The Arctic Circle has far fewer reindeer and jolly elves than it does cold Russian sailors, miners and dark histories. For obvious reasons, people rarely venture to these desolate corners of the Earth by choice or by surplus, and more often by force or by desperation.

Of the largest cities in the Arctic Circle, three are in Russia. Most of these cities are ports or mining towns bearing strategic importance or surpluses of natural resources that sustained their economies and their existence, with one notable exception of a bustling urban cultural hub.

4. Tromsø, Norway

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In spite of the cold climate, Tromsø is one of the largest urban centers in Norway. The city bears the name of the island on which it sits, though its etymological origins remain cryptic. Archeological investigations have uncovered signs of human life in the area as far back as the end of the Ice Age. In the 1700s, as the Dano-Norwegian realm solidified its footing on the Scandinavian coast, the city was founded and quickly grew in importance.

By the 19th century, Tromsø had received the moniker “Paris of the North” for its reputation as a cultured populace among its neighbors. Present-day Tromsø is home to a bustling electronic music scene and urban nightlife.

3. Vorkuta, Russia

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Vorkuta, formerly Vorkutlag or Vorkuta Gulag, is a town with a grim history. At its peak, Vorkutlag was a central hub of Stalin’s gulags, housing Polish and German POWs and eventually political prisoners. Labor in the area was focused on the surrounding coal deposits, but the town also served as a command post for the local labor camps, orchestrating the cold death and suffering of countless prisoners.

The camp closed in 1962, though many of its current inhabitants are survivors of the Gulags and live in poverty. The current estimates place 32,000 of the current 40,000 inhabiting Vorkuta as former Gulag prisoners.

2. Norilsk, Russia

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Norilsk is the northernmost city on the planet and exists in the permafrost zone of the Arctic Circle. Mean annual soil temperatures of 23 degrees F ensure that this area of the North remains enshrouded in a permanent layer of glacial ice. Winter nights see no end, and the vast natural deposits of palladium have led to the city’s less-than-coveted title of most-polluted in Russia.

The city was started as a mining outpost by slave labor from prisoners in Stalin’s Gulags. The labor camps began their shutdown under Khrushchev’s orders in 1956. The fall of the Soviet Union led to a sharp decline in population and work, though Russia’s reemergence as a global player brought work and people back to Norilsk. In case you were already ecstatic about venturing to Norilsk on your next vacation, you’ll first need to secure a permit from Russia’s Federal Security Service.

1. Murmansk, Russia

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Murmansk was the final addition to the Russian Empire during its initial founding. The city was established in 1915 as a strategic military point for supply ships during World War I. Initially started as a port and naval base, the surrounding population quickly grew to accommodate a city, which continued to expand and become the largest in the Arctic Circle. During World War II, Murmansk once again became a critical point for Soviet trade with the allied forces, though it suffered heavily from a Finnish assault. Like the rest of the Northern front, the weather conditions and tenacity of Soviet soldiers prevented Murmansk’s capture, and the city survived the war.

The population as of 2012 was recorded at 303,754 with a slow decline, with landmarks that include the Statue of Alyosha and the Hotel Arctic, the tallest building in the Arctic Circle.