Juneau, Alaska's capital and third-largest city, is on the North American mainland but can't be reached by road. The city owes its origins to two colorful sourdoughs (Alaskan pioneers)—Joe Juneau and Richard Harris—and to a Tlingit chief named Kowee, who led the two men to rich reserves of gold at Snow Slide Gulch, the drainage of Gold Creek around which the town was eventually built. That was in 1880, and shortly thereafter a modest stampede resulted in the formation of a mining camp, which quickly grew to become the Alaska district government capital in 1906. The city may well have continued under its original appellation—Harrisburg, after Richard Harris—were it not for Joe Juneau's political jockeying at a miner's meeting in 1881. For some 60 years after Juneau's founding gold was the mainstay of the economy. In its heyday the AJ (for Alaska Juneau) Gold Mine was the biggest low-grade ore mine in the world. It was not until World War II, when the government decided it needed Juneau's manpower for the war effort, that the AJ and other mines in the area ceased operations. After the war, mining failed to start up again and government became the city's principal employer. Juneau's mines leave a rich legacy, though: before it closed, the AJ Gold Mine alone produced more than $80 million in gold. Perhaps because of its colorful history, Juneau is full of contrasts. Its dramatic hillside location and historic downtown buildings provide a frontier feeling, but the city's cosmopolitan nature comes through in fine museums, noteworthy restaurants, and a literate and outdoorsy populace. Here you can enjoy the Mt. Roberts Tramway, plenty of densely forested wilderness areas, quiet bays for sea kayaking, and even a famous drive-up glacier. Along with the Alaska State Museum and Mt. Roberts Tramway, make time for a tour to Mendenhall Glacier and the Macaulay Salmon Hatchery. Douglas (which at one point was a bigger outpost than Juneau) is across the Gastineau Channel to the west.
Gold Creek Salmon Bake
Trees, mountains, and the rushing water of Salmon Creek surround the comfortable, canopy-covered benches and tables at this authentic salmon bake. Fresh-caught salmon is cooked over an alder fire and served with a succulent sauce. For $44 there is all-you-can-eat salmon, pasta, and chicken along with baked beans, rice pilaf, salad bar, corn bread, and blueberry cake. Wine and beer are extra. After dinner you can pan for gold in the stream, wander up the hill to explore the remains of the Wagner gold mine, or roast marshmallows over the fire. A round-trip bus ride from downtown is included; arrangements should be made in advance through Alaska Travel Adventures.
The Hangar on the Wharf
Crowded with locals and travelers, the Hangar occupies the building where Alaska Airlines started business. Flight-theme puns dominate the menu (i.e., "Pre-flight Snacks" and the "Plane Caesar"), but the comfortably worn wood and vintage airplane photos create a casual dining experience that outweighs the kitsch. Every seat has views of the Gastineau Channel and Douglas Island. On warm days, outdoor seating is offered. This Juneau hotspot makes a wide selection of entrées, including locally caught halibut and salmon, filet mignon, great burgers, and daily specials. The Hangar serves more than 100 beers, including a few dozen on tap. On Friday and Saturday nights jazz or rock bands take the stage. If you've have had enough salmon, try the prime rib, which the Hangar is known for.
Heritage Coffee Company
Juneau's favorite coffee shop is a downtown institution, with locally roasted coffees, gelato, fresh pastries, and all sorts of specialty drinks. The window-front bar is good for people-watching while you sip a chai latte. The same folks also operate several other coffee outposts, including the Glacier Cafe in Mendenhall Valley, which boasts a bigger menu that includes breakfast burritos and omelets, along with lunchtime paninis, wraps, soups, salads, and burgers, plus various vegetarian dishes.
Alaskan Brewing Company
If you're a beer fan, look for Alaskan Brewing Company. These tasty brews, including Alaskan Amber, Pale Ale, IPA, White, Stout, and Freeride APA, are brewed and bottled in Juneau. You can visit the brewery (and get free samples of the goods) 11 to 6 daily May through September, with 20-minute tours every half hour. Between October and April tours take place Tuesday through Saturday, 11 to 5:30. This is no designer brewery—it's in Juneau's industrial area, and there is no upscale café-bar attached—but the gift shop sells T-shirts and beer paraphernalia. You can also visit the brewery's Downtown Depot, on Franklin Street; though you can't sample the beer here, you can find out more about the brewing process and purchase Alaskan Brewing Company gear—or catch a shuttle to the brewery itself for $7.50 each way. Shuttles run hourly in the summer.
Alaskan Hotel Bar
The Alaskan Hotel Bar is Juneau's most historically authentic watering hole, with flocked-velvet walls, antique chandeliers, and vintage Alaska frontier-brothel decor. The atmosphere, however, is anything but dated, and the bar's live music and open-mic night draw high-spirited crowds.
In downtown Juneau, see Rie Muñoz's paintings and tapestries at Decker Gallery.
Wm. Spear Design
Located upstairs through a separate entrance next to Heritage Coffee, Wm. Spear Design is an interesting store, where this lawyer-turned-artist produces a fun and colorful collection of enameled pins and zipper pulls.
A surprising exception to the cheesy-airport-gift-shop epidemic, Juneau's airport gift shop, Hummingbird Hollow, sells authentic Native art, including a diverse selection of jewelry, baskets, and Eskimo dolls.
Rie Muñoz Gallery
Rie Muñoz, of the Rie Muñoz Gallery, is one of Alaska's best-known artists. She's the creator of a stylized, simple, and colorful design technique that is much copied but rarely equaled. The gallery is located in Mendenhall Valley, a convenient 10-minute walk from the airport.
Red Dog Saloon
The frontierish quarters of the Red Dog have housed an infamous Juneau watering hole since 1890. Nearly every conceivable surface in this two-story bar is cluttered with graffiti, business cards, and memorabilia, including a pistol that reputedly belonged to Wyatt Earp, who failed to reclaim the piece after checking it in at the U.S. Marshall's office on June 27, 1900. The saloon's food menu includes halibut, reindeer sausage, potato skins, burgers, and locally brewed Alaskan beers. A little atmospheric sawdust covers the floor as well. Musicians pump out ragtime piano tunes when cruise ships are docked.
Alaska State Capitol
Completed in 1931 and remodeled in 2006, this rather unassuming building houses the governor's office and hosts state legislature meetings in winter, placing it at the epicenter of Alaska's increasingly animated political discourse. Historical photos line the upstairs walls. Feel free to stroll right in. You can pick up a self-guided tour brochure as you enter. Complimentary guided tours available daily mid-May through mid-Sept.
Alaska State Museum
This is one of Alaska's finest museums. Those interested in Native cultures will enjoy examining the 38-foot walrus-hide umiak (an open, skin-covered Inupiaq boat). Natural-history exhibits include preserved brown bears and a two-story-high eagle-nesting tree. Russian-American and gold-rush displays and contemporary art complete the collection. Be sure to visit the gift shop (run by the Friends of the Alaska State Museum) and its extraordinary selection of Native art, including baskets, carvings, and masks.
Many Juneau pioneers, including Joe Juneau and Richard Harris, are buried here. Juneau (1836–99), a Canadian by birth, died in Dawson City, Yukon, but his body was returned to the city that bears his name. Harris (1833–1907), whose name can be found on downtown's Harris Street, died here. A meandering gravel path leads through the graveyard, and at the end of it is the monument commemorating the cremation spot of Chief Kowee.
Completed in 1912, this stately colonial-style home overlooks downtown Juneau. With 14,400 square feet, 6 bedrooms, and 10 bathrooms, it's no miner's cabin. Out front is a totem pole that tells three tales: the history of man, the cause of ocean tides, and the origin of Alaska's ubiquitous mosquitoes. Unfortunately, tours of the residence are not permitted.
Juneau-Douglas City Museum
Among the exhibits interpreting local mining and Tlingit history are an Assay Lab diorama, a reconstructed Tlingit fish trap and video of excavation, historic photos, and pioneer artifacts, including a century-old store and kitchen. Digital story kiosks highlight Alaska's government, civil rights in Alaska, Alaska's quest for statehood, and cultures of Juneau. Youngsters will appreciate the hands-on room, where they can try on clothes similar to ones worn by the miners or look at gold-rush stereoscopes. Guided historic walking tours are offered May through September.
On the dock where the cruise ships "tie up" is a little urban oasis with benches, shade trees, and shelter. It's a great place to enjoy an outdoor meal from one of Juneau's street vendors, and on Friday evenings in summer it features live performances by Juneau musicians. A visitor kiosk is staffed according to cruise-ship schedules.
Mt. Roberts Tramway
One of Southeast Alaska's most popular tourist attractions, this tram whisks you from the cruise terminal 1,800 feet up the side of Mt. Roberts. After the six-minute ride you can take in a film on the history and legends of the Tlingits, visit the nature center, go for an alpine walk on hiking trails (including the 5-mile round-trip hike to Mt. Roberts's 3,819-foot summit), purchase Native crafts, or enjoy a meal while savoring mountain views. A local company leads guided wilderness hikes from the summit, and the bar serves locally brewed beers.
South Franklin Street
The buildings on South Franklin Street (and neighboring Front Street), among the oldest and most inviting structures in the city, house curio and crafts shops, snack shops, and a salmon shop. Many reflect the architecture of the 1920s and '30s. When the small Alaskan Hotel opened in 1913, Juneau was home to 30 saloons; the Alaskan gives today's visitors the most authentic glimpse of the town's whiskey-rich history. The barroom's massive, mirrored oak back bar is accented by Tiffany lights and panels. Topped by a wood-shingled turret, the 1901 Alaska Steam Laundry Building now houses a coffeehouse and other stores. The Senate Building, another of South Franklin's treasured landmarks, is across the street.
Last Chance Mining Museum
A 1½-mile hike or taxi ride behind town, this small museum is housed in the former compressor building of Juneau's historic AJ Gold Mine. The collection includes old mining tools, railcars, minerals, and a 3-D map of the ore body. If you have time, and didn't arrive on foot, meander down Basin Road back toward town. Unlike most of Juneau, Basin Road is flat and relatively quiet. The surrounding country is steep and wooded, with trails leading in all directions, including one to the summit of Mt. Juneau. At the base of the Perseverance Trail, not far from the museum, you can see the boarded-up opening to an old mining tunnel; even from a safe distance you can feel a chilly breeze wafting through the cracks.