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A Weekend in Kirkenes

Kirkenes in winter

A very different part of Norway.

When the opportunity arose to visit an Arctic iron ore mine for one of my freelance writing clients, I jumped at the chance. Whenever I travel in Norway, I love to try and get under the skin of a place and figure out what it's like to live somewhere, so I made the journey a few days early and spent the weekend in the city.

Where is KirkenesKirkenes is in eastern Finnmark, a part of Norway that even most Norwegians know very little about. It's around 500km north of the Arctic circle and is just a few miles away from the Russian border. It's further east than all of Sweden and almost all of Finland, and as far east as Istanbul. I know that's a real head-scratcher, but check a map, it's true!

Its proximity to Russia gives the town a truly unique culture. I heard just as much Russian spoken in shops and on the streets as I did Norwegian. During my first day I barely heard the Norwegian language at all.

Many Russian citizens live and work locally, but even more travel across the border on weekends to visit relatives or to buy products that are hard to get in Russia.

Norwegian Russian bilingual street sign

Norwegian Russian bilingual shop signs

Right now the sun rises for two hours and the days can be described as “light” from around 9am to midday. Having the sun so low on the horizon for so much of the day leads to some truly spectacular sunrises and sunsets.

Approaching KKN Høybuktmoen Airport

Bøkfjorden

Arctic sunset

Sunset over an Arctic open mine

In just a few more days, the sun sets for the final time this year. It won't be seen again in Kirkenes until mid-January. I suppose that's just something you get used to.

The town is most famous amongst visitors for being the end of the line of the famous Hurtigruten coastal voyage. The ships dump a steady stream of tourists into the town on a daily basis, and from what I saw, most have absolutely no idea where to go or what to do next!

Hurtigruten northern terminus

A devastating history

You can't miss the impact of World War II in Kirkenes. The town was devastated by the scorched earth Nazi campaign at the end of the war, along with much of Finnmark. The story is long and complex, but it's one of the reasons that relations with Russia remain reasonably good in this part of the world. If you're interested in finding out more, check out this interview with Vincent Hunt, author of Fire and Ice.

The Border Museum offers visitors a glimpse into these troubled times. The centrepiece is a Russian fighter plane that was pulled from a nearby lake and restored by the Russian army.

Be warned – the museum is a short uphill walk from the town centre, but that short walk feels a lot longer in -14C weather! Back in the city there is a bomb shelter (open by arrangement) and a number of statues dedicated to wartime.

Sør-Varanger Grenselandmuseet

Kirkenes war bunker

Living in Kirkenes

There's no doubt who's boss in Kirkenes. Mother Nature. It might seem an inhospitable place, but a lot of people I talked to live here and love it.

Reasons varied, but the themes were clear. The great outdoors dominates life in the city, from the shipping industry and visiting Hurtigruten to the sporting opportunities of hiking, skiing, fishing, sailing and more. The weather and light conditions take some getting used to (and not just in the winter – permanent daylight in the summer presents its own set of problems!) but to local people it's just normal life.

Living in Kirkenes

Living in Finnmark

The journalist in me started asking questions: what on earth do people do here?

Kirkenes is an industrial town, home to shipping and mining companies that employ a big chunk of the local workforce. As a regional centre, various public administration jobs are available, and of course the service industry driven largely by Hurtigruten.

Sydvaranger Kai

During my stay I ate in three decent restaurants: the hotel, the Ritz pizzeria (despite a rough looking exterior, the interior was plush and welcoming, and the pizza delicious!) and the Surf n Turf restaurant. Eating out in Kirkenes isn't cheap, but several good options are available.

There's a surprising number of shops including several supermarkets, Cubus, Dressman, G-Sport, Kitch'n, a Bohus home superstore and even two car dealerships. Despite the small population, this is still a regional hub.

The region even has its own English language news service. The Independent Barents Observer, which reports in English and Russian, and I often include some of their articles in the Norway Weekly newsletter.

Ice stadium in Kirkenes

Kirkenes Church

While exploring the town, I called in at Narvesen several times as it was the easiest and cheapest place to grab a coffee and warm up. I was surprised to see so many people in there gambling. At one point there was a queue of four people in front of me, each one of them buying scratch cards or other lottery games. Four other people were crowded around the gaming machines in the corner.

People have told me in the past that gambling has been a problem in the north of Norway. I have no way of knowing whether gambling is just a fun pastime or a dangerous addiction here, but either way it's obviously popular.

Could I live in the harsh environment of Finnmark?

Perhaps for a few months, yes, but any longer would take some real adjustment. On the flip side, growing up here as a child must be fantastic. Several times I passed groups of small kids having a blast in the snow – and of course, they're already super capable on skis!

I won't recommend Kirkenes as a place to visit exclusively, but if you're on a tour of Finnmark or joining/leaving Hurtigruten, it's well worth spending an extra day or so exploring the area.

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About the Author: David Nikel

Originally from the UK, David now lives in Trondheim and was the original founder of Life in Norway back in 2011. He now works as a freelance writer for technology companies in Scandinavia.

6 Comments

  1. Hey, great blog. The town is on my bucket list when I eventually do my road trip of Norway (driving from Stevenage, UK) to the top and back down via Finland. I don’t think there is a blog on this town anywhere else on the web, so great work! Found your website today and will be coming back for sure.

  2. Thank you for the article David. l am curious too about the daily round of the people in Kirkenes, since I saw the spot on the map, with the name of the town next to it. I’ve imagined that people work all day and drink all night 🙂 To live in a small, icy town on the top of the world seems very charming to me. But as you said above – may be for a few months or couple of years. I am not suprised that there is so much signs in russian. In my homeland – Bulgaria it’s the same situation in the Black Sea resorts. Seems very fun to me.
    Hope to visit it someday.
    P.S. I haven’t visited your blog for a couple of weeks, and I see that the ‘face’ of the blog is a little bit changed 🙂

  3. Thanks for the article! I booked a Nordic Visitor cruise to the Lofoten Islands and North Cape, landing in Kirkenes at 10:00 early June, 2017. Enjoyed your restaurant recommendations! Thought I would see shops with Sami gifts.
    Loved the book We Die Alone by David Howarth, story of survival of Jan Baalsrud. One of the reasons I want to visit the north cape.

  4. I would love to reach some relatives there but have no clue how to do it. My dad used to get letters and have them translated and Visa Versa. Since my dad passed away I don’t know how to find anyone especially when the last name is Erickson (Leif and Ferdnanda).

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