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.

Things to do in Svalbard

Svalbard is one of the wildest parts of the world, and its epic winter landscape makes for a host of bucket list activities!

An in-depth shortlist of the best things to do in Svalbard will need a whole article on its own, so I’ll just briefly mention some of the highlights:

  • Go on safari
  • Watch the northern lights around a camp fire
  • Explore an ice cave
  • Explore the wilderness on a snow mobile
  • Visit the global seed vault
  • Go dog sledding

Here are 11 reasons to visit Svalbard this year:

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 by Lightrocket, Getty Images | 11 Reasons To Visit Svalbard

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 | 11 Reasons To Visit Svalbard

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 | 11 Reasons To Visit Svalbard

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 | 11 Reasons To Visit Svalbard

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 | 11 Reasons To Visit Svalbard

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.