Two of the most popular tourist destinations in Alaska are the first and third-largest cities, Anchorage and Juneau (respectively).
If you’ve just begun to plan a trip to Alaska, you may wonder which travel destination would be better. The largest city or the capital?
I should begin by admitting that I have lived in Juneau for almost my entire life. I’ve been to Anchorage over a dozen times, but I very likely have a subconscious bias toward Juneau. I’ll try to put that aside and be as objective as I can.
It should be noted that residents of both cities are primarily neutral towards the other. We accept that the other place is different, and we generally prefer our hometowns, but there is only one major issue that causes some people to dislike the other city.
Juneau is Alaska’s capital city, even though it’s smaller and not on the road system. There has been a push every couple of years to move the capital to Anchorage or somewhere in the interior.
Both sides get passionate, but other than that, most people from one city don’t hate the other one because of where the star goes on the state map.
First, let’s talk about each city for a little bit, since a little bit of background would very likely be a good idea for people who have never been to either city.
Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city and, as of the 2020 Census, has a population of roughly 291,000 people. It is the 64th most populous city in the United States.
It has many fast food restaurants, several shopping malls, an IMAX theatre, and many other conveniences and attractions you’d expect to find in a modern big city.
Anchorage is also connected with Alaska’s main road system, making it possible to drive to nearly every other city in the interior. Some, like Nome, are only accessible by dog sled or by plane.
Juneau is Alaska’s third-largest city (Fairbanks is number two) and has a population of approximately 32,000.
It has McDonald’s, Subway, and no other non-pizza fast food restaurants. There are very few chain stores in Juneau, as supply chain issues have plagued national businesses here for years.
Wendy’s, Burger King, Walmart, Taco Bell, and many other major corporations have come and gone through Juneau, opening to much fanfare and then later closing after shipping costs became too high or other issues.
The Argument for Anchorage
Proponents of Anchorage’s superiority would argue that the connection to the road system allows for greater freedom. It also makes it easier to get a quick meal if you know you want KFC, Carl’s Jr., or Wendy’s and don’t want to risk a local restaurant.
They would also suggest that Juneau is too small of a city and Anchorage, therefore, has more activities and entertainment options.
Further, summer visitors can enjoy “The Land of the Midnight Sun,” the name given to the days around the Summer Solstice, where the sun simply does not set over Anchorage. Seeing the sun at 1 AM is not something that you can see just anywhere.
Anchorage also sees less rain than Juneau, due to the latter’s position in the heart of the Tongass National Forest, the largest rainforest in North America.
The Argument for Juneau
Juneau Enthusiasts, on the other hand, will tell you that Anchorage is too big of a city. Although the crime rates per capita are similar, Anchorage had 32 murders last year, while Juneau had only one.
Juneau also has a unique geographical layout, where it is surrounded entirely by mountains and water.
Juneau allows for more water-based activities, including the ability to sail on a boat (either through the state’s ferry system or a private company’s) to nearby towns.
It also has better hunting opportunities, as finding a place away from people that has sufficient targets is much more difficult than in Juneau, where there are several locations much closer.
The answer is strictly in the eye of the beholder here. Each city has its advantages and disadvantages, but the choice is strictly up to you.
Here is a quick guide as to which city you should pick, based on your travel plans, wants, and needs:
If you like larger cities, fast food, the ability to drive to other towns, and the idea of enjoying The Midnight Sun, I would recommend Anchorage as your travel destination.
If you prefer a slightly lower murder rate, closer mountains that are easier to climb, water activities, or hunting, Juneau is your best bet.
The Argument for Visiting Both
Of course, the above only applies if you absolutely have to choose one or the other. If it fits into your budget, both monetary and time-wise, I highly recommend spending time in both cities.
This is especially important if you’re interested in Native Alaskan culture. Juneau is primarily represented by the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian tribes.
Anchorage, on the other hand, is primarily Athabascan, Aleut, and Alutiiq. There are 33 recognized Native Alaskan tribes, all with a unique history and culture from the rest.
Many cruise ships use a route that starts in Seattle, goes through Southeast Alaska, and then finishes up in Anchorage.
This is a great idea if you only want to spend a few hours in each place. If you’re not interested in a cruise, Alaska Airlines flies to both destinations.
You could spend a day or two in each place, allowing you to get the best parts of both.
Imagine flying from Seattle to Juneau early on Tuesday morning. You could rent a car, see the Mendenhall Glacier, take a three-hour boat tour (not to Gilligan’s Island, fortunately!), then go downtown and see the historic Red Dog Saloon.
After visiting the museums downtown, you could compete in Wednesday night bar trivia at The Imperial on Front Street, then fly to Anchorage the next morning.
Thursday afternoon, you could be eating at the Carl’s Jr. on Northern Lights Boulevard, on your way to see an IMAX movie at Tikahtnu Commons up on Muldoon.
On Friday, you could walk on one of Anchorage’s historic trails and enjoy some nature before heading to Ted Stevens International Airport and flying back to Seattle on your way back home.
I hope this guide has helped you decide whether to fly to Anchorage or Juneau (although I still recommend both).
If you want to do a bit more research, be sure to check out my one-day itinerary for Juneau to get an idea of what we have to offer!