How to cozy up to winter in Anchorage
If you’re not the type to hibernate in winter, let us suggest a vacation destination that might not be top of mind — Anchorage.
Here’s why. Alaska’s largest city is a place that knows how to do winter the right way. Outdoor activities range from the expected (ice skating or skiing) to the epic (chasing the Northern Lights). You can witness only-in-Alaska events such as the Iditarod and Fur Rondy. Indoors, you’ll find museums that celebrate Alaskan heritage, spas to take the edge off, and cozy spots to enjoy incredibly fresh seafood or belly-warming drinks.
With nonstop flights from 14 U.S. cities, it’s easy to get to, and with a compact downtown, you don't even need to rent a car. Plus, with average temperatures in the 20s and 30s, it’s warmer than you might think. Read on to discover why a winter vacation to Anchorage is cooler than you’d expect.
Play outside in the ultimate winter wonderland
In the winter, Anchorage gets more hours of daylight than other parts of the state, so make the most of it by getting outside. Fat tire biking is popular with locals (it started here, after all); with tires that are 4-5 inches wide, they pretty much float on surfaces where normal bike tires would sink. Join a fat tire biking tour where the bike is included, or rent it for exploring on your own; some companies even deliver them to your hotel.
As to be expected this time of year, you can have a lot of fun on the ice. You’ll find several lakes a short ride from downtown that offer ice fishing or ice skating —Westchester Lagoon is an especially popular option for the latter, where the Family Skate (Saturdays in January-February from noon to 3 p.m.) includes free hot chocolate. BYOM (marshmallows) if you want to roast a toasty treat over one of the bonfires. You can even try your hand (or more aptly, your feet) at speed skating; the 400-meter oval at Cuddy Family Park is one of only a handful of full-size outdoor speed skating tracks in the U.S.
With regular snowfall, there are plenty of opportunities to go skiing (as well as places to rent your fancy footwear). The city has a cross-country trail system that stretches over 80 miles. The crown jewel is Kincaid Park, which has about 37 miles of trails winding through its 1,400 acres in the city. Downhill skiiers have a few options as well. Head to Hilltop Ski Area at the base of the Chugach Mountains, which is just 15 minutes from downtown. Serious snow bunnies can also head to Alyeska Resort which has 2,500 vertical feet of diverse terrain spread over 1,400 skiable acres. At the Arctic Valley Ski Area, not only can you fly down the hills on your skis, but also in a tube. Anchorage is also an ideal location for snowshoeing at places like Eklutna Lake and Eagle River, about 20 minutes from downtown.
We’d be remiss not to mention that quintessential Alaska activity: dog sledding. From October through March, live your best life as a warmly-dressed musher as a pack of fast-moving huskies pulls you and your sled along a snow-packed trail. A number of tour companies are at the ready to make your Iditarod dreams come true.
When the sun sets, there's an opportunity to see some magic, that being the aurora borealis, better known as the Northern Lights. There's no need to travel to Europe and deal with passports and customs when Anchorage puts on a sky show all the same. Your hotel’s front desk and the city’s Visitor Information Centers will have aurora-chasing tour options, but one internationally acclaimed option is Alaska Photo Trek’s Anchorage Aurora Quest. On this tour, you’ll travel with photographers and go to the most scenic spots (think reflective lakes, dramatic peaks, coastal waterways and moody forests) within a 70-mile radius of the city.
For a chance to see the city in a different way, sit back and take a horse-drawn carriage ride through downtown Anchorage with Horse Drawn Carriage Company. You can customize your ride and choose from carriages like the 1893 Antique Falling Front Brougham or a white Vis a Vis carriage. If you’re lucky, it will be a clear night, the stars will align and you’ll spot the aurora borealis for a perfect winter memory.
Experience a calendar full of distinctly Alaskan flavor
While the local bears hibernate, the people of Anchorage most certainly do not. Join in the fun at festivals like the annual Anchorage International Film Festival (Dec. 2-11), the Winter Solstice Festival (Dec. 21) and Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival 2023 (Jan. 27-28, 2023). Check out the holiday light shows at the Alaska Botanical Garden (on select days from Nov. 26-Jan. 23) and the Alaska Zoo (on select days from Nov. 25-Jan. 8). Celebrate the new year with live music and fireworks at the New Year's Eve Celebration (Dec. 31) held downtown.
Plan to be downtown on March 4, 2023 with your Kaladi Brothers Coffee in hand for the ceremonial start of the world-famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. This will be the 51st running of the 1,000-mile race to Nome, and you can catch the first 11 miles in Anchorage.
Another super-local winter event is the Fur Rendezvous Festival, aka Fur Rondy, or just Rondy, (Feb. 24 - March 5, 2023). Originally a three-day shindig timed to the winter arrival of miners and trappers, the first such festival took place in February of 1936, when nearly all of Anchorage (which, granted, was much smaller in those days) turned out for the inaugural bonfire and torchlight parade. Since then, the Fur Rendezvous has grown in length and reputation—so much so that spectators from around the world travel here during these weeks to catch such events as the Running of the Reindeer (a touch of Pamplona in Alaska), outhouse races, snow sculptures and even snowshoe softball.
Relax and refresh indoors
Sometimes there is so much to do on a vacation that you forget to relax, so be sure to give yourself some me-time and get pampered while you’re in Anchorage. The Alyeska Nordic Spa is set within the Chugach Mountains on the grounds of Alyeska Resort and is focused on hydrotherapy, featuring hot and cold pools, saunas, steam rooms and exfoliation cabins. Side-by-side couples massage treatments are available, so you can both experience Zen at the same time.
The Anchorage Museum is located on the traditional homeland of the Eklutna Dena’ina people, in the heart of downtown. The museum explores the history of Alaska as well as local art; alongside its exhibitions, there are performances, artist talks, live music and film. Upcoming exhibits include “Pass the Mic” (Oct. 7, 2022 – Sept. 3, 2023) which celebrates contemporary Alaskan musicians and sound artists and “Alaska Biennial 2022” (Nov. 4, 2022 - March 5, 2023), which features Alaska-based contemporary artists exploring the North through a variety of media.
At the Alaska Native Heritage Center, the largest cultural institution in the state, visitors can learn about Alaska’s 11 major cultural groups and 10,000 years of native history through art, dance, native games demonstrations, exhibits, traditional native dwellings, films and more. Visitors can support native Alaska artists by buying art, jewelry and more in the Ch'k'iqadi Gallery gift shop. (Ch'k'iqadi is a Dena'ina Athabascan word meaning "the things we buy".)
The Alaska Aviation Museum will delight your inner aviation enthusiast from start to finish. The facility is located on Lake Hood, which is the world's largest seaplane base, where more than 87,000 takeoffs and landings happen each year. Inside the museum, there are four hangars of exhibitions showcasing memorabilia and artifacts from Alaska's pioneer aviators as well as vintage aircraft ranging from the 1929 Travel Air S6000B to the 1974 McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle.
Enjoy a night of soothing music by attending a concert at the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra. Started in 1946, which was 13 years before Alaska even became a state, the orchestra has grown from a small community of 17 musicians to its current robust group of 80. For a night of theatre, dance, film, Broadway musicals, popular music and more, head to the Alaska Center for Performing Arts, whose three theaters cater to different performance needs.
Eat, drink and be merry
With a prime location on Cook Inlet, which stretches 180 miles into the Gulf of Alaska, Anchorage is a seafood-lover's paradise, particularly if you love fresh salmon, flaky halibut and monster king crab. If sushi is what you’re after, consider trying one (or all) of these: Sushi & Sushi, a premier upscale sushi and sake bar; Sakura Asian Bistro at Alyeska Resort and downtown Kumagoro Sushi Bar & Japanese Restaurant.
Follow in former President Obama’s footsteps and make a stop at Snow City Cafe for an eggs Benedict for breakfast, or treat yourself to a made-from-scratch soup for lunch or brunch. Speaking of breakfast menus, one popular item you’ll see across the city is reindeer sausage, which tastes like a spicier version of a regular sausage link.
Get your sweet tooth cravings satisfied at Glacier BrewHouse (try the original peanut butter pie dessert) or at Dino’s Donuts, where flavors range from tame glazed to bacon maple topped affairs. Try some handcrafted Alaska ice cream (using only Alaska ingredients) at Wild Scoops; the honeycomb flavor is divine.
While there are plenty of natural ways to warm up in Anchorage, local brews, ciders and spirits can lend a helping hand. Good beer is easy to find at Midnight Sun Brewing Co., known for its barrel-aged stouts and barley wines, which is another kind of beer, as well as its IPAs and Belgian ales. Odd Man Rush Brewing is a small neighborhood craft brewery in nearby Eagle River whose brews range from IPAs to darker porters and stouts.
Anchorage Distillery uses glacial water and Alaska grain to create its spirits — Aurora Gin, various flavored vodkas and whiskey — and there is a dazzling array of beautiful cocktail recipes by spirit. One look at their cocktail recipes might be enough to get you on a plane to Anchorage.
If you prefer going to bars and ordering what the locals do, one popular drink that originated in Alaska is called a “duck fart”, which tastes more delicious than it sounds (it’s a layered shot with Kahlua, Bailey’s and whiskey). At Darwin’s Theory, ask for the "Red Hot Shot," a cinnamon schnapps concoction. When ski season is up and running, make your way to the 4-star Alyeska Resort and ask for the “Fizz”; this signature winter cocktail is not on the menu and the ingredients are secret. It’s just one more only-in-Anchorage experience you could be having this winter.