The list of best things to do in Anchorage, Alaska might be better described as the “best things to do from Anchorage,” since the city can be a jumping off point as well as a destination. As you plan your visit for the upcoming Alaska tourist season – generally described as May through August – keep in mind that you will want to leave the city to see the state’s natural wonders and wildlife. But not everything to see is outside the city.
Anchorage maintains its outpost town vibe while still offering modern conveniences. Despite being the most populous city in Alaska, you should not expect a lower-48 major city. Buildings are mostly low-lying and spread out. If you stay in the downtown area, as we did, you won’t be able to walk to a pharmacy, although you’ll find plenty of restaurants, art galleries, souvenir shops, and starting points for various activities.
Best Way To See Anchorage: Anchorage Trolley’s Deluxe City Tour
For Inclimate Days: Anchorage Museum
Best Thing to Do Outside of Anchorage: Kenai Fjords boat tour in Seward
Exercising Within the City: Tony Knowles Coastal Trail
Things To Do in Anchorage
If you stay within the city limits of Anchorage, you will find plenty of low-key activities. Many will teach you about the history of both the city and the state. Because the weather can be iffy, even during tourist season, you should plan at least one rainy day activity. But you should also prepare by packing the appropriate outdoors gear in case of a stretch of rainy and/or cold weather.
Visit the Anchorage Museum
I expected the Anchorage Museum to be a rinky-dink, one-hour max visit. Instead, we spent hours here exploring the Native Peoples cultures, many objects which are on loan from the Smithsonian Institution. The museum includes exhibits on the state’s history, an “Art of the North” collection featured Alaskan-connection artists, and special exhibits.
When I was there, the planetarium within the museum showed a film about the Northern Lights that danced across the domed ceiling. Our docent seemed inexperienced, but she did supply interesting information about the Aurora borealis.
Even if you have gorgeous weather during your visit, you should make time for this wonderful museum. Don’t make the mistake of underestimating the quality and size of the exhibits.
Book a Trolley City Tour
To get a feel for the city, we booked an Anchorage Trolley’s Deluxe City Tour. Make sure you choose the “deluxe” version. You meet on the street outside the Log Cabin Visitor’s Center, usually an easy walk from any downtown hotel.
The tour takes about 90 minutes, and you leave the trolley at various stops to take photos and to enjoy the surroundings. You will visit Earthquake Park, the Lake Hood seaplane airport, and the Alaska Railroad Depot. Our tour guide let us off to see the end of the salmon run (we visited in August when only silver salmon remained) and to take photos of seaplanes. He also led us on a short trek over the time-frozen waves of blue clay created during the 1964 earthquake. (The clay is slippery, so wear shoes with good traction.) We even saw a moose as we traveled from Earthquake Park to Lake Hood. Throughout, our guide entertained us with history, facts, and notable sights.
Explore the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail
Many people cycle the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, an 11-mile stretch that goes past mud flats, ponds, and marshes, from the Alaska Railroad Depot to Earthquake Park. If you walk it instead, as we did, you can access it from town, but unless you’re prepared for a long day’s hike, expect to see only a small portion of it. Water fowl and songbirds, while not in great variety, inhabit the water and trees. You could run into a moose — danger signs about the enormous animals abound. And if the weather cooperates, you may catch a glimpse of Denali.
Enjoy the Flowers and Gardens
Anchorage is a city of flowers. During growing season, Alaskans go all out with their gardens. You can see blooms lining streets, surrounding the Visitor Center, and in front of private houses. Stroll through the rose garden in Delaney Park.
Day Trips Outside of Anchorage
The best things to do in Anchorage include day trips that take advantage of the city’s proximity to wilderness. Because nothing in the huge state of Alaska can be called “nearby,” expect most forays out of the city to take all day.
Anchorage is the noisiest “quiet” city I’ve visited: seaplanes buzz constantly overhead. Since travel by land can be either tortuous or impossible, you may have hire a bush pilot to take you to a specific destination.
Take the Coastal Classic to Seward
I hesitated when I found out that the train from Anchorage to Seward, called the Coastal Classic, took 41/2 hours each way. We had no plans to stay in Seward overnight, and 9 hours seemed like an awfully long time to spend on a train. But . . . oh, wow. I don’t regret it a bit, especially since it led to Seward and our adventure there.
You choose between GoldStar Dome and Adventure Class tickets. Even though Adventure Class allows you access to a domed car – you are supposed to rotate with other passengers but not everyone does – I would have liked to have taken the GoldStar Dome at least one way. There, you get a second floor, glass-domed view of the landscape and wildlife for the entire trip. Unfortunately, those tickets sell out well in advance.
As we traveled south from the Anchorage Train Depot, our conductor doubled as a naturalist, spotting wildlife and describing the terrain. Along the way, both there and back, we saw glaciers, waterfalls, moose, bald eagles, Dall sheep, and, as a surpise because the timing has to be right, the bore tide as it sped into Turnagain Arm. Of course, you don’t see wonderful sights every minute of the trip, and it is a four-plus hour train ride.
Kenai Fjords Boat Tour From Seward
The real pay-off for such a long train trip was our Kenai Fjords boat tour that took us into Kenai Fjords National Park and Resurrection Bay. The tour rates as the single-most exciting wildlife tour I’ve ever taken. We saw several humpback whales, including one that breached five or six times near our boat, sea otters, puffins, Stellar sea lions, seals, eagles, and a smack of jellyfish.
In Kenai Fjords National Park, we paused for thirty minutes or so watch and listen to glaciers caving. Our crew even hauled in a piece of a glacier to chip ice for margaritas.
The company times its six-hour tour to coincide with the Coastal Classic train schedule. A staff member meets you as you disembark the train, and the boat arrives back at the dock just before the train departs for Anchorage.
Other Day or Night Trips
Despite my fear of flying in a bush plane over the slopes of Denali, my husband booked a flight for us. Denali, formerly known as Mt. McKinley, has its own (notoriously finicky) weather patterns, and, as such, flying around it can be dangerous. That said, the pilots don’t like to take chances. The weather wasn’t good enough to fly on the day we booked, and it didn’t clear for our re-booked flight the next day. We missed our opportunity. If seeing Denali by air is important to you, I recommend booking a flight near the beginning of your trip with some flexibility on subsequent days to allow for second or even third chances.
You can also book a night trip to travel north and away from light pollution to see the Northern Lights, again if conditions permit. When I was there, at the beginning of the Aurora borealis season, the tours did not go due to low visibility. The University of Alaska supplies a forecast for when the geomagnetic activity is likely to create spectacular display, but it doesn’t account for clouds. The summer night is too bright to see the Northern Lights, but if you visit in September to March, you’ll have a better chance.
Tip for those flying to the East Coast on the red-eye or other night flights: book a window seat on the left side of the plane. Our pilot said he had seen the Aurora borealis the night before, but, of course, you cannot see them if your window faces south.
Anchorage itself isn’t an exciting city, even though you can find plenty to do for a few days. If you can get out of Anchorage for other activities, even if they take an entire day, you will have a fuller picture of Alaska. I can’t say enough about the Kenai Fjords boat tour out of Seward since you get to see much of the marine wildlife that makes Alaska famous. And the train to Seward allows you to see additional wildlife.
For foodies, two restaurants in particular stand out: The Crow’s Nest and Marx Brothers Café. For breakfast or lunch, it’s worth standing in line (within reason) for the ever-popular Snow City Café.
Because it’s easy to fly in and out of Anchorage from the lower 48, the city makes a great base station for seeing other parts of Alaska. A little planning can help make your visit into a great vacation.