Kirkenes is a town in the municipality of Sør-Varanger in the county of Finnmark with a population of about 3,300, or about 7,300 if the neighbouring suburban areas of Hesseng, Sandnes and Bjørnevatn are included. Kirkenes is located in the extreme northeastern part of Norway on the Bøkfjorden, a branch of the Varanger Fjord, which is a vast bay connected to the Barents Sea near the Russian-Norwegian border. The town is situated about 240 miles (400km) north of the Arctic Circle.
The midnight sun shines from May 17 to July 21. The corresponding winter darkness extends from November 21 to January 21. Despite its location at the coast, Kirkenes exhibits a more continental climate. The mean temperature is −11.5°C (11.3°F) in January, and 12.6°C (54.6°F) in July, with an annual precipitation of 450mm (17.7in). The record low was measured at −41°C (−41.8°F) and the record high was measured at 32.7°C (90.8°F). July 2004 was the warmest month on record, with a mean temperature of 16.9°C (62.4°F) ).
Of the approximately 6,000 inhabitants of Kirkenes a majority is of a Norwegian background, and a minority is Sami. Others are originally from Finland, either members of the Kven population or of a newer influx of more or less recent Finnish immigrants. Also, some 500 are relatively recent Russian immigrants.
The secretariat of the Barents Region is located in Kirkenes. One of its tasks is to create cross-border cultural, educational and business relations in the Barents Region. There is now substantial optimism in the town as a consequence of the increased petroleum drilling activity in the Barents Sea (including the Russian activity). Bøkfjorden, an excellent harbour, has attracted interest from several large companies. Tourist attractions include Grenselandsmuseet (The Border Country Museum), which shows the history of war and peace along the Norwegian-Russian border, Sami art exhibitions by the artist John Savio and a history of the mining industry in the area. Kirkenes is also one end of the route of Hurtigruten, which cruises regularly down the Norway coast to Bergen. Kirkenes is served by Kirkenes Airport, Høybuktmoen. There are non-stop flights to Oslo and Tromsø.
Just outside of Kirkenes is a military base called "Høybuktmoen". Connected to this base are six border stations along the Russian border. This base and these border stations are there to protect against illegal immigrants as well as other illegal activities across the border.
Also outside Kirkenes is Andersgrotta, a vast underground bunker built during WWII which provided shelter to the town's 9,000 residents. Tours of the bunker are available.
The area around Kirkenes was a common Norwegian-Russian district until 1826, when the present border was settled. The original name of the headland was Pisselvnes ("piss river headland"!)—but this was changed to Kirkenes ("church headland") after the church was built in 1862.
During World War II Kirkenes was captured by the Germans and became a base of the German Navy. Kirkenes was one of the most bombed areas during the war (reportedly, second after Malta), with 320 air attacks and more than one thousand alarms. Only 13 houses were left in October 1944. The town was liberated by the Red Army on October 25 1944.
The Russian-Norwegian border was an extremely tense place during the Cold War. There was never any actual gunfire between the Norwegian and the Russian border control, but there were on several occasions a line up of soldiers and tanks from both sides. The U.S. military was on one occasion on high alert to assist Norwegian border soldiers. The situation is more relaxed these days. But the Schengen union has ordered that soldiers on the border are to be highly trained and ready around the clock to shoot. The training programme is very similar to that of the U.S. Army Rangers.
Unlike the vast majority of Norway, Kirkenes is located east of the neighbouring country of Finland. Because of this, travelling directly west from Kirkenes actually changes the timezone forward instead of backward, like it usually does. Travelling directly east from Kirkenes (into Russia) changes the timezone forward by two hours instead of one.
One can drive 100 km south, and walk 10 km, into the Øvre Pasvik National Park, reaching the border point of the three countries, where the three timezones meet. There are only a few such places in the world. It is forbidden, according to Russian law, to walk around the marker, since entering Russia is only allowed at a border control.