Unforgettable Experiences in Sitka, Alaska

One of our all-time favorite cities we have ever visited is Sitka, Alaska. This Southeast Alaska city is relatively small but very mighty. It packs a punch, rich with things to do, including exploring nature and seeing wildlife, learning about the indigenous people, enjoying great food, and embarking on unique experiences whether it’s your first time here or your fifth.

Sea otters bobbing in the water in Sitka, Alaska.

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Immersive Adventures Await in Sitka, Alaska

One of the best things about Sitka is that it’s a small city. The length of Sitka from one end to another is just around 13 miles. The special thing about it, however, is that it spills out into the water and the mountains, meaning that boat adventures and hikes in the forest are as much something to do there as anything downtown. It’s truly all unforgettable because of the city’s character, unlike anywhere else in the world, especially in the United States.

Where else can you see a historical Russian church, then walk to the waterfront, passing a totem pole along the way, to board a boat to go spot salmon spawning against a backdrop of a resplendent waterfall and see a mama bear with her cubs on the shore minutes later? 

Exploring Sitka is a must whether that means getting off your cruise ship, extending some days before or after your cruise with a pre or post-cruise extension, or simply visiting by land for a few days. 

Top Six Memorable Things to Do in Sitka

Here are our choices for the top six experiences in Sitka: 

  1. Take a Wildlife Cruise with Bumble Expeditions
  2. Create a metal salmon fish keepsake at Salty Sitkan
  3. Learn about the salmon hatchery at Sitka Sound Science Center
  4. See the totem poles and carving tent at Sitka National Historical Park
  5. Visit the Alaska Raptor Center
  6. Stay several nights in Sitka

We go into detail about each one, plus include many more things to do in Sitka, below.

Embracing Nature’s Wonders: Wildlife Experiences and Exploration in Sitka

Discovering wildlife in Sitka is an integral part of being there. You can see animals in their natural habitats — like in the ocean, in the rivers or on riverbanks, and in the forests  — or in rehabilitation centers where injured animals are brought to recover.

You can discover nature on your own, sign up for a guided tour with your cruise line, or sign up for excursions and guided tours and experiences on your own.

Bumble Expeditions Wildlife Tour

One of the most memorable things we did in Sitka, AK, was an excursion with Bumblee Expeditions. For three hours, we explored Sitka’s ocean by boat with a goal in mind: find wildlife! We searched for marine life like orcas or humpback whales, sea lions, and otters or for animals like birds and bears.  

A mama brown bear with her two cubs walking along the shoreline in Sitka, Alaska.
Waterfall in the distance on a boat ride touring Sitka's beautiful wildlife.

Sarah and Cole, owners of Bumble Expeditions, will take you around or one of their team members will guide a tour. You can sign up for an expedition on land or on sea with them. For us, we were happy to be with them during the first full day we were in Alaska. We enjoyed the most phenomenal few hours of touring around Sitka’s waters with them. 

Two men with their backs to the camera in a boat's interior.

The highlight of the day was definitely seeing bears on the shore of an island that Captain Cole drove us to. We saw one mama bear with two cubs who quickly caught a salmon from the water to feed to her babies. Then, we saw another mama bear with her cub while driving away. 

That was followed by seeing a lot of sea otters in the water playing like it was their job to be adorable and entertain us. Sarah and Cole were great about doing all they could to venture towards the areas where wildlife may have been for us. 

A Remarkable Lunch

We finished our time with them by having a delicious meal on their island, where we could roam around to explore the views and beachfront. We pre-ordered lunch, which they get from a local catering company, and enjoyed the loveliest meal at their home. Sarah set out a gorgeous cheese plate with local berries to boot. The sweetest finish was a creative s’mores plate Sarah crafted for us! It was the perfect warm dessert on a cold summer day. 

Spread of crackers, cheese and nuts, and chips during a Bumble Expeditions wildlife tour, one of the best things to do in Sitka.

If you’re in Sitka for a few days on land, we highly recommend you book an excursion with Bumble Expeditions. 

If you are in town as a port of call on a cruise, Sarah, Cole, and their team are very timely and efficient and will make sure you are back on the ship before your all-aboard time. They’ll even drop you off at the cruise ship dock!

Sitka National Historical Park

This park is part educational and part adventure. Inside the visitor center, we saw an educational 12-minute film, “The Voices of Sitka,” about the area that gave us a great understanding of the founding of Sitka. We also saw some exhibits inside that gave us a better understanding of where totem pole paints came from decades ago. 

Outside, we saw artists carving totem poles and took an easy hike to see the totem poles around the park and the incredible views during our walk.

They are open from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm April through September. Hours are more limited in the off-season.

See the Carving Tent

All of the outdoor Haida and Tlingit totem poles in the park are replicas, but they are all hand-carved replicas of the originals. The tent at the park has carvers doing the work. It’s such a special part of the park to view artists at work.

You’re able to ask them questions and see how they use their expertise to carve new totem poles. 

Hike an Easy Trail

A hike of around thirty minutes took us through the rainforest along the Totem Trail, which leads to the site of the Battle of 1804.

Russian Bishop’s House

Though in an entirely different location, at 501 Lincoln Street in downtown Sitka, this historic building is part of the Sitka National Park Service, like Sitka National Historical Park.

Free tours of the home are offered from May through September. It’s one of just four Russian buildings left in North America. Inside are exhibits about Russian America and the role the Russian Orthodox Church played in Alaska.

Sitka Sound Science Center (and Salmon Hatchery) 

One of the most interesting things to do in Sitka is to learn about salmon in Alaska through the visual tools that the Sitka Science Center has, like seeing its salmon lab and sorting facility. 

Though you may not see them sorting salmon because that activity is very much dependent on a specific week during summer, a visit here is very interesting and educational no matter the day. During our August visit, we saw the salmon spawning in the water just steps away, next to the facility. 

Inside are a few aquariums and a touch tank with Pacific Northwest starfish and anemones. 

This museum is on Lincoln Street and is open Wednesday through Saturday. 

Fortress of the Bear

We visited this 501(C) 3 non-profit as part of our first official Alaskan Dream Cruise day. This three-quarter-acre habitat for orphaned brown bears and black bears is one of the most popular attractions in Sitka, Alaska. It opened in 2007 and welcomes an average of 89,000 visitors per year. 

Bears behind a metal fence at Fortress of the Bear in Sitka, AK.

The facility, which relies on guest entrance fees and donations to operate and care for the bears, is tucked away in Sitka and reachable on a 10 drive from downtown. 

Though it wasn’t our favorite bear experience (seeing bears during our Bumble Expedition and in Ketchikan were) it is a cost-effective, guaranteed way to see bears. 

They are open during peak tourist season from mid-April to September every day, 9:00 am to 6:00 pm. From October through mid-April, they’re open weekends, Friday to Sunday, from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm. 

Alaska Raptor Center

Rescue center and rehabilitation center for birds of prey, especially Bald Eagles. Though it’s incredibly rare, our first day in Sitka included a power outage that affected all of downtown. We came to find out that a Bald Eagle had flown into – and knocked down – a power line, which caused the city-wide outage. That bird was inevitably brought to the Alaska Raptor Center for rehabilitation after electrocution from the power lines. (Sad to say, but a reality of humans and nature co-existing.)  

Two Bald Eagles on a branch at the Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka.

Injured birds are brought to the Raptor Center for rehabilitation. One of the most fascinating aspects of the center is seeing the “test” course that the birds must pass in order to be released back into the wild. 

Make a Metal Fish at Salty Sitkan 

One of the most memorable things we did in all of Alaska during our two weeks there was create a metal fish with The Salty Sitkan. We absolutely LOVED our experience! Mike, a teacher during the school year, started the business so he could share his passion for metal work with the community and visitors. 

This is getting to know wildlife in Sitka in a completely different way. It’s an especially awesome activity if you’re in Sitka for a few days or if you’ve been there several times and are looking for an unusual activity few people get to do. 

Woman using a tool to sand and add designs to a metal fish during a class at The Salty Sitkan, one of the best things to do in Sitka.

Not only do you get to create something with your hands, but you also get to bring home a unique keepsake from your Alaska adventures. It’s even cooler that the main pieces to create are several types of salmon you can choose from. There aren’t many icons more Alaskan than salmon!

The experience lasts a few hours and is great for kids and adults. Children need the help of an adult to make their pieces. The metal is plasma cut before you arrive but you get to see the machine and learn how it works. Then you’re taken to a workshop area where you work to sand the metal, add fish scales, shape the metal, and then burnish it with a blow torch to create different colors on the metal, which Mike teaches you about too. It’s a chemical reaction that is cool to witness and craft for yourself.

Discover Downtown Sitka’s Rich Cultural Heritage

Lincoln Street in Sitka, Alaska, with its historic buildings.

If you’re new to Sitka, we highly recommend stopping in Harrigan Centennial Hall. It’s a beautiful building near the Sitka marina. It’s not near where the big cruise ships are, but rather where a lot of daytime excursions leave from. It’s worth a visit if you are interested in the history of Sitka and want to see some old photographs of the city. There are also Native American art pieces outside the building. They also have a restroom inside the building.

Totem Park

Indigenous Tlingit people have lived in Sitka, Alaska for centuries. One of the great things about Sitka is its rich culture that honors the Native Americans. This is most clearly evidenced, perhaps, in the totem poles you’ll find in the city, namely at Totem Park in downtown Sitka. 

We stopped here to admire the totem pole and take photos during a walk around town one summer morning. It was quiet, and we had the park to ourselves, which is a nice thing if you stay in Sitka a few days before or after your cruise.  

Totem poles are unique to the Pacific Northwest, so do not miss your opportunity to see them in Sitka! 

The other fantastic place to see totem poles in this city is at Sitka National Historical Park.

Shopping in Downtown Sitka

There are plenty of awesome shops downtown, all within walking distance. Our favorite shops on Lincoln Street included: 

Alaska Pure Sea Salt Co

This is the premier place to go to and purchase locally-made flaky salt. You can sample the salts before you commit to buying some. Sampling salt is why we purchased the Sitka Spruce Tip salt and purchased a bunch of it! It’s great for food but also for creating unique cocktails. We’re suckers for high-quality salt because it’s a great and useful gift for yourself or someone else. They also carry gift sets and chocolates, and the loveliest salt pyramid ornaments.

The company was started by Jim and Darcy Michener, who would create “anniversary salt” each year. Their passion grew and their mission for creating the United States’ first perfect pyramidal salt was realized through experimentation and dedication. They only use water from Sitka Sound, without additives or additional chemicals. 

As self-proclaimed salt enthusiasts, Dan and I can whole-heartedly attest to this being salt of the highest quality that’s such a unique find in Alaska. Go here, buy some, thank us later! 

Alaska Designed Sticker Shop (for Teens through Adults) 

Think again if you think stickers are just for kids. Alaska Designed Sticker Shop is where we fell in love with the huge selection of high-quality stickers designed by Alaskan artists. They also have well-designed t-shirts. 

We’ve never been huge “sticker people,” but I was converted after purchasing a few stickers here that I simply couldn’t resist owning and gifting. If you want something Alaskan to put on your computer or a reusable water bottle, go here. They had clever (and gorgeous) stickers for all things Alaska, including salmon, bears, stars, Russian dolls, Form Line, the state outline, 907 area code, and more. They have over 800 designs.

Sitka Lighthouse Company Store

This shop was so much fun to walk around. They had great Sitka and Alaskan branded apparel, some unique home goods, and more. We spent the better part of thirty minutes walking around this store. 

Where to Mail a Letter in Sitka: Post Office on Lincoln Street

If one of the things you enjoy when traveling is mailing letters to family and friends or to yourself, send a letter from downtown Sitka. 

The post office is right by Totem Park in Sitka, which is easy to get to downtown. It’s just off of Lincoln Street, the popular shopping street. If you already have postage and simply need to mail a letter, there is a blue post office box in front of Alaska Pure Sea Salt Co. 

Sitka’s Russian History

It can be said that, historically speaking, Sitka was the Capital of Russian America. The indigenous people were on the land that is present-day Alaska for thousands of years. When the Russians arrived in the late 18th century, they claimed it. In the 1860s, the United States purchased Alaska from the Russians. 

St. Michael’s Cathedral

This small Russian Orthodox Church is within walking distance of all the downtown shops and restaurants. Visitors are welcome to step inside between the hours of 12:00 pm to 2:00 pm to see its sacred artifacts. The church still hosts services five days a week if you want to attend to worship. 

Sheldon Jackson Museum

Head to this museum not far from downtown Sitka to see artifacts from the turn of the 20th century to the present day. See masks, totems, traditional clothing from the native people, and additional art installations. It’s a great place to go on a particularly rainy day. 

Fun fact: the building was the first concrete structure in Alaska. 

Baranof Castle State Historic Site

If you’re looking for a historic site with gorgeous waterfront views, head to the Baranof Castle State Historic Site. Ironically, there is no castle on the site. But it is pretty cool to visit to say that you were at the location where the Russians and the Americans signed the purchase treaty adding Alaska to the United States in the 19th century. 

Free Things to Do in Sitka

If you don’t have the budget to book a shore excursion or tour in Sitka, head downtown for free things to do and see in this beautiful city. 

There are maps all over the area so you can see where you are and choose where you want to go. Additionally, there is an app that we recommend downloading. 

Walk Lincoln Street and pop inside the galleries and shops for a look at local products. It doesn’t cost anything to look but if you want to buy something, there are plenty of items to choose from at various price points. 

We also recommend walking around Waterfront Park and visiting Harrigan Centennial. Walk the park and head to the Salmon Hatchery, where you can view the salmon sorting area from an adjacent walkway. (It’s likely you won’t be able to see anything being sorted because it only happens at very distinct times during summer. At worst, you’ll see the facility from the outside and at best, if you’re lucky, you’ll see them doing the sorting!)

Lastly, Sitka National Historical Park is totally free! 

Sitka, Alaska Cruise Port

If you arrive in Sitka on a big cruise ship during an Alaskan cruise, likely cruising from the Pacific Northwest of North America, you’ll need transportation to get to the central downtown area. This could be a van or bus arranged through the cruise line or arranged on your own. The Sitka cruise port for big ships is a few miles from downtown. There’s also a free shuttle.

If you are in Sitka on a small ship, it’s likely you can walk from the marina or docking point within and around downtown. This was the case when we embarked on our Alaskan Dream Cruises 9-day Inside Passage Sojourn itinerary from Sitka.

All About the Sitka, Alaska Cruise Port 

If you arrive in Sitka on a large cruise ship, you’re likely arriving at Sitka Sound. The terminal is six miles from downtown or a ten-minute drive. If you want to reach the downtown Sitka area, enjoy a free shuttle that goes from the terminal to Harrigan Centennial Hall in Downtown Sitka, running every 15 minutes.

If you haven’t booked a shore excursion through your cruise ship, we recommend taking the shuttle downtown and heading to the marina that is right next to Harrigan Centennial Hall first thing in the morning; there will be vendors there who will let you know if they have available tours that day. Let them know that you have to be back in time for your ship’s departure. 

Best Place to Stay in Sitka 

We stayed in town and stayed at an island retreat and, hands down, the island retreat was the way to go. Granted, there is a cost difference; however, if you have the budget — especially if you’re going to Alaska because of a special occasion, whether a bucket list destination, honeymoon, anniversary trip, or sibling outing — treat yourself to Twin Islands Retreat

If you want to stay downtown, we recommend Aspen Suites. 

Practical Tips for a Seamless Visit to Sitka, Alaska

Prepare for bugs, extended daylight hours, and moderate weather. Additionally, prepare ahead of time if you’re visiting during summer when tourism is at an all-time high. That means arranging hotel accommodations or shore excursions and tours in advance. 

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