If you’re expecting Sitka to be just another cruise port with the same old jewelry and watch shops found in the Caribbean, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. Situated on the western edge of Baranof Island, this town was once known as the “Paris of the Pacific,” and it’s easy to see why.
Sitka is a small community with a population of around 8,000 people. The locals are determined to preserve the town’s small-town feel, and shop owners know their customers by name. The friendly atmosphere is evident as cars stop for pedestrians at clearly marked crosswalks (though it’s always a good idea to double-check before crossing!).
Before diving into the 21 best things to do in Sitka, it’s helpful to get an overview of the town. This article will cover everything from how to get to downtown from the cruise port to dining options and suggested shore excursions.
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Sitka, Alaska Overview – Getting Around Town
To get acquainted with Sitka, it’s important to know how to reach the town center from the cruise port. The most common docking spots for cruise ships are the Old Sitka Dock, which has recently been renamed the Sitka Sound Cruise Terminal, and Crescent Harbor. The Old Sitka Dock is typically where larger cruise ships, such as the Grand Princess and NatGeo expedition ships, tie-up. Luxury cruise lines like Seabourn usually anchor at Crescent Harbor, while Silversea docks at the Old Sitka Dock.
The city provides complimentary motor coach shuttles between the dock and downtown. The shuttle ride takes approximately 12 minutes and offers scenic views along the way. Departures occur every 15 minutes, and passengers are dropped off in front of Harrigan Centennial Hall, located in the heart of downtown. For those with pre-paid shore excursions, the meeting place will be indicated on the ticket. Otherwise, the meeting point is also in front of Harrigan Centennial Hall.
If your ship is scheduled to anchor at Crescent Harbor, you’ll need to use the ship’s lifeboats to reach the shore. The harbor is conveniently located downtown, so you’ll find yourself at Harrigan Centennial Hall upon disembarking.
Sitka’s Colorful and Diverse History
Sitka boasts a rich and varied history. It was once home to the Kiksadi clan of the indigenous Tlingit people, who resided there until the mid-18th century when Russian explorers arrived. The Russians were drawn to the island’s abundant natural resources, including fish and sea otters.
For 135 years, Sitka served as the capital of the Russian Empire in Alaska. The Russian governor, Alexander Baranof, aggressively built a fort and other structures to exploit the fur trade and other economic opportunities, resulting in conflict with the Tlingit people. In 1804, a violent uprising occurred, leading to Russian reinforcements storming ashore and driving the Tlingit from their ancestral home.
However, the Russian presence in Sitka was short-lived. The lucrative sea otter trade quickly depleted the otter population, leaving the Russians with no economic prospects. As a result, Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867 for $7.2 million, marking the official transfer of ownership on October 18th, now celebrated as Alaska Day.
Visitors can explore Sitka National Historic Park, where they can learn more about the town’s history and visit the sites of the historic battles.
Transportation in Town
When it comes to transportation in Sitka, calling a taxi from the Old Sitka Dock is unreliable due to limited cell service. Instead, taking the complimentary shuttle into town is the recommended option. For those looking to explore beyond downtown, the Sitka bus service, available through ridesitka.com, provides convenient transportation. Schedules can be obtained from the Visitor’s Center in Centennial Hall or the Sitka Chamber across the street.
Wifi and Cell Service in Sitka
Sitka offers free wifi in many downtown locations, and you’ll find that your phone carrier should provide service in the area. AT&T typically has the best reception throughout most of the town. However, keep in mind that the local wifi service provided by GCI may not always have the most reliable connectivity.
Sitka Shore Excursions Overview
Sitka’s stunning natural beauty, nestled between mountains and the Pacific Ocean, sets the stage for an array of shore excursions. Many of these excursions aim to bring you closer to the island’s wildlife and landscapes. Whether organized through your cruise ship or local vendors at Centennial Hall, these excursions provide unique experiences worth considering.
It’s important to note that while Alaska offers unforgettable experiences, such as flight-seeing and whale watching, these shore excursions come with a cost. However, many consider them to be bucket-list experiences well worth the investment. Alaska’s natural wonders are hard to beat, and most shore excursions in Sitka leave visitors with lasting memories.
Best Sitka Shore Excursions (through your ship or 3rd party seller)
Sitka offers a wide variety of shore excursions that cater to different interests. Many of these excursions focus on outdoor activities, allowing visitors to experience the natural beauty surrounding the town. Whether you’re interested in sea otter quests, wildlife quests, kayaking, scenic cruises, or exploring the local culture and history, Sitka has something for everyone.
Some not-to-be-missed attractions include the Fortress of the Bear and the Alaska Raptor Center, which are usually included in comprehensive Sitka tours. Allen Marine Tours is a reputable company that offers whale watching excursions, such as the Sea Otter and Wildlife Quest, which guarantees sightings of whales, sea otters, or bears, or you’ll receive a $100 refund. They also offer a Wildlife Quest and Fin Island Lodge tour, which includes a delectable all-you-can-eat crab feast.
What to Do in Sitka on Your Own
Sitka is a compact town where you can explore most of the sights within walking distance, making it ideal for self-guided exploration. Starting from the drop-off point at Centennial Hall, pick up a Sitka walking map and venture out on foot. The back of the map features a list of attractions within walking distance.
Highlights include the Sitka Sound Science Center, where you can watch salmon jump out of the water, and the Sitka National Historical Park, which offers insights into Tlingit culture and native dances at the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Community House. With numerous options available, there’s no shortage of things to do in Sitka even without purchasing a shore excursion.
For hiking enthusiasts with a full day in port, Sitka offers several trails to explore, ranging from easy to challenging. Remember to be prepared and consider bringing bear spray for your safety during hikes.
Dining and Coffee Shops
Why settle for a meal on the ship when you can indulge in local cuisine during your port visit? Sitka offers a range of dining options, each with its own unique flavors and specialties.
For a quick snack, Ludvig’s Chowder Cart is a must-visit. Located at the Sitka Sound Science Center, this food cart serves award-winning seafood chowder, along with freshly-made baguette sandwiches and refreshing drinks.
Ashmo’s is another local favorite, serving fresh local seafood from their white food truck parked along Lincoln Street. Captain JuJu’s, owned by a local fishing family, offers the catch of the day and mouthwatering halibut nachos in their pumpkin-orange truck across from St. Michael’s Cathedral.
If you’re craving a trip down memory lane, stop by the Harry Race Soda Shop and savor their specialty banana split or indulge in an old-fashioned ice cream sundae. Don’t miss out on the chance to try a Green River, a soda water and lime syrup concoction that may transport you back to childhood memories.
For a full meal, Sitka offers a range of options to suit different tastes. The Backdoor Café provides a cozy coffee shop experience with good coffee, hot soups, and daily lunch specials. Bayview Pub, located across from Centennial Hall, is known for its rockfish, salmon burgers, tacos, and its signature Baranof Brew beer.
If you’re looking for a unique dining experience, visit Beak, where you can enjoy excellent salmon dishes and other delectable options. Fisheye Organic Café offers organic and healthy food choices, including made-to-order crêpes with various fillings. Halibut Point Crab & Chowder is a family-owned restaurant famous for its crab dishes, while Longliner, under new ownership, serves an extensive brunch menu until 2 PM.
For a taste of upscale Mediterranean cuisine, Ludvig’s Bistro & Wine Bar is Sitka’s only fine dining option. Make a reservation and savor their dishes, which include fresh local seafood. Mean Queen is a casual dining spot with two locations, offering pizza, salads, wings, and a beautiful view of the harbor.
Lastly, the Sitka Hotel Restaurant is a popular choice among both cruise visitors and locals. It serves fresh fish, high-quality steaks, and, of course, delicious chowder. Keep in mind that this place can get crowded during peak times, so it’s best to arrive early or late for lunch.
When it comes to coffee, Highliner Coffee is a local hangout known for its fast wifi, coffee, espresso, and a selection of baked goods, soups, and sandwiches. Another option is the Back Door Café, situated at the back door of Old Harbor Books. Once again, you can expect great coffee, teas, and a limited lunch menu.
Where to Shop in Sitka
Shopping in Sitka offers a charming experience in the town’s compact downtown area. From Centennial Hall, head towards Lincoln Street, the main thoroughfare, to find a variety of shops. Unlike other cruise ports, Sitka is not filled with chain stores. Instead, you’ll find locally-owned shops and unique souvenirs.
Wintersong, a shop known for its lotions and unique gifts, offers a range of options, including authentic Alaska Pure Sea Salt and fashionable 57 Peaks leggings. Be sure to explore the various galleries scattered throughout town, each offering its own artistic treasures.
Old Harbor Books provides a cozy bookstore experience, offering a glimpse into Sitka’s literary side. As you wander through town, you’ll discover numerous shops selling Sitka-branded souvenirs and locally-made goods. The town’s small size makes shopping convenient, and you’ll likely find it hard to resist picking up a few treasures to remember your visit.
In conclusion, Sitka is a town unlike any other. Its rich history, stunning natural beauty, and friendly atmosphere make it a destination worth exploring. Whether you’re interested in immersing yourself in the local culture, embarking on outdoor adventures, or indulging in delicious cuisine, Sitka has something for everyone. So, hop off your cruise ship and enjoy all that this remarkable Alaskan town has to offer.
Learn more about Sitka and other fascinating destinations at 5 WS.