For a town of less than 10,000 residents, Sitka is one of the most important places in Alaska. Originally a Tlingit settlement, the Russians claimed it as their capital of Territorial Alaska in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it was the site where the Alaska Purchase was finalized in 1867. Since then, Sitka has grown to become a tourist destination on many cruise itineraries – and worth planning a trip just to explore on its own.
Growing up in Alaska, I had the chance to visit Sitka as a child, but it had been several decades since my most recent trip. As such I was excited that Mr. V and I would have a chance to visit as part of our Alaskan Dream Cruises itinerary, and we decided to extend our stay in Sitka for an extra few days. We visited in late September 2021, right as the summer season was winding down; our first day was one of those gloriously sunny last-day-of-summer types and the next day was a downpour that all the locals said signified the arrival of autumn.
In this post, I’m going to convince you why no matter how much time you have planned in Sitka, it won’t be enough. There are some incredible things to do in Sitka, and it’s well worth giving yourself more time to enjoy them all even if the weather doesn’t cooperate (Sitka is in Southeast Alaska, after all!). By the end of this post, you’ll know the best things to do in Sitka, plus where to eat between adventures and my recommendations for hotels to rest after each day of your Sitka adventure.
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.
1. See Totems at Sitka National Historical Park
One of the highlights of visiting Sitka is the chance to immerse yourself in Alaska Native culture. Specifically, Sitka is named after the Sheet’-ká X’áat’l people (“People on the Outside of Baranof Island”), often contracted and anglicized to “Sheet’-ká” or just “Sitka”. The tribe is still active in Sitka today, and their ancestor’s presence is visible throughout the area.
Most specifically, you can immerse yourself in Tlingit and neighboring Haida culture at the Sitka National Historical Park, often just called Totem park by locals. As you can see, the name is fitting, as this location is home to one of the most impressive collections of Alaskan Native totem poles in the world. You can walk several trails through the woods to see totems standing among the trees and on the shores – much as original visitors might have seen them when approaching Sitka in centuries past.
I want to note here that most of the totems on display are not totems carved by carvers from theSheet’-ká X’áat’l. They were carved in other parts of Southeast Alaska, collected over time, and put on display in one place here. You can learn more about this when visiting.
There’s also a visitor center, with a small number of exhibits that are worth seeing. One exhibit discusses Tlingit culture and the influence of Russian/European/American settlers in Southeast Alaska; another preserves a number of original totem poles carved in the 19th century and earlier. There’s also an outdoor shed preserving several totems from the elements, and a carving shed where master carvers like Tommy Joseph work on new projects.
Another note: by my understanding, totem poles were not traditionally preserved or protected from the elements as they are at Sitka National Historical Park. That’s part of what makes this totem collection unique – but also non-traditional in the strictest sense of Tlingit culture and practices.
2. Take a Walking Tour (Self-Guided or Guided)
After getting your fill of totem poles (so many!), it’s great to spend some time exploring the rest of Sitka – which mostly shows the influence of Russian and later American people.
Sitka is a small town, less than one mile from end to end, so you can easily take yourself on a little walking tour with a map from the Visit Sitka information center. For a more immersive experience, book A Taste of Sitka tour with Sitka local Bob Purvis. As a former educator, Bob 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 ends at Totem Park if you want to tie these two activities together.
3. Book a Taxi Tour to Explore Beyond Town
There’s more to explore in Sitka beyond the city center, though most people never have the chance as you need a car to explore along the rest of the 14 miles of road from one end to another. (There is a car rental agency at the airport if you decide to rent a car for yourself, but it’s not necessary!)
That’s where Sitka Chekered Tours comes in; local Jeff Budd will pick you up from your hotel in his 1973 Checker Marathon and take you on a custom tour. During our two-hour drive, he covered it all: we went all the way from Old Sitka State Historic Park (where Russians first settled on Baranof Island in 1799) to Fortress of the Bear (more on that in a second) before ending downtown where Jeff dropped us off at a local restaurant and pointed out a famous local author – John Straley – who was participating in a jam band session with fellow musicians.
Along the way, everyone – or at least every local – waved and smiled at Jeff as he showed off the sights in town. If you want to feel like everyone in Sitka is welcoming, hopping in Jeff’s Checker Marathon does the trick!
4. Meet the Ursus at Fortress of the Bear
If your trip to Alaska has not included enough bear experiences, I have the solution: Fortress of the Bear. This incredible facility 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).
At Fortress of the Bear, 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). The bears are cared for, have plenty of space to explore and interact, and given lots of stimulation in both toys (like giant tires) and food (like salmon to hunt in their respective ponds and waterways.
In addition to providing a good environment for the eight bears on their property, Fortress of the Bear is working to help place bear cubs in safe living situations (like zoos and animal sanctuaries) across the country. This is one of the places in Sitka where your dollars do more than supporting the local economy – they also support the wildlife you traveled all this way to see.
5. Meet the Birds at Alaska Raptor Center
If you can believe it for a town the size of Sitka, there is not just one – Fortress of the Bear – but two incredible Alaskan animal rehabilitation centers. The other is the Alaska Raptor Center, which focuses on birds of prey in Alaska including eagles, owls, and more.
Like Fortress of the Bear, 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. While their primary goal is to rehabilitate and release raptors into the wild, 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.
You can visit the Bald Eagle Flight Training Center (where eagles re-learn to fly after injury or illness before release), see the open-air natural eagle habitats (where eagles who cannot fly live in a natural but safe environment for grounded birds), and see other raptor birds in the weathering yard where they have sheltered places to rest and plenty of room to move around. They also do demos with the birds, as you can see; we saw a demo with Spirit, a female bald eagle.
All of the birds that live at the facility – permanently or temporarily – have habitats designed to help them maintain their natural instincts at the top of the avian food chain.
(They also have a facility in Ketchikan if you find yourself there!)
6. Climb Castle Hill, the Birthplace of Alaska
Located right in downtown Sitka, Castle Hill is one of the most important sites in Alaskan history. Originally the site of a Tlingit longhouse, the location was called “Noow Tlein” by the Kiks.ádi Sheet’-ká Tlingit people of the area. Russian-American Company fur businessman Alexander Baranov took Noow Tlien by force in 1804 and built a series of structures on the hill; in 1936 the Governor’s House was completed – earning the site the name “Castle Hill” for the building’s appearance.
Perhaps most importantly for American visitors, Castle Hill was the site of the transfer of Alaska between the Russians and Americans in 1867. A ceremony was held on this site when the Russian flag was lowered and the American flag was raised, finalizing the transfer of the Alaskan Territory to the United States.
Today, the site is empty of buildings but has several informational plaques, flag poles, and two Russian cannons on display.
7. Learn at Sitka Sound Science Center
On our final morning in Sitka, I wanted to ensure we had time to visit Sitka Sound Science Center, since both Mr. V and I are fascinated by marine science and hit has a working fish hatchery that you can tour. Little did I know it would be one of the highlights of our trip; it turns out that my middle school science teacher (Janet Clarke) and her son (Chance Gray) who I swam with on teams growing up both work at Sitka Sound Science Center! It was one of those lovely reminders about how small Alaska is despite its geography.
In addition to having aquariums and tanks that demonstrate the variety of sea life in the Sitka Sound, we also toured the hatchery to learn about the ways Sitka Sound Science Center supports healthy salmon runs in this part of Alaska, and had a private tour of some of the upper work labs and library. (I can’t promise anything, but if you meet Ms. Clarke when you visit and tell her Valerie sent you, she might show you some of those rooms too!)
Appreciate Russian History Across Sitka
As mentioned already, Sitka has one of the best records of Russian influence and culture in Alaska. This is in part due to the fact that Sitka was the capital of Russian America between 1806 and 1867. Some of the original buildings and sites remain today, and some residents still practice Russian Orthodoxy.
If learning about this chapter of Sitka’s past also interests you, here are five places to see Russian-American history.
8. St. Michael’s Cathedral
Located smack dab in the center of downtown Sitka, St. Michael’s Cathedral is a traditional Russian Orthodox church. It wasn’t open during our visit, but does still offer services and photos I’ve seen of the interior look fascinating.
9. Russian Cemetery
Located on the hill north of downtown, the Sitka cemetery has a storied history; some graves date back to the mid-19th Century, and several are shaped in the traditional Russian Orthodox cross (for both recent and long-deceased people). This forested, hilly cemetery is worth a visit anyway, as it holds a lot of history. Just pay attention for signs warning of bears!
10. Princess Maksoutoff’s Grave
Princess Maksoutoff was the second wife of Prince Dmitry Petrovich Maksutov, Chief Manager of the Russian American colonies. She was originally Lutheran but practiced Russian Orthodoxy during her life; the Lutheran church reclaimed and maintained her grave after it was discovered in disregard and disrepair. Her gravesite is located in the Sitka Lutheran Cemetery (which holds very few graves) a short walk from the Russian Cemetery.
11. Russian Bishop’s House
Part of the Sitka National Historical Center, you’ll likely pass the Russian Bishop’s House several times without realizing it. Located on Lincoln Street across from the Sea Walk, this historic building is one of the few remaining original buildings from the Russian era.
12. Russian Blockhouse
A replica of the Russian Blockhouse (guardhouse) that once stood close to this site, you can’t miss the octagonal wooden structure on the hills above downtown Sitka. While this one was built in the 1960s and is not accurate in shape for its inspiration, you can climb up and read signs about the building before taking in the admittedly impressive view this building has of the city – hence being good for defense.
13. Visit Sheet’ka Kwaán Naa Kahidi Clan House
For an immersion in Alaska Native culture, the best place to visit is Sheet’ka Kwaán Naa Kahidi Clan House, a short walk from Totem Square in downtown Sitka. This building is where Sitka Tribal Tours operates, offering Native dance performances in full regalia, along with storytelling, cultural events, and a unique gift shop with authentic Native artwork.
Unfortunately it was closed during our visit so I wasn’t able to attend a performance or see inside the building, but as you can tell, there are two beautiful painted carving panels at the building entrance and several other small sculptures in the surrounding grounds to admire even if you aren’t able to get inside either.
14. Take a Hike on Sitka Trails
One activity I did not get to enjoy nearly enough in Sitka was hiking; Mr. V and I walked a lot, but we never got out on any of the official trails around town. This was especially disappointing as I’ve been jonesing for a good hike since our visit to Pinnacles National Park in April 2021, but the weather and our itinerary just didn’t work give us the time.
Hiking trails in Sitka are supported by Sitka Trail Works, which helps maintain the dozens of miles of hiking trails. 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.
- The Sitka Cross Trail – A 3.8-mile trail which connects a number of other trails but gets you out away from the city.
- Heart Lake Trail – A 2-mile trail to a lake shaped like a heart, located outside of town.
In all cases, you’ll need to plan ahead with the right equipment and plenty of time to enjoy the hikes you choose depending on your itinerary.
15. Visit the Sitka History Museum
Let’s wrap this up with one last thing to do in Sitka – in case you haven’t had enough history! The Sitka Historical Society has a lovely small Sitka History Museum in Centennial Hall, the main building where cruise ship shuttles pick up and drop off visitors during their day in Sitka.
Most of them never enter the building, but now you know better: the museum has some incredible relics, including original artifacts from Vitus Bering’s camp on Bering Island in 1741-1742 and shipwrecks in the Sitka Sound area. They also have more modern items, including a statue of Baranov (Baranof) with historical context for his time in Sitka and modern Native Alaskan artworks demonstrating the rejuvination of these crafts and strong presence of Alaska natives to the present day.
Where to Dine & Drink Locally
For a small town of just 8,600 people, you’re going to be pleasantly surprised at your dining options in Sitka. Even visiting at the end of the season and over a Monday when many restaurants were closed, Mr. V and I still ate very well during our Sitka trip. Here are some suggestions:
- Beak Restaurant – Arrive early on Sundays for fresh-made donuts, or try literally anything else on their menu. Everyone recommended Beak and it is absolutely worth at least one meal on your itinerary.
- Pel’Meni Sitka – We think this is part of a family of restaurants with locations in other parts of Southeast Alaska and Washington State – in any case, sitting down to plate of piping hot dumplings is a nod to Russian heritage in Sitka.
- 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.
- Pioneer Bar and/or Ernie’s Old Time Saloon – Two local watering holes, Mr. V and I preferred Ernie’s where you can try the famous Duck Fart shot.
- 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.
- Highliner Coffee Company – There was literally always a line for drive-up coffee orders when we visited; I wasn’t totally impressed with the counter service but it’s a good quick breakfast stop.
- Fisheye – Fresh, organic, vegan, you name it – they have it. Over an açai bowl, you’ll forget you’re in small town Alaska instead of Brooklyn or L.A.
You will have no difficulty finding at least one place you love eating in Sitka, no matter how long you have to 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.
With that, you know everything you need to plan a great trip to Sitka. We loved Sitka so much that we might actually try and spend Summer 2022 there! Do you have any other questions about the best things to do in Sitka, or did I miss any you recommend? Let me know in the comments!
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