Travel guide and things to do in Anchorage, Alaska: The three-minute guide

WHY

Many visitors find themselves in Anchorage (anchorage.net) because they're starting or finishing a summertime cruise (ships dock at Whittier or Seward, tiny port towns near Alaska's biggest city). More intrepid types come in colder months for the Iditarod sled-dog race (iditarod.com) that starts from Anchorage each March or to catch the shimmer of the northern lights. If you have nostalgic Alaskan leanings, fanned from watching the 1990s TV series Northern Exposure or listening to Michelle Shocked's catchy song Anchorage on repeat, the reality of this sprawling city of 320,000 residents with its Anywhere America vibe will surprise. If you're heading to the largest state in the union via Vancouver, remember that Canada introduced an electronic Travel Authorisation requirement (canada.ca) in 2016, similar to America's ESTA.

VISIT

Strap on your walking boots to tick off historic downtown's architectural delights, which include many art deco numbers. Pick up a map from the sod-roofed Visit Anchorage Log Cabin and start at the handsome 1942 Alaska Railroad Depot. Swing past the 1917 Leopold David House, home of the city's first mayor and built in an area then known as Snob Hollow, and on to the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, a popular scenic path that hugs Cook Inlet and offers panoramic views of snow-tipped mountains. Admire the Captain Cook statue before finding the A-framed Oscar Anderson House – Anchorage's first solid home, built at a time when the settlement was a tent city. It's said Anderson's ghost still haunts the 1915 house-museum, open for tours in July and August.

EAT & DRINK

Anchorage's residents are a thirsty lot, if the number of bars is anything to go by. There are so many watering holes along 4th Avenue that legend has it Bob Hope nicknamed the stretch "the world's longest bar". Beyond 4th Avenue, try Humpys (humpysalaska.com) on 6th Avenue for its lively atmosphere, seafood burgers (crab, salmon and halibut) and what it claims is Alaska's largest range of beer on tap. If it's a sunny day, grab a rooftop seat at Williwaw (williwawsocial.com) also on 6th, or at 49th State Brewing Company (49statebrewing.com) on 3rd. It brews one of the best-named beers around (Dubbel on Tundra, flavoured with birch syrup from Talkeetna, said to have inspired Northern Exposure's fictional town of Cicely). On weekends from May to early September, graze the open-air Anchorage Market and Festival. Stalls sell everything from halibut tacos to reindeer fried rice.

MUST

You could visit Anchorage Museum (anchoragemuseum.org, $US18 adult) but for a free insight into Alaskan nature, pop into the Alaska Public Lands Information Centre (alaskacenters.gov) within the striking 1939 Federal Building, Anchorage's first concrete building, constructed 20 years before Alaska became a US state. The somewhat playful taxidermy display includes a sea otter, wolf, wolverine, polar and grizzly bears, caribou, Arctic fox, musk ox and ptarmigan – Alaska's state bird. If you're planning to venture beyond city limits into the wilderness, this is the place to seek rangers' advice. If you simply need to take a load off after tramping the streets, pull up a pew and catch one of seven movies covering everything from gold-rush days to Alaska's devastating 1964 earthquake, North America's largest recorded quake.

SLEEP

Downtown's Hotel Captain Cook (captaincook.com) comprises three mustard-coloured tower blocks. What the 546-room hotel's exterior lacks in looks it more than makes up for with atmospheric, art-laden interiors. Even if you're not a guest at the 1965 property that's part of the Historic Hotels of America portfolio, stop by to browse the paintings, sculpture, woodwork and stained glass that honours Captain James Cook. The famed English navigator charted Alaska's crinkled coastline on his third and final major voyage; in 1778, he and the crew of the HMS Resolution dropped anchor within sight of where the hotel stands today. Another option is the 144-room Hyatt House Anchorage (hyatt.com) that opened in 2017. It's in Midtown, close to the airport, but a free shuttle can whisk you downtown. Stays include a hearty breakfast with omelette – enjoy it in an area overlooking a wetland popular with birds. For a Midtown dinner, try Moose's Tooth (moosestooth.net) – a pub serving inventive pizzas such as the Mac N Cheese with reindeer sausage.

TIP

Take advantage of all that summer sunshine – Anchorage enjoys up to 22 hours of daylight – to do a little shopping (Alaska is one of five US states with no sales tax). From Hyatt House, amble down to Barnes & Noble to stock up on books, vinyl records and souvenirs. Heading to the airport? Leave time to admire the departure hall's taxidermy displays of Kodiak brown bears, polar bears, cackling goose, moose and more.

Katrina Lobley visited Anchorage as a guest of Princess Cruises.

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