The Best Things to Do in Anchorage, Alaska Before or After a Cruise

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Are you looking for the best things to do in Anchorage, Alaska for your next cruise? Whether your cruise begins or ends near Anchorage, the city (and region) deserves some pre or post cruise exploration.

My Itchy Travel Feet featured contributor, Debi Lander from ByLanderSea, has done our Alaska cruise research for us. By following her tips for what to do in Anchorage, cruisers will find plenty to see and do so read on!

With so much of the state isolated, Anchorage’s coastal location has made it the gateway to Alaska since its founding. Anchorage, in Southcentral Alaska, acts like a ship’s anchor, holding the state together. Nearly 40% of the state’s population live in the aptly named city.

The geography places this Alaskan city almost equidistant from New York City to Tokyo. Anchorage lies within nine and a half hours by air of nearly 90% of the industrialized world. That makes the airport a major cargo hub; however, Anchorage is not the state capital. That’s Juneau

Anchorage is the closest major airport for many Alaskan cruises, so typically, passengers fly into Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (check for flights and prices here). The facility sees more daily domestic and international flights than any other Alaska city. But remember, those numbers include the cargo traffic.

Most cruise lines provide transportation from Anchorage to embarkation ports at Whittier or Seward. You can, however, rent a car to drive on your own or go by Alaska rail. 

Allow time in Anchorage pre or post cruise

Alaska cruisers should consider arriving a day or two early to see the region and remove stress about getting to their embarkation point on time. Kathy Dunn, VP of Communications for Visit Anchorage, says, “A trip to Anchorage provides all the best that Alaska has to offer. You have easy access to the mountains, glaciers, and wildlife that Alaska is known for, but you also have all the comforts of a modern city with a wide variety of restaurants, shopping, arts, and culture to choose from.”

During summer, remember that sunlight days will stretch well past usual bedtime. Alaska’s geography brings extended sunlight or the commonly called midnight sun.

Golfers enjoy teeing off after ten- that’s 10 pm.  Winter days run shorter. December sees only five and a half hours of daylight.

Best things to see in Downtown Anchorage

Directional sign in front of log cabin visitor center with sod roof in Anchorage, Alaska
Be sure to stop by the Anchorage Visitor Center for plenty of helpful information. Photo by Debi Lander.

You won’t find many old buildings in Anchorage. The newness of the skyline dates back to a devastating earthquake that toppled much of the downtown in 1964. What’s unexpected about the city is the nearness to true Alaskan adventures and wildlife. 

I suggest you begin exploring Anchorage with a  trolley tour. Anchorage Trolley Tours, known for their red buses, promise fun and knowledgeable guides.

Completing a scenic and historical introduction in just an hour, the tour is sure to fit any traveler’s schedule. The trolly tour passes the city highlights and even goes out to Earthquake Park, the epicenter of the tragic Good Friday earthquake.

Start your trolley tour in front of the sod-roofed Log Cabin Visitor Information Center. Be sure to go inside, where you can send up to five postcards free!

The staff will happily answer all questions and help arrange last-minute plans. You may also choose a city walking tour, foodie tour, photo tour, or even a Segway tour.

Boomer Travel Tip

Viator offers a wide assortment of Anchorage tours. Check them out.

Visit Anchorage museums

Time permitting, don’t skip a visit to the impressive Anchorage Museum that sits on the traditional homeland of the Eklutna Dena’ina. The museum is committed to recognizing and honoring the Dena’ina people’s land, culture, and language. It’s Alaska’s largest museum and a high-quality Smithsonian affiliate.

Exhibits showcase the diversity of Alaska Native cultures. Explore the art and history of the north in the hands-on Discovery Center featuring marine life tanks, a planetarium, and interactive exhibits.

Another option, especially for those traveling with families, is the Alaska Heritage Museum. It offers an in-depth look at Native Alaskan life.

The museum presents history as a living, dynamic culture that you can experience firsthand. Watch dancing, listen to stories, meet carvers and explore recreated winter dwellings.

The small and intimate setting sometimes permits the visitors to join the dancers. Don’t miss the crafts and handiwork such as beautifully adorned moose hide boots, birch bark baskets, and tunics made from seal hide.

Outside, you can check out the life-sized traditional native dwelling. The Southeast Alaska Longhouse is a large wooden construction with no windows and only a smoke hole at the top. Longhouses generally housed several families. Inside you’ll find four beautifully carved posts that each represent a different culture.

Watch the floatplanes at Lake Hood

white and turquoise float plane sitting at a dock on Lake Hood in Alaska
It’s fun to see the floatplanes at Lake Hood. Photo by Debi Lander.

Lake Hood lies next to the airport terminal, even close enough to walk, the busiest seaplane base in the world. Watching floatplanes take off and land at Lake Hood proves fascinating.

Many bush pilots keep their planes offshore, around the lake. Their flights deliver goods to communities with no road access that depend on these small planes to bring in necessities.

aviation display with large posters on the wall explaining the scene
Save time for a visit to the Alaska Aviation Museum. Photo by Debi Lander.

While at Lake Hood, consider stopping into the Alaska Aviation Museum or investigating flightseeing tours. Possible destinations include nearby glaciers, a private fly-in fishing spot, or even close-up views of 20,310′ Denali.

While flightseeing is pricey, the views will take your breath away. Don’t be surprised by planes equipped with skis that allow glacier landing; certainly something out of the ordinary.

Hike the trails in Anchorage

Anchorage offers more than 120 miles of paved bike and multi-use trails, 105 miles of ski trails, and 87 miles of non-paved hiking trails. Wildlife experts say 197 bird species and 52 species of mammal live nearby. 

The Tony Knowles Coastal Trail starts downtown and runs 11-miles on a paved trail, popular with walkers, bikers, runners, in-line skaters. 

Boomer Travel Tip

The most easily climbed mountain in Alaska is Anchorage’s Flattop Mountain, doable within three to four hours. You can take the Flattop Mountain Shuttle from downtown to the Glen Alps Trailhead.

For a half-day of exercise, consider Rabbit Lake, an eight and a half mile out and back trail.

Learn about the Iditarod

Did you know dog mushing ranks as the state sport? Every March, Anchorage hosts the start of the famed 1,000-mile Iditarod Dogsled Race (read the history here), a race synonymous with the Alaskan community, perseverance, and ingenuity.

The Iditarod competition tests the dogsled teams and the body, mind, and spirit of the competitors as they race toward Nome. On the days leading up to the race start, find a festival atmosphere. Visitors will find opportunities to meet the competitors and their huskies.

See Anchorage in bloom

Summer visitors are delighted to discover more than 76,000 plants in 461 flower beds and baskets around town.  The vibrant blooms decorate the entire city, especially Town Square Park. Those interested in flora and gardening should visit the Alaska Botanical Garden.

Day tours out of the city

If you wish to explore the landscape beyond downtown, there’s no need to rent a car. Take a day-long tour, usually with a small group. Salmon Berry Tours is the company I used, and the driver/guide was excellent. I also recommended: Great Land Tours. Or read My Itchy Travel Feet’s tips in best day trips from Anchorage.

Exploring the southern route from Anchorage

statue of an Athabascan native inhabitant in a park in Anchorage, Alaska
Meet Grandma Olga Ezi Bronze at Ship Creek. Photo by Debi Lander.

The first tour stop was at the Grandma Olga Ezi Bronze, an art installation at Ship Creek, the original settlement location of Anchorage.

Fishing enthusiasts take note: Ship Creek boasts a king salmon run from late May through mid-July. Silver salmon fill the waters from mid-July to early September. Viewing piers and rental equipment are available.

forest of white trunks of birch trees surrounded by greenery
There’s a beautiful birch forest at Earthquake Park. Photo by Debi Lander.

Next, we drove out to Earthquake Park, where I learned about the surprise Good Friday earthquake and the damage it brought to downtown and the suburbs.

Experience Turnagain Arm

train tracks traveling next to Turnagain Arm on the Seward Highway in Alaska. Mountains in the distance and a cloudy sky with streaks of pale light.
The Alaska Railroad and drivers on Seward Highway share the same beautiful scenery. Photo by Debi Lander.

The van driver then headed south to the area known as Turnagain Arm. Here, the famed Seward Highway and the Alaska Railroad hug the dramatic shorelines, considered one of the most beautiful stretches of highway in America.

The spectacular scenery of Chugach State Park‘s 3000-foot mountains rise on your left, with an access point just 20 miles from downtown. ATV tours in the hills present another option for outdoor adventure instead of a day tour.

Boomer Travel Tip

Need help choosing excursions for your cruise? We recommend these Alaska cruise excursions.

We made a brief stop at Potter Marsh bird sanctuary, a coastal wildlife refuge with a terrific boardwalk. I saw many birds and some gracefully gliding trumpeter swans.

The sprawling mudflats of Turnagain Arm continue along the rugged coastline, sometimes four miles wide. They seem to stretch like a western plain toward the opposite shores of Cook Inlet, then abruptly stop at the edge of the sloping mountains.

Massive tidal changes, known as the Bore Tide, roll in and out twice a day. Crazy as it sounds, look for surfers riding the wave.

Continuing on, each turn on the highway revealed another scenic wonder. You’ll stop at outlook sites, like Beluga Point, for stunning water, mountain, and wildlife views, including Beluga whales. No surprise, I briefly spied a Beluga, or white, whale. (If your time is short, you can get this far in a two-hour-plus Anchorage tour, but I suggest the day-long exploration.)

two wooden chairs looking out onto a garden and lawn with mountains in the background
A nice spot at Alyeska Resort to wait for the gondola. Photo by Debi Lander.

We next headed toward Girdwood, the only ski town in Alaska. The Alyeska Resort offers heli- and cat-skiing and ice/rock climbing. Off-season, try downhill biking or ride the gondola up for some fantastic panoramic views. Of course, the area offers many restaurants and accommodations.

Find adventure in Portage

close up of a black bear at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
You might meet this guy at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage. Photo by Debi Lander.

Beyond Girdwood, look for the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage. Have you ever seen muskox? I’d not heard of the shaggy-haired Arctic tundra animal that’s never been domesticated until my trip. 

Stop for close-up observation of all the notable Alaskan wildlife, including bears, moose, and muskox.  If you time it right, you can watch the staff feeding the black and brown bears. The center offers an extensive outdoor-themed gift shop.  

Chugach Mountains colored blue by clouds and dusk
The beautiful Chugach Mountains. Photo by Debi Lander.

At this point,  the Chugach Mountains and glaciers come into view. The Chugach National Forest, the second largest National Forest in the US, offers glacier hikes such as the incredible walk on the Trail of Blue Ice.

Drop into the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center to see exhibits that explain glaciers. During the summer, one-hour lake cruises provide eye-popping scenic views of the baby blue glacial ice on Portage Glacier. 

Continue to Whittier

blue water of Prince William Sound surrounded by mountains and a sky with clouds
Prince William Sound. Photo by Debi Lander.

Some tours continue to Whittier, the gateway to the deep-water port of Prince William Sound. If the name sounds familiar, you’ll likely recall it in conjunction with the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.

Cars must pass through a dark, 2.5-mile-one-way tunnel to reach Whittier. Staffed toll booths wisely maintain access to the tunnel by permitting only one-way traffic of autos or the train at selected times.

The water is once again gorgeously clean in the fjords of Prince William Sound. A marina offers sightseeing boat excursions, fishing charters, and sea kayak rentals.

The quirky, tiny town squeezes in a few little restaurants, shops, and one hotel. Whittier is home to about 200 residents, most of whom live in one large apartment complex that looks like soviet era construction.

Heading north of Anchorage

clouds linger over Denali (Mount McKinley) in Denali National Park
Head North to see Denali. Photo by Debi Lander.

Perhaps you’d rather explore north of Anchorage. Talkeetna, a funky town, makes for a perfect day trip destination.

Every year,  approximately 1,000 climbers use the town as a staging area when they attempt to climb Denali in the spring. The best transportation option from Anchorage is to ride the train in the morning and return at night.

In addition to exploring the town’s shops, galleries, and restaurants, you can book a 90-minute Denali Glacier landing flight and walk on the glacier. Or,  take a jet boat tour up the Susitna River to Devil’s Canyon.

An hour’s drive from Anchorage will get you to Eklutna Lake, a popular recreational area perfect for kayaking. Also, visit the Eklutna Historical Park to learn more about the region’s Dena’ina Athabascan history, culture, customs, and Russian Orthodox tradition. The historical park includes traditional Spirit Houses and the split-log Old St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Take an Alaska rail tour

train on the tracks with steam coming from engine
Taking the train is a great way to enjoy Alaska scenery in a relaxing environment. Photo by Debi Lander.

Anchorage is home to the Alaska Railroad Depot, the state’s largest train depot with rail lines that connect the city south to Girdwood, Whittier, Seward, and north to Talkeetna, Denali National Park, and Fairbanks. Train guests will enjoy onboard service including dining and snack cars, as well as guided commentary.

Alaska Railroad’s glass-domed cars provide the best viewing opportunities. The train stop in Denali puts riders within steps of the park visitor center and access to bus tours through Denali National Park. (Vehicles may drive only the first 15 miles within the park.)

Boomer Travel Tip

It is not possible to make a one-day rail trip to and from Denali. If you only have a day, the best but pricier option becomes a flightseeing tour.

Where to eat in Anchorage

Like any larger city, Anchorage offers a wide variety of dining options. Naturally, Wild Alaska salmon tops the menu, along with other seafood favorites like halibut, rockfish, scallops,  king, snow, and Dungeness crab. City restaurants offer some terrific fresh sushi, too.

Up for something different? Try reindeer sausage, an Alaska treat.

My favorite downtown dining spot with a view: Simon & Seafort’s. Craft beer enthusiasts will find numerous choices at 49th State Brewing Company. In collaboration with the brewery, a new Backcountry Eats & Foraging Treats tour awaits. It’s a 4-hour tour that includes 2.5 hours of hiking and 1.5 hours spent preparing a meal with locally harvested ingredients like fiddlehead ferns, fireweed shoots, mushrooms, and berries. 

Where to shop and what to buy

Trapper Jack’s Trading Post touts itself as Alaska’s favorite gift shop. I tend to agree.  They offer authentic jewelry and carvings, native crafts like ulu – Alaska cutlery,  Alaska foods, and, of course, tourist souvenirs. 

The museum shops always sell unique and high-quality gifts and souvenirs.

blue, purple and pink gourmet chocolate truffles
These chocolates are too beautiful to eat…almost. Photo by Debi Lander.

Aurora Chocolate — don’t leave Anchorage without some. I stumbled onto these exquisite chocolates at a shop within the Hotel Captain Cook. (The luxury hotel is worth a peek on its own, as are the other gift shops.)

The hand-made chocolates at Aurora Chocolate capture the colors and swirling motion of the Aurora Borealis and are hand-painted with colored cocoa butter. If you need a gift to take back home, I highly suggest a box.

Where to stay in Anchorage

The Hotel Captain Cook offers 546 luxury rooms and suites downtown.

The Voyager Inn, across from the Hotel Captain Cook, offers complimentary breakfast.

The Lakefront Anchorage feels like a wilderness lodge off the shores of Lake Hood. If you visit Lake Hood, pop inside to see the taxidermy!

Another option is to book a pre or post hotel through your cruise company.

Need more information about visiting Anchorage before or after a cruise? Here’s a free Official Guide to Anchorage.

Extend your trip in Anchorage, Alaska

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