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Aim, Focus, Shoot - The HyPyC blog
What to do in Longyearbyen, Svalbard

Exploring Longyearbyen in the Arctic Archipelago of Svalbard

In September 2019 I embarked upon my final adventure of the year. I had previously toured through France and Belgium in a VW campervan, visited both Salzburg and Ljubljana, and enjoyed the gorgeous scenery of the Cornish coast. You would think that I would be tired and in need of a rest. I did just that from July to August. As September rolled around, however, I was getting restless - I needed something to get my adrenaline pumping. What better way to do this than an adventure to the Arctic circle - to the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard?

Epic landscapes of Svalbard

I had long thought about the idea of traveling to Svalbard. It was one of the few extreme cold locations I had yet to visit in the world. I had previously walked among Gentoo Penguins in Antarctica, watched Humpback Whales under the midnight sun in Greenland, and witnessed the might of Gullfoss waterfall in Iceland.

The chance of seeing polar bears in Svalbard was something I could no longer put off. To that end, I booked a cruise with Hurtigruten, and a handful of extra days in Longyearbyen too. Longyearbyen was an amazing place - read about my time exploring one of the most northern cities in the world below:

Longyearbyen Itinerary

Day 1

  • Accommodation: Svalbard Poflarren Hotel
  • Daytime Activities: Walked through the village and down to the port
  • Night-time Activities: Watched the sun go down next to the old coal mine buildings

Day 2

  • Accommodation: Coal Miner's Cabin
  • Daytime Activities: Walked through Nybyen and up part of the left-hand mountain to get shots of the village
  • Night-time Activities: Spent time in the bar

Day 3

  • Accommodation: Coal Miner's Cabin
  • Daytime Activities: Sightseeing tour with Hurtigruten
  • Night-time Activities: Boarding the ship

Day 1 - Hiking, good weather, and great food

Longyearbyen is a stunning, but isolated place. It has a superb mix of gorgeous Arctic landscapes, combined with rustic industrialization. The coal mining industry is ever present - the new coal plant and old structure stand side by side. Furthermore, the old cable-car system, used to transport coal from the mines still stands.

Old coal mining cable system

The wooden supports and interconnecting cables will stand until nature claims them - as a reminder of the islands mining heritage. This is just one of the old structures visible in the main town and it's surroundings.

I stayed at the Svalbard Hotel Poflarren for the first night. This was a central hotel within easy walking distance from the main sights. Moreover, it is right next to the fantastic Kroa bar and restaurant. I enjoyed a superb meal here - pepper steak with potatoes and roasted vegetables. The quality was amazing and the steak was extremely thick.

Holtel Poflarren Holtel Poflarren - Slippers

The Polfarren was comfortable and the room was fine for what I needed. In the evening, after a delightful meal, I went for a walk to explore more of the town. The temperature was amicable, and it was still light even at 21:00. I headed up to the old church, and towards the old coal mine structure.

Longyearbyen Church at sunset

The sun was starting to set - this cast the landscape in a gorgeous light orange and yellow glow. The view from the top of the hill past the coal mine cable-carts was phenomenal. I spent some time simply looking at this gorgeous scene, and thinking how luck I was to witness it.

Old coal mine structures Svalbard mountains at sunset

Day 2 - More hiking, and interesting company

The second day, I had to check out and transfer to the old coal miner's cabins. This hotel complex is located in the small satellite settlement of Nybyen. This is approximately 30 minutes' walk from the centre of Longyearbyen. The location is the main drawback of the Coal Miner's Cabin. Whilst some say that you are closer to nature, the reality, is that you are quite isolated.

Coal Miners Cabin, Longyearbyen

If you want to head into the main town, you have to make an hour's round trip. Luckily, there is a brilliant restaurant within the hotel - The Coal Miners Bar and Grill. I enjoyed a Thai salad here, and had a few drinks, talking to the waitresses who were from Poland and Australia.

During the second day, I was struggling to know what to do. Looking back, had I known that I had two full days before the cruise, I would have booked an excursion. There is a host of different activities you can book such as dog sledging, boat tours, and hiking trips.

Longyearbyen

Cities such as Paris and Rome are packed full of sites and historical monuments. You don't have to go outside the city. I believe Longyearbyen is not such a place - one or two days are adequate to see the town and what it has to offer; after that, the real Svalbard experience is about exploring the wild Arctic landscapes.

Day 3 - Guided tour, and boarding the NS Norjsdstern

Whilst Longyearbyen is a fascinating place, as stated above, I feel that unless you book some guided tours, there isn't much to do. You can easily walk around the whole town in a morning or afternoon. Furthermore, after the museum, and the old coal mine, there aren't any other sites.

Beautiful town of Longyearbyen

The museum is really informative, however, as I found out during our guided tour with Hurtigruten. It contains a history of Svalbard from early settlements and whaling, through to modern times and coal mining. The visual displays and artefacts were extremely interesting. I learnt much about the islands and the different nations that had settled there since the 1500's.

The first part of my guided tour with Hurtigruten was a trip to Camp Barents. This site is located approximately 20 minutes outside the town perimeter - you must be accompanied by someone who has a rifle due to the threat of polar bears.

Entrance to Camp Barents

It is home to a sled dog community, and has several relics and recreations of the original explorer - William Barents, who setup camp here. The dogs were wonderful - they were well cared for, and were playful and loved the attention and fuss we gave them. My favourite was Leif - Leif was an unusual color compared to the other dogs, and had brilliant blue eyes. As part of the Camp Barents experience, I enjoyed hot coffee and tasty waffles with jam.

Working dogs at Camp Barents

General facts and information about Longyearbyen

  • Currency: Norweigan Krona (Most places accept card payments)
  • Airport transfer time: Approx 15 minutes to/from the "centre" of town
  • Airlines servicing Longyearbyen: SAS, Norweigan Airlines
  • Airport transfer cost: 75 NOK (Usually included as part of a tour/cruise)
  • Time to walk around the town: 1-2 hours depending on route and how far
  • WiFi availability: Most hotels and bars have good quality WiFi

A final important note, is that most establishments require you to remove footwear before entering the main building. Hotels, restaurants, and even shops have a reception area with shoe racks. You must take off your footwear and leave it here. This is just their custom.

It is to prevent floors and carpets becoming dirty and stained - this is because most people wear hiking boots or walking shows, and the ground outside is usually either covered in snow, or a little muddy. Don't make a fuss - be courteous and follow the accepted norm!

Container ships in Longyearbyen Harbour

What did I think of Longyearbyen?

Longyearbyen has to be one of the most interesting places I have visited. Yes I could have planned my trip better, but this doesn't detract from the fact that the town is simply mesmerizing. It is certainly like nowhere else I have seen.

Either side of the settlement, huge jagged mountains rear up to the sky. The mountain faces are exposed with black rock and coal deposits - this creates a brilliant pattern and contrasts with the gleaming white snow.

Huge mountains surrounding Longyearbyen

On the opposite side of the fjord, more mountains create an imposing setting. These immense towers of ice and snow can look different each time you see them. First, they appear crystal clear, framed by beautiful blue skies. Second, they are covered in mist and their peaks are hidden from view. Next, the sun is dipping, and the crisp white mountain face is awash with reflections of gold, orange, and yellow.

But what about the town itself? This seemingly haphazard collection of buildings create a stark contrast to the snow-laden backdrop of the Arctic. Did you know that the Svalbard government has provided a list of approved colors available for use on buildings within Longyearbyen?

Statue of coal miner in Longyearbyen

The colors are therefore bright and vibrant - greens, reds, yellows, blues - it is like an explosion of color and the effect is pleasing. The architecture is functional, not fashionable - built to withstand the harsh Arctic winter. Furthermore, throughout the town, you can see an extensive network of pipes for water, gas, and energy.

Comfortable, but expensive

Despite the extreme location of Longyearbyen, I thought the accommodation and food was fantastic. I had a comfortable sleep each night in both the Coal Miner's Cabin, and Svalbard Hotell Ploffaren. Moreover, each meal I had was excellent. The only downside of this remote town, is the cost. It cannot be deined that food and drink is expensive.

Ski buggy sign in Longyearbyen

It is easy to see why - firstly, Scandinavian countries are generally known to be expensive. Secondly, the remote location of Svalbard means that many goods must be imported at a greater cost. To give you an idea of how expensive food and drink was, a normal sized can of Coke cost 35 NOK in the Coal Miner's Cabin bar. This is approximately £3.50! In England, a Coke cost usually no more than £1.00.

A place like no other

Regardless of the cost, Longyearbyen remains one of the most fascinating and inspiring places I have traveled too. It's people are friendly, and although it is located in the high arctic, where conditions are harsh, my stay was comfortable. In addition to this, the place is just jaw-droppingly beautiful.

Containers at Longyearbyen Port

The weather can change instantly. This can transform the landscape from a snow-laden winter wonderland, to a barren and exposed region with gorgeous hues of brown, orange, and yellow. I can only imagine what it would be like to visit this magnificent location during the winter, when temperatures drop, and the sun barely shows it's face. If you want to experience true Arctic life, Longyearbyen in Svalbard is the place to visit.

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