Downtown Anchorage is just busy enough to entertain yet compact enough to easily navigate — a perfect combination for curious visitors ready to explore Alaska’s largest city by foot.
Of the roughly 742,000 people who live in Alaska, nearly 300,000 people call Anchorage home. The city celebrated its centennial in 2015, and its frontier-town past lingers alongside today’s modernity; downtown is full of creative art galleries and museums, hip boutiques and shops, upscale eateries and chic cocktail bars.
The downtown Log Cabin Visitor Information Center at the corner of F Street and Fourth Avenue is a central location for launching Anchorage explorations. Look for the squat log structure topped by foliage-fringed roof, and a quirky signpost pointing to far-flung destinations, making for an excellent photo op. Staffed year-round and especially lively in the summer, staff and volunteers can answer questions about the city and connect visitors with exciting out-of-town excursions or city tours on an open-air trolley.
Next door to the visitor center sits the two-story cast concrete Historic City Hall, which first opened in 1936. It’s one example of a downtown building that survived the destructive 1964 Good Friday Earthquake. Other noteworthy structures include art deco 4th Avenue Theatre (currently closed), a handful of quaint circa-1915 cottages that line Fourth Avenue and are among the city’s oldest structures, and the Alaska Railroad Anchorage Depot, built in 1942. As you wander downtown, keep an eye out for tall interpretive signs on street corners that tell stories of Anchorage’s earliest days, paint pictures of the past’s lively characters, and point out relevant landmarks.
To glimpse Anchorage’s earliest roots, visit the Oscar Anderson House at 420 M St. The museum is open from noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday, between June and August. This picture-perfect cottage, built in 1915, is among Anchorage’s oldest homes and is the only one preserved for tours. Businessman Anderson claimed to be the 18th person to arrive in Anchorage, and his widow donated the house to the city in 1976.
If the Anderson home offers a glimpse of old Anchorage, than the Alaska Experience Theater will jolt you into the mid-1960s with its Good Friday Earthquake show. Located at 333 W. Fourth Ave., the theater thrills visitors all summer with movies about the terrible magnitude 9.2 temblor that transformed Alaska in March 1964, rending streets in two, sending shorelines slithering into sea and launching fatal tsunamis in Alaska and down the West Coast. There may be renewed interest in that history after the sizable 7.1 quake that shook the Anchorage area Nov. 30, 2018. The theater’s seats literally shake and will definitely send seismic waves rippling down moviegoers’ spines.
For another enriching experience, visit the Anchorage Museum, at 625 C St. This is Alaska’s largest museum, an encompassing space that includes expansive and fascinating interactive displays dedicated to Alaska’s Native people, spacious fine art galleries, compelling exhibits devoted to the town’s and state’s formative years, and an entire children’s area with hands-on activities.
This summer, look for special exhibits on Yup’ik masks, Alaska food culture and the doomed Franklin expedition of 1845. Recently remodeled, the lofty Art of the North galleries are simply stunning, punctuated by the gorgeous work of landscape painter Sydney Laurence.
Laurence is buried just a few blocks away at the Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery; his recognizable headstone is topped with a sculpture of Denali, a mountain he so often painted. This cemetery was established in 1915 by President Woodrow Wilson, and memorializes some of Anchorage’s most significant pioneers — from tribal leaders to mayors and governors.
Further down the spectral spectrum is the hugely popular Ghost Tours of Anchorage that run Tuesday to Sunday evenings, starting in May and going all summer long. This walking tour — light on the walking, heavy on the dramatics and history — led by a suited and top-hatted man covers Anchorage’s more notorious and curious crimes, with plenty of history and architectural factoids blended in for variety. ($15 per person)
For those interested in shopping — whether that be finding an Alaska outfit, acquiring touristy trinkets or investing in interesting art — you don’t have to leave downtown.
Make the Downtown Market and Festival your first stop. Around since 1992, with more than 300 vendors covering 2 acres of prime downtown real estate, this market has a little bit of everything, from local crafts to fresh produce to arts and antiques. Come hungry, as food vendors here cover the gamut of Alaska goodies, with tasty treats like salmon quesadillas and chowders, sweet funnel cakes and an impressive range of world cuisine representative of Anchorage’s growing diversity. The market is open from May 11 to Sept. 8, on Third Avenue between C and E streets.
Across downtown, boutiques such as Octopus Ink sell hoodies, T-shirts and skirts with Alaskan animals like ravens and halibut. Various shops, like the Katie Sevigny Studio or the Alaska Ivory Exchange, sell Alaska memorabilia and crafts like ivory carvings, jewelry, pottery and vibrant paintings by Alaska artists. Fourth and Fifth avenues are never short of tourist shops with reasonably priced T-shirts, hats, trinkets and more.
Finally, keep an eye out for some of Anchorage’s fun summer events, such as the Solstice Festival on June 22 in Town Square. The Live After Five Summer Concert Series features local musicians performing free shows at Town Square from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. every Thursday between June 7 and Aug. 9, and includes a beer and wine garden.