Looking for another spot to add to your bucket list? Try Juneau, Alaska. Just north of the Alexander Archipelago and situated along the state’s southwest coast, Juneau has a lot to offer, and it doesn’t take a weeklong expedition to experience it.
Alaska usually lands on peoples’ bucket lists because of the untouched, wild nature of the region. Right away, the natural beauty and landscapes overwhelm. The pure, clean air and gorgeous landscapes in every direction would be enough reason to visit. But there’s so much more to Juneau’s appeal, and for a destination that seems like it requires expedition-like time and preparation, Juneau is small enough to be enjoyed over a weekend.
Top tourist destinations around Juneau include the 1,800-foot Mount Roberts, reachable by a tram that leaves from the edge of town. Hiking trails abound, and whale-watching is always a popular tourist draw. The 13.6-mile-long Mendenhall Glacier, a must-see, is just 13 miles outside of town.
“Town” is roughly six blocks wide and 12 blocks long. Boxed in by the sea and Mount Roberts, the long downtown parallels the coastline and includes city buildings and residences in addition to the shops, restaurants, and sightseeing.
Hop on the Juneau Seawalk on the south end of town and follow it past restaurants and shops to a relatively new plaza on the north side, honoring the original trade of the city, whaling. The life-size whale jumping from the water is a sight to see, but the plaza is also a local gathering place that showcases the mountains enclosing the town and the water running through it.
To learn about Juneau and Alaskan history, make it a point to stop in one of the eye-opening local museums. Juneau holds a lot of fascinating history as the first and only Alaska state capital, and it offers rich Native American history that can’t be found anywhere else. The State Capitol, the Alaska State Museum, and the Juneau-Douglas City Museum are options for a historic dive.
One of the primary missions of the award-winning Alaska State Museum is to preserve Alaska Native artifacts and objects of daily life. The most recent exhibition, “The Spirit Wraps Around You,” showcases the gorgeous and elaborate textiles of the Alaska native people.
The Juneau-Douglas City Museum, built on the same site where Alaska officially became a state, offers walking day tours of the State Capitol and Juneau and gives detailed historical information.
The food scene is shockingly good. The locals are moving away from catering to the cruise ship day-trippers, and instead, they’ve leaned into artisan, farm-to-table, and local resource-rich fare.
SALT is Juneau’s finest restaurant for fresh Alaskan cuisine, including fresh Alaskan seafood, butcher cut steaks, and local produce. Michelin-star-trained Chef Lionel Uddipa’s menu highlights Alaskan flavors but represents regions from all over the world.
Start with Champagne and Brie Fondue with green apples and Kalamata olive croutons. Follow it with wild Alaskan King salmon with ginger, coconut broth, seaweed, and ginger citrus over rice. For wine pairing, this is the place for international choices. Finish with a dessert of flourless chocolate torte with wild strawberries and cream.
Advertised as “The Best Legs in Town,” Tracy’s Crab Shack is no longer a shack, but they haven’t lost the relaxed, laidback vibe of one. Lots of outdoor seating, a long bar with award-winning Alaskan craft beers and toe-tapping music that will lift anyone’s mood show there’s a reason this dining establishment is first-come, first-served. Visitors dine on delights such as a large king crab bucket served with hot melted butter and garlic rolls and Tracy’s award-winning crab bisque. The waiting line is long, which is always a good indicator of a great place.
Alaska Probiotics is not a restaurant, but it is a must-stop at some point in your journey. As you’re sightseeing around town, grab a Rosemary Tangerine Hibiscus, one of the shop’s Alaskan-infused kombuchas, to sip on. When the air is fresh and crisp, and the scene is natural and relaxing, these organic, fair-trade, and sustainably sourced teas and herbs high in antioxidants and beneficial phytochemicals give a delightful, healthy pickup. The bonus—the glass bottle with “Alaska Probiotics” is yours to keep.
At the Rookery Café, the warmth and the aroma of freshly ground coffee hit you right away when you enter, and you immediately get why this is the most popular coffee shop and restaurant in historic downtown Juneau.
The Rookery is open all day and serves up everything from artisan pastries to wild salmon cured in-house. They make almost everything from scratch— home-baked bread, ground burger, and pickles cured on-site. You could eat every meal here and still experience a wide range of cuisine.
Hangar on the Wharf overlooks the surrounding mountains and the Gastineau Channel and serves dishes like Alaskan halibut chowder and wasabi salmon burger. The main draw is that you can stroll in here at any time of day and get a seat overlooking the water through its wall of windows, or, if you’re lucky, you can snag a seat outdoors to experience all the sights and sounds of the harbor.
The pièce de résistance (for the adventurous) is an out-of-this-world, exhilarating flight over the glaciers in a tiny seaplane.
It is not for the faint of heart, flying hundreds of feet above the glaciers in a tiny plane that seems to be 100 years old, but drifting over glaciers while flying so close to craggy cliffsides that you feel you could touch them is a once-in-a-lifetime moment. Book through Keli’s Concierge in the lobby of the Four Points Sheraton. They seem to have their finger on the pulse of Juneau’s activities. On the day we arrived, we stopped by to gather information on available excursions, and a group had just canceled their trip on one of the seaplane tours over the glaciers. Within an hour, we were in a group van on our way to the sea.
Taking off from the water of the Gastineau Channel is the first thrill of the trip. The next is the sheer amount of nature viewing you can do while traveling to the edge of the 1,500 square miles of Juneau Icefield.
Juneau Icefield is North America’s largest mass of moving ice, and you will also see Taku Glacier, the deepest glacier in the world. A seaplane or helicopter excursion over the glaciers is an unforgettable, surreal experience. Wildlife like eagles, bear, and moose roam below, while waterfalls, forests, and rivers spread in front of you like a scene in a nature documentary. The small planes might be noisy, but you’ll feel like you are floating in the clouds.
When to Go
Although it is the state capital, Juneau is only accessible by air or water. That alone gives an idea of what makes Juneau such a fantastic place to visit. It was almost an island unto itself for over a century, which helped it develop a distinct culture that still exists today.
If warmish weather is the goal, it is best to go in the summertime. But if you’re looking for a more tranquil trip, it is best to go in the off-season when the cruise industry has wound down. Today, cruise ships dock in Juneau most of the summer (although they were prohibited from doing so in 2021 and only began doing so again recently), giving the port town an economic boost that hopefully holds through to the next tourist season.
Cruise ships come with downsides: crowded shops and restaurants, a shortage of good lodging options, and degradation of the environment. The cruise ship industry has slowed, but it’s worth a schedule check to plan your trip during a less touristy time if you’re looking for a quiet getaway.
Where to Stay
Four Points by Sheraton is on the waterfront and has all the amenities you would expect, plus the concierge who knows everything. Rooms at the Four Points by Sheraton are comfortable and spacious, and the staff is accommodating. From $218 per night.
The Nook Airbnb – If an Airbnb studio works for you, this one has an unbelievable price and location. The only problem might be finding it available on your travel dates. From $115 per night.