When passengers are brought or tendered right into the heart of town, they'll find many top attractions just a few blocks away. The tender pier at Crescent Harbor is steps from the Harrigan Centennial Hall, which is home to the Sitka Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Sitka Historical Museum and the New Archangel Dancers. The tender pier under the bridge sits adjacent to Castle Hill (where Lincoln Street and Harbor Way meet) -- a perfect spot to take some photos.
The Sitka Historical Society and Museum
is located within Centennial Hall along with the visitor center. Discover Sitka's history and international connections since the 1800's through exhibits and artifacts about the Tlingits and the Russians, as well as Sitka's lumber and fishing industry.
When cruise ships are in town, the New Archangel Dancers
perform lively, authentic folk dances from Russia. (Harrigan Centennial Hall)
Watch a traditional dance performance at the Tlingit Clan House
. The performance begins with a resonating box drum as visitors gather around a burning cedar fire pit. For 30 minutes, native Tlingit dancers of all ages perform a number of traditional songs. (200 Katlian Street)
With its commanding view of Sitka Sound, Castle Hill
, a 60-foot-high promontory, was once the site of a two-story log mansion referred to as Baranof's Castle (after Russian Gov. Alexander Baranof). The original structure burned in a fire in 1894, but this is also the site where the Russian flag was lowered and the American one raised. Although there are no remaining structures on this site, it's a great place to take pictures (accessible from Lincoln Street).
Built in the mid-1800's, St. Michael's Cathedral
was destroyed by a fire in 1966. As the building burned, residents formed a human chain to rescue the precious Russian Orthodox icons and religious objects that were stored in the church. Today, visitors can tour the church rebuilt to its 1844 specifications, complete with its onion-domed architecture, and view many treasures of Russian art on display. (240 Lincoln Street)
The Russian Bishop's House
, a National Historic Landmark, was built in 1842 as a residence for the Orthodox Bishop. It is one of the oldest examples of Russian architecture in the U.S. (105 Lincoln Street)
The scenic 107-acre Sitka National Historical Park
(known locally as Totem Park) preserves and interprets the site of a Tlingit fort and the battle fought between the Russians and the Tlingits in 1804. A free self-guided oceanside trail leads past numerous carved totem poles to the site where the Tlingit fort once stood. (106 Metlakatla Street)
Located within the National Historical Park, the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center
is a unique working artist studio that provides a chance for visitors to watch native artists creating hand-chiseled totem poles, silver carvings and beadwork.
Visitors can experience eagles up close at the Alaska Raptor Center
. This world-class wild bird hospital rehabilitates rescued birds of prey, such as eagles, owls, hawks and ravens, and features an educational center with more than a dozen raptors in their natural habitats. See eagles flying in the state-of-the-art flight center, and watch the injured birds receive medical treatment. (1000 Raptor Way, off Sawmill Creek Road)
The Sheldon Jackson Museum
, a National Historic Landmark, was the first concrete building in Alaska when it was built in 1895. It houses a collection of native art and Russian artifacts, including indigenous masks, boats and hunting tools. Check out the rain gear made of walrus intestines that was once worn while butchering whales. (104 College Drive, just off Lincoln Street)Harris Aircraft Services
operates a floatplane business that takes visitors on flightseeing
tours over the scenic backcountry and glacier ice fields of Baranof Island. You'll get to experience a water landing on a remote lake. Flight times and prices vary by itinerary. (400 Airport Road, 877-966-3050)
Want to see brown bears up close? Fortress of the Bear
was founded to create a humane home and natural setting for nuisance bears. This refuge also provides an educational experience for visitors. The 3/4-acre bear refuge is located at the Sawmill Cove Industrial Park. (4639 Sawmill Creek Road)
A 10-minute walk from downtown Sitka brings you to the fringe of true wilderness, with access to numerous marked hiking trails
. The Gavan Hill Trail offers a moderate to strenuous hike with boardwalks, an elevation gain of 2,000+ feet and, after about three miles, an excellent view of the Sitka Sound. (For those looking for a briefer walk, the first quarter-mile of this trail, which starts from the Baranof Street trailhead, is ADA-accessible.) The Indian River trail (4.1 miles each way) makes an easy, gradual climb to a waterfall. You can pick up hiking trail maps and information at the office of the Sitka Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service. (204 Siginaka Way, off Katlian Street)
On Foot: Once you're dropped off, Sitka is extremely walkable. Pick up maps, brochures and advice from the Sitka Convention and Visitors Bureau, located in Harrigan Centennial Hall near Crescent Harbor.
By Bus: Visitor transit buses run on days when cruise ships of at least 1,000 passengers are in town, stopping at major sites like Sitka National Historical Park, the Alaska Raptor Center and Sheldon Jackson Museum. The cost is $10 for a hop-on, hop-off pass.
By Bike: An active, yet convenient option is to rent a bike from Yellow Jersey Cycle Shop (329 Harbor Drive). They offer a variety of bikes at $25 for the day.
By Car: Hank's Taxi & Tour Service (907-747-8888) offers private cars. Or snag a rental from North Star Rent-A-Car (800-722-6927).
For such a small town, Sitka offers numerous quality restaurants. Although many eateries are within the downtown area, some good ones are located on the outskirts and are worth the trip. Seafood is a staple of this thriving fishing community, with halibut and salmon served up as fresh as can be, and water-view restaurants are the norm. Also, consider that Sitka doesn't rely solely on tourism, so the evidence of year-round residents in any of the restaurants is a great barometer of consistent food quality and service. You know when a restaurant is popular with the locals by the number of pickups parked out front at lunchtime.
A< popular addition to Sitka's restaurant scene is the Larkspur Caf?, on the waterfront, where chefs specialize in fish dishes. Everything's fresh; the menu changes daily depending on the catch (salmon and rockfish are generally great bets (2 Lincoln St. 907-966-2326. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.)
Victoria's Restaurant in the Sitka Hotel features locally caught halibut served a number of ways. This friendly small-town diner is decorated with Victorian-style knickknacks and lacy curtains, and the menu is simple and budget-friendly. Try the king crab bucket or the halibut and chips. (118 Lincoln Street, by Katlian Street, 907-747-9301. Open for breakfast and lunch)
Another local favorite is the Backdoor, a cozy downtown coffeehouse filled with local artwork and serving custom-roasted espresso, homemade soup, bagel sandwiches and pastries. (104 Barracks Street, behind Old Harbor Books on Lincoln, 907-747-9306. Open Monday to Friday, 6:30 a.m. to p.m., Saturday, 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.)
The upscale Channel Club boasts 20-foot-high ceilings, large windows that overlook the Sitka Sound, and walls adorned with black-and-white historic photos of Sitka, along with local artwork. The owners have a processing license, which guarantees customers Alaskan seafood at its freshest. The locals consistently pack the 126-seat restaurant, indulging in perfectly cooked steaks, fresh Alaskan halibut, salmon and King crab legs. The restaurant's various fish and seafood chowders earn rave reviews. Because the place is a little bit out of the way, it offers a free courtesy van to pick up patrons, although be warned, it's open for dinner only. (2906 Halibut Point Road, 907-747-7440. Open daily, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.)
Stop in at Bayview Restaurant and Pub for burgers, locally caught fish and craft beers from independent breweries in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Got little ones in tow? There's a kids' menu (macaroni and cheese, chicken tenders, grilled cheese), plus coloring books and board games to keep them occupied. (407 Lincoln St. 907-747-5300. Open Monday, 4 p.m. to late; Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to late, football Sundays, 8 a.m. to late).
Where You're Docked
Many ships dock at what's known as the Old Sitka Dock (although it was built in 2011 by Halibut Point Marine). It's located about five miles outside of town; a free shuttle bus is provided for the trip into Sitka. In other cases, ships may tender. Then, passengers will be transported right into the center of Sitka; the tender pier at Crescent Harbor is steps from the Harrigan Centennial Hall.
Small expedition ships use a variety of other docks near downtown.
Watch Out For
Frequent rain is a fact of life in Alaska, and Sitka is no exception. A water-resistant coat and shoes are a must.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the U.S. dollar. There are several banks and ATM's around town.
English is spoken by just about everyone, but many Sitkans are also native Tlingit speakers.
Many shop at Russian American Company (134 Lincoln Street) for traditional matryoshka nesting dolls and other Russian-made, though generally mass manufactured, products. If you want a memory that's a bit more original, don't miss the Island Artists Gallery (205B Lincoln Street), which features watercolors, ceramics, notecards, locally-roasted coffee, childrens' books and other arts and crafts. It's staffed each day by one of the 23 artists whose work it represents.
For handmade Tlingit items, the shop at the Sitka Historical Society and Museum (330 Harbor Drive) features a unique selection. You can pick up an intricately carved and hand-painted potlatch bowl, a Tlingit symbol of celebration and gift-giving.
For More Information
Sitka Convention & Visitors' Bureau:
On the Web: www.sitka.org
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Alaska
IndependentTraveler.com: Alaska Travel Guide
--by Sarah Schlichter, Senior Editor at IndependentTraveler.com
--photos appear courtesy of the Alaska Travel Industry Association