Moffen Svalbard HGR Photo Dr. Verena Meraldi

Svalbard: Travel Guide

From endless day to endless night, everything about the Svalbard archipelago is extreme. This is the Arctic at its wildest.

Svalbard balances at the very top of the world. Spanning the 74th and 81st parallels north, the archipelago in the High Arctic is closer to the North Pole than it is to Norway.

This is a frozen land of calving glaciers, iceberg-flecked fjords, and hardy animals, such as walruses, blue whales, and polar bears. It’s also a place where sunlight dances on the ocean’s ripples and wildflowers transform the tundra in mere days. In summer, the sun doesn’t set for four months. In winter, the longest night lasts for nearly three months, creating an uninterrupted canvas for the Northern Lights.

If it weren’t for the Gulf Stream, Svalbard’s nine main islands of which Spitsbergen is the largest would be locked in ice all year round. Thanks to those warming waters, the best way to visit Svalbard is on a cruise.

“There is nowhere that compares to Svalbard,” says Alberto Lozano, the Head Chef of Huset, a fine-dining restaurant in Longyearbyen. “It’s so isolated but you find a lot of good friends and a lot of things that you would never otherwise experience, such as the animals, the sea life, and expeditions. Things just happen here!”

We’ve spoken to the people who live here to find out everything there is to know about life on Svalbard. Read on to find out when and how to travel to Svalbard, what to do when you get there, and learn more about its history and wildlife.

When is the best time to visit Svalbard?

In Svalbard, the seasons swing between summer and winter far more rapidly than most of us are used to.

Average seasonal temperatures range from -4°F in January to 44°F in July, although variations can be extreme. The coldest Svalbard temperature on record is -45°F (March 1986). In July 2020, the temperature peaked at 73°F.

Locals refer to three distinct seasons: Polar summer, from mid-May to the end of September; Northern Lights winter, from October to February; and sunny winter, from March to mid-May.

Alberto finds it hard to choose a favorite season in Svalbard. “There is real beauty in all of them. I truly appreciate the pure darkness of the dark season. It’s a cosy time but it can be hard for a lot of people. Summer is also very nice and when we’re in it, I'm very happy. I enjoy the present, so I live every season with happiness!”

The length and depth of the Polar Night here makes Svalbard one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights. The sun doesn’t peep above the horizon from October 26 to February 16. The very darkest night covers the islands from November 14 to January 29, when the sun is more than 6 degrees below the horizon. You’re as likely to see the Northern Lights at lunchtime as you are at bedtime.

Northern lights svalbard HGR 151263 Eveline Lunde
midnight sun svalbard HGS 03287 Hanne Feyling

Svalbard’s summer months, lit by the Midnight Sun from April 20 to August 22, are the best time to spot wildlife and take in the archipelago’s incredible scenery. This is also when the milder Svalbard weather conditions make outdoor activities much more comfortable.

“I really love the summer, because you get to travel by boat and you can hike for 24 hours a day. You can hike at two in the morning if you feel like it,” says Caroline Sund, a Travel Designer for Hurtigruten Svalbard who has lived here since 2021. “We are lucky to have mountains right next to Longyearbyen town center. Within two hours you can be on top of a mountain with an amazing view of the town and the mountains beyond.”

It's worth being aware how quickly conditions can change on Svalbard, though. “If you're snowmobiling in the colder months, for example, on the glacier to the east coast, it can be so windy that you get complete whiteout. It makes me feel like I'm on the moon; it's like a different planet, a completely unique experience. It might be a little scary, but you have the guide taking care of you, so it's not dangerous.”

The best things to do in Svalbard

Svalbard Dog Sledding HGR 163417 Espen Mills

Try dog sledding

Not only for the snowy months! Dog sledding on wheels surrounded by mighty mountains is an unforgettable experience, especially beneath the Midnight Sun.

Restaurant Nansen HGR 136287 Agurtxane Concellon

Taste Longyearbyen

Despite having around only 2,500 residents, Svalbard’s capital is a surprisingly cosmopolitan place, home to one of the best restaurants in Norway and the world’s northernmost brewery.

polar bear 2 Svalbard HGR 157025 Shutterstock

Watch for polar bears

Svalbard is one of the best places in the world to see polar bears. There’s no guarantee, but you might see them prowling the islands' shores and ice floes as you sail past.

A whale tail appears from the Arctic Ocean in the waters around Svalbard

Go whale watching

Blue, beluga, and humpback whales frequent these waters in summer. Look out for them breaching, spouting, and spyhopping among the icebergs.

Roald Amundsen statue Ny Alesund Svalbard HGR 124210 Andrea Klaussner

Dig into Svalbard’s past

Peel back the layers of Svalbard's heritage as you discover its whaling past, the cultural legacy of coal mining, and Svalbard’s role in modern science.

Longyearbyen midnight sun HGS 03283 Hanne Feyling

Experience the Midnight Sun

In summer, Svalbard basks in sunlight for 24 hours a day. It’s an invigorating time, when Longyearbyen and the wider archipelago come alive with activity and wildlife.

How to travel to Svalbard

It’s easier to reach this remote Arctic outpost that you might think. Most visitors fly into Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s main settlement, from Oslo or Tromsø, but there is a more scenic way to get here too.

Between May and September, The Svalbard Line sails from Bergen to Longyearbyen and Ny-Ålesund and back again via several carefully chosen Norwegian ports. You can also choose the northbound voyage and disembark in Longyearbyen.

Once you’re here, public transport is virtually non-existent. It’s dangerous to explore beyond the boundaries of Longyearbyen without a professional guide, due to the threats posed by polar bears. The edge of safety is marked by a series of road signs depicting polar bears.

A cruise is the best way to visit Svalbard beyond Longyearbyen in summer. The Spitsbergen Adventurer hugs the coast as it travels towards Moffen, grazing 80° North. Like the Svalbard Line, the Spitsbergen Adventurer sails along some of the most spectacular fjords in the world, and you can explore further into these storied islands on guided landings.

Which Svalbard cruise is right for you?

Summer in Longyearbyen on the Svalbard Express. Photo by: vince gx/Unsplash

The Svalbard Line

An iconic voyage deep into the Arctic Circle and the land of the Midnight Sun.

  • Up to 16 days, with shorter north and south options available

  • From Bergen to Svalbard and back, with several hours in up to 14 ports

  • All-inclusive food and drink from our award-winning Norway’s Coastal Kitchen

  • Sail on newly refurbished MS Trollfjord, our flagship for Signature voyages

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The Spitsbergen Adventurer

A nostalgic journey to a remote wilderness of fjords, glaciers, and polar wildlife.

  • Up to 6 days, with a choice of 3 or 4 nights at sea

  • From Longyearbyen to Moffen at 80° North, via the world’s northernmost village

  • Onshore landings and RIB cruises to get to know the island’s wildlife and history

  • Sail on timeless MS Nordstjernen as she makes her final voyage

6 surprising facts about Svalbard

1. Visas? No need!

Did you know that you don't need a visa to live or work in Svalbard? It's all thanks to the Svalbard Treaty of 1920. People from more than 50 different countries live here, bringing with them a lively mix of cultures and stories.

2. Svalbard region has more polar bears than people

Believe it or not, there are more polar bears roaming around the Svalbard region than there are humans! An estimated 3,000 polar bears live here, plus the many creatures that make up their food chain, such as walruses and seals.

3. Guns are recommended

When you step outside the settlements in Svalbard, carrying a gun is more than just a safety tip; you’d be foolish not to. It’s legally required to carry some kind of polar bear deterrent, and firearms are the most effective way to protect yourself.

4. With love, from the top of the world

The small village of Ny-Ålesund is home to the world's northernmost post office. It's not just a lifeline for the locals but also a magnet for stamp collectors dreaming of those rare Arctic postmarks.

5. No births, no burials

Life should not begin or end on Svalbard. Owing to a lack of medical facilities, expectant mums usually head to mainland Norway for childbirth. And because of the permafrost, burying the deceased in coffins here isn't possible either. Life's cycle is unique here.

6. Wi-Fi in the wilderness

Despite its remote location, Longyearbyen boasts one of the highest broadband internet speeds in the world. It’s connected via an undersea fibre optic cable. Once you leave the town, however, connectivity is largely restricted to satellite phones or InReach devices for emergencies.

More about Svalbard

From its incredible variety of flora and fauna to its surprising history, there’s far more to Svalbard than darkness, daylight and ice. Read our guide to Longyearbyen, brush up on Svalbard’s intriguing past, and find out why the archipelago is home to such a remarkable range or wildlife – and how it’s playing an important role in climate science and conservation.

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The Midnight Sun