Juneau, often described as America's most unusual state capital, is the only center of U.S. government with no roads leading into or out of town. The city is surrounded by nature, namely towering mountains and the waters of Gastineau Channel. For most visitors, the only way in or out is by air or sea. Residents boast three routes: plane, boat or birth canal.
Gold put Juneau on the map in the 1880s, though the mining camp went by several names before prospector Joe Juneau finally wrangled enough votes to get his name to stick. Gold remained the mainstay until the last mine was shut down in 1944. However, mining has made a comeback as one of the region's top industries; in recent decades, two mines have begun production of not just gold but also silver and other metals. Another leading industry there is government. Juneau became a state capital when Alaska became the 49th U.S. state in 1959, and today, nearly 60 percent of the city's population works in government. The governor's mansion stands on a hillside overlooking the cruise docks, and anyone can take a walk up the hills via steep stairways.
Juneau offers a wide range of shoreside activities, from whale-watching and zip-lining to touring the Capitol building or the Alaskan Brewing Co. Then, there's the state's most accessible glacier -- Mendenhall, an immense, 12-mile-long river of ice. Along with glacier-viewing, there's always the chance of seeing a bear or two up close.
Your ship will arrive to any of three areas, all within walking distance of downtown. Most large ships dock along South Franklin Street near the library and Mount Roberts Tramway. Small ships dock next to floatplanes at Seadrome Dock. AJ Dock is at the south end of town. Ships might anchor and tender passengers when more than four large vessels are in port. The Alaskan Marine Highway ferry docks about seven miles outside of downtown.
Everything -- information kiosks, cafes, shops, museums, tour operators, public library -- is a short walk from the cruise ships. Tour guides meet passengers right at the docks (motor coaches line up for cruise excursions in an organized fashion), and several tourism information kiosks are available to help with additional arrangements. Souvenir shops are located along the dock, and some - like Taku Smokeries store - have ATM machines.
Overcast skies. Juneau is located in a temperate rain forest and sees an average of 220 days of precipitation a year. Poor weather can spoil your day, especially if you have your heart set on riding in a helicopter and landing on top of a glacier.
On Foot: Juneau is an easily walkable town. It's a good idea to carry an umbrella if it looks at all cloudy.
By Car: Taxis gather at Marine Park. For car rentals, the usual major companies -- Avis, Hertz, Budget -- offer locations at the airport. They may offer pickup service at the dock.
By Shuttle Bus: A shuttle bus runs from the AJ Dock to town. It's $5 (cash only). Otherwise, it's fairly easy to get to key attractions beyond downtown, such as Mendenhall Glacier, without renting a car. Numerous shuttle services offer roundtrip rides for around $20. Inquire at the tourist kiosks lined up along the cruise piers.
By Public Bus: Juneau offers a publics bus system, but it doesn't go right to the main attractions outside of town, so a shuttle would be a better option. Public buses stop at the airport and shopping center.
Currency is the U.S. dollar. ATMs and banks are readily available around town. Some stores, like Rainbow Foods, allow you to get cash back ($20) with purchases.
Residents speak English. If you want to learn a few Tlingit (Native American) phrases, take the Mount Roberts Tramway to the top and sit in on a free lesson in the auditorium.
Fish, especially salmon and halibut, is the dish of choice in Juneau. Despite being the state capital, Juneau's standard dress code is casual everywhere at lunch.
Twisted Fish Company: This place prepares fresh Alaskan fish and shellfish every way you can imagine. Try the fish tacos. The restaurant is near the tram and features water views. (550 S. Franklin Street; 907-463-5033; open from 11 a.m.)
The Hangar on the Wharf: As its name suggests, The Hangar on the Wharf is located in a historic airplane hangar right on the waterfront. It boasts Southeast Alaska's largest selection of microbrews, and the lengthy menu includes seafood specialties, burgers and other American fare. Indoor/outdoor seating is available on the wharf. (2 Marine Way; 907-586-5018; open from 11 a.m.)
Tracy's King Crab Shack: This gem serves up king crab legs and crab cakes at no-frills tables. It looks like a fast food joint but the crab is delicious. Beer is also served here. (432 S Franklin Street; 907-723-1811; open at 10:30 a.m. until 8:30 p.m.)
Randy's Rib Shack: Outside of town near the Salmon Hatchery, this barbecue joint serves up pulled pork with coleslaw and baked beans as well as beef brisket and baby back ribs. (3200 Hospital Drive; 907-321-7427; open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.)
The Rookery Cafe: Serving up excellent coffees, this place earns rave reviews for its new American dishes. (111 Seward Street; 907-463-3013; pastries from 7 a.m., breakfast/lunch 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday)
Red Dog Saloon logowear is fun, especially the red suspenders. Also, a bar of glacier silt soap, made only in Juneau, is a unique gift.