The 8 Best Things to Do in Anchorage, Alaska

With salmon fishing (and eating), craft breweries, hiking trails, and a thriving local art scene, there’s a lot to love about Anchorage.

The 8 Best Things to Do in Anchorage, Alaska

Anchorage is wreathed by the Chugach Mountains and the Cook Inlet waterway.

Photo by Shutterstock

Anchorage is the ideal jumping-off point for travelers looking for an Alaska-sized adventure. From there, they can head north to Denali National Park and Fairbanks (237 and 359 miles away, respectively) or south to the Kenai Fjords National Park (125 miles away) and the various fishing communities of the Kenai Peninsula (the furthest being Homer, 223 miles away). Each year, millions of travelers fly into Anchorage and immediately hit the road, sticking around in Alaska’s most populous city just long enough to pick up some road trip snacks. But Anchorage is so much more than a staging area.

Because it’s encircled by the vast Chugach mountain range (and the eponymously named half-million-acre state park) and the waters of the Cook Inlet, it’s a place where city life and nature work in tandem. You’ll find meandering green belts, ample mountain trails, and creeks thick with trophy salmon in addition to the city’s shops, eateries, craft breweries, and world-class museums. And although Anchorage has a small town vibe, more than half of the state’s population lives here. If you spend a few days, you’ll see why.

Read on for some of the best things to do in Anchorage.

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The Anchorage Museum spans the history of the state.

Courtesy of Visit Anchorage/Ashley Heimbigner

Visit the Alaska Native Heritage Center and Anchorage Museum to learn about Indigenous life

Anchorage may be situated on the traditional homelands of the Dena’ina Athabascan people, but you can learn about all 11 major Indigenous groups that call Alaska home at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. As the largest cultural institution in the state, the Heritage Center explores more than 10,000 years of Indigenous history, culture, dance, and art through interactive exhibits and live demonstrations.

The Anchorage Museum is another good place to learn about the cultural landscape of Alaska. The flagship exhibition is the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center, which holds more than 600 Indigenous artifacts, including archival photographs, Yupik hunting masks, Iñupiat feast bowls, and woven Haida baskets. All of the content was curated in collaboration with Alaska Native Elders, artists, educators, and scholars.

How to visit

The Alaska Native Heritage Center is $29 for adults; $25 for seniors, $19 for children age 4–17; $14 for Alaska residents and military with ID; and $12 for child Alaska residents. The Heritage Center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day.

The Anchorage Museum is $20 for nonresident adults ($17 for Alaska residents); $15 for seniors, students, and active duty military; $10 for age 6–12; and free for children 5 and under. It’s open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. On the first Friday of the month, the museum is free and open until 9 p.m.

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Flattop trail is one of the most hiked trails in Anchorage.

Photo by Shutterstock

Hike up Flattop (or other trails in Chugach State Park)

Look, we know you came to Alaska to experience nature, so plan to take a hike—there’s a trail for everyone.

Flattop is a popular hiking and running trail, minutes from downtown. It’s just over three miles round-trip and is moderate, save for the last 200 feet (a rocky scramble that requires using your hands to climb), but it’s worth it for the sweeping views of the Chugach Mountains and all of Anchorage. On a clear day, you can see Denali in the distance. Even the views from the trail parking lot are pretty incredible (and because it’s somewhat removed from the city’s ambient light, it makes for an excellent place to try to catch the northern lights in the winter).

For more of a challenge, consider O’Malley Peak. Gaining 3,293 feet of elevation over the course of 3.6 miles one-way, it’s a leg-burner. But the views from the top are unmatched. Alternatively, there’s the Williwaw Lakes trail, which passes nine shimmering alpine lakes (including two stashed inside a mountain pass). Its elevation gain of 2,585 feet is fairly negligible when you consider that it’s spread out over a lengthy 16-mile round-trip hike. Another flat-ish but long trail is the Eagle and Symphony Lakes Trail (otherwise known as the South Fork Valley Trail). The 11-mile trail terminates at a pair of lakes—one minty green and the other aquamarine—separated by a narrow isthmus.

However, if you have kids in tow or don’t have a vehicle, you can also simply walk or bike a portion of the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. The paved 11-mile trail hugs the coast from downtown Anchorage to Kincaid Park and passes by Westchester Lagoon, Earthquake Park, and the airport. Of all the trails, oddly, it’s probably the one you’re most likely to see moose on.

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Double Shovel is Anchorage’s only craft cidery, but one of many breweries.

Courtesy of Visit Anchorage/Wayde Carroll

Visit King Street Brewing, Double Shovel Cider Co., and other local breweries

Hop heads, rejoice. For beer lovers, there are few places with a higher number of breweries per capita than Anchorage. There are currently 14 in Anchorage proper and another 8 in the surrounding metro area, with more on the way.

Consider starting in the so-called Beermuda Triangle with either Anchorage Brewing Company, King Street Brewing Company, Turnagain Brewing, Cynosure Brewing, or Double Shovel Cider Co.—they’re all a quick walk or a short Uber away from each other. If you’re looking for both a designated driver and a master planner, “hop” on a Big Swig tour. The four-hour tour includes visits to three Anchorage-area breweries, a minimum of 14 samples, and some fortifying appetizers from Midnight Sun Brewing Co., Anchorage’s oldest brewery.

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Star the Reindeer taking a walk with its owner on Fourth Avenue.

Courtesy of Visit Anchorage/Jack Bonney

Meet Star, Anchorage’s unofficial mascot

Star, Anchorage’s unofficial mascot, is a reindeer that lives in downtown. He’s actually the seventh reindeer to bear the name and title since the 1960s.

The story goes that a local couple named Ivan and Oro Stewart started the tradition of keeping a pet reindeer. Oro Stewart told her husband she wanted an Alaska pet, and he said OK because he thought she’d come home with a husky. The first in the line had a star-shaped white patch on her forehead, hence the name, but they kept the moniker the same so local kids would always know who to greet. After the Stewarts passed away, their friend, Albert Whitehead, moved into their home and took up the mantle (he’s owned Star the Sixth and Seventh).

If Star isn’t in his specialized pen, it usually means he’s out for a walk on the Park Strip or elsewhere with Whitehead.

How to visit

Star lives on the corner of 10th Avenue and I Street. Visiting is free.

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The Outhouse Race sees portable toilets on skis racing along the main drag in downtown.

Photo by Bailey Berg

Go to a local festival

If timing is on your side, make plans to attend one of several annual festivals in Anchorage.

Fur Rendezvous: February/March

Arguably the most well-known Alaska festival is Fur Rendezvous. Otherwise known as Rondy, it’s the precursor to the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Over the course of two weeks in late February and early March, locals and visitors don their finest furs (it was originally a fur sale for trappers and miners) and brave freezing temperatures to ride Ferris wheels, participate in the Running of the Reindeer (similar to the Running of the Bulls), and push outhouses on skis down the main street. It all culminates on the first Saturday of March when people pack Fourth Avenue to watch the ceremonial start of the Iditarod.

Summer Solstice Festival: June

Another popular festival is the Summer Solstice Festival. On the longest day of the year, Anchorage sees roughly 22 functional hours of daylight. Revelers celebrate at block parties downtown and while watching the Anchorage Glacier Pilots baseball team play under the midnight sun.

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Snow City Cafe in downtown Anchorage is a local favorite brunch spot.

Courtesy of Visit Anchorage/Jody O

Eat at one of Anchorage’s local restaurants

While Anchorage’s restaurants are largely low-key (you’ll probably see more people wearing Xtratuf boots than something laced or heeled), it doesn’t mean the kitchens aren’t churning out some impressive food.

Case in point: Altura Bistro. Don’t let its strip mall location fool you; it’s one of the hardest places to get a table in town. The dinner menu features entrées like king crab mac and cheese or halibut in lemon-tarragon butter with a pea purée, wild mushrooms, shallot confit, and bacon crumbles. Be sure to get dessert. The pop rocks topped prosecco cheesecake is *chefs kiss*.

Another popular spot is Moose’s Tooth. It doesn’t matter what time of year (or what time of day) you swing by, there will be a wait. Revered by locals, this pizzeria has an extensive menu of signature pies, including the Mac N Cheese (topped with reindeer sausage, macaroni noodles, four kinds of cheese, and garlic oil) and the Amazing Apricot (covered in blackened chicken, cream cheese, apricot sauce, red peppers, carrots, green onions, cilantro, mozarella, and provolone). The drinks menu includes about two dozen beers from the restaurant’s sister brewery, Broken Tooth.

Other spots that should make your Anchorage short list:

Oh, and be sure to get a reindeer hotdog at some point—there are oodles of stands downtown.

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Anglers line the shores of Fish Creek, the only urban king salmon fishery in the world.

Courtesy of Visit Anchorage/Ken Graham

Fish for king salmon at Ship Creek

During peak season, many locals leave a fishing rod in their car so they can hurry down to Ship Creek in downtown Anchorage after work (or on their lunch break). Ship Creek is the only urban king salmon fishery in the world, where anyone can try to land one of the fish, often weighing 30-plus pounds. With the price of wild Alaska king salmon ranging from $30 to $70 per pound, it makes sense that anglers are willing to stand shoulder to shoulder in the river in hopes of reeling in a free fish.

You’re welcome to go watch, either from the bridges above the creek or from the banks. However, if you choose the latter and someone nearby yells “fish on!” it’s best to get out of their way—kings are big, and they put up a fight.

If you’re keen to fish yourself, it’s possible to rent gear from the Bait Shack, near the mouth of the river. The company also hosts fishing contests each summer, including the Slam’n Salm’n Derby in June, where prize money and gold nuggets are awarded to the angler who wins the battle with the largest king salmon, and the Coho Rodeo Derby in July, where anglers try to land the fattest silver salmon.

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The aerial tram at Alyeska Resort transports skiers, snowboarders, and diners to the top of the mountain.

Courtesy of Visit Anchorage/Juno Kim

Take a day trip to Girdwood

While the funky little community of Girdwood is technically part of Anchorage, it’s about an hour from downtown. To get there, travelers need to drive the Seward Highway, which is often ranked one of the most beautiful roadways in the world. On one side of the road is a sheer rockface, where nimble-footed mountain goats and skilled climbers often share space. On the other side is the Turnagain Arm, a long, shallow waterway that features beluga whale sightings and the reflections of the mountains across the way.

One of the main reasons people visit Girdwood is to spend time at Alyeska Resort. For powder hounds, there are few places like Alyeska, which has a reputation for being “steep and deep” and having the longest continuous double black diamond ski run in the country. But you don’t have to be a thrill-seeker to enjoy the resort’s outdoor activities. Those who’d like to check out the views of Turnagain Arm from up high (and maybe have a cocktail while they’re at it) can ride the tram to the mountain top, where there are two restaurants. The resort also recently opened the first Nordic Spa in Alaska, featuring indoor and outdoor hydrotherapy pools, signature barrel saunas, and choreographed massages.

Off-mountain, Girdwood has a number of tasty eateries, berry-lined hiking trails for all ability levels, and the popular Girdwood Brewing Company, a dog-friendly beer garden with views of the slopes.

Where to stay in Anchorage, Alaska

The Hotel Captain Cook

Book now: The Hotel Captain Cook

There aren’t many tall buildings in Anchorage’s skyline. That’s because a fault line runs through the downtown area. After the famous 1964 Good Friday earthquake (which lasted four minutes and had a magnitude of 9.2, making it the second most powerful earthquake ever recorded) leveled most of downtown, it was made law that no structure could be more than 22 stories tall for safety reasons.

The Hotel Captain Cook is one of the few taller buildings in the city. The tallest of its three towers is 18 stories, and from its upper-level rooms and Crow’s Nest restaurant, the views of the mountains and sea are memorable. Billed as the only luxury hotel in Anchorage, its 546 guest rooms have hosted nearly every celebrity and dignitary who has passed through Alaska, ranging from Sir Elton John to President Barack Obama.

The Lakefront Anchorage

Book now: The Lakefront Anchorage

What is interesting about the Lakefront is that it’s located on Lake Hood, the largest seaplane base in the country. From many of the rooms, you can watch floatplanes (most of which only hold four passengers) take off and land on the water. The Lakefront has 248 rooms, two restaurants, and a free airport shuttle.

>>Next: Which Alaska National Parks Should You Visit?

Bailey Berg is the associate travel news editor at AFAR, where she covers breaking news, trends, tips, sustainability, the outdoors, and more. When not interviewing sources or writing articles, she can be found exploring art galleries, visiting craft breweries, hiking with her dogs, and planning her next adventure (at present, she’s been to 75+ countries and hopes to spend time in every one someday).
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