Templefjord in Spitsbergen during Winter

Destinations Everything you need to know about Svalbard

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where is svalbard?

Svalbard is an arctic archipelago north of Norway and part of the Kingdom of Norway. This collection of islands is one of the most northerly inhabited places on earth. Svalbard is approximately 500 miles from the North Pole and is within the Arctic Circle line of latitude. The most northern town in the world is Longyearbyen which is the largest town in Svalbard and is 650 miles from the North Pole.

getting to svalbard

Flights to Svalbard fly into Longyearbyen, the most northern airport in the world, the main town and most populated place in Svalbard. SAS Airlines  and Norwegian Airlines are the only carriers to fly into Svalbard and you must catch a flight from Oslo, Copenhagen or Stockholm first. The plane will usually touch down in Tromsø in northern Norway on the way to Longyearbyen and sometimes you may be asked to disembark.

The great thing about flying to Svalbard is that there are no customs here, so you literally just grab your bags and go.

Glaciar in Svalbard

Accommodation in Svalbard

Accommodation in Svalbard is limited. Hotels in Svalbard are mostly in Longyearbyen but there is a hotel at the more northern abandoned soviet mining village of Pyramiden. Trips to Svalbard will usually include local accommodation and if you travel out of Longyearbyen you may find yourselves wild camping or camping in temporary tour camps on the ice. This remote destination is not for the faint hearted however, those intrepid explorers amongst you will appreciate the stark tundra, lack of network coverage and unrivalled arctic scenery.

Interestingly people in Svalbard don’t lock their doors in case a hungry polar bear wanders into the town, ensuring anyone outside has the chance to seek refuge. Scary stuff.

Weather in Svalbard

The average Svalbard temperature is actually surprising. In winter it can get below -30 degrees but in summer averages 6 degrees thanks in large part to the Gulf Stream flowing past the shores. Without the warm passing currents Svalbard may well be just one large floating ice sheet.

As with many arctic destinations, this fascinating place enjoys the midnight sun for 3 months of the year in summer and the long night for 3 months in winter. The sun doesn’t actually set for 5 months from April to August which can be disconcerting for visitors and sleep masks are a must.

Due to the dry climate here, the nights can be clear and crisp giving you an excellent chance of seeing the Svalbard Northern Lights from November to January.

bearded seal in Spitsbergen

Wildlife in Svalbard

Whilst Svalbard is mostly ice, snow, tundra, glacier and water you’d think that there may not be much surviving out here but there is a surprising amount of wildlife making their home on this collection of islands. Most notably are the polar bears, where it is infamously rumoured that there are more polar bears than people here. Polar bears are best avoided where possible, but it is possible to spot them from time to time. In addition to polar bears, in Svalbard you’ll find arctic foxes, reindeer, whales, walrus and seals and plenty of birdlife.

As spring begins more and more whales appear in the waters around Svalbard. Humpback whales, fin whales, minke whales and beluga whales have all been spotted in the rich waters and many calf here too, although mortality rates are high. Arctic terns, guillemots and other arctic seabirds can be seen around the islands of Svalbard and attract the arctic foxes who come to prey on them.

Things to do in Svalbard

Svalbard offers plenty to do for explorers. Take a boat trip or go paddling amongst the glaciers and enjoy Svalbard from the water. Always go with an organised trip as your guide will carry a gun for safety against polar bears.

There are multiple museums in Svalbard showcasing the varied history of this arctic region. Check out the Svalbard Museum or the North Pole Expedition Museum in Longyearbyen, which give visitors an insight into the history of Svalbard.

Dog sledding, skiing and cross-country skiing are also popular pursuits you can try whilst you’re here. You can also take time to explore with a Svalbard tour where you can discover ice caves, glacier treks, tundra hiking and wild camping on the ice. Always take trips out of the towns with a guide who will ensure that you are safe and the environment is treated respectfully as much of Svalbard is dedicated as protected nature reserves. 

Sea kayaking in King's Bay in Spitsbergen

Did you know ...

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault

The Norwegian Ministry of Food and Agriculture manage the Global Seed Vault on Svalbard which was opened in 2008 after extensive research into its viability. It currently stores over a million seed varieties from all over the world, mainly food crops such as wheat, rice and beans, and has seed deposits in from countries all over the world. The seed deposits remain the property of the nation that stores them there and it is hoped that in the event of a catastrophic global disaster, this seed bank will help sustain human life on earth. It was built in Svalbard deep underground to provide optimum conditions for storing seeds for centuries to come.

Polar bears in Svalbard

It is rumoured that there are more polar bears than people in Svalbard. While this might once have been true, a survey in 2015 found that there were only around 1000 polar bears in Norway with less than 300 in Svalbard. This means that there are actually close to 10 people for every polar bear. As an endangered species, it is prohibited to kill a polar bear unless threatened. If spotted, it is recommended to keep a healthy distance and high tail it out of there as soon as possible. Polar bears can weigh from 200 – 800kg and if they confront you for food, you’ll most likely come off worse!

Diverse Population

With approximately 3,000 residents in Svalbard from over 50 different countries, this arctic archipelago has one of the most diverse populations on the planet!

Svalbard is a Desert

Technically, the conditions on Svalbard are as dry as the Sahara, making it a type of desert. Known as an arctic desert, Svalbard enjoys little precipitation and nearly no humidity. Who knew!?

There are only 25 miles of road

For a place with a land mass smaller than Ireland, there are only 25 miles of surfaced road on Svalbard. To get from one settlement to another you need to travel by either snowmobile or boat!
Base camp in Spitsbergen during Winter
Hopefully if you were interested in Svalbard visit before you read this you’re positively salivating at this point. Check out our Kandoo Adventures Svalbard tours as we have a trip to suit everyone, whatever you’re into.