Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway.
Longyearbyen is the starting point of our arctic cruise in the Svalbard archipelago. This mountainous and mostly glacier-covered territory is located halfway between Norway and the North Pole.
Longyearbyen is an old mining city which developed on the main island of Svalbard, called Spitzberg. Today, it is the administrative capital of the archipelago and its activities are mainly dedicated to research, education and tourism. It attracts all travelers in search of arctic adventures.
Go directly to the Svalbard map
Access directly to Longyearbyen map (download the pdf file)
A bonus, the video : Svalbard/Spitzbergen | Crossing the 80th parallel north
1. Close to the North Pole
Longyearbyen is the second northernmost site on the planet, after Ny-Alesund, small locality with very few residents. Consequently, Longyearbyen, 1300 kilometers away from the Arctic Pole, is the northernmost city in the world.
After flying over the snowy peaks of southern Svalbard, and before landing, we discover Hiorthfjellet, a mountainous massif overlooking Longyearbyen and the magnificent Adventfjord. No doubt, we will reach a different land!
At the arrival, our first surprise is the mild temperature: 7°C. Obviously it is not very high in comparison with the summer heatwave that we had just experienced in Paris before leaving. But we were expecting a much cooler temperature in Svalbard.
In spite of the late hour, our hotel room is illuminated as in daylight. The sun rays hit the windows. We are observing our first midnight sun!
2. There is a unique arctic metropolis
Longyearbyen is a relatively small town. Its center consists of two main streets lined with hotels, sports stores, restaurants and a super market. The latter proudly displays a giant polar bear at the entrance of the store.
At first glance, the city does not seem much animated, since we have crossed only a handful of pedestrians. But today Longyearbyen is not visited by the cruise ship which pours daily a wave of tourists in the souvenir stores. Imagine, this small town only counts more than 2000 souls!
But Longyearbyen is not a ghost mining town only visited by tourists, far from it! Its residents enjoy places of entertainment such as sports facilities, a university dedicated to arctic sciences and several bars and restaurants. Moreover, most of them decide to stay there for several years to lead a certainly fascinating life in Svalbard.
On the heights of the city, the side streets are occupied by colorful dwellings reminiscent of the charm of northern villages.
During our walk, we are surprised to see thousands of snowmobiles parked all over the city. They remind us that Longyearbyen bears long snowy winters during which it is good to escape into nature.
3. 2000 inhabitants, 50 nationalities!
The majority of the inhabitants are Norwegians. Nevertheless, nearly 50 nationalities are represented among the population of Longyearbyen. Unbelievable! So, why such a great diversity?
The answer lies in the history of Svalbard and more particularly in the 1920 treaty concerning Spitsbergen. To make a long story short, the archipelago, officially discovered in 1596 by the Dutch explorer Willem Barents, was a land of hunting and mining. Later research activities open up to all nations on this “no man’s land”.
But conflicts arose to take possession of this arctic land and to exploit its resources. The 1920 treaty put an end to this situation by recognizing Norway’s sovereignty over Svalbard and its administration. However, according to this same treaty, economic rights were granted to the citizens of the countries that had signed the treaty (about forty today), allowing them to exploit the natural resources of the archipelago and to carry out research work. This is the reason why there are so many nationalities present on the territory.
Before visiting the surroundings of Longyearbyen with our guide, we drop by the very interesting Svalbard Museum. It retraces 400 years of history of the archipelago. This land was frequented by whalers, bear hunters, exploited by mining companies and visited by the conquerors of the North Pole. We also discover the rich natural and industrial heritage that is today entirely protected.
4. Longyearbyen, ancient mining city
For more than a century, the presence of coal deposits in the soils of Longyearbyen and other localities of Svalbard (Barensburg, Pyramiden, …) has attracted many foreign companies (Russian, Norwegian, …) who have exploited the soils.
In 1906, a businessman, John Munroe Longyear opened the first coal mine and thus created the first mining city, hence the name given to the city (« byen » meaning “city” in Norwegian).
A sculpture of a miner erected in the heart of the town center marks Longyearbyen’s for its mining history.
We leave with our guide in the surroundings of Longyearbyen. Norway has decreed a number of measures to protect the environment, including the remains of human activity. This is why it is possible to observe today the miners barracks and the old mining installations perched on the mountainside, in particular the abandoned cable cars used to transport coal.
But the working conditions of the miners were appalling. After several accidents that cost the lives of many miners, the installations were closed. The cemetery counts the graves of 29 miners who died in an explosion in 1920. It attests that this activity as it was carried out at the time, was really dangerous. Today, only one mine remains in operation, mine no. 7 in the Adventdalen valley.
This period has left its mark on the daily life. For exemple, the inhabitants of Svalbard are used to take off their shoes to go into a restaurant or hotel (the miners’ shoes were covered with coal).
6. Longyearbyen, gateway to the wild arctic
A detail, but of great importance, reminds us that despite the apparent tranquility of the place, we are truly in a wild environment: our guides carry rifle and rocket gun to protect us from the polar bears. They can only be used in case of self-defense. For sure, there are about 3000 polar bears in Svalbard, which is much more than the number of its inhabitants! And the risk of attack by a polar bear is real. Fortunately, the only one we met in Longyearbyen is the bear in the supermarket!
Svarbard is one of the most protected natural territories in the world. You can’t come and go anywhere or pick up anything.
We leave at 10 km from the city, at Camp Barents to discover the eco-system of the surroundings and to visit a kennel of sled dogs. Due to the polar climate, the ground covered with mosses and lichens is icy all year round. It is covered with a layer of earth that only thaws in Summer. This permafrost gives a very particular color to the landscapes.
We leave Longyearbyen to start our polar cruise to Svalbard which will take us along the west coast of Spitzbergen and across the 80th parallel!