Longyearbyen, Svalbard, is the world’s northernmost town. It is a town built on ancient permafrost, 100 metres thick at it’s very least, an artist’s pallet of primary colours, wooden buildings painted deep red, sunshine yellow, navy blue.
These houses huddle together, perched on stilts and uniform against a grey and primal landscape, and offer injections of colour, a cheerful contrast, and much needed reprieve, from the Arctic conditions and deep silence of the surrounding uninhabited wild that is Spitsbergen, which even with the happy chatter of a bustling high street, full of excited tourists, permeates the minuscule town. After all, Svalbard is populated by more polar bears than people, and Longyearbyen still feels like a frontier town, staring out into an endless unknowable Arctic, a town at the edge of the world.
We were lucky enough to spend a week exploring Longyearbyen in mid-summer 2014, and these were are three favourite destinations in and around the town. Our budget was limited, and Svalbard is typically Norwegian, in as much as everything is rather expensive, as such we didn’t travel out on any boats or take part in any expeditions to glaciers or abandoned communist mining towns, as the majority of tourists visiting Svalbard do, but we found that it was entirely possible to visit Svalbard on a smaller budget, and that Longyearbyen was wild, rugged and unlike anywhere either of us had ever visited before.
1. Longyearbyen Camping (or, our favourite campsite in the world)
Longyearbyen Camping sits a short walk from the rugged shoreline that parallels Longyearbyen Airport, and is not difficult to spot, a wooden building painted inky blue and deep red, surrounded by a rainbow of canvas, prayer flags, camper’s clothes left out to dry, and a line of white bicycles propped against the building’s stilts.
Longyearbyen Camping is the only fixed camp site on the island of Spitsbergen, in fact, the whole of Svalbard, and also the northernmost fixed camp site in the entire world. The camp site was founded in 1975, to coincide with the opening of the new airport, and sees between 1500 and 3000 visitors per season.
The camp site is equipped with a full range of nice facilities, including bathrooms, hot showers, and a wonderful kitchen complete with two kettles. We found fairly-traded weighty chocolate bars, (a necessity for survival in such a harsh climate,) as well as oats, herbs, pasta, and other food that previous campers left behind.
The camp site is open for a short spring season, and a longer summer season, which starts on a different date every year, but is guaranteed to have ended by mid September, when the snow returns, the temperatures plummet, and the sun begins to sink behind the horizon.
It costs 120 Norwegian Kroner per person to stay at the camp site, per night, which converts to about $20, and we found this to be an incredibly reasonable deal, when taking into consideration the prices of other accommodation on the island, which tend to be rather high. You can rent sleeping bags, camping equipment, including tents, and bicycles. They even offer to set you up a tent before you arrive, if you wish. You can also stay at Longyearbyen Camp Site out of season, for free, however the amenities are all closed, and you’ll need to bring some serious low-temperature gear.
2. Fruene Cafe
Longyearbyen town centre is a bustling place, alive and thriving with numerous tourist shops, stuffed to bursting with polar bear memorabilia, postcards, cuddly animals and fluffy fur coats. A great deal of the shops are adorned with signs hanging over their entrances, asking people to leave their weapons at the door. In Longyearbyen, a rifle is not a rare site; most inhabitants will not travel without one.
Together with it’s plethora of shops catered towards tourists, Longyearbyen’s main street has a supermarket, surprisingly well stocked for somewhere so far from anywhere that could grow food, and complete even with the most expensive watermelon you’ll ever buy, a post office, an ATM, a library (with free wi-fi), a Thai restaurant, and a shopping complex.
We found ourselves visiting this shopping complex often. Inside is a magical cafe, named Fruene, which offers delicious, affordable, and most importantly, wholesome meals, perfect for staving off the cold and for satisfying even the most voracious of appetites, ravenous after a long day biking, kayaking, and battling the cold.
We shared huge portions of quiche and salad, steaming bowls of velvety cauliflower soup, and enjoyed huge mugs of hot chocolate, grasped with frozen fingers and gulped down hastily. Cafe Fruene, it seemed, was a central point of life in Longyearbyen, everybody seemed to know each other, and we had an interesting conversation with the editor of Longyearbyen’s alternative newspaper, Icepeople, who had moved to the island several years ago, from California. It takes a special kind of person to call Longyearbyen home, and it was fascinating to watch people go about their daily lives in such an extreme environment.
3. Svalbard Museum
Svalbard Museum, Longyearbyen, is Norway’s High North interdisciplinary polar museum. Open between the hours of 10 and 6 in the summer, and 12 and 5 in the winter, for 75 Norwegian Kroner, or approximately 8 dollars per person, you can explore this compact, but well-designed, museum.
The museum features quite a number of diverse exhibitions, serving to provide a comprehensive overview of Svalbard’s human, natural, and geological forming. Of particular interest were fragments of the 400 year old first discovery and expedition of Svalbard, by Dutch Sailors in the 1500’s, who had mistakenly stumbled upon the archipelago in search of a north-east arctic sea passage that might connect the Netherlands with global markets and new opportunities for growth. The dutch sailors managed to over-winter on the archipelago, which was something that had never been achieved before, humans not having survived the harsh conditions quite as far north. Svalbard was only re-discovered nearly three hundred years later, by Norwegian Arctic Sea skipper, Elling Carlsen).
Other exhibition highlights include the selection of arctic wildlife on display, surprising in it’s variety, and less surprisingly, the displays on hunting, whaling, and mining that has drawn humans to Svalbard for the last two hundred years. There are also some interesting pieces of information on the education and research currently taking place on the islands.
We found Svalbard museum to be staffed by helpful, friendly employees, and well-lit, warm, and cosy. You have to remove your shoes once entering the museum, as is custom in Svalbard, and there are coat hooks for jackets – it is quite warm in the museum.
There are a number of information decks from which you can browse the internet and learn about, and book, activities, and the museum has a large shop, complete with all manner of arctic souvenirs and a vast collection of photography books, which Mike and I enjoyed looking through. We spent about an hour exploring the museum, and would recommend it to others visiting Longyearbyen.
To visit our Flickr photo set from our stay on Svalbard, click here.
To read more about our time on Svalbard, including our five part diary series, click here.