2,314km (1,435 miles) N of Bergen; 144km (89 miles) N of Alta; 2,195km (1,361 miles) N of Oslo

It's easy to poke fun at Hammerfest as author William Bryson did in Neither Here Nor There. He found Hammerfest an "agreeable enough town in a thank-you-God-for-not-making-me-live-here sort of way." Locals are quick to defend how civilized they are, pointing out that they were the first town in Europe to have electric street lighting while Paris and London were lit by gas.

That Hammerfest is here at all is a sort of miracle. The town was founded because of its natural harbor, something that is equally important today. A hurricane flattened it in 1856, and one of Norway's worst fires leveled it again in 1890, the year the town got that street lighting. Hitler ordered that "no building be left standing" during the infamous Nazi retreat of 1945. But Hammerfest bounced back and has been attracting visitors from all over the world who use it as a base for exploring the North Cape in summer. Arctic hunters enjoy their last few drinks in cozy bars here before setting off on expeditions into the wilderness. You just might encounter a polar bear wandering the streets as you stroll back to your hotel.

But it will be oil, not tourism, fueling the economy of Hammerfest, at least for the next 30 years. In 2006, the pumps started sucking oil from the offshore oil wells, which are estimated to possess 195 billion cubic meters of the black gold. At present, running for some 145km (90 miles), the world's longest undersea pipeline goes from the mammoth natural gas fields in the Barents Sea to the small island of Melkøya out in the bay off the coast of Hammerfest.

The Hammerfest area stretches from Måsøy, near the North Cape, to Loppa in the south, the wide region including the rugged coasts along the Arctic Sea. The city lies 70° 39' 48" north and achieved its town status on July 7, 1789, making it the oldest town in northern Norway. But is Hammerfest really the world's northernmost town, as often claimed? Other communities exist north of here but locals say that they are villages -- not towns.

A Meridianstøtta, or meridian column, stands on the Fuglenes peninsula, across from the harbor. The monument commemorates the work of scientists from Norway, Sweden, and Russia who conducted surveys at Hammerfest between 1816 and 1852 to establish a meridian arc between Hammerfest and the Danube River at the Black Sea. This led to an accurate calculation of the size and shape of Earth.

Today Hammerfest is a modern town with an open and unique atmosphere, where the town's square and harbor are natural meeting places.