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One Day in Juneau, Alaska: America’s Most Underrated State Capital

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For decades, campaigners have been calling for Alaska’s administrative center to move to Anchorage. Sure, it’s bigger and has far better transport links, but in a state famous for its natural beauty, Juneau seems a fitting state capital. And in terms of what there is to do in Juneau, there is definitely enough to keep you occupied for one day in Juneau.

It may not have any road connections with the rest of Alaska, let alone the lower 48, but it does have the most stunning backdrop of any city I’ve set foot in. Hemmed in by mountains and glaciers to the east and mighty Pacific to the west, Juneau is a sight for sore eyes.

Another of Juneau’s unique draws is that it’s small and very walkable, making it easy to explore the city in a day. Its size means is Juneau great for visitors, and it gives it a small-town feel that few other state capitals can claim to offer. Our guide of what to do in one day in Juneau will help you experience the very best this stunning city has to offer.

Getting to Juneau

By cruise ship

Many visitors arrive in Juneau by cruise ship; it’s a popular stopping off point for cruises along the south east Alaskan panhandle. If you do, the cruise ship docks are right in the city center, so you can hop straight off your ship and start exploring.

Whilst there will almost certainly be several shore excursions offered by the cruise line, we’ll tell you how to make the most of your day in Juneau – without paying their inflated prices!

By air

Despite being Alaska’s capital, Juneau International Airport (JNU) serves a fairly limited range of destinations. Alaska Airlines operates the majority of flights, with twice daily services on their ‘milk run’ routes which serve Seattle, Anchorage and a number of smaller cities in between.

Delta also flies seasonally to Seattle, whilst Alaska Seaplanes connect Juneau with smaller communities as well as Whitehorse in Canada.

By ferry

The Alaska Marine Highway system is a network of ferries which runs all the way from Bellingham, Washington to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. Juneau is served by ferries which run between Bellingham, Skagway and Sitka as well as those traveling further north to Whittier and Homer.

From Bellingham, the travel time to Juneau is around three days, with stops in Ketchikan, Wrangell and Petersburg along the way.

Travel tip: Whilst ferry is certainly not the quickest way to reach Juneau, it’s a great way to see the Alaskan coastline without paying the hefty price tag of a cruise.

Meals and snacks are available on board, and you can choose a cabin for a more comfortable voyage (highly recommended). Check fares and book online – spaces sell quickly, especially through summer.

When to visit Juneau

Juneau, like much of Alaska, is primarily a summer destination. Whilst it is possible to visit year round, winters this far north can be harsh and travel disruption is a possibility.

The main season runs from mid-May to mid-September. Temperatures tend to hover around the high teens Celsius (60-70°F) and the days are long. In fact, around the summer solstice, you can expect over 18 hours of daylight.

One Day in Juneau, Alaska: Itinerary

9 am: Breakfast

Start your day in Juneau with a light breakfast from one of the many independent coffee shops. Our top pick is Heritage Coffee Roasting Company. They’ve been roasting their own beans in Juneau since 1974 and their coffee shop is always buzzing. You may have to wait a little, but the coffee and pastries are well worth it.

10 am: Mendenhall Glacier

Around 12 miles from downtown Juneau, Mendenhall Glacier is one of the most visited sites in Alaska, mainly because it’s so easy to reach. Several tour companies offer trips from the city center, our top recommendation is a trolley tour which drops you right by the visitor center.

Local tip: On busy cruise ship days, these tours and transfers sell well out well in advance. If you can’t get a space, you can take a Capital Transit bus.

Lines 3 & 4 run from the Downtown Transit Center to Mendenhall Loop Road, a half-hour walk from the visitor center.

The visitor center (open 8:30 am to 7:30 pm during summer, with restricted hours in winter) hosts a small gift shop along with an informative display on the glacier’s formation. It also tells the rather alarming rate at which the glacier is retreating.

Once you’ve picked up a map from the center, head out on one of the trails leading towards the glacier. The shortest one takes just ten minutes and offers a sweeping panorama of the valley. The longer hikes will take you within touching distance of the glacier.

12:30 pm: Lunch at The Hangar on the Wharf

Juneau has no shortage of great restaurants, but you can’t visit the Alaskan capital without eating at The Hangar on the Wharf. This Juneau institution sits on an old seaplane hangar with stunning views across Douglas Island. You might need to wait for a table, but if you do, they’ll give you a buzzer and you can explore the quirky shops which share the hangar. The bookshop is fantastic.

The menu is huge, but if this is your first stop in Alaska, go for the local staple: halibut. The Hangar serves this Alaskan delicacy in every form imaginable: battered, in a taco, in a wrap, as a burger or baked with a macadamia nut crust.

1:30 pm: Mount Roberts

Take a stroll along the waterfront from The Hangar towards the cruise ship dock, where the Mount Roberts Tramway begins. Also known as the Goldbelt Tram, the tramway takes six minutes to ascend 1,164 meters to the summit of Mount Roberts. On a clear day, you’ll get a panoramic view over the entire city and out across Douglas Island.

Travel tip: You can buy your tickets from machines at the base station (the price may put you off, but how many opportunities are you going to get to ride this iconic cable car?)

At the summit, you can access the mountain and, if you like, can hike down rather than taking the tram. Immediately as you exit the station, you’ll come across a viewing platform with the best view in town.

Inside the summit complex, there’s a gift shop (although as you’d expect, it sells the same souvenirs you’d find at ground level, at double the price) and a restaurant which does an amazing hot chocolate. The star of the show, though, is the movie theater which shows a short film on Tlingit culture.

The Tlingit are the tribe indigenous to southwest Alaska, parts of British Columbia and the north of Washington state. The film tells the story of the arrival of the “white man” in their lands and how they integrated to live side by side. It’s well worth a watch, and offers a fascinating insight into native Alaskan culture.

3:00 pm: Sample Local Brews at Alaskan Brewing

A minute’s walk from Mount Roberts Tramway, it seems a shame to walk by Alaskan Brewing’s Public House without popping in to try Alaska’s favorite beer. Brewed just a couple of miles outside Juneau, Alaskan Brewing Company do everything from Amber Ale to Kolsch and even cider. If you can’t decide, go for a flight of four samples.

3:30 pm: Alaska State Museum

To learn a little more about Juneau and Alaska, head to the Alaska State Museum on Whittier Street, near The Hangar on the Wharf. The museum has regular special exhibitions, with permanent exhibits focussing on indigenous culture and state history.

4:45 pm: Alaska State Capitol

Admittedly, Alaska State Capitol is not the prettiest building in town. However, you can’t not pay a quick visit to the United States’s most northerly state capitol whilst you’re in Juneau. When Alaska became part of the United States in 1867, the capital was moved from Sitka to Juneau. Yet it wasn’t until the state capitol building was completed in 1931 that there was a permanent federal building.

5:30 pm: Red Dog Saloon

Originally opened during Alaska’s mining heyday, the Red Dog is a Juneau institution. Claiming to be the oldest bar in town, the Red Dog is more tourist attraction than authentic bar these days, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a visit.

The saloon moved several times over its history and arrived at its current location, 278 South Franklin Street, in 1988. The location and clientele may have changed, but it still has the original sawdust floor and walls. You’ll also find the ceilings covered with memorabilia from a bygone era.

7 pm: Dinner at Pel’meni

Alaska may be all about the stars and stripes now, but barely more than 150 years ago, things were very different. From 1732 to 1867, Alaska was part of the Russian Empire. Pel’meni, a few doors down from The Hangar on the Wharf (2 Marine Way), is one of the few signs of Alaska’s Russian past in modern Juneau.

Open until the early hours, Pel’meni’s dumplings are the highlight. After all, that’s what the name Pel’meni means. Whether you eat in or take away to enjoy by the water, they’ll be served in a simple polystyrene tray. This is proper, unpretentious food, just like you’d find in provincial Russia or Poland.

8 pm: The Whale Project

Round off your day in Juneau with a walk along the Pacific to The Whale Project. Built to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Juneau becoming a U.S. state in 2017, The Whale Project is a life-sized bronze statue of a humpback whale named Takhu.

Fancy staying the night in Juneau?

Juneau is one of those cities which draws you in as soon as you arrive, and you’ll never want to leave. If one day in Juneau isn’t enough, the good news is there’s plenty of places to stay.

During the summer, hotel prices can be very high, especially if you book last minute. Even lower-end chains like Four Points can set you back over US$400 per night. Luckily, Juneau’s independent hotels tend to be far cheaper.

The quirkiest, and often the cheapest, is the Alaskan Hotel and Bar. This is Juneau’s oldest hotel and, whilst the rooms and décor reflect that, it makes a welcome break from the monotony of modern chain hotels.

Things to do in Juneau from a Cruise Ship

If you’re arriving in Juneau on a cruise ship and are looking for an alternative to the usual shore excursions, it’s possible to do much of our itinerary solo. A visit to Mendenhall Glacier, a trip up Mount Roberts on the Goldbelt Tramway and lunch at The Hangar on the Wharf should be easy to fit in even on a shorter stop.

If you’re hoping to pack as much as possible into your day, the good news is there are plenty of tours on offer that won’t cost the earth. For wildlife enthusiasts, you can get up close and personal with Alaska’s whale population with a three and a half hour boat tour.

If you fancy getting out of the city to explore Alaska’s stunning scenery, consider a private road trip. And if you want to learn about Alaskan culture, this trail and ale tour of Mount Roberts is a must.

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