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Metro Alaska

With stunning scenery, a thriving museum scene and great retail, Anchorage is a delightful city worth exploring for its own merits, not merely a pit stop on the way to “the real Alaska.”

Situated on the Cook Inlet, with breathtaking views, the city’s charming downtown is easily navigated by foot. Vendors sell reindeer hotdogs on street corners, and locals mingle with tourists on the popular Tony Knowles Coastal Trail.

But groups shouldn’t be fooled by the laid-back, small-town ambiance. Alaska’s largest city offers many big-city attractions. The Anchorage Museum showcases Alaskan history and art. Native Alaskan culture has been carefully preserved at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. And abundant shopping paired with excellent restaurants and the performing arts help make Anchorage a memorable stop on any Alaskan itinerary.


Culture Past and Present

Several years ago, the Anchorage Museum completed a $106 million expansion. This downtown site gives a terrific introduction to Alaskan history and to the state’s many wonders. More than 600 native Alaskan objects are displayed in the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center. The Imaginarium Discovery Center features more than 80 hands-on science exhibits, many related to Alaska. Other highlights include the Thomas Planetarium and the contemporary Alaskan native-art gallery.

Special exhibits for 2014 include “Gyre: The Plastic Ocean,” which combines art and science. Partnering with the Alaska SeaLife Center, the museum invited international scientists, educators and artists to travel by boat to observe and collect debris along the state’s coastline. Artists have transformed the debris into works of art.

A short drive from downtown, the Alaska Native Heritage Center showcases the state’s 11 tribes. Motorcoaches are greeted by native Alaskans speaking in their tribal languages. Inside the Welcome House, traditional dancers perform and craftspeople sell their wares, among them fur-trimmed moccasins, jewelry and carvings. Throughout the summer, artists-in-residence represent different tribes and work on cultural projects.

Outside, tours led by native Alaskans follow a paved path ringed by reconstructed ancient buildings, such as an Aleutian longhouse. Groups can enjoy a salmon meal and native demonstrations in an Athabaskan ceremonial house built with a sod roof supported by log walls.

“For group entertainment, we’ve done everything from making Eskimo ice cream to native games,” said Melissa Stanley, director of sales and marketing. “The possibilities are endless.”

History buffs will also appreciate the Alaska Aviation Museum for a close-up look at rare and vintage aircraft that helped shape Alaska’s story. Four hangars hold more than 25 planes that represent the early years of Alaskan aviation. In the restoration hangar, groups can watch volunteers restoring additional aircraft.

The collection’s oldest airplane is a 1928 Stearman in mint condition. Another prized possession is the 1931 Fairchild Pilgrim, claimed to be the only airworthy one in the world. Visitors can test their skills in the three flight simulators. And the gift store stocks aviation souvenirs not found elsewhere in the state.

“From the museum, people love to watch planes take off and land on adjacent Lake Hood, the world’s busiest seaplane lake,” said executive director Shari Hart. “Our group rental facilities include an airline hangar and a former Alaskan Airlines 747 with the seats rearranged to line the fuselage walls for additional space and to accommodate catering.”


Plentiful Performances

Groups will want to check out events at downtown’s Alaska Center for the Performing Arts. The center celebrates its 25th anniversary during the 2013-2014 season, September through May. In the summer months, photographer Dave Parkhurst’s multimedia presentation, “Aurora: Alaska’s Great Northern Lights,” is shown daily. It features his dazzling images of the aurora borealis set to an original musical score.

“Three theaters, including the Atwood Concert Hall that seats more than 2,000, host everything from Broadway shows to comedy and the symphony,” said Jayna Combs, director of development and marketing. “Many times we have concurrent performances, so groups have much to choose from.”


Nature Calls

Wilderness stands at Anchorage’s doorstep. The Tony Knowles Coastal Trail starts at Second Avenue with several downtown access points. The gently winding path hugs picturesque Cook Inlet for 11 miles. Moose sightings are common along the willow-edged ponds and thick forest. Groups can rent bicycles near the corner of Fifth and L streets or simply stroll and enjoy the beauty.

Flattop Mountain, located in Chugach State Park just east of urban Anchorage, rewards hikers with panoramic views of the city and the surrounding area. Denali, Mount Foraker and  Mount Spurr are sometimes visible on very clear days. This popular and well-maintained 1.5-mile trail rises 1,280 feet from the parking lot to the summit.

For the anglers in the group, south central Alaska’s silver salmon run occurs July into September; the start date varies each season. Urban fishing is popular at Ship Creek, where, in 1915, Anchorage got its start as a tent city along its banks. Today, Alaska Tackle Rental supplies quality rental equipment to those who want to fish on their own.

If there’s no time to fish, family-owned 10th and M Seafoods sells a wide variety of delicacies procured from local waters. Fish are processed at a facility near the store, which stocks several varieties of salmon, Kodiak scallops, king crab, halibut, black cod and more. Each customers can pick out a box of fish and have it held until the conclusion of the trip. Fish boxes can then be checked as baggage through the airlines, an economical way to transport a taste of Alaska to the lower 48 states.

“Customers can fill their boxes with up to 40 pounds of fish,” said wholesale manager Dannon Southall. “We tell people that frozen fish is good for approximately 30 hours of travel.”


One-Stop Shopping

Anchorage offers some of Alaska’s most varied shopping on streets bedecked with hanging flower baskets and planters. The standout Alaska Native Arts Foundation sells traditional and contemporary Alaska native crafts and artwork. Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers Co-Op creates hats, scarves and other goods made from qiviut, the downy undercoat of the musk ox. Qiviut is shipped to a network of artisans spread across the state. Designs in each finished piece reflect the heritage and community of the individual knitters.

At the Ulu Factory, near the Alaska Railroad station, visitors can watch craftspeople make that traditional tool of Alaska’s native people before purchasing several as useful keepsakes. Weekends from May through early September, the Anchorage Market and Festival offers equal parts shopping, show and smorgasbord.

“Anchorage has the best selection of goods in the state, from fine art to souvenirs and outdoor gear. Plus, we have the added benefit of no sales tax,” said Jack Bonney, Anchorage public relations manager.


Visit Anchorage


Elizabeth Hey

Elizabeth Hey is a member of Midwest Travel Journalists Association and has received numerous awards for her writing and photography. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @travelbyfork.