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As one of the last major bastions of human civilization this far north, Fairbanks, Alaska’s second-largest city, has a powerful whiff of the pioneer spirit that once sent fortune-hunters to Alaska looking for gold and adventure, as well as a friendly, small-town vibe.

The town is built around the snaking loops of the Chena River, under the vast skies of the Alaskan wilderness, north-east of mighty Denali.

In the height of summer, you’ll have more than 20 hours of daylight to enjoy the craft breweries, intriguing museums, and quirky food trucks in the compact, pretty center.

Here are a few of the highlights to experience when in downtown Fairbanks.

Sample Local Spirits at Fairbanks Distilling Company

Shots of vodka


Back in the fevered days of the Fairbanks gold rush, Alaska had plenty of homemade hooch going around, none of which had a particularly favorable reputation. At the tail end of the 19th century, prospectors were still arriving in droves hoping to strike it rich.

As one might imagine of frontier towns, the atmosphere here was a little rough around the edges and the local firewater was not much to write home about.

Thankfully, all that has changed and locals in the current, more sedate iteration of Fairbanks can enjoy top-shelf spirits made right here. The best-seller at Fairbanks Distilling Company is their 68 Below Alaskan Potato Vodka, so named for the notoriously frigid winter temperatures this far north.

The distillery uses exclusively Alaskan Yukon gold potatoes and Alaskan spring water for a smooth, clean spirit that blends perfectly into all sorts of cocktails.

Another award-willing favorite is E.T. Barnette’s Naval Strength Rum, made with locally sourced birch syrup.

While the spirits themselves are a major draw here, the distillery itself is fascinating in its own right. Since 2012, Fairbanks Distilling Company has resided right in the historic Old City Hall building, which dates back to 1935. It was founded by Patrick Levy, an Alaskan local in 1979.

Be sure to book in advance for a tour of the facility, as well as a tasting. Afterward, settle in at the bar for a craft tipple like the Thai Ice Tea, made with the distillery’s own vodka infused with tea by a Fairbanks supplier.

Admire the Sculptures in the Fairbanks Ice Museum

Inside the Fairbanks Ice Museum

Fairbanks Ice Museum Photo by Amy Meredith on Flickr, licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

As one of the northernmost points of human civilization on the planet, Fairbanks has a deserved reputation for punishingly low temperatures. For the duration of the winter months, blizzards are a common occurrence and virtually every single day sees flurries at the very least.

With so little sunlight in December and January, an average blanket of around 10 inches covers the city at all times.

With all that frozen water going around, it only makes sense that locals would get creative with it. Much like Harbin and Banff, creatives in Fairbanks have leaned into their climate with elaborate ice sculptures.

Guided tours are available every hour, but aren’t really necessary to appreciate the exhibits. The museum is only open in the summer months from May to September, but bring a jacket since temperatures here are purposefully kept low.

Snuggle Up With a Good Book at a Local Coffee Roastery

Cup of coffee


Opened back in 1994, the Alaska Coffee Roasting Company, known to locals simply as ACRC, was at the cutting edge of the third-wave coffee movement. For founder Michael Gesser, the roastery was very much a passion project.

Gesser lived in Kenya for almost a decade and has built up personal relationships with small-scale, sustainable, ethical coffee bean farmers and foragers. All of these meticulously sourced beans are then roasted and ground in-house daily for superbly smooth cups of joe.

In addition to cold brews and espresso drinks, the main branch of Alaska Coffee Roasting Company bakes pastries like caramel walnut rolls and apple spice muffins daily.

There’s an array of frittatas, breakfast burritos, and other hearty breakfast options, as well as wood-fired pizzas in the afternoon.

Visit the Fairbanks Children’s Museum

Travelers with youngsters in tow will want to check out the Fairbanks Children’s Museum, which features an array of interactive exhibits and play areas suitable for kids.

Options range from the Tree Canopy Climber—essentially a giant wooden jungle gym—to the Imagineering Lab, an all-purpose crafting corner with tons of materials for kids to get creative with.

Parents looking to get some time for themselves may want to look into the class schedule, which includes everything from a culinary intro to chemistry to artist studios. Even if an organized activity is not in the cards, the museum provides a welcome diversion for an hour or two.

Have a Beer at HooDoo Brewing Company

View inside the HooDoo Brewing Company

HooDoo Brewing Company Photo by Bernt Rostad on Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Craft beer aficionados and casual enthusiasts alike should swing by this welcoming Alaskan brewery and beer garden.

Founder Bobby Wilken was born in Fairbanks, but journeyed across the Atlantic to Munich to study brewing. After touring European brewing from the Czech Republic to Belgium, he spent a few years honing his craft at Alaska Brewing Company before opening up this spot in his hometown.

The draft menu at the taproom tends to reflect Wilken’s time in Germany, with a heavy emphasis on classic German styles like weissbier, helles, and kölsch. More popular American styles, such as hazy IPAs and heady bourbon barrel-aged imperial stouts also make regular appearances.

HooDoo Brewing Company food truck

HooDoo Brewing Company food truck Photo by Bernt Rostad on Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Food trucks such as Gold Digger Dogs, which serves locally raised meats, and Mein Diner, which serves hearty German and Swiss Alpine dishes, gather by the beer garden when the weather cooperates.

Learn About History at the Fairbanks Community Museum

Both Alaska as a whole and Fairbanks as a city have a rich, fascinating history. Dive in at this approachably sized museum, which explores everything from the Yukon Quest, a grueling 1,000-mile dog sled race, and the Iditarod race to the Klondike gold rush era.

Although it’s not especially large, the museum is definitely worth a stop. Children are likely to enjoy the small-scale cinema showing features on the northern lights and the history of dog sled racing that Alaska is known for.

Pay a Visit to Golden Heart Plaza

Statue in Golden Heart Plaza

Golden Heart Plaza

No visit to Fairbanks would be complete without at least a stop at the Golden Heart Plaza, a sort of de facto central gathering place right in the heart of the city. Its placement is both locationally convenient and historically significant.

This is the spot where, in 1901, Elbridge Truman Barnette established a trading post that became the nerve center of the gold rush in the area.

E.T. Barnette, as he is generally known, was something of a larger-than-life Alaskan figure. With his oversized handlebar mustache and a personality to match, he was at times a banker, a con artist, and a Yukon riverboat captain.

Completed in 1987, this town square is the nexus of a series of six public parks mostly situated along the banks of the Chena River. The whole system encompasses nearly 100 acres of community green space, making Fairbanks a surprisingly verdant destination during the summer months.

View of Golden Heart Plaza from the water with clock tower

Golden Heart Plaza

The Golden Heart Plaza itself centers on two major public monuments. The first is a 33-foot-tall Carillon clock tower that marks the passage of time with Westminster chimes.

The second is a statue of the Unknown First Family, a bronze work by Malcolm Alexander. The latter stands 18 feet high and incorporates a fountain.

Aerial view of Golden Heart Plaza

Golden Heart Plaza

Throughout the year, the Golden Heart Plaza changes to reflect the seasons. During the summer months, the plaza hosts public concerts and is brightened with an abundance of flowers.

When winter rolls around, the festive season lights come out and locals gather to watch events like the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.

Read: Where to Go Dog Sledding in Alaska

Dine on Local Seafood in a Historic Location

Plate of Crab legs

King crab legs

If you eat at one place in downtown Fairbanks, it would be hard to think of a better—or certainly, more distinctive—choice than the Pump House Restaurant.

As the name implies, this eatery was once a water pumping station built during the Great Depression. For years, it extracted water from the Chena River, which was then sent to gold dredgers in a neighboring town.

View outside the Pump House Restaurant

Pump House Restaurant Photo by Durkeeco on Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

In 1978, it was reborn as a drinking and dining destination that channeled the grandest days of the Klondike Gold Rush.

From the solid mahogany bar to the original Brunswick “Union League” pool table, many of the furnishings here are museum-worthy antiques in their own right. Take some time to wander around the space, before settling down with a drink on the riverside terrace.

Freshly caught wild seafood is the star of the menu here, with dishes including grilled wild salmon with an Alaskan birch syrup-blackberry glaze, and a full pound of king crab legs.

The fish and chips, made with Alaskan halibut beer-battered in locally brewed Alaskan Amber, is a highlight. The Pump House Restaurant also bears the unusual distinction of having what they claim is the world’s northernmost oyster bar.

Read: The Ultimate Alaska Food Guide

Stroll Along the Chena Riverwalk

View from Chena River

Chena River

The Chena River, which winds its way deep into Alaska’s wilderness, has long been a favored site for hikers on an Alaskan adventure armed with ample camping gear and sturdy canoes.

Those with a little less time on their hands, however, will want to check out the portion of the river that goes through Fairbanks itself.

The Chena Riverwalk, a three-and-a-half mile paved trail connected with public parks, is one of the best ways to spend a couple of hours in downtown Fairbanks. During July and August, blooming flowers line nearly the entire length of the walk.

Chena Riverwalk in Downtown Fairbanks

Chena Riverwalk

If you continue along the length of the riverwalk, it will take you to public sites including Golden Heart Plaza, Pioneer Park, and Airport Way.

Along the way, you’ll pass noteworthy spots such as The Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center, which features a massive arch decorated with more than 100 sets of caribou and moose antlers, and a public art installation on the Rabinowitz Courthouse that mimics the aurora borealis.

Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth

Opened by two sisters way back in 1987 out of the back of a trailer, Bun on the Run is a local institution.

Today, it’s one of the longest-running food trucks in town and has a fiercely loyal clientele, thanks to its rib-sticking sandwiches and baked goods, all of which are made from scratch.

It’s hard to order wrong here, but the buttermilk cinnamon buns slathered with cream cheese frosting are a must.

Aerial view of Downtown Fairbanks


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Free Vacation Planning Services