Ford and I just wrapped up an incredible three days in Longyearbyen, located in the Svalbard archipelago. Oddly enough I first learned about this place when I was collecting Club Carlson points, and noticed that Radisson had a hotel here, which claims to be the northernmost hotel in the world.
For years I’ve been putting off visiting, but we finally made it happen this summer. We had an incredible time. While I’ll have a full trip report, I wanted to share my initial thoughts. This is by no means intended to be comprehensive, but rather just random musings based on our visit:
First impressions aren’t always right
When we first arrived in Svalbard we were “greeted” by a rude associate at the Radisson Blu, and then walked into the town, which basically consisted of a bunch of buildings that looked like a mini-Ikea. We were really hungry, so ate at the first restaurant we saw, which was a Thai restaurant, also serving burgers and pizza.
Suffice to say we both looked at one another and basically wondered how we ended up here.
Over the next couple of days our experience couldn’t have been more different. We discovered a town full of gorgeous spots, people who were passionate about their island, and some of the most breathtaking scenery I’ve ever seen. More on that below.
24 hours of daylight is surreal
Longyearbyen has 24 hours of daylight for four months of the year, and 24 hours of darkness for four months of the year. I’ve never experienced anything like this before. Walking around a town at midnight in daylight is so bizarre.
I will say it wasn’t much of a challenge otherwise, though. The Radisson Blu had excellent blackout curtains, so we managed to sleep as normal.
There are a lot of Filipino & Thai workers
Before visiting, my assumption was that 99% of people in Longyearbyen would be people who had lived there for decades and decades. That’s why I was surprised by the number of Filipino and Thai people I interacted with. The city has a population of ~2,000, with at least a couple of hundred people from Asia working there. That has to be quite a climate adjustment for them!
I engaged with them every chance I had, and asked “how do you like living here?”
“I don’t mind, I make good money here I can send home to my family.”
I found their perspective on things to be especially interesting all around.
The locals LOVE living in Longyearbyen
There were two questions I asked the locals I interacted with:
- Why on earth do you live here?
- How do you deal with the extreme conditions?
I figured the honest answer would be “it’s good money,” or something like that. But instead I got the same answer from just about everyone — they visited or were supposed to stay for only a few weeks, and ended up never leaving. The scenery and the sense of community is captivating to them, and they don’t mind the extreme conditions. They even like it.
They’re proud of their “home,” and are there because they really want to be.
The weather in Svalbard is fascinating. On one hand you’re just several hundred miles from the North Pole, while on the other hand you have 24 hours of daylight.
We had unusually nice weather during our stay, or at least that’s what the locals said. It was around 50-55 degrees, but windy. So while that might not sound cold, I wore a shirt, hoodie, and then jacket over it, and was still on the cold side.
Longyearbyen as a town is surprisingly charming
As stated above, my first impression of Longyearbyen was off. Ultimately going here isn’t about the town as such, but rather about the nature surrounding it.
But if you know where to look, the town has some charming restaurants and bars.
We had dinner at Kroa, located in the center of town, and it was great.
We also had drinks at a bar across the street, located in a mini mall. I was surprised by how cool it was, given the exterior.
Pyramiden was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen
As I wrote about yesterday, we did a day trip to Pyramiden, which was a ghost town. It used to be a Soviet mining town, but has been deserted ever since. I really want to return and actually spend a night there.
Three days was the perfect amount of time for us
Everyone travels at different paces, and has different preferences. I’m the type of person who moves pretty quickly, because I’m most interested in the vibe of a place, rather than wanting to see everything. If I can get a sense of the vibe of a place I’m happy, and then I usually do more online reading about the various sites at a destination.
So for us, three days was perfect. The first day we enjoyed the town of Longyearbyen and then did a midnight cruise to a glacier.
The second day we did a day trip to Pyramiden, and had a great dinner in the city.
The last day we took ATVs to abandoned mines, which was so fun. We also napped a bit, in anticipation of our 2:30AM flight.
For us that was perfect. If we stayed any shorter I’d feel like we had missed out, while I didn’t feel like we needed to stay much longer.
Longyearbyen could use some charming hotels
I’m not talking about luxury hotels, but rather something charming. Longyearbyen’s main business nowadays is tourism, so while I don’t expect a Park Hyatt or St. Regis to pop up anytime soon, I think they’d benefit from a few nice places that take advantage of the natural beauty of the area, even if they’re not especially luxurious.
The Radisson Blu was perfectly serviceable, but had no charm whatsoever. Ultimately it wasn’t a big deal since we just slept there and spent most of our time outside our room, but for an isolated destination it’s nice for the hotel to be part of the fun.
I don’t know whether I’d rather return in winter or spring/fall
I’d definitely consider returning, though am undecided as to what time of year I’d like to return. Most people I talked to recommended coming around April or so, because there’s still snow, and you get both some daylight as well as darkness.
On one hand, I’d be fascinated to return when it’s dark 24 hours a day, though at the same time I’m not sure I could handle the temperatures. Regardless, the locals largely told me that they prefer winter and spring/fall, as there are more fun winter activities to partake in, like snowmobiling, etc.
With this portion of the journey behind us, we’re now off to Russia, which I’m equally excited about.
Are you interested in visiting Svalbard at some point?
Lucky, for a charming hotel in Longyearbyen, check out the Basecamp Hotel. I stayed there a few years ago. It's a modern building made over to resemble an old hunting lodge. It's got great atmosphere.
The reason why so many non Norwegian live and work in the Spitzbergen is because there is no need to have a working permit I think. It is an international agreement. Therefore there are also Russian mines there.
Lucky, I found your comment about charming hotels quite rich. You pretty much exclusively stay at sterile chain hotels. I can think of many adjectives to describe a Park Hyatt or St. Regis...but charming isn't one of them.
My daughter and I "jumped off" on a cruise around the archipelago to see polar bears, walrus, etc. We stopped at what must have been a different Russian mining camp because there were residents and miners. We also stayed at a hotel housed in the former mining camp lodgings. Very nice!! We stayed up late singing along. Loved it loved it!! When you go back try to visit some of the fjords around the archipelago .
As a native Norwegian I have had the opportunity to visit Svalbard, in all four seasons,
I do admire the Mid-Night sun whom I experience best in late June, however the February visits is probably best nature wise if you can stand the cold climate.
Looking forward to your full report,
The winter/spring time period is an excellent time to travel for the adventurous minded. Peaceful isolation combined with excellent views of the heavens, outdoor expeditions and with luck, views of the Northern Lights. The transition from winter to spring is more preferred sincere there are a few hours of daylight during that time, which can be important to maintain mental stability. Our four month expedition for some filming included camping for every night except the...
The winter/spring time period is an excellent time to travel for the adventurous minded. Peaceful isolation combined with excellent views of the heavens, outdoor expeditions and with luck, views of the Northern Lights. The transition from winter to spring is more preferred sincere there are a few hours of daylight during that time, which can be important to maintain mental stability. Our four month expedition for some filming included camping for every night except the first and the last. Only warning is that some of the crew suffered from psychological/behavioral issues over the extended stay, not too different from expeditions to Antarctica.
This series has been great to read and see the photos. Thanks--it is much appreciated. I had never heard of this place. Could be an interesting plan to visit.
Just got back from Svalbard myself about a week ago after a four day stay. Sorry I missed you, Lucky! I too stayed at the Radisson and agree that the place is perfectly suitable, but lacks any charm whatsoever. On the plus side, the fish and chips and the hamburger in the hotel's "Barents Bar" were both delicious; the food in the main restaurant, not so much. The Radisson started life as the dormitory for...
Just got back from Svalbard myself about a week ago after a four day stay. Sorry I missed you, Lucky! I too stayed at the Radisson and agree that the place is perfectly suitable, but lacks any charm whatsoever. On the plus side, the fish and chips and the hamburger in the hotel's "Barents Bar" were both delicious; the food in the main restaurant, not so much. The Radisson started life as the dormitory for the U.S. Olympic Team during the Lillehammer Olympics. After the games were over, the building was disassembled and moved to Longyearbyen to become a hotel. Reportedly the Spitsbergen Hotel is nicer, but not as convenient to the town center as the Radisson.
Every local I spoke to suggested that the best time to visit is in March and April as the winter temperatures are not as brutal, there's still plenty of snow, and there are more things to see and do. If I were to ever return, it would be in March or April. If you're looking for a place off the beaten path, Svalbard is the place to go. When checking air fares, compare rates from both Oslo and from Stockholm. Fares from Stockholm are often cheaper!
Thank you for the reply Phil!!
Great post, thanks. I'd love to go for Xmas just to say I was near the North Pole but then I realise it's got to be so harsh at that time of year.
I've wanted to visit Svalbard for a while but mostly to see polar bears and walruses.
If you liked Svalbard, then the Fogo Island Inn in Newfoundland is an absolute must-go. It's quite expensive (something like $750 USD/night) but it is a true, culturally-appropriate, luxury hotel in a location where icebergs literally float by.
And it goes without saying, but you must get a car and drive around Iceland's ring road...
Camped outside by the airport last year. Pretty darn awesome place, and would love to visit in winter!
Also, I don't see how a nicer charmed hotel could work in Spitsbergen. People just work and such, and as there is really a season 3 months of the year, that's all you need.
My wife is Norwegian, and we are currently planning a trip in a few years to celebrate our tenth anniversary.. Probably BOS to DUB, then to LHR, rent a car and drive to EDI (to see my grandfathers house) with a few days here and there.. Then to OSL, and a week exploring Norway.. Thanks for the report.. Trying to figure out the season we want to go..
There's about 11km of total roads on the island. Most things are easily accessible by taxi and for the best stuff you need to take a tour (boat or atv with trained guide) to anyway (tours pick up at the hotels usually). I'm sure there might be rental cars but you'd probably not get much use of it other than airport to hotel and back. Longyearbyen itself is quite walkable, but it's about a...
There's about 11km of total roads on the island. Most things are easily accessible by taxi and for the best stuff you need to take a tour (boat or atv with trained guide) to anyway (tours pick up at the hotels usually). I'm sure there might be rental cars but you'd probably not get much use of it other than airport to hotel and back. Longyearbyen itself is quite walkable, but it's about a 10 min ride to the airport.
I went in February this year and it was wonderful. There was about 2 hours of daylight (but more like dawn daylight, not full sun). I'd like to go back next summer and do Pyramiden.
And this is why you shouldn't fly all the way to somewhere just for an airport hotel stop. Appreciate the destinations while you're young and have energy and money
Would you say one would need to rent a car? Is everything within walking distance? What's the car rental company that's there (Hertz, AVIS, National, etc.)?