In many ways, Sitka is the quintessential Alaskan destination. Scenery, wildlife, and the small-town atmosphere that visitors crave are all here in spades. And there aren't hordes of tourists that can sometimes mar visits to other main port communities in Alaska. Sitka continues to keep an arm's length away from the cruise industry, offering a small dock for the big ships to ferry in their passengers, but not building the mammoth docks that allow Ketchikan and Juneau to berth three, four, or five of the big ships at once.
As a result, Sitka gets a fraction of the number of ship visits that the other towns do. There are some "summer" businesses in downtown Sitka, but the downtown remains a working, year-round community, much like Sitka itself, making it the perfect place to experience the "real" Alaska in an unhurried fashion.
Sitka is also the "capital" of European Alaskan history. It still proudly wears its Russian colonial history, when it was most sophisticated community north of San Francisco and was dubbed the "Paris of the North" by some visitors in the early 1800s.
Things aren't quite that hoity-toity these days, but Sitka does keeps its history alive through Russian dance programs and the annual in-costume Alaska Day transfer commemoration ceremony on the site of the Russian castle that once signaled the Tsar's "Alaskan adventure."
That transfer happened a year after the purchase in 1867; political intrigue in Congress delayed things. You may have heard all about "Seward's Icebox" and "Seward's Folly," which pretty much summed up the general American attitude toward Sec. of State William Henry Seward's decision to purchase Alaska. It wasn't until the various gold rushes of the 1880s and 1890s that most Americans began to see the wisdom of purchasing the territory for $7.2 million, a little more than 2¢ an acre.
The Russians had been in Sitka for 68 years when they decided to sell and go home. They had moved there in the 1790s, when the Russian American Company had generally depleted the sea otter stocks in northern Alaska and were looking to expand to the south. There was even interest in moving farther down the coast, into the disputed Pacific Northwest area in which neither Spain nor England had established a secure foothold. Russia even had some territorial designs on the Hawaiian Islands, and it was clear the capital of Russian America needed to be closer to the action.
As a result, Alexander Baranof began scouting better locations farther south than Kodiak. He settled on the area around what is now Sitka, an area protecting the potential harbors with a series of small islands, but providing for easy access to the ocean.
Unfortunately, the area was not uninhabited. The powerful tribe of Tlingit Indians lead by Chief Katlian were not interested in giving up their territory. Baranof initially built his small settlement -- named Redoubt St. Michael -- about 7 1/2 miles north of present-day Sitka. When Baranof and most of his soldiers went back north to Kodiak 3 years later, the Tlingits overran Redoubt St. Michael, killing nearly all of its approximately 150 male residents and taking more than 100 women and children as slaves. Many were later ransomed.
Baranof returned in 1804 and returned the favor, overrunning Katlian's settlement just south of what is now downtown Sitka. The Russians then built New Archangel and made it the capital of Russian America. The Russians would remain in Sitka for the next 63 years, but it was an uneasy peace, at best, with the Native community.
Downtown Sitka retains the general shape of the Russian community, with a replica stockade building still overlooking the area where the Natives built their houses, along what is now Katlian Street. There is an old Russian Orthodox Cemetery in the woods above town.
Baranof's "castle" burned down in 1894, but the hill where it sat and where Alaska was officially transferred to the United States remains the focal point of downtown. Several other buildings from the 1830s remain, and the Russian Orthodox Church is still the town's most recognizable building, although the church is just under half a century old, replacing the original 1848 church that burned in 1966.
Besides the numerous small islands that dot Sitka Sound, the town is ringed by a variety of spectacular mountains, most notably the Mount Fuji of Alaska, Mt. Edgecombe, a dormant volcano that rises on an island just to the northwest of Sitka.
Wildlife viewing is also a major draw for the area, with seabird colonies, killer whales, seals, and sea lions all within a short boat excursion from town. Most notably, Sitka hosts large numbers of humpback and other whales from the early spring into the late fall. Whale sightings are not guaranteed, but they are frequent enough that refunds are often given by the tour boat operators.
Despite its numerous charms, Sitka remains just slightly off the tourism path. You will see visitors there in the summer, but you won't be overwhelmed by them. And you will see a bustling Southeastern Alaskan port community that has more history than nearly all the rest of the towns in the state combined.