When The Sunless City of Longyearbyen Finally Sees Light Again
This is how the world’s northernmost city celebrates the return of the sun after months of wintry darkness.
The properties of sound are different in Svalbard, Norway.
Each step in the snow is a deafening crunch, like clenching a bolt of velvet fabric. And the jangle of metal bullets in your pocket—necessary protection from roving polar bears—echo off the mountains, breaking the great arctic silence. Distances, too, are warped; impossible to measure with the naked eye due to the seemingly endless expanse of treeless terrain.
The stark severity of the Arctic gives way to the small city of Longyearbyen—the world’s most northerly settlement of over 1000 people—along a broad interior fjord just above the 78th parallel.
Named for John Munro Longyear, an American prospector who purchased local coal mining rights at the turn of the twentieth century, the town has since grown into a strange utopian outpost some 1300 miles due north of Oslo.
Although Svalbard is recognized as a territory of Norway, an agreement struck in 1920 known as the Spitsbergen Treaty dictates that the archipelago is a largely demilitarized zone open for visa-free residency to all citizens of the world.
45 nations have signed the pact since its creation (interestingly, North Korea was the most recent signee in 2016) and the local tourism board reports that almost 50 nationalities currently call Longyearbyen home.
Summers are long and joyous with months upon months of ceaseless daylight, but winters are lonely and brutal, with temperatures dipping well below freezing, and roughly three full months of total darkness bookended by several weeks of a faint twilight glow.
Each year, on March 8th, the sun finally makes its return and practically every citizen of Longyearbyen gathers for a manic midday celebration known as Sólfest, or Sun Fest.
This year’s festivities could not come at a better time—only two weeks prior an avalanche tore through a residential complex, and while thankfully no one was injured, the event was a haunting reminder of the perilous nature of high Arctic living, permanently displacing a handful of residents.
The skies too had been particularly colorless as of late, but on the morning of March 8th, the glimmers of light pushing through the clouds looked particularly promising.
Preparations for Sólfest start several weeks beforehand in the local elementary school. A competition takes place to draw the annual “sun mascot” and students start learning special folk music dedicated to the sun’s return.
When the big day arrives the elementary school students are the first to leave the warm confines of their classroom and start the snowy trek to Sólfest’s celebratory site.
During the time of Longyear, the sun’s return was feted on the stairs of the local hospital—the first square foot of the settlement to receive the sun’s direct rays. Today, with the old hospital long gone and replaced by a modern facility further down in the valley, the rickety wooden stairs of the old clinic remain, floating in the snow without a building attached.
Around 11.30am, with painted faces and sun-related paraphernalia, the world’s northernmost citizens begin to gather at the orphaned staircase. Custom-printed buttons are handed out featuring the winning mascot design from the local school contest as everyone finds a comfortable east-facing position in the bitter cold.
By noon the portable sound system is revved up and lyrics are handed out on bits of paper to eager chorus members. Two songs are sung in Norwegian with alacrity.
The first is an upbeat tune that sounds somewhat like a Christmas carol (clearly the composer of Santa Baby attended Sólfest at some point and ripped the song off) and the second song has a fun twangy rhythm, like Chicago’s All That Jazz (minus the fosse hands, unfortunately.)
Riotous, pagan-like chanting ricochets off the snow-capped mountains just past 12.30pm as the locals yell for the arctic sun to reveal itself. And at 12.48pm, when the sun finally makes its first appearance since late October, the chants quickly turn to overjoyed cheers.
One final song, the aptly selected Here Comes the Sun, wafts over the sound system, sung by the haunting singular voice of a gifted 15-year-old girl. Eighteen glorious minutes later, the sun gently extinguishes its fan of warm rays, tucking itself behind a neighboring peak.
The darkness begins to set in anew as special pastries are handed out to Longyearbyen’s children, and everyone makes their way to the nearby church to find warmth and platefuls of thin, waffle-combed pancakes.
From March 8th onwards, the sun begins its aggressive processional towards absolute daylight, adding a shocking 20 minutes of light with each passing day until mid-April when the midnight sun reigns unabated over the settlement of brightly colored houses.
How to get there
Considering its extreme northern positioning, Svalbard is surprisingly accessible via a direct three-hour flight from Oslo on Norwegian. Connections to and from the island are available three times a week: Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Return flights can seamlessly connect with US-bound routes.
Where to stay
Longyearbyen’s newest hotel is by far its best; Svalbard Hotell puts a sleek Scandinavian design twist on the traditional cabin aesthetic.
A long couch wraps around a crackling fire place in the lobby, which doubles as an adventure base where guests can book any number of activities like snowmobiling, dogsledding and hiking with reputable operators. Thanks to the submarine cabling laid by scientists, the wifi connection (at the hotel, and all around town) is ironically stronger here than they are in the northern part of continental Norway.
Where to eat
Huset, the world’s most northernly gourmet restaurant, is an inspiring ode to the flavors of the arctic. With nary a Minke whale in sight (a very unfortunate item on most of the other menus in Longyearbyen) the so-called Svalbard prix fixe (around US$140) includes haute reindeer sausage, bearded seal (served carpaccio-style), arctic cod, roe and a warm homemade bread bun served like an egg on a nest of twigs.