Overview

Anchorage, Alaska, is big-city living. It is home to more than a quarter-million people—nearly half the state's population. The city has shopping malls, national discount stores, movie theaters, fast-food restaurants, fine dining, high-rise hotels and a busy international airport. That makes Anchorage an anomaly in a state where the featured attraction is wilderness—specifically Denali National Park, the Kenai Peninsula and Katmai National Park. Alaska's residents joke that visitors can't really claim to have seen the state until they leave Anchorage.

But, as with most places in Alaska, the wilderness is never far away. The snowcapped Chugach Mountains rise just behind the city, and some of the state's premier natural attractions are within a day's travel. If you visit in summer, you'll have extra time to see the sights—there are 17-21 hours of daylight per day then.

Geography

The city occupies a wide and relatively flat point of land where Ship Creek flows into Cook Inlet in south-central Alaska. The southern edge of Anchorage borders on the waters of Turnagain Arm (a branch of Cook Inlet). The Chugach (pronounced CHEW-gatch) Mountains rise to the east, and the Anchorage Bowl—as the whole area is called—stretches approximately 15 mi/24 km north to south and 10 mi/16 km east to west at its widest point.

Within the Bowl are a number of distinct neighborhoods connected by large arterial roads. There are two major highways: the New Seward Highway, which heads south from downtown toward Seward and Homer on the Kenai (pronounced KEE-nye) Peninsula, and Glenn Highway, which heads northeast, eventually connecting with the Alaska Highway at Tok. The Parks Highway is the main road to Denali National Park and Fairbanks. It branches off the Glenn Highway 35 mi/56 km north of Anchorage.

Travelers are likely to visit downtown and midtown. The latter is a nondescript area marked by shopping malls, businesses and homes approximately 2 mi/3 km south of downtown.

History

Anchorage sits along upper Cook Inlet, named for English explorer James Cook, who sailed into those waters in 1778 in search of the fabled Northwest Passage across the North American continent. For centuries, the Tanaina natives inhabited the area. The first European settlers didn't arrive until the early 1900s.

In 1915, Anchorage became a primary staging area for workers building the federally financed Alaska Railroad, which connected coastal Seward with inland Fairbanks. A tent city quickly sprang up along Ship Creek (located on the north edge of downtown), and within a year the semblance of a permanent town appeared complete with electricity, phones, water lines and schools.

By the 1930s, more than 3,000 people lived in Anchorage, and its importance grew during World War II when both Elmendorf Air Force Base and Fort Richardson Army Post were built to help defend Alaska from possible Japanese attack.

After Alaska gained statehood in 1959, Anchorage prospered until the massive Good Friday earthquake of 1964. The second-most-powerful earthquake in the world during the 20th century, it had a magnitude of 9.2, killed 115 Alaskans and caused billions of dollars in damage. Most of the structures in the city today were built after the quake.

Another significant event that has shaped Anchorage was the discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay in 1968, and the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the 1970s. The city quickly became a base for oil companies and other businesses, and its population more than tripled during the next decade. Its central location, relatively mild weather and excellent transportation facilities have made Anchorage the most economically important city in Alaska—by far. Today, it's a fairly cosmopolitan place and the commercial fulcrum of the state.

Visitors to Anchorage will also discover a surprisingly attractive downtown, especially in summer, with flowers overflowing their hanging baskets and a lovely small park in the center of town. In addition, the city has fine restaurants, a vibrant nightlife and ample recreational opportunities at any time of the year. Anchorage is a very livable city.

Sightseeing

Before dashing off to outlying sights such as Denali (pronounced deh-NAH-lee) National Park or the Kenai Peninsula, you should spend some time in Anchorage itself. With its museums, art galleries, restaurants, parks and trails, flower-filled city center and scenic shoreline, the city is worth at least a day of sightseeing and possibly more.

You might want to start with a visit to the impressive Anchorage Museum, Resolution Park and the Alaska Public Lands Information Center. Farther away are the must-see Alaska Heritage Museum at Wells Fargo and the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum.

A trolley car leaves from in front of the log-cabin visitor center at Fourth Avenue and F Street hourly 9 am-5 pm for a one-hour tour of downtown (about US$20 adults, US$7.50 children ages 6-12). We also recommend a drive south along Turnagain Arm to Girdwood, stopping at the Potter Marsh Bird Sanctuary and the numerous scenic overlooks to watch for beluga whales or Dall sheep. For the best views, take along a pair of binoculars.

Nightlife

Anchorage has a wide variety of nightlife offerings, from romantic jazz-music spots to meat-market clubs. Bars and nightclubs are scattered around the city, although several of the best known are located along Spenard Road.

Most clubs close between midnight and 2:30 am.

Dining

Anchorage is large enough to offer dining choices well beyond what travelers might expect so far north. You can start the day with sourdough pancakes in a bustling family restaurant, stop by New Sagaya City Market for a filling Chinese deli lunch, and then relax at a gourmet restaurant when evening arrives. You'll find restaurants from many Asian cultures (including Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese and Chinese), along with Mexican, Italian, Indian and Greek establishments.

Commercial fishing is an important part of Alaska's economy, and fresh seafood is a mainstay at many Anchorage restaurants. The state is famous for its salmon (especially king and red salmon), which is always wild—not farm-raised. Fresh halibut, with its beautiful white meat and delicious flavor, is another favorite from the local waters, as are crabs (notably king crab), oysters and clams. Every chef has a unique way of preparing seafood, and some from the Anchorage area have gained national recognition.

A number of Anchorage's most enjoyable restaurants are in the heart of downtown, but others are scattered around this rather spread-out city. Reaching those in small, midtown strip malls or on the south end of town will require either a car or good knowledge of the bus schedule.

General dining times are 7-11 am for breakfast and noon-3 pm for lunch. Driven to extremes by the midnight sun, residents and visitors alike may find themselves eating dinner as late as 10 pm in the summer months.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines for a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$15; $$ = US$15-$25; $$$ = US$26-$40; and $$$$ = more than US$40.

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