A friend was puzzled when I announced I was heading off on an Arctic adventure to Norway but wouldn’t be spending much time in Oslo, the country’s cosmopolitan capital.
“But…but you’ll be so close,” he protested, showing me his favorite Oslo city app on his mobile phone. That’s when I realized a quick geography (and perhaps history) lesson would be helpful.
Yes, I explained, I would be passing through Oslo but only briefly. My ultimate destination was in northern Norway in the Svalbard archipelago—north of the Arctic Circle. In fact, the remote archipelago of three islands, of which Spitsbergen is the largest, is 2,000 kilometres north of urban Oslo.
To be fair, I couldn’t really fault my friend. Svalbard didn’t officially become part of Norway until 1920 with the signing of the Svalbard Treaty. Up to that point, the remote, untouched Arctic wilderness was basically a no man’s land until it was officially recognized as belonging to Norway.
To many, Norway’s chunk of the Arctic is often known as the “The land of the Midnight Sun.” To legions of polar enthusiasts like me, Spitsbergen has long been “The Wildlife Capital of the Arctic.” (For the record, you’ll notice many travelers use the names Spitsbergen and Svalbard interchangeably.)
The Best Time to Travel to Svalbard
Just 1,300 kilometers (roughly 800 miles) from the North Pole, Spitsbergen, the heart of Svalbard, is basically dark four months of the year during the Polar Night.
The sun’s return in April is marked by a lengthening of daylight until June when the sun never sets, prompting travelers to make the journey to Spitsbergen to observe Arctic wildlife such as polar bears, walruses, reindeers, Arctic foxes, Beluga whales, seals and seabirds in their natural setting—along with ruggedly beautiful ice-covered landscapes.
The best time to visit Svalbard is the period from May to September, which coincides with the peak season for most polar expeditions that visit the area and when most tourists visit Svalbard to explore all that Svalbard has to offer.
During the warmer months, polar bear sightings are fairly common as polar bears appear along the melting pack ice in search for food, tours with dog sleds are open, and daily flights make it easier to visit Svalbard.
As explained in my blog, Why you should visit the Arctic in May, springtime in Spitsbergen lends itself to incredible polar moments, something to keep in mind if you’re pondering when and how to get to Svalbard.
While visiting Svalbard, you don’t need to worry about crowds. You’ll never ever find yourself in a densely-populated port on a polar expedition in Arctic Norway. You can read about the crowd-free benefits in my own Spitsbergen diary where I wrote about escaping the crowds in remote Spitsbergen.
Best way to travel to Svalbard
The best way to reach Svalbard—apart from learning how to captain your very own yacht—is to explore the ruggedly beautiful Norwegian archipelago with an experienced polar operator that maintains a fleet of polar vessels on an expedition cruise.
And when you pair amazing ships with an experienced expedition team that includes all manner of polar experts, such as wildlife specialists, glaciologists and ornithologists, who draw on their expertise, you will maximize your polar experience.
Quark Expeditions prides itself on staffing its fleet of polar vessels with the best trained expedition team in the business. After all, Quark Expeditions was the first-ever operator to bring commercial travelers to the North Pole in 1991.
Equally important, unlike other operators who spread their attention around the globe, Quark Expeditions focuses exclusively on polar adventures in the untouched nature of the Arctic and Antarctic. Quark Expeditions also considers environmental sustainability so generations to come can also explore the pristine polar regions. When you visit Svalbard you can participate in Cleaning Up Svalbard as a rewarding part of your Arctic adventure.
Of course, another consideration if you’re grappling with how to get to Svalbard—or anywhere for that matter right now—is staying clear of huge crowds and vessels carrying thousands of passengers. Quark Expeditions never takes more than 199 guests on their expeditions.
Clearly, joining a relatively small group of polar enthusiasts on a multi day cruise — versus a mammoth floating hotel complex — is the best way to travel to Svalbard. To gain some more insight into what happens—or can happen—during an expedition, I encourage you to take a few minutes to read A Day in The Life of a Polar Expedition in Spitsbergen, Norway.
Another question many polar-bound travelers ask themselves is “how to travel to Svalbard without having to take a month off work?”. Quark Expeditions has got you covered. Among their many voyages to Svalbard are the 14-day Spitsbergen In-depth: Big Islands Adventure and the 12-day Spitsbergen Explorer: Wildlife Capital of the Arctic.
Various airlines fly to Svalbard from mainland Norway. Direct flights departing from Oslo take about three hours to land in Svalbard, and flights from Tromsø are about one and a half hours.
Best things to do in Svalbard
Getting the chance to see the Svalbard wildlife, of course, tops the list of the best things to do in Svalbard. And you'll find lots of wildlife in Svalbard on your travels, in fact, at one point in time, more polar bears than people lived in Svalbard.
While polar bear viewing and whale-watching are possible from the deck of a ship, the Quark Expeditions team will ensure you get off the ship and onto the polar landscape as often as possible.
Zodiac excursions are an excellent option for touring the Arctic Ocean, fjords, inlets and coastal ways, where whales, walruses, polar bears and seals are typically spotted.
In addition, Zodiacs (staffed by experienced polar guides) will transport guests ashore the frozen tundra to see even more wildlife. If you’re lucky, perhaps the elusive Arctic fox will make an appearance during your visit to the Svalbard islands.
In addition to wildlife, glacier viewing is unrivalled in the Norwegian Arctic.
There’s Monaco Glacier, one of the largest glaciers in Spitsbergen, which is about 7 kilometres wide and 60 metres high. And then there’s the 14th of July Glacier, a 16 kilometre-long glacier that covers an area of 127 square kilometres.
Polar history buffs will be smitten with such places as Smeerenburg, which translates into “Blubber Town.” How did that name evolve? Smeerenburg was a whaling station in the 1600s and there are still remnants of rock-hard blubber from the ovens where the whale carcasses were boiled. Visitors will find a memorial at Smeerenburg that honors whalers who lost their lives in the 17th and 18th centuries.
One of my personal best things to do in Svalbard was to photograph reindeer, which figured in my diary entry from my own trip: “Escaping the Crowds in the Arctic in Remote Spitsbergen.”
Seabirds are also abundant in Svalbard. Ornithologists estimate that about 30 or so bird species breed in the region, including Little auks, Arctic terns, Brunich’s Guillemot, gulls such as Kittiwakes, Northern fulmar, Common eider, Barnacle and Pink-footed geese, and Skuas among others.
A popular birding destination in Svalbard is the cluster of towering basalt cliffs at Alkefjellet, which is also known as "Bird Mountain. It’s home to an estimated 60,000 Brünnich’s guillemots—and that’s just one bird species.
For more tips on the best things to do in Svalbard, take a few minutes to watch our video Why Travel To Spitsbergen.
Svalbard Travel Guide
Here’s a handful of Svalbard travel tips and travel ideas to ponder as you consider visiting Svalbard and how to make the most of your next trip.
Be sure to allow time to explore the town of Longyearbyen (population: 2,400), the location of the port where you’ll board your polar vessel to explore the Svalbard archipelago.
Longyearbyen is the northernmost town in the world and maintains its own school (on stilts due to the frozen tundra), and offers lots to do for visitors with hotspots including the Longyearbyen church, bars, restaurants and one of the smallest universities in the world.
Longyearbyen is such a remote community, that when you explore away from the town centre you must do so with polar bear protection.
One of my best images was the “snowmobile parking lot” outside the university entrance since it is sometimes said there are more snowmobiles than people in Longyearbyen.
If you are planning a longer trip, spending a few extra nights in Longyearbyen won't leave you disappointed and will leave time for day trips including dog sledding, skiing, hiking and exploring around town.
Spend lots of time out on deck of your ship
On my expedition to Spitsbergen, I enjoyed standing on the deck all alone after midnight (watching the landscape for the elusive Northern Lights). I also made a point of getting up early (grabbing a coffee) and starting my day standing solo on the deck. It felt like I had the entire Arctic to myself. (Rest assured you won’t be cold—Quark Expeditions gives every guest their own polar parka which is yours to keep.)
Spend time with the expedition team members
All staff and expedition guides eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with guests so expect them to pull up a chair at your table.
They’ll eagerly answer questions, share interesting facts, ask about your best moments of the day and share with you stories from their careers in the Polar Regions.
Consider an off-ship adventure option
Interested in kayaking in the Arctic to see the sea ice up close, or Stand-up Paddleboarding? How about a bird-watching tour or a guided hike through the Arctic desert?
Many off-ship adventure options are included in your trip (others are paid for separately) when you visit Svalbard.
Kayaking past walruses as they lounged on chunks of glacier was one of my best experiences.
Take a hike
Expedition team members lead a variety of on-shore hikes geared to hikers of all levels and interests.
You can do a slow ramble to take lots of photos, an intermediate range hike or a faster hike.
Travel with an open mind
Whatever you do, embrace whatever opportunities arise when you visit Svalbard, Norway.
When you pass through the Arctic Circle, your surroundings are sure to cast their spell and you’ll return home with memories of polar experiences you didn’t know were possible that will leave you so glad you visited Svalbard.