Over a million tourists take an Alaskan cruise every year. Would you like to be one of them?
As you’re researching different cruise options, you’ve probably seen Sitka listed on many itineraries. What makes Sitka so special? And why does it belong on your list of must-see destinations?
Sitka lies on the western shore of Baranof Island along Alaska’s famous Inside Passage. The town is full of rich history, from the native Tlingit clans to a Russian Orthodox Cathedral and Bishop’s House.
Nature lovers will love hiking the Harbor Mountain Trail, sea kayaking around Sitka Bay, or observing orphaned bears in their natural habitat at Fortress of the Bear.
Of course, these are only a sample of the incredible things to do in Sitka, Alaska. Keep reading to learn more about the best Sitka attractions and why this island town is sure to be a highlight of your Alaskan cruise!
In & Around Sitka Cruise Port
Most cruise ships that visit Sitka arrive at the “Old Dock” at Halibut Point, outside of Sitka town. Free shuttles run between the dock and downtown Sitka.
Depending on the cruise company, your ship may drop anchor offshore instead of pulling into the port. If that’s the case, you’ll get tendered into town on smaller water shuttles.
Either way, the dropoff point in Sitka town is likely to be Harrigan Centennial Hall.
This modern oceanfront facility functions as the town’s visitor’s center and is the perfect starting point for your journey through Sitka. The hall features restrooms, WiFi, and an information desk. It’s also host to various cultural events throughout the summer.
If you’ve booked any tours or excursions with a local company, Harrigan Centennial Hall is probably the starting point. If you plan to explore Sitka on your own, you’ll find the town is very walkable. Most attractions are located within a few blocks of the harbor.
13 Amazing Things to Do in Sitka, Alaska
Your ship has docked, and you’re surrounded by the stunning mountains and waters of Sitka Sound. Which Sitka attractions should you explore first?
Here are our recommendations for the best things to see in Sitka, Alaska.
1. Explore the Historic District on Foot
Even if you have other tours planned, it’s worth your time to wander through the downtown historic section.
A stroll down Lincoln Street will take you past some of Sitka’s most important landmarks. These include the Russian Orthodox St. Michael’s Cathedral and Bishop’s House.
You can also learn about native culture and music at the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Tribal Community House. Then stop in at the Sheldon Jackson Museum for an in-depth look into the Tlingit people and their history.
Although it’s possible to visit all these places on your own, a guided tour will offer fascinating details you might otherwise miss.
2. St. Michael’s Cathedral
Did you know that there were Russian settlements in Alaska for over 100 years before it became a US territory? St. Michael’s Cathedral (arguably one of the most popular Sitka attractions) is a perfect example.
Built in 1848 by St. Innocent, it was the first Orthodox church ever built in North America. Its golden crosses and green domes are an architectural masterpiece, with a beautiful and surprisingly spacious interior.
A $5 entry fee allows you to explore the historic icons inside the church. There are also weekly services that are open to the public.
3. Russian Bishop’s House
Round out your colonial Russian education with a tour of the nearby Bishop’s House. It served as a cultural and educational center from the 1840s until 1969.
In fact, New Archangel (as Sitka was then known) served as the capital of the Russian-American colony from 1808 until 1867. The Bishop’s House was the administrative headquarters for their 19th-century missionary efforts.
Today, the Bishop’s House is protected as a National Historic Landmark. Take a free guided tour to learn about the home’s art, architecture, and historical artifacts.
4. Tlingit Clan House
Long before the first Russian settlements, the Tlingit clans thrived on these remote Alaskan islands. To learn more about their culture and how they lived off the land, stop in for a visit at the Tlingit Clan House.
Also called the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Tribal Community House, this “house” offers an intimate look into native Alaskan heritage. Enjoy the fragrant scent of burning cedar while you watch a live performance by the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Dancers.
Adults and children alike will love the energetic drum beats and the chance to join a native dance around the fire pit. Afterward, pose for pictures in front of the biggest hand-carved screen in Alaska.
5. Sheldon Jackson Museum
Before you leave town to explore the nature surrounding Sitka, you have one more stop to make: the Sheldon Jackson Museum. You’ll find it on Lincoln Street between Harrigan Centennial Hall and the nearby Sitka National Park.
The museum has been collecting items of historical and cultural significance since 1885. Here you’ll find masks, carvings, tools, toys, boats, and other artifacts from native Northwest Coast cultures.
6. Hike the Harbor Mountain Trail
When you’ve had your fill of history and culture in Sitka town, it’s time to explore the stunning nature that surrounds you. Lace-up your hiking boots and get ready for a six-mile hike into the Alaskan rainforest.
The Harbor Mountain Trail offers breathtaking views of Sitka Sound, Baranof Island, Kruzof Island, and Mt. Edgecumbe. You’re sure to see plenty of deer, eagles, and other wildlife along the way.
The trail is moderately challenging but well worth the climb. Bring a picnic lunch to enjoy at one of the many observation decks along the trail. To return to town, take the flat wooden staircase of the Gavan Hill Trail back to the marketplace on Baranof Street.
7. Sitka National Historical Park
The oldest national park in Alaska covers 113 acres just outside the town of Sitka. It commemorates the 1804 Battle of Sitka that took place between the Russian settlers and the Tlingit tribespeople.
Among the main attractions in the park are the 20 hand-carved totem poles scattered along the nature trails. There’s a visitor center with more information about the battle, as well as guided tours that delve into the island’s flora and fauna.
8. Fortress of the Bear
Forget the zoos you’ve seen back home — you’re about to get closer to grizzly bears than you ever thought possible! One of the most popular things to do in Sitka, Alaska, is a visit to the Fortress of the Bear.
This rescue center for orphaned bears is set deep in the heart of Tongass National Forest. From the safety of secure observation decks, you can watch the bears eat, play, and swim in their natural habitat. The friendly guides are happy to share details about the bears, their behaviors, and how they were rescued.
City busses run back and forth to the Fortress of the Bear. The rescue center is supported entirely by visitor donations and is open to family members of all ages.
9. Alaska Raptor Center
If you want another chance to see wildlife up-close, book an appointment to visit the Alaska Raptor Center. Like the nearby Fortress of the Bear, this facility provides medical treatment and rehabilitation to injured birds of prey.
The center is home to over 20 bald and golden eagles, as well as falcons, hawks, and owls. Hundreds more arrive each year and are re-released into the wild once they’re healthy enough. You’ll be awed by the Flight Training Center that helps prepare injured birds for their return to the wild.
Birds whose injuries are too severe become permanent “residents” that help to educate visitors. You’ll learn all about how these magnificent birds fly, feed, and nest in the Alaskan wilderness.
10. Sitka Whale Park
Although it’s possible to see whales around Sitka at any time of year, your best chance is between September and December. If you happen to take a September cruise, make sure you plan time to visit the Whale Park.
From the comfort of a gazebo-covered picnic area, you can look out over the water and watch for humpback whales on their annual migration to Hawaii. During the summer months, you may not spot any whales, but you’ll likely see plenty of sea lions and harbor seals.
For a closer look at the local sea life, you could opt for a boat tour around the harbor or charter a fishing trip.
11. Baranof Castle State Historic Site
Known by the locals as “Castle Hill,” this is one of the most important historical sites in all of Alaska. Before the Russian settlers arrived, the Tlingit clan built a strategic fortification on this hilltop.
Then, after the Russians handed over Alaska to the US government, the first Alaskan flag flew on Castle Hill in 1867. You can learn more about the history of the site from the many plaques that line the ascending walkway.
12. Sea Kayaking in Sitka Bay
Perhaps one of the most spectacular natural settings in the world, one of the best things to do in Sitka, Alaska, is going sea kayaking.
The tranquil waters are surrounded by snowcapped mountains and Alaska’s temperate rainforest. It’s not uncommon for kayakers to see whales breaching in the water, eagles soaring in the sky, or grizzly bears lumbering along the coast.
Your cruise line will likely offer sea kayaking as a shore excursion. There are also plenty of local tour operators you could join for this unforgettable experience.
13. Sitka Music Festival
Sitka’s cruise season perfectly coincides with the town’s annual Music Festival, which runs for three weeks every June.
If you’re lucky enough to dock in Sitka during June, you’re in for a real treat. This is Alaska’s premiere music festival, with exclusive concerts and free music events.
There are also a lot of great cultural events all over town, from summer boat cruises to all-you-can-eat-crab dinners. Music lovers considering an Alaskan cruise should definitely plan to dock in Sitka during the month of June!
Sitka Alaska FAQs
We know you’re excited about all these amazing things to do in Sitka, Alaska. But we know you probably have a few questions about your visit as well, such as the best time of year to plan your cruise.
Here’s a quick list of Sitka FAQs to help you out.
Your cruise ship will dock at the island’s Old Dock at Halibut Point, about five miles north of Sitka town. A free shuttle bus service runs between the dock and downtown Sitka every 10-15 minutes.
Most major US cell phone companies offer coverage in downtown Sitka. If you venture out into the bay or remote areas of the island, however, service may be limited. Check with your provider before your trip to see where you’ll have coverage.
Sitka probably isn’t as cold as you imagine. From May to September, expect highs in the 50s to mid-60s with nighttime lows in the 40s. Clouds and rainfall are abundant, though, so be sure to include a waterproof jacket in your cruise packing list.
Brown bears (grizzly bears) are abundant throughout Alaska, including Baranof Island and Sitka. Bears are generally shy and tend to avoid people. Still, it’s a good idea to get familiar with bear behavior, so you know what to do if you encounter one.
The Best Things to See in Sitka, Alaska: Now You Know
As you can see, there’s no shortage of incredible things to do in Sitka, Alaska. If you are planning on staying for longer than just a cruise visit then here are the best hotels to stay in Sitka.
History buffs will love exploring the museums and learning about the native clans and Russian heritage. Nature lovers will marvel at the breathtaking scenery via a kayak, hike, or harbor cruise. Animal lovers will enjoy the rare opportunity to see bears, whales, and other wildlife in their native habitat.
When your ship docks in Sitka, Alaska, your only regret will be not having more time to explore this amazing destination!
Now that your Alaskan cruise is drawing closer, it’s time to think about what you’re going to bring with you. Here’s a detailed packing list to ensure you have everything you need for a safe and memorable Alaskan cruise.