short day trip though.
When to Visit Anchorage, Alaska
Update: I now have a post dedicated to determining the best time to visit Alaska. And if you're still not sure, also check out my posts about the best time to view the northern lights and the best time to see whales in Alaska.
The best time of year to visit Anchorage depends on the needs and preferences of the individual traveler. As mentioned previously, summer weather is pleasant and mild, but because it's the most popular time of year to visit, travelers to Anchorage will contend with large crowds of people.
Summer in Alaska is a time of high energy, with the natural world in full bloom and almost round the clock daylight. Activity choices range from flightseeing in the Alaska Range to dining on freshly caught salmon in one of the city's fine seafood restaurants.
Visiting Alaska During the Shoulder Season
Both of the shoulder seasons, spring and fall, don't have much to offer the average traveler. Spring is short and muddy, with the melting snow revealing garbage, dog droppings, and other associated debris that's been hidden all winter by a pristine blanket of snow. Still, travelers who decide to visit Anchorage in spring won't have to deal with the big crowds of summer and somewhat smaller crowds of winter, and they'd probably also enjoy substantial savings on lodging.
The main reason to visit Anchorage in the autumn is that the fish are still running -- and Anchorage is the only city in the United States with a creek bearing seasonal salmon runs running right through the middle of town. Even though the fishing might not be quite as good during autumn as in summer, you'll avoid the stifling crowds associated with what is known in the area as "combat fishing." You can choose to fish in Anchorage's Ship Creek or enjoy a day trip to the Kenai Peninsula or the Mat-Su Valley and fish the wild rivers and streams. If you visit early enough in autumn, you can also attend the Alaska State Fair in Palmer. Although autumn is generally rainy throughout the state, September sometimes brings surprisingly balmy days, and as an added benefit, the cool fall nights eliminate the mosquito problem.
Visiting Alaska in Winter
Although winter doesn't get the massive crowds that summer does, it has its own specific appeal to many travelers. You can enjoy snow sports at nearby Alyeska, rent snow machines or snowshoes and go exploring, schedule a dogsled ride, attend the world-renowned Fur Rondy festival, see the start of the Iditarod, or perhaps best of all, watch the Northern Lights dance across the sky.
What to Wear when visiting Anchorage
When it comes to dressing for Alaska weather, layering is king no matter what time of year. Even during winter, temperatures and weather conditions can fluctuate drastically during the course of any given day several times over. What starts out as a beautiful sunny day, for instance, can become rainy or snowy in a matter of hours, become sunny again by noon, experience more rain or snow by mid-afternoon, and sunny again by evening. Daytimes temperatures can be pleasantly warm at noon and chilly an hour later when a north wind blows through.
Anchorage is a casual city where residents and travelers alike put comfort over style. You'll need a good base layer of long-sleeved shirts and pants in tightly woven fabrics that you can then add layers as weather conditions and temperatures change. In summer, always bring a lightweight, water-resistant windbreaker, while you'll need warmer vests and coats for winter wear. Warm socks, sturdy shoes, and at least one warm hat are recommended as well. Also, keep in mind that even though summer daytime temperatures may be mild, long sleeves and pants provide protection against the region's fierce mosquitos.
Most travelers to Anchorage can get away with packing only one or two outfits designed for wear in upscale restaurants or other venues, but if you aren't planning on going anywhere fancy, skip the classy clothes and leave room for comfortable attire. Always bring at least two pairs of sturdy, comfortable shoes when visiting the Last Frontier.
Because Alaska is a land of extremes with a surprise around every corner, the most important thing you can bring is a sense of adventure. If you forget something like a pair of toasty socks, a good windbreaker, or bug spray, you can always purchase these things almost anywhere in Alaska, but a sense of adventure can't be bought.
If you're looking for even more advice on what to wear when visiting Alaska, try my post about visiting Fairbanks. Further up in the north, Fairbanks has even more extreme weather than Anchorage, so you can find more advice there. And don't worry, the advice is based on research and asking locals.
And if you want to include even more stunning natural scenery, check out my post about Alaska's National Parks. They're not all accessible from Anchorage (or at all) but some are!
Finally, if you're looking for a place to stay while in Anchorage and you're traveling with a family, you make want to take a look at the list of Anchorage hotels with pools that I have here.
I hope you enjoyed this post! Have you visited any of these places? If so, let me know in a comment! And if you have any questions, feel free to ask too. I don't have all the answers, but I'll do my best to try and help you out.