Longyearbyen, the capital of Spitsbergen

Longyearbyen, the capital of the Spitsbergen archipelago, is located at 78 degrees north latitude and is the northernmost major town in the world. The city with more than two thousand inhabitants was founded as a settlement for miners in the early twentieth century. One of the most famous phenomena the city has to offer is the sight of the Northern Lights. The mountains surrounding the city are covered annually by a layer of snow and ice, as is fifty percent of the archipelago. So don’t be surprised if you see more snowmobiles than cars during your stay in Longyearbyen. Location of Longyearbyen on the island of Spitsbergen (red) in Spitsbergen / Source: Public domain, Wikimedia Commons (PD)

Longyearbyen: the world’s northernmost city

Longyearbyen, with its brightly colored houses, is the northernmost city in the world with more than a thousand inhabitants. Although the term city is not precisely defined in many countries, Longyearbyen with a population of 2,144 (2015) is considered a city. Longyearbyen is the capital of the archipelago (archipelago) Spitsbergen, which consists of several islands. The largest island of Spitsbergen is also called Spitsbergen and the capital is located on that island. Longyearbyen is located on the bay of the island of Spitsbergen and in the Longyear Valley. The valley is characterized by the Longyear River that flows through the valley and is located between the Platåberget and Gruvefjellet mountains. The Platåberget is the higher of the two at 464 meters and is located a few kilometers west of Longyearbyen.

The history of Longyearbyen

Discovery of Spitsbergen by Willem Barentsz

The Spitsbergen archipelago was discovered in 1596 by the Terschelling navigator Willem Barentsz and his crew. Presumably the Vikings were there before him, but no tangible evidence of this has been found. The Flemish cartographer and pastor Petrus Plancius (1552-1622) accompanied Barentsz and his crew to map the land borders of Scandinavia (and north of it). Like Barentsz, Plancius was interested in the Northeast Passage. This was the shortest sea route to sail from Europe to Asia. Barentsz wanted to end up along the coasts of Scandinavia and Siberia in the well-known countries of China and India. Many preceded him without success, but with every expedition that failed, (is)lands were mapped. The main reason Plancius went on the trip was because he wanted the reward of 25,000 guilders that the States General offered to the person who would map out a safe Northeast Passage.
On Spitsbergen Barentsz decided to sail further east. He got stuck on the island of Nova Zembla, north of Siberia. He and his crew built a house to spend the winter in, Het Behouden Huys, from broken parts of the ship. After Barentsz survived the harsh winter, he built a sloop from the wreckage of his own ship. They sailed with the sloop to the more southern Russian Kola Peninsula, but before Willem Barentsz arrived he died in his sloop on June 20, 1597.
Source: Svalbard Global Seed Vault Peter Vermeij, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-1.0) The foundation of Longyearbyen
The first who stayed on the archipelago for a longer period of time were whalers in the seventeenth century. The town of Longyearbyen was founded much later in 1906 by the American John Munro Longyear (1850-1922) after whom the town was named. In 1901, Longyear (owner of a coal mining company in Boston) first visited the site and in 1904 he founded Arctic Coal Company. He had some of his employees transferred to Spitsbergen to work for his new coal mining company. The fossil fuel coal was used, among other things, to generate energy and as a reducing agent (aid) to make iron. In 1906 Longyear had housing built so that the miners could winter on Spitsbergen and not have to return to America.

Spitsbergen and Longyearbyen in modern times

In 1920, Spitsbergen became part of Norway and in 1925 the name of the archipelago was changed to Svalbard, which means cold coast. However, in many languages (including Dutch and Russian) the archipelago is still referred to as Spitsbergen. The Norwegians themselves also regularly refer to the archipelago by its old Dutch name.
In 1940, Norway was occupied by the Germans who only showed interest in Spitsbergen in 1941. In response, the residents of Spitsbergen were evacuated to Scotland in 1941. The strategically located archipelago had coal that the Germans used as fuel for their war vehicles. In addition, they built a weather station in Longyearbyen to predict weather conditions, which had a great advantage for the Luftwaffe (the German air force). After the Second World War on June 27, 1945, the inhabitants were returned to the island. Due to bombings, not much was left of Longyearbyen; only a house, the hospital, the power plant and an office building were still standing.
Since 1945, the once small town has grown into one of the largest towns in the archipelago. Nowadays (2015) the largest group of inhabitants comes from Norway, followed by Thailand, Sweden, Russia and Ukraine. Most work in the mining industry or for local government. The other part works in education or tourism. There are also two research centers that focus on research into the Northern Lights and to download data from satellites floating around the polar orbit.
In December 2015, an avalanche buried ten homes in Longyearbyen with a thick layer of snow, killing one person.
Source: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-3.0)

Sights and activities in Longyearbyen

The Svalbard Church

The Svalbard Church is the northernmost church in the world and also a very small church with only 140 seats. The first church from 1921 was destroyed during the Second World War. The altar and baptismal bowl donated by Norway’s first king Haakon VII and his wife in the 1920s have been preserved. In 1958 a new wooden church was built, largely red in color. Not only Christian services are held in the church, but meetings are also organized for the population of the entire archipelago.

The museum and gallery

The city also has a museum Svalbard Museum and a gallery Galleri Svalbard. The museum, which is a former pigsty, covers the history of the archipelago. The discovery of the archipelago, its flora and fauna, and the history of whaling are central. The gallery exhibits paintings by the late Norwegian artist Kåre Tveter. In addition, concerts and temporary exhibitions by other artists are held in the gallery.

The northern Lights

The small town does not offer many man-made sights. A very popular attraction is simply nature. Special plants grow in the soil that can still be frozen up to five hundred meters deep. The animal kingdom, which consists of several hundred birds and three mammals, namely the polar bear, the Arctic fox and the Svalbard reindeer, also attracts many tourists to the archipelago. In Longyearbyen you can see the Northern Lights (or Aurora Borealis) from August to April. This phenomenon turns the sky green, red and purple when electrically charged particles from the Sun collide with particles in the Earth’s atmosphere. This happens regularly around the poles, but can only be clearly seen with the naked eye when it is dark. In autumn and winter it gets dark in Longyearbyen as early as two o’clock in the afternoon, so you don’t have to stay up to see the beautifully colored sky.

Climbing the Platåberget

Climbing the more than four hundred meter high mountain undoubtedly offers a beautiful view, but is not without risk. In 1995, two tourists came face to face with a polar bear, one of which was killed. Unlike brown bears, polar bears are not territorial, rarely aggressive and do not approach humans. Only polar bears that have little interaction with humans and are hungry are extremely unpredictable. Longyearbyen emphasizes the danger of polar bears outside the city and strongly advises against traveling outside the settlement without a guide (to climb the Platåberget, for example). Several trips are organized to locations outside Longyearbyen (such as glacier tours or ski excursions) and the guides all carry firearms and signal pistols. As a tourist, it is prohibited to bring your own firearm on an organized trip.
Source: Woodwalker, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-3.0)

Tips for when you go on holiday to Longyearbyen

85,000 tourists visit the city every year (2011). If you also want to visit the city, take the tips below into account.

  • If you go on holiday to Longyearbyen, you don’t have to go by ship like Willem Barentsz did. Since 1959, the city has had an airport ‘Svalbard lufthavn’ from where you can also book domestic flights to Ny-Ålesund and Svea.
  • You do not need to have a passport to enter the archipelago. The Dutch identity card (ID card) is sufficient.
  • Longyearbyen belongs to Norway, so you cannot pay with euros, but you must pay with Norwegian crowns. One euro is approximately 9.4 Norwegian krone (as of July 2017). You can order Norwegian crowns at the bank, but you can also pay by card in Longyearbyen if your card has a Maestro or Cirrus logo.
  • Although there are a number of clothing stores in Longyearbyen, it is recommended to bring enough warm clothing. In the summer months it is about 4 to 6 °C in the city. In the coldest period (November to May) temperatures of -10°C and -17°C are not remarkable.