Cities We Love: Sitka, Alaska

For a place with only 9,000 residents, Sitka packs a big punch. The scenery is spectacular, the town lying along Baranof Island on the outer coast of Alaska's Inside Passage, is in the shadow of a high dormant volcano, Mount Edgecumbe. Then there's its rich history. The culture of the Tlingit natives, the first inhabitants, thrives alongside the legacy of the Russian settlers who discovered Alaska in 1741. 

Sitka also maintains a genuine, small-town atmosphere, thanks in part to its isolation (the only way in and out is by plane or boat) and a compact downtown where most everything of interest is within a short walk.

Start at Harrigan Centennial Hall's visitors' center for walking maps and to catch a performance of a Russian folk group, the New Archangel Dancers. The main historical landmark is St. Michael's Cathedral, an onion-domed church rebuilt after a fire in 1966 that fortunately left its 17th-century art and other treasures unscathed. Nearly two dozen other buildings on the National Register of Historic Places are nearby.

Another must-see is Sitka National Historical Park, less than a 20-minute walk from the cathedral. In its lush forest of spruce and hemlock, towering totem poles carved by the Tlingits tell their legends, serve as memorials, show family crests and ancestry, and record clan or historic events. 

A visitors' center film traces Sitka's past, including Russia's sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867 (the transfer ceremony took place nearby). Learn more about native culture at the Sheldon Jackson Museum, built in 1897, is the oldest museum in Alaska. 

A Sitka visit wouldn't be complete without seeing awe-inspiring wildlife. The Alaska Raptor Center exhibits bald eagles and other birds of prey while terrestrial and marine life is the focus at the Sitka Sound Science Center. Watch bears as you would in the wild at Fortress of the Bear, a sanctuary dedicated to rescuing Alaska’s orphaned bear cubs. Observe the brown bears in habitats spanning two acres, full of natural local plant life, earthy hills and fresh water streams, with live salmon in the summer.  

Visit your local AAA office for reservations and information.