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Main Street in Longyearbyen Photo. Erik Abel
Main Street in Longyearbyen Photo. Erik Abel

Places

What to do in Longyearbyen and Svalbard

Between mainland Norway and the North Pole lies a gem. More polar bears roam on the archipelago of Svalbard than humans, but that doesn’t mean its capital, Longyearbyen (“the longest year”), is not a fascinating, beautiful and – fear not – civilized spot to visit.

Longyearbyen, this one-off settlement of old mining towns, featuring the world’s northernmost university, hospital and art gallery, is also dotted with cozy, historic hotels, fine dining spots serving unusual local delicacies and disco dancing, plus unrivalled daily excursions to ice caves, ancient Nordic villages and breathtaking, remote landscapes from which to huddle and wait for the aurora borealis. Svalbard and its capital promise the adventurous, curious, intrepid traveler unexpected delights.

Longyearbyen itself is more than enough to satisfy even the most curious globetrotter. There’s something for everyone – wild natural beauty, adrenalin-fueled activities, superb places to stay, and fine food and drink offering everything from gourmet burgers to aquavit. And what makes the place all the more special are the locals. The real fun is to be found by mixing with them and getting to know the pockets of their town. While many come from Norway’s other northern archipelagos and Oslo, others have traveled here from all over the world. Get to know the backgrounds of these friendly, hospitable people, and hear stories of how they came to make the most northern town in the world their natural habitat, among free-roaming polar bears. I met scientists who moonlight as husky dog keepers and polar bear protection officials who also work as Arctic photographers.

Any season, always a surprise

The polar night casts a magical blue light across the land for a few hours a day, and later you’ll find abundant opportunities to catch the celestial aurora borealis in all its dancing green magic. Many restaurants, bars and hotels have excellent views from tables and bedrooms, so you needn’t leave the warm late at night. The end of the polar night season also plays host to the Polar Jazz Festival, where international talent descends upon town, offering brass and parties. The town plays host to Dark Season Blues in October, a moody jazz and blues affair and in November local and international work is performed at the Svalbard Art Festival.

Photo: Erik Abel

Go visit Mary-Ann

One of the most authentic places to stay is Polarrigg, run by legend-about-town proprietress Mary-Ann Dhale, a former cleaning lady, turned landlady. One of a number of former laborers’ dormitories, her place oozes character, with its mock Arctic hunting lodge, small library, stuffed polar bear and a fantastic winter garden conservatory, where you can try delicacies such as whale tartar and much more. Luxury rooms are ensuite, one with its own whirlpool jacuzzi, while there is also a small spa in the house.

Polarriggen

Postboks 17, 9171 Longyearbyen

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North Pole Expedition Museum

On the way to Longyearbyen, my stomach churned as I read about a famous explorer who died after eating fermented birds wrapped in a seal’s stomach. Although you will be perfectly comfortable during your stay in town, it’s worth doing your research here on those who made this place, and plenty of other Nordic territories, fit for civilians. Learn who put Longyearbyen on the map, check out maps, compasses, paper clippings, newsreel footage, skins and more at this vast museum, which used to be the Spitsbergen Airship Museum.

North Pole Expedition Museum

Pb. 644 9171, Longyearbyen

Svalbard Museum

The archipelago was discovered in 1596, although there are disputable Norse accounts detailing the islands as far back as the 12th century. With Longyearbyen soon marked as the main town, Norway finally seized full governmental control shortly after the First World War. This museum takes you through the whole story, with all-encompassing collections of artefacts and relics from the entire country, set in a beautiful space here in the town center. Its neighbor, the Arctic studies-focused university, a compelling building which you can also look around, is also a great coffee spot.

Svalbard Museum

Vei 231 - 1, Longyearbyen 9170, Svalbard

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Photo: Erik Abel

Drive a snowmobile to Barentsburg

If you're itching to explore out of town for the day, choose your trip wisely. One of the best tour operators in town boasts friendly and fully-trained-against-polar-bear-attack guides who will escort you, in a snowmobile convoy, to the fascinating old Russian settlement of Barentsburg. Check out the museum, enjoy a warming stew, and keep your eye out for the only cat on Svalbard, who was smuggled onto the archipelago under the guise of being an Arctic Fox (cats are strictly prohibited due to the fragile ecology).

Barentsburg

Шпицберген, Longyearbyen

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Ale lover’s escape

It doesn't have to be all hot coffee and aquavit. Not content with shipping in international beers from around the world each September for the annual Oktoberfest (prime time for some arctic barbecuing too), Longyearbyen finally has its own brewery, canning up the newest and most unlikely brew you’ll ever sip. After a tussle with the law over the serving of pure Spitsbergen beer, 2015 marked the birth of the closest casks to the north pole. See how it’s all done and collect a sixer yourself by taking a tasting tour.

Svalbard bryggeri

612., Svalbardgata 7

Ride with huskies to an ice-cave

There’s nothing quite so magical as dashing silently through the snow on sleds pulled by a pack of local huskies, who know their route from Longyearbyen to the magnificent ice caves like the back of their paws. Stop for hot chocolate, lunch and explore the insides of a glacier’s cave some three hours from town, before heading home to your snug cabin.

Spitsbergentravel

Check into the Coal Miners’ Cabins

Slightly more lively is this cozy converted-dorm hotel, which feels like heaven after a long day battling the elements. There is a plentiful breakfast to gorge on pre-excursions, a bar and grill, and eight private bathrooms spaced along the hallway. All this just a few minutes’ walk from downtown Longyearbyen.

Coal Miners’ Cabins

Try seal steak and minimalist fare

For a special occasion (you’re visiting of the most stunning places in the world after all), book a table at fine dining spot Huset, which has a history as absorbing as today’s menu. Its wine cellar is impressively vast and the building, unveiled by a famous Oslo architect in 1951, has functioned as a theatre, temporary church and hospital (following a fire and avalanche, respectively), post office and airport terminal. Now it prides itself on its high-end cuisine, from locally caught seal steak and rare herbs, to exquisite Scandinavian wine to complement seven-course tasting menus.

Huset

Longyearbyen 9171, Svalbard

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Photo: Erik Abel

Kroa

More affordable but a still excellent place to refuel is Kroa (try the minke whale or moose burger).

Kroa

Hilmar Rekstens vei, Longyearbyen, Svalbard

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End your adventure with a northern lights safari

Season dependent, no trip to Svalbard would be complete without seeing the beguiling aurora borealis. Enough to inspire books, (Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and his newly announced Dust series), the natural phenomenon can often be spotted directly from Longyearbyen at the right time of year, but a short and easy excursion out into the less light-polluted wilderness will ensure an even more breathtaking experience. Swap folklore tales over hot drinks with strangers. There’s no need to travel too far from town, just book a short distance tour.

Northern lights

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