Great Debate

Sitka vs Ketchikan: How to Choose for Your Alaska Trip

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Planning your Alaska trip 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.

Sitka vs Ketchikan Hero

In this post, I’m comparing Ketchikan and Sitka. I had the chance to visit both Ketchikan and Sitka during my Windstar Cruise in Alaska in June 2022, and I’ve explored each separately on other trips too (Ketchikan in 2017 and Sitka in 2021).

So if you’re stuck on the great debate of Sitka versus 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.

Sitka vs Ketchikan: What are the Differences?

Sitka and Ketchikan serve as gateways to the rich history, culture, and natural beauty of Southeast Alaska. Both have much in common, yet they present their offerings in different ways. Here, I explore the distinct characteristics that set Sitka and Ketchikan apart, helping you decide if Sitka or Ketchikan is the best suited for your Alaskan adventure. 

The main difference between Ketchikan versus Sitka is the popularity each destination enjoys.

On the one hand, Sitka is not as visited as the other Alaska ports so it’s still quite charming. As for the vibe, it’s very laid back. Besides being less touristy, it really highlights the Russian influence, so it will show you a different side to Alaska than most of the other typical Alaska ports.

On the other hand, Ketchikan (overall) is more touristy and commercialized. It can get very crowded very quickly on any given day during the summer monts. Ketchikan might have three to four large ships docked at the same time with TONS of tourists – almost mobs at times. But, Ketchikan has a few things Sitka as a smaller town doesn’t, such as more places to eat, more bars, and even a distillery. 

Now I’d like to give a brief description of each place and what each offers. Looking at the possibilities of things to see in both cities will help you decide as you may find more interesting things to do in Ketchikan or Sitka.

Ketchikan: Gateway to Southeast Alaska

Ketchikan, often referred to as the “Gateway to Southeast Alaska,” is an accessible starting point for many travelers venturing into the state. Its location at the southernmost entrance to Alaska’s famed Inside Passage makes it an ideal first stop for cruise ships and ferries from the lower 48 states. Now the waves of tourists make sense, right?

History-wise, a fantastic and unique attraction in Ketchikan is Creek Street. In the 1920s, the street used to be the local Red Light District and was infamous for fishermen, bootleggers, and prostitutes. You can visit Dolly’s house that’s now a museum and all the old structures that are still standing! There’s even a trail named “Married Man’s Trail” which was used by gents returning home…

Ketchikan also has lots of Tlingit and Haida history. In fact, it is home to the world’s largest collection of totem poles. It has three totem parks: Totem Bight State Park (pictured above), nearby privately owned Potlatch Totem Park, and Saxman Village Totem Park, and all offer a glimpse into the rich heritage of the Native Tlingit and Haida cultures. 

Last but not least, Ketchikan is the gateway community for Misty Fjords National Monument. Accessible by boat or seaplane, this natural wonder features dramatic cliffs, waterfalls, and pristine wilderness. It’s a must-see for nature lovers and adventure seekers. (Exploring Misty Fjords is one of the top cruise excursions I recommend in Ketchikan, too!)

More Ketchikan Resources I’ve Written:

Sitka: Tlingit & Russian Origins

Sitka is highly rich in history and presents a unique blend of Tlingit culture and Russian history. 

One of the most popular expressions of Tlingit culture can be found at the Sitka National Historical Park (Ketchikan’s Totem Bight is a state park). This park not only offers a scenic blend of totem poles amidst a lush forest but also a historical site commemorating the 1804 Battle of Sitka. It was here that the Tlingit people fought to resist Russian settlement.

On the other side of history, Sitka has the Russian Bishop’s House and the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, with its iconic onion dome, which serves as a symbol of Russian influence in Sitka. By the way, it’s an active parish, and you can visit to explore its history and artifacts. The Russian Bishop’s House is one of the few surviving examples of Russian colonial architecture in North America.

Not that this should necessarily be criteria for your own decision but Sitka is also my favorite community in Southeast Alaska – and probably in the whole state if I’m being honest. I love the small-town feel, the beautiful scenery and ocean at the city’s doorstep, the history, and the awesome places to eat.

More Sitka Resources I’ve Written:

Ketchikan or Sitka: How to Choose

Best Things to Do in Sitka Hero

Choosing between Sitka or Ketchikan depends on what aspects of Alaskan culture and nature you wish to experience.

If your interest lies in exploring indigenous cultures and the art of totem pole carving, both Ketchikan and Sitka have a rich collection and focus on Tlingit and Haida heritage.

I’d reduce the decision to how you’d like to experience a place. Ketchikan is a bigger town with lots of crowds. While it is fun and has a wide variety of activities, it is so busy in the summer that the charm can be hard to find. Sitka, on the other hand, is a small fishing town that doesn’t get flooded with tourists and shows a more”“authentic” side of Alaska – I say “authentic” because all cities, whether they are more touristy or not, are the real Alaska, and it’s insulting to suggest otherwise.

In any case, for those with time, visiting both towns provides a fuller understanding and appreciation of Southeast Alaska’s diverse cultures, histories, and natural beauty. Each city offers its unique lens through which to view the tapestry of Alaskan life, making them both worthy destinations on any Alaskan itinerary.

Stuck still trying to decide between Sitka vs Ketchikan 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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