An archipelago of islands in the Arctic Ocean and inside the Arctic Circle about half way between Norway and the North Pole, the largest island is Spitsbergen. Lots of history, lots of wildlife.
Arctic Circle Destination
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Svalbard, circled, is part of Norway (red), it is in the High Arctic, though the west coast in particular is kept ice free in the summer by the last remnants of the Gulf Stream.
Svalbard is an Arctic land and sea scape that is the way you imagined the Far North would be like. Almost wherever you are on the archipelago is going to be an impressive wilderness experience. Whether you are looking through the door of your tent, the panoramic window on the viewing deck of your ship or standing on the tundra drinking it all in, the dramatic snow-girdled mountains, vast glaciers and icebergs of one of Europe's last great wilderness areas you will be in one the places on Svalbard it's worth visiting.
Polar bears can be dangerous to people
(don't worry he's ok, just kidding around, the bear walked by hours beforehand), but look at the size of those paw prints!
Svalbard is a destination in itself or can be used as a starting or end point for a wider Arctic visit. It is the land of the midnight sun (there are 4 months of constant daylight in the summer), the land of the polar bear, the Aurora Borealis, endless green tundra, walruses, reindeer, thousands and thousands of birds and a variety of historic sites dating back to the early 1600's.
There is one main town of Longyearbyen with a number of places to stay, cafes and restaurants, the Russian mining settlement at Barentsburg also has a hotel and places to eat, Ny Alesund is a research "town" with museum exhibits and gift shop but no other tourist facilities, Pyramiden is an abandoned Russian mining settlement. The main attraction of Svalbard is its largely pristine wilderness, wide open spaces and wildlife with no indication of human interference, the Norwegian government does a very good job in protecting this and also ensuring a positive visitor experience.
In the summer months, Svalbard becomes the land of polar bears, they are concentrated onto the land by the contracting sea ice and numbers build up to around 3,500 (against a human population of about 2,650) making it one of the best places to see them in the whole Arctic. The bears are part of a population that inhabits the region east of Svalbard to Franz Josef Land, Novaya Zemlya and the Northern Barents region of Russia.
Bears in summer are often hungry as they can't hunt for seals once the sea-ice has gone, so they can be dangerous on land and can be encountered almost anywhere on the islands. A cruise is the best and safest way to see polar bears on Svalbard, they are often seen along the shore line in the summer.
Svalbard can be reached year round by flights from Oslo via Tromso in Norway, in the summer months there are flights direct from Oslo. Visas are not needed for the nationals of the EU/EEA and many other countries to enter Norway as a visitor for up to 90 days, use this to check.
Places to visit in Svalbard
A series of cliffs rising up sheer from the sea to over 100m like some kind of medieval fortress, the home of tens of thousands of Brunnich's guillemots, Kittiwakes and Glaucous gulls that nest on the cliffs. Being able to approach them from the sea means you get up close and will often be rewarded by the birds flying and landing close to your boat.
A Russian mining town about 55km (34 miles) from Longyearbyen. There are no roads, boats when ice-free or snowmobiles in winter are used to reach Barentsburg. It has a population of around 500, half of what there used to be at its peak but more than the minimum of a few years ago. It is an unusual place to visit, part ghost town, part live town. There are Soviet era reminders around, some big old buildings seem to have been abandoned intact and some are noticeably sagging or subsiding into the ground. Other nearby buildings are modern and clearly used. An interesting place to visit, there is a Pomor Museum too.
An island on the east coast of Svalbard. There is an extensive area at Sundnesset covered with whale "sub-fossils" these are whale bones that were deposited here on the sea-bed from 50,000 to a few thousand years ago, the sea-bed then tilted and rose exposing the bones on the land. They are sub fossils as they are still made of bone rather than being mineralized as true fossils.
An inlet or sound on the west coast of Spitsbergen to the south, the next inlet down from the one that has Longyearbyen and Barentsburg. There is a history of whaling here from the 1600's, though the most obvious remains are of rowing boats and piles of bones from beluga whales that date from the 1930's when there was a beluga whale fishery in the summer months.
An abandoned mining camp from the early years of the 20th century. The machinery and huts are there as they were left over a hundred years ago, disintegrating only very slowly in the cold Arctic climate which has preserved the relics well.
At the south end of Hornsund fjord is a large open bay called Gashamna which was the site of summer-only whale processing in the 1600's to 1700's. There are the remains of the blubber ovens here and in particular of some of the larger bones from the Bowhead and Right whales that were killed and brought ashore to be dealt with. The nutrients from the bones have leaked out and support small but verdant communities of plants (mainly mosses) which still form isolated ecosystems recycling nutrients 350 years later. A foot or so beyond the bones and the ground is bare and sterile.
This is the administrative centre of Svalbard and almost certainly where you will arrive whether by sea or air. It was founded as a coal mining town and mining is still one of the main economic activities, the large wooden frames of aerial tramways can be seen in and around town that used to carry coal from the mines to the port to be loaded on ships. If you have any time here at the start or end of your trip, make sure you go to the museum, it gives a lot of information about the history, geology and wildlife of Svalbard that you will see when you travel around and help you understand what you see better.
A picturesque glacier that can be quite active with lots of icebergs in front, if you're lucky you'll see ice falling off the front while you are there.
Another Svalbard oddity, this research town began as a mining camp in 1917, it was where Amundsen and Nobile left from to reach the North Pole by airship in 1926, the airship mooring mast they used is still there. Mining ended in 1962 and research began in 1967, after 1992 non-Norwegian institutions were invited to build permanent stations there. There are currently 15 permanent stations with 30-35 people overwintering and around 120 in the summer months. Each country's research station is separate and generally self contained, though there is a common area where they all eat together.
You can wander freely around the town (though not enter buildings) there is a museum and gift shop.
Polar bear warning sign at the edge of Longyearbyen, wooden frames of the aerial tramway in the background that carried coal to the docks
Another Russian mining town similar to Barentsburg, though this one was abandoned in 1998. It is not entirely clear why this was abandoned and Barentsburg wasn't, profitability seems to have been similar (both operating at a loss) and coal stocks similar. As it is no longer used you can walk around it freely, one for the urban explorer.
A historic site on Amsterdam Island, a small island in the extreme north west of Svalbard founded by Dutch whalers who first came here in 1614 and stayed until 1655. There are the remains of a number of blubber ovens from this time which were used to render down the fat from whales before storage in barrels for transport back to the Netherlands, "Smeerenburg" in Dutch means literally "blubber town". There is a monument to the people who lost their lives here in the 1600's erected in 1906 when a Dutch ship the Friesland gathered exposed bones pushed to the surface by centuries of frost heave and derelict grave markers etc. together.
Sample cruise routes around
or including Svalbard:
the actual routes available and durations vary somewhat from season to season.
Trips of 8 to 9 days explore the western coast of Svalbard, fjords and glaciers. This side is reliably ice free in the summer months.
Longer trips of 10 days+ can circumnavigate Svalbard including some of the islands to the east, 14 day trips go further east to take in Franz Josef Land too.
Arctic - Svalbard / Spitsbergen - Sample Cruises - 2022
|Spitsbergen Highlights||North from Longyearbyen, glaciers, historic sites, polar bears, walrus, lots of birds.||$4,946 -
Around Spitsbergen, Circumnavigation
|Historic sites, sea-ice, glaciers, wild flowers, lush tundra, walrus, polar bears, reindeer, huge sea bird colonies, optional kayaking.||$9,896 -
|North Norway, Aurora Borealis & Whales||Norwegian Arctic, Aurora Borealis, sailing ship, whale, sea-eagles, small fishing villages||$2,450 - $3,050||7|
North Pole - 2022
|The North Pole||Stand at 90 degrees North - the very top of the world, helicopter sightseeing, polar wildlife and lanscapes||$33,495 - $50,995|
Arctic - Greenland and Canada - Sample Cruises - 2022
|Northwest Passage and Greenland||Historic Canadian and Greenlandic sites, abundant wildlife, rich Inuit culture and dramatic icy landscapes. Polar bears, whales and walrus, hike across the tundra||$15,495 -
|East Greenland from Iceland||Spectacular scenery of East Greenland, Inuit culture, museums, historic sites. Fjords, mountains and ice, Seabirds, look out for humpback and minke whales. Optional kayaking on some voyages. Tie-in with a few days in Iceland before or after the cruise.||$4,600 -
|Northeast Greenland, Scoresby Sound||The world's largest fjord system, spectacular scenery, giant icebergs and glaciers, musk ox, arctic hares, sea-birds, Inuit culture, historic sites.||$8,490 - $10,590||7|
Arctic - Land Based - Sample Trips - 2022
|Polar Bear Fly-in Safari||Churchill, Canada in the fall is where polar bears congregate to wait for Hudson Bay to freeze over, see them from the Polar Bear Cabins complex.||TBA||8|
* Prices are based per person, the lowest price is usually for triple occupancy in a basic cabin, the highest for double occupancy in the best available suite.
Options may be at additional cost and are usually booked when the cruise is booked - it may be too late once the cruise has started.
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Picture credits: Map of the Arctic, Svalbard, Norway - TUBS - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license | Map of Svalbard - Panden - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license | Walrus in slider - Iuriii Volkov - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license