Sitka (Photo:Ramunas Bruzas/Shutterstock)
2017 Top-Rated Alaska Destinations
4.0 / 5.0
Cruise Critic Editor Rating

By Gayle Keck
Cruise Critic Contributor

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, an outpost of the Russian empire and the one-time capital of Alaska. The region is still 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 8,863 locals still rely on their natural surroundings, but with an eye toward the burgeoning tourism market.

From the moment you arrive, you'll notice that Sitka is different from the rest of Alaska. It's not just the Russian influence that makes the town 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, including the Alaska State Trooper Academy.

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, donning rubber boots and zany costumes -- a symbolic "goodbye" to the summer's visitors.

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 vast Tongass National Forest covers the area outside of town, which only has a roadway along the Pacific coast about seven miles in either direction. Watching over Sitka from across the sound 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 fur-trading 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 killed the Russian settlers. When Baranof returned, he reclaimed and rebuilt the fort, and for more than six decades, Sitka (then known as New Archangel), was the capital of the Russian Empire in Alaska. Its residents enjoyed the riches of sea otter pelt sales, and New Archangel was nicknamed the "Paris of the Pacific."

In 1867, after 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, from the Tlingit "She-it-ka," meaning "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 gold, 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 pulp mill site is repurposed; its most surprising tenant is 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 historic attractions are located within walking distance of downtown. Lincoln Street is approximately one mile long, starting at the 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. To visit the two wildlife attractions, Fortress of the Bear and the Sitka Raptor Center, you'll need transportation.

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 Alaska

Good to Know

Frequent rain is a fact of life in Alaska, and Sitka is no exception with an average of 95 annual inches. An umbrella, water-resistant coat and shoes are a must. It's also a good idea to dress in layers.

Opening hours -- particularly at St. Michael's Cathedral -- can be capricious, despite the posted times.

Currency & Best Way to Get Money

The local currency is the U.S. dollar. For current currency conversion figures visit www.xe.com. Three banks with ATMs are located on Lincoln Street, between St. Michael's Church and Centennial Hall.

Language

English is spoken by just about everyone, but many Sitkans also speak Tlingit or other native languages.

Shopping

While you can find the usual T-shirts, fridge magnets and plush moose toys in Sitka, consider checking out Russian American Company (134 Lincoln Street) for something that reflects the town's particular history -- traditional matryoshka nesting dolls and other Russian-made, though generally mass manufactured, products. Or, if you've taken a fancy to the icons and art at St. Michael's Cathedral, cross Lincoln Street to the St. Michael's gift shop, where you'll find icon reproductions, books, postcards and gifts.

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, jewelry, note cards, locally-roasted coffee, children's books and other arts and crafts. (We were particularly wowed by the handmade, fur-lined traditional moccasins, decorated with beading or buttons.) The gallery is staffed each day by one of the artists whose work it represents.

For handmade Native Alaskan items, the gift shop at the Sheldon Jackson Museum (104 College Drive) features one-of-a-kind selections that include woven hats, drums, baskets, masks and jewelry.

Your favorite foodie will appreciate a gift from the Alaska Pure Sea Salt Company (407 Lincoln Street), where locally produced flake sea salt comes in unusual flavors like alder-smoked, Sitka spruce tip and wild blueberry. Gift sets include attractive wooden salt-serving dishes.


Sitka Awards

Cruisers' Choice Destination Awards

2017 Top-Rated Alaska Destinations
2016 Top-Rated Alaska Destinations