Sitka is a small town in Southeast Alaska, known to the indigenous Tlingits as She-it-ka (meaning “west of shee,” the Tlingit name for what is now called Baranof Island), to the Russians as Novo Arkhangelsk (New Archangel), and to us as Sitka. It is a lesser-known cruise port but is a common stop for people looking to experience true Alaska. There are beautiful vistas everywhere you turn; from snow-covered mountain peaks to temperate forests, calm waters, and local marinas, it’s the perfect town to stroll through. There are plenty of things to do in Sitka, and you can see all of the main sites in about two days – even when you factor in some relaxation!
Things to see in Sitka, Alaska
First, a brief history: If you picture a map of Alaska, Southeast Alaska is the tail that trails off the lower right hand portion of mainland Alaska. Ending around 10,000BC the retreating Ice Age carved deep fjords leaving hundreds of islands and glaciers at the west coast of North America. At the same time (perhaps as much as 35,000 years ago), peoples migrated from Asia following herds of animals over the land bridge that connected the upper part of Alaska with Asia at the time. They were the first human inhabitants of North America, and the area of Sitka that we know and love today! If you're lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit charming coastal town, as I did prior to my amazing cruise with Alaskan Dream Cruises, here are 10 interesting things to do in Sitka…
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10 Interesting Things to do in Sitka, Alaska
1. The Estuary Life Trail
The Estuary Life Trail is a very pretty, scenic trail through a temperate forest. Enjoy walking through the valley and staring up at the snow-covered peaks. This trail is easily accessible for people of all ages, as a large stretch of it is a flat boardwalk. It is recommended to bring bear spray, as they are frequently spotted in Tongass National Forest. If you visit in September, you’ll likely see bears feeding on salmon as they come to spawn up river.
Estuary Life Trail – Tongass National Forest
2. Old Sitka
Now Old Sitka doesn’t look like much (although it is a beautiful park site), but it’s worth a brief stop to learn the history. In 1741, a Russian expedition led by the Dane Vitus Bering penetrated as far south as Sitka and encountered a vast supply of sea otters, whose skins were extremely valuable in the fur trade. In 1799, Aleksandr Baranov established the first settlement here and called it Fort St Michael. In 1802 the Tlingit destroyed it. In 1804, the Russians returned with a larger military force and overcame the Tlingit. They then created New Sitka (present day Sitka) about eight miles down the coast at the mouth of the harbor.
Wandering through what's left of Old Sitka
3. New Sitka (Sitka Downtown)
At the center of the downtown area and recognizable by its classic onion dome sits St. Michael’s Cathedral, featuring snow capped mountains as the backdrop. Built in 1848, it is the first Russian Othodox church in North America. The town itself is filled with cute shops and restaurants, and you can easily spend a few hours browsing shops for local crafts.
Wander Downtown – Things to do in Sitka, Alaska
4. The Harrigan Centennial Hall
Once you walk from downtown Sitka to the waterfront, you’ll likely be near the Harrigan Centennial Hall. Rather than going inside, walk around back for sweeping 180 degree views of the harbor, water, lighthouse, and glorious mountains.
Views like this are easily found in Sitka!
5. Tlingit National Historical Park
Tlingit National Historical Park is the southernmost part of town that you would explore by foot. Here you can learn about the native Tlingit, totem poles, and the Battle of Sitka. After the battle of 1804, the Russians settled Novo Arkhangelsk (present day Sitka) and life changed for the native Tlingits, as this was considered the Imperial Russian colonial capital of Alaska and became a busy trade center.
Tlingit National Historical Park – Things to see in Sitka
6. Castle Hill
By the 1860s, Russia’s colony in North America was losing money because the sea otter population had been decimated from over-trapping, and the Russian treasury was in dire straits after losing the Crimean War in 1856; in 1867, Secretary of State William Seward agreed to Russian Ambassador Eduard de Stoeckl’s proposal to sell Alaska. So on October 18, 1867, at this site the documents were signed finalizing the United States purchase of Alaska from Russia for just $7.2 million… two cents per acre! You can access Castle Hill from downtown Sitka, and will be rewarded with 360 views over the town just minutes later. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a clear view of Mount Edgecumbe (a 3202 foot dormant volcano, last erupted 4200 years ago) too!
Castle Hill – Trip to Sitka
There are plenty of restaurants in Sitka, but arguably the trendiest is Beak (right next to the aforementioned Castle Hill). A friend suggested that we dine here, and it surely didn’t disappoint! From the salmon chowder to the Coho special, the meal was exactly what I hoped for during my first dinner in Alaska! Unfortunately I devoured this incredible meal before snapping a decent photo (yes, it was that good!)
Apparently they have delicious donuts at brunch, so it seems I’ll have to return and try those out too (twist my arm)!
8. Alaska Raptor Center
Alaska Raptor Center is the largest bird hospital and rehabilitation center in Alaska, as they treat up to 200 birds from all over the state, of all shapes and sizes. That said, their specialty is, of course, the raptors. A raptor is identified by 3 key characteristics – keen eyesight, a hooked beak, and talons – so this includes species such as eagles, hawks, falcons, owls, and osprey. What I appreciate most about the Alaska Raptor Center is that they release all those able back into the wild after being rehabilitated, and they invite the whole community to watch them fly to their freedom. There are multiple large enclosures where you can get up close and personal with these raptors-under-care, and we particularly enjoyed seeing the bald eagles.
It was incredible to get to see bald eagles to close!
9. Fortress of the Bear
Fortress of the Bear is a sanctuary made from a repurposed pulp-mill. These are orphaned bear cubs who would not have survived in the wild without mama bear had they not been rescued. They provide a home for both black and brown bears (in separate areas) and we were lucky enough to be there at feeding time. The bears would stand up on their hind legs to try to catch the raw chicken parts thrown to them and then sit on their haunches to eat. While the black bears were being fed, the brown bears were adorable playing in the water trying to stay cool on the unusually bright, sunny day.
Fortress of the Bear – Things to do in Sika, Alaska
10. Sitka Sound Science Center
In addition to being a salmon hatchery, Sitka Sound Science Center’s mission is research and education. In the 1950s-1960s, there was the depletion of the salmon population in the North Pacific; as salmon is everything to Alaska, the state took regulation of fisheries back from the federal government to ensure that they were more sustainable. A salmon hatchery is like a salmon daycare: they exist to help enable little salmon babies grow strong so that they can survive in the wild. It’s important to note that a hatchery is not a fish farm; fish farms are illegal in the state of Alaska. The Sitka Sound Science Center releases 6.4 million salmon babies a season. Aside from the hatchery, there’s a small aquarium inside full of touch tanks so that you can familiarize yourself with Sitka’s local marine life — the same marine life that will be under your cruise ship!
A curious fish at the Sitka Sound Science Center
These last three attractions were included as part of our Alaskan Dream Cruise package and were among the highlights of the trip. To be able to get as close as we were to bears and bald eagles was quite a unique experience!
How to get to Sitka, Alaska
Alaska Airlines and Delta Airlines both operate daily flights from Seattle to Sitka. If possible, I’d recommend taking Alaska Airlines, as they have more flight options (it is Alaska after all!).
If you’re a cruiser, there’s a chance that Sitka may be your point of embarkation or disembarkation. If your cruise departs from Sitka, I couldn’t stress enough the importance of giving yourself a full buffer day, as Alaska’s weather is unpredictable and can result in delayed flights — as we experienced. So if your cruise embarks on a Sunday, start looking for flights that arrive the Friday before. If you’re reading this and have yet to choose your cruise itinerary, I couldn’t recommend checking out Alaskan Dream Cruises more highly!
The Alaskan Dream – Alaskan Dream Cruises
Hotels in Sitka, Alaska
I definitely suggest booking your accommodation early if visiting Sitka during peak season! As it’s a small town, the accommodations do book up fast (and that certainly goes for the hotels too!). Through Visit Sitka, we discovered Sitka Travel, which is a platform for vacation rentals. We ended up booking Eagle Villa – the newest accommodation in town – and it was spectacular. Eagle Villa was recently renovated by the owner himself (a former woodworker), and it was comfortable, modern, and spacious.
Master bedroom at Eagle Villa – Accommodation in Sitka
There’s beautiful natural light and incredible views of the marina and mountains from the deck, from which you might just see a bald eagle fishing right in front of you. I wish I could have stayed in Sitka a week, if not just to enjoy this property some more!
Views from our porch at Eagle Villa
How to get around Sitka
Sitka is a very small, very walkable town and you can easily spend a few hours walking around and taking in the views left and right. But if you want to get outside of the downtown area, go on a hike, or explore some of the touristy sites, you’ll want to hire a guide or join your cruise ship’s excursion.
As we arrived prior to embarking on the Alaskan Dream, we spent a few hours exploring Sitka with Jeff from Checkered Tours. Jeff is incredibly knowledgeable, friendly, and quite a character — and I’m certain that he will ensure you have a great time in Sitka! Feel free to set up a tour with him here.
If you’re cruising with Alaskan Dream Cruises, you’ll meet at their Hospitality Suite in the heart of downtown and go on an excursion in Sitka prior to embarkation. During the tour, you’ll visit Fortress of the Bear, Alaska Raptor Center, and Sitka Sound Science Center, so no need to visit those during your free time in Sitka!
Map of Sitka, Alaska
Sitka is located in southeast Alaska, on the western coast of Baranof Island. Since it’s on the “outside” of the inside passage, it’s a bit more remote and on fewer Alaskan cruise itineraries than the more popular ports of Juneau and Ketchikan, which is a good thing for those hoping to avoid crowds.
The Harrigan Centennial Hall
Tlingit National Historical Park
Alaska Raptor Center
Fortress of the Bear
Sitka Sound Science Center
Know Before You Go
What to pack for a trip to Sitka, Alaska
When packing for Alaska, there’s only one thing to bear in mind: layers, layers, layers! Southeast Alaska is typically quite rainy (with Sitka seeing an average of over 100 inches of rainfall per year!), and if you’re on the water, it’s likely to be chilly to downright cold. Waterproof footwear and parkas are highly recommended, but there are shops in town at which you can purchase outdoor gear if need be. We were lucky in Sitka, as it was 85 degrees and sunny, but all of the locals said that those temperatures were unbelievably rare. Of course, there are many more things that I recommend packing for your trip though, and I highly recommend that you check out my “137 Travel Essentials” to pack for your trip to Sitka, Alaska.
The best travel card for Alaska
Before you leave for your next trip, I highly recommend opening a free Charles Schwab High Yield Investor Checking account. This provides you with your own Schwab Bank Visa Platinum Debit Card, which offers a ton of benefits both at home and overseas. I’ve been using a Charles Schwab Debit Card since 2011, and it’s honestly the best free travel card out there. Why is that so? Well, you can withdraw from any ATM around the world, and Charles Schwab will reimburse you any ATM fees! They also don’t charge foreign transaction fees either, which is, of course, important when you travel.It’s also worth noting there there is no minimum balance requirement and that they offer free online transfers between accounts (so it’s totally fine if you have another credit card, debit card, or bank account with another company) Open your Charles Schwab account today – for free – by following this link.
Purchase Travel Insurance for your trip to Sitka, Alaska
I hope you don’t embark without travel insurance! If you do, you better think again. Travel insurance is arguably the most important thing to have on hand (after your passports and visas) for a trip like this. I’ve had to use my travel insurance multiple times on the road, even though I’m healthy. You never know when something might happen; take comfort in knowing that whether your flight gets cancelled or you wind up sick and in the hospital, you will be covered. I recommend World Nomads Travel Insurance for each and every one of you travelers. You can get a free quote here.
10 Interesting Things to do in Sitka, Alaska – Pin it please!
*Special thanks to Visit Sitka and Alaskan Dream Cruises for helping to make this trip possible! As always, all opinions are my own.