Getting to Know Alaska's Most Charismatic City: Sitka
Originally a Tlingit settlement, modern-day Sitka showcases a blend of Alaska Native, Russian and American influences. But it might be hard to tear your attention away from the backdrop of jewel-green mountains and lush coastline that help make this town so special. Don’t worry: You’ll have plenty of opportunities to explore, with world-class hiking, fishing, maritime adventures and wildlife viewing right outside your door.
Getting to Sitka
Sitka, home to just under 9,000 people, is located on Baranof Island near the western edge of Alaska’s Inside Passage. Getting here is easy, with direct two-hour flights from Anchorage or Seattle. Or hop on one of the Alaska Marine Highway System’s fast ferries from Juneau—the ride only takes about an hour, as you cruise through some of Southeast Alaska’s prettiest scenery.
Alaska Native Culture
Tlingit culture runs strong in Sitka. For a glimpse into the region’s storied past, visit the exceptional Sheldon Jackson Museum, which houses thousands of exceptional Alaska Native artifacts. Guided cultural tours introduce you to important historical sites including Sitka National Historical Park, where in 1804 Tlingit warriors had one of their last armed conflicts with the Russians for control of their ancestral homeland. Walk the trails in the park, where totem poles loom large among the trees, or bridge the gap between past and present with a visit to the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center, where museum exhibits teach about the region’s Alaska Native history and master artisans still demonstrate traditional crafts.
Before you leave, pay a visit to the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi tribal community house, where the Naa Kahidi Dancers, clad in beautiful regalia, offer powerful performances of traditional Tlingit drumming, singing and dancing.
The Russian American Capital
During the early 1800s, Sitka—then known as New Archangel under Russian rule—was named the capital of Russian America. So it’s no coincidence that Sitka was also the site of the 1867 transfer ceremony when the United States purchased Alaska from the Russians. You can still visit the site of the transfer ceremony, now known as Baranof Castle Hill State Historic Site, and tour the relics of Russian history in historical buildings like the carefully restored Russian Bishop’s House and the distinctive, onion-shaped dome of the Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel.
Adventure on the Water
Sitka’s location on the relatively protected waters of the Inside Passage makes it an unparalleled playground for all activities aquatic, including the very Alaskan favorites of sea kayaking and day cruising to watch for humpback whales and other ocean-going wildlife. But you’ll also find some unusual activities here, including surfing, diving and stand-up paddleboarding. Sitka is a very popular port of call for cruise ships, where passengers enjoy touring a small city that’s bursting with locally owned shops and a strong sense of place.
Day Charters and Sportfishing Lodges
If you’ve ever dreamed of fishing an ocean-bright salmon or massive halibut out of the water, Sitka is the place to do it! Sitka boasts some of the state’s richest king and coho (silver) salmon sport fisheries, with halibut, lingcod and rockfish also populating the rich waters around Baranof Island. Or you can take your rod and reel in search of freshwater fishing for cutthroat and steelhead trout, Dolly Varden and, in season, salmon just starting their runs upstream. If you just can’t get enough of Southeast’s “best catch” fishing, you can book an extended stay in one of Sitka’s charming destination sportfishing lodges.
Wild Animals Live Here
Sitka is alive with spectacular wildlife, from humpback whales dancing in the ocean to eagles soaring overhead and brown bears fishing local streams and grazing berry patches. But sightings aren’t guaranteed and, because these animals are truly wild, it’s best to keep your distance. You can get up close and personal in two special places, though: At the Alaska Raptor Center, you can tour the rehabilitation facility and visit with the roughly two dozen bald and golden eagles, hawks, falcons and owls that call the center home. And at the Fortress of the Bear educational center, you can get within 25 feet of rescued brown and black bears.
A Thriving City
It can be hard to tear your eyes away from the lush, spectacular natural beauty of the evergreen rainforest around Sitka. But, if you can manage it for an afternoon, you’ll enjoy one of the richest fine arts scenes in the state, set in a friendly small-town atmosphere. Summer is an especially exciting time, with numerous programs for all ages in theater, dance and music from the Sitka Fine Arts Camp and the Sitka Summer Music Festival. The Summer Music Festival is the state’s premier classical music event, which also serves as a springboard for nationally and internationally renowned artists touring around the state. Sitka also boasts a thriving boutique shopping and craft food scene, and its relatively mild climate makes it a great home for locavore restaurants.