Longyearbyen, Svalbard: First Impressions & 10 Random Facts

Longyearbyen, Svalbard

I take in a breath of fresh air and exhale a sigh of contentment, a sound that feels misplaced in this scene of contrast I find myself in.

I walk on dry, green grass as I look up at snow-capped mountains.  I put on my sunglasses as I zip up my warm jacket.  My watch tells me it’s past 10pm but it’s as light as the middle of the day.  It’s summer but I’m wearing a fleece and gloves.

A few metres to my left, a reindeer stops to chew grass before ambling past me, oblivious or indifferent to my presence.  A few metres to my right, a small black and white bird serenades me with a song only it knows the words of.  Unable to identify it, I choose to believe it’s an exotic resident of the Arctic, welcoming me to the region.

This is Longyearbyen, the largest settlement of Svalbard – and the gateway to my Arctic adventure. 

Longyearbyen, Svalbard

At first glance, Longyearbyen is a picturesque collection of colourful houses, sitting on the western coast of Spitsbergen, the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago.  It lies 78 degrees north and is the administrative capital of Svalbard.  Its population of just over 2,000 support its three key industries – coal mining, tourism and research.  There appear to be more snow mobiles than cars, reindeer comfortably share the land with the locals and everyone owns a rifle.

But it doesn’t take long before I learn there is more than meets the eye to Longyearbyen.  Conversations with locals reveal quirky local rules and an interesting history.  A walk around town confirms it has all the amenities of a modern city, albeit on a smaller scale.  And the dog sledding, hiking, snow mobile and arctic cruises offered by the local travel agent present it as a base to explore the surrounding Svalbard area.

It feels like the perfect location to begin my Arctic expedition cruise with Quark Expeditions.  As I climb into bed at the end of the day, I wonder how I’ll manage to sleep with it still being daylight outside.  But it isn’t long before a long day of travel outweighs my child-like excitement at being in the Arctic and I fall asleep with a smile on my face – let the adventure begin!

10 Things You May Not Know About Longyearbyen

1. The Climate

The average temperature ranges from -14°C in winter to 6°C in summer, which is actually considered quite mild considering how close the town is to the North Pole.  The 10°C day I arrived on was described as ‘quite hot’ by my guesthouse owner, but the boxes scattered around town with electric plugs hanging from them are a reminder of how cold it gets in winter (these are used to keep car engines from freezing)

Longyearbyen, Svalbard

2. No one is born here

When I asked a local “are you from Svalbard” I learned it is difficult to find a true citizen of Svalbard.  Pregnant women return to the mainland to give birth.  Although there are four excellent doctors at the modern Longyearbyen hospital, it lacks the specialized equipment necessary to deal with unexpected childbirth issues – a risk not worth taking by expecting mums.

3. It has a “no death policy”

More than 70 years ago, the town’s small graveyard closed its doors to new applicants.  It wasn’t a capacity issue, but rather an environmental one when it was discovered that the bodies were failing to decompose.  Bodies now leave the island to be buried on the mainland in Norway.

4. Land of the midnight sun

Owing to its location far north of the Arctic Circle, the sun does not dip beneath the horizon in Longyearbyen during April 19 and August 23.  In complete contrast, the sun does not rise between October 28 and February 14, a depressing-sounding period known as polar night.  It’s certainly a strange sensation to go to sleep at midnight in broad daylight, wake up at 3am in broad daylight and rise at 7am…in broad daylight!

5. You cannot choose your own house colour

Permission must be gained to paint a house a specific shade, with colours chosen from Svalbard nature, among the flowers, moss, sun and sky.  Its an approach that creates a picturesque landscape and one that must help keep spirits high during those bleak winter months.

Longyearbyen, Svalbard

6. There is an alcohol quota for locals

Residents of Longyearbyen must buy their alcohol in Svalbard and are not permitted to bring alcohol from the mainland.  Residents must present an ‘alcohol card’ when buying the beverages that are regulated by quote and have the following monthly allowance:

–       up to two bottles of liquor (or up to four bottles of fortified wine)

–       up to 0.5 bottles of fortified wine (or a bottle every other month)

–       up to 24 cans or half bottles of beer containing not more than 4.75 per cent by volume

But if you are joining an Arctic cruise and want to pre-purchase alcohol, don’t despair!  Present your airline ticket and you are immune from the local restrictions.

7. Land of the Polar Bear

As soon as I arrived in Longyearbyen I was warned not to leave town without an armed guide.  This is the land of the polar bear, the king of the Arctic that inspires feelings of excitement and fear.  Although all locals carry rifles, they recognize the bear must be both respected and protected.  It is illegal to hunt a polar bear and if one is shot in self-defense, it must be reported immediately to Svalbard’s Governor.  Although it’s generally considered safe to wander within the confines of town, polar bear sightings are not unheard of.  As I was dropped at the Spitsbergen Guesthouse at the northern end of town, my driver pointed out the road leading out of town – only two years earlier a polar bear was spotted on it.

Longyearbyen, Svalbard

(a polar bear was seen on this road, heading towards town, just 2 years ago)

8. Pets

Bringing a dog to Longyearbyen requires special permission, granted one year at a time.  Cats and ferrets are strictly forbidden but rabbits, hooded rats, hamsters and aquarium fish are allowed in with no questions asked.

9. It’s the world’s northern most city

I began my Antarctica adventure in Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city.  So it feels appropriate to be starting my Arctic trip in the world’s northernmost city.  Although it feels too small and quiet to be called a city, it is well equipped with a supermarket, hotels, pub, restaurants, museum, gallery, school, hospital, a football field and more.

Longyearbyen, Svalbard

(the local football field)

10. Taking your shoes off is a local custom

Taking shoes off before entering a home or building is a tradition I’m familiar with in Asia and not one I expected to encounter in the chilled Arctic.  The origin of the local custom was the dirt roads and lack of water making cleaning of shoes and boots difficult.  It remains a common custom around town and shelves are provided in most buildings to place your shoes before entering.

 

Longyearbyen is the starting point of a two week expedition cruise I’m taking with Quark Expeditions.  I’ll be enjoying a digital detox as we sail the Spitsbergen region, but hope to bring back a great collection of photographs and stories.  To make sure you don’t miss out, sign up to receive my new posts by email (follow the instructions below – and remember to confirm your email address.  If you don’t receive this confirmation email, please check your junk/spam folder and add me to your ‘contacts’)

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Kellie is a traveller and photographer who is most at home when exploring the world beyond it. Through the intersection of her travel, writing and photography passions, she shares her experiences to inspire others to create there own. The desire to live life instead of existing through it has introduced Kellie to inspirational locations throughout seven continents and from this a passion for landscape and wildlife photography has evolved. She feels a particular connection to the polar regions and Africa. You can see more of her photography at www.kellienetherwoodphotography.com

Comments

  1. I’m looking forward to reading about your voyage with Quark. On our 2011 expedition to Svalbard, Longyearbyen was the disembarkation port, and we didn’t have time to explore it as we were taken directly to the airport for our charter flight back to Oslo. Interesting about the cemetery being closed … makes sense considering the northerly latitude that non-decomposition of bodies would be a problem.

  2. Wow this is amazing! I’m going to have to go there someday.

  3. Hi there Kellie!
    You never cease to amaze me! I really look forward to reading about your adventures. I do hope our paths cross again one day soon. Take care.

  4. We spent a week in Svalbard last winter and loved it! It looks so very different not covered in feet of snow in your photos.

  5. Great Article as usually Kellie
    Can’t wait to see all the photos when you are back!

    this sounds like a funny little town!! funny litttle customs and rules

  6. Lotte Furlong says:

    We were on the sailing right before you and I have to say it was an amazing trip! I can’t wait to read about your trip!

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