Surrounded by huge mountains, lakes, glaciers, and teeming with wildlife, Anchorage is a spectacular once-in-a-lifetime destination. We found ourselves spoilt for choice, surrounded by so many unique things to do in Anchorage that we were glad we came for a week.
Anchorage is an eclectic mix of culture, history, and nature in a modern city intermixed with local hangouts and tourist spots.
For us, Anchorage was our first Alaska stop. Arriving at nearly midnight, we were welcomed by the warm sunlight as the day was just beginning to dim; a magical first impression that never faded. I can safely say I fell in love with Anchorage the moment we disembarked the plane.
And, from there it only got better. From culture to expansive views, bird watching to wildlife spotting everywhere we went, the city captured my heart.
Anchorage as a cruise port
To be honest, we initially chose Anchorage as a summertime cruise port, a starting point for what was to become one of our favorite cruises. We were not alone as Anchorage is a popular cruise port for those sailing the interior passage.
However, the geographic reality is that the Anchorage port is either in Whittier or Seaward, and cruise passengers will need at least half a day to get to either port of embarkation.
More importantly, there are so many unique things to do in Anchorage that if you arrive on the day or even the day before your scheduled cruise, you haven’t allocated enough time.
First, take a look at what’s to come on your cruise…
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Things to do in Anchorage
With so many unique things to do in Anchorage, we divided our list into four areas:
- Culture and history
- Outdoor and nature
- Active and adventure
- Nearby (or on the way to the port)
Cultural things to do in Anchorage
- Alaska Native Heritage Center
Through storytelling, dance, demonstrations, and life-size working models, we learned about Alaska’s indigenous people and their traditions. The wooded grounds are beautiful and we enjoyed our stroll around Lake Tiulana as we “traveled through Alaska.” We moved between authentic native dwellings of the Athabascan, Inupiaq/St. Lawrence Island Yupik, Yup’ik/Cup’ik, Aleut, Alutiiq, and the Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples. At each clan house, we were greeted by native members to answer our questions. And there is also a separate area to see the huskies. Read our review of the Native Heritage Center.
- Anchorage Museum
A cultural jewel, the Anchorage Museum is home to the largest collection of Alaskan artifacts in the state. Here we discovered costumes, weapons, and scrimshaw, learned about the Alaskan pipeline (shown above), and enjoyed native art. Two additional must-sees at the museum are the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center (previously housed in Washington, D.C.) and the northern lights display in the planetarium show. There is also a children’s hands-on Imaginarium. Check price and reviews.
- Ulu Factory
Ulu knives are much more than just a classic Alaska souvenir. Ideal for filleting fish, the Ulu knife has an interesting history. Plus, it’s fun to watch them being made and used. Getting to the factory is easy too, as they offer a free vintage trolley ride from downtown. (If you’re not interested in the knives, but the idea of a trolley ride has you excited, here’s a highly rated trolley tour from downtown).
Outdoor things to do in Anchorage
Just being outdoors in Anchorage is a treat to the senses. Clean fresh air, majestic mountains all around, and wildlife hiding everywhere. Here are a few of our favorite outdoor things to do in Anchorage.
- Watch planes take off from the busiest seaplane airport in the USA
The Lake Hood Seaplane Base in Anchorage is the busiest in the world. On average, 190 planes either take off or land each day. While we didn’t fly anywhere, we enjoyed watching the activity. Also located at the Lake Hood Seaplane Base is the Aviation Museum.
- Spot birds and other wildlife from the boardwalk at Potter Marsh
Popular with locals, the 1,550-foot boardwalk at Potter Marsh is a great place to spot birds at the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge (a 16-mile stretch along the coast). Many migratory bird species like Canadian geese, swans, yellowlegs, and grebes are amongst the abundant birdlife. Bring binoculars to help spot eagles’ nests in the cottonwood trees near the base of the bluff. Tip: Take caution if you are heading inland, as black bears are amongst the wildlife that live in the woods.
- Salmon fishing in town or out on a river
If the salmon are running, Ship Creek is a great spot to try salmon fishing right in the heart of the city. If you want a much bigger experience, enjoy a private all-day salmon fly fishing adventure away from the crowds. Be sure to read the impressive reviews and check for availability.
Active things to do in Anchorage
- Walk or cycle along the coastal trail
The Tony Knowles Coastal Trail weaves for 11 miles from downtown Anchorage through to Kincaid Park. A great spot for walking or cycling, it offers a surprising amount of wildlife viewing especially in Kincaid Park, as it’s home to many moose. It’s an easy trail to do on your own, but if you want some history, or prefer a guide that will also point out the best photo stops, check out this highly-rated cycling tour along the trail.
- Ride the Alaska Railroad (to Denali)
Taking the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Denali (and spending several days there) was another major highlight of our time in Alaska. The train ride, while long, is nothing short of spectacular. We opted for the domed glass cars, and it was like being outside without dealing with the weather. There are shorter train options, but if you are still in the planning stage, check out our article on Denali, and then you will probably want to add a few days.
- Fly over and land on a glacier
There are not too many places in the world where you can land and walk out on a glacier. This highly-rated adventure includes a 30-minute helicopter flight, a Knik Glacier landing, and a 15-minute return. During the initial flight, you will pass over the valley and the Chugach Range where your pilot will help you spot bears, moose, Dall sheep, and other wildlife. Check price and reviews and note that the starting place is a bit out of town.
Nearby things to do now, or to save for the drive to your cruise port
The key here is not to save too many activities for the transport day. Learn from our mistakes. We had to make some difficult choices as we couldn’t be late to board the ship. Unfortunately for us, we saved all that’s listed below plus Potter Marsh, the Seaplane Base, and the conservation center.
As a result, we chose to skip the stunning views from the Alyeska tram.
- Hike at Chugach State Park
Chugach State Park is a day-hikers utopia, one could easily spend days exploring the mountains, valleys, alpine forests, and often icy lakes. Also, enjoy spectacular views of Anchorage. If this is your thing, be sure to allocate the time. We opted to see the Portage Glacier, a 6 mile (nearly 10-kilometer) long glacier that sits on an old portage route between Prince William Sound and Turnagain Arm.
- Be carried away at Alyeska
A ski resort in the winter, summer visitors can enjoy the expansive views from the tram as it travels from the Alyeska Resort to the top of Mt. Alyeska 2,300 ft (700 meters). After you return, be sure to stop at The Bake Shop in Girdwood for a treat.
- Get up close to local wildlife
The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center is not a zoo, but rather exactly as the name implies. It’s a sanctuary for wildlife, a center dedicated to conservation, education, research, quality animal care, and most importantly protecting Alaska’s wildlife. The animals living here are either injured or orphaned. The usually successful goal is rehabilitation and return to the wild. However, animals that cannot be released are given a permanent home in the huge enclosures that visitors can see. If you want a really unique experience, take a guided tour from the naturalists that includes an opportunity to feed an animal.
Cruising out of Anchorage
We stayed for several days and could have stayed longer. Rather than taking a bus to the port, we made it part of our Alaska sightseeing adventure. We hired and recommend a private guide.
Starting from our Anchorage hotel, we spent the day touring from Anchorage to our cruise port.
Travel Tips for Visiting Anchorage
- The free shuttle bus to the Alaska Native Heritage Center from downtown also stops at the Anchorage Museum.
- There is a log cabin visitor information center downtown with extremely helpful staff.
- If driving in and out of town, be sure to keep your eyes open for wild sheep, bald eagles, and beluga whales.
- Wear layers. The weather changes frequently, even in the summer.
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What tops your list of things to do in Anchorage?
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