Exploring Fairbanks: 3 days of museums, food, & history

Exploring Fairbanks: 3 days of museums, food, & history

by Jan 9, 2024Alaska

Alaska Highway Sign Fairbanks

Fairbanks is more than an overnight stop before you board the Alaska Railroad or a bus for a cruise tour, jump in a bush plane, or head to Denali. Fairbanks has a lot going on, from the gold rush town’s history, world class museums, and a plethora of Thai food.

Break-up. No, not romantically. That’s what Alaskans call the unofficial start of spring, when the frozen river melts and the ice breaks into huge chunks floating down the river. So-called “green-up” happens at the same time as leaves race to pop out, seemingly overnight. Alaskans revel in this time of year — and we did too since warmer temps and longer days allow you to get outside more comfortably. Perfect for exploring Fairbanks history and city cultural sights. For me, wintery temps of -25 degrees Fahrenheit, or colder, are not on my dance card.

Fairbanks in May already means light much of the day (quite confusing to those of us from lower latitudes) and T-shirt weather much of the time. Making it so much more than a stopover on your way to Denali, the Dalton Highway, the Arctic Refuge, or onto the Alaska Railroad. A gold-mining town founded in 1902, Fairbanks offers plenty of history to explore before heading off into Alaska’s outdoors. No, that doesn’t just mean the somewhat kitschy town/gift shop of North Pole. Which isn’t even at the North Pole.

You really don’t want to spend any less than two days in Fairbanks. So, whether heading off on a bus tour to a cruise ship or into the Alaskan wilderness for your own adventures, use your time in Fairbanks to acclimatize and to educate yourself about its history and culture.

Greetings From Fairbanks Mural

Below, I’ve laid out a few highlights, both indoors and outdoors, that could fill two to three days. Pick and choose or mix and match, depending on your time in historic Fairbanks. We like slow travel so we allowed time to explore. You however may want to pack a single day more solidly. Your choice how to experience Fairbanks!

Getting started exploring Fairbanks history and nature – Day 1

If you are staying in town, start slowly your first morning and take the time to wander the main streets of the historic downtown. Don’t worry, it won’t take you long! You may even find some souvenir moose poop earrings to take home – Yes, that’s a thing, too.

Fairbanks Alaska Craft Market Front Entrance

The Craft Market’s inside is just as cluttered as the outside. Step inside to find your treasure.

Just around the corner from main street, be sure to dip into the Craft Market Gift Shop – and get ready for so much more than your normal gift shop or crafts store. At the corner of 5th Avenue and Noble Street, this place is an eye-opening, rather dusty, jam-packed collection of about anything you might want, from jewelry-making supplies to gems and rocks, to traditional souvenirs, to hardware, postcards (some of which have been there for years) and gifts imported from Russia (because we all know you can see Russia from Alaska – kidding, of course). This little shop has short, rather odd hours so if you miss it now, drop in later or another day. We expect you will find something to buy.

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Morris Thompson Center And Gould Cabin Fairbanks

The historic Gould Cabin sits on the property with the Morris Thompson center — right where it’s been for more than a century.

Make your first stop to explore Fairbanks history the Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitors Center, an easy walk from the sleepy main street of town. Take the path along the Chena River for a great introduction to town. You’ll want an hour or so at the center to explore its history and cultural exhibits. This is where you can also pick up visitor information and get connected for tours or other outings.

HITT Tip: If you didn’t do so before you left, now’s the time to book a three-hour river tour on the Discovery paddlewheel for your second day. A three-hour tour … but no Gilligan won’t be there. Choose morning or afternoon. We suggest afternoon to let the sun move higher. Read below for more on the Riverboat Discovery tour.

Fairbanks Antler Arch

Yup, you gotta do it, everybody does so we did, too. The pose with the Moose Antler Arch in Fairbanks with the Chena River and the path behind you.

Now that you’ve found out more about the area and perhaps planned a tour, step outside to do the prerequisite photo opp under the Moose Antler Arch. Fairbanks calls it the “World’s Farthest North Antler Arch.” Not much of a battle for that title, though, I think. The arch was constructed in 2010 with more than 100 donated antlers intertwined for a rather eye-catching arch along the Chena River. In fact, it was conceived to highlight the recreational paths along the river. So answer the call, grab your Fairbanks selfie moment, and then enjoy all the paths along the river, too – since it is all greening up!

While you’re at it, take a stroll by the historic Gould Cabin on the Morris Thompson center property. At more than 110 years old and on the National Register of Historic Places, this log cabin was built right where it stands today. Tours are available.

Fairbanks Lend Lease Monument

On your gander back, get a look at the Lend-Lease Monument. This is a ginormous statue said to be the only public monument to the plan that was supposed to keep the United States neutral in WWII while still allowing it to give Britain needed aid and arms. Farther down, wander past a sign designating the UNOFFICIAL end of the Alaska Highway. Yeah, not sure who came up with an unofficial sign here when the OFFICIAL end is in Dalton, 95 miles southeast of historic Fairbanks. Still, another fun somewhat quirky Fairbanks photo opp. Which of course I couldn’t turn down, as you can see in the feature photo.

HUNGRY? Since you’ve stretched out your legs a bit, perhaps you need a bite to eat? Guess what, there are more than 20 Thai restaurants in the Fairbanks area. We can highly recommend Lemongrass Thai. Although a rather mundane looking façade in a mundane-looking strip mall, the food is utterly fresh and so tasty, with some dishes also focusing on Alaskan fare.

Fairbanks Lemongrass Thai Restaurant

Think your evening is over? Think again. Even in May sunset isn’t until 10:30 p.m. and as late as midnight by the end of the month, so, yes, you have time to head over to Creamer’s Field Migratory Fowl Refuge. In late May we were strolling around in beautiful golden sunset light after 10 p.m., photographing birds or just sitting and enjoying the peace. Creamer’s was once an active dairy farm, with the historic buildings and barns still a main focus. Waterfowl have been migrating through this area since about 1910. Find maps, guides, and event information at the Friends of Creamer’s Field website.

Creamers Field Waterfowl Refuge Fairbanks

Michael makes himself comfortable to photograph migrating waterfowl at Creamer’s field — in golden hour light after 10 p.m. in Fairbanks. Whether you hike or photography, the trails and fields will keep you occupied.

Find out more about Fairbanks – Day 2

Need GOOD coffee? Head over to McCafferty’s Coffee House. A cozy, comfy little place with a friendly staff, bagels, and great coffee.

Coffee in hand, it’s time to spend your morning in historic Fairbanks again before heading to your afternoon paddlewheel boat tour. Head across the Chena River from downtown on the Cushman Street Bridge – which is a great place for sunset views by the way – to get a look at two things:

Fairbanks Polaris Sculpture

Fairbanks’ Polaris sculpture near the Chena River. The tallest spire points at the North Star.

>> The angular Polaris Sculpture on a patch of grass on a busy Cushman intersection. Heck, some Alaskans we know have driven right past this angular structure not knowing it even existed. Watch out for traffic getting to it! The sculpture with three tall spires was installed in 2014. The tallest spire points directly at the North Star.

>>The historic Immaculate Conception Catholic Parish Church building built in 1904 across the river but was moved in 1911 to this spot overlooking the river across Cushman from Polaris.

Fairbanks Community Museum Upstairs

The funky but interesting Community Museum and Dog Mushing Museum sprawls both along the halls and behind the door.

Back on the town side of river, you’ll also want to find 30-60 minutes to get into the Fairbanks Community Museum. This is another place that is a bit quirky, as so much in Fairbanks can be, but it so worth the effort to visit, especially if you are fascinated with dog sled history. It’s upstairs in an odd downtown shopping mall that used to be city hall – no, you aren’t in the wrong place when you walk in a door, past an Eastern European restaurant and a knife shop. Just head upstairs and cross your fingers that it’s open (usually mid-day for a few hours).

Riverboat Discovery Dock Fairbanks

Now that you’ve seen and read up on Fairbanks history and walked through town and along the river, it’s time to grab a taxi, bus or your own rental car to head out to a three-hour river tour on the Riverboat Discovery, a family-run business heading into its fifth generation. We rode with great-grandson Captain Wade Binkley who has a true passion for the business – as does his entire family, including four cute-as-a-button kids. The information by the live tour guide onboard (not some so-so recording on this boat) is awesome, as are the sights and stops along the way. (An satisfying all-you-can-eat lunch service for an extra fee is convenient for before or after tours.)

Riverboat Discovery Trail Breaker Kennel Sled Dogs

A stop to hear about training at the Trail Breaker Kennel in Fairbanks during the Riverboat Discovery tour also gives you a look at summer training — and the dog’s enthusiasm to run!

On your river excursion, you’ll hear while still on the boat about sled dogs with a training demo on the banks at Susan Butcher’s Trail Breaker Kennel (Susan in 1976 was the first woman to finish the Iditarod sled dog race and won it for the first time in 1986). The kennel is still run by her husband, David Monson; Susan died of cancer in 2006.)

Riverboat Discovery Chena Village Museum

Near the turnaround for the tour, you land at the Chena Village Living Museum for a walking tour and personal exploration of more Fairbanks history. This gets a little Disney-esque since the village is not a real one, but it allows you to easily experience how the Athabascans lived and survived in the wilderness for thousands of years.

Fairbanks Pioneer Park Historic Cabins

Local craftspeople occupy many of the historic cabins at Pioneer Park. This artist’s gigantic dog keeps him company — and attracts people to this shop.

It’ll be late afternoon before you get back into town from your afternoon riverboat tour. You could head to historic Pioneer Park since it’s open into the evening – and with sunset so late (if at all) you have plenty of time. Before heading to Pioneer on our trip, we thought Pioneer Village was a faux amusement-like park but found out it really was a place that both adults and kids could enjoy and learn more about Fairbanks and its history. It was founded in the ‘60s by the Pioneers of Alaska association to showcase the state’s history with museums, crafts, entertainment, and shopping, as well as historical artifacts and historic cabins.

HUNGRY? You may want a light dinner of tapas and wine at The Library Bar & Bites. Non-descript on the outside (this is a bit of a theme in Fairbanks), you will be surprised by the warmth and conviviality inside. Be forewarned: This is a popular place so get there early or make a reservation. We squeezed into two seats at the bar and watched talented mixologists concoct creative drinks, while we waited for small and large plates that knocked our socks off.

Fairbanks The Library Restaurant

Behind this mundane facade is a cozy interior with creative food and wine in Fairbanks!

Visiting world-class Fairbanks museums – Day 3

After you’ve spent time on both sides of the Chena River and exploring so much Fairbanks history and nature, today you’ll jump into your car to head to two museums. Both offer quality you may not have expected in the quaint, sometimes quirky gold rush-era town of Fairbanks. I admit, I did not expect what I found.

Which museum you do first will depend on the time of year you visit since hours vary greatly from summer to spring to winter. So do check websites or give a call before heading out.

Michael Hodgson Therese Iknoian Fairbanks

At the Fountainhead Antique Automobile Museum, you can’t climb in the cars — except this photo app. OH NO!!! Don’t hit the moose!

The Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum surprised me. A lot. Let’s be honest, I am not a big car enthusiast. Sure, I can appreciate a pretty ride and the curves of a vintage automobile, but spending a few hours in a car museum? Not at the top of my list – until we experienced Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum in Fairbanks.

Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum Fairbanks

This place is stunning in part because it takes a big step beyond just being a car museum for automobile enthusiasts. In its 30,000-square-foot hall, there are 82 cars – all pre-WWII and all from the United States – each gleaming car is matched with clothing displayed on a mannequin from the same era. We were told there were another 40 or so cars in storage and plans were to expand. I only had an hour, which was rushed. Plan on two hours minimum – but you may want much more if you are really going to read all the exhibits in this museum that just landed its non-profit status in 2023. Its hours can vary greatly, so plan in advance.

Museum Of The North UA Fairbanks

The design of the Museum of the North museum is as stunning as its exhibits.

Then there is the Museum of the North on the University of Alaska campus. That location alone means you can easily spend more time there because of the greenspace, gardens, and trails to walk. The building itself is an iconic modern structure with curves and sweeping white exterior walls that dominate the landscape. The Museum of the North is a research institution with archives and a lab in the basement – you won’t get down there, but allow a couple of hours to take in the 2.5 million objects (MILLION!) housed in the museum. The large Bonehead Whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling in the lobby (a “covid project,” we were told) will catch your eye. Hours here are generally longer all year round.

Museum Of The North Brown Bear Fairbanks

So much to do, learn and experience in Fairbanks after break-up and during green-up — the season that will allow you to stroll the banks of the Chena River or saunter around Creamer’s Field until late into the “night.” What comes after all that sunshine in Fairbanks? Ice-up. That’s when wintry weather rolls back into Fairbanks, rivers freeze into solid ice, and the sun hardly peeps over the horizon for several months.

But Fairbanks doesn’t shut down once dark winter days roll in. Think Northern Lights swirling overhead. The city’s low precipitation and non-coastal location make for clear nights and great viewing. Maybe there is a Northern Lights adventure waiting for you in Fairbanks, too?

 

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About The Author

Therese Iknoian

Passionate traveler, wordsmith, photographer, and observer of people and place, Therese lives a life full of all the above. Trained as a newspaper journalist and a member of a Pulitzer Prize-winning news team, she now applies those skills to feed her globe-trotting curiosity – and hopes her storytelling in photos and words encourages others to do the same. Winner of multiple awards for photos and stories, Therese loves to get outdoors, be personally immersed in adventurous experiences, and have a front-row spot with her camera and notebook to document stories that offer authentic insights about a place or its people. And she’s never met a cheesecake she doesn’t have to taste, a ghost town that doesn't demand exploration, or a trail that doesn't beckon.