Longyearbyen might just be one of the strangest and simultaneously most delightful towns there is to visit in the planet. Or at least, the Nordic part of the world
I never thought any other city (town, really) would charm me in the way that Reykjavík did (and continued to).
Yet, Longyearbyen certainly gave my favourite little capital city a run for its money. Not only is it easy on the eye, but it’s quirky to the point of being, well, downright weird at times.
Here’s a few facts you may not have known about Svalbard’s capital.
1. The streets have no name
Streets in Longyearbyen are numbered, rather than named. So are the various mines around Spitsbergen. Keeps things simple, I guess!
2. Cemeteries don’t exist
What? – you must surely be asking. Well, the soil in Svalbard is permafrost, meaning (as the name sort of suggests) it’s permanently frozen.
So, bodies buried within the archipelago do not decompose!
Longyearbyen’s small graveyard has one small graveyard that stopped burying bodies over 80 years ago (you can only be buried now if you are cremated first). Bodies are shipped back to the mainland. Those nearing retirement age are encouraged to settle elsewhere.
The town’s old graveyard at least, has opened doors for medical scientists. Bodies dug up in 1998 revealed victims of the 1918 flu virus, that were so well-preserved, they still had traces of the virus in their systems. This sort of information helps scientists learn more about the disease and create vaccines or anti-viral drugs to work against it.
3. Residents require an “Alcohol Card” in order to purchase drinks
This, we were told, was a relic from the town’s old mining days.
Miners were given a “rations card”, which they used to get a drink or a bottle of beer. The rule is still in place for permanent residents, who have to show their card at the local coop, Nordpolet in order to get a drink. If you come here as a visitor, you can use your airline ticket in lieu of the card.
Don’t worry – you can buy as much grog as you like at the local bars!
4. Over 40 countries have rights to Svalbard
The area was considered free of a ruling nation, before minerals were found on the island. Then everyone started squabbling over who could mine where and trouble ensued.
The answer was found in the Svalbard or Spitsbergen Treaty, which recognises the sovereignty of Norway over Svalbard. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Norwegian Law is the be all end all.
Over 40 countries signed the treaty, including Australia, the USA, the UK, China, Argentina, Lithuania and South Africa (some of those seem random, so I felt the need to throw them in there). This is why both Russia and Norway were allowed to mine on the island of Spitsbergen. It’s nice when everyone gets along.
It’s still considered part of Norway and the country is responsible for its environmental conservation. Yet, any member of the country that signed the treaty is allowed to become a resident of Svalbard and has the right to fish, hunt, mine or trade on the island.
5. There’s a large Thai population, despite the fact that they never signed the treaty!
Interestingly enough, the population consists largely of Norwegians, Russians and Thai!
6. It’s considered polite custom to leave your shoes (and gun!) at the door
There are signs in hotels, at the museum and the local library, asking visitors to leave their often snow and mud encrusted shoes at the door. You can slip them into a little cubby-hole – they’ll be perfectly safe as crime is virtually non-existent in Svalbard – and come back from them when you venture on outside.
Some places provide slippers, in order to keep things cosy.
The same applies to the guns that many residents are required to have on their person when leaving town (more on that below). I mean, it would be pretty rude to stagger into someone’s house or a local hotel with gun in tow. It’s just good manners coming into play, really.
7. You can’t leave the city limits without a firearm
And why do people have guns? Well, that’s due to the risk of interactions with the native wildlife – polar bears.
Hungry bears have been known to attack humans. So, it’s illegal to leave town without a firearm… nor the knowledge of how to use it.
8. Longyearbyen’s history must remain intact
Residents are banned from removing remnants that are considered to be of historical importance.
This has led itself to some pretty cool sights.
Consider the preserved mining train in Ny-Ålesund, the German plane that crashed near Longyearbyen’s first airport at the end of WW2, or the entire town of Pyramiden, a Soviet ghost town north of Longyearbyen.
9. Unemployment is heavily frowned upon
You can only really live in Longyearbyen if you have a job, somewhere to live and the funds to organise a ticket home.
10. More rent than own property
Much of the land on Svalbard is owned by the local Norwegian government and mining companies, who are reluctant to part with it. Residents of Longyearbyen told me that on the whole, it is quite difficult to own and build homes, so most tend to rent.
There are restrictions on what colours you can paint your house too, but it helps keep the town looking decidedly cheerful.
11. The sun disappears for four months of the year
Residents of Longyearbyen must surely look forward to the four month season known as the “polar night”.
The sun disappears from view in late October and doesn’t re-emerge until early March. Yikes.
There are some payoffs – such as the midnight sun during the summer months, when on the flip side, the sun never sets! You’re also pretty much guaranteed to see the northern lights when visiting during the polar night.
In typical twisted Scandi-human fashion, the winter season is seen in with the world’s northernmost Blues Festival!
And don’t forget about Solfestuka – a week-long celebration to welcome the return of the sun on the 8th of March. The whole town gathers together to await its arrival.
12. Longyearbyen has some of the speediest internet in the world
Oh, this made me upset. Longyearbyen has fibre-optic internet – in fact it is a test-bed for fibre-based services.
This means Longyearbyen has better internet than Australia, which just doesn’t seem right…
13. The town is home the the northernmost church, post office, ATM, university and bank
University Centre in Svalbard claims to be home to the northernmost library too. This is disputed by the residents of Ny-Ålesund, who have their own collection of books that you could call a library. Let’s let them have it.
And the northernmost swimming pool and statue of Lenin? They can be found in the nearby(ish) ghost town of Pyramiden.
14. Dogs are encouraged as pets. Cats are not allowed
Longyearbyen was certainly a dog lover’s paradise.
Everywhere I turned, I was surrounded by man’s favourite four legged friend. Svalbardians (if that’s a thing?) certainly love their dogs. Every time we ventured outside, we’d see people walking their mutts come rail, hail, snow or shine. So many pats were had around town.
You do apparently need a permit to own a dog, but from what I could see, it didn’t seem like it could be all that difficult to obtain one.
On the contrary, cats are banned from Longyearbyen. And before cat lovers begin howling – consider this.
Cats are an invasive species (just like humans!) that often kill for fun (just like humans!). The eco system in Svalbard is isolated (icelated – not the first time I’ve made that pun) and mainly consists of Arctic birds. Just imagine the damage that cats would do to the local wildlife.
Yep. You can tell I’m a dog person.
Weirdly, you can bring aquarium fish, rabbits and hamsters onto the island, with no questions asked.
So, yep. Strange place. Would you consider visiting Longyearbyen?
Many thanks to the folk at Svalbard Museum who assisted with the fact checking of this article.
PS. If you liked this post, pin it!