Whether you cruise Alaska by big ship or small, deepen your experience of this vast and extraordinary state by spending some time in Anchorage. Although Alaskans who live elsewhere in the state may scoff at the idea—they like to say that Anchorage is just near Alaska instead of being in Alaska—the art, museums, restaurants, and knock-out scenery surrounding the city can help you put whatever else you see of the state into context and perspective.
(That said, as an Anchorage-based New Yorker, let me be the first to tell you that the state’s biggest city is by no means a Lower 48–style city. Sure, there’s a wee Nordstrom and an international airport but, from time to time, moose wander through downtown.)
Indulge in the emerging food scene
Alaska’s local ingredients—salmon, oysters, halibut, foraged mushrooms and berries—are fresh and tasty, but its restaurants haven’t historically been a factor in planning a visit. But, lucky for locals—and you—the food scene is on the rise in Anchorage. Muse, the restaurant at the Anchorage Museum, has had a peppered past—and we’re not talking about the spice. That’s all changed in 2019 as Laura Cole, owner of the well-regarded 229 Parks and one of Alaska’s better-known chefs (she’s been nominated for James Beard Foundation awards and was a contestant on Top Chef), takes over the Muse kitchen. But Cole isn’t the only James Beard-nominated chef around Anchorage: Carlyle Watt, head baker at Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop, was also recognized by the Foundation in 2017.
Explore the art scene (and take some home)
The Anchorage Museum underwent a massive renovation in 2017 and emerged with a new wing mostly dedicated to the art of Alaska. The Art of the North galleries will upend your idea of Native art, thanks to contemporary pieces that blend old ways and new. Then head to the museum gift shop to buy smaller pieces by some of those same artists. If you’re in town on a weekday, another stop should be the craft shop at the Alaska Native Medical Center. The inventory is fantastic and proceeds go straight to the artists—and many of them live far off the road system in villages around Alaska—as well as to patient services and scholarships.
Find a tasty excuse for a scenic drive
One of the most scenic U.S. roads, the Seward Highway is your only choice when it comes to driving south out of Anchorage. You will definitely get stuck driving behind a slow RV or two, but the fantastic 25-mile drive from the city center to Indian (a little town within the Anchorage municipality) is best taken at a slow pace. Pull off for photo ops of mountains, whales, or the bore tide (when the tide rushes in to fill Turnagain Arm, sometimes bearing belugas or the rare humpback or orca with it). Your destination: Froth & Forage. With a menu that relies on mostly local seafood, beef, reindeer, and produce (a feat during Alaska’s winters), the family-owned restaurant serves elegant takes on comfort food. It’s challenging to make a stew look pretty, but chef Zac Reid infuses every dish with color and flavor and takes time with his plating. Do not leave without eating some made-to-order doughnuts—they’re a Reid family special. This tiny and excellent restaurant is open Thursday through Sunday and definitely requires dinner reservations in advance. (If you didn’t plan ahead, you may be able to slip in without for breakfast or lunch.)
Listen to local music, indoors and out
Alaskans are a proud bunch and that regional spirit very much extends to pride in local musicians. And local beers. Get a taste of both together at the free concert held every Thursday from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. in Town Square Park (right outside the Performing Arts Center). Because this is Alaska, the concert takes place rain or shine, so find a seat in the adults-only area, order whatever local brew they’re pouring, and enjoy the show. If you’re lucky, your time in town will coincide with music by one of the better-than-your-average local bands like the Super Saturated Sugar Strings (a group that, by the way, includes Carlyle Watt, the baker mentioned above) and Seward’s Blackwater Railroad Co. If the free concert whets your appetite for more local music, get online and see who’s playing at The Writer’s Block.
Head out on a trail
If you don’t know the how-tos of hiking in bear country, don’t head out on a hike by yourself, but don’t miss out on local treks, either. Get in touch with organizations ready to help you walk their way instead. Find the hike that suits you by taking a look at the schedules of the Audubon Society and the Anchorage Adventurers MeetUp and local guide companies, including Ascending Path. If you want to stay near town or go guideless, walk or bike the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, which starts downtown and, paved and all, is still a local favorite.
And if those five reasons aren’t enough to convince you that an Anchorage layover is necessary, spending time here is also key if you’re planning DIY shore excursions around southcentral Alaska. Before driving down to Kenai Fjords National Park or up to Denali National Park, you can swing by the Alaska Museum of Science to get the lowdown on glacier science. And you’ll also want to learn about the long history of the Native cultures around the state: A stop at the Alaska Native Heritage Center can deepen your understanding of the history and culture of the people whose land you’re traveling as you wander what is now Alaska.