Imagine a place where there are more polar bears than people, where a litter of vodka is cheaper than a liter of milk, where the silence of the vast wilderness rings loud and clear through your body. A place that is wonderfully removed from the world, but becoming increasingly accessible, where even the most experienced travelers haven’t heard of. Come visit Svalbard, the last great wilderness, a place you truly have to see to believe.

boat trip svalbard
One of the many excursions you can do. Cruise along the glaciers. Photo: Smudge 9000, Flickr.com

First of all: what and where is Svalbard?

Svalbard is an archipelago up high in the Arctic Circle, directly north of Norway, which boast the northern most university, brewery, church, and post office in the world! It is the northern most permanently inhabited spot on the planet. Its main and only inhabited island, Spitsbergen, despite being geologically isolated, is rich in culture, adventure, and hospitality. Here you can get food that rivals the best from New York to London, take a step back in time to visit desolate Russian mining towns, laugh with amazingly friendly people, and the piece de la resistance: you can get up close and personal with the arctic nature.

polar bear in the arctic
Polar bear just hanging around. Photo: Stefan Cook, Flickr.com

Up and close with nature

Svalbard is well equipped with a tourism infrastructure to help plan any type of activity you desire. The islands are more than 60% covered by glaciers making it an ideal location to enjoy nature in it’s purest form. In the summer the most popular excursions include dog sledding, fossil hunting, hiking, and boat cruises to Russian mining towns, glaciers, or excursions to find polar bears. When winter comes around, temperatures cool and snow begins to form. Then you’ll find a whole range of winter activities to participate in. In winter you can ride snowmobiles across the tundra, dog sledge through the fresh powder, explore ice caves that have recently formed, and hear the roar of glaciers crackling as you sail through the icy waters.

When is the best time to visit?

While Svalbard is a treat all year around, it is important, if you can, to think about what season you want to visit. Summers are lovely but short usually from June to August. Temperatures during this time average around 4–3 °C to 7 °C. This is the prime time to sail around, look out for polar bears and enjoy the diverse wildlife, flora, and accessible vegetation. Winters get chilly from September through the beginning of May. Temperatures can then range from -1.5°C to -9.7°C. This is the time to immerse yourself in the Arctic snow and try your hand at mushing polar dogs, roar across the land on snowmobiles, spot the northern lights, walk through ice caves, or keep warm outside in a hot tub surrounded by snow. Also bear in mind that Svalbard is light in summer and dark in winter, due to it’s far-north location.

Getting there

artcic waters
Glaciers at Svalbard. Photo: Smudge 9000, Flickr.com

Svalbard is officially a part of Norway and you will usually transfer though the country’s mainland first. The most popular and convenient way to get to Longyearbyen, the capital city of Svalbard, is by plane. Under the Svalbard treaty, citizens of 41 countries do not need any special visas or permits to visit. If transferring through mainland Norway though, you are subject to their immigration policies. Both SAS (Scandinavian Airlines) and Norwegian Air fly direct to Longyearbyen from Oslo airport, in mainland Norway. Flights are around 3 and a half hours and can cost $150-350 USD each way. SAS also flies from Tromsø which is 1.5 hours and cost $100-300 USD each way. Cruise ships are the second most popular option in which over 30,000 people from 160 locations choose as their method to visit. All cruise ships dock in Longyearbyen, usually in the summer or warmer times when ships can navigate through the icy waters. Cruises usually range from 3-12 days in length and can cost anywhere from $1500 USD to $9500 USD. Popular cruises will start from Norway, Russia, Sweden, Denmark, and Poland.

Lodging

Svalbard landscape
Svalbard landscape. Photo: Smudge 9000, Flickr.com

While the population might be small, there are no small choices of accommodation for your trip. After a long day of activities, you will find that Longyearbyen has multiple hotel and lodging options where you can put up your feet, unwind in a hot tub, or pamper yourself with spa indulgences.

  • Mary-Ann’s Polarrigg– A cozy budget accommodation option that also has upgraded it’s property with suites for those who want to sleep in luxury in a transformed mining rig.
  • Svalbard hotel– The newest addition in town for accommodation, this mid-range modern design has everything you need to be comfortable during your trip.
  • Radisson Blu– A high end option with sauna options and event rooms.
  • Spitsbergen hotel– Transformed from an old miner’s resident that includes a sauna, holds the best restaurant in town, and boasts amazing views from their property.
  • Trappers hotel– Run by Basecamp travel group, who also offers exclusive hiking and outdoor activities from here, has 16 rooms of a high end standard for those who like to play hard outside and relax just a much when they return to their lodging.

Tour operators

While it is possible to sort out your own trip, with weather conditions constantly changing and wilderness protection laws requiring a gun to be carried when venturing outside the city, it is best left in the hands of a professional. By consulting with a tour operator you’ll also get the most out of your time. The following are different tour companies that are more than happy to assist you in any way you need.

  • Spitsbergentravel– The biggest tour operator can provide assistance with hotels, day trips, cruises, and all things Svalbard.
  • Svalbardbooking– Closely associated with the top restaurant in the city and the newest hotel in Svalard, this booking company offers quad biking, boat trips, and a multitude of other activities.
  • Basecampspitsbergen– This tour company specializes in the slightly different adventure. It is where you go when you want to stay in a ship frozen in the middle of the ice, participate in more remote hiking excursions, and other adventurous activities and accommodations.
  • Wildlifeno –For wildlife exploration and expeditions.

Are you planning to visit Svalbard — or have you already been? Share your thoughts about this beautiful destination in the comments section below.

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