Spitsbergen, the largest island in Svalbard, is known as the crown of Arctic Norway. Located halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, one might expect it to be unbearably cold; however, thanks to the Gulf Stream, Spitsbergen, and the other islands in the Svalbard Archipelago, the region boasts a surprisingly mild climate with distinctive seasons. The large variety of plants and wildlife includes seals, thousands of seabirds coming in every summer, Arctic fox, reindeer, and the top predator: the polar bear.
Located on the southern fringe of the frozen Arctic Ocean, Svalbard offers expedition landings, hikes, kayaking, and other activities in the largest Arctic wildnerness in Europe.
Svalbard has more than 3,000 polar bears and fewer than 3,000 people. Remote, mysterious, and extreme, Svalbard is the crown of Arctic Norway; a land forged by ice and wind, ocean, and snow that presents us with a spectacular range of unforgettable adventures. With its location right on the edges of the ever frozen Arctic Ocean, the warmer currents of the Gulf Stream meet the cold air and water from the north. This archipelago holds fascinating histories of the polar heroes of the north, and cultural heritage from the coal mining era as well as the history of exploration, hunting, and whaling.
Klondike-like Atmosphere: Population & Settlements in Svalbard
The population of Svalbard is approximately 2,500. Longyearbyen is the largest settlement in the islands, located on Spitsbergen, and is also the seat of the governor. It's a colorful modern town with first-class facilities, like excellent hotels and restaurants, regular flight connections to mainland Norway, and an impressive range of activities to suit every traveler. The town has a hospital, primary and secondary schools, university, sports center with a swimming pool, library, cultural center, cinema, bus depot, hotels, a bank, and several museums.
The newspaper Svalbardposten is published weekly. Spitsbergen is among the safest places on Earth, with virtually no crime. Barentsburg is the second largest settlement in Svalbard, also located on Spitsbergen, with about 500 inhabitants, almost entirely Russian and Ukrainian. The Russian-owned Arktikugol has been mining coal here since 1932, and during the Cold War, Barentsburg was a hotbed of activity.
Ny-Ålesund is one of the world’s northernmost settlements, inhabited by a permanent population of approximately 30-35 people who work for one of the research stations or the logistics and supply company Kings Bay AS, which ‘owns’ and runs the research village. In the summer, the activity in Ny-Ålesund is greatly increased with up to 120 researchers, technicians, and field assistants.
Climate & Seasons in Svalbard
Despite its northerly location (74º to 81º north), Svalbard has a relatively mild climate. Due to the Gulf Stream, Svalbard’s west coast is the world’s northernmost ice-free area. The average summer temperature is 42ºF, and the coldest winter month of March has an average temperature of minus 7ºF. There is little rain, but the moist air from the sea can cause a light drizzle and fog during the summer.
From April 19 until August 23, Longyearbyen enjoys the long, leisurely days of the Midnight Sun. From October 26 until February 16, it is fairly dark, and from November 14 through January 29, inhabitants live under the polar nights, when the sun is lower than 6º below the horizon.
Nature & Wildlife
In order to preserve nature and wildlife on Svalbard, 65% of the archipelago is protected through national parks, nature reserves, and bird sanctuaries. There are only three land mammals on Svalbard: polar bear, Svalbard reindeer, and the Arctic fox. In the sea, however, there are walrus, ringed seals, bearded seals, Greenland seals, hooded seals, white-nose dolphins, narwhals, white whales, and killer whales. There is a rich birdlife on the island and more than 100 species have been registered. Surprisingly, the flora is very diverse for somewhere this far north.
The polar bear is probably the foremost symbol of Svalbard’s wildlife, and it is an exhilarating experience to watch this massive species in its natural habitat. Polar bears do not usually attack humans but can be aggressive when provoked. On all of our voyages and during onshore activities, safety is maintained by experienced guides carrying weapons, and giving warning shots if necessary. The authorities on Svalbard, together with the travel industry, advise and make recommendations to travelers taking part in organized activities in order to protect both visitors and the polar bear population. If you are going outside Longyearbyen on your own, it is recommended that you take a weapon because of the polar bear danger. On organized trips the guide will always be responsible for safety and will carry a weapon and equipment.
History & Cultural Heritage
Since Willem Barentz’ discovery of Svalbard in 1596, several nationalities have explored, hunted, and managed industries in this Arctic Archipelago. The Svalbard Treaty, dated 1920 and signed by 43 member countries, gives Norway sovereignty over Svalbard.
Svalbard’s nature is very vulnerable, especially due to the permafrost. All vegetation is protected and all traces of human activity up until 1945 is regarded as part of the cultural heritage.
Traveling to Svalbard
With Hurtigruten you can choose among a variety of expedition cruises on MS Fram or MS Spitsbergen. Typically, you would make your way to Longyearbyen before embarking on a 6-10 day cruise. If you only want to experience Svalbard by foot (or snowmobile), you can choose between multiple land-based adventures through Hurtigruten Svalbard. We always recommend combining the two for the ultimate Svalbard experience.
Your trip to Svalbard can also be combined with spectacular cruises to Norway or other Arctic islands, like Greenland and Iceland.
On our cruises, expedition-style landings will take you close to the Arctic wildlife, the ghost towns of the early whaling stations, remote mining towns, research communities, and even spectacular fjords and icebergs.
Why Travel with Hurtigruten to Svalbard
Hurtigruten is the undisputed leader when it comes to exploring Svalbard. No one else comes close to our years of experience and deep connection with this region; in fact, we’ve been bringing explorers here for over 120 years.
Whether you choose to discover Svalbard by land or sea, our experienced and knowledgeable team offers programs tailored to every taste.
Hurtigruten pioneered the Sportsman’s Route to Svalbard in 1896, and built the first hotel on the archipelago, near what would become Longyearbyen. Drawing on this experience, we offer a comprehensive selection of land-based adventures every day of the year, as well as unique expedition cruises through the summer months.
Regardless of which experience you choose, the beauty of Svalbard will create indelible memories. Only Hurtigruten knows the most unique small bays and inlets, and brings you closer to the wilderness than anyone else.
Take a closer look at some of the highlights included in a voyage to Spitsbergen. With its location, right on the edge of the ever frozen Arctic Ocean - where the warmer currents of the Gulf Stream meet the cold air and water from the north - Spitsbergen and the other islands in the Svalbard archipelago become a biological hot spot. Video: Asgeir Helgestad