It's hard to ignore Anchorage, Alaska's natural beauty. But if you look beyond the snow-capped mountains, crystal clear lakes and breathtaking glacial expanses, you'll find a diverse city with a thriving economy, high quality educational system and a host of cultural and recreational amenities – all reasons why Anchorage is one of the Top 100 Best Places to Live.
If you are an adventure-junkie or just love being outside, Anchorage is the place for you. You’d be hard pressed to find another American city that offers the wealth or diversity of recreational options that Anchorage offers its residents.. In the summer, Anchorage residents can take a dip in Jewel or Goose lake or go fishing or canoeing on Mirror Lake. Even on the coldest days, you’ll find Anchorage families outside enjoying the city’s great outdoors. Anchorage offers some of the best cross-country skiing trails in the country as well as snowshoeing and sledding.
Resident wildlife, such as moose, eagles and beluga whales also call Anchorage and the surrounding area home. The sprawling 500,000-acre Chugach State Park and National Forest encompasses the Chugach Mountains to the east of the city, and Anchorage is in close proximity to five other national parks. And where else can you get up-close-and-personal to a 100-year-old glacier? Anchorage is within driving distance of 60 glaciers. Off-street paths knit the city together for pedestrians and cyclists. It’s a great place for hiking, biking, and fishing in the summer and fat biking, cross country and downhill skiing in the winter.
“We have the highest number of acres of parkland per capita of any city in the United States.Our hiking and fishing and skiing opportunities are world class. We have a trail system that's over 250 miles within the city limits that are used for biking, walking or cross country skiing and snowshoeing in the wintertime. Even while you're living in an urban environment, you have access to outdoor recreation and to the features of Alaska that make is so unique -- any time you want,” says Moira Sullivan, Live. Work. Play. director for the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation.
Sullivan says while many people come to Anchorage for the wildlife, parklands, glaciers and outdoor adventures, just as many stay for the conveniences of a surprisingly modern city – great restaurants and shopping; a large, diverse school system and two universities as well as arts and cultural institutions.
“Our downtown has some of the best restaurants in the world serving the freshest seafood and the most amazing steaks. We really over-index for a city of our size on the number and types of restaurants, retail centers and activities around town,” Sullivan says. “We have a ton of festivals year round. Whether it's the June Summer Solstice Festival, where there's literally 24 hours of daylight here in Anchorage or the Rendezvous Festival in February where we celebrate the start of the Iditarod, the world's longest dog mushing race, there’s always something going on in Anchorage, especially downtown.”
Anchorage also boasts a strong economy. Although the state’s economy is based primarily on oil and and resource extraction, Anchorage has a solid healthcare and professional services sector as well as a thriving tourism industry. About 10 percent of the city’s jobs are related to tourism. Anchorage is at the heart of the state’s air, road, rail and telecommunications infrastructure, so business setup and logistics are easiest here. It’s also positioned globally in a very interesting place for international trade. Anchorage and the surrounding communities are home to roughly half the state’s population, so it’s also Alaska’s largest consumer base and workforce talent pool.
Another quality-of-place factor that helped land Anchorage on our list is its cultural diversity -- a 10,000-year-old legacy, which is chronicled in the Alaska Native Heritage Center and celebrated during the Alaska Federation of Natives convention or Fur Rondy, a multi-tribal gathering the state’s oldest winter festival.
“We are so blessed to be the home of the two most diverse census tracks in the United States. We are a place that attracts people from all over the world, all over the country, and of course, has a robust original people's culture,” Sullivan says. “We're constantly learning from each other. We're constantly sharing experiences, and that diversity makes us strong and makes us understand more about the rest of the world, even though it may seem like we're a little bit removed from the rest of the world.”
That diversity has also helped Anchorage schools prepare their students for a global marketplace. There are more than 100 languages spoken by students in the Anchorage School District, and students are exposed to dozens of languages every day. The school district’s World Languages Program immerses kindergarten through sixth graders in Chinese, Japanese, German, Russian and Spanish, and the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School focuses on academic excellence while instilling Alaska Native values. Even with this global view, Sullivan says the most enviable trait of Anchorage schools is the fact they are tied to specific neighborhoods.
I grew up here, and I was a product of the public school system which to me is excellent and one of the best in the country. Here in Anchorage, people go to their neighborhood schools, and that's where families invest their time and their energy and their resources,” she says. “Anchorage is still small enough -- only 300,000 people -- that where you go to school is going to be less than a mile from your home, and you have that connectivity with your neighbors, with the kids in your neighborhood. The parents will all know each other, and as a result, parents are very involved in the schools here. Your teacher lives down the block from you, and all the kids that are in your class live around the corner, and you're all on the cross country ski team together, and there's really a sense of community in the schools, and I think that that's unusual.”