It's hard not to like Sitka, with its eclectic blend of Alaska Native, Russian, and American history and its dramatic and beautiful open-ocean setting. This is one of the best Inside Passage towns to explore on foot, with such sights as St. Michael's Cathedral, Sheldon Jackson Museum, Castle Hill, Sitka National Historical Park, and the Alaska Raptor Center topping the town's must-see list. Sitka was home to the Kiksádi clan of the Tlingit people for centuries prior to the 18th-century arrival of the Russians under the direction of territorial governor Alexander Baranof, who believed the region was ideal for the fur trade. The governor also coveted the Sitka site for its beauty, mild climate, and economic potential; in the island's massive timber forests he saw raw materials for shipbuilding. Its location offered trading routes as far west as Asia and as far south as California and Hawaii. In 1799 Baranof built St. Michael Archangel—a wooden fort and trading post 6 miles north of the present town. Strong disagreements arose shortly after the settlement. The Tlingits attacked the settlers and burned their buildings in 1802. Baranof, however, was away in Kodiak at the time. He returned in 1804 with a formidable force—including shipboard cannons—and attacked the Tlingits at their fort near Indian River, site of the present-day 105-acre Sitka National Historical Park, forcing many of them north to Chichagof Island. By 1821 the Tlingits had reached an accord with the Russians, who were happy to benefit from the tribe's hunting skills. Under Baranof and succeeding managers, the Russian-American Company and the town prospered, becoming known as the Paris of the Pacific. The community built a major shipbuilding and repair facility, sawmills, and forges, and even initiated an ice industry, shipping blocks of ice from nearby Swan Lake to the booming San Francisco market. The settlement that was the site of the 1802 conflict is now called Old Sitka. It is a state park and listed as a National Historic Landmark. The town declined after its 1867 transfer from Russia to the United States, but it became prosperous again during World War II, when it served as a base for the U.S. effort to drive the Japanese from the Aleutian Islands. Today its most important industries are fishing, government, and tourism.
Travelers flying out from Sitka head here while hoping their jet will make it through the pea-soup fog outside. The setting is standard, and the menu encompasses burgers (15 kinds), sandwiches, tuna melts, salads, steaks, pasta, seafood, and Friday-night prime rib. There's a big breakfast menu, too, but the real attraction is the range of homemade pies, which are known throughout Southeast Alaska. The lemon custard pie is a local favorite. Get a slice à la mode, or buy a whole pie to take with you. Reservations are recommended.
Van Winkle & Sons
This restaurant's somewhat lackluster ambience (Formica tabletops, paper napkins, vinyl swivel-chair seating) doesn't quite match up to the gorgeous water views and upscale fare but, really, you won't mind. One of Sitka's largest eateries, it bills itself as "Frontier Cuisine," which translates to a seafood-heavy menu. But Van Winkle also serves pizzas, chicken, and duck. The create-your-own pastas are excellent (a half order is plenty for normal-size appetites), and the rich desserts necessitate sharing. There's no elevator to the restaurant's second-floor location, but a stair lift assists customers with disabilities. The water view is good.
As far as the locals are concerned, a spot in one of the
limited green-and-white-vinyl booths at Pioneer Bar, across from the harbor, is
a fine destination. It's vintage Alaska, with hundreds of pictures of local
fishing boats, rough-hewn locals clad in Carhartts and XtraTuf boots, occasional
live music, and pool tables. Regulars, mostly local fishermen, swear by the
submarine sandwiches and hot dogs.
Fishermen's Eye Fine Art Gallery
This tasteful downtown gallery prides itself on its vibrant collection of made-in-Sitka art, including silver jewelry, Native masks, and carved bowls.
Sitka Rose Gallery
Housed within a Victorian-style 1895 home next to the Bishop's House, Sitka Rose Gallery is the town's most charming shop, and features Alaskan paintings, sculptures, Native art, and jewelry.
Fresh Fish Company
This company sells and ships fresh locally caught salmon, halibut, and shrimp.
WinterSong Soap Company
Behind the Sitka Rose Gallery, WinterSong Soap Company sells colorful and scented soaps that are handcrafted on the premises.
Alaska Raptor Center
The only full-service avian hospital in Alaska, the Raptor Center rehabilitates 100 to 200 birds each year. Situated just above Indian Creek, the center is a 20-minute walk from downtown. Well-versed guides provide an introduction to the rehabilitation center (including a short video), and guests are able to visit with one of these majestic birds. The Raptor Center's primary attraction is an enclosed 20,000-square-foot flight training center, built to replicate the rain forest, where injured eagles relearn survival skills, including flying and catching salmon. Visitors watch through one-way glass windows. A large deck out back faces an open-air enclosure for eagles and other raptors whose injuries prevent them from returning to the wild. Additional mews with hawks, owls, and other birds are along a rain-forest path. The gift shop sells all sorts of eagle paraphernalia, the proceeds from which fund the center's programs.
Russian and Lutheran cemeteries
Most of Sitka's Russian dignitaries are buried in these sites off Marine Street, which, thanks to their wooded locations, require a bit of exploring to locate. The most distinctive (and easily accessible) grave belongs to Princess Maksoutoff (died 1862), wife of the last Russian governor and one of the most illustrious members of the Russian royal family to be buried on Alaska soil.
Russian Bishop's House
A registered historic landmark, this house facing the harbor was constructed by the Russian–American Company for Bishop Innocent Veniaminov in 1842 and completed in 1843. Inside the house, one of the few remaining Russian-built log structures in Alaska, are exhibits on the history of Russian America, including several places where portions of the house's structure are peeled away to expose Russian building techniques. The ground level is a free museum, and Park Service rangers lead guided tours of the second floor, which houses the residential quarters and a chapel.
St. Michael's Cathedral
This cathedral, one of Southeast Alaska's best-known national landmarks, is treasured by visitors and locals alike—so treasured that in 1966, as a fire engulfed the building, townspeople risked their lives and rushed inside to rescue the cathedral's precious Russian icons, religious objects, and vestments. Using original blueprints, an almost exact replica of onion-dome St. Michael's was completed in 1976. Today you can see what could possibly be the largest collection of Russian icons in the United States, among them the much-prized Our Lady of Sitka (also known as the Sitka Madonna) and the Christ Pantocrator (Christ the World Judge), displayed on the altar screen.
Sheldon Jackson Museum
Near the campus of the former Sheldon Jackson College, this octagonal museum, which dates from 1895, contains priceless Native Alaskan items collected by Dr. Sheldon Jackson (1834–1909), who traveled the remote regions of Alaska as an educator and missionary. This state-run museum features artifacts from every Native Alaska culture; on display are carved masks, Chilkat blankets, dogsleds, kayaks, and even the impressive helmet worn by Chief Katlean during the 1804 battle against the Russians. The museum's small but well-stocked gift shop, operated by the Friends of the Sheldon Jackson Museum, carries books, paper goods, and handicrafts created by Alaska Native artists. If you open the drawers under the glass cases all around the main room of the musem, you'll find on-exhibit artifacts.
Sitka National Historical Park
The main building at this 113-acre park houses a small museum with fascinating historical exhibits and photos of Tlingit Native culture. Highlights include a brass peace hat given to the Sitka Kiksádi by Russian traders in the early 1800s and Chilkat robes. Head to the theater to watch a 12-minute video about Russian–Tlingit conflict in the 19th century. Ask a ranger to point you toward the Centennial Totem Pole, installed in honor of the park's 100th anniversary in 2011. Also here is the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center, where Native artisans demonstrate silversmithing, weaving, wood carving, and basketry. Make sure you strike up a conversation (or two) with the artists; they're there to showcase and talk about their work as well as Tlingit cultural traditions. At the far end of the building are seven totems (some more than a century old) that have been brought indoors to protect them from decay. Behind the center a wide, 2-mile path takes you through the forest and along the shore of Sitka Sound. Scattered along the way are some of the most skillfully carved Native totem poles in Alaska. Keep going on the trail to see spawning salmon from the footbridge over Indian River. Park Service rangers lead themed walks in summer, which focus on the Russian–Tlingit conflict, the area's natural history, and the park's totem poles.
Sitka State Pioneers Home
Known locally as just the Pioneers Home, this large, red-roof home for elder Alaskans has an imposing 14-foot statue in front symbolizing Alaska's frontier sourdough spirit ("sourdough" generally refers to Alaska's American pioneers and prospectors); it was modeled by an authentic prospector, William "Skagway Bill" Fonda. Adjacent to the Pioneers Home is Sitka Tribal Tours' Sheet'ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi community house, where you can watch Native dance performances throughout the summer.
On this grassy square directly across the street from the Pioneers Home are three anchors discovered in local waters and believed to be of 19th-century British origin. Look for the double-headed eagle of czarist Russia carved into the cedar of the totem pole in the park.
This small waterside park sits in the trees 4 miles east of Sitka right off Sawmill Creek Road. Boardwalk paths lead to five viewing platforms and steps take you down to the rocky shoreline. A gazebo next to the parking area contains signs describing the whales that visit Silver Bay, and you can listen to their sounds from recordings and an offshore hydrophone here. Tune your radio to FM 88.1 anywhere in Sitka to hear a broadcast of humpback whale sounds picked up by the hydrophone.