Great Debate

Ketchikan vs Juneau: How to Choose for Your Alaska Trip

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Planning your Alaska trip or cruise is a series of seemingly impossible decisions. How long to visit, and when. How much to spend. Where to go, what to do, where to stay. Oh my! You might find yourself stuck between two different destinations, uncertain which will be the right one for you and the kinds of memories you want to make during your bucket list trip to The Last Frontier.

This is why I’ve started a new series of posts I call the “Great Debate;” in each post, I compare two Alaskan communities to help you choose between the two. If you have time to visit both, awesome – but if you (like most visitors) are time-constrained, these posts will help.

Ketchikan vs Juneau Hero

In this post, I’m comparing Ketchikan vs Juneau. These two cruise ports are on a lot – perhaps most – Alaska itineraries, and you usually don’t have to choose between them; I visited both on my most recent Alaska cruise (with Windstar in 2022) and they’re both on the itinerary for my September 2024 cruise too. However, some don’t visit both and you might be trying to choose between an itinerary with one versus the other – or you might be an independent traveler planning your own route and choosing that way.

If you’re stuck on the great debate between Juneau and Ketchikan, read on. This guide covers the similarities and differences between the two, as well as the unique aspects each one has to offer travelers. Then I end with a recommendation for which to visit, to wrap everything up nicely for you. Ready to dig in and settle this great debate for your own Alaska trip?

(Short on time? Use the Table of Contents to quickly navigate this post!)

In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the Lingít Aaní (traditional lands) of the Tlingit people. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.

Juneau vs Ketchikan: What are the Differences?

Juneau and Ketchikan are two of Alaska’s most renowned destinations and offer unique experiences that cater to different types of travelers. This said, I’ll first quickly highlight the key differences between Juneau vs Ketchikan to help you make your decision; the rest of the post then covers each in more detail, and finally I share my own thoughts on choosing between Ketchikan and Juneau.

🏛️ Juneau is the state capital and, as such, is more urban and cosmopolitan, with a wider array of restaurants, shops, and cultural institutions. From the iconic Mendenhall Glacier to the Alaska State Museum, Juneau is a great destination for travelers looking to immerse themselves in Alaskan history and natural beauty. The city is accessible only by boat or plane – an important detail if accessibility is an issue for you!

🎣 Ketchikan, the “Salmon Capital of the World,” on the other hand, retains a more laid-back, small-town feel, where the pace is slower, and the focus is on local artistry, fishing, and community events. This town is famous for its vibrant Native Alaskan culture, particularly the totem poles scattered throughout the town. Ketchikan also has a quaint downtown, that offers a picturesque setting for you to explore the town’s rich heritage and coastal scenery.

Juneau: Capital of Culture

Juneau, Alaska’s capital, is a vibrant city with cultural richness and historical significance. As the seat of government, Juneau is home to the Alaska State Capitol and numerous other government buildings. Beyond this, Juneau offers a bunch of cultural attractions. If you’re looking for a more comprehensive overview, the Alaska State Museum has exhibits about the state’s history, indigenous cultures, and contemporary Alaskan art.

Nature lovers can also enjoy the stunning Mendenhall Glacier and the hiking trails in the surrounding Tongass National Forest. You can ride the Mount Roberts Tramway up to help make for an easier hike, or take a guided kayak tour in Auke Bay if you prefer to be on the water. Juneau is also considered one of the best whale-watching destinations in Southeast Alaska.

Additionally, Juneau has a great dining scene, featuring local seafood and world cuisine, which complements its cultural offerings, making it quite a well-rounded destination for travelers. (If you need tips, check out my list of where to eat in Juneau, listed below.)

More Juneau Resources I’ve Written:

Ketchikan: Small Town Vibes

Ketchikan’s main selling point is its small-town charm and deep-rooted cultural heritage; it’s consistently the most popular Southeast Alaska community among V&V readers when I share resources about it. This picturesque town is filled with colorful buildings set against a backdrop of lush forests and rugged coastlines.

Ketchikan is also known for its rich Alaska Native culture. The town boasts the largest collection of totem poles in the world, which are all displayed in parks and heritage centers like Totem Bight State Historical Park and the Totem Heritage Center.

Another fantastic attraction is the historic Creek Street, the former bustling red-light district, which now offers a peek into the town’s past with its boardwalks, quaint shops, and museums.

Some folks do feel that Ketchikan is more commercialized and cruise-y than other ports, but I’ve found you can easily escape that if you head away from the main streets right near the port.

More Ketchikan Resources I’ve Written:

Ketchikan or Juneau: How to Choose

Juneau Cruise Excursions Hero

Choosing between Ketchikan or Juneau depends largely on the type of Alaskan adventure you’re seeking.

  • If you’re intrigued by a blend of urban amenities and rich cultural experiences, Juneau is your go-to destination. As the capital city, it has more infrastructure and a wider range of activities and dining options. Juneau also serves as a convenient base for exploring some of Alaska’s most iconic natural attractions, including the Mendenhall Glacier and the Juneau Icefield.
  • On the other hand, if you’re looking to immerse yourself in a slower pace of life and explore local culture, Ketchikan is the perfect choice. Its small-town atmosphere, combined with its rich indigenous heritage and natural landscapes, provides a unique and relaxing experience. You will need to tread beyond the tourist track to find that feeling, but it’s easy to do and well worth the extra effort.

Ultimately, both towns offer incredible Alaskan experiences. It’s up to you and your personal preferences what aspects of Alaskan life you wish to explore. Stuck still trying to decide between Ketchikan and Juneau after reading this post? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll try to help you choose!

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I was born on the East Coast and currently live in the Midwest – but my heart will always be out West. I lived for 15 years in Alaska, as well as four years each in California and Washington. I share travel resources and stories based on my personal experience and knowledge.

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