Longyearbyen is the capital and sole city in Svalbard, a wondrous archipelago and one of the world’s most spectacular places. The seas there are choked with vast floes and icebergs, glaciers and ice fields frost the landscape and the environment supports a remarkable array of flora and fauna, including seals, walruses, whales, polar bears, lichens, delicate flowers and miniature grasses.
Longyearbyen, whose name literally means “Long Year Town,” is a modern city with a superb backdrop made of two awe-inspiring glacier tongues, Lars Hjertabreen and Longyearbreen. Although the weather is nearly always cold, there are plenty of outdoor activities available to keep your cheeks rosy, and there is an abundance of cozy restaurant and shops for when you need a break from the frigid air.
The recently inaugurated Svalbard Museum provides an interesting glimpse into life on the island. The fascinating exhibits detail the lives of whalers, walrus and seal hunters, trappers and miners that have thrived in Longyearbyen since its establishment. There is also an eye-catching display of stuffed and staring birds and mammals.
Danish artist Aino Grib maintains a gallery and workshop in Longyearbyen. Just off the main pedestrian drag, the gallery shows off canvasses that capture the tones and hues of the Arctic seasons.
Mining is the city’s biggest industry, and you can journey deep into its history at Mine Three. Active from 1971 to 1996, the mine was the last to be worked manually, and it stretches over five kilometers into the mountain’s heart. You can even crawl into one of the side spurs to get a sense of what life as a miner was really like.
Longyearbyen has a rich cultural atmosphere, and the Galleri Svalbard contains a beautiful collection of Svalbard-themed paintings by local artist Kare Tveter. The collection also includes reproductions of early maps of the island, and every ten minutes, a short film is shown about the region’s arctic nature.
Explore the stunning natural environment of Longyearbyen by dog-sledding, hiking, kayaking and snowmobiling. There are many tour providers within the capital that will deliver thrills in and around the city.
The very small and very isolated village of Barentsburg makes a good day trip from Longyearbyen. The island’s sole Russian settlement, the village produces over 300,000 tons of coal each year, its signs are in Cyrillic script, and a bust of Lenin marks the town square.
The Pomor Museum in Barentsburg outlines the island’s history with mainland Russia and contains a collection of artifacts and geological specimens related to both mining and the Arctic environment.
The Orthodox Chapel in Barentsburg is also worth a visit. The small wooden building was constructed in honor of the fires that ravaged the settlement in 1996 and 1997.