Longyearbyen – the world’s northernmost city


Any travel to the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard almost inevitably starts and ends in the biggest city on the islands – Longyearbyen, or “Longyear City”.

Founded just a hundred years ago and having lived through the transformation from a bunch of miners’ barracks to a center of Arctic research and tourism, it has always been a refuge for explorers, rebels, and dreamers, the city of cold weather and warm hearts.

A bit of history

The first time I heard the name “Longyear City”, I thought oh, that is sooo romantic. Midnight sun, northern lights, long year – I get it!

The reality turned out to be more prosaic and, I have to admit, slightly disappointing 🙂 The city got its name simply because an American guy called Longyear founded it with the prospect to mine coal here. Here you go, the midnight sun 🙁

Back in the days it was really the place for anyone who did not want to comply with the rules of the society. There was no governor, no law on Svalbard – only coal companies and their workers, and property rights were established by sticking a wooden plate with your name into the permafrost next to the coal reserve.

The anarchy continued through the most of the 20th century, and only in the 90s Norway decided that it’s been enough. They established a governor and a council and poured resources to convert the half-forgotten mining station into a conventional family-based community. Now everything here is pretty normal, there is a school, a cinema, a bunch of bars…

Around the same time the university was created to lay the foundation of Svalbard as a scientific center, and that is also when first commercial tours started around the island.

Longyearbyen today

Coming here, I expected a rough tiny camp at the edge of the world, with only basic amenities, tough Northerners, and total disconnect from the civilization. Imagine my shock when I was met by high speed internet, comfortable Scandinavian-style hotels, and the friendliest people from all over the world.

The Longyear City today lives off two major industries: research and tourism. The University Centre of Svalbard is attended each year by hundreds of young, passionate, bright people that flock to this remote city to study Arctic sciences such as marine biology, geology, and climate science. It is also the reason why the island is blessed with the fast internet connection via an underwater cable.

Tourism is another large source of income for the region. Multiple tour companies operate from Longyearbyen and give us, spoiled city plants, a chance to experience real Arctic wilderness.

Only around 2300 people live in this city (which is around 90% of the total population of Svalbard). Everyone knows each other, and they know that they have to keep together for the community to thrive even despite many of them only being on the island during the polar summer season when tourism is at its peak.

To live in Longyearbyen, one has to be employed by a local company, be it the univerisity, a tour agency, or the last still operating coal mine. All the housing is owned by the employers as well. And that’s, kids, how you reach the employment rate of 100% 🙂

Although the mining glory is in the past, the city and its suburbs are full of remains of coal prospecting history. Transporting lines, merging stations, and mines themselves are spread over the surrounding hills and just left there to rot as “cultural heritage”.

Everyday life

At the first glance Longyearbyen does not look special, but the more time you spend here, the more little things you start noticing. Like, for example, the pipes that could not be buried in the ground because of the permafrost, and so they just stretch from building to building above the surface.

The buildings themselves also have to be elevated, otherwise the heat of the house would melt the permafrost and make the ground wobbly, destroying the construction.

There is no fishing and almost no hunting on the islands, and everything has to be imported. This makes the prices quite high (although I did not notice that the restaurants were noticeably more expensive than ones in mainland Norway). The only supermarket in Longyearbyen has all the supplies for a comfortable life.

Cash is out of favor here. Svalbard is trying to go cash free, and there is not a single ATM on the islands anymore (hmmm… why did I even withdraw when traveling over?)

Longyearbyen is so well embedded into nature that there is no lack of wildlife even within the city borders. A mountain right next to the city hosts a bird colony, polar bears visit from time to time… Not even speaking of reindeer that sometimes graze without fear right between the living quarters.

There are almost no roads outside the city (and the city can be traversed on foot in just half an hour) so cars have very limited use. On the other hand, snowmobile is pretty much a must if you live on Svalbard. National parks are the only areas that are closed even to locals with a snowmobile, but the rest of the island is easily accessible when the snow covers the ground.

Some transportation methods are quite non-conventional, too 🙂

Visiting Longyearbyen

If you are a traveler on Svalbard, you will most likely have this city as your base. It is the only place on the islands that has hotels operating all year around. About a dozen hotels are available on booking.com which makes it really easy to compare prices and amenities. No matter which one you choose, you will be met by cozy Scandinavian interiors.

From the first hour I set foot on Svalbard ground, this city made me feel home. I believe that what really made it happen were the people. Longyearbyen is a small community and a very strange place to live, which means that pretty much every person you meet here is deeply in love with the place, with its nature, and the feeling of freedom that saturates the matter of existence here.

You will get to meet a lot of these amazing people as your guides when you take trips out of the city (it is not allowed to leave it without an armed guide because of the polar bears). It doesn’t make any sense to travel to Svalbard and spend all your time in Longyearbyen – there is almost nothing to do there, and it is easy to get an impression in between the tours so pack your schedule to the top 🙂 I will write a separate post about all the stuff you can do on the island in the summer season, but for now check out this website – it aggregates all the possible tours from all the tour agencies, and it was really helpful in planning!

The only actual thing to do in the city without a tour is a visit to the museum at the university. A small exhibition walks you through the history of the islands and gives an overview of what Svalbard is living off now (spoiler: it is your money, my dear tourist).

Since you are going to take tours, there is no need in transportation at all (the tours normally have door-to-door service included). The only transportation you need to worry about is how to get to the city from the airport. There are taxis, but the easiest and the cheapest is the airport bus which only goes when there is an airplane 😀 It brings people to their hotels when a plane just landed, and collects them again in the end of their journey about 2 hours before their flight out of Svalbard. Simple, organized, even welcoming.

Because all the food is imported, there is no actual local cuisine. Most of the restaurants are really good quality – check the reviews on maps, nothing exotic here 🙂 The only place that comes any close to “authentic” cuisine is the fine dining restaurant Huset. They will give you stuff like seal or reindeer, and they have wine pairings, too (although the pairings were quite, hm, unconventional). Worth trying out, I guess, but make sure to book a table – it gets really packed even in these no-travel times.

Conclusion

In the beginning I said that any adventure on Svalbard starts and ends here, in this city. It is not because there is nothing else to do on the island – it is just because Longyearbyen is the only place that you are allowed to be in without an armed guide, the only place where it is possible to book a hotel, and the only place which has an airport. Unless you really now what you are doing, you are not going to avoid this city of young people and 100-year old mining legacy.

And that’s a good thing 🙂

More Svalbard adventures

  • One reason to go to Svalbard is to watch Arctic animals in their natural habitat: here is how to do that
  • Mount Hiorthfjellet is a destination for one of the toughest experiences available for a regular tourist on Svalbard; climb it for a feeling of accomplishment and an unusual view of Longyearbyen

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  • If Svalbard is too extreme, the mainland Norway has plenty of opportunities to connect with nature, too
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