Juneau, Alaska, enjoys a majestic setting in a narrow fjord with Mount Juneau and Mount Roberts towering above it. To the east is the vast expanse of glacial ice known as the Juneau Icefield, and to the west are the wilderness islands of the Inside Passage.
Because of the natural beauty that surrounds the city—as well as its gold-rush-era buildings and many shops—this state capital is a popular tourist destination. In fact, Juneau is visited by more cruise ships than any other port in Alaska.
Downtown Juneau hugs Gastineau Channel, where cruise ships dock. Juneau also includes Douglas, across the channel on Douglas Island; Thane; the Lemon Creek area; Mendenhall Valley; Mendenhall Glacier; Auke Bay; and what locals call "out the road."
The downtown historic district, encompassing a few blocks, is the lively center of the city. Egan Drive, also known as Thane Road and Glacier Highway, runs along the water, and Franklin, Seward and Main streets comprise the downtown shopping districts with restaurants, bars and hotels.
City and state buildings, museums and churches are within walking distance from the docks. South Franklin, Willoughby and Main streets, originally built along the shoreline, are flat, but the sidewalks by some streets continue as staircases, testimony to why Juneau is nicknamed the "Little San Francisco of the North."
Prior to the discovery of gold in Juneau in 1880, the largest Alaska Native settlement in the area was Auk Village near Auke Bay. Juneau, called Dzantik'i Heeni by the Tlingits (meaning "where the flatfish gather") was a fish camp and summer home. People didn't live there year-round because of the horrendous frigid Taku winds barreling down the mountain passes from the Juneau Icefield.
In 1880, Chief Cowee from the Auk Tribe led pioneers Joe Juneau and Richard Harris to a gold deposit, which started the famed Alaska gold rush. Hard-rock mining at the Alaska-Juneau mine in Juneau and the Treadwell mine in Douglas quickly replaced placer mining—gold panning—and became the most important industry in Juneau. (These two world-class mines, largest of their kind at the time, operated until a cave-in and flood at the Treadwell in 1917 and a worker shortage during World War II at the Alaska-Juneau. Juneau's streets along Egan Drive and parts of South Franklin are built with gold tailings, the leftover dirt from mining.)
In 1906, Juneau was named the capital of Alaska, still a U.S. territoryat the time. It officially became the state capital on 3 January 1959, when Alaska achieved statehood. Southeast Alaska grew and prospered with its fishing, mining and logging industries.
The Tlingit culture retains a strong influence on the economy and arts, and some natives continue to practice a traditional way of life in outlying villages. As a tourist mecca, Juneau is one of the most-visited cities in Alaska, especially during the summer months.
One of the first things you'll notice in Juneau, after you stop staring at all the mountains, is the contrast between the gold-rush-era buildings and modern high-rises—and, on the street, between the rubber-booted fisherfolk and the suit-and-tie government employees. The Historic District is crammed with shops, galleries, bars, hotels and restaurants. City and state buildings, churches and museums are a few blocks away, so most of the points of interest are within walking distance.
Before you make your way through the streets or take one of the tours, you may want to get the big picture by taking the Mount Roberts Tramway, which is located next to the cruise-ship docks.
Historic downtown can be easily explored on foot with the help of a walking-tour map (they're available at the visitor-information center near the cruise-ship docks).
From the docks, head north along the Seawalk to Marine Park. Monuments located along the wharf include a community sundial near the ship terminal and a sculpture of Patsy Ann, a deaf dog that met steamships in days past. There are also memorials to the USS Juneau, to underground hard-rock miners and to area fishermen lost at sea. Downtown murals depict the Tlingit legend of creation and turn-of-the-century steamship passengers.
Along the waterfront, narrow lanes wind past art galleries, gift shops and restaurants. This flat area is wheelchair-accessible and pleasant for strolls. The paths begin to climb steeply until they become natural staircases leading to Victorian homes. Both the hills and the architecture were the inspiration for Juneau's nickname, "Little San Francisco of the North." The wooden buildings have colorful facades, and streets are decorated in summer with banners, baskets of flowers, and flags from all the states.
Juneau's best features are the mountains, the ice and the water that define this community. Consider taking a helicopter ride over the Juneau Icefield—it can include glacier landings or a dogsledding experience. You can go whale-watching for humpbacks and orcas along Stephens Passage, take a bus or tour to Mendenhall Glacier, or visit a salmon hatchery. In late summer, when salmon swim upstream to spawn, black bears with cubs are often seen fishing in the stream near the Mendenhall Glacier.
The best way to look for nightlife in Juneau is with your ears. Just listen for music as you walk up South Franklin Street, down Front Street and through the Merchant's Wharf. Usually, there's live music, DJs and karaoke. On a sunny summer night, don't be surprised if the locals are still outside playing.
Seafood is the specialty of most restaurants, but the city also has a surprising array of different cuisines. A salmon bake is an experience every visitor should have, so make reservations in advance.
If you like beer, ask for an Alaskan Amber, Stout, IPA, White or Pale Ale. They're brewed year-round by Juneau's award-winning Alaska Brewing Co. along with seasonal summer and winter ales.
For a snack while you're shopping downtown, be sure to sample some fudge from the Alaskan Fudge Co. To warm up on a drizzly day, savor a huge cup of coffee or hot chocolate and a cookie from Heritage Coffeehouse.
When several cruise ships are in town during the summer, or if there's a major event, it's best to make reservations. This is generally not necessary during the rest of the year.
Expect to pay within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$20; $$ = US$25-$35; $$$ = US$36-$50; and $$$$ = more than US$50.
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