Visiting the magical Arctic region
Noora is a nature guide based in Svalbard, a region in the arctic close to the North Pole. She has put together a fantastic guide for those of you that want to hear more about this magical region!
Longyearbyen is a the main town located in Svalbard, between the North Pole and mainland Norway. It’s also the closest settlement to the North Pole if we don’t count in some research stations that are located even more north. The population is a bit more than 2,000 people. It has a kindergarten, school (even University), restaurants, hotels, nightclub, polar bears, northern lights, midnight sun, local beer, global seed vault etc. It’s a remote town but has everything (and more) that you need for daily life!
What is Svalbard and who does it belong to?
Svalbard is an oversea territory of Norway located between 74-81° North, with Spitsbergen being its largest island. It didn't belong to Norway until 1925. Before that it was no-mans land. In 1920 during the peace conferences in Paris, Spitsbergen Treaty was signed and the archipelago became part of Norway five years later.
Why should you travel there ?
It’s one of the rare places on earth where you can still experience the true wilderness. Svalbard is well known for it’s incredible wildlife; arctic foxes, Svalbard reindeers, polar bears, birds, seals and whales. Not to mention the amazing landscapes it has to offer! Large parts are covered by glaciers, in fact 60% of the island is!
Polar Night and the Northern Lights:
In Longyearbyen, four months of the year is total darkness (the Polar Night) when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon. This happens in November - February. But don’t get scared - the snow-covered ground will reflect the small glimpses of light that do occur, like the moonshine on a clear day! It makes it great for spotting the Northern Lights (Aurora borealis) because for that you need darkness (plus a clear sky and some good luck!) and that you have 24/7 during this period. Imagine eating lunch and watching some beautiful green lights dancing on sky. Doesn’t sound too bad right? In fact Svalbard is one of the few places in world where you can see the day time auroras.
Experience the midnight sun:
Between May and end of August the sun doesn’t set at all. It’s daylight 24/7!
Just by being in Longyearbyen you will find many different birds during summer. The beautiful Arctic Fox is easy to see almost anywhere, and Svalbard reindeers are sometimes just walking inside the town. If you take a boat tour you might be lucky enough to spot one of the many whales that come to visit the fjords in summer time. Sometimes you will spot Belugas or seals if have a walk to the beach.
Spotting polar bears is a dream of many who travel here. You'll often read that Svalbard has more polar bears than humans. The bears in Svalbard do belong to the Barents Sea population which is roughly 3,000 polar bears. From that number around 270 are estimated to be in Svalbard. So, in my opinion, you shouldn’t travel there only to see that; Svalbard is a big area and polar bears tend to move a lot, and there is no guarantee that you would see one. But if you see, you will never forget it!
The island also has a lot of history. The island was discovered in 1596 and since that there has been lot of going on; whaling, hunting, North Pole expeditions, research and mining. Nowadays most of the animals are protected. Only some local hunting for reindeers, foxes, seals and birds is allowed, but thankfully it’s really strict.
How to get there?
There are cruise and expedition ships going to Svalbard, but they can be quite pricey. But if you can afford it, it’s a great way to see Svalbard and spot wildlife. Basically the more time you spend outdoors and out of the settlements, the more chances you have to spot wildlife.
The easiest and cheapest way is to fly to Longyearbyen. It's the only place you can fly to when you travel to Svalbard. There are only few towns you can visit and they are all located in Spitsbergen; Norwegian settlements of Longyearbyen and Ny-Ålesund and the Russian settlements Barentsburg and Pyramiden. But you can only fly to Longyearbyen.
There are daily flights coming from mainland Norway to Longyearbyen operated by SAS and Norwegian. Svalbard is visa-free zone but you need to remember that you will have a stop at mainland Norway before getting to Svalbard.
Picture taken by: @borkowska_trippin
How to explore the area?
The tricky thing about exploring Svalbard is that if you don’t have Arctic experience and don’t have a rifle and knowledge on how to use it; you need a guide. Because of the polar bear danger you can’t leave the settlements without rifle.
There are not much roads to explore, so no road-trips here! The only way to explore the area is by foot, snowmobiles, kayaks or boats. There are also biking tours and ATV-tours in summer. Or you can also dog-sledge tours or go horse riding!
So basically the best way to explore the area is to join different tours. There are a wide range of activities and companies that you can choose from!
Have at least one day at Longyearbyen too to explore the town itself. You can have a little hike around the town, go visit the birds sanctuaries, take a selfie with the polar bear signs that are telling you where the safe area ends (there are 4 of them at least), visit at least one of the museums, visit the shops and go for a coffee.
A good length for your stay is a week. Then you have chance to enjoy it without rushing all the time, and if weather cancels some trips then you have a bit more flexibility than if you stayed for just a weekend. But of course it’s not possible for all of us to stay one week, so it is possible to do things in few days too. Just a warning that you will then most likely get bitten by the famous Polar Bug, and you will need to return to do the things you missed on your first visit. ;)
Where to stay?
If you want to travel budget friendly there is a camping ground just 300m from the airport (4km to town). The price per person is about €15 per night. You can also rent tents and sleeping bags from them but you need to do this in advance.
Another budget friendly place is Gjestehuset 102 where you can have a bed in a 4-bed mixed dormitory room for about €45/night. You can also check Mary-Ann’s polarrigg, Haugen Pensjonat and Coal miners’ cabins. All of these are a bit away from the centre of town but inside the safe area to walk without a rifle.
If you want a bit more luxury there are hotels in town that will offer you that. The starting price for one night is around €150-200/night.
You will find a few Airbnb options. Or book a multi-day tour and spend more time in the nature!
When to visit?
Longyearbyen is a great place to visit year-around, and there are many activities and trips you can do during all seasons.
If you dream of the Northern lights your season is late September until beginning of March.
In summer instead you have a greater chance to spot wildlife. Many different types of birds and whales travel to the North to give birth and raise offspring safely. Also you have a bigger chance of spotting walrus' and other smaller seals. Spotting polar bears is easier in summer since you can take boat tours and when the snow has disappeared it’s easier to spot these white-yellowish majestic animals.
For photographers the light is not the most interesting during these 4 months of darkness and 4 months of sun. So if you are light enthusiast your time to visit is between these seasons. In March when light returns there is a few weeks of the mystical twilight, beautiful pastel blue and pink colours painting the landscape. Or in September or October when the darkness returns, then you have a good chance to catch some northern lights too.
The peak season in Longyearbyen is from mid February until end of August. But it’s not as busy and touristy yet like many of the other Arctic destinations. You will fit in easily and be able to enjoy your time and space. Having said that, it might be a good idea to plan and book tours in advance. The town is nice but to see the real beauty of the Arctic I recommend strongly to get out to the field.
Sometimes the weather can be challenging. In winter it can get as cold as -40°C and not to mention the wind. In summer the biggest challenge is the wind and the sea can be quite rough. But that’s the Arctic. It’s part of the experience.
What to do?
Have you ever dreamed of seeing massive glacier fronts? This is something you can experience all around the year. In summer join one of the boat tours that will take you to explore glacier fronts at a safe distance. It’s a great place to spot many of the wildlife too.
In winter you can join snowmobile tours and drive on frozen sea ice and stand in front of these ice walls. In winter there are two places where you can go from Longyearbyen; Tempelfjord and East coast. If you are lucky you might spot polar bears during these tours. Tempelfjord is an important hunting place for polar bears (they hunt seals) and therefore it’s been closed lately from the beginning of March. That means after that you can’t visit the glacier front anymore and the only option you have is East coast. A full day tour is quite demanding but with the right adventurous attitude you will enjoy the challenge! And you don’t need any experience - you will learn fast to control the snowmobile.
Snowmobile tours are starting whenever there is enough snow and that is around December. Depending of the year it might be possible to do it even earlier. Snow usually stays until at least May.
You should also definitely go and drive your own husky team in the winter time, the same time period as snowmobile tours. But you can also join husky tours in summer on wheels! Everything is a bit more fun with snow, at least in my opinion.
You can go hiking all around the year. There are many great hikes close to town. If you are big adventurer why not join overnight hikes or skiing tours.
In winter you can join ice cave tours where you will visit melting water channels inside the glacier (not for claustrophobics). You can get to different ice cave spots by joining hiking, snowmobile or dog sledding tours. Just make sure you book a tour where it says that you are going to visit an ice cave.
In summer the main activities are: Boat tours, hiking, kayaking, ATV-tours, fat bike tours, and dogsled tours.
I already mentioned earlier what you can do in town. But Longyearbyen has also the northernmost gym and swimming pool if you want to keep your routine on your holiday! If you want to relax there are massages available in town, as well as a beauty salon, hair dressers, library, bars and coffee shops.
You can also book a sightseeing tour and see the Global Seed Vault that is located a bit away from the town!
If you are interested of the history of Longyearbyen and mining the Gruve 3 mine tour is very interesting! Or if you are more interested in local beer go and visit the local Brewery!
Other settlements near Longyearbyen
Barentsburg and Pyramiden:
Both of these are Russian settlements. Pyramiden is an abandoned mining town where they now have a hotel and Barentsburg is a town with about 500 people and they have a school, shops etc. You can visit both places from Longyearbyen by joining a tour. You can even stay in both places overnight. It's easier to visit in summer by boat, if you want to visit these places in winter you will go by snowmobile. There are day tours by snowmobiles to Barentsburg but if you want to visit Pyramiden in winter it is recommend to stay there overnight since it’s longer to travel to. Both are really interesting to visit and you will see beautiful nature on your way!
There is also one town further north called Ny-Ålesund. It's an old mining town known from North Pole expeditions but nowadays it's a research town. You can visit it in summer by joining a tour from Longyearbyen but you can’t stay there overnight if you are not invited there.
What to pack?
First rule: No cotton. Second rule: Wool.
Bring a few thick wool socks and proper shoes. No flip flops please! Winter shoes that are a few sizes bigger than your normal size so that you can wear two pairs of wool socks. The air is isolating and keeping your toes warm, so the more space and air the better. Don’t put too many socks cause then you will lose this air and space. There is nothing as annoying as having cold toes! Luckily many companies lend you warm winter boots when you join their tours. When you join snowmobile tours you will also be wearing these warm big overalls that are the fashion in winter!
In winter it’s all about layers and the right material. You will need a warm base layer, merino wool is a great choice. You will also want to have a warm mid layer. I repeat; wool. These two layers plus a warm outer layer (pants+jacket) should be enough. A light down jacket is a nice thing to have with you in your backpack too if you need some extra layers.
Then you will need big warm mittens to keep your fingers nice and warm. If you are a photographer you might want to use these thin layer finger gloves, but otherwise you don’t need them. It might sound funny but actually if you wear these inside mittens you will not be as warm as without. When your fingers have skin contact they will stay warmer than if you separate them.
Last but not least is your head; buff to warm your throat and warm beanie.
You might want to carry some hand warmers with you too, it’s better to be well prepared than to freeze your fingers!
Bring some waterproof hiking shoes with high ankle support if you plan to join some hikes!
Pack wind- and waterproof clothes, and also some warm layers like in winter. The temperatures don’t rise much above 10°C in average. So you might not need shorts and summer dresses here!
Windproof gloves, a beanie and buff for your neck.
Bring your eye mask for nights with you! And maybe ear plugs cause the birds are singing also during the night!
Useful apps and pages
The Svalbard Guide - Free app where you will find some good information and an offline map!
https://en.visitsvalbard.com - From here you can see all the tours that are offered during your stay and this website has lot of good information too!
https://www.bettermoments.no - I work for this local tour company - we offer small group sizes and the best guides obviously! ;) You can find loads of information about seasons, when it’s the best time to spot different wildlife etc. You can also see all of our tours and book straight from that link.
I hope you enjoyed reading this article! I’m waiting to see you all in Longyearbyen, feel free to follow my life up in North from my Instagram account: @noora_amanda
Also don’t hesitate to send me any questions that came in to your mind, or just leave a comment on this post.
Most of the pictures from this post were taken by Virgil Reglioni: https://www.virgilreglioni.com