I visited Svalbard mainly to truly experience the High Arctic and see its stunning beauty up close. However, I've also always wanted to visit Russia and there's no other place in the world where you can actually do so without the need of a visa.
As you may know, the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard is a visa-free zone, but belongs to Norway. Due to the Svalbard Treaty of 1920, though, all nations that signed the contract have access to the land and so far, only Russia has made use of that right, which resulted in the establishment of several little Russian mining villages, like Pyramiden, Grumant and Barentsburg.
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Pyramiden is probably the most popular among these villages as it's completely deserted nowadays and only inhabited by a few local guides in the summer, as well as countless of birds and the occasional polar bear.
Unfortunately, due to pack ice, Pyramiden can't always be visited in early summer, so when we visited Svalbard in mid-June, we decided to play it safe and head to Barentsburg (and thus, passing by Grumant) instead.
It's a decision I didn't regret as Barentsburg is a place like no other I've ever seen - and I'm saying this even though I spent a couple of weeks in the northernmost village of Norway and Europe, which, equally remote and unique, was nothing compared to how bizarre and different Barentsburg is!
In this article, I'd like to show you around the village and tell you everything you need to know in order to visit Barentsburg yourself when you're headed to Svalbard!
Barentsburg in a nutshell
Barentsburg is the second-biggest settlement on Svalbard with a little less than 500 inhabitants, located 55km from Longyearbyen. The village was named after the famous Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz and is mainly inhabited by Russian and Ukrainian coal miners and their families.
Coal mining in the village started in 1932, although the village originally had been founded by a Dutch mining company in the 1920s - hence the name.
Nowadays, the village offers all amenities you'd need in order to have a decent life: from a swimming pool and gym to a bar, a brewery, a hotel and restaurant, and even Russia's northernmost embassy (Barentsburg still is technically Norway after all).
Most coal miners who come here to work only stay 2 years to earn money; they earn more in Barentsburg than they would in mainland Russia/the Ukraine as living conditions in the Arctic are understandably quite harsh.
The village also earns from tourism, though not as much as its sister town of Longyearbyen.
How to get to Barentsburg
There are no roads between Longyearbyen and Barentsburg, so you'd have to go on a snowmobile tour in winter or a boat trip in summer. The village also has a helicopter airport but as of today, the flights aren't for tourism purposes, so only locals use the helicopter to get around.
The trip with the snowmobile usually takes around 4 hours and involves one (or several) photo stops along the way. You can find an overview of all snowmobile tours that are being offered via Visit Svalbard here.
The summer boat trip takes between 1 and 3 hours, depending on the ship and tour. Some tours include a visit to a glacier on their journey while you can also head to Barentsburg directly by means of a high speed vessel. You can find an overview of all boat tours on Svalbard via Visit Svalbard here.
On our trip, we headed straight to Barentsburg with Arctic Explorer, with whom we already experienced an amazing whale watching safari in Tromsø earlier. The trip only took 1 hour and 15 minutes and we were greeted by a local guide at the harbour in order to go on a guided walk around the village (after climbing the almost 300 steps to reach the village from the harbour first), followed by some free-time before heading back to Longyearbyen.
On the way back, we were able to see some glaciers in the distance, but the highlight of the boat trip itself, other than visiting Barentsburg, was the detour to Grumant and Fuglefjella - the 576m high bird mountain.
Grumant is another former Soviet mining village, which, much like Pyramiden, was left abandoned, while Fuglefjella is the home of thousands of birds in the summer months - even puffins!
Fuglefjella - the bird mountain - is a 576 m high mountain, situated about halfway between Longyearbyen and Barentsburg. Thousands of birds nest here each summer - even puffins, I've been told! 🐦 . You can admire the mountain on boat excursions from Longyearbyen to Barentsburg, or on boat trips on the Ice Fjord in general. ❤️ #snowintromso
You see, Svalbard has countless of gems to offer!
What to see and do in Barentsburg
We spent in total 1 1/2 hours in Barentsburg and while that technically was more than enough time to get a good impression of the village, I would have loved to stay for a night and explore the place more thoroughly.
Here's what there's to see and do in Barentsburg:
1. discover Street Art
Barentsburg might seem like the bleakest place on earth but the little village is actually full of street art! In order to make life for the coal miners and their families more colourful and bright - especially during the long and dark winters - murals have been created all over the village.
Some of them come with old Soviet propaganda, while others are simply there to make life easier for Barentsburg inhabitants - for instance, this piece of a forest that reminds people of home. There is no tree growth on Svalbard after all...
2. Visit the orthodox chapel
The little wooden chapel was built in 1996 to honour the 141 victims of a plane crash that happened in the area earlier that year. Svalbard is a very tricky area for pilots with challenging weather conditions, and while this plane crash is 1 of 7 that ever happened on the archipelago, it was the one with most fatalities.
The chapel is still in use and can be visited free of charge, though, make sure to respect and not disturb the locals that come here to pray.
3. Get a visa
Barentsburg has its own Russian consulate - the northernmost of its kind, of course - so, if you have some time and the consulate happens to be open during your visit, why not try and get a visa to Russia? Or at least a stamp for your passport...
4. taste some vodka and craft beer
No visit to Russia - whether it's actual Russian soil or just Svalbard - without tasting Vodka! You can do so for incredibly little money at Barentsburg's Red Bear Pub & Brewery (also the northernmost of its kind) or the local Hotel Barentsburg!
5. buy some locally-made russian nesting dolls
You can't quite visit Russia without bringing some Russian dolls home from your trip, am I right?! The ones you can buy at the local souvenir store (called Polar Star) in Barentsburg are all handmade in the village itself - a tradition that is being passed down from generation to generation.
6. visit the pomor museum
Yes, Barentsburg has a museum! At the Pomor Museum you can learn more about the first Arctic explorers and trappers to live on Svalbard, as well as the local flora and fauna. There even is a dinosaur footprint to admire!
7. get a taste for russian cuisine
Russian cuisine is, of course, more than just Vodka and beer, so why not try and taste a few dishes while you're there? The local hotel serves dinner to its guests and you can also get a bite to eat at the local pub/brewery.
8. Spot the reindeer
There are reindeer everywhere you go on Svalbard and also Barentsburg is home to a few of Santa's little helpers!
9. say hello to lenin
Last but not least, you can't visit Barentsburg without paying Lenin a quick visit. Time really seems to stand still in this part of the world...
Where to stay in Barentsburg
You aren't exactly spoiled with choice when it comes to accommodation in Barentsburg, as there are only two options:
Nothing fancy but incredible value for money! All rooms come with a magnificent view of the fjord or mountains, as well as an en-suite bathroom, TV, WIFI, fridge and kettle. The hotel also serves breakfast and dinner, and there's a bar if you'd like to try Vodka.
Note: These hotel rooms are even cheaper than most of the hostel rooms you can get in Longyearbyen!
Probably the cheapest rooms in all of Svalbard, Hostel Pomor offers basic 2- and 3-bed rooms with access to shared bathrooms and a communal kitchen. If you'd like to make a visit to Svalbard work on a budget, you better stay here and avoid Longyearbyen (as far as that's possible) altogether.
Are you curious to learn more about Svalbard?
Here's a collection of articles that might help:
- Svalbard Archive of The Culture Map
- An icy Arctic adventure – Longyearbyen to Barentsburg by boat //
- Svalbard Travel Tips: The land where polar bears outnumber people // Megan Starr
- Things to do in Svalbard // Resrutt