Svalbard Travel Guide
Svalbard is a pristine Arctic wilderness made up of frozen, timeless landscapes with an abundance of unique wildlife. It’s a must see for any nature lover, photographer or the more adventurous traveller.
Place: Svalbard, Norway
Where: A remote archipelago of islands situated halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole in the high Arctic.
Remoteness: 8 / 10
Accessibility: Easy to Hard. Easy to reach Longyearbyen, hard to reach remote parts of the archipelago.
Overview: A group of Arctic islands 650 miles south of the North Pole featuring barren landscapes, receding glaciers, epic polar scenery and unique wildlife. The archipelago consists of 3 main islands virtually untouched by humans. Spitsbergen, the main island, has just a few human settlements and an airport that connects to mainland Europe.
Svalbard is a pristine Arctic wilderness. Due to it’s remote and inhospitable location, there has been little human development other than a few small mining operations. It’s the perfect destination for those who seek to experience the beauty of the Arctic. Witness the grandeur of the many glaciers (60% of Svalbard is covered by glaciers). With its timeless landscapes and dark frosty waters this is like no other place on earth.
It’s home to some of the most diverse wildlife on the planet including Polar Bears, Svalbard Reindeer, Walruses, Beluga Whales, Arctic Foxes and a wide variety of birdlife. It’s ideal for photography, nature and those seeking a real outdoor adventure in a true wilderness. There are abundance of activities on offer including dog sledding, hiking, kayaking and snow-mobiling.
During the summer months you can experience sunlight for 24 hours a day, or alternatively you could visit in the winter and experience the 24 hours of darkness which form the polar night.
Longyearbyen, the main settlement for tourists on Spitsbergen, has an airport that is serviced by daily flights to and from Oslo; this makes it makes it the most northerly, easily accessible place on the planet.
What to do in Svalbard:
- Experience the nature of Svalbard close up by taking a multi day expedition micro cruise along its icy mirror like fjords to explore the fantastic wildlife and scenery. Secret Atlas offer 7,10 and 14 day expedition micro cruises to explore Svalbard.
- Take a day trip to the abandoned Russian ghost town of Pyramiden and explore the deserted buildings. If you feel adventurous stay over at the only hotel in the town. Read about my trip here.
- Experience dog sledding with huskies.
- Take a guided hike up one of the mountains surrounding Longyearbyen.
- Wrap up warm and do an evening kayaking trip across Adventfjorden.
Get close to nature on an expedition ship.
Take a hike in the stunning polar wilderness.
How to get to Svalbard
By Air: The easiest way to reach Longyearbyen is to fly. Norwegian airlines and Scandinavian airlines both have regular flights from Oslo in Norway which is easy to connect to from other European destinations. Scandinavian also run a route to Tromso in Norway to Longyearbyen. Use Skyscanner to find the best price on flights.
By Sea: It is also possible to reach Longyearbyen by sea. Some large cruise lines offer cruises along the fjords that connect the Norwegian mainland with Svalbard, although these are not always the best for exploring Svalbard.
Get up close to walruses on a wildlife trip.
Where to stay in Svalbard:
Longyearbyen is the main base in Svalbard and where most of the accommodation is situated. Prices vary in peak season from around £100 – £300 per night for a room. I stayed at Svalbard Hotell & Lodge which I would highly recommend due to the friendly staff, a great atmosphere and good food. You can also search for other accommodation in Longyearbyen on booking.com.
There is little accommodation outside of Longyearbyen. Usually accommodation is booked as part of an expedition or tour. It is possible to stay at hotel in Pyramiden between March and October.
My 7 top travel tips for Svalbard:
- A boat is the best way to experience Svalbard and see wildlife close up. I would recommend doing a multiple day boat trip to maximise wildlife encounters and the possibility of seeing polar bears. I was lucky enough to have 3 encounters in a week. Polar bears are dangerous animals so the safest way to view them close up is from a boat. Secret Atlas offer small ship expeditions with just 12 guests and offer the best opportunity to explore and encounter wildlife.
- It is not possible to wander off on your own in Svalbard due to the threat from polar bears. When walking outside of the main settlement of Longyearbyen it is essential to be escorted by a tour guide carrying a firearm. Whilst this makes land travel some what restrictive it is another reason why I recommend travelling by boat. To see the most of Svalbard on land you will need to book tours run by local tour operators.
- Choose your time of year to visit in line with the activities you would like to do. Some activities are only available at certain times of the year. See the When To Go Section Below.
- If you are photographing wildlife do not disturb it. I would recommend taking a long lens than can cover a focal range of up to 600mm to get the best shots.
- Dress for the weather. Even in the summer months temperatures dip below freezing. Consult your tour guide as to the best clothing for your trip. As a minimum I would recommend a good down jacket, hat, gloves, scarves and waterproof boots just for walking around Longyearbyen. Use sun protection. Hats, sunscreen and glasses. It may be below freezing but the sun is incredibly strong in the high arctic.
When to go:
Timing your visit to Svalbard is important if you want to undertake certain activities. If you are going for photography don’t expect incredible sunsets and sunrises during the summer months as it is light for 24 hours a day. The snow starts to melt in May and June so if you are looking to photograph landscapes have a think about the look you are after.
Activities vary from season to season. Dog sledding and snow-mobiling only take place when there is sufficient snow and ice cover and are not possible in the summer months.
During the winter the sea freezes and is impassable to ships, so if you are looking to do a cruise or a boat excursion this will only be possible in the summer months.
When I visited in early June I felt like I had the best of both worlds. There was plenty of snow on the mountains for landscape photography, but the sea was clear enough of ice to make it passable by boat. We also managed to squeeze in a Husky ride before the last of the ice melted near Longyearbyen.
My advice is to research your chosen activities and the times of year they run and then work out your timing from there.
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