Today’s Anchorage, Alaska city guide comes to us from Sara Knowles. Sara was born and raised in Anchorage and has proudly witnessed the city blossom into a charming urban outpost in a state best known for its natural beauty. Sara left Alaska for college in New York before moving to Washington, DC to work as a furniture buyer for a local vintage store, and recently migrated back west to Alaska and Seattle where she will continue to pursue her love of found items and all things crafty and creative. Moving back west has reignited Sara’s love for her home state and today she takes us on a tour of its biggest city, Anchorage, and some of the best offerings found there. Thanks, Sara, for sharing this majestic city with us! —Stephanie
Read the full guide after the jump…
Photos by Sara Knowles
Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, is home to nearly half of the state’s residents. Though “small” in comparison to many other major cities, Alaskans love reminding people from other parts of the country that nothing about this state is small. Anchorage is large with culture, community and of course natural beauty. Nestled at the foot of mountain ranges and the edge of the water, amazing views abound wherever you turn. When visitors aren’t soaking up the pristine outdoors, this city has much to offer in the way of culture, cuisine, shopping and more. Enjoy this preview of my hometown!
Be sure to check out this Google Map with all of the below listings!
As in most cities, many of Anchorage’s shops and restaurants are concentrated downtown. The majority of downtown is on a grid system, making this neighborhood very tourist and pedestrian friendly. It’s easy to walk between galleries, shops, and restaurants, with the mountains as your backdrop wherever you go.
The Marx Bros. Café has been a fine dining institution in Anchorage since 1979 when it opened the doors of the cute little house on Third Avenue this restaurant calls home. Their eclectic menu changes regularly in order to feature fresh Alaskan seafood. The restaurant seats fewer than 50 people, providing an intimate experience for locals and visitors alike.
I always love Museum Cafés and this one is no exception. Its modern décor and sophisticated menu perfectly match the recent renovations done to the museum. It is a great place to grab a bite mid-sightseeing or a perfect after work stop-off spot to catch up with a friend over a glass of wine.
The name says it all. This charming hole in the wall specializes in champagne and oysters – a winning combination. The ambiance is reason enough to come: the intimate 10-seat boat bar was hand carved by the owner out of recycled shipping palates. Diners can imagine that they are being whisked off to sea while they enjoy their fresh Alaskan oysters in a one of a kind setting.
This has been one of my go-to spots for years and seems to only be getting better and better. They are famous for their breakfasts but I would swear by this place for any meal. Great staff, great ambiance, true local gem!
This new family-owned artisan bakery has quickly become a local favorite. Nestled in a cute neighborhood just shy of downtown, it is the perfect stop for a pastry or coffee just off the beaten path. I love walking here for a morning coffee and some neighborhood people watching. I am particularly fond of their scones, though everything I’ve tried here has been delicious. Be warned, things sell out early at this local go-to!
Another fine dining institution in Anchorage. Located in the heart of downtown and close to many galleries, this is the ideal spot for either an after-work drink or a special occasion dinner. Their menu constantly changes to reflect what is local and in season. Wonderful food in a casual environment. Which brings me to one of my favorite things about this city – everything is casual. After living in New York City and Washington, DC, I am comforted to return to a place where fleece is always considered appropriate to wear.
My heart skips a beat when I think about this place, that’s how much I love it. Perhaps that’s because it’s my Father’s favorite and has been our go-to spot for Dad-Daughter dates for the past few years. It’s a charming hole in the wall shop run by an adorable husband and wife duo. Their creativity and community spirit shines through in everything they do. George, the husband of aforementioned husband-wife duo, has sketched many an awesome and intricate illustration to go along with the drinks they sell. Those pieces and work by other local artists can be found throughout the shop. They are old school, though; it’s cash only and they usually close around 3 or 4pm.
A great Anchorage watering hole. A popular spot amongst the locals and used to be a very popular drop-in spot for international airline crews with layovers in Anchorage. This place is hip in the best way possible – they aren’t trying to be hip. They serve their beers in mason jars, always have bowls of candy to rummage through and, though it’s “technically” not out for consumption, constantly feature a massive block of cheddar cheese and a heap of saltines on their countertop. It’s a grazer’s paradise.
A true dive bar that has been around as long as I can remember. They have a great jukebox and always have free popcorn for late night munching.
This is a great bar/restaurant for beer lovers. They have an impressive selection of beers on tap and always feature locally brewed favorites, of which there are many. Great place to hear live music or participate in their Tuesday trivia nights. This place has achieved the unique harmony of simultaneously being a local staple and a tourist favorite.
Alaskans love beer. We may not be on the same level as Portland (yet), but Anchorage has begun to make quite a splash in the craft beer scene. Breweries abound in this fine town and elsewhere in the state, and Midnight Sun is a great example. Their snowshoe white wit beer has been my recent go-to – perfect on a warm Alaskan summer night. They have brewery tours every Thursday at 6pm and are open daily for tastings of their seasonal offerings.
This fine dining restaurant is aptly named: it is perched on top of the Hotel Captain Cook and diners can enjoy a birds-eye view of downtown and a panoramic view of the surrounding water and mountains. A lovely options for those seeking a more formal dining experience or celebrating a special occasion. Also a great place to grab cocktails pre or post dinner.
For those that are more into the wine than beer scene, Crush is a great spot. It is centrally located amongst many of the SoNo (“South of Nordstrom”) boutiques and always seems to be buzzing with activity. They offer great cheese and charcuterie plates to pair with their wine offerings. A perfect mid-shopping pit stop.
When this amazing boutique opened in 2005, I knew that Anchorage had rounded the corner in its journey from shopping wasteland to charming city. It is run by two lovely ladies, Ashley and Brett, both of whom have done an amazing job curating this shop with one-of-a-kind handbags, shoes, clothing and various ladies accessories. They work tirelessly to ensure that their customer’s needs are met. It is a bright and airy shop that is a joy to meander through…I never walk out empty handed. Oh, and they always have fresh local coffee for the taking!
Skinny Raven is the parent store to Her Tern, and located directly across the street, perhaps making this my favorite corner in downtown Anchorage. This store is a local institution. On paper, they feature running shoes, casual shoes and outdoor apparel. And while they have wonderful selections of all of those things (not to mention some of the nicest staff I’ve ever encountered), this store is really so much more! They organize training and events for runners of all levels throughout the city, host fashion shows, organize block parties, and have a weekly pub run. Definitely a must-visit for those in need of some new kicks or wanting to suit up in some chic outdoor Alaska wear.
Another one of my absolute favorite shops in Anchorage. The owner, Kim, has an amazing eye and her and her staff have a wonderful way with customers. Kim features classy, timeless pieces from established and emerging designers as well as funky accessories. My first stop if I’m looking for the perfect party dress. She focuses on sustainable, eco-friendly fashions and goods, so it’s a store you can feel good about shopping in!
Just down the street from Circular (and Nordstrom’s) is Blush Boutique, another personal favorite and local gem. Blush opened at a time when I felt like the only jeans I could find in town were camouflage, fleece lined Carhartt’s. In addition to their wonderful denim bar, Blush carries everything from cozy sweaters to Spanx to formal eveningwear. Additionally, the store’s wide range of accessories makes it a perfect place to pick up a quick gift. The owner, Haley, is incredibly kind and clearly has her finger on the pulse of the Anchorage fashion scene.
On either side of Blush, you’ll find Second Run and Upscale Resale. Both are owned by the fabulous Ellen and each feature previously owned or gently used goods. Second run is my favorite consignment shop in town for women’s clothing, shoes and accessories. It is highly organized and ever changing, and adheres to a strict standard of quality. Its sister store, Upscale Resale, focuses on unique and vintage home decor as well as higher end clothing items, a la fur coats and ball gowns. Ellen has an incredible knack for finding tasteful, distinctive furniture pieces and smaller decorative items that still fit in seamlessly with the rustic, Alaskan setting. I’m still regretting not having purchased the fantastic caribou antler chandelier that caught my eye years ago!
Though The Victory Special Press doesn’t have a physical store, it absolutely deserves a shout out. Through her beautiful letterpress products, Emily is helping to bring the DIY and pen-to-paper movement west to Anchorage. Emily’s fabulous letterpress cards can be purchased online or at La Bodega (see below), as well as wider known stores like Anthropologie. She is a wonderful creative talent that is helping make Anchorage a more interesting, artsy community.
I strongly recommend that people avoid many of the “gift shops” in downtown Anchorage. Most have no ties to real locals or local crafts. Kobuk is a bright spot in this otherwise bleak landscape of purported Alaskan goods. This charming store is run by three Alaskan siblings and features an unimaginable array of unique gifts. In addition to their local crafts, they have hard-to-find candies imported from all over the world as well as an extensive tea selection. In the back of the shop you’ll find the espresso bar and bakery with a cozy seating area.
Though a seafood store may not seem like the most traditional place to “shop”, it’s a great stopping point for visitors that want to send some of Alaska’s fresh fare to their family or neighbors back home. 10th & M will ship and pack king crab, halibut, salmon, scallops and more! You can purchase the goods there or bring in your own catch from your Alaskan adventure. This local shop has been around since 1943 and has a reputation for being friendly and efficient.
The Captain Cook is one of the premier places to stay in Anchorage. The service is top-notch, though the style and decor could either be described as outdated or old-world charming, depending on whom you ask. It is located in the heart of downtown, making it easy to walk to shops, restaurants and galleries. Unfortunately, this hotel is a bit on the pricier side and may not suit everyone’s budget.
This lovely inn is mere steps away from the Captain Cook Hotel and across the street from Snow City Café. Located in a charming, historic townhouse, this Inn overlooks the water and is within walking distance of the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail (see below). Perfect location for those that want to explore downtown and spend time outdoors.
A delightful bed and breakfast located on the Delaney Park Strip and within walking distance of the hustle and bustle of downtown. This historic property allows guests to experience a quieter side of Anchorage, while still being close enough to downtown to explore by foot. Guests can delight in the fact that they will be staying in one of the oldest houses in Anchorage – it was built before Anchorage was even founded and later moved there on a barge.
The Coastal Trail is the primary pedestrian, biker and skier artery that winds through the city of Anchorage. It is a symbol of how much the local residents cherish functional urban green spaces and a go-to spot for tourists wanting an easy escape from downtown. The trail gently winds along the coast 11 miles from downtown to Kincaid Park. Great chance of encountering a moose, or at least an unforgettable Cook Inlet sunset.
The Anchorage museum is a world-class institution, due in no small part to its recent, LEED certified expansion. The museum is home to fantastic permanent exhibitions focusing on Alaskan Native Cultures as well as traditional and modern Alaskan artwork. Additionally, the museum features major touring exhibitions from around the world, on topics as wide ranging as Pop Art, Star Wars, and the renowned Bodies exhibit. And, though I should have outgrown it years ago, my favorite spot in the museum is still the Imaginarium – where “kids” can do crazy things like put themselves into a giant bubble. This museum is a must-see for any local or out of town visitor.
This modern gallery is refreshing amongst the many other galleries that focus exclusively on traditional Alaskan art (landscapes, wildlife, etc.) Featuring modern and abstract art from locals of all ages. One of my favorite events put on by this gallery is called 100×100. This show features 100 pieces of local artwork for $100 or less per piece. A great opportunity to procure original artwork on a budget.
Cyrano’s is a downtown playhouse showcasing live theater every weekend. It’s the Anchorage version of Off-Broadway, and a great incubator for local theater talent.
The Artique is one of Anchorage’s premier art galleries. Featuring artwork by many of Alaska’s best known artists, as well as emerging local talent. The professional and authentic nature of this gallery makes it the perfect place for out-of-towners to go for their Alaskan art fix. If you happen to be in town on the first Friday of any month, make sure to stop by this gallery and others as part of the city’s First Friday Art Walk.
There aren’t really specific neighborhoods outside of downtown with enough activity to justify their own sections, but there are definitely places worth visiting outside of the downtown circuit. I’ve listed some of them below and they can all be found on the gooplemap as well.
I cannot say enough good things about this Anchorage staple. And because it’s an old fashioned fried chicken joint, it’s very different than most of the eating options on this list. The Lucky Wishbone has been around Anchorage for decades, and is the go-to joint for fried chicken and milkshakes. Of course that’s not all that’s on the menu, though I’ve never branched out beyond that. Charming vintage diner style with courteous staff and the best malt milkshake I’ve ever had.
By far one of the most popular casual restaurants in Anchorage, and deservedly so. On the surface it is a pizza and beer joint, but it is really so much more. In many ways, Moose’s Tooth and their sister restaurant, Bear Tooth, operate as social hubs for the community. It’s the kind of place where you always see someone you know, or grew up with, or want to know! This happening joint has excellent, quirky pizzas and a wide selection of amazing beers from their brewery, Broken Tooth Brewing. A word to the wise: they do not take reservations and are almost always slammed, but the wait always seems quick with a beer in your hand.
Owned and operated by the same folks behind Moose’s Tooth, and equally as popular. At this local fixture you can order food and have it brought into you while you watch your movie! But it’s not your ordinary concession stand – think fish tacos and draft beer instead of fake nacho cheese. Movies are cheap and the atmosphere is quirky and unique. And if you’re not into the cinema there is also a separate restaurant featuring some elevated fare, same great beer and craft cocktails. By far one of my favorite places in the city.
An excellent coffee shop located in mid-town Anchorage and one of Alaska’s first coffee roasters. The coffee is great, and they have a gelato bar! Match made in heaven. The space is sun-drenched and has lots of big beautiful wooden tables – perfect setting for a study session or catch up with friends.
Another wonderful local coffee roaster. What started off as a tiny espresso cart on 4th avenue has blossomed into a beloved coffee brand with multiple locations in Anchorage (one of which is conveniently located downtown). Great coffee and generous benefactors to the community.
One of the great arts and entertainment venues in the city. The setting is intimate and the program is varied. You’ll find live music, open mic nights, fashion shows, dance classes, spoken word, cabaret, game nights and more. Excellent beers on tap to boot. A great spot for a spontaneous drop in because there is always something going on.
I love this café. In addition to the fact that they have wonderful food (big, fresh salads, divine pastries, yummy vegan options, etc), my favorite part of this joint is how actively they feature and promote local artists. Their walls are covered floor to ceiling and all of the artwork is available for purchase. They are committed to sourcing their food as locally and organically as possible, and always have options for gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan diners. I always leave this place feeling healthy and inspired!
A wonderful, casual dining joint owned by the same folks as Snow City Café and Sacks Café. As with their other two places, there is such a strong sense of community here. Wonderfully designed place with great food, local beers on tap, small batch bourbon flights, bacon of the month and wonderful artisanal cocktails. Yummy!
This is one of the best craft beer stores I have ever been to. Not only do they have an amazing selection of beer and wine, they also sell letterpress cards! What an unusual but might I say winning combination. The incredibly friendly and knowledgeable staff helps navigate their impressive assortment of libations. They have a beer and wine club and are always putting on fun events for their fans.
Title Wave books is located just a hop, skip and a jump away from Middle Way Café. It’s the largest independently owned bookstores in Alaska, and since many of their books are used it’s an affordable place to load up on literature. They also carry great calendars, greeting cards, games and other fun trinkets that make this store a pleasure to stroll through. Well known authors can often be spotted here doing readings….years ago I had the pleasure of listening to David Sedaris! A Kaladi Brothers café is conveniently located next door.
I have such a fondness in my heart for this place. It is a tradition for my family to rent out a cabin at Hatcher Pass every winter, and it is has become one of my most cherished places in the state. It is about an hour outside of the city, but it has everything I imagine people come to Alaska for: untouched landscapes, peace and quiet, and easy access to the great outdoors. The lodge is open year round. In the winter there is cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, sledding, and of course hanging out in the lodge with a hot chocolate in front of the fireplace. In the summer there is excellent hiking, berry picking and bird watching. It truly is a piece of paradise.
Another fantastic Anchorage museum where you can learn more about the indigenous peoples of Alaska. Visitors can experience the many Alaskan Native cultures firsthand through workshops, storytelling, original artwork, and native song and dance. The center provides a convenient shuttle to and from downtown Anchorage.
Though Anchorage farmer’s markets definitely don’t live up in scope or status to those of other major cities, they are definitely worth checking out as a way to get a snapshot of the city’s residents and to sample some of our local goodies. Needless to say the growing season in Alaska is incredibly short and the variety of edibles perhaps not as abundant as in other more fertile places. Though the local and sustainable movement has caught on in Anchorage as well and as a result these markets are expanding in size and popularity.
Though technically a part of the Anchorage municipality, this charming ski town is located approximately 40 miles outside of Anchorage, nestled at the base of the Chugach mountains. Though best known for it’s skiing in the winter, this small town is worth visiting year-round. It is fiercely independent, artistic, and has a surprisingly number of great restaurants considering the small population.
This bakery is an absolutely necessary pit stop for anyone staying in or passing through Girdwood. Their sticky buns are incredible. Great soups and sandwiches in addition to their vast array of sweets. Perfect for re-fueling pre, mid or post ski and conveniently located steps away from the base of the mountain. In the summer enjoy your goodies in their lovely outdoor garden.
Every person I ask about Girdwood recommends Jack Sprat. This local favorite has been built around the owners’ passion for sustainability and seasonality. Accordingly, as the season changes, so does the menu. The design of the restaurant mimics the natural environment – it is simple, natural and beautiful. A must visit if you are interested in local, progressive Alaskan fare.
Great local pizza and burger joint with tons of microbrews, amazing tequila selection, pool tables, and jovial atmosphere. Perfect place to kick back and relax after a long day of skiing or hiking.
Though there are many chalet rentals as well as bed and breakfasts in the Girdwood Area, the most popular place to stay is the Alyeska Resort. Located at the base of the mountain, it is the perfect launch pad for skiers and hikers alike. You can take their tram to the top of the mountain and ski down or stay up and enjoy a meal at Seven Glaciers, the resort’s mountain top restaurant with jaw dropping, panoramic views of glaciers, mountains and water.
Many of the activities in Girdwood are inspired by the beautiful valley in which this town is nestled. Between the skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, berry picking and mushroom foraging, there will never be a shortage of things to do in this town. This town also loves a good festival. Listed below are a few of my favorites.
Special Festivals & Events:
The “outdoors”, though not it’s own neighborhood per se, definitely deserves its own section. This is the reason many people love calling Alaska home, and the reason so many tourists flock west each year. I could write an entire guide (and clearly such guides have been written) on how to best experience the outdoors in Alaska. I’ll restrain myself and instead just mention one off-the-beaten-path destination that I absolutely love.
Most people that visit Alaska start in Anchorage and then branch out from there, making the difficult decision of where to go in a state so large it’s impossible to see everything in one trip. For those that head south towards the Kenai Peninsula, I always recommend people check out this little gem in the woods. It is a laid-back kayaker’s retreat, located a water taxi ride away from the charming town of Seward. This affordable getaway has a shared large A frame cabin where everyone cooks meals and hangs out as well as some private cabins separate from the main house. The rugged mountains and the protected waters create the perfect environment for this rustic getaway.
(Alaska is pretty “small” state when it comes to famous folks, so I’ve expanded my list beyond Anchorage)…scrambling here a little bit, I guess we just don’t have that many famous people!
Tom Bodett – author, actor and radio host (Homer, AK)
Jewel – singer (Homer, AK)
Tony Knowles – politician/activist, and – full disclosure – the author’s father! (Anchorage, AK)
Dana Stabenow – mystery writer (Homer, AK)
Carlos Boozer – professional basketball player (from Juneau, AK)
Tommy Moe – gold medalist skier (Girdwood, AK)
Byron Birdsall – painter (Anchorage, AK)