Sitka (Photo:Ramunas Bruzas/Shutterstock)
4.0 / 5.0
Cruise Critic Editor Rating

By Cruise Critic Staff

Port of Sitka

Over the centuries, Sitka -- easily Alaska's most exotic port -- has reinvented itself over and over again. It's been home to the Tlingit Native Americans, the Russian empire and a former booming pulp mill. The region also has served as a center for commercial fishing. Through it all, its residents have always figured out a way to get the best out of their resources. Today, the 8,900 locals still rely on their natural surroundings, but with an eye toward the burgeoning tourism market.

About Sitka


Pro

A rich heritage is celebrated in Sitka with a totem pole park, cultural center and traditional dancers

Con

The port is only accessible on certain cruise itineraries or by air; not a place to do independently

Bottom Line

Blending native Tlingit with Russian roots, Sitka is an illuminating window into a remote part of Alaska


Find a Cruise to Sitka



From the moment you arrive in Sitka, greeted by the New Archangel Dancers, who represent the culture of Russia in vibrant floral garb, you'll notice that Sitka is different from the rest of Alaska. It's not just the Russian influence that makes Sitka unique. In addition to the usual industries such as commercial fishing and tourism, Sitka's economic livelihood also relies on drinking-water exportation, healthcare and education. (The Alaska State Trooper Academy is located there.)

That said, Sitka is still primarily a fishing community, and it's not uncommon to see the locals wearing rubber XTRATUF brand boots everywhere -- including restaurants. In fact, each September the residents hold their annual "Running of the Boots" race, a symbolic "goodbye" to the summer's visitors and "hello" to the returning salmon -- all the while donning rubber boots and zany costumes.

Sitka is located on the west side of Baranof Island -- a 100-mile-long island in the state's panhandle -- and is only accessible by air and sea. The Tongass National Forest covers the island, except the inhabited area around the town, with roads extending along the Pacific coast about seven miles in either direction from Sitka. Watching over the city is Mount Edgecumbe, a dormant volcano and Mount Fuji lookalike.

A bit of history: In 1799, Alexander Baranof, general manager of the Russian-American Company, moved his operations from Kodiak to Sitka, but he was met by resistance from the Tlingit people. In 1802, when Baranof was away, the Tlingits burned down his fort and massacred the Russian settlers. When Baranof returned, he reclaimed and rebuilt the fort, and for more than six decades, this was the capital of the Russian Empire in Alaska. Its residents enjoyed the riches of sea otter pelt sales, and Sitka was coined the "Paris of the Pacific." In 1867, after the sea otters had been hunted almost to extinction, Russia sold Alaska to the United States for $7.2 million. The Russian flag was lowered, and the Stars and Stripes of America were raised over newly renamed Sitka, Tlingit for "People on the Outside of Baranof Island." The thriving community faltered during the next 50 years, and in 1906, the capital of Alaska was moved from Sitka to Juneau. The move was a direct result of the gold rush: Sitka didn't have any, and Juneau did.

Boom times came and went in Sitka as the Alaska Lumber and Pulp Company operated a pulp mill near the city, employing 450 Sitkans from 1959 to 1993. Today, the former site of the pulp mill holds many new purposes. The Sawmill Cove Industrial Park's tenants include a water bottling plant, a processing plant for salmon and herring, an ecotourism company, the city's recycling center and a refuge for orphaned bear cubs. And although each summer the port welcomes 120,000 cruise passengers who provide economic stimulus, Sitka is primarily known for the quality and quantity of seafood harvested from its waters and processed in its plants.

Sitka's main attractions are located within walking distance of downtown. Lincoln Street is approximately one mile long, starting at city's southeast corner (featuring the lookout at Castle Hill) and ending at the Sitka National Historical Park visitor center to the north. The street passes by the historic onion-shaped domed architecture of St. Michael's Cathedral and the Russian Bishop's House as it follows the Sitka Sound waterfront and Crescent Harbor (the multi-slip marina). The other main street is Katlian Street, a road that follows the waterfront of the Sitka Channel, featuring colorful fishing boats, weathered houses and the essence of a working harbor town.

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.

Good to Know

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 ATMs around town.

Language

English is spoken by just about everyone, but many Sitkans are also native Tlingit speakers.

Shopping

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.