Longyearbyen is the largest populated settlement on the Svalbard archipelago, located in the high Norwegian Arctic. The settlement is generally regarded as the northernmost town in the world as well as the most easily accessed frontier in the Arctic, and is an ideal base for the greater exploration of Svalbard and the high Arctic.
The settlement is named after American entrepreneur John Munro Longyear (1860-1922), who as head of the Arctic Coal Company founded the town and the neighboring coal mine, the first large mine on Svalbard. Mining remains an important component of the economy, and historical remnants of the mining past can be seen on the nearby mountain slopes and throughout the town. Today, however, most mining is done at the Svea mine to the south. The economy of Longyearbyen is now driven primarily by scientific research and tourism.
With approximately 2,500 inhabitants, the town is the de facto "capital" of the islands, and is today a vibrant, modern, and international settlement with much of the character of mainland Norwegian towns. It features an airport, a school, a shopping center, hospital, hotels, restaurants, and a university. People from approximately 40 different countries call Longyearbyen home, and this is reflected in the events offered in the town.
Longyearbyen lies on the southern side of Adventfjorden, stretched out along the Longyearelve (Longyear River). The center of town lies near the coast on the east side of the river, with the district of Skjæringa across the river, the district of Nybyen 2 km (1.2 mile) to the south and the airport 3 km (1.9 mile) to the west. Adventdalen, the valley housing Longyearbyen's only operational mine (#7), stretches out to the east.
Be sure to pick up the free Longyearbyen 78° North pamphlet (available at the airport and most lodges), which has a detailed map of the city and listings of all its facilities.
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Svalbard's climate is a combination of a cold Arctic climate tempered by the North Atlantic Current, an arm of the Gulf Stream. Nordenskiöld Land is the warmest and wettest part of the archipelago, caused by the convergence of mild and humid air from the south and cold air from the north. Average summer temperatures are typically 4 to 6 °C (39 to 43 °F) while average winter temperatures are −12 to −16 °C (10 to 3 °F). Longyearbyen experiences midnight sun from 19 April through 23 August, and polar night from 14 November through 29 January. The sun is under the horizon from October 26 to February 16, however, the sun is not visible in Longyearbyen until 8 March due its location. Snow covers the town from late September through May.
Svalbard Airport Longyear (LYR IATA) is the only major airport on Svalbard. It services Scandinavian Airlines (SAS Norge) flights to Tromsø most days all year around, and 6 services per week direct to Oslo in the summer high season. The budget airline Norwegian (Norwegian Air Shuttle) offers 3 flights per week from Oslo to Longyearbyen for about 700 kr.
There is the possibility of chartered services to other bases on Svalbard, but these are generally reserved for scientists and those travelling on expeditions to the North Pole itself. Sightseeing by plane or helicopter is not allowed under the environmental laws.
The airport is fully equipped with a restaurant and a souvenir shop. Despite its small size, it is operated in the same way as other Norwegian state-run airports with full security checks and passport control. Svalbard is officially outside the Schengen Area. The Norwegian government has imposed identity checks on individuals wishing to enter and leave Svalbard, with the border between Svalbard and the rest of Norway being treated as an external Schengen border. A Schengen visa must be multiple entry to for the return through Norway, or other Schengen country, for cruise passengers continuing for example to Iceland.
Airport shuttle buses (75 kr) connect with all flights arriving and departing at the airport. Taxis are also available.
Apart from passport control when returning to mainland-Norway passengers also need to go through customs control at usually Tromsø or Oslo; this is due to the Duty-free status of Svalbard (see below for shopping for alcohol). If your flight gets routed Longyearbyen - Tromsø - Oslo, all formalities are handled at Tromsø with Oslo-bound passengers having to pickup their checked luggage even if it is checked through to Oslo.
Longyearbyen's port is accessible only in the summer when the pack ice recedes. For dates, see the port website. There are weekly freight boats to and from Tromsø. Organised sightseeing tourist boats offer day trips to Barentsburg, the active Russian town, and Pyramiden, a Russian settlement that was abandoned in 1998, throughout the summer months.
There is no public transportation aside from the airport shuttle bus. Walking is a viable option, although rather tedious if you need to move around outside the centre, especially when the weather is bad. Taxi services are available, at a price. Alternatively, most of the hotels and hostels, and some of the tour operators, offer bike rentals. Car rentals are available at the airport (Arctic Autorent) and in the town center (Svalbard Auto), but vehicle inventory is very limited, so reservations are recommended. Visitors who leave the town center without a guide should be aware that polar bears can be seen anywhere on the islands at any time of year. Leaving the central area of Longyearbyen without a hunting rifle is not recommended. Rifles can be rented from several places in the town, or alternatively, a guide can be hired for expeditions.
There are many possibilities for walking and sight-seeing in the immediate Longyearbyen area. Walking out of the settlement into the fjord, you will see the old cemetery and several abandoned mine buildings.
- Spitsbergen Airship Museum, ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. Displays materials and ephemera from the era of polar exploration using dirigibles and other aircraft, mainly by Norwegians, Italians and American explorers.
- 1 Galleri Svalbard (In Nybyen), ☎ . Permanent exhibitions of Kåre Tveter, lithographies from the Recherche expeditions and a 'Svalbard collection' with maps, books and local currency. The adjoining café, shop and artists' workshops are free to visit. Entry NOK70.
- 2 Svalbard Museum (Svalbard Science Centre (at the end of the main street)). Reopened 2006 in large new premises, this award winning museum features many displays about the human history of the archipelago, especially whaling and mining, as well as various exhibits about arctic flora and fauna. Entry NOK75.
- 3 Svalbard Church (Svalbard Kirke) (above town), ☎ . The world's northernmost church. Always open, and has coffee and cookies for the visitors. Also sells postcards, books, etc.—just leave the money in a bowl.
- Animals. Reindeers roam free in the city. You can also see polar foxes and birds.
- 24-Hour Sundial. Not big, but it does 24 hours a day in the summer.
A wide variety of activities including hiking, dog-sledding, kayaking and snowmobile safaris and ice-caving and more are offered by Svalbard's many tour companies. The largest operators are Spitsbergen Travel and Svalbard Wildlife Service (SWS). Prices are high — expect to pay from NOK 390-1000 for a half-day activity, NOK 1000 - 3000 for a full day — but the standard is high and the experiences are well worth the price.
- Dog Sledding with Green Dog, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Green Dog offer a variety of dogsledding trips all year round. These range from 3 hour trips to 5 day expeditions. During the summer guests can experience dogsledding on wheels, with specially-made sleds which seat 2-3 persons. from NOK 990.
- Year round activities with Spitsbergen Travel, ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. Snowmobile safaris, ice caving, hiking, boat trips etc. Safaris vary from 4 hours to 10 hours. Snowmobile tours and ice-caving are offered during the winter season. Generally between December and mid-May, dependent on the snow conditions. Experienced and safety-conscious guides. Destinations include: Elveneset, Tempelfjorden, Pyramiden, Barentsburg and the East Coast. During the summer months the waterways open up and the midnight sun shines on Svalbard. Thousands of migratory birds come to the area, and nest in the cliffs. You can enjoy the landscape and wildlife with an open boat trip to the bird cliffs, a calving glacier or to a popular fossil hunting location, with experienced guides. One possibility is a demanding yet rewarding trip to Trollsteinen (849m over sea level) or a hike from sea to summit. from NOK 730.
- Esmarkbreen Glacier. Across the Isfjorden (2-3 hours by boat). Scenic glacier across the bay, colored a striking blue. Drop a cube in your glass for an arctic martini. Often combined with cruises to Barentsburg.
- Barentsburg. The Russian settlement of Barentsburg is accessible from Longyearbyen by boat. Organized tours are available. Accommodation and meals can be found at the Hotel Barentsburg, for prices somewhat lower than you would find in Longyearbyen.
- Pyramiden. Across the Isfjorden from Longyearbyen (2-3 hours by boat) lies Pyramiden, a Russian mining settlement that was abandoned in 1998. A small Russian contingent is now based on-site to prevent vandalism and take care of basic infrastructure needs. As of 2013, basic accommodation in Pyramiden is available at the Tulip Hotel, including cooked meals. A small number of converted shipping containers, located on the old docks, are also available to rent. Bringing your own food and water may be recommended. Contact the Russian company Trust Arcticugol, which maintains the town of Pyramiden, for booking. Because Pyramiden is no longer inhabited, a hunting rifle is required for protection if you are not part of a tour group. Polar bears are frequently seen in the area. Wireless services (phone and internet) are not available here so please use caution.
If you have multiple days to spare then your options really open up: how about a week-long snow scooter trip (21,500 kr) or 11 days by boat around all of Spitsbergen (from around €3000) For the ultimate Arctic experience, you can even arrange to join a trip to the North Pole.
- In late October, Longyearbyen hosts the annual 1 Dark Season Blues Festival that draws large crowds. The 10th annual blues festival took place in 2012. This marks the beginning of the dark season when daylight and the sun is about to leave Svalbard.
- In early February, Longyearbyen plays host to the annual Polarjazz Festival, generally featuring a wide variety of different music styles.
Svalbard's shopping is concentrated in and around the two-story Lompensenteret shopping mall and the supermarket. Beware the limited opening hours: most shops are only open 11-18 weekdays, 11-14 Saturday and closed Sunday.
- 1 Svalbardbutikken. Opposite Lompensenteret. Svalbard's sole supermarket and department store rolled into one. Has a surprisingly wide selection, but prepare for sticker shock, especially for anything perishable: half a cucumber costs NOK10 and a kilo of bananas on sale is NOK20. A hot deli offers a few staples and occasionally some ethnic themes. Open weekdays from 11 to 20, reduced hours Sat/Sun.
Eating out in Longyearbyen (as with all of Norway) is expensive, with the simplest sit-down meals costing over NOK70. There are several small cafés in the town centre, and also a restaurant and bar at the Radisson SAS Hotel. Many places serve traditional Norwegian food. Some serve Svalbard specialties such as seal and whale. Delivery is usually available, arranged through local taxis for about NOK50.
- Mix kiosk (Lompensenteret). Hot dogs, sausages, burgers and sandwiches, sometimes offered on sale at what are bargain prices for Svalbard. Also has a limited supply of groceries, along with snack foods and sweets. Prices are high compared to Svalbardbutikken, but the kiosk is open longer hours.
- Huset (Nybyen). Weekdays (open ca 15-22 in the summer). Huset is the town nightclub on Friday and Saturdays with a DJ. Daily dinner menu NOK99.
- Barentz Pub & Spiseri, ☎ . 12noon - 2am. Cosy atmosphere, pizza, burgers, steak. The world's northernmost bar - skilled bartenders, often live music, busy on weekends. Daily specials from NOK99.
- Fruene (Lompensenteret). Espresso, sandwiches, salads and daily specials such as soups and Thai dishes. One of the few locations in town with free wireless internet access.
- Kroa (Basecamp Spitsbergen). Popular among locals and visitors for fare ranging from ribs to reindeer wraps. Portions are huge, making the prices more palatable.
- Restaurant Nansen, ☎ , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. 6PM–11PM. Restaurant Nansen offers a modern menu with an Arctic twist. Reindeer, seal and whale are often available.
- Funktionærmessen Restaurant, ☎ . Funtionærmessen offers fantastic views and a French inspired menu.
- Mary Anne's Polarrigg. Arctic and Thai food (sometimes combined, such as whale stir-fry). Takeout available.
Svalbard's tax-free status makes alcohol a lot cheaper than on the mainland.
- Kroa Bar. Offers a range of decent drinks and meals in a pleasant environment.
- Nordpolet (in Svalbardbutikken). 11 AM to 6 PM weekdays, 10 AM to 3 PM Saturdays, closed Sundays. Sells a full range of beer, wines and spirits, but quotas apply and you must show your plane ticket to purchase. Special opening hours around public holidays and religious festivals.
- 1 Svalbar, ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. Weekdays 4PM-2AM, opens earlier on weekends. Good bar with reasonably priced cafe food. NOK 38 for a beer.
The full service hotels are fairly expensive, especially during the high season. Discounts of 20-50% may be available in the October–May low season.
- 1 Longyearbyen Camping (Near the airport, 4 km outside Longyearbyen)), ☎ . Promises an "intensive experience of nature" at the northernmost full-service campsite in the world. Stays per night start at 120 kr, not including tent rental (NOK150/day) or even warm showers (NOK10/6 min). The site is open all year round, but the service building (showers and toilets) is open only during the summer. Visitors traveling to Svalbard outside of the high season (end of June until September) will be permitted to use the campsite free of charge, but must bring their own provisions and equipment. If your plans include trekking in Svalbard, the camping site is an excellent place to meet fellow trekkers, seek advice or maybe even join a larger group. You get a certificate if you go skinny dipping in the "Advent Fjord", which, of course, is very cold.
A number of guesthouses and homestays offer basic accommodation. Read the small print carefully, as you're often charged extra for breakfast, linens, towels and perhaps even use of the bathtub!
- 2 Gjestehuset 102 (In Nybyen), ☎ , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Miner's lodge converted into a basic but comfortable guesthouse, with shared bathrooms and lounge/kitchen; the main downside is the location, a 20-min walk from downtown. It is however well serviced by the airport shuttle bus. S Singles/doubles NOK475/850, unisex dorms NOK300, including linen, breakfast..
- 3 Coal Miners' Cabins (In Nybyen), ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. Comfortable, approximately 2km from the main shopping area. Pricing includes breakfast, linen and towels. from NOK 300.
- 4 Mary-Ann's Polarrigg, ☎ , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Former miner's barracks converted into a bed and breakfast. A bit pricier than the competition, but the selling point is the central location. NOK595/850 for a single/double, breakfast NOK95 extra.
- 5 Basecamp Spitsbergen, ☎ . The most atmospheric of Longyearbyen's luxury hotels, this attempts to simulate a trapper's lodge with seal skins and driftwood aplenty. Don't let the humble name fool you though: 'camping' here will cost you from NOK1590/night in peak season (but only half that in winter).
- 6 Radisson BLU Polar Hotel Spitsbergen, ☎ . Check-in: 3pm, check-out: 11am. The world's northernmost full-service hotel, with restaurant, pub, sauna, free Internet access and a guest computer. Book activities in the reception. Low season from NOK500, peak season rates start from NOK1450.
- 7 Spitsbergen Hotel, Haugen, ☎ . Check-in: 3pm, check-out: 11am. Restaurant, bar, Champagne cellar, sauna, training room and free wireless Internet access. Historical building, now atmospheric hotel. Closed for winter (Dec-Jan). Excellent views down the valley from the restaurant.
- Sparebank1. In the post office building, has an ATM.
Most shops and services take major credit cards.
- Library (Bibliotek), Lompensenteret 2F. Beware the eccentric and limited opening hours: 11-17 Mon/Wed/Thu, 11-14 Tue/Sat, closed Fri, Sun.. This surprisingly comprehensive library has an excellent selection of books on Svalbard (some in English), a rather more limited selection of English fiction and, most useful of all, three free Internet-connected PCs.
- Svalbard Reiseliv, ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. Open 8 AM to 4 PM weekdays, 10 AM to 12 noon Saturdays.. Svalbard Museum. The official tourist information office, a mine of information for Longyearbyen and the rest of Svalbard.
Perhaps more so than anywhere in the world, Longyearbyen is free from crime. The risk of being involved with any type of altercation or incident is practically nil, with the sole threat being from fellow visitors. It is not uncommon to see intoxicated tourists wandering around during the midnight sun in August, but despite the complete lack of visible law enforcement, problems are almost non-existent. Note that driving under the influence of alcohol is regarded as a very serious offence, and police stops for both cars and snowmobiles are not uncommon. The blood alcohol content limit is currently 0.02%, and the fines are steep.
It is not advised that you leave the settlement limits (clearly marked with signs bearing the picture of a polar bear). If you choose to do so, it is compulsory to carry a firearm which can be rented from the town. Travelling further afield requires explicit permission from the Governor of Svalbard, whose office is near the church.
As everywhere in Svalbard, it is critical to understand that all year round there is a significant threat from polar bears. However, polar bears are legally protected, and shooting a polar bear will be regarded very seriously by the police and investigated thoroughly.
- Barentsburg - Svalbard's solitary remaining Russian settlement, easily visited on a (albeit expensive) day trip.
- Pyramiden - Alternatively on Tuesdays you could take the same ship to visit the mysterious abandoned Russian settlement of Pyramiden - perfectly preserved but utterly empty.
Both trips operate summer season only, and will not operate unless minimum numbers (about 12) are achieved. Be prepared for disappointment in shoulder season.