I remember standing on the deck of Ocean Endeavour on the first day of my Svalbard expedition (some of which I recounted in the blog titled “Escape the Crowds in the Arctic: Remote Spitsbergen”). In terms of unscripted Arctic moments, I couldn't have asked for anything more dramatic: my first polar bear sighting of the trip—just off the bow of the ship—mere hours after embarking from the port in Spitsbergen. Should I have been so surprised? Perhaps not, especially considering that wildlife observation—especially watching for polar bears—is one the best things to do in Svalbard, which is known as “The Wildlife Capital of the Arctic.”
Guests enjoy a Zodiac tour during a polar expedition in Svalbard. Photo: Dani Plumb/Grange Productions
I remember joking to a fellow passenger who stood beside me as we watched the polar bear patiently hunting for seals along the ice edge: “Well, I've seen what I came for. I can go home now.” But, seriously, witnessing the mammoth beast in the wild is one of the reasons people come to Svalbard. (Take a few minutes to read how to see polar bears in Svalbard.)
But, of course, like any remote destination that's so starkly different from any other place on the planet, the Norwegian Arctic archipelago of Svalbard offers an endless array of such dramatic heart-in-your-mouth moments. That polar bear sighting (not to mention the series of bear sightings that followed) didn't necessarily eclipse other spell-binding experiences throughout the rest of that journey, but polar bear sightings did prompt me to sigh wistfully on several occasions: “Well, hands down, that's one of best things to do in Svalbard and I can't imagine it getting any better.” But that was before my solo encounter with a pack of reindeer!
That memory is clear as polar ice. I was walking alone—within the protected perimeter during a shore visit on a remote island of Spitsbergen—and a herd of six reindeer galloped past me on a hillside. I was their audience of one. Who would have thought standing solo on a rugged slope would have immersed me in a scene straight out of a Netflix nature documentary. So, without a doubt, add reindeer encounters to the list of best things to do in Svalbard. My colleague Nicolas also writes with awe about the reindeer in Svalbard.
Reindeer are just one of the numerous four-legged mammals guests can view in the wild during shore
excursion in Svalbard. Photo: Quark Expeditions
So what else warrants a spot on the list of best things to do in Svalbard? Take your pick: iceberg calving (great thunderous crashing as chunks of ice break off the glaciers and plummet into the ocean waters), sightings of mammoth glaciers, kayaking next to walruses, watching seals playfully cavort near our Zodiac, standing in awe below towering cliffs covered in tens of thousands of exotic birds. And, especially for me, getting up in the wee hours to stand alone on the deck of the ship totally immersed in the Arctic night (which doesn't always get dark) peering at snow-capped mountain peaks and passing ice formations.
Where is Svalbard?
Step one in sorting out how to get to Svalbard is understanding that the Norwegian Arctic isn't necessarily geographically “close” to the actual country of Norway. Many travelers pass through the Norwegian capital of Oslo en route to Spitsbergen, but they then must travel another 2,000 kilometers north. Svalbard, you understand, is north of the Arctic Circle. It was considered ‘no man's land' for decades until the international community confirmed in the 1920s that the remote islands would be part of Norway.
How to get to Svalbard
So, how to get to Svalbard, you ask? Read How to Travel to Svalbard for the full run-down on ways to reach Spitsbergen. Remember, “Spitsbergen” and “Svalbard” are basically interchangeable terms when you're talking about voyages to Arctic Norway. Spitsbergen is the largest island in Svalbard and the one polar operators visit. It's where ships embark from the port in Longyearbyen, the northernmost town in the world.
Best things to do in Svalbard
So, you've got a good sense of the best things to do in Svalbard but perhaps you want more specific information on how to make that happen.
Let's start with polar bears. Well, clearly, you know how smitten I am with polar bears—partly due to their size. Adult males can weigh between 350 and 600 kilograms (775 to 1,300 pounds). Females, although smaller, clock in at 150 to 290 kilograms (330 to 650 pounds). But in addition to their immensity, it's their bearing, their intelligence, their endurance. To witness all of this for yourself, Quark Expeditions has curated a polar bear-focused itinerary in Svalbard that includes photography outings: Spitsbergen Photography: In Search of Polar Bears.
Guests have an excellent vantage point on the deck of a Quark Expeditions polar vessel in the Norwegian Arctic.
Polar bears are most often seen along the ice edge searching for food, namely seals. Photo: Acacia Johnson
One of the other best things to do in Svalbard is bird-watching. So many species inhabit the towering cliffs, fjords, and mountainous regions of Svalbard. Spitsbergen, for instance, is considered one of the top bird-watching destinations in the Polar Regions. Alkefjellet, which translates as “Bird Mountain,” is one of the most incredible bird cliffs in Svalbard. As one fellow guest described it, “The clouds over the cliffs are dark with masses of birds.”
Fjords and glaciers are among the common land and ice formations in Svalbard. Travelers who join the Arctic Saga: Exploring Spitsbergen via Faroes and Jan Mayen can visit Hornsund and Bellsund fjords as well as Lilliehöök Glacier upon arrival in Spitsbergen.
And, of course, there's whale-watching, which is definitely one of the best things to do in Svalbard. Numerous species are found in the region, including the blue whale.
In terms of when to go to Svalbard, read our comprehensive Exploring Spitsbergen: Where and When to Visit the Wildlife Capital of the Arctic.