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Downtown Anchorage

Start & Finish: 4th Avenue and F Street.

Time: 2 hours (use the shortcuts noted for a briefer tour).

Start at the Log Cabin Visitor Information Center at 4th Avenue and F Street. Outside is a sign that shows the distance to various cities and a 5,114-pound jade boulder put on display by Stewart's Photo Shop, an Anchorage institution that is just across the street.

Walk east, toward the mountains, to:

1. Old City Hall (1936)

The building is on the right of 4th Avenue as you approach E Street. The lobby contains a fun and illuminating free display on city history, including dioramas of the early streetscape, old photographs, and the fire bell and fire pole that once were used in this building.

Crossing E Street, notice on the left side of 4th Avenue that all the buildings are modern -- everything on that side from E Street east for several blocks collapsed in the 1964 earthquake. The street split in half, lengthwise, with the left side ending up a dozen feet lower than the right. That land was later reinforced with a gravel buttress by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the slope below forever set aside as open space because of the earthquake risk. This stretch of 4th Avenue is where the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous World Championship Sled Dog Race start each year in March and February, respectively.

Continue walking east. At 4th Avenue and D Street is the:

2. Wendler Building (1915)

The Club 25 is among the oldest buildings in Anchorage. The bronze statue of the dog commemorates the sled-dog races that start here. Across D Street is a mural that depicts a map of coastal Alaska and British Columbia, with the Iditarod Trail faintly marked.

Cross 4th Avenue to the north side to see:

3. 4th Avenue Market Place

On the north side of 4th, a shopping center was converted into a Native arts and crafts mall and entertainment center, bringing together Alaska Native businesses in the heart of downtown. The Two Spirits Gallery presents carvers and artists working on-site every day. In recent years, other Native craftsmen have sold their creations on the covered sidewalk outside. Interesting graphics about the 1964 earthquake and other historic topics are posted in the eastern end of the building, and there's an exhibit of art by the late Fred Machetanz, known for mastering Arctic winter light. The new Alaska Veterans Museum recently opened on the site. If you want to take the time, the Alaska Experience Theater is housed here, too: It presents large-format films on Alaska scenery and the aurora, and has an interactive earthquake exhibit. Admission for the films is $10, for the interactive exhibit $6. Call tel. 907/272-9076 for showtimes.

The Rusty Harpoon is a good craft and gift shop in the yellow building next door.

Cross back to the south side of 4th and retrace your steps to D Street, taking it south 1 block and crossing 5th Avenue to enter:

4. The 5th Avenue Mall

This grand, four-story shopping center is Alaska's fanciest mall, with Nordstrom and JCPenney as its anchor stores. A large, airy food court is on the top floor. Take a look, or walk straight through to the doors on the opposite side. (Just a block east are the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center and the Alaska State Troopers Museum, described below.)

Traverse the mall lengthwise to the doors past Sullivan's, exiting onto C Street. Turn right and walk a half-block to the corner, and cross both C and 6th Avenue to:

5. The Anchorage Museum Common

You'll be staring at "Habitat," a 24-foot-tall steel statue of a squatting human form, the first large permanent installation in North America by famed British sculptor Antony Gormley. It anchors a full city block transformed from a police station and jail into a gracious outdoor space of flowers, trees, and lawn when the Anchorage Museum was expanded. The mirrored facade of the museum itself reflects the city skyline. The bus stop next to "Habitat" won architectural awards for its simulation of caribou in migration.

Return back along 6th Avenue, following the 5th Avenue Mall for 2 blocks, and cross E Street to:

6. Town Square

Another full block of open space in the downtown, this park showcases cement terraces and water features. In the winter, skating and ice sculptures are found here. In the summer, it calls to skateboarders and sometimes musicians. On the east side of the square, behind you, the huge whale mural was painted freehand by Wyland in 1994. He painted similar whale murals in cities all along the West Coast. The building on the northeast corner of the square is one of the city's oldest and was saved from demolition when the park was created; it contains a charming gift and candy shop with a bakery and coffee shop in the back.

On the west side of the square is the massive, highly decorated, dominating:

7. Alaska Center for the Performing Arts

The center was completed in 1988 amid controversy about its design, among other things -- it's either clever and bold or garish and busy. You decide. The lobby is usually open, and whatever your opinion of the decor, a look inside will spark a discussion. Alaskans have gotten used to it and now think of the building mostly as a focal point of our cultural life. The location is the former site Anchorage High School and was previously occupied by two earlier performance venues. The first burned down in the 1950s. Parts of the second, named after painter Sydney Laurence, were incorporated into the new facility. Some say Laurence's ghost still haunts the place. Check the box office for current performances in the three theaters and rehearsal hall, Alaska's premier performance venues.

8. Humpy's 

From the performing arts center, cross 6th Avenue at the F Street light and turn right (west) to Humpy's (tel. 907/276-2337; www.humpys.com), a popular tavern on the south side of 6th with a huge selection of microbrews, live music, and good casual meals.

The square green office building next door to Humpy's is:

9. City Hall

Turn left through the pedestrian walkway between Humpy's and City Hall. A large mural showing a timeline of the history of Anchorage faces the parking lot. A more fanciful mural, by Duke Russell, is on the wall in Humpy's outdoor seating area on the near side of the parking lot.

Cross the parking lot to 7th, where you face:

10. The Dena'ina Civic & Convention Center

The center's name honors the indigenous people of the area, as the Alaska Federation of Natives acknowledged to huge applause at the first meeting ever held here, in the fall of 2008. The airy lobby facing 7th and the corridors on either side contain several spectacular pieces of public art, and the views from the top-floor windows and the deck on the southeast corner are well worth a ride up the escalator.

Cross 7th and G to the opposite corner to find:

11. McGinley's

Though you've walked only half a block from the last tavern, the Irish pub at the corner of 7th and G Street, McGinley's (tel. 907/279-1782), provides an excellent excuse for another pint, if only because of the identity of its owner: Anchorage's mayor, Dan Sullivan, elected in 2009, whose father, George Sullivan, was also mayor, from 1967 to 1981.

From 7th and G, walk north past McGinley's, cross 6th Avenue, and proceed north to 5th Avenue. In the plaza on the southeast corner of 5th and G, note an enormous, 3-ton model of the sun, at the start of:

12. The Anchorage Lightspeed Planet Walk

The sun you see here is just the beginning of a scale model of the solar system in which you walk at the speed of light. The inner planets are along 5th Avenue toward the water, where you will be going in a moment. Earth is about 8 minutes' walk away, at 5th and K (it takes light 8 min. to get from the sun to Earth). The walk continues down the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail and all the way to Pluto, in the parking lot at Kincaid Park, 5 1/2 hours away, although you can go warp speed on a bike. High school student Eli Menaker designed the walk, which the Anchorage Rotary Club completed in 2005. Since then, the scale-model planets and their informative signs have been little molested by vandals, although several are off in the coastal trails' quiet woodlands. This first site, in the plaza, also has an interactive video kiosk. Learn more about the project at www.anchorageplanetwalk.org.

Before following more of the planet walk, take a detour 1 block farther on G Street, between 5th and 4th avenues, where you'll find some of the downtown's best:

13. Offbeat businesses

First comes Aurora Fine Arts, an attractively cluttered arts and crafts shop with plenty to see. Next are: Darwin's Theory, a friendly, old-fashioned bar with character that shows up in an Indigo Girls song ("Cut It Out" from the 1997 album Shaming of the Sun); Suzi's Woollies (www.suziswoollies.net), a Celtic shop carrying imported sweaters, jewelry, and scarves, and with live Irish music most Saturday afternoons and the first Friday of the month; and Side Street Espresso, where you can get into a lively discussion on art or politics and make contact with thinking people -- or at least with individuals firmly convinced of their opinions.

Shortcut: You can cut an hour off the tour here by continuing north on G Street to 4th, then turning right and walking 1 block to the starting point at F Street.

Backtrack to 5th and G, then proceed west (away from the mountains) on 5th. Crossing H Street, you'll see the:

14. Holy Family Cathedral

This concrete Art Deco church is the seat of the Roman Catholic archbishop. The interior is unremarkable, but there's some historical interest, in that both Pope John Paul II and Thomas Merton prayed here. An outdoor meditation area with benches and statuary is west of the building.

Keep going toward the water, crossing L Street and going down the hill to:

15. Elderberry Park

Besides good playground equipment, the park offers the easiest access point to the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. The trail tunnels under the Alaska Railroad tracks from the bottom of the park, where you can see the muddy shores of Cook Inlet up close, and perhaps spy some waterfowl.

Now hike back up the hill to L Street and turn left. At 3rd Avenue is:

16. Resolution Park

The bronze Captain Cook Monument stands on a large wooden deck, but he's gazing out on Cook Inlet, which he explored in 1778 aboard HMS Resolution. Cook didn't personally come as far as the future site of Anchorage, instead sending a boat with his ship's master, William Bligh (later Capt. Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame). Failing to find a shortcut to the Northwest Passage here, Cook considered his 2 weeks in the inlet a waste of time, grousing in his journal, "Nothing but a trifling point in geography has been determined," and left it unnamed. Ironically, the British Admiralty chose this body of water to honor Cook after he died in Hawaii months later, naming it Cook Inlet. The park's informative signs, powerful mounted binoculars, and commanding vantage point make this a rewarding stop for gazing out at the water and the mountains beyond. The waters you see are ferocious, with whirlpool currents and a tidal range of almost 40 vertical feet. The shore across the inlet, about 2 miles away, is virtually uninhabited.

Follow 3rd Avenue east (back toward the mountains) 1 block and turn right on K Street. On the right is:

17. The Last Blue Whale

Joseph Princiotti's huge 1973 bronze of combat between a whale and whalers in small boats shows the whale's point of view.

Cross K Street to walk through the:

18. Courthouse Plaza

The plaza frames the Nesbett State Courthouse; the sinuous shapes of the plaza's concrete walkways are supposed to suggest both the flow of people through the court system and a braided glacial river. The metal "Grizzly Bear and Cub," by Homer sculptor Mike Sirl, was installed in 2004; local and state law requires projects to construct public buildings to set aside 1% of their budget for art, and this work is one result.

Cross the plaza to 4th Avenue, cross I Street, and take a look at the two:

19. Totem poles

Carved of red cedar by Lee Wallace, of Ketchikan, and erected in 1997, they represent the eagle and raven moieties of the Tlingits people, intended to symbolize the balance of justice. A Tlingits creation story tells of how raven stole the moon and stars and brought them to mankind; in the raven pole here, the moon and stars are the stars of the Alaska flag. The eagle is shown trapped by a giant clam, another Tlingits legend, a warning that those who break the law will lose their freedom.

Walk around past the courthouse on 4th Avenue and turn left onto H Street. Follow H as it crosses 3rd Avenue and becomes Christensen Drive. Descend the hill on Christensen and turn right on 2nd Avenue, toward the mountains. Look around at the:

20. Historic houses

The old wooden houses along 2nd are mostly attorneys' offices now, but once this was one of the better residential areas in town. Several houses are marked, and a kiosk at 2nd and F relates some town history. If you imagine houses like this over much of downtown, you'll know what Anchorage looked like before oil.

Continue east on 2nd Avenue to E Street, where you will find:

21. Ship Creek Overlook

The bust commemorates Alaska's 1959 admission to the Union (in fact, Eisenhower resisted statehood for Alaska until it could be ensured for Hawaii as well). More interesting than the statue is the overlook. You can see the Alaska Railroad yards from here, and part of the port of Anchorage and the neighborhood of Government Hill across the Ship Creek river bottom. This is where the tent city of Knik Anchorage, later shortened to Anchorage, was set up in 1914.

Walk up the hill on E Street to 3rd Avenue. The extensively landscaped parking lot on the left becomes the:

22. Anchorage Market & Festival

This street fair, held every weekend from mid-May to mid-September, draws hundreds of vendors and thousands of shoppers. You can buy everything from local vegetables to handmade crafts to tourist junk. There are food booths and music, too.

Turn right on 3rd Avenue, then left on F Street. F Street Station, on the left, is a fun bar with an after-work crowd. Proceed to 4th Avenue, and you're back at the Log Cabin Visitor Information Center, but don't stop. Turn right on 4th Avenue. On the right side is the:

23. Old Federal Building

This grand, white, Depression-era structure now contains the Alaska Public Lands Information Center, with interesting displays and lots of information about the outdoors. Don't let the security checkpoint deter you -- go in and look around. At the celebration for Alaska's admission to the union in 1959, a huge 48-star flag covered the front of the building. While Anchorage watched, the Fur Rendezvous queen climbed a fire truck ladder to pin on the 49th star for Alaska. Hawaii became the 50th state later that year.

Across the street is Anchorage's most attractive historic building, the:

24. 4th Avenue Theater (1947)

The theater was built by Austin "Cap" Lathrop, Alaska's first business magnate, who created it as a monument to the territory and the permanence of its new society, an old-fashioned movie palace with the bas-relief murals and a blinking Big Dipper on the ceiling. It flourished for decades but began losing money when one-screen downtown movie theaters became obsolete in the 1980s. Saved from destruction in 1991 and made a tourist attraction by a local businessman with a sentimental attachment to the building, the theater again closed its doors in 2006 and now faces an uncertain future.


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