When we booked flights to Longyearbyen in Svalbard some six months ago, I hadn’t expected to be half as blown away by the place as I am now that I am back. Our short travel to this unique destination wasn’t a typical mini-vacation, but it was still full of surprises, adventures and unforgettable memories.
Where is Svalbard?
Svalbard is an archipelago that belongs to the kingdom of Norway. It is located entirely on Arctic circle, on the north of mainland Europe. It is considered a good base for scientists who want to explore North Pole as it’s located only 1316 km south from North Pole. Besides being a spectacularly gorgeous region, it is also a region of world’s many nothernmosts and some of the most unusual laws: for example, how it is not allowed to venture out of settlements without a rifle due to high number of polar bears who are known to be aggressive and extremely powerful carnivores, Or how you can’t give birth or get buried in Svalbard due to the permafrost in the soil preventing the body from decaying.
Our short trip to Svalbard
As soon we got off the plane at 1:55 in the morning at Svalbard airport (world’s northernmost airport with regular flights all year round), I experienced a gust of cold wind sweep through my face. Despite it being summer, the temperatures were at lows of 2 degrees and highs of 7 degrees when we were there. I regretted not bringing my bulky winter boots mainly due to the inconvenience of carrying it around while on a one day stopover in Oslo. Thankfully, I had my warm winter jacket which proved to be very useful for someone like me who is cold 99% of the time. Packing appropriately is something I still can’t perfect, no matter how many trips I take around Europe 😉
Our chosen place of stay was a campsite, also advertised as the northernmost camping in the world, that was right next to the airport. The first minutes of being surrounded by such surreal landscapes was indeed a memorable (and completely new) experience. After we went to the campsite and learned that there had been a mix-up with dates due to our confusing late-night arrival, we actually didn’t have any tent to sleep in the first night/morning! There was however a warm house with facilities that campers used, where we decided to leave bags and go explore the surroundings on foot. Since Svalbard’s location means that there’s almost 24 hours daylight in summer (of course the opposite in winter), the fact that it was 2 AM in the morning didn’t bother us at all.
The location of campsite was very scenic. Many glaciers could be seen on the distance, and we were surrounded by fjords and sea. Unreal! There was a bird lagoon in front of the campsite where Arctic birds had just bred and were fiercely protecting their young ones. On walking along the path near bird lagoon, we were attacked by the aggressive Arctic Tern! It came as a shock and I was slightly bothered. Stasiek however, as always, was more fascinated than disturbed by the bird’s fierce screeching and attempt to peck our heads.
Exploring Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s capital
We continued walking beyond the bird lagoon to the direction of Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s capital and the world’s northern most permanently inhabited city of more than a thousand people. On walking along the empty road, we noticed that the island didn’t have any trees! It was only patches of green grass and small, colorful flowers that bloomed. We also noticed the global seed vault that houses all known seeds of crops and plants from around the world in the event of a natural or nuclear disaster, at the hills near airport. We had binoculars and we made good use of them in this wild environment where everything seemed vast and distant.
On the first day, we walked to Longyearbyen town, with the majestic views of fjords and Greenland sea stretching before our eyes. It was cloudy the whole time, but it was never dark. Turns out that Svalbard is getting more and more popular with tourists, and that Saturday we saw groups of tourists exiting their cruise ship for what I assume was a one day stopover in Svalbard.
It was quite fascinating and strange to walk on the streets of the most populated city on Svalbard that had one supermarket, one shopping center, just a couple of restaurants and so on. You get the idea. The city is surrounded by such jaw-dropping natural beauty that I couldn’t believe where in the world I was. We went to a souvenir shop themed with polar bears and got fridge magnets. The prices were eye-watering and wallet-draining like elsewhere on mainland Norway and it applied to everything, except maybe alcohol due to Svalbard being a tax-free zone.
We came across many interesting places in Longyearbyen, like the world’s northernmost car dealer (Toyota), world’s northernmost Lutheran church, world’s northernmost school, northernmost art gallery, northernmost cinema, northernmost sushi restaurant (what 😀 ) and the city itself being the world’s northernmost permanently inhabited city. The houses were typical Nordic style, wooden and painted with a monotone of some bright color while the parking spaces near the houses and apartments were filled with snow scooters, reminding us how heavy snow and harsh winters are a permanent affair for its residents.
We finished walking around the entire town in about 2 hours until we reached mountains on one side and what seemed like gateway to the Arctic wilderness on the other side as made aware by this sign which is ubiquitous across Svalbard:
We didn’t have any rifles on us, so we didn’t go further as polar bears are a serious threat with an extremely high chance of fatality in case it attacks. It was a strange sight to see people walking around with slinging rifles on their bodies.
Biking around the campsite and to the seed vault area
On one day, we rented bikes and went around the campsite and Lonyearbyen. We learned that a way to stop Arctic terns from pecking you on the head (ouch!) is to raise your hand in the air and make a circular motion. Passing what seemed like a tiny, deserted village (was not) set in the most scenic location between mountains and sea is something I’ll never forget. It felt like these people were so far away from the craziness of the world.
The landscapes reminded me of Iceland, which has been my dream destination for almost 10 years now. The sea looked fantastic and I never knew that a beach at an Arctic location (!!!) could look so pretty and have its own appeal.
It wasn’t an easy task riding a bicycle uphill towards the global seed vault. Every time I looked around however, I had to pinch myself to remind that the natural beauty around was real.
It was a freeing and humbling experience, to be surrounded by such vast nature and virtually no people. We enjoyed panoramic views of the sea and the fjords from the location of seed vault. Global seed vault is not open to anyone (obviously) except authorized people and its gray concrete structure is nowhere near pretty, however it’s the symbolism that is truly iconic.
Thanks for reading! Stay tuned to read part two of the series on Svalbard. Update: Click here for part two.