How to Make the Most of One Day in Sitka, Alaska’s First Capital
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There’s Alaska’s Inside Passage – and then there’s Sitka. Located on the Pacific side of the islands and waterways that comprise Southeast Alaska, Sitka was Alaska’s first capital according to the Russians who displaced Native Alaskans from the area in the late 18th Century. The settlement traded hands a few times: from the Tlingit to the Russians, back to the Tlingit and again taken by the Russians, before America purchased Alaska in the 1860s and assumed control of Sitka and the whole rest of the Last Frontier. To say that Sitka has an important and storied role in Alaskan history is an understatement.
This is just one of many reasons people want to visit Sitka on an Alaska trip; most of us don’t have much time when we finally make it to this small waterfront community. Unless you plan a dedicated trip, you’ll probably have one day in Sitka – maybe two. And there’s a lot to pack in during a short time like that!
I visited Sitka as a kid growing up in Alaska, but hadn’t been back for over 20 years before my recent visit in September 2021. Sitka has certainly grown and changed in the decades since my first visit – but is also very much the same in important ways like preserving the history and unique conglomeration of cultures that call this place home. Mr. V and I both fell in love with Sitka, so much that we’ve talked about spending a summer there next year (2022). If we do, you can be sure there will be lots more posts about Sitka to come!
In any case, you’re probably planning your first trip to Sitka, and need some advice to make the most of the short time you have. Even with only one day in Sitka, you can experience a lot – if you know what to do and what order to do it in. That’s what I’m detailing in this post. By the end, you’ll have a good one-day itinerary for Sitka, plus inspiration if you can stretch that to two days instead. Read on to discover the wonders of Sitka and get inspired to plan your own trip.
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the Lingít Aaní (traditional lands) of the Kiks.ádi clan of the Sheet’-ká X’áat’l 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.
Sitka Travel Tips
Before jumping into my one-day Sitka itinerary, I want to address a few common questions I typically get when I write Alaska itineraries like this one. These sections will cover the basics – how to get to Sitka, how to get around Sitka, and other logistical issues. Stick with me through them, and then we’ll talk about how to have one perfect day in Sitka.
Getting to Sitka
Sitka is located in Southeast Alaska, on Baranof Island. It is situated on Sitka Sound, facing the Pacific Ocean – which means it experiences different weather than other parts of the region. Specifically, the weather is often more dramatic in Sitka due to its ocean exposure.
Luckily, getting to Sitka is relatively easy. Most people arrive one of three ways: by plane (Alaska Airlines offers daily flights from both Juneau and Seattle, year-round), by ferry (on the Alaska Marine Highway), or by cruise ship (both mega-ships and small ships make port in Sitka during the summer months). As a kid, my family visited Sitka by ferry; most recently, I visited Sitka at the end of my Alaskan Dream Cruises experience.
As Sitka is one of the largest communities in the Southeast, it’s well-connected compared to other, smaller communities like Icy Strait Point/Hoonah or Wrangell.
Getting Oriented in Sitka
There are three helpful landmarks to help you get oriented in Sitka quickly:
- St. Michael Cathedral which sits in the center of down town – literally. (It’s on a roundabout of sorts.)
- Castle Hill, located west of town and easily visible from most of downtown despite no castle standing there.
- Totem Park, also known as Sitka National Historical Park, located east of town along the Seawalk (a walkway through a green space leading out of town).
It’s just one mile from Castle Hill to Totem Park, so the main part of town is easily walkable. Some attractions are located out of town though; I’ll address how to get to each of these below in my suggested itinerary for one day in Sitka.
When to Visit Sitka
Sitka is, generally speaking, a summer destination – like most places in Alaska.
You can certainly visit Sitka in the non-summer months, as it’s more temperate than other parts of Alaska. The average daily temperature is usually above freezing in Sitka, even in the winter, though they certainly have some days below freezing and get snow. Here’s what each season is like:
- Spring occurs between March and May, when average daily temperatures range from the high 30s (°F) to the high 40s.
- Summer runs from June through mid-September*. During this time, average high temps reach their peak in the mid-50s to mid-60s.
- Autumn arrives with falling temps; September’s average daily high is around 55°F and by November that has dropped to around 40°F.
- Winter temperatures sit right around freezing, with average temps of 37°F between December and February.
*We visited Sitka in the third week of September 2021, during our short two-day stay, one day was gorgeous in the high 50s; the other was rainy in the high 40s and had everyone saying Autumn had finally arrived.
What to Pack for Sitka
You need many of the same items to visit Sitka as you’ll need in other parts of Alaska, so be sure to check my general guide on what to pack for Alaska; if you’re visiting in winter, check that list instead. I also have a handy guide on the best shoes and boots and the best jackets for your Alaska trip.
If you’re visiting Sitka as part of a cruise, I’ve got a special packing list for that; don’t forget to bring binoculars for spotting wildlife throughout your Alaska cruise adventure!
I’m working on a new packing list for visiting Alaska when the forecast calls for rain, and I’ll add that link once it’s published. Since we experienced serious Sitka rain during our trip, I’ve got first-hand knowledge of what it takes to stay dry!
You can never go wrong by packing:
- A waterproof jacket – Because water resistance isn’t going to cut it in here! (I wear the Pendleton Sonoma; the most similar jacket they currently offer is the Eureka.)
- Waterproof boots – I love XTRATUFs, and a lot of other Alaskans do too.
- Good walking shoes – If you’re planning to hike, but be prepared that they might get muddy.
- An eye mask – Sitka experiences up to 18 hours of daylight during the summer months; the OwlzzZ is my go-to eye-mask for travel.
What to Do in Sitka (When You Only Have One Day!)
If you’re reading this post, it’s likely because you’re either an independent traveler headed to Alaska or going on a cruise and want to do your own thing. If you only have one day in Sitka, you, unfortunately, won’t be able to tick off all the things to do in Sitka. (I do have a list of the best Sitka cruise excursions if you want help choosing a designated excursion.)
Instead, you’ll need to choose a few experiences and supplement them with shorter activities and meals around them. Here are my suggestions based on our recent short trip.
Take a Walking Tour
The best way to see a lot of Sitka is by doing a walking tour – the Taste of Sitka, specifically. As a Sitka local and former educator, guide Bob Purvis is a wealth of knowledge about some of the top sights in Sitka, and the route includes stops at historic sights as well as local businesses where you can sample local flavors (hence the “Taste” part of the name!).
His two-hour Sea Walk tour starts near the History Museum, makes its way to Castle Hill, explores town, ends at Totem Park. This is perfect as visiting the Sitka National Historical Park (Totem Park) is the next activity on your one-day Sitka itinerary!
Visit Totem Park
Locals call it Totem Park, but its official name is Sitka National Historical Park – and it’s the oldest of the national park units in Alaska! Designated by President Benjamin Harrison on June 21, 1890, Totem Park actually predates Yosemite, and is the only remaining national park unit in Alaska that predates Denali (established in 1917).
Sitka National Historical Park was established to protect the incredible carved totems that were present throughout Southeast Alaska in Native Alaskan communities as American pioneers and settlers came into the region in the late 19th Century. The Park Service originally sought to collect and preserve these totems in one place – a major feat for several reasons: this meant moving totems from their original locations across the region, and totems are not typically preserved in a modern sense.
In the end, Sitka National Historical Park created a collection of dozens of poles and has worked to preserve the original poles – while commissioning carvers to recreate some for public display. The best way to see the heart of the collection is by walking Totem Trail, where you can see almost 20 poles on display. Do this after spending some time in the Visitor Center, then make the short walk to the Russian Memorial Trailhead to continue your plans for this day in Sitka.
Meet the Birds at Alaska Raptor Center
It’s a short walk to reach the Alaska Raptor Center from the Russian Memorial Trailhead at Totem Park; this attraction is a little way out of town, which is why I recommend tacking it onto the end of your visit to the park.
Focused on rehabilitation and release programs, the Raptor Center is a popular spot for Sitka visitors because it gives you the chance to see Alaskan wildlife up close in a way you may not have a chance during the rest of your travels. In addition to raptors – especially eagles – in rehabilitation, the facility is home to many bald eagles who are unable to be released due to health issues, as well as owls and even ravens.
During your visit, you can see the Bald Eagle Flight Training Center, where eagles can practice flying and landing before release (or be identified if the issue that brought them to the Raptor Center means they may not survive in the wild) and see demonstrations with live birds – like Spirit, a female bald eagle we saw during our visit.
You don’t need more than an hour or so to visit the Alaska Raptor Center, which is perfect timing to head back into town for lunch.
Enjoy a Local Lunch
To get into town, you could try calling a taxi, but I recommend just walking back; it’s 1.3 miles to reach the restaurant I recommend, Beak Restaurant. This spot is easy to miss but super popular with locals and visitors, so you may have to wait for a table – especially on weekends. It’s worth it though, as they make many of their products and pastries in-house.
For an easier option, you could pop into Pel’Meni, which serves Russian-style pelmeni dumplings. They’re quick, easy, and cheap if that’s a better fit for your travel style and budget.
Take a Checkered Tour Out of Town
In the afternoon, pre-arrange to do a Sitka Chekered Tour with local Jeff Budd. He’ll pick you up in his 1973 Checker Marathon and take you on a private tour of all the spots you want to see. Here’s what I recommend for an itinerary with him:
- Arrange with Jeff to have him pick you up wherever you have lunch.
- Start by heading out of town to visit Old Sitka State Historic Park, where Russians first settled on Baranof Island in 1799
- Stop for a stroll at Starrigavan Estuary Life Trail, where you can spot salmon in the streams if they’re running at the time of your visit.
- Pass back through town, getting oriented to any sights you haven’t seen from a new perspective.
- Head out of town the other direction, to Fortress of the Bear (more on that in a second)
- After Fortress of the Bear, have Jeff drop you off at dinner (more on that a little further on…)
Since Sitka Checkered Tours are private, you can work with him to come up with a specific route that makes sense – but this is what we did with him, and if you remind him you know “Valerie the travel writer,” that should spark his memory to take the same route!
Note: If you are on an Alaska cruise, you can arrange this directly with Jeff; since the tour is private, he can cater it specifically to the time you have in Sitka and the attractions you want to visit!
Meet the Bears at Fortress of the Bear
As part of your Sitka Checkered Tours, Jeff can take you to Fortress of the Bear – one of the best, most popular, and definitely most fascinating attractions in Sitka.
Fortress of the Bear works to rehabilitate and rescue bear cubs in Alaska, which are often euthanized after their mothers unwittingly cross humans and end up killed too (which is legal if a bear is threatening your body or property). Here, you can see two of Alaska’s three bear species in a very intimate way: there are two brown bear habitats (with five bears between them) and one for black bears (with another three bears).
While these bears are conditioned to human interaction and presence, they’re protected and allowed to hunt (fish in their waterways) and play (with big tires and other stimulants in their habitats). They won’t be released, but that gives us all a chance to gain a greater appreciation for these incredible Alaskan animals.
Enjoy a Local Dinner & Drinks
To wrap up your day after all that sightseeing and wildlife viewing, it’s time for a hearty meal. Here are three must-try spots:
- Mean Queen – Known for their fantastic pizzas and plenty of beer options (as well as the purported best cocktails in town), this spot is popular with locals too and for good reason.
- Mangiare – One of the nicer restaurants in town, this Italian spot is located in the Sitka Hotel. They offer modern Italian with plenty of seafood options.
- Ludvig’s Bistro – Consistently recommended as the best place to eat in Sitka by locals, it was unfortunately closed during our visit, but is at the top of my list for our return trip.
Since you only have time for one, I’d choose the type that fits your style and budget: Mean Queen is casual and more budget-friendly; Mangiare is nicer and mid-level on the bottom line; Ludvig’s Bistro is a splurge but (apparently) worth every penny.
After dinner, end with a nightcap. There are two local watering holes in town: Pioneer Bar and Ernie’s Old Time Saloon. Mr. V and I preferred Ernie’s where you can try the famous Duck Fart shot, arguably Alaska’s most famous alcoholic concoction. (I recommend the blended option you can sip, rather than the layered option which you have to shoot.)
Have an Extra Day in Sitka? Here’s How to Fill It
If you’re excited for Sitka and it turns out you have more time to spend here (this means you’re probably not on a cruise, as they typically ony have a few hours in Sitka), here are some other ideas for spending a few more days in town.
Visit the Sitka History Museum
In case you didn’t get enough history on your Taste of Sitka Tour and Sitka Checkered Tour, there’s a museum for that! The Sitka History Museum is located in Centennial Hall right in town, and is an easily-digestible size. The exhibits are jam-packed with information specifically about Sitka’s role in Alaskan history – and there’s plenty of wider-context Alaskan history too.
Attend a Performance at Sheet’ka Kwaán Naa Kahidi Clan House
If you have the opportunity to see a Tlingit performance at Sheet’ka Kwaán Naa Kahidi Clan House during your time in Sitka, I highly recommend it. This was not something available when we visited (late season + you know, 2020-2021 stuff…), but I’ve seen other Alaska Native cultural shows during my travels and they’re an incredible way to bring the culture to life. Totem poles and information placards can only do so much!
Go for a Hike (or Two!)
While there’s plenty to do in town, Sitka is also home to some incredible hiking trails – and this is one of the activities I wish we’d had more time for!
Sitka Trail Works helps maintain the literally dozens of miles of hiking trails in the Sitka area. Some hikes that caught my eye and you might want to consider include:
- Indian River Trail – An 8.75-mile out-and-back hike that follows the Indian River and ends at a waterfall. This is a full-day hike – and you should be prepared for mud!
- The Sitka Cross Trail – A 3.8-mile trail which connects a number of other trails but gets you out away from the city. A good half-day hike.
- Heart Lake Trail – A 2-mile trail to a lake shaped like a heart, located outside of town. A good quarter-day hike, but requires a car to get there.
There are plenty of other trails too if this is on your must-do list.
Explore Russian Relics & History
As you may have guessed from the Orthodox church in the literal center of town, Sitka has a Russian history before its American one (and after its Tlingit one). Sitka was the seat of the Russian government in the Alaska territory, and there are still remnants and relics around town to serve as a reminder – beyond a church and pelmeni restaurant.
You can hike up to the replica Russian Blockhouse for a strategic view of the town, or explore the Russian Orthodox cemetery in the trees; graves here date back to the late 19th Century but include modern members of the Orthodox community in Sitka too.
Visit Sitka Sound Science Center
Finally, here’s a fun activity for the whole family that focuses on a different aspect of life in Sitka: marine science. The Sitka Sound Science Center has tanks where you can learn about the marine life in Sitka Sound, as well as a fish hatchery that helps manage the salmon stock that’s critical to the ecosystem and economy here.
Best of all, a friend from middle school and his mom – my middle school science teacher – both work here! Say hi to Chance and Janet (Ms. Clarke) for me if you see them working during your visit.
Where to Stay in Sitka
Last but not least, you’ll need a place to rest your head a few times if you want to try all these great things to do in Sitka. Options are limited but you do have choices:
- Aspen Suites Hotel Sitka – Where we stayed, this property focuses on long-term stays and offers kitchenette suites in all rooms. This is great if you have a family or are planning a longer stay. From $170/night; book on Booking.com or Hotels.com
- Westmark Sitka – Right on the edge of downtown, the Westmark is a good standard option for accommodation in Sitka. From $129/night; book on Booking.com or Hotels.com
- Sitka Hotel – If you want to splurge, the Sitka Hotel recently underwent a rennovation. You’ll be right in the heart of the town and some rooms even have water views of the Sound. From $99/night; book on Booking.com or Hotels.com
Additionally, there are some vacation rentals available on VRBO if you’re looking for a local option or have a bigger group that won’t fit in a hotel. Prices seem to range from $138/night to $850/night depending on the property.
Have any other questions about how to spend one day in Sitka (or longer)? Let me know in the comments!
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My family and I are going to Sitka, Skagway, Juneau, and Victoria on our Alaskan Cruise in July 2022 and are so excited. I loved your article on Skagway – very helpful. I was wondering if you had articles or “must do’s” on the other destinations we are going to. We have 12 and 15 year old boys and I want to make sure to do things that they will likely enjoy. And also, do you recommend booking the excursions through private individuals/companies, rather than the cruise ships? Thank you so much for any help you can provide!
Thanks for reading, Elizabeth! I do have these posts that might help:
I don’t have anything for Victoria though, sorry!
Hotel prices shown are roughly half actual prices posted by hotels.
It’s important to book as early as you can – 12+ months if possible!