The Ultimate Travel Guide to Juneau, Alaska
When you first arrive in the center of downtown Juneau, stop walking. Let your eyes rise upward from the lush green rainforest just eight blocks ahead. See those creamy-white specks clinging to the cliffs just below the 3,576-foot summit of Mount Juneau? Those are wild mountain goats, nimble-footed 300 pounders with high-res vision so good they can pick out the hair on top of your head. So bring a hat… two hats, even. We get a lot of rain up here.
Juneau’s landscape stretches the human brain -- words fail to convey the magnitude of its towering peaks, cascading streams, bright bursts of wildflowers, and vast, otherworldly icefields. Better to just come see it for yourself. Paddle a sea kayak through fjords among seals and jumping salmon, or watch 40,000-pound humpback whales swallow tons of herring in a single gulp. Walk across the deep blue ice of an ancient glacier, or try your hand at dog-sledding (and sled-dog cuddling).
This is the only capital city in America you can’t reach by car; the longest road ends at a small boat ramp straight into Berners Bay. Juneau’s visitors and 32,000 residents must come and go by plane or three-day ferry. The other popular method? Sail in on a cruise ship, as 1.3 million tourists are expected to do in 2019.
No matter how you get here or how much time you have, you can touch this majestic landscape -- and eat it too. For our ninth DestiNATION Travel Guide (head nod to NOLA, San Diego, Miami, Austin, Vegas, NYC, Portland, and Yellowstone), Thrillist enlisted the help of local Alaskans to show you where to eat, what to bring, where to stay, and how to fully unlock the weird and wild adventures that await you in Juneau.
Alaska is about how you go places, as much as what you do once you get there. Paddle a kayak, cruise in a boat, hover in a helicopter, or soar in a seaplane. For those who need some hand-holding, a seemingly infinite number of guided excursions will unlock Juneau’s wilder side for all ages, abilities, and experience levels. More than just seeing a new city, a trip to Juneau means doing things that would seem unfathomable back home.
Riding the Mount Roberts Tramway is essentially the Eiffel Tower of Juneau -- that touristy thing you kinda have to do. At the top you’ll have a panoramic raven’s-eye view of the city and its surrounding channels and islands (see if you can spot which tiny cruise ship is yours). But no landscape is more powerful or strange to behold than a glacier carving through sharp-ridged mountains. Mendenhall Glacier, about 12 miles from downtown, is the most Alaska thing you’ll see here -- a giant white sheet of ice, slowly flowing downhill from high up in the Coast Range mountains behind Juneau into Mendenhall Lake. The enormous weight of the glacier compresses the ice and forces out air bubbles, giving it a deep blue color visible in the cracks in its surface. You can kayak up to its 70-foot-high face, walk onto the icy expanse with a guide, or simply take in the view from nearby trails. Mendenhall Glacier is melting faster than it grows and receding back into the mountains, a process that’s speeding up due to climate change. Soon it will no longer calve ice chunks into Mendenhall Lake.
For all the wilderness exploring you do, not exploring downtown Juneau’s art and cultural scene would be a mistake. Take a walking tour of downtown’s art galleries and public works, like the life-size bronze statue of a breaching humpback whale, and the enormous blue “Nimbus” sculpture outside the new Alaska State Museum (ranked among the top 10 museums in the States, don’t mind if we do). Here you can acquaint yourself with the ancient and modern history of the diverse Native populations who have sustainably occupied these lands for thousands of years. Of the 573 federally recognized Native tribes, 229 are in Alaska; Juneau lies in Tlingit territory, a Pacific Northwest coastal tribe known for their elaborate art and totem poles. The exhibits at Sealaska Heritage Institute highlight an incredibly cool mix of traditional and modern indigenous art from the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian tribes, and your $5 entrance fee contributes to the perpetuation of these ancient peoples.
The gift shops at the Sealaska Heritage Institute, State Museum, and Mount Roberts Tramway are some of the best places in town to buy traditional Tlingit jewelry, glasswork, and art. Much of the jewelry and trinkets flooding Juneau’s shops will be of the "Made in Indonesia" variety, but you can also find innovative Native-made designs at Mount Juneau Trading Post, The Port, and Trickster Company.
And should you find yourself here in the more frigid months, the Juneau Symphony opens and the nationally renowned Perseverance Theater presents plays. Downtown’s Goldtown Nickelodeon Theater is a gem for local comedy nights, burlesque shows, and the popular “Not-so-silent Film Series,” which pairs live original acoustic soundtracks with classic silent films. The wildest week on the calendar is undoubtedly the Alaska Folk Festival in April, which brings seven nights of bluegrass, blues, and folk music to crowds 1,200 strong. Book your hotel early and bring your earplugs, because the music won’t stop at closing time.
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When it comes to animal sightings and animal-themed adventures, there’s no point bothering to compete with Alaska. It is the state with the smallest percentage (by far) of private land ownership, and it boasts the largest wildlife refuge not just in the country, but anywhere in the world. The 49th state also happens to have the highest number of bald eagles in the world; look for them along streams and beaches, and in trees at the edge of the beach where they build their nests (keep in mind they don’t get their white head until they’re about 3 years old).
Rocky reefs, sandy beaches, and estuaries (where streams flow into saltwater) are home to many marine organisms you can see from a kayak or walking around at low tide. In deeper water, watch for seals that poke their heads up to watch you. Sea lions, much larger than seals, point their noses into the air as they swim. In the summer you may also see humpback whales, orcas (killer whales), and porpoises. Salmon streams are everywhere in Juneau; the main runs begin in July, after they swim literally thousands of miles in entirely the wrong direction for the privilege of being able to spawn and immediately die.
And where there’s a lot of salmon there’s a lot of fat, happy bears -- brown bears that can weigh over 800 pounds and smaller black bears. Guided bear-watching and fly-fishing tours will fly you out to Chichagof or Admiralty Islands, home to the highest populations of brown bears on this here planet. You can also easily spot them on Steep Creek Trail near the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, or if you drive north out of town (there’s only one highway) early in the morning between 5 and 7am, you can sometimes see black bears feeding in the roadside grass.
There’s always a chance you run across a cute, huggable bear while you’re out hiking, but they are not cute nor huggable, they are wild, potentially very scary, and highly attuned to your body language. Read up on bear safety and buy some bear spray if you plan to camp or hike (which you should!). Other notable sights in the forest of the less dangerous variety: Sitka spruce and western hemlock trees may live to over 800 years old, with shrubs like blueberry and Devil’s Club beneath them. As you look up a mountain, the trees disappear, replaced by alpine shrubs and herbs. Mountain goats, Sitka black-tailed deer, bears, and other small animals use these areas in summer.
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Alaskans take their seafood seriously. Partially because many have friends and family in the commercial fishing business, but mostly because our seafood is the best you’ll find in the world and we won’t settle for less. “Friends don’t let friends eat farmed fish” is a commonly seen bumper sticker. Check out Tracy’s Crab Shack for some of the finest Alaskan crab in Juneau, if not the state.
Juneau occupies a thin stretch of land smooshed between the sea and the sloping, forest-covered mountains. Our access to fresh wild seafood and wild game is unparalleled, but with 150 inches of precipitation a year, this temperate rainforest can be a tricky place to farm -- and a great place to forage. Juneau’s answer to “farm-to-table,” then, is combining local seafood with ingredients gathered directly from the forest and meadows surrounding the town. The result is a creative food scene of forager-chefs that can be credited back to the culinary rivalry between SALT’s Lionel Uddipa and In Bocca Al Lupo’s Beau Schooler, both of which have menus that regularly incorporate wild ingredients. You’ll taste citrusy notes of spruce tips in ice cream from Coppa, the gin at Amalga Distillery, and Alaskan Brewing Co.’s Winter Ale. In the fall, expect specials featuring wild mushrooms like golden Pacific chanterelles and chicken of the woods.
With 10 bars, a distillery, and a brewery all within a two-block radius, a bar crawl in Juneau is a matter of a five-minute stroll. As both the state capital and a major cruise hub, you’ll find an interesting, and sometimes odd, mix of people out and about after hours. During the summer, bars are packed with the 20-something seasonal workers blowing off steam -- you can spot the glacier guides by the raccoon-shaped tan lines from their glacier goggles. During the winter and spring, when the Alaska State Legislature is in session, expect staffers, and sometimes elected officials, rubbing elbows at the Triangle Club and the Lucky Lady Pub.
Wander to the corner of Front and Franklin Streets and pick your style, whether it’s upscale cocktails at The Narrows, live music and dimly lit saloon vibes at The Alaskan Bar and Hotel, or booty shaking at The Imperial Saloon, Juneau’s oldest watering hole. Bars close at 1am on weeknights, 3am on the weekends. For a snack to end the night, head to hole-in-the-wall Pel’meni, a Russian joint that sells just two things, and they’re both dumplings: potato or meat.
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Located on Southeast Alaska’s temperate coastline, embedded within the massive, mossy Tongass National Rainforest, Juneau is best described as, um, wet. The rain might be the most logged complaint from tourists who don’t pack the right kind of rain jacket -- well, that and the spotty cell service. Cell phone coverage is excellent in urban Juneau, and yes, Wi-Fi is available in most hotels and coffee shops. It’s a big city (OK, big for Alaska) but that city disappears quickly, and you’ll lose internet and cell service the further afield you travel.
Which is all to say, Juneau’s more of a “know before you go” type of place than a “just Google it when you get there” type of place. Luckily, Alaskans are known for their friendliness and helpfulness, having themselves faced the unique challenges of living and getting around here. In the midst of writing this guide we ran into Juneauite Jack Hodges, who was heading out salmon fishing, and who is well known in these parts for pedaling a water bike from Bellingham, Washington, up to Juneau back in 1995. It took him six weeks, alone on an aluminum frame between two pontoons, navigating some of the trickiest sea currents in North America. He’s a fabulous orchestral trombonist, retired wildlife biologist and pilot, and just one example of the many unique characters who’ll be more than happy to help you find your trailhead.
Getting around Juneau: If you’re not on a cruise, you’re probably flying in from Seattle or Anchorage, a 2 to 2 1/2-hour flight. Just beware of the six-hour “milk-run” flight that makes three stops in small communities each way. Another option is to catch the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS), a three-day ferry ride from Bellingham, Washington, which is actually a pretty cool way to see the islands and saltwater channels of Alaska’s Inside Passage. If you can’t get a stateroom, bring your sleeping bag and vie for space in the highly competitive solarium, a covered outside deck with heat lamps.
All cruise ships disembark downtown. Juneau has the usual taxis, rental cars, and buses, but almost no service through Uber or Lyft. If you’re cabbing out to a remote area, make sure you arrange to be picked up (again with the no cell service thing). There’s also a nifty pedicab service (Alaska Pedicab-Juneau) that will shuttle you around downtown for $1 a minute, or take you on a full city tour for $100. Spend an hour talking with these local peddlers and you’ll be an expert on downtown.
The best time to visit: Juneau’s weather is hard to plan around. No matter what time of year you visit, you need a quality rain jacket and a couple extra layers. If you plan to go out on the water or visit glaciers, bring extra-warm layers, hats, and gloves. You’ll also want sunscreen -- the air is cool but the days are long and the sun is bright (when it’s not raining, which it will, just wait).
More than the weather, wildlife and fish migration patterns should have the biggest influence on your timing. From May to June, humpback whales are returning to feed after giving birth to their calves in Hawaii. Salmon haven’t arrived in local streams yet, but trout and halibut fishing are rolling along. By mid-July, salmon are filling the streams and bears are filling themselves with salmon. Whale and bear watching is at its peak in the height of summer, but everything slows down after mid-September when unpredictable weather can cancel small plane flights and excursions. When the last cruise ship fades into the mists of October, Juneau’s tour guides hang it up for for the season, but independent travelers can cross-country ski, mountain bike, or ice skate on Mendenhall Lake.
How to book an excursion: First you must know what excursion you want to book! (We’ve got a guide for that.) Cruise lines handle most bookings for their passengers, but independent travelers (including small cruise ship passengers) must book their own guided adventures. Some tour companies book exclusively with the cruise lines, but may offer any leftover tickets to independents... it gets complicated fast, so it’s usually easiest for independent travelers to use a local booking agent like Keli’s Concierge and Tours. The cost is the same whether you booked through a cruise line, agent, company website, whatever.
It’s important to book excursions as early as possible. By January 1, all providers are ready to book for the year ahead, but many begin to fill dates even before the first of the year. Cruise lines reserve blocks of reservations for their passengers -- book as early as your cruise line allows. That being said, both independent travelers and cruisers can usually score last-minute excursions at booths by the dock in Juneau, sometimes at a discount.
The Mount Roberts Tram can be seen from basically anywhere downtown, and their parking lot is the pickup/drop-off point for almost all excursions and adventures (some run from Marine Park, two more blocks into town). Most excursions offer ride services you can take advantage of as well.
What to tip an excursion guide: Tipping your guides is very much appreciated, even if your cruise ship says you don’t need to. For large group excursions like whale watching, there's sometimes a place on the boat to leave tips, and it's always appropriate to hand $5-10 to one of the people who escort you off the boat to be shared with all the staff. Expect to tip more on smaller excursions with one lead guide where you’re getting a lot of personal attention -- at least $20 per guide, or more if it’s a full-day trip over five hours.
All the Best Ways to Explore Juneau, Alaska's Breathtaking Capital
Surrounded by mountains and water, Juneau, Alaska, is breathtaking to take in on foot, bike, or jeep tour.
More than a million tourists come to Juneau every summer, but few of them stay overnight. They hop off the cruise ship in the morning and are back on board their floating hotel by dinner. To each their own -- cruising is without a doubt one of the most convenient ways to explore this vast region -- but staying the night in town means you’ll get to experience a more down-to-earth Juneau -- the one locals know and love -- without all the crowds. And if you are cruising, keep an eye out for the smaller, Alaska-owned cruise companies like Alaska Dream Cruises where you’ll actually get to learn about the stuff you’re seeing as opposed to just gaping slack-jawed at it.
Hotels in downtown Juneau
Juneau’s downtown area is small but densely packed and puts you in the heart of the action. The cozy Silverbow Inn has a hot tub on the rooftop and is literally right next door to In Bocca Al Lupo, one of the best pizza and pasta joints where you’ll often find wild ingredients foraged from the bounty surrounding Juneau. The Westmark Baranof Hotel has an art-deco vibe that harks back to the 1920s; even if you’re not staying here, drop in to the Bubble Room for a cocktail. Swankiest of all is The Jorgenson House, a historic bed-and-breakfast dating from 1915, with only four suites and a gourmet breakfast every morning.
For a, uh, distinctive experience, book The Alaskan Hotel -- OK, so some of the rooms are tiny, and you might not get a private bathroom, and you’ll probably hear the live music seeping through from the bar at night… but hey, if you’ve made it to Alaska, you’re tough enough to deal with it. If you’d prefer the familiar comforts of a chain hotel, there’s the Four Points by Sheraton, which is waterside on Juneau’s main road, Egan Drive, and has the only sports bar in town, McGivney’s. If you’re on a tighter budget, try Driftwood Hotel and Prospector Hotel which are a short walk out of town, or the Juneau Hostel if you really want to save the pennies.
Then there are the Airbnbs, which are mainly cozy hideaways downtown or on Douglas Island (psst -- if you stay on Douglas, you’ll need a car or bike rental). The Hellenthal Lofts were built in 1916 as offices for lawyers working for the Alaska-Juneau Mine. Now, thanks to a recent renovation, the building houses six furnished apartments.
Staying outside Juneau
Juneau is incredibly spread out, so if you’re staying outside downtown, you’ll need a car (or a serious appetite for hiking). There are, of course, numerous chain hotels near the airport, but you can do better than that. Even the Best Western has more personality: Grandma’s Feather Bed is touted as “the smallest hotel in the largest hotel chain,” offering 14 deluxe suites in a Victorian-style farmhouse near the Mendenhall Glacier. But for independent charm, a beautiful lakeside location, and instant access to kayaking, there’s no beating the Auke Lake Bed & Breakfast.
The most authentic and rewarding way to spend a night in Juneau is by hiking to a cabin and making it your own. There are dozens of U.S. Forest Service cabins, but book well in advance if you want a spot in the busy summer season. You really can’t go wrong with any of them, including Dan Moller Cabin on Douglas Island, Peterson Lake Cabin, or Eagle Glacier Cabin. Perhaps the most popular is Windfall Lake Cabin (26 miles north of Juneau), which rewards your 3-mile hike with spectacular views across the water.
Last thing -- all of them are firmly in bear country. Bears are rad, but do your research and be prepared for a potential encounter.
Going somewhere? Check out Thrillist’s other comprehensive DestiNATION Guides to New Orleans, San Diego, Miami, Austin, Vegas, New York, Portland, and Yellowstone National Park. Keep a lookout for a new travel guide coming soon.
EDITORIALEditor: Keller Powell
Writers: Bill Hanson, Kastalia Medrano, Erin Heist, Alex McCarthy, Vivian Mork Yéilk’
Production: Pete Dombrosky, Eliza Dumais, Alex Erdekian, Ruby Anderson, Kyler Alvord
Video: Kat Li, Elan Alexenberg, Brendan Dean, Chris Murphy, William Witley, Chanel Baker, Sarah Barry, Emily Tufaro, Lauren Brenner, Daniel Byrne, Stasia Tomlinson, Justin Lundstrom
Special thanks: Bison Messink, Jonathan Melmoth, Alex Garofalo, Lauren Budinsky, Liz Childers, Sam Eifling, Kerry Howard, Erin Heist, Bill Hanson, and James Brooks at the Juneau Empire
CREATIVECreative Director: Tom O’Quinn
Art Director: Ted McGrath
Photo Director: Drew Swantak
Illustrator: Jason Hoffman
Motion Designer: Megan Chong