Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago located far north of mainland Norway within the boundaries of the Arctic Circle. The island chain is an explorer's paradise, teeming with incredible wildlife against a backdrop of ice-and-snow-covered landscapes, majestic rivers, and beautiful fjords.
Quark Expeditions guests explore Svalbard during a Zodiac cruise. Photo: David Merron
Adventurers love to travel to parts unknown, and Svalbard provides plenty of reasons to book an adventure across this remote island chain. One of our esteemed expedition guides and documented his own experience on the archipelago, provided this detailed account of the best things to do in Svalbard should you find yourself visiting the islands. Use his experience as a guide to plan out your travel itinerary and prepare for a memorable polar expedition. In this article, we look at the best time to visit Svalbard for the Northern Lights.
Where is Svalbard located?
Svalbard is located due east of the Greenland Sea and northwest of the Barents Sea that separates the Arctic Ocean from mainland Europe. Geographically, Svalbard is approximately 930 km north of Tromsø, Norway, one of the largest municipalities of mainland Norway. The archipelago is also a similar distance from the North Pole.
Svalbard was officially recognized as a sovereign state within the Kingdom of Norway in 1920. It was believed to have first been discovered in the 12th century, but it was forgotten until rediscovered by Dutch explorers Willem Barents and Jacob van Heemskerck in 1596.
Over the next several centuries, whalers from half a dozen European nations sailed throughout Svalbard in search of seafaring mammals that could feed economic coffers in their home cities. As whaling became outlawed and species started to dwindle quite drastically, Svalbard's natural resources attracted colonists from Europe, North America, and even parts of Russia. Disputes over claims to the resources continued until the Treaty of 1920 formally recognized Svalbard as part of Norway.
How to get to Svalbard
A bearded seal poses for the camera at Lilliehook Glacier, Svalbard. Photo: Acacia Johnson
Since Svalbard is an archipelago, the only ways to approach the islands are by sea or by air. Direct flights can be booked to Spitsbergen, the largest island of the archipelago, and then join an expedition by polar vessel upon arrival.
You can book a voyage like an Intro to Spitsbergen: Fjords, Glaciers, and Wildlife of Svalbard which is a 10-day expedition across the island chain. You'll depart from the capital city (more of a town of a couple of thousand people) of Longyearbyen and sail across the entire west coast of the island of Spitsbergen where you'll explore stunning fjords, outlying islands, see polar flora, immense glaciers, and other natural landscapes. Not to mention polar bears! You may also get lucky and witness whale pods swimming near the shoreline of the archipelago so that you can partake in very special Svalbard whale watching.
Depending on the weather conditions, your adventure guide will direct you towards a landmark destination suitable for visiting at that time of year. This could be any one of the following destinations:
- 14th of July Glacier
- The Hinlopen Strait
Best time to visit Svalbard to see the Northern Lights
The northern lights are one of nature's most beautiful and rare sights. Anyone who has the opportunity to witness the Aurora borealis in all its glory will tell you that there is nothing like seeing the sky lit up in a beautiful palette of colors.
In Svalbard, one of the best times to see the Northern Lights is in September as the summer season turns to fall. This just so happens to coincide with the timing of our Three Arctic Islands: Iceland, Greenland, and Spitsbergen adventure that allows you to explore all three islands on the new polar vessel Ultramarine.
You'll also have the option to experience the popular polar plunge and enjoy Zodiac cruises to explore more of the interior of each island. Greenland, in particular, is one of the best places in the world to witness the Northern Lights so this journey should be on your bucket list if you wish to see the magic of the Aurora borealis.
Cruises to see Northern Lights
A Quark Expeditions guests enjoys the magic of the Northern Lights from the deck of a ship in
East Greenland. Photo: Acacia Johnson
We've mentioned one adventure that allows you to explore three separate islands with the potential to enjoy an unobstructed view of the Northern Lights. Among those three islands, Greenland is one of the best locations to view the Northern Lights anywhere in the Atlantic Ocean. For that reason, you might wish to book Under the Northern Lights: Exploring Iceland and East Greenland.
This 14-day journey begins in Iceland, crosses the Arctic Circle, and includes various stops at incredible landmarks and fjords along the coast of Greenland. The visit to King Oscar Fjord is one of the highlights of this adventure, which you'll get to experience on Day 12 of the voyage. En route to the fjord, you may have the chance to witness the Northern Lights.