An island at 78 degrees north of our planet, halfway between Norway and the North Pole, where lofty peaks reach the clouds, glaciers make up most of the landmass, where the permafrost never melts and polar bears rule the land. Welcome to Svalbard! As lovers of untamed nature and remoteness, Svalbard had been on top of our list for a very long time. After visiting the Lofoten Isles and Arctic Norway, we decided to dwell deeper into the far northern wilderness, undoubtedly Svalbard seemed like a natural progression. So for all you fellow adventurers, we have compiled a complete guide to Svalbard covering where to go, things to do, budget tips and so on. Basically, we’ve got you covered.
With great excitement, we boarded the flight from Tromso to Longyearbyen. As soon as the aircraft broke through the dome of the cumulus clouds, we caught a first glimpse of the icy landmass with mountains and glaciers as far as our eyes could see. Transfixed by the beauty that awaited below, we sat restlessly on our seats, eager to explore the spectacular landscapes.
Stepping into the northernmost airport in the world
Longyearbyen airport is rather small, with only Norwegian and SAS airlines operating regular flights. After you disembark from your plane, once within the warmth of the airport, you are welcomed by a full-grown stuffed polar bear. Although not the king in exile, Iorek Byrnison in person, this bear stands regally over the luggage belt gazing piercingly at all those stepping into the airport. It’s only fitting as there are more polar bears than people in Svalbard.
After collecting our backpacks, we took the airport shuttle to the town centre and thereafter we hiked right along a beautiful fjord to our accommodation: a cottage in a dog yard at the very edge of town. We love far-flung places and off-beat accommodations, and as dog lovers this was heaven. So read along this guide to Svalbard for inspiration for your trip.
Living in a dog yard at the edge of the world was a dream come true.
We were welcomed by our host Berit Vatvik and some 200 huskies. As she was fixing a lightbulb at the entrance of the cottage, she narrated a fascinating account of being awakened by the dogs a few months ago and spotting a mother bear with two cubs headed straight towards the city. She took her flare, got in her car and somehow managed to chase the bears away. There was almost 0 per cent chance of the bears surviving if they had entered the town as officials would shoot them down to prevent risk to the locals.
Having told us her story, she assured us that there was nothing to worry if we were alert, and the dogs would keep us safe too. We checked into our cozy cottage and immediately headed out to explore our surroundings. Allons-y! As Doctor Who would say.
Guide to Svalbard – Things to do in Svalbard
The world’s northernmost settlement with the world’s northernmost university, airport, church and pretty much everything else. Here the sun never sets in summer and never rises in winter. Longyearbyen is located in a beautiful valley on the banks of the idyllic Adventfjorden in the west of the island of Spitsbergen. We enjoyed walking around the town centre with its cosy restaurants, shops and bars.
If we go back in history, this was primarily a mining town; however, over the last decade, tourism and research have been growing industries. We met several friendly locals, from shop assistants to regular church-goers, who had fascinating stories to share about their life in the Arctic.
Some lived here as they loved the isolation and nature, some for photography, some were academics researching the effects of climate change while some others for their love of huskies. It was amazing to meet people beating conventions and living the life they love despite the unforgiving environmental conditions.
Places to visit in Longyearbyen
a)Visit the Svalbard Museum and learn about the history of the island.
b) Visit Svalbard Kirke – world’s northernmost church. It’s open 24/7 and even has a cafe where you can enjoy a hot cuppa to get warm.
c) Check out the Svalbard Global Seed Vault – an engineering marvel that stores millions of seeds from every corner of the world. It’s a modern-day Noah’s arc in case of a global catastrophe. You cannot enter inside and you need to join a tour to get there since it’s outside city limits.
d) Nature, wildlife and husky safaris – You can go on northern lights, and whale watching tours, or consider outdoor activities such as sledging, snowmobiling, kayaking and hiking, to name a few, depending on the season you visit. We chose a day hike with huskies organised by Svalbard Vilmarkssenter, where we were residing.
e) Polar Bear Warning Sign – Towards the very end of town you will come across a signpost of a polar bear photo with the words ‘Gjelder Hele Svalbard’, which loosely translates as ‘ all over Svalbard’. So bear in mind, this is the realm of the polar bear.
f) Visit a coal mine – Learn the history behind Svalbard’s coal mining industry by taking a 3 hour guided tour of Gruve 3 AS.
2) Hike with Huskies
This was by far the most memorable part of our trip. Living in a husky farm, we were certainly eager to meet and spend time with the doggos, and what better way than hike the frozen tundra with them.
You can read more about our experience – Hiking with Huskies in Svalbard
It cost NOK 1300 (USD 140) for the 2 of us, you can check out other activities and rates at Svalbard Villmarkssenter.
3) Pyramiden and Barentsburg
You can visit the abandoned Soviet mining ghost town of Pyramiden and the small mining settlement of Barentsburg on day trips by boat in summer and snowmobiles in winter. Day trips cost around NOK 2250 (£200 pp).
4) Polar bear exploration
Given that you have the time and the budget, you can go polar bear watching while cruising along this magical island. There are cruises lasting 3-11 days that take you to remote parts of the archipelago. They are pricey and can cost a minimum of NOK 22,000 (£2000 pp) for 4 odd days. We certainly hope we can do this someday.
Essential Tips to plan a trip to Svalbard
When to visit Svalbard?
You can visit Svalbard all year round so the best time to visit would especially depend on the experiences you seek. Since it’s located well above the Arctic circle, the seasonal variations are enormous. The polar night in Longyearbyen lasts from 26 October until 15 February, therefore the sun doesn’t rise. Moreover, there’s no twilight like that in Lapland so expect pitch darkness. Of course, this is a unique experience though there are only a few activities that run during this time. The upside is that you can see the Northern Lights any time of the day (depending on solar activity and clear skies).
The midnight sun lasts from 20 April to 23 August when the sun doesn’t set, In other words, there are a plethora of outdoor activities. We usually prefer travelling during the shoulder season since we hate crowds. Additionally, prices are lower. We visited Svalbard in mid-October so we had a good balance of light and darkness. Not only can you enjoy outdoor activities during the day but even gaze at the Northern Lights at night. Prices were cheaper than peak summer and the best part – no tourists.
How to get to Svalbard?
Fly from Norway
The most common route is to fly to Longyearbyen via Oslo or Tromso in Norway. Since Scandinavian (SAS) and Norwegian Airlines now operate on this route, the flights are more affordable than before. We took a direct flight from Tromso in Norway. There’s no regular boat service to reach Svalbard so in essence, the only way to arrive by ship is a part of an expedition cruise.
There’s an Airport shuttle that takes you to the town centre. Longyearbyen is rather small and you can visit everything on foot, there are taxis available too. Note that there is no public transport or car rentals, the only way to really experience Svalbard is by guided tours. There are no roads connecting the different settlements. To get out of Longyearbyen into the arctic wilderness, you can travel by boat during summer and snowmobile or dog sled during winter.
Guide to Svalbard – Visa requirements
Svalbard is a part of Norway but neutral territory and a visa-free zone. However, there are no direct flight connections to it other than from Norway so if you have a visa requirement to enter Norway then you need to apply for a Schengen visa as you will be going via Norway.
Where to stay in Svalbard?
Most hotels are located in Longyearbyen town centre. There are a few hotels in Barentsburg and Pyramiden too.
Budget – Longyearbyen camping (prices starting from NOK 150 pppn).
Mid range – Coal Miner’s Cabin (NOK 1000 pppn)
High end – Radisson Blu (NOK 1500 pn)
Prefer something offbeat?
How about living in a husky farm? We stayed at Tommy’s Lodge, a cabin in Svalbard Villmarkssenter (dog yard). We had a private room with access to the kitchen. There are 2 rooms in the cabin and we were lucky to have the whole cabin to ourselves as the other room was vacant.
The cabin had electricity but no running water which meant no bathroom or shower but there was a dry toilet outside. Choose this if you like isolation and adventure and want to have an authentic Svalbard experience. It cost us £55 per night for the 2 of us in Oct 2017. The prices have increased to NOK 2000 (£185) per night currently (2021).
You can check out this accommodation here – Tommy’s Lodge
Guide to Svalbard – budget?
It’s by far the most expensive place we have visited. We expected the prices to be similar to Norway but it was way more expensive. We met fellow travellers from Denmark and they were cribbing about the prices so hope that puts things into perspective. Your budget will depend on the duration of your trip and the activities you wish to do. We were in Longyearbyen for 3 days and here’s a breakdown of our expenses:
|Price (Norwegian Krone) for 2 people
for 2 people
|Price (INR) for 2people
|Return Flight from London to
|Return Flight from Tromso to
|Return Airport Shuttle from Airport to Accommodation
|Accommodation 3 nights
|Activities (hike with huskies)
Guide to Svalbard – Budget tips: If you are on a budget, buy stuff from the supermarket and prepare your own meals. If you can, shop from mainland Norway before arriving in Svalbard. Good news though is that alcohol is much cheaper than the mainland as Svalbard is tax-free.
What to pack for a trip to Svalbard?
It’s going to be cold irrespective of the time you visit therefore layering is crucial. We visited in mid-October with temperatures ranging from 3 degrees C to – 15 degrees C. So here’s our packing guide to Svalbard. This is what we had in our backpacks:
- Woollen base layer
- Full sleeve t-shirts and hiking pant
- Fleece mid-layer
- Down jacket
- Waterproof jacket and pants
- 2 pairs of gloves (woollen + ski)
- Beanies, socks, scarf
- Hiking boots
Other things to note
- It’s customary to remove shoes before entering houses and even some hotels and establishments.
- There’s fast internet in Longyearbyen despite its remote location.
- ATM’s are available and you can use your credit cards for most transactions.
- Tours and activities are not only pricey but also weather dependant. Many tour operators don’t reimburse the costs in case your tour is cancelled so check the weather forecast before booking.
- You are required by law to carry a gun and have a firearm licence to venture out of the settlements.
- Lastly a quirky one, it’s forbidden to die in Svalbard. If someone falls gravely ill, they are airlifted to mainland Norway to end their days. No burials are allowed as corpses don’t decompose.
Svalbard’s landscape has changed dramatically over the last few years, glaciers are melting and the fjords aren’t freezing anymore. So in this Svalbard guide we want to urge you to travel responsibly. Sea ice covers 40% less of the area than it did 25 years ago. Given these facts, it’s imperative to ensure the environment remains as undisturbed as possible. Leave no trace and ensure your impact is minimal. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Choose your holiday company wisely. Avoid giant cruises ferrying thousands of passengers during the midnight sun
- Choose activities close to town
- Choose non-motorised activities like hiking, kayaking, dog sledding
- Consider travelling outside the peak season; this not only reduces your impact but also helps sustain local businesses
- Lastly respect the landscape, peoples privacy and local culture
We got to experience Arctic nature at its rawest and the most powerful in Svalbard, from hiking the frozen tundra to cosying up by the fire in our cabin, stargazing from our porch listening to the sweet lullaby of 100 howling huskies, somethings that will be etched in our memories forever. We’ve certainly been bitten by the Polar Bug – a constant desire to return to the Arctic. Hope to visit again for longer to explore other islands, maybe get to see a polar bear whilst hoping tourism and global warming hasn’t destroyed its habitat.
Hope you enjoyed our guide to Svalbard.