Miles of unspoiled, rugged wilderness lay before us as far as the eye could see. Hauled out on a frigid rock beach, a herd of walruses called out occasionally but were mostly content to bask in the afternoon Arctic sun. The blazing red tundra was surprisingly soft beneath our feet, in stark contrast to the razor-sharp lines of towering mountains and weathered icebergs as far as we could see.
The best part of it all? My son Owen, just 9 years old at the time, had joined me on this epic Arctic adventure. Together, we had the time of our lives when we visited Svalbard, and learned firsthand exactly why Spitsbergen, the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago, is known as the Wildlife Capital of the Arctic.
Visiting Svalbard: Spitsbergen Travel Guide
Spitsbergen may be your top choice for the ultimate Arctic adventure, too, but where should you visit, and what time of year should you go?
In this blog post, I’ll share answers to some of the questions we’re asked most often about when to visit Spitsbergen and where to go while you’re there. I’ll also share my own experiences visiting this fascinating island in the Svalbard archipelago, to help you plan the trip that best suits your own needs.
“The wildlife and plants didn’t disappoint, and this is where Quark Expeditions excelled. By day five in Spitsbergen, we’d all seen a walrus colony, various species of seal, the ubiquitous reindeer, ice-white beluga whales, countless nesting birds and an Arctic fox on the hunt for easy juvenile pickings.”
Which parts of Spitsbergen can I visit when I visit Svalbard?
This Norwegian archipelago lies between mainland Norway and the North Pole, making it one of the northernmost uninhabited areas on the planet. Exploring Spitsbergen by small expedition ship gives you the opportunity to explore the island’s biodiverse coastal areas, icy bays and inlets, and fascinating historic sites and towns such as Longyearbyen.
What can I see and do in Spitsbergen?
Depending on the itinerary you choose and the route your expedition takes, you might visit and hike vast wilderness areas like Northwest Spitsbergen National Park or South Spitsbergen National Park.
You’ll explore stunning fjords by Zodiac, possibly cruising beneath the massive bird cliffs at Alkefjellet, or stopping to photograph the 14th of July glacier. You could visit an area like Hornsund, an area frequented by the island’s massive polar bear.
You can choose your own adventure and see Spitsbergen in a whole new light with optional activities like kayaking, hiking, and searching for Arctic wildlife.
“The experts were talking about animals and when we went on land, they would explain how stuff happens. One day, we saw a bunch of different animals in one place - a whale, some polar bears, a fox, and some walruses. We also saw three reindeer. They were bigger than I thought they would be. Mostly we took pictures of weird-shaped glaciers and interesting things you don’t get to see all the time.”
Will I See Polar Bears?
Many tourists visit Svalbard on polar bear safaris, and although it's never guaranteed that you'll spot one of these impressive beasts of the frozen tundra, there are ways to increase your odds.
The Spitsbergen Explorer: Wildlife Capital of the Arctic expedition will provide you with the optimal chances to view Svalbard wildlife in its natural habitat. You'll likely see Arctic foxes, Svalbard reindeer, several bird species, and possibly even polar bears.
What’s the best time of year for Spitsbergen travel?
We visit Spitsbergen in May, June and July, when the sea ice is still thick and offers the region’s polar bears a fertile hunting ground. This gives you the best chance of spotting one on your expedition.
In the Arctic summer, the tundra can be incredibly colorful, all kinds of wildlife are active, and you might also see whales on their migratory routes or feeding around the island, as well. You'll also have a chance to witness the famed midnight sun.
If you want to see the Northern Lights
A winter trip to Svalbard, however, may offer an opportunity to catch a glimpse of the enchanting Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora borealis. Just like the elusive polar bears, there's no guarantee that you'll witness this stunning spectacle of light, but visiting during the peak season will increase your chances. Another voyage option for those intent on witnessing the nocturnal light display is our itinerary called Under the Northern Lights: Exploring Iceland and East Greenland.
What’s it like exploring Spitsbergen by small expedition ship?
There’s one rule of small expedition ship travel: expect the unexpected. Throughout your journey, your Expedition Leader (EL) and ship’s Captain are constantly working together to get you to the most interesting, spectacular landing sites in the safest way possible, given the sea and weather conditions at the time.
Expedition team members are always on the lookout for land and marine wildlife, from the whales that inhabit the waters surrounding the island to the elusive and majestic polar bear.
Expedition Leader David “Woody” Wood explains as he shares a day in the life in Spitsbergen:
Choosing the Spitsbergen expedition
Spitsbergen is a destination in its own right, but might also be one area visited on an expedition like Three Arctic Islands: Iceland, Greenland, Spitsbergen.
If you’re short on time, pack all of the excitement into a condensed timeframe with the 6-day Spitsbergen Highlights: Expedition in Brief.
Where scheduling isn’t an issue and you’re craving an in-depth exploration of the area, itineraries like the 13-day Spitsbergen In Depth: Big Islands, Big Adventure or 11-day Spitsbergen Explorer: Wildlife Capital of the Arctic fit the bill.
While many people book their Arctic expedition far in advance to take advantage of early booking bonuses, it’s never too late to make your Spitsbergen trip happen.
In fact, you can enjoy last minute savings on some Arctic cruises.
Want to learn more about visiting Spitsbergen?
Explore this Spitsbergen guide and learn all about the wildlife capital of the capital, how to get there and which activities options will complete your Arctic adventure!
You can also:
- Read more Spitsbergen expedition stories from expedition experts and travelers like you
- Get your Spitsbergen Destination Guide
- Download your free Spitsbergen Explorer: Wildlife Capital of the Arctic brochure