At 65 degrees north latitude, Fairbanks serves as a central gateway to the Interior – Denali National Park two-hours to the south, the Arctic Circle five-hours to the north, Nome, Barrow, and the mighty Yukon River. Fairbanks itself is home to a small, yet charming downtown with hints of the area’s history in dog mushing, gold panning and a rich Alaska Native culture all intermingling with trendy coffee shops, galleries, museums and flavorful eateries. Only few of these places require getting in the car for a short drive. Most can be reached on foot.
I visited Fairbanks in October as part of a work trip unrelated to my usual travel writing assignments. On a weekend off day, I spent time exploring the city and the surrounding area packing in as much as I could and hoping to get a sense of the “Golden Heart” of Alaska.
I drove in from my hotel in North Pole – yes, North Pole – 13-miles southeast of town. My rental truck’s thermometer read a chilly 21° so my first stop was for coffee at The Red Couch situated on the corner of 2nd Avenue and Dunkel Street. The heavy smell of frying oil hit me first. Next was the shop’s quirky furnishings, assortments of cakes, pies and cookies as well as a red couch along one wall. I went straight for the self-pour Deadman’s Reach before turning my quick coffee run into a leisurely breakfast with a tasty egg, cheese and hash brown sandwich.
After breakfast, I make my way to Golden Heart Plaza. Malcolm Alexander’s powerful “Unknown First Family” statue “Portraying the family of all mankind, the family of Fairbanks, and the nuclear family” should be any visitors’ first stop. Next, stand along the Chena River’s edge to take in the beautiful scene before checking out the headquarters of the Yukon Quest, a 1,000-mile international sled dog race.
If you’re looking to escape the frosty weather, your best option is the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center. Admission is free and visitors can easily spend hours exploring world-class exhibits, experience Alaska Native stories, music and art or even talk with local experts about traveling in the Interior and Arctic Alaska.
No matter where my travels take me, I always search out local eateries for some tasty treats to satisfy a midday dessert craving. The cozy café known as The Fudge Pot, which is adjacent from the plaza along 1st street, makes for the perfect place to do so. Before dessert, however, I devour a healthy portion of the bread bowl clam chowder. Then it’s up to the counter to choose between their 30 flavors of fudge, ultimately deciding on the peanut butter, raspberry and blueberry selections.
When it’s time to head out, this time I hop in the truck and drive out of town. First, I drive through the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. The university overlooks the city and offers views of Denali on a clear day. It is also home to the University of Alaska Museum of the North and collections including a 2,000-year spectrum of Alaska art, an almost 50,000-year-old mummified steppe bison, and an ever-changing light installation driven by the real-time positions of the sun and moon, seismic activity, and the aurora.
From there, I cruise along the northernmost stretches of Fairbanks passing the turn for Running Reindeer Ranch, pockets of houses, thick forested hills and my first sighting of the Trans Alaska Pipeline later along Goldstream Road. If you turn south back toward the city on Highway 2, the chance to walk underneath the pipeline is just a short walk from a parking lot off the road.
On your drive back into town for dinner, park along 2nd Avenue to visit Fairbanks Ice Museum, Gold Rush Fine Jewelry and the Co-Op Plaza. Inside the plaza you can enjoy unique gift shops, the River City Café, Tanana Yukon Historical Society and the Moldovan restaurant called Soba.
For dinner, there a number of restaurants to try. Jazz Bistro on Fourth serves up fine Cuban, Spanish, and Latin American cuisine with live entertainment. There’s Mexican dishes at El Dorado, a wide array of Thai plates at Bahn Thai, Italian staples at Gambardella’s Pasta Bella, and southern-style barbecue at Big Daddy’s BBQ & Banquet Hall. I’m in the mood for Greek food, which takes me to Bobby’s Downtown for some of the best Moussaka I’ve tasted.
If you’re in the mood to top the night off with a drink, head over to Fairbanks Distilling Company or Lavelle’s Taphouse offering brew lovers a pint glass and as they say, “36 possibilities to fill it with.”