By Darren Griffiths

Things to Know Before You Visit Svalbard

6th October 2023

The Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard has become a popular tourist attraction. As the world’s northernmost year-round settlement, it’s the perfect stop on an Arctic trip. But before you set off on an Arctic adventure, you need to understand what you’ll experience there. 

These are the most important things to know before you visit Svalbard.

Getting to Svalbard 

Tourists don’t need a visa for entry to Svalbard, just a valid passport, although digital nomads will require a special visa. The majority of travelers to Svalbard arrive by plane from either Oslo or Tromsø in Norway. But there’s a far more exciting way to experience the Arctic, and it’s an adventure all on its own.

The Rise Of Arctic Cruises  

Cruises to Svalbard offer a comfortable and practical way to explore the Arctic region. They are the perfect combination of transportation, accommodation, and adventure. Cruises to the Arctic Circle also include the chance to go on expeditions and learn more about the area from qualified guides.

Destination highlights generally include the capital and former mining town, Longyearbyen, as well as the old whaling station known as Smeerenburg.  The Monaco Glacier, one of the largest in Spitsbergen, is another highlight you’ll see along the way.

Svalbard’s Location and Geography

Svalbard is located in the Arctic Ocean, north of Europe’s mainland, and about midway between Norway’s northern coast and the North Pole. Summer runs from June to mid-September, and winter from October to May. Even on the warmest days of the year, it rarely goes over 64.5 °F (18 °C).

Climate and Weather

Svalbard has a polar climate along the east coast, which means that even in summer, temperatures can remain around freezing.  Meanwhile, the climate along the west coast is subpolar, influenced by the Gulf Stream

Air masses of these different origins clash and produce sometimes volatile and windy weather and offshore fog in summer. Precipitation occurs mainly in the form of light snow, with more rain at sea level in summer.

Wildlife and Natural Wonders

As it’s such a remote region, with a low population and limited tourism, you can enjoy unspoiled natural beauty at every turn. And of course, there’s a magnificent Arctic wildlife population, too.

The Incredible Wildlife of Svalbard

When people visit Antarctica, they’re often surprised to learn there are no polar bears there. The fact is, polar bears are Arctic animals! Therefore polar bears, reindeer, Arctic foxes, seals, and whales all call Svalbard their home. 

The polar bear has been protected by international law since 1973, so although you may be eager to see one – and you will see them here, exercise caution. Never venture too close to animals in the wild.  

Iconic Natural Attractions

During the polar nights of winter, you’ll have a breathtaking view of the Aurora Borealis. Also known as the Northern Lights, this light show hosted by Mother Nature, will likely be one of the highlights of your trip. They are most visible from 8 p.m. until 2 a.m.

From late April to late August, you’ll get to witness the Midnight Sun. In areas north of the Arctic Circle, this phenomenon means you’ll experience daylight in the nighttime hours. Because you’ll be able to explore the outdoors in daylight, even at night, this is an excellent time for your Svalbard trip.

Outdoor Adventures and Cultural Activities

As one of the world’s largest untouched natural areas, Svalbard is ideal for outdoor adventures and cultural activities. But always respect the unique culture of the region, and take environmental considerations into account when planning activities. 

Svalbard’s Unique Culture

Svalbard is unique in that it has no indigenous population, yet its history goes back to the early 1600s. 

Svalbard culture is a fusion of Norwegian, Russian, and other influences from neighboring Arctic areas. Norwegian, Russian, and Ukrainian ethnic groups make up the bulk of its population. The dominant economic activity has traditionally been coal mining, due to the significant amount of coal found here. 

However, the inhabitants of Svalbard enjoy outdoor and leisure pursuits just like everyone else. The most popular activities include boating, hiking, kayaking, snowmobiling, and dog sledding. As a tourist, you can engage in all these activities. But always do so with a guide, for your safety in this cold wilderness.

Environmental Considerations

Svalbard has a relatively dry climate. However, because of its high latitude, it is also one of the areas most affected by the climate change crisis.

Climate change is making its effects known on Svalbard. The cultural heritage monuments showcasing the history of this archipelago’s hunting, trapping, coal mining, and research activities, are therefore in jeopardy. 

Unfortunately, these buildings were not built with maximum longevity in mind. Wooden structures have, with time, become susceptible to rot and decay. And with the increased human presence brought about by tourism, plus the warming climate, locals are naturally concerned about preservation and practicing sustainable tourism

Packing Essentials

You’ll probably want to visit Svalbard in the summer. The polar summer will enthrall you with hiking opportunities, wildlife sightings, and, the famous Midnight Sun. The temperatures will be more bearable too, but it’s still cold, so your usual travel essentials when backpacking in Europe, won’t be enough.

What You’ll Need

The windy conditions can make the outdoors feel a lot colder than the forecast temperature seems to indicate. So even if traveling in summer, you’ll need a down jacket for extra warmth. You’ll also need high-quality UV-resistant sunglasses and sunscreen with a high protection factor.

No matter the season, you’ll need wool tops and bottoms for a base layer, and fleece tops and bottoms for a mid-layer. Anything with waterproofing properties is a plus, and that includes a good pair of walking boots. Gloves, mitts, thick socks, and beanies are also essentials for a Svalbard trip.