Hammerfest: the northernmost city in the world

“Reindeers have the right-of-way,” they grunted, these two, as they crossed the road in front of me, forcing me to hit the brakes hard enough for the seat belt to really fasten. They then proceeded to attack someone’s front yard. No need to trim bushes here.

Hammerfest: the northernmost city in the world

Driving into Hammerfest on a sunny September afternoon, I immediately took to it. The wooden houses were a veritable palette of colours. A bright green house had a steep roof which looked fun to slide down on a frisky winter day. A midnight blue one with latticed windows peeked through trees behind a white picket fence. This was cosy!

Through my windscreen, I spotted at least four people busy painting houses. The fierce weather up here requires frequent coats of paint, so you might as well be creative and bold. If you don’t like the colour, you can always change it next year.

Very few buildings pre-date World War II. Towards the end of war, the retreating Nazis weren’t going to make it easy for the advancing Russians. They burned most of Northern Norway, Hammerfest included. However, the inhabitants weren’t deterred. After the war, they bravely returned to the devastated city and rebuilt it. It’s a story of courage and optimism and this spirit is noticeable even today.

The northernmost city in the world

Hammerfest

At 70° 39′ N, Hammerfest has long been considered the northernmost city in the world. But is it? There are certainly settlements further north in the world. At 78° 13′ N, Longyearbyen on Svalbard is the furthest north of them all.

But what’s a city anyway? Longyearbyen has a mere 2000 residents. Hammerfest, on the other hand, was granted city status as far back as 1789, and with nearly 10000 inhabitants, it’s at least safe to say Hammerfest is the northernmost city in the world of a significant size. Former deputy mayor Kristine Jørstad Bock once summed it up: “It lies in the soul of everyone in Hammerfest that they live in the world’s northernmost city. We’re born and raised with that.”

Arriving in town, I was greeted by a large polar bear. Not a real one – contrary to popular belief, polar bears do not roam the streets of Norway. While you’re here, you can join The Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society, committed to preserving the Arctic way of life. You can only join by showing up, so the silver and enamel membership pin is quite exclusive.

Isbjørn, Hammerfest

The Barents Sea and the natural harbour have always been the basis for life up here. Shipping and fishing are the traditional industries, supplemented by natural gas. Since the 2006-opening of Snøhvit Natural Gas Field, just 140 km offshore, Hammerfest has become somewhat of a boomtown. Other alternative forms of energy are also being explored, thus keeping with tradition, as this was the first city in Northern Europe to install street lights, the alternative energy of the day in 1891.

Struve and his geodetic arc

If you’re in Hammerfest, you’ve been further north in the world than most. And if you’ve stopped in front of this column, you’ve also seen the world’s second most northern UNESCO World Heritage site (surpassed only by Russia’s Wrangel Island, which at 71°14′N is less than 1° nearer the North Pole).

Meridianstøtten

The column commemorates astronomer Friedrich Wilhelm Georg Struve’s project to measure the exact size and shape of the earth. The Struve Geodetic Arc is a chain of 34 survey points reaching from Hammerfest to the Black Sea, passing through 10 countries along the way. The points are marked in various way on its route southwards – it could be a hole drilled in a rock, an iron cross, a cairn, or an obelisk or column, as here in Hammerfest.

If you’re into world records, you might also like to have a look at St. Michael’s, the world’s northernmost Catholic church.

Kirkegårdsbukt

Kirkegårdsbukt means Cemetery Bay. An intriguing name. And twilight seemed just the right time for a bit of stumbling about in ruins.  At Kirkegårdsbukt, archaeologists have uncovered traces of settlements dating back to the Stone Age, more than 5000 years ago.

I had the area all to myself; deliciously spooky in the swiftly approaching darkness. A gentle breeze wafted the tang of salt ocean air, tickling my nose. This would make an excellent setting for a crime novel. Perhaps featuring a naked body washed up on shore with ancient symbols carved on the left upper thigh…

I wondered how it must have been 5000 years ago, living in a turf cabin by the sea, occasionally warding off warrior tribes from Russia and doing a spot of rock carving. Probably not bad, I decided. No commuting to work, no rushing home to pick the kids up from kindergarten, plenty of fish in the sea and reindeer skin to keep you warm.

On the way back to town, outside the cute little airport, another pair of reindeer – a teenager and her younger brother, I think – crossed the street. They really are lovely animals; ethereal almost, with their extraordinary, long antlers. A Bombardier Dash 8 taking off soon drowned out the distinctive clicking sound of their hooves as they faded into the night.

To the locals reindeer are mostly annoying, since they eat shrubs and flowers. Anything willing to grow in this harsh climate is protected. Trees don’t grow naturally so they’re planted and treated with the utmost care, including a nice, snug winter wrapping.

Hammerfest
Driving back into the northernmost city in the world, lights were on in every house, brightening up the dark sky. Every window was a warm pool of light and I felt very welcome.

Next morning saw me up bright and early so as not to miss the northbound Hurtigruten. (Internationally, Hutigruten is mostly thought of as a cruise ship. Up here, it’s local transport, and the shortest route between Hammerfest and North Cape.)

As I watched Hammerfest vanish in the distance, I felt somewhat melancholic. It was a lively and colourful place, this remote outpost close to the North Pole. I expected it to be cold and bleak and grey. Instead, I found it warm and inviting.

Hammerfest practicals

Hammerfest

When should you visit Hammerfest? If you want to experience the midnight sun, she (the sun is feminine in Norwegian) is up 24/7 between mid-May and early August. I’m more attracted to the enigmatic dark polar night period – no sun at all between mid-November and mid-January, and the chance of seeing the spectacular Northern Lights are greatest during this period. If you like festivals, Hammerfest will tempt you with a dance festival in spring, a beer festival in summer and a polar night festival in November.

unesco logo

The meridian column in Hammerfest is the northernmost survey point of Struve Geodetic Arc, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Here are more UNESCO World Heritage sites we’ve visited around the world.

This is an updated and shortened version of my article on Boots’n’All. I’ve left out an odd dialogue with a not-very-cooperative transport company representative. I’ve also left out Odd. And his recipe for a drink which will make you the star of the party. Pop over if you’re curious.

21 Responses to “Hammerfest: the northernmost city in the world”

  1. Megan 22 January 2014 1900 #

    i seriously cant wait to explore this region of norway one of these days. i always fly away from norway when i have time off because its expensive to travel here, but now that im slowly making more of an income, i want to prioritize the country that i live in a bit more!
    Megan recently posted..No Disguises Needed. Welcome to Unapologetic Bishkek.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch
      Anne-Sophie Redisch 25 January 2014 1905 #

      There’s heaps to see, but great distances, so you need time. Summer is my favourite time to explore here up north. The day lasts forever, love it.

  2. Ana O 23 January 2014 0201 #

    Those houses look so cheerful! I would love to visit Hammerfest. I’ve been to the southernmost city, Ushuaia (Argentina) so now I need to cover the north end.

    Any Scandinavian crime writer would write a great story set in that beautiful place.
    Ana O recently posted..My Istanbul: Haghia Sophia

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch
      Anne-Sophie Redisch 25 January 2014 1906 #

      Exactly how I’m thinking. After Hammerfest, I had an urge to visit Ushuaia. Still haven’t, but it’s very, very high on my list.

  3. Muza-chan 23 January 2014 1014 #

    Great photos… the city looks amazing…
    Muza-chan recently posted..Japanese superstitions, the broken geta

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch
      Anne-Sophie Redisch 25 January 2014 1907 #

      It’s a special place.

  4. Mette 23 January 2014 1835 #

    I thought Thule in Greenland was the northernmost city in the world. Goes to show the national bias of geography lessons.
    Mette recently posted..Bacon wrapped dates

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch
      Anne-Sophie Redisch 25 January 2014 1910 #

      Haha, true. Thule is further north than Hammerfest, but south of Longyearbyen. And Thule only has about 650 inhabitants.

  5. Corinne 24 January 2014 1351 #

    I love this. I so want to go. I want to see the Struve point and who doesn’t want to see reindeer?
    Corinne recently posted..Durian – Stinky Fruit or a Must-have Delicacy?

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch
      Anne-Sophie Redisch 25 January 2014 1910 #

      They’re so lovely – and curious. I once had a reindeer trying to stick his head through my car window.

  6. Leigh 24 January 2014 1655 #

    Great article Sophie – it makes me want to go – on both the summer and the winter solstice.
    I think reindeer are cute and have never thought of them in terms of being bothersome.
    Leigh recently posted..Getting Active in Montreal: 10 Fun Winter Outings

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch
      Anne-Sophie Redisch 25 January 2014 1913 #

      I think the northerners view them as some people see deer here further south – as someone who eats all the raspberries and wrecks the flower beds.

  7. budget jan 25 January 2014 0040 #

    Polar Night Festival it is then. Love the article and the town looks so attractive. Well with a new coat of paint every year it is sure to :)
    budget jan recently posted..Fantastic Friday Taxis and Mosque Istanbul

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch
      Anne-Sophie Redisch 25 January 2014 1913 #

      Bright and colourful :)

  8. Mary 25 January 2014 0840 #

    How can you not want to visit a place with polar bear greetings and reindeer roaming the street? What a cool and charming place. It’s also a hard place to pass up with visions of the Northern Lights and what sounds like an awesome polar night festival. I’m inspired to visit no matter what time of year.
    Mary recently posted..Touring Biosphere 2: Where Science Lives

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch
      Anne-Sophie Redisch 25 January 2014 1914 #

      Hope you’ll make it, Mary :)

  9. Marisol@TravelingSolemates 26 January 2014 1835 #

    Interesting post. I have not heard of Hammerfest before. It certainly piqued my interest. Since I visited Iceland in November I’ve been intrigued by the northern countries. I found so much beauty in the iceland despite the harshness of the climate and and had so much respect for the people for being so hardy to endure such harshness. And it looks like its the same in this northernmost of all cities. I would certainly consider visiting Hammerfest anytime of the year.
    I enjoyed reading the long version of your article. I thought your conversation with the transport company rep was hilarious. And I think I’ll give Odd’s coffee a try when I visit the city:)
    Marisol@TravelingSolemates recently posted..Bhutanese Mask Dances at a Festival in Bumthang

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch
      Anne-Sophie Redisch 27 January 2014 1446 #

      Stark but beautiful. Much like the desert, only the opposite.

  10. Larry 1 February 2014 1015 #

    This place seems way more urbanized than comparable communities in the Canadian Arctic … thanks for the city guide!
    Larry recently posted..Things to Do in the Capital Region of the USA!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch
      Anne-Sophie Redisch 2 February 2014 1744 #

      Yes, this is a city. Of sorts :)

  11. Deb 3 May 2014 1300 #

    I gotta go there. We’ve been to the Southernmost city (Ushuaia) so I will have to check out the Northernmost. We’re not ones to make lists of places we’ve been, but for some reason, I think it would be cool to say I’ve been to the Northernmost and Southernmost city. :) A silly little goal to add to my life list. Plus, I have yet to see polar bears in the wild, so this gives me a good excuse!

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