Sitka is the only Inside Passage community that fronts the Pacific Ocean, hugging Baranof Island's west shore in the shadow of the impressive Mount Edgecumbe.
About Sitka (Tlingit: Sheet'ká)
Located on Sitka Sound, the city of about 9,000 residents is known for its Tlingit culture and picturesque remnants of its Russian heritage, including the onion-shaped domes and gold-colored crosses of the beloved Saint Michael's Russian Orthodox Cathedral. The city and borough limits include most of Baranof Island, where the city of Sitka is located, along with south Chichagof Island and many other small, forested islands along the coast.
Things to do
Downtown Sitka features numerous art galleries, a fine bookstore, gift shops, several lodging options, and restaurants with great views and local seafood, all nestled between the mountains and the ocean. The city’s main event during the summer is the Sitka Summer Music Festival.
Pick up a map from the Visitor’s Center in Harrigan Centennial Hall to embark on a walking tour highlighting the city’s history and culture. There are 22 buildings in Sitka on the National Register of Historic Places including the Russian Blockhouse, Russian Bishop's House, Princess Maksoutoff’s Grave, and Castle Hill to name a few, so there’s plenty of history to explore on a walk through town.
The Russian Bishop’s House is the oldest intact Russian building in Sitka, built in 1842 by the Russian American Company as a residence for the Bishop of the Orthodox Church. Bishop Innocent (Ivan Veniaminov) was its first resident. The house has been restored to the 1850s historic period when it functioned as a school, bishop's residence, and a chapel. The house is registered as a National Historic Landmark.
Perched over downtown is Castle Hill, originally a stronghold of the Kiksadi Tlingit clan. A succession of Russian buildings occupied the hill from 1804 - 1867, and on October 18, 1867, the Russians officially handed over Alaska to the United States on this site. Each year, Alaska Day is still celebrated on October 18. This historical site is managed by Alaska State Parks and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
St. Michael’s Cathedral in downtown houses an important collection of Russian Orthodox art and church treasures. Built between 1844-48, the original cathedral was destroyed by fire in January 1966, but was reconstructed and today houses icons and religious objects that were salvaged from the fire. The cathedral is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Sitka offers superb hiking with dozens of trails that begin in the lush rainforest that surrounds the city and often end up high in the mountains. Many of these trails are located in the Tongass National Forest, the largest national forest in the United States. Trails for all skill levels explore the area’s forest, coves, lakes, and alpine areas. The Tongass National Forest Sitka Ranger District Office can provide information and maps for hiking trails and camping.
Freshwater fly fishing in Sitka’s lakes and rivers target salmon, char, trout, and steelhead. Ocean fishing charters offer world-class salmon and halibut fishing. Sitka is home to several fishing lodges that feature multi-day fishing itineraries and include comfortable accommodations and meals.
Marine wildlife is abundant in the waters surrounding Sitka, and one of the best ways to see humpback whales, sea otters, and puffins is from the water. There’s a wide variety of boat tour opportunities to choose from including large and small catamaran tours, private yachts, private charters, sailboats, and zodiacs. Or, if you’d rather paddle yourself, you can rent a kayak in town or join a guided tour to explore the area’s protected coves and inlets.
Whale Park provides an opportunity to view marine wildlife from land, including humpback whales. The park is located about six miles south of downtown and has a boardwalk, small sheltered picnic area, and free viewing scopes. A hydrophone is located in the main shelter area to listen to the songs of the humpback whales.
Wildlife Rehabilitation Centers
The Fortress of the Bear is a non-profit education and rescue center with a three-quarter acre habitat for orphaned black and brown bear cubs. Visitors can get up-close views of the bears from covered viewing areas and listen to educational presentations about the resident bears.
The Alaska Raptor Center rehabilitates injured birds and releases them back into the wild. The few who don’t regain flight remain housed at the center and are visible to guests. The center is home to eagles, owls, hawks, and falcons.
Sheet'ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Community House and Dancers
Constructed on a site that once housed the Indian Government School, the Sheet'ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Community House offers Tlingit dance performances in full regalia along with storytelling, cultural events, and a small gift shop with authentic Alaska Native artwork. Tlingit dancers perform in connection with Sitka Tribal Tours and demonstrate traditional songs and dances passed down by generations.
New Archangel Dancers
Centennial Hall, the community’s civic and convention center, is also the venue for the spirited New Archangel Dancers, who perform Russian folk dances using authentic music, choreography, and costumes. The dancers perform when cruise ships are in town between May and September. Tickets are sold a half-hour in advance of each performance at Centennial Hall.
Museums and Cultural Centers
Visitors to the Sheldon Jackson Museum have the opportunity to see one of the oldest ethnographic collections in Alaska. The Reverend Dr. Sheldon Jackson recognized the importance of saving cultural objects for the benefit of future generations, from Alaska Native watercraft to tools, equipment, clothing, and ceremonial objects such as masks. The Museum Shop also offers authentic Alaska Native handcrafted artwork along with publications related to the Museum’s collections. Located just a 10-minute walk from the center of town, the present museum, which was the first concrete structure in Alaska, opened in 1897. The museum has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1972.
The Sitka National Historical Park features a remarkable collection of totem poles carved by Tlingit and Haida artists that are placed along a well-maintained trail in the forest. Located in the visitor center at Sitka National Historical Park, the Sika Cultural Center highlights Alaska Native culture through a studio for local Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian artists. This unique working artist studio provides a one-on-one experience for visitors to understand master Alaska Native artists and their traditions.
All elements of Sitka's history converge in one place at the Sitka History Museum. Packed with displays, photographs, and artifacts from Sitka's Tlingit, Russian, and American history, the museum is a worthwhile stop. Maps of Sitka's national registered landmarks can be found at the museum.
Getting to Sitka
Sitka is not on the road system and is therefore accessible only by air or water. Alaska Airlines offers daily flights from Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Ketchikan, and Seattle. In the summer, many visitors come to Sitka on large and small cruise ships exploring the Inside Passage. Sitka is also a year-round port of call for the state ferry on the Alaska Marine Highway System.
Staying in Sitka
Several national and locally-owned hotels and inns can be found in and close to downtown Sitka. There’s a variety of specialty lodging including bed & breakfasts, cabins, vacation rentals, and cottages for a more intimate experience. Sitka is also home to a wide selection of oceanfront lodges that offer fishing charters.
Sitka was first inhabited by the Tlingit people and is recognized as the heart of Russian influence in Alaska. The Russians arrived by 1741 and in 1804 attacked a Tlingit fort. The region’s most famous battle eventually led to the creation of Sitka National Historical Park. Originally established as New Archangel, Sitka became the capital of Russian America in 1808. When Russia sold Alaska to the United States on October 18, 1867, the transfer ceremony took place on Sitka’s Castle Hill.