Svalbard is the world’s northernmost civilisation and one of the most enchanting and awe-inspiring places on earth. Imagine a region set in darkness for months on end that abruptly switches to months of endless light with bright sunshine spread out over snow scattered wilderness. Where the only dangers facing humans are polar bears and mother nature. You won’t need to look for long when searching for reasons to visit Svalbard.

Christmas folklore has created a real magical atmosphere around the north pole and the arctic circle, and the Svalbard Archipelago in Norway definitely delivers on everything you could possibly imagine and so much more.

 

Here are 11 reasons to visit Svalbard:

1. Polar Bears

Svalbard’s number one attraction for wildlife enthusiasts are the approximately 3,000 giant, snow white polar bears. One of the most iconic and charismatic species on earth, polar bears are a massive draw card for Svalbard as the area offers some of the best viewing experiences in the world.

The polar bear is the world’s largest carnivore and is considered a marine mammal, spending the majority of its life on floating ice packs which drift across the sea. Wildlife tours take you by boat, out onto the ocean to observe and photograph polar bears going about their lives in the wild.

11 Reasons To Visit Svalbard
Polar bear on the sea ice in Svalbard | Lightrocket, Getty Images

Female polar bears create snow dens in the ice where they give birth to their cubs, who generally remain with their mother until two years old. The ringed seal is the primary prey item for ‘snow bears’. They are the most common seal species in Svalbard and you’re almost guaranteed to see them.

Sightings are most common on the islands surrounding Spitsbergen, but you should be prepared for an encounter at all times, even in town. Polar bears are not at all habituated to humans and we can be seen as potential prey.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to say what the best time of year is for polar bear sightings, as they roam freely throughout the region with no limitations, and can cover large distances in a matter of days. It’s also difficult to predict the best places to see them. Its highly recommended to join a tour with a local guide who has current knowledge about the area and the bears’ movements.

2. The Northern Lights

The Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) have long been the subject of myth and legend, are they a natural phenomena that can be explained by science or are they the artistic expressions of the gods? Everyone has their own theory. One thing that is not up for debate however is the fact that the Northern Lights are one of the most popular reasons to visit Svalbard.

The Aurora is created by powerful solar winds combined with clouds of gas emitted by the sun. These gas participles enter earth’s atmosphere at between 90 and 180 km above the ground, creating electromagnetic radiation that is experienced on the ground as the Northern Lights. 

11 Reasons To Visit Svalbard
The Northern Lights, Svalbard | Pixabay

For the ideal Northern Lights experience, you need an area covered in complete darkness with no interference from artificial lighting. Outside settlements like the town of Longyearbyen, the only lighting provided is by the moon, the stars and the aurora.

Generally the best time to view the Northern Lights is of course during the evening or at night when the sky is the darkest. However during the winter months, Svalbard goes through a period known as the Polar Night, which is when the sun doesn’t rise for more than 24 hours. This enables you to experience the mystical green light dancing high above the Arctic winter wilderness at any time of day.

Tour providers in Svalbard offer Northern Nights experiences by snowmobile, dog sled, by boat or even on foot equipped with snowshoes. Premium experiences even offer a full nigh experience combined with good food and exciting stories about the lights and their cultural significance.

 

3. Global Seed Vault

Nestled deep within a mountain, in a remote region of Svalbard lies the Global Seed Vault. Housing over 2.5 billion seeds, the vault is the world’s safety net against a widespread natural disaster. Built to stand the test of time and the stresses of its harsh external environment, the vault protects the world’s largest collection of crop diversity.

11 Reasons To Visit Svalbard
The Global Seed Vault | © Heiko Junge/NTB scanpix/Zuma

With almost 1 million different types of seeds stored beneath the permafrost of Arctic Ice, a global seed vault is something that most people don’t even know exists, which makes for a pretty cool travel story.

The Global Seed Vault in its own right isn’t exactly a reason to visit Svalbard, as visitors are unfortunately not permitted inside. However you can take a photo of the outside, which given the right weather conditions, can make for an awesome Instagram post.

 4. Dog Sled Adventures

The Arctic landscape is vast and can be difficult to navigate on foot, especially when trying to cover long distances. This is why the Dog Sled was designed as an efficient means of transport through the polar regions.

A dog sledding experience | Pixabay

Special dog sled tours take you out on a two-person sled where you’ll get the chance to be both the musher (driver) and the passenger. Powered by an eager pack of huskies, sled tours cover vast reaches of wilderness at a steady pace – more than slow enough to take in the beauty of Svalbard, and possibly even spot some wild animals like reindeer or arctic foxes along the way.

Tours vary from short day trips to longer excursions which can also include over night stays in igloos. At the end of your dog sled tour, you’ll be allowed to help put the dogs back in their houses and thank them for their hard work and then reward yourself  with a hot drink and a snack

 

5. Ice Cave Experiences

Svalbard’s countless glaciers contain a plethora of long natural passages leading to incredible ice caves, which you’ll find hard to believe aren’t man made.

Exploring an Ice Cave in Svalbard | Pixabay

Equipped with a headlamp, crampons and a helmet, you can enter these glaciers and explore the maze of meltwater passages and caves at your leisure. This still and silent world is filled with icicles and snow crystals, painted with hues of white and blue.

Accessing these glaciers can be done by a variety of different ways including adding it to your dog sledding or snow mobile excursions. Tour guides/companies in Longyearbyen will be able to advise on the best plan for you depending on the time of year and weather conditions.

6. Snow sports

Svalbard is a winter wonderland all year round and snow sports are a major drawcard for the region. Popular activities include; skiing, snowboarding, biking, snow mobile excursions and ATV safaris.

Their are a few options when it comes to skiing and these generally vary from short and relatively easy trips, to longer and more advanced alternatives. Which you chose to go for will depend on your experience level and time constraints. A popular option is to go on a summit ski climb up Trollsteinen (850 metres above sea level) where you will be rewarded with breathtaking panoramic views before skiing back down.

Snowmobiles parked on top of a glacier in Svalbard | Pixabay

Snow mobiles are the most popular means of transport in Svalbard, and saddling up on one is one of the most authentic experiences you can have in the region. Snow mobile tours also vary in time and distance, and popular options generally include travelling across wilderness trails through the wide open terrain in search of arctic wildlife and other amazing sights like icebergs, old trappers’ huts and glaciers.

ATV safaris are the summer alternative to snow mobiles.

 

7. Arctic Wildlife

One of the top reasons to visit Svalbard is the wide range of unique species of arctic wildlife on offer. As we’ve already mentioned, Svalbard is arguably the best place in the world to see polar bears in the wild and with their being more polar bears than people, sightings are extremely common.

Walrus bull and cow in Svalbard | Pixabay

Herds of reindeer can be seen grazing around Longyearbyen like herds of sheep and arctic foxes are always snooping around, seemingly up to no good. Svalbard is home to a variety of iconic marine wildlife; ringed seals and harp seals are very common, along with walrus and various whale species like the beluga and humpback whale.

Walrus’ are one of the few species that remain in the Svalbard area during winter and the population is thriving, with estimates of over 4,000 individuals. They are easily identifiable by their impressive tusks.

In addition, more than 200 bird species have been recorded in Svalbard and the surrounding waters. Arctic seabirds breed here in massive colonies which sometimes represent significant proportions of the global population.

8. Winter Hiking

For outdoor enthusiasts, one of the greatest reasons to visit Svalbard is the incredible winter hiking opportunities available thanks to the icy terrain of the Arctic environment.

Snow hiking in Svalbard | Pixabay

Hikes can be inconsistent and routes are ever changing due to the unpredictable nature of the weather in the Polar regions, however Svalbard offers hiking opportunities that no other wilderness area or national park can. Hiking through the snow or up a giant glacier under the cover of darkness is an experience like no other! And if that wasn’t enough, the darkness could potentially be illuminated by the Northern Lights.

Tour guides will provide all the required gear which generally includes: helmets and walking poles. Most hikes will be combined with an ice cave tour or alternatively you can choose a route that takes you to the Global Seed Vault or if you’re up for it, a climb to the summit of Trollsteinen mountain.

 

9. Experience A Polar Night Or The Midnight Sun

The polar night only occurs in the northernmost and southernmost regions of the earth, when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon for periods of more than 24 hours during the winter months.

During the polar night, you can expect days to be pitch black for around 20 hours with 3-4 hours of light blue haze in between. During this period, the northern lights are generally visible throughout most of the day.

11 Reasons To Visit Svalbard
Experiencing the Northern Lights during the polar night in Svalbard | Pixabay

The Polar Day or ‘midnight sun’ or also only occurs in the North and South Pole and is the exact opposite to the polar night. The midnight sun occurs during the summer months when the sun doesn’t drop below the horizon for periods of more than 24 hours.

During the summer months, the northern lights are not visible in the sky. The aurora is still active, however there aren’t enough hours of darkness for them to be seen.

10. Longyearbyen Town

Longyearbyen is the world’s northernmost settlement and the cultural hub of Svalbard. The micro-town is made up of a small yet vibrant community with multiple forms of accommodation and various restaurants and shops, which provide a true taste of Norwegian culture.

11 reasons to visit Svalbard
Longyearbyen at dusk | Alamy

The town is your gateway to Svalbard and is inhabited by nature enthusiasts who choose to live in close proximity to the High Arctic wilderness and the wildlife that calls it home.

Here you’ll also find the Svalbard Museum where you can learn more about the history, geology, and wildlife of the region. Longyearbyen is the starting point for most adventures in Svalbard.

 

11. Experience a Sunny Winter

Although the term ‘spring’ is virtually meaningless in Arctic circle, there are some clear differences to the rest of the year and this period comes with its own reasons to visit Svalbard.

Sunny winter scenes in Svalbard | Pixabay

The months between mid-March and May in Svalbard come with increased light hours throughout the day as opposed to drastically increased temperatures and during these months the region sees a more normalised pattern of light hours during the day and darkness over night.

While there is a slight temperature increase, the landscape is still draped in beautiful ice and covered in snow as far as they eye can see. The increased light can make for much better wildlife viewing and day time activities and the benefit of darkness over night is that there are still amazing opportunities to chase the Northern Lights! Spring time could be the best time of year to visit Svalbard to get the full Arctic experience.