At first glance Fairbanks appears to be little more than a sprawling conglomeration of strip malls, chain stores, and other evidence of suburbia (or, as a local writer once put it, "su-brrr-bia"). But look beyond the obvious in the Interior's biggest town and you'll discover why thousands insist that this is the best place to live in Alaska.
The hardy Alaskans who refuse to leave during the cold and dark winters share a strong camaraderie. To live here, you really have to want to live here, which gives the whole city a relaxed, happy vibe. The fight to stave off cabin fever leads to creative festivals, from winter solstice celebrations to midnight baseball in summer. And isn't there something marvelous about people who, if their car breaks down and it's cold enough to freeze the tires and make them explode, know what to do? It takes a special kind of confidence to live here, and that adds to the town’s attractions.
Many of the old homes and commercial buildings trace their history to the city's early days, especially in the downtown area, with its narrow, winding streets following the contours of the Chena River. Even if each year brings more chain stores, the beautiful hillsides and river valleys remain. And of course there is Fairbanks's fall, winter, and spring bonus: being able to see the aurora, or northern lights, an average of 243 nights a year.
These magic lights were a common sight to the Alaska Natives who lived and traveled through Interior Alaska for thousands of years. But outsiders started coming to Fairbanks for the view all because of one guy's bad day: In 1901 E.T. Barnette, a merchant traveling upstream, was forced to leave the boat with all of his trading goods at a wooded spot in the middle of nowhere along the Chena River because the water was too shallow to pass. But while awaiting passage farther east, Barnette's luck took a turn for the wonderful when an Italian prospector discovered gold 12 miles north of Barnette's settlement the next summer. The resulting gold rush created customers for his stockpile of goods and led to the birth of Fairbanks, which for a brief time became the largest and wealthiest settlement in Alaska.
The city's nickname, the Golden Heart, reflects Fairbanks's gold-rush history and its location: it's the gateway to the Far North—the Arctic and the Bering Coast—and to Canada's Yukon Territory.
As you walk the streets of Fairbanks today, it takes a good imagination to envision the rough-and-tumble gold-mining camp that first took shape along the Chena River in the early 1900s. Although a few older neighborhoods have weathered log cabins, the rest is a Western hodgepodge that reflects the urge to build whatever one wants, wherever one wants—a trait that has long been a community standard (and sometimes leads to really interesting roof angles as the house sinks in permafrost).
The city is making some real efforts to preserve what's left of its gold-rush past, most notably in the 44-acre Pioneer Park, where dozens of cabins and many other relics were moved out of the path of progress. Downtown Fairbanks began to deteriorate in the 1970s, before and after the boom associated with the building of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. But the downward spiral ended long ago and most of downtown has been rebuilt.
For details on all local attractions, historical and otherwise, stop by the downtown Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau in the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center—the new pride of downtown, with a fantastic museum inside that will introduce you to the region’s wonders. We also highly recommend a trip to the campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where the University of Alaska Museum of the North got a makeover in 2006; the building is full of soothing, swooping lines that evoke glaciers, mountains, and sea life, and contains one of the best collections of material from around the state that you'll see anywhere.
Fairbanks at a Glance
- Alaska Range Overlook
- Creamer's Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge
- Fairbanks Ice Museum
- "Fountainhead" Antique Automobile Museum
- Georgeson Botanical Garden
- Golden Heart Plaza
- The Alaska House Art Gallery
- Apocalypse Design
- Beads and Things
- Beaver Sports
- Great Alaskan Bowl Company
- Alaska Coffee Roasting Company
- Alaska Salmon Bake
- Cookie Jar
- Gambardella's Pasta Bella
- Ivory Jack's
- Lavelle's Bistro
- Pike's Landing