Svalbard or Spitsbergen travel guide, including map of Svalbard / Spitsbergen travel tips, culture, attractions, accommodation, transport, health and safety and
Europe’s largest wilderness, the Svalbard archipelago is closer to the North Pole than to Oslo, yet is home to the most northernmost settlements on earth, thanks to the moderating influence of the Gulf Stream.
However, there are more polar bears than humans, and it is the Arctic wildlife, the pristine landscapes and sense of rugged isolation that makes it so attractive to travellers.
The largest island is Spitsbergen, and this is where the majority of the tiny population live and work, and where most cruises start and finish.
Believed to be first visited by the Vikings in the 12th century, it was the Dutch explorer William Barents who is often credited with “discovering” the islands, and naming them Spitsbergen which means ‘pointed peaks’.
The archipelago’s wildlife was ruthlessly exploited, as it became a centre for whaling, fur trapping and seal blubber. Fortunately, enough wildlife remains that you have an excellent chance of seeing reindeer (shaggy and stumpy-legged), polar foxes, Arctic terns and polar bears.
Even in midsummer you will need lots of warm layers, and don’t forget your sunglasses and sun protection too.
Don’t forget binoculars.
Also take plenty of good, thick socks, not least because you are expected to take your shoes off when entering many shops, hotels, bars etc.
Summer (June to August) is the most popular time to visit for cruising, as the sea ice has mostly melted. This coincides with the midnight sun season (April to August). The average temperature in July is 6 centigrade.
October to February is the polar night season, when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon. Temperatures in January average -16, but can plunge as low as -30. Afficianados recommend mid-February when there are few visitors and amazing light.
Svalbard Airport, Longyear (LYR), 3km from Logyearbyen. Sit on the right when flying in for spectacular views.
By far the most popular and best way to navigate the archipelago is by boat. Several companies run expedition cruises... look for one that carries fewer than 100 people and has naturalist guides.
If visiting in the winter, try snowmobiling or husky-sledding. You will need a valid full driving license to drive your own snowmobile .
The majority of visitors are on a cruise. Longyearbyen has several places to stay. Or, in winter stay onboard the Noorderlicht, a schooner that is frozen into the ice each year.
Longyearbyen has several bars and restaurants. Expect Arctic specialties alongside your standard international cuisine, including seal, salmon, Arctic char (freshwater fish) and reindeer.
Alcohol, of which beer is the staple, is duty free in Svalbard but rationed for locals. You’ll find it cheaper than in mainland Norway, but still not super-cheap.
In the Russian settlement of Barentsburg you can buy very reasonably priced vodka.
The weather can change quickly so make sure you have sufficient warm clothes to combat the risk of hypothermia. Crime is almost unknown.
The biggest potential danger comes from polar bears, and humans are required to take a loaded gun if venturing outside a settlement. Never, ever stray away from your guide (or walk in front of them) when on land.