One of the weirdest and most wonderful places on earth is a tiny town in the high Arctic that just 2,100 people call home. Welcome to Longyearbyen – the world’s northernmost city – located on the island archipelago of Svalbard, midway between mainland Norway and the North Pole.
The locals walk around with rifles; polar bears outnumber humans here, and everyone leaves their front doors and cars unlocked, just in case someone needs to run inside to avoid an encounter. Being in a place where, during winter, the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon for four months and there’s continuous daylight for nearly six months in the summer, is both bizarre and fascinating. Longyearbyen literally translates to ‘the longest year’ – with good reason.
Ask anyone who calls this Arctic city home why they live here and you’ll generally hear the same responses: they’re doing some kind of scientific research, making a living as an outdoor adventure guide, working in tourism, or studying to become one of the above at the University Centre in Svalbard. Here, geologists, biologists, oceanographers, and naturalists rub shoulders with extreme skiers, kayakers, dogsledders, and of course the 150,000+ tourists who come through each year, mostly on short stopovers before setting sail on an Arctic expedition cruise around Svalbard and Jan Mayen.
If you’re on an Arctic expedition that sets sail or disembarks in Longyearbyen (like this one, where you Explore Spitsbergen via the Faroes and Jan Mayen) don’t make the mistake of thinking Longyearbyen is simply a launchpoint for your cruise; spend some time exploring this old mining town and getting active in the surrounding wilderness.
Hike up a glacier
The best way to truly experience the magic of the Arctic is to get right to the heart of it. The hike up to Trollstienen (translation: Troll Rock) is one you’ll never forget, thanks to panoramic views across the valley of Adventdalen, where glaciers and avalanches have carved out layers into the mountainside. Hire a guide and dress accordingly in full waterproof gear (don’t ignore this tip; even during the peak of summer you’ll be knee-deep in snow at parts). Starting from Longyearbyen’s highest point, Nyben, the challenging trail begins with traversing rocky terrain and crossing small rivers. From there, it’s an uphill climb across varied terrain; one hour you’ll be walking across a flat, snow-covered plateau along the moraine with a seemingly endless white landscape, and the next you’ll be crawling uphill to the top of the Lars glacier towards the huge rock tower at the summit. Make sure you rub the rock for luck when you get there!
Go on an ATV tour
Gear up in full wind- and mud-proof dry suits, helmets and ski masks, and hop on your ATV with a guide who’ll take you on an adventurous drive outside town. Looking like the Michelin man in your dry suit is par for the harsh weather conditions that can change with a moment’s notice – you’ll be glad to be warm inside it when you’re covered in mud at the end of the day!
Throughout the day, you’ll pass private little wooden cabins, the town’s original airport – where workers once wore headlamps to guide planes landing on the makeshift runway (blink and you’ll miss it) – and the famed polar bear crossing sign marking your entry into an area where rifles are mandatory. You’ll rip through the barren, beautiful landscapes, make stops at old coal mines (there’s one that’s still active), and warm up with cookies, coffee or hot blackcurrant juice (a Norwegian favourite) at a stop overlooking Isfjorden and Adventdalen.
A notable stop is Svalbard Husky, one of the biggest dog sledding operations where you can play with and feed the dogs. If you’re feeling brave, book a sledding experience. You’ll sled across the snow in winter, and on wooden wagons across dirt roads in summer.
Explore Longyearbyen’s downtown area
Downtown is full of shops where you can load up on outdoor gear, relax in cozy wine and whiskey bars, explore the Svalbard Museum – which focusses on the history of Svalbard, Arctic wildlife, and climate change – and eat in restaurants highlighting Arctic cuisine. Though bright and colourful in the summer, Longyearbyen has an eerie, almost magical feeling that it could be packed up at any moment. Thanks to its extreme geographical location, the town is essentially built on stilts drilled deep into the permafrost.
Visit the world’s northernmost craft brewery
What better reason to head to the world’s northernmost town than to drink beer brewed with meltwater from 2000-year-old glaciers? Robert Johansen, the owner of Svalbard Bryggeri, is a former coal miner and pilot who fought for over five years to change the alcohol laws on Svalbard. In 1928, laws were set prohibiting the production of alcohol, mostly to decrease consumption in the male-dominated mining society. In 2014, Johansen had the law changed, and is now crewing unpasteurized, unfiltered, delicious beer that you’ll only find in Norway. Book a tasting to hear the story behind the brewery, taste their seven staple beers, and learn all about the process of beer-making in one of the most remote places on earth.
Want to know more about Longyearbyen? Here are a few interesting facts!
- Svalbard is a visa-free zone and you don’t need a residency to live anywhere on the archipelago.
- It’s been illegal to die here – or at least to be buried – since in the 1950s when miners discovered bodies in the cemetery weren’t decomposing, due to the permafrost that keeps anything six feet under perfectly preserved. There are no elderly care homes either, in hopes of encouraging people to head home once they are in need of assistance.
- The small hospital facilities here don’t have the infrastructure or manpower for delivering babies, so pregnant women need to head to the Norwegian mainland to give birth.
- Residents have alcohol cards there limiting the amount of beer they can buy per month, a law dating back to Longyearbyen’s mining days.
Interested in an adventure in Longyearbyen? Check out our range of Polar adventures that visit this fascinating little city here.
All images by Alicia-Rae Olafsson.