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Visit the North Pole: Where to Go and What You’ll See

15 min read

“It’s time for the 50 Years of Victory to show some muscle. She starts vibrating, and it feels like being on a plane during high turbulence. The sea ice is at times more than two metres thick, yet the ship is still able to power through at ten knots. Watching this process is mesmerizing. The ice floating in front of the ship is smashed and pushed under the hull, while around the ship it cracks, like a huge bar of snow-white chocolate. After two full days of ice-bashing, we’re close to our target, the North Pole, and anticipation is consuming us. We’re invited to head down to the bow deck to start the celebrations — there’s plenty of fizz, music and GPS devices counting down the final degrees of longitude. The excitement is palpable.”

Passengers stands on the deck of the 50 Years of Victory as the ship breaks through multi year sea ice.
Passengers stands on the deck of the 50 Years of Victory as the ship breaks through multi year sea ice.

That was film producer Dale Templar, one of just a handful people who journeyed to the North Pole with us in 2016.

Each Arctic summer, the iconic Russian icebreaker 50 Years of Victory comes out of commercial service in the extreme far north clearing Arctic sea ice from shipping lanes in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean, to deliver 128 passengers at a time to the pinnacle of bucket list destinations: the geographic North Pole.

Journeying to the North Pole is a notoriously multicultural adventure, where you’ll:

  • Stand on top of the world at 90° North, the geographic North Pole
  • Experience one of the world’s most powerful nuclear icebreakers, 50 Years of Victory
  • Get chances to see polar bears, walrus, the elusive Arctic fox, and other Arctic animals who live north of the Arctic Circle
  • Go flightseeing by helicopter, high over the Arctic region and Arctic Ocean
  • Cruise in a Zodiac and explore Arctic history, tundra and wildlife in Franz Josef Land
  • Have the option to soar high overhead at the North Pole on an exclusive hot air balloon ride

Want to learn more? In this post, we’ll explore exclusive journeys to the North Pole and answer some of the most frequently asked questions about them, including:

  • Why visit the North Pole?
  • How do we get to the North Pole?
  • Who takes a North Pole expedition?
  • What can I see on a North Pole expedition?
  • What can I do on a North Pole expedition?
  • When should I go to the North Pole?

You can also download your free North Pole Destination Guide and start planning your own expedition today.

Whats in the North Pole, and why should I visit?

Few people will ever follow in the footsteps of intrepid explorers from centuries gone by, getting to set foot on the ice at 90° North - the true North Pole.

Visiting the North Pole is one of the ultimate travel achievements, and traveling with Quark Expeditions gives you access to exclusive expertise and North Pole experiences you won’t find anywhere else - like an optional hot air balloon ride over the icebreaker at the top of the world.

Travelers the world over crave the excitement and authenticity of a polar expedition that traverses the Barents and Kara Seas, and the Arctic Ocean, powering through thick, multi year ice near the Pole to finally reach that summit where a look in any direction on Earth's surface is a look south.

As the professional Russian ship crew push the world’s most powerful nuclear icebreaker onward, your dedicated Expedition Team is there to enrich every moment of the trip with top quality lectures, photography workshops, and other educational programming and activities.

Casting off the lines and setting sail from the nuclear icebreaker port in Murmansk, Russia, the 50 лет Победы, or 50 Let Pobedy, began its departure with a peculiar theme song; a loudspeaker system at the dock blared a ceremonial Soviet march as we pulled away and pointed north, passing the skeletal hulks of decommissioned icebreakers while heading up and out of the Kola Bay fjord and into the Barents Sea toward the North Pole.

The ship entered service in 2007 and hasn’t had a rest since. For only five voyages over the months of June, July, and August, the world's most powerful nuclear ice breaker pauses its grueling schedule of escorting cargo and military ships through the ice of the Northwest Passage to make room for 150 tourists. 

- Cynthia Drescher, What It's Really Like to Cruise to the North Pole (Condé Nast Traveler)

You’re welcome in the open bridge and out on deck to take in the mesmerizing spectacle that is the massive conveyor belt of constantly shifting sea ice coming towards you and crushed under the weight and power of 50 Years.

Imagine bearing witness to this on one of the most exclusive expeditions on Earth, then retiring to swim laps in the pool, enjoy a sauna, or curl up in the library, immersed in tales of polar exploration from years gone by.

You’ll explore issues of climate change, global warming, polar conservation and sustainable tourism alongside passionate polar experts and other like-minded travelers. Our Expedition Team are seasoned experts, each with their own specialties and areas of expertise.

You might find yourself sharing dinner with a glaciologist, for example, or watching for wildlife on deck alongside a marine biologist. No matter who you talk to during your adventure on the northern sea route, you're sure to learn something that surprises you on your way to the North Pole.

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How do we get to the North Pole?

50 Years of Victory at the North Pole
Experience the thrill of sailing on board the world’s most powerful nuclear icebreaker, 50 Years of Victory.

Choose your own adventure: power your way to 90° on the world’s most powerful icebreaker, or spend a night in a working research facility operated by the Expeditionary Center for the Russian Geographical Society at 89° and reach the North Pole summit by helicopter.

En route, you’ll experience the Midnight Sun, 24 hours of daylight that makes for incredible photography opportunities.

Reach the North Pole by Icebreaker via Franz Josef Land

On an icebreaker expedition, your sea and ice days are as fast-paced or relaxing as you choose to make them, with a variety of structured and always-on opportunities for exercising your body and mind--from the onboard gym, to the saunas, to the library, lectures and workshops.

“Watching our ship steam ahead and break through meter thick ice at full speed was truly amazing and really gave me a sense of how powerful these nuclear icebreakers really are. After the first hour or so of breaking through the ice we also encountered our first polar bear – what a day!” - Chris McFarlane, North Pole passenger

The one aspect we hear passengers rave about the most is the indescribable experience of traveling aboard 50 Years of Victory itself. Taking an authentic Russian icebreaker to the North Pole is more than a means of transportation; it’s a fascinating, rewarding, once-in-a-lifetime travel experience.

Your North Pole icebreaker expedition begins in the bustling Russian port town of Murmansk. Keep an eye out for walruses, seals, whales, and polar bears on flightseeing excursions in the onboard helicopter as you travel northward through the Arctic Ocean.

As you head into the ice, two nuclear reactor thrusters generate up to 74,000 horsepower to muscle 50 Years of Victory through Arctic ice up to 3 meters thick, which it then crushes under its weight.

Over the course of your journey, you’ll feel that sheer power and muscle in your bones and soon discover why passengers, on disembarking at the end of their expedition, miss the sensation and sound of the icebreaker. It’s an inexplicable, memorable and rare experience that can only be understood by through living it!

Victory was the first Arktika icebreaker built with a spoon-shaped bow, a design proven so effective at clearing ice that it’s been adopted for new builds. Learn more about the power and technology behind your North Pole expedition here.

Traveling to the North Pole by icebreaker includes opportunities to explore Franz Josef Land, an archipelago of nearly 200 islands in the Arctic Ocean. You’ll cruise the frigid waters by Zodiac, perhaps on the lookout for Santa Claus or iconic Arctic wildlife such as polar bears, walrus, Arctic tern and Arctic foxes, as your experienced Expedition Team help give the sights and sounds of the Arctic context.

The Mystery of Champ Island; you’ll see things in the Arctic that cannot be easily explained, like these massive concretions that litter the island.

You might visit sites like Champ Island, where mysterious concretions up to 3 metres in diameter make for epic photos and great conversation.

Exploring the wild, prehistoric landscapes of these islands inhabited only by Russian military personnel is like stepping back in time. Indeed, very little has changed since Norwegian sealers Nils Fredrik Rønnbeck and Johan Petter Aidijärvi first spotted the islands in 1865.

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Who takes a North Pole expedition?

Alan Chambers at the North Pole - Photo by Timo Kohler
Arctic explorer and motivational speaker Alan Chambers peers over the ice and melt at the North Pole while on expedition with Quark. Photo: Tim Kohler

Travelers have all kinds of motivations for reaching the North Pole. It could be on your bucket list, or a remarkable destination for your next photography expedition. For some, it’s a once in a lifetime feat but for others, the North Pole calls them back over and over.

Each expedition is completely unique and comprised of passengers from all over the world, of every age, interest and fitness level.

“One thing that’s wonderful about science and people getting together for an Arctic expedition is that you make connections with people that you’d never make in just your everyday life. You’re there with a common purpose, living together on a ship or in a camp. In every single experience like that, I’ve come away with incredible new relationships, friendships and collaborations that have often lead to more interesting science and discovery.”   

- Maureen Raymo, paleoclimatologist and North Pole passenger

If you crave authentic exploration experiences, the North Pole could be for you. If you want to experience the thrill of traveling on board a powerful icebreaker, the North Pole could be for you. If you want opportunities to see Arctic wildlife in their pristine natural environments, the North Pole could be for you.

And throughout your journey, you’re accompanied by Quark’s expert Expedition Team, who explore the fascinating ecology and conservation challenges of northern hemisphere and the far North alongside you, helping you take it all in and fully appreciate your surroundings.

“I have seen true, meaningful transformation in people who have gone to the Arctic. Seeing is believing and under the right circumstances and with the right people, it can be transformative.”   

- Geoff York, North Pole passenger and senior director of conservation with Polar Bears International

What can I do on a North Pole expedition?

Raise your glass to the Midnight Sun and toast an experience few can lay claim to: walking the sea ice at 90° North and exploring your surroundings.

Take an optional hot air balloon ride

Enjoy a hot air balloon ride for a spectacular birds-eye view that not even the most accomplished of historic explorers could attain. You’ll experience the icescape from all angles, soaring high over the Arctic Ocean on flightseeing excursions and crushing ice on your approach to the North Pole.

“As the ship draws closer to the North Pole, passengers begin to experience the sounds and vibrations of ice crushing beneath them. Standing on the bow, they see chunks of ice, roughly the size of a Volkswagen, being tossed to either side of the ship. The bow of the icebreaker is less like a wedge or an ax head, as you might expect, and more bulbous and spoon-shaped. The front of the ship rides up on top of the ice and crushes it with an incredible amount of force.”   

- Brenna Holland, On Top of the World: Voyaging Into the North Pole with Quark Expeditions (Vue Magazine)

Try Zodiac cruising or other flight-seeing options

Zodiac cruising and flight-seeing grant you access to some of the world’s least visited sights; from the narrow channels and sprawling tundra near Salisbury Island, to the mountainous and partially glaciated landscape of Nansen Island. In Franz Josef Land, the most northerly islands in Eurasia and a nature reserve within the Russian Arctic National Park system, you might feel as though you’ve stepped back in time. 

Our exploration opportunities are guided by Mother Nature, and no two expedition days are ever the same.

Visit Cape Flora

At Cape Flora, you might explore memorials to and the remains of the Benjamin Leigh-Smith or the Ziegler-Fiala parties. More than half a dozen expeditions passed through here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the ‘1000 Days in the Arctic’ expedition of Jackson-Harmsworth among them.

Explore Alexander Land

In Alexander Land, you might delve into World War II history with a visit to the remains of Germany’s Schatsgräber station. The eerie frontier Russian station Nagurskaya, abandoned in 1996, begs to tell you its lost stories.

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Take in the history of Alger Island

The shores of Alger Island whisper secrets from the Baldwin-Ziegler expedition of 1901-02, and the Fiala-Ziegler expedition of 1903-05. They were among a number of expeditions that set up base camp on the island, and you can explore remains of their huts even today at Camp Ziegler and West Camp Ziegler.

Visit Bell Island

At Bell Island, the pristine hut erected by Benjamin Leigh-Smith’s 1881 expedition stands in great condition, a number of intriguing inscriptions on its interior walls. Tragically, the party didn’t get a chance to put the hut to use as they shipwrecked off the coast before moving in.

Find the first Polar Station Ever Built

And at Calm Bay on Hooker Island, you’ll find the first polar station ever built in Franz Josef Land. Visit the nearby memorials to Georgiy Sedov’s wintering in 1913-14, and the remains of a glaciologist hut, as well.

Take in the Rich History of the Arctic

Historic remains including those at Cape Heller (Wilczek Land), Cape Norway (Jackson Island), Cape Tegetthoff, Greeley Island, Teplitz Bay (Rudolf Island) dot the sparse, varied arctic landscapes throughout the archipelago.

Walk in the footsteps of Fridtjof Nansen and Frederick Jackson, who overwintered in a stone hut in 1895-96, or the Walter Wellman expedition of 1898-99. Relive those uncertain and ultimately adventurous first days of Julius Payer’s 1894 expedition, alongside expedition experts and historians who’ll share with you the stories and lore of your Arctic surroundings.

Guided by the sea, ice and weather conditions, it’s impossible to know which landing sites may be achievable in advance. It’s all part of the adventure; of the spirit of an authentic North Pole expedition.

Enjoy the Amenities Onboard

“I wasn’t expecting just how much I enjoyed being onboard, and the company of the passengers and crew.

Between engine room visits, expert lectures and presentations, sports and games, and celebrations, there was never a dull moment! And anytime the weather allowed, I was out on deck or in the bridge totally hypnotized by the conveyor belt of drifting ice stretching all the way to the horizon.”   

- Dani Plumb, 5 Surprising Things I Learned on My North Pole Expedition

Onboard, you’ll journey along in surprising comfort, with myriad opportunities for entertainment and enrichment over the course of your trip.

Organized and spontaneous sports and games, expert lectures, themed dinners and parties, whale and seabird watching, bridge and engine room visits and access to a well-stocked polar library provide ample opportunities to engage, or to kick back and completely relax.

What can I see on a North Pole expedition?

Traveling to the North Pole with Quark Expeditions gives you the most unique vantage points from which to view and experience your spectacular arctic surroundings.

We’re the only expedition company to offer you a hot air balloon ride at the North Pole, to take it all in from up to 30 metres above the constantly shifting sea ice.

Incredible panoramas and icy vistas, rare arctic wildlife, seldom visited historic sites and monuments and the sheer exclusivity of 50 Years of Victory all make for fascinating photography, sightseeing and exploration opportunities.

Multi-year sea ice, the Midnight Sun and seemingly endless skies play tricks with your sense of perception. Each new lookout, from the bridge to the decks to exterior viewing from public spaces and disembarking on flightseeing adventures, offers an incredible new perspective.

Natural wonders defy the imagination. Massive bird cliffs and walrus colonies at Cape Flora, Northbrook Island and Cape Rubini trigger sensory overload, as thousands of energetic, noisy beings somehow eke an existence out of what, at first, seems like pure desolation.

Doggedly persistent arctic wildflowers, mosses, lichens and other flora defy the odds and toss splashes of color over the otherwise monochromatic tundra.

“Sailing to the North Pole is dramatic, almost meditative. As the 50 Years slices through the white landscape, we stand on the bow, looking down to see the ice splitting and snapping as if the blue Arctic Ocean can breathe again through these new cracks.

The sound of the gigantic icebergs banging into the reinforced bow of the vessel reverberates throughout the ship. During the evening, we listen to the sounds from the bar, where we come together to warm up, share stories and, often with a glass of wine in the hand, gaze at the ethereal frozen desert enveloping us.”   

- Debbie Pappyn, Great Escape: A North Pole odyssey on the ice-breaker 50 Years of Victory (The Telegraph)

Keep watch for walrus, seals, whales and even polar bears! You never know when Mother Nature and her ilk may decide to make an appearance.

When should I go to the North Pole?

Join us as we make the epic journey to the North Pole when weather and ice conditions are most favorable.

You have your choice of 3 summer departures for North Pole: The Ultimate Arctic Adventure, from mid-June to mid-July, when polar bears are actively hunting, whales are dining on area krill, and 24 hours of daylight during the Midnight Sun makes for spectacular natural lighting conditions

“...the animals take it in turns to move towards us, each sniffing the air, and noting the fresh human meat frustratingly just beyond reach. The mother and her cubs come to within 50 metres of the ship. It’s sobering to think these bundles of fluff would have us for supper if given half the chance. For the next hour and a half, the bears are the stars of the show. It’s an evening I know I’ll never forget — a real-life polar drama playing out before us.”  

- Dale Templar, A Trip to the Top of the World (National Geographic Traveler)

Ready to Plan Your Own North Pole Expedition?

Your own North Pole adventure could be closer than you think! Want to learn more about making your polar dreams come true?

Read more North Pole stories from expedition experts and travelers like you

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