Longyearbyen (pronounced “long ear bin”) is the world’s northernmost city, and a natural jumping off point for travellers on course to explore the wonders of the Arctic. But while most people who come here are just passing through, it’s worth spending some time in this chilly, quirky town that offers more than simply stop-over comforts.
Like any tricky-to-get-to destination, visitors are rewarded for the effort of travelling to this remote spot, where reindeer wander calmly through colourful streets that need no names, and snowmobiles far outnumber the cars. Located at one of the four corners of Earth, Longyearbyen is the capital of the Svalbard territory — an archipelago in northern Norway that sits at 78° north (that’s really, really up there) — and offers travellers an experience in extremes. It’s one you’ll want to savour for at least a few days before pushing off in search of glaciers and polar bears.
It’s the most northern settlement of any kind, with at least 1,000 inhabitants (with just over 2,000 residents these days). It’s also the only permanently populated island of the Svalbard archipelago and is home to the northernmost cinema, school, university, commercial airport, ATM, museum, and post office. Stop into the all-hours church for a postcard and you’ll be sending home one of the northernmost pieces of mail picked up at the northernmost church by way of the northernmost postal carrier… It’s a mind-boggle of superlatives!
When the sun sets on October 25, it doesn’t come up again until March 8, with civil polar night (where there is only the faintest glimmer of twilight visible at midday) lasting from November 14 to January 29. So what do you do when it’s always dark? Throw a party, of course. The Dark Season Blues Festival kicks off in October, marking the beginning of 4+ months of darkness. Founded in 2003, the festival is now four days of local, Norwegian, and international blues musicians spread across most of Longyearbyen’s friendly venues.
On March 8, the entire town gathers on the steps of the old hospital at precisely 12:15 PM to await the sun’s arrival. Naturally, it’s time for another party! The Solfestuka festival kicks off a week-long celebration to welcome the return of the sun, and brings out 4,000 people to concerts, theatre performances, presentations, and sledge races. And while the days in March typically see an average of only 3.5 hours of sunshine, by mid-April the town enjoys a full 24 hours of daylight, which lasts until August 23. The sundial in the centre of town does a complete 24-hour pass in the summer, as residents and visitors take advantage of the warmer temperatures (highs are generally between 3°–7° C or 37–44° F) and loads of outdoor activities.
Extreme wine cellar
Yes, you read that right. At Huset restaurant (which is, you guessed it, the northernmost restaurant in the world), they boast one of Europe’s largest wine cellars, with more than 15,000 bottles on hand. Go for the tasting menu to sample true Arctic fare.
Longyearbyen is a genuinely relaxed, welcoming place. But it does have a few quirky, extreme-ish rules that might catch you off guard. For one, you’re not allowed to die in Longyearbyen. It’s the law. And it’s not because the graveyard has reached capacity, but rather because they discovered, several years ago, that bodies don’t decompose, given the frigid temperatures. So go ahead, live long and happily in town, but please, go somewhere else when your time is up.
You’re also not allowed to own a cat as a pet, due to the presence of endangered Arctic birds. Ferrets are also taboo. And residents aren’t allowed to paint their houses just any colour they want. Colours are chosen from Svalbard nature — so homes match the local flowers, moss, sun, or sky. The result is a picturesque landscape that’s meant to keep spirits bright during long, dark winter months.
Taking off your shoes whenever you enter a building and carrying (and knowing how to use) a firearm whenever you leave the settlement are also rules to abide — for your own comfort and safety!
We’re not talking cliff jumping or cave diving kind of extreme. But whenever you mix already great activities such as hiking, dogsledding, kayaking, snowmobile safaris, and bike tours with the awesome landscape of the Arctic, you’re kicking up your fun quotient by several hundred notches. You can do all of this and more in Longyearbyen, with stunning glaciers, frozen fjords, and ice-capped mountains as your backdrop, and polar bears, reindeer, and walruses as your chance encounters along the way.
The Arctic offers dazzling, breathtaking views, experiences, and adventures. Take a moment to exhale in Longyearbyen and you won’t be disappointed!
Originally published January 4, 2017. Article updated on January 19, 2021.
G Adventures runs a number of departures to the Arctic encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater to different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.