Vardø – ancient history meets New Arctic

Visit Vardø, the oldest town in northern Norway and the best viewpoint towards the Norwegian-Russian Arctic.


Take your car along the picturesque tundra of the Varanger Peninsula, catch one of airline company Widerøe’s propellers, or hop onboard the Hurtigruten coastal steamer and you will get to one of the most remarkable towns in northern Norway

It might seem like the most remote periphery and the end of the world. But you will soon see that this is also a center – for Norwegian Arctic history, for the Pomor trade, for regional fisheries, and also for key contemporary and upcoming activities in the Barents Sea like shipping and offshore energy-related developments.

Vardø will thrill you with it location on a windy island, connected with the mainland with Norway’s oldest underwater tunnel. It will freshen you up with its climate (this is the last stop before the North Pole). And it will amuse you with its good-humoured and friendly people. But it might also slightly sadden you. The greatness of this one thriving trade center in the Barents Region seems to be only a shadow of what it was a century ago. Although quite a bit of restoration has been done in recent years, delapidated historical houses are abundant, leaving you with an impression of both charm and tristesse.

A state of decay is reflected also in population figures. Over the last ten years, the population has dropped by almost to 20 percent to a total of about 2800.

Vardø is the oldest town in northern Norway, and also one of the oldest in the whole circumpolar Arctic. It was officially founded in 1789, but has a history which stretches much further back in time. The local Vardøhus Fortress was built already in the 14th century as protection against the powerful Russian Novgorod Republic. The eight-square fortress, which can be visited today, was later built between 1734-1738.

The fortress, the world’s northernmost, has in its almost seven century history engaged in battle only once, in 1940 during the Nazi invasion. Today, the fortress is of no military significance. Vardø does, however, continue to play a role in military affairs. Its highly advanced Globus-II radar, built in 1999 by American military experts on a mountain near the town center, is regularly criticized by Russian military officials who see it as a part of U.S. military intelligence.

Vardø has always been in the crossroads between the East and the West, between Russia and Norway. For more than 150 years, Vardø was a key center of the Pomor Trade. This trade went on from about 1740 and until the Russian revolution in 1917. It started as a barter trade between Norwegians in the in the area and Russians in the White Sea area. Grain products from Russia were barted with fish from Norway. With time it developed into a regular trade against money, in fact the ruble was used as currency at several places in North Norway.

When you come to Vardø you should visit the local Varanger Museum as well as the Pomor Museum and the Vardøhus Fortress. If you extend your stroll, you will want to see and experience the seaside promenade and the Brodtkorbsjåene buildings. From the eastern side of the island, you will have great views towards the Hornøya and the open Barents Sea. When you turn south, you will see the southern side of the Varanger Fjord behind the cuples of the Globus-II radar. 

If you happen to be in Vardø in November, you will have the chance to experience the Vardø Blues Festival. If you come in late March you can check out (or perhaps even participate?) the Yukigassen snowball festival. And if you come in July you should attend the Pomor Festival . During your stroll, you might pass the buildings of the Vardø Vessel Traffic Service, the unit, which was established in 2007 to monitor shipping in the Barents Sea.

When you take your car through the tunnel to the mainland, you will want to see and experience the cultural trail to the historical attractions at Steilneset, the key site of the horrifying 17th century local witchhunt. At this site, about 70 women, victims of witch trials, lost their lives on the fire. The site today houses two unique memorial structures designed by architect Peter Zumthor and artist Louise Bourgeois. 

Your should also take the 30 minute car ride along the beautiful northwest-bound road to the former fishing village of Hamningberg, where you can experience both unique cliff landscapes and sand beaches before you arrive at the Hamningberg Rorbuer.