A fascinating icy wonderland home to some of the most iconic wildlife on earth, as well as imposing glaciers, dramatic fjords and breathtaking frozen horizons, Svalbard is the famed ‘last stop’ en route to the North Pole. An archipelago floating over 800km north of the Norwegian mainland, Svalbard is, quite literally, built on ice, and is as spellbinding as it is surprising. Over 2,500 people call this place home, a place that shelters more polar bears than humans and a place that seems intent on making daily life an exhilarating challenge. There’s only one main road in Svalbard, in its biggest settlement of Longyearbyen, and the most popular way to get around is by snowmobile. Hosting a splendid kaleidoscope of wildlife, Svalbard is a nature lover’s ultimate dream, a place you come to not only disconnect from modernity but to immerse yourself, in every sense, in the most pristine and awe-inspiring nature.
Boasting a fascinating history of extreme human explorations and scientific research, and more natural splendours than you could ever soak up in just one visit, Svalbard is the true heart of sensational Arctic expeditions.
Overview of Svalbard
The only populated island in Svalbard is Spitsbergen and its largest village, Longyearbyen (home to about 90% of its population and its international airport,) is located on the western coast of the island. The largest industry here is mining, so you’ll notice a most noticeable male-to-female disparity among the local population as well as a distinct lack of retirees. Svalbard may well be constantly inhabited but it is very much a transient, work oriented place and, as such, enjoys a healthy turnover in the population, with most people living here, on average, for about 5-6 years.
Top Things To Do in Svalbard
Svalbard rates as one of the coldest places on earth where tourism exists, with wintertime temps easily reaching an eyeball crushing – 30 although along the coast, and in Longyearbyen, it is actually surprisingly mild. This close to the North Pole, life is very, very different, and a Svalbard tour offers an incomparable respite from the stresses and demands of our everyday, modern, overly-connected lives. Svalbard offers the nature-lover and active explorer an avalanche of excitement, adventure and soul-reviving fun. Because if you think that all you’ll do when you come to Svalbard, is sit in front of a fire sipping a schnapps, you may be in for a bit of a shock. Svalbard offers a ton of fascinating, attractions and unique activities, and rest assured you’ll likely be more active here than just about anywhere else.
Please do note that Svalbard is, indeed, a very unique destination. Although not impossible to head off on your own outside of the town centre, you will be required to carry (and know how to use) a rifle for protection against polar bear attacks, as well as plenty of preparation to deal with the harsh conditions, even in the heart of summer. Organized tours with professional and experienced local guides are always recommended.
Here are the top things to do on a visit to Svalbard:
Although the best attractions of Svalbard are outside the confines of its largest town, Longyearbyen nevertheless offers a few choice attractions. The Svalbard Museum is immensely interesting and retraces the natural and cultural history of Spitsbergen whilst offering an insight into life at this pesky northerly latitude. The museum is housed within the building of the world’s northernmost university and the displays, given the town’s diminutive size, are extensive and really well presented. If you’re keen to learn about Arctic exploration and the history of mining and habitation in Svalbard then make this the very first place you visit.
Visit in summer and you may be surprised to encounter daytime temps in the high-teens, stunning expanses of wildflowers in bloom and snow-capped horizons that beg to be explored on foot. Hikers head off to conquer Hjortfjellet by kayak and on foot, to soak up the startling all-encompassing views from the peak but you can also tackle the slightly-less arduous Fuglefjellet hike, where your chances to spot some of the stunning wildlife of the Arctic are high.
Kayaking & canoeing
Kayaking tours in Svalbard are extremely popular, not only because they offer you the chance to discover hidden coves and remote bays, but because the stillness and quietness of kayaking is simply ideal in this awe-inspiring and very imposing landscape. The most popular kayaking fjords are just north of Longyearbyen town centre.
Svalbard’s favoured mode of transport, the beloved snowmobile is at home in these snow-covered paradise. So why not partake? Exhilarating snowmobile tours in Svalbard are a brilliant way to explore the backcountry, search for wildlife AND have a phenomenally fun ride to boot. Flying along at great speed over freshly laid snow is one of the most unforgettable Arctic experiences you could have, especially in winter, when there literally is no other way to get around outside the main hub of Longyearbyen. Snowmobile overnight tours are also offered and give you a fantastic chance to get away from (whatever little) civilization is in town and immerse yourself in this astonishing nature for a couple of days. Popular day excursions include visits to the nearly-abandoned Russian coal mining town of Barentsburg.
Stay or just have a drink at the Isfjord Radio Station
Once Svalbard’s lifeline to the outside world, the Isfjord Radio Station has now been turned into a luxury boutique hotel (easily the most opulent of all the hotels here) and although spending at least one night here is an exceptional experience, dropping in for a stiff drink on a day visit is also highly recommended. You can visit by boat in summer and by snowmobile, in winter, combining it with a visit to Barnetsburg which is actually en route.
Animal lovers are sometimes apprehensive about dogsledding in Svalbard although their hesitance usually lasts by a mere second or two. One look at the expectant faces of these incredible working huskies and you’ll soon see: these pooches LIVE to run sleds! Snowmobiling may be the modern way to get around these parts but it wasn’t that long ago that dog-sledding was part and parcel of Svalbardian life. For many visiting, a dogsled tour in Svalbard one of the top bucket-list worthy adventures. So pay homage to this most traditional mode of Arctic transport, book a dogsled tour when visiting Svalbard and, needless to say, hang on for dear life! Tours include short and sweet trials as well as day-long workshops where you get to meet the animals, train on the basics of mustering and, by the end of the day, even lead your own sleigh. Aside from the spectacle of the Northern Lights, dogsledding is by far th best reason to visit Svalbard in winter.
Cruising in Svalbard
There’s no denying the fact that cruising is, by far, the best way to comprehensively explore Svalbard and discover all its best highlights, especially the towering glaciers and sensational wildlife of the Arctic, including polar bear, Arctic fox, reindeer and caribou – who scour the shores for food – as well as walrus and several species of whales and seals which head here in summer, in impressive numbers. Svalbard cruises use Longyearbyen as a springboard and usually take between 7 and 14 days to explore the archipelago in search of elusive wildlife whilst meandering through imposing fjords and visiting some of the northern uninhabited islands. Longer cruises also incorporate unforgettable visits to Greenland, Iceland and the Russian Arctic.
Polar expeditions with a touch of and comfort, Arctic cruises in Svalbard offer the best of both worlds and you’ll not only have modern luxuries on your journey through this pristine destination but also an array of inclusions, such as daily on-shore activities and Zodiac outings. For hassle-free explorations of the frozen roof of our world, Svalbard cruises are unparalleled.
The Northern Lights
The most sensational wintertime highlight in Svalbard, the Northern Lights are one of nature’s most astounding creations.
Best Time to Visit Svalbard
Svalbard is open for tourist cruising season in the northern summer, between the end of May and September. The summer months lend themselves to just about all the best Svalbard activities (except the Northern Lights, naturally) including polar bear spotting, dogsledding, and snowmobiling, kayaking and hiking. With all day (and night) sun and warm(ish) temps, summer is perfect to maximise your time out and about in search of wildlife.
How to Get To Svalbard
Administrated by Norway, Svalbard is easily reached via 4.5-hour flight from Oslo, with frequent services run by KLM, SAS and Norwegian Air.
Here at Chimu Adventures, we specialise in Svalbard and Arctic expedition cruises and offer a wide array of itineraries to suit different tastes and budgets, from 9-day Spitsbergen Introduction cruises to epic Svalbard, east Greenland and Iceland adventures that are sure to blow you away. Want to know more? Call us! Visit our Arctic Cruise page for more travel inspirations and contact one of our Arctic travel specialists for more personalised recommendations.
Author: Laura Pattara
“Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 15 years. She’s tour-guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and has completed a 6-year motorbike trip from Europe to Australia. What ticks her fancy most? Animal encounters in remote wilderness, authentic experiences off the beaten trail and spectacular Autumn colours in Patagonia.”