Visiting Pyramiden, Svalbard — A Russian Ghost Town

I’ve been in Longyearbyen for the past couple of days, which is the world’s northernmost town. In summer there’s 24 hours of sunlight, while in winter there’s 24 hours of darkness.

I’m still forming my opinion on Longyearbyen as such, though have to share what we did yesterday, which was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. It’s not often that I write on the blog in detail about the destination, but I’ll make an exception for yesterday.

When we arrived in Longyearbyen we went to the travel center, and asked which tours we should do, as we hadn’t planned anything in advance. The lady helping us recommend a trip to Pyramiden.

I had no expectations going in, other than knowing that it was a roughly two hour ferry ride from Longyearbyen. The entire trip would take about six hours — two hours to get there, two hours spent there, and two hours to get back.

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The nice thing about taking boats in Svalbard is that the views are incredible, so it’s definitely not a boring two hour trip, as you see everything from mountains to glaciers.

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But when we arrived in Pyramiden, my mind was blown. I won’t talk too much about the history in this post, since you can read about that on Wikipedia. To very briefly summarize the history of Pyramiden, though:

  • Pyramiden was a Swedish settlement and coal-mining town in Svalbard; it was sold to the Soviet Union in 1927
  • Pyramiden started growing in the 1940s, and the population eventually increased to over 1,000 people
  • Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the last coal was extracted from Pyramiden in 1998, and the same year the last person left
  • Pyramiden was a complete ghost town from 1998 until 2007
  • There’s now a hotel operating in Pyramiden, Tulpan Hotel; as a result, there’s a population of eight people, who operate the hotel and provide tours
  • There’s no internet or signal in Pyramiden, so they’re completely isolated; they get helicopter shipments twice a month, plus there’s a ferry in summer to bring tourists, but aside from that they have no contact with the outside world

We spent a total of two hours in Pyramiden (that’s how long the ferry stops there for), and it was fascinating.

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We were greeted by the Russian guide, who had a gun in the event that there are polar bears (which is a serious problem here, apparently).

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I’ve never been to a ghost town before, let alone one as isolated as this, which has virtually no contact with the outside world. The coolest part was that you could actually enter so many of the buildings of the former town, and they’re all in their original state.

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The town is called “Pyramiden” because the top of the mountain near the town looks a bit like a pyramid… apparently.

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It’s pretty incredible how much they built up the town over the few decades it was inhabited. Obviously they had a lot of housing because they needed room for workers, but they had a basketball court, swimming pool, school, etc. It was a legitimate town with a main street and everything.

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Being able to enter the buildings was surreal and eerie.

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The only building that’s actually inhabited is the hotel.

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This won’t be rebranded as a Park Hyatt or St. Regis anytime soon, as it’s very basic. The hotel has both “modern” and “Soviet style” rooms, with the latter having to share a bathroom.

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The hotel’s architecture was as you’d expect, and probably hasn’t changed all that much in the past several decades.

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I was fascinated by the people working here. Could you imagine living in such a remote place with seven other people and without any contact with the outside world? Crazy!

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Eventually we got back on the boat to Longyearbyen.

Svalbard (the archipelago with Longyearbyen, Pyramiden, etc.) is so picturesque, and the 24 hours of daylight in summer makes me feel like I’m in an alternative universe. What I enjoy most about travel aren’t museums, or even landmarks. I tend to think I can learn a lot about them through Google Images, Wikipedia, YouTube videos, etc.

Instead what I’m fascinated by are the vibes of places, and this place had an incredible one. I can’t imagine what life was like here back in the day, and perhaps even more so, what life is like in Pyramiden nowadays for the eight people living there. I asked our guide what he does in his free time, and he explained that so far this season he has already read 100 books, and he’s having 100 more shipped to him.

Being able to freely roam around deserted buildings in a ghost town was one of the cooler things I’ve ever done.

My only regret is not having spent a night in Pyramiden (and I never thought I’d say that about a place without any contact to the outside world).

If you have the chance to visit Svalbard (and in particular Pyramiden), I can’t recommend it enough. This trip has been incredible so far.

Pyramiden was ranked by National Geographic as one of the top 10 ghost towns in the world, so now I have a real interest in visiting the other ghost towns.

Comments

  1. Yes this is what happens when you leave the comforts of an airport’s premier lounge — you really experience the wonders of travel!

  2. Nice to read about a destination on One Mile at a Time. You travel so many places and share so little insight aside from hotels and flights and airports. This is an informative piece.

  3. I would agree with Rick. I think you are missing out on an opportunity with your blog as someone who travels as much as you would bring a unique travel perspective to some different areas of the world.

  4. Thank’s Lucky – your reports are always very interesting and inspiring! I am a Norwegian citizen, and visited Longyerbyen and Pyramiden last year with my children – and I totally agree with you: Next time I will spend a night at the hotel, just to feel the total isolation from the rest of the world. Very, very fascinating. Thanks for sharing your thoughts 🙂

  5. Super interesting location. I’ve never traveled in the extrem northern locations, including Norway and Russia. It’s great your traveling to and reviewing these locations as there is not as many write ups. Is the Hyatt PH in Moscow coming up? That property seems like a great stay. I hope you and Ford enjoy the journeys together.

  6. Just echoing what Ric and worldtraveller73 said…but it’s nice to see more than just the trip reports. Don’t get me wrong, we all love to read about the product before we try it out, but I sometimes feel you’re maybe missing out on some of the fun of the trip. I enjoy getting there just as much as you do, but all this globetrotting without seeing anything seems boring to me. But to each his own, and I’m glad you had fun and something grabbed your attention that wasn’t a shiny new F or J hard product.

  7. Try using shift f7 or the mac equivalent for the thesaurus. It’s really a fascinating tool

  8. Many who go to Svalbard end up choosing between the ferry to the working russian settlement and the russian ghost town. Chose the settlement. It a great journey also, and to a fascinating, very isolated town.

  9. Know exactly what you mean and completely agree about vibes vs museums and the like. Getting a sense of a place is so much more interesting. Would like to know which 100 books the person you mentioned read. Safe journeys. Thanks so much!

  10. Who takes care of the hotel in the wintertime? I’ve got writers block and staying there in the cold, dark days when it’s closed is just the thing to help me. My wife and little boy seem to like the idea as well. 😉

  11. What a fascinating place. I think it’s awesome that it’s so isolated – you could really get away from everything there.

    Thank you for sharing!

  12. Now that was interesting. Tired of hearing about first in Lufthansa or Singapore:)
    You should try to visit this place in January, assuming you can even get there. The cold would be other worldly.
    Amazing scenery. Thanks for posting.

  13. I visited Spitsbergen some years ago on a 19 day cruise leaving from and returning to Copenhagen. In addition to the North Cape and Norwegian fjords we spent two nights in Longyearbyen. I don’t think Spitsbergen is worthy of being a destination on its own, so for those who have the time combining it with a Norwegian fjords cruise (preferably on a smaller ship) is highly recommended.

  14. Excellent post, Lucky.

    Since you enjoyed this, maybe you should give some more thought to a possible Ukraine International Airlines trip? Kyiv is certainly a worthwhile city, and if you plan ahead (essential) you could visit the Chernobyl Exclusion Area. That would certainly make for some great pics. And if Top Gear can go there, so can you.

    On the other hand, if you really enjoy the post-Soviet industrial town feel with a more active population, perhaps you could consider Aktau, Kazakhstan. There are no street names, so all addresses are composed from a series of numbers. And you could fly there on SCAT. Imagine the fun you’d have with that?

  15. Pyramiden was Swedish before it was sold to the Soviet Union, not Russian, 😉

    Svalbard is amazing. I’ve been there in the winter before, and will visit again in September, including a tour of Pyramiden, which I’m very much looking forward to.

    BTW, I hope you realize just how ridiculously lucky you are with the weather! 😉

  16. Having visited Russia many times since 1993, and having lived there since 2002, I can assure you that especially the interior photos look very soviet. They could have been taken in an one of many many cities across the former Soviet Union. The Russia that you will see as a tourist is much different. The tourist areas of Moscow are a different world than what you just saw.

  17. You start the post by saying: “I’ve been in Longyearbyen for the past couple of days…” but in the next paragraph you reference “we.” Which was it?

  18. @Unhoeflich has some excellent suggestions. A trip to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is certainly unforgettable. It’s a haunting yet majestic experience.

    For a truly trippy experience head down to Uzbekistan sometime. Tashkent is a time warp back to the Soviet era in terms of architecture and attitude. The butt-ugly industrial city of Nukus is home to the Savitsky Collection, an amazing museum devoted to Soviet realism and avant-garde art. And then for something completely different you have the ancient & beautiful Islamic cities of Samarkand and Bukhara. I love Uzbekistan.

    And I am loving these destination posts that have been popping up on OMAAT.

  19. @ John: Agreed. I live in a small town in Primorsky Krai, and the photos remind me of so many places here in Artem. The style, the sports areas, etc. The town is in many ways stuck in Soviet times. Even the building I work in is a former “Dvoretz Kultury,” and a large statue of Lenin stands out front, and inside the theatre hasn’t changed, and there are statues and paintings from the Soviet times throughout the building, the hammer and sickle still seen in the crown molding. It’s completely different than Vladivostok, which is about 45 minutes away. But, as a guy who grew up in rural Alabama, the history, sights and culture are extremely fascinating to me.

  20. what? no picture of the bottle of water you were served on the ferry? or a description of the safety video or the seats or what brand of soap is in the lavatory on the ferry? not a complete review by Lucky!

  21. What is the cost per night for the hotel?

    I would imagine the workers have a sat phone or something along those lines. Reminds me of the shining though!

  22. Hey all, lay off a bit on Lucky. His job is to blog about the travel experience, hotels, airlines, airports. He is not a travel blogger. His preferences on how to spend his free time is not what he writes about. Yes, this was a nice ‘one-off’ because it was so unique but it seems to have led to a free for all to tell him how you think he should spend his free time. This isn’t meant to antagonize anyone, I was simply reading the comments and it seemed so negative towards Lucky that I wanted to remind us all why we read his blog and maybe if you don’t have anything positive or useful to add why post it. Safe travels.

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