Accessible only by boat or plane, you’ll be stunned by the wealth of things to do in Sitka Alaska, so don’t let the remote nature of this historic city deter you! Located in the Inner Passage along the Tongass National Forest, Sitka is an exciting and beautiful city surrounded by breathtaking protected lands. From nature experiences to museums detailing the lengthy history of not only the city itself but the entire state of Alaska, you will be sure to find something exciting to do while spending time here. In fact, Sitka is the site of the historic exchange between Russia and the United States, when the American flag was first raised in 1867! This area is unique for its mixture of native Alaskan tribal history and strong Russian influences and you will find plenty of both on the list of things to do in Sitka!
BEST Things to do in Sitka
Begin your adventure at Baranof Castle State Historic Park
More of a hill than a castle, this landmark is a special one for the city as well as the state. On this spot, the exchange between America and Russia took place and marks the occasion when the American flag was first raised in the state. Today, a large flag pole stands atop the hill and flies both the American and Alaska flags. Climbing to the top of the hill provides stunning panoramic views of the city and is one of the first things to do in Sitka. Start your adventure where it all began and marvel at the breathtaking views of the water and majestic glacier carved mountains of this pivotal place in Alaskan heritage!
See America’s National symbol in person at the Alaska Raptor Center
Alaska is a hotbed of Bald Eagle activity. From the rivers to the treetops, these birds can be seen frequently throughout your travels. For a truly unique experience with these magnificent and protected raptors, one of the things to do in Sitka is visit the Alaska Raptor Center. This rehabilitation center rescues, rehabilitates and releases hundreds of these birds every year. Whether orphaned, injured or sick, the facility painstakingly nurses these and other types of birds back to health with the ultimate goal of releasing them back into the wild. The staff of the center will introduce you to all the types of birds they work with, including owls and ravens as well as other birds of prey that pass through the facility. In addition to the rehabilitation and release programs, the Alaska Raptor Center also provides long term care for those birds that unfortunately can not be released back into the wild. After learning all about their programs and practices, you can enjoy the nature trails that cover the property to hopefully see these breathtaking birds in their natural habitat!
Experience the Russian history at the Russian Bishop’s House
The influence of its Russian past is strong in Sitka and you will be hard pressed to find something that doesn’t harken back to this era while wandering the streets. One of the best things to do in Sitka is to learn more about this intertwined relationship at the Russian Bishop’s House. The first floor of this museum is dedicated to artifacts and displays detailing the history of the Russian American past, including pelts and household items left behind by the Russian settlers and inhabitants of this city. On the second floor, the building has been painstakingly restored to show an example of the everyday life of these original settlers, including guest rooms and a reception hall that gives one the impression of stepping back in time. Because this site is located within the Sitka National Park, the best way to get the full experience is to take a comprehensive guided tour that will provide so much information for those interested in learning more about the history of this Alaskan city.
Take a whale watching tour off the shores of Sitka
Located on the coast of Alaska’s famed Inner Passage, one of the most exciting things to do in Sitka is to take a whale watching tour. The migratory paths of these giant creatures bring them to the area and seeing them up close is one of the most rewarding experiences that is so easy to find in this area of Alaska. From humpbacks to orcas, whales flock to the region in droves from around July to December, and these tours also give you the opportunity to see other marine wildlife such as harbor seals and native birds. While traveling through Alaska, an off shore excursion to see these massive creatures is one of the musts on any list of things to do in Sitka.
Find even more Russian history at Saint Michael’s Cathedral
Touted as the first Russian Orthodox Church in the New World, St Michael’s Cathedral was first erected in 1848. Though the original building was destroyed by fire in 1966, the current site was reconstructed in the exact fashion of the original and today contains numerous artifacts, icons, paintings and ecclesiastical relics that were saved from destruction in the fire. Because of the strong Russian influence on the area, a visit to the lush and typically opulent Russian Orthodox Church in the city is one of the best things to do in Sitka to get a real feel for how deep this influence truly runs.
View the full history of Alaska at the Sheldon Jackson Museum
There’s so much more to Alaskan history than just the Russian influence, and one of the best things to do in Sitka to experience this history up close and personal is visit the Sheldon Jackson Museum. The majority of the collection came from the museum’s namesake, Sheldon Jackson, a missionary who made annual trips to Alaska in the 1890s and collected thousands of artifacts during his trips. Today the museum hosts this collection in addition to many others, ranging from Native American items such as baskets and canoes to traditional garments and stone carvings. There are even original totem poles, the renowned icon of the native Alaskan tribes. Even the building itself is a piece of the history of this town; the museum was originally founded in 1888 and is currently housed in one of the old college buildings. The Sheldon Jackson College was the first institute of higher learning in Alaska and the building that houses the museum collection dates from around 1895!
Marvel at totem poles in their natural habitat at the Sitka Totem Park
Surrounded by the breathtaking natural beauty of the Tongass National Forest, one of the largest temperate rainforest climates in the world, Sitka Totem Park is one of the top things to do in Sitka to experience both the natural scenery of the area as well as the rich Native American history. This park features hiking trails through the forest at varying levels of difficulty and numerous ancient totem poles throughout. Guides and knowledgeable park staff can help put the history in perspective while you stand and marvel at the sheer size and artistry of the totem poles that are so symbolic of this area of Alaska.
Get up close and personal with brown bears at the Fortress of the Bear
Located on just under an acre of land in the Tongass National Forest, this bear sanctuary provides a home for orphaned and injured bears in need of rehabilitation. Visitors to this park can get remarkably close to the bears, all of whom are housed in an authentic recreation of their natural habitat. Limited interaction with people keeps them wild and able to be released, so this experience is as close to the wild as you can get while remaining safe from unsavory encounters. The staff of the sanctuary are on hand to explain the mission of the facility and offer insight and educational opportunities for visitors to learn about not only the work that is done at the sanctuary but also the natural lives of the famous Alaskan brown bears. For a breathtaking and exciting experience with these magnificent creatures, a visit to the Fortress of the Bears is one of the top rated things to do in Sitka.
Excursions to consider on your cruise stop to Sitka!
On this visit to Sitka we went with Holland America on a Glacier Bay Cruise. This was the very last stop in Alaska and offered a wide variety of tours for guests to enjoy.
Some of the available excursions are (and please note, these are subject to change):
- Salmon and halibut fishing – if you love to fish, there is not better place than Alaska! Get out on the boat in Sitka and get some of that tasty salmon
- Historic Sitka – this 3.5 hour tour covers most of the historic side of the city and is a great way to see a lot the city has to offer on your visit
- Tongass Rain Forest Nature Hike – this journey begins at Starrigavin Muskeg Trail and is about a 2.5 mile hike
- Otters, Raptors and Bears, OH MY! – I did this excursion and it is about 5 hours on land and sea. You get out on the water where you might see whales, eagles, otters, etc. Then continue your tour to the Raptor Center and the Fortress of the Bear
- Sitka Bike and Hike – this tour includes four miles on a bike and a one mile hike where you will see a beautiful lake, waterfall and so much more!
Sitka Alaska is a treasure trove of experiences and memories set against the backdrop of the high peaks of the rugged Alaskan geography and the breathtaking beauty of the Tongass National Forest. Filled with robust history, rugged wilderness and stunning wildlife, there is no shortage of things to do in Sitka. Don’t let its remote location fool you, a visit to this region is well worth the time and will be sure to foster memories that last a lifetime. This area is the birthplace of Alaska’s relationship with the United States, and it’s not a surprise why they chose this location for the momentous occasion. Words fall short of adequately describing the beauty found here; you’ll have to see it for yourself to truly understand the appeal of this part of America’s Last Frontier!
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