The Svalbard islands are located in the Arctic Ocean halfway between Norway and the North Pole, accessible by plane from Oslo or Tromsø. We spent a week in Svalbard in September – if you’re thinking about going, I’d highly recommend it! In hindsight mid September was a great time for a first visit.
Depending, of course, on personal preference and fitness, the “must do” activities for me were: hiking (Trollsteinen for its combination of views and a glacier crossing, and either Hiorthfjellet which combines kayaking and hiking in one long day, or the 1,053m Nordenskioldfjellet, the highest peak near Longyearben) and the boat trip to Pyramiden (which includes a glacier-stop and the abandoned mining of Pyramiden). The Better Moments “Catch of the Day” cruise was also fantastic. Allow at least a week…
What was intended as a summary of our week has ended up being more of an travel essay! So I’ve broken it down into sections and added some navigation:
- Svalbard overview
- When to go (and for how long!)
- Getting there
- Getting around
- Food & Accommodation (and some booking tips)
- Land Tours
- Boat Tours
- More information
Svalbard is a group of islands (archipelago), located north of the Norwegian mainland in the Barents Sea. The largest settlement is Longyearbyen, which is where the airport is located. Svalbard is the largest wilderness area in Europe, and lays claim to some of the northernmost settlements in the world:
- Ny-Ålesund (78°55’N) – the northernmost functional settlement and home to the northernmost post office (accessible by boat tour from June-September)
- Pyramiden (78°39’N) – an almost-abandoned ghost town, a hotel was re-established in 2013. Accessible by boat, it’s the #2 northermost (populated and accessible) town – and well worth a visit!
- Longyearben (78°12’N) – northernmost settlement with a permanent population of over 1,000. You’ll be staying here (unless you’re doing an overnight trekking tour from here 🙂
With no roads between Longyearbyen and the other settlements, travel is by boat in summer (May-October) and snowmobile in winter (Feb-May). More than 60% of the archipelago is covered by ice, with winter temperatures dropping as low as -30 degrees Celsius.
Historically, Svalbard played a role during the whaling years in the 17th century when summer whaling stations were established on the west coast. There are still many traces of the whale slaughter along the coastline. In the late 1800s and early 1900s Svalbard became a base for polar exploration and research; this continues today with a number of large technical research facilities (including the EISCAT atmospheric radar telescopes and the SVALSAT array of antenna-studded “golf balls” visible from most of the boat cruises). Coal mining started in the 1900s in response to demand for resources from Europe, with multiple countries staking claims across Svalbard; Longyearben was established in 1906 as a mining settlement by John Munro Longyear, an American. Mining continued throughout the the 1900s, except during WWII, with Longyearben becoming the focal point for Norwegian mining. While mining has now almost completely ceased (there’s just Mine 7 in Longyearben and Svea Nord in Sveagruva still operating), many abandoned mines and even “ghost towns” (like Pyramiden and Grumant) remain.
When to go
Being well above the Arctic circle there’s polar winter (no sun) from November to February and polar summer (24 hour sun) from May to August. In mid September, when we visited, the days were still fairly long with sunrise around 6am and sunset at 8pm. It stayed light for many hours after sunset, and never got completely dark with a red glow on the horizon lasting until almost midnight. But the days got shorter very quickly: sunset was at 8:30pm when we arrived and 7:30pm a week later when we left.
Each season offers different activities – so it’s difficult to answer this! Our mid-September was dictated partly by the Australian school holidays. It meant we could still do all the water-based activities (boat trips) as well most land activities, such as hiking. While almost all “summer” activities were still being offered, the town was not crowded and most trips were not full. In hindsight, we were very happy with what we were able to do in a week!
We were a little too early to see the aurora (northern lights) in Svalbard, which are seen from October to March – but it’s not the best place to go for the lights, and we were fortunate to see them on multiple nights further south. We did see a polar bear, with May-September one of the best time for polar-bear spotting!
Personally, if I go back – and I hope I’ll have the opportunity to one day – I’d go in March/April for a completely different experience, with snow-shoe hiking and dog-sledding. For our my first trip to this area, early autumn was perfect, as it meant we could do many different activities and cover a fair bit of ground. (I’ve seen trip reports by visitors who couldn’t get to places like Pyramiden by boat in May, due to ice.)
There’s a good summary of Svalbard by season on the Spitsbergen-Svalbard travel web site.
How long? I was a little skeptical about spending a week there (my wife was in charge of our 3-week Norway itinerary), but in hindsight it almost wasn’t long enough… there are a huge amount of activities on offer, and it is really is a magical place. Financially, a week is about right as it gets expensive doing tours every day (which you more or less have to do, although you can spend a day wandering around the town). Money aside, I’d recommend a full week, but I don’t think you’d get bored staying longer, and it would give you the option of picking the best days for hiking or kayaking which are less fun in damp weather.
Svalbard’s about three hours flight from Oslo or 1:40min from Tromsø, flying to Longyearben with SAS or Norwegian Air (we flew in from Oslo on Norwegian and out with SAS to Tromsø). Both airlines were comfortable & efficient, although Norwegian Air is the “low cost airline” of the two – while all our bags were collectively well under our combined weight allowance, one bag was 2kg over the 20kg per-item limit. There was no way we were checking in until we’d re-distributed the weight between bags.
As Svalbard is not part of the Schengen Area, flights to Longyearben are treated like international flights and there are passports checks. Going out it was a pretty quick process at Oslo, but on the trip back it was a fairly slow process on our arrival at Tromsø, especially for non-EU passports.
From the airport, we caught the Svalbard Busservice to our hotel – the bus meets each flight and no booking is required. You can also take a taxi. Or you can hire a car from the airport – but with 46km of roads in total and the requirement of a rifle outside the town limits (see below), this isn’t a particularly attractive option.
Within Longyearben, you can walk everywhere – or hire a bicycle. The museum and gallery, church, waterfront area (good for evening photography) and Nyben about 1.2km to the south are accessible by foot. About a kilometre out of town is the old cemetery, which has a fascinating history: it was discovered that bodies buried in Longyearbyen were perfectly preserved by permafrost – and that bodies never decompose. Scientists have been able to extract tissue from some of the bodies buried here that contained intact traces of the influenza virus, in an attempt to learn why the 1918 flu was so virulent and prevent any occurrence in future. (The cemetery hasn’t been used since the 1940s, and in fact it’s now illegal to die in Svalbard!)
The main obstacle to getting around is the polar bear… leaving the town limits (marked with signs bearing the picture of a polar bear) requires that you carry a firearm. So, unless you have special permission from the Governor of Svalbard or a Norwegian/European weapon licence, you need to join a tour group or have an armed tour guide with you to explore outside the town.
Food, Accommodation – and When to Book
We stayed at Svalbard Hotell, which had recently been refurbished and is near the centre of town. We were very happy with the hotel for our family of 4 – was clean, fairly spacious and close to everything. We generally got take-away which was the cheapest option: the Svalbar Pub was about 100m away, and had great burgers, pizza and other fine dining 🙂 For lunch the Fruene Kaffe Og Vinbar (cafe) in the middle of town had a great range of food, as well as locally-made chocolates and other touristy gifts. It’s always busy, so get there early if you can.
There’s a supermarket in the middle of town, and shopping here seemed no more expensive that the rest of Norway. In fact, soft drinks and beer are MUCH cheaper in Svalbard than mainland Norway, as taxes are lower.
Directly opposite the hotel is the Svalbard Turistinformasjon (information office), and the hotel itself – which is part of the Svalbard Adventure Group – has a booking desk. From our experience (at least in the “shoulder season”):
- accommodation was not a problem – we booked months ahead, but had no problems getting a room for the four of us. Restaurants could be booked the day before or in the morning.
- smaller cruises like the Better Moments “Catch of the Day” trip should be booked as much in advance as possible – they tend to get full and have a fixed capacity
- hiking trips and less popular tours are better booked once you have an idea of the weather – the risk is that it won’t go ahead if there’s not enough people. When booking, check if the operator has enough participants to go ahead. If not, be flexible with your itinerary. With a couple of tour operators, booking just me + 1 or 2 kids was enough for them to go ahead, but I always checked.
Svalbard has a relatively mild climate compared to other areas at the same latitude. In Longyearbyen, the average temperature ranges from -14°C in winter to 6°C in summer. During our week in mid-September, it was around 6-7 degrees during the day – most of the time were comfortable walking around with a parka and long pants.
On a few occasions it got a lot colder, especially in the evening – or if the weather gets nasty. You shouldn’t need any really hard-core winter wear though, and you can get good quality gear in one of two outdoor equipment shops if you need warmer clothes. If you have them bring hiking boots, as well as sneakers for “around town”.
September is one of the wettest months, but it’s all relative – the median (monthly) rain fall in September is 20mm, versus around 10mm in the driest months (April-June). We had a few days that were a bit grey with some light rain – but in some ways this enhanced the landscape. The changing weather created some fantastic light, especially on the boat trips – and glaciers appear bluer on overcast days. I’d avoid any mountain hikes on days of poor weather – for the obvious reason that you won’t get any views if the summit is in the clouds!
There are a number of land-based activities available in September, from strenuous hikes to tours requiring minimal effort. We tried to fit in as much as we could in one week!
Photography tour – we did a fantastic Lens & Perspective photography tour on the day we arrived, with Spitzbergen Adventures. It was an almost-private tour by minivan, combining many attractions and scenic spots with advice on getting the best photos. While the itinerary may vary a little depending on the light, we stopped at a husky farm to see the friendly dogs, went up to the EISCAT Svalbard radar dishes near the end of Adventdalen (the Advent valley) for views over Longyear valley and visited the ruins of a downed WWII fighter jet. View Google Photo Album
There is also a daily “Longyearben in a Nutshell” tour which covers most of these attractions; if you can, doing a photography tour instead will give you a better opportunity to get some great photos. Otherwise the Longyearben in a Nutshell would be a good tour to do on arrival, to orient yourself and see all the main sights around the village.
All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) tour – we did this at the very end of our trip, with Svalbard Adventure Group. While it was great fun (for the kids and adults), it covered pretty much the same ground as our photography tour. After some basic training on driving the ATVs, we set off down the Advent valley and up past the Svalbard radar dishes, before returning via a husky farm (a different one to the photography tour). View Google Photo Album
Dog sledding on wheels – we didn’t book this, as it would have covered more or less the same route as the photography and ATV tours. However, while it seemed to us a little “wrong” to be pulled on a sled with wheels, at one of the husky farms they explained that they initially developed the sleds as a way to keep the dogs exercised in summer. And then later discovered they could also charge tourists for the pleasure…
What you can’t do in September is dog-sledding on snow and snowmobiling. We also didn’t go and visit the Global Seed Vault, which is near the airport – you can’t enter the vault, so we didn’t see the attraction of doing a tour just to look at the outside of the building. You can catch a taxi to see the building, which is between the town and the airport.
There are many hikes offered by different companies, from a few hours to full days. All of them cover quite different terrain, and (at least in my case) quite different weather conditions.
Trollsteinen – my first Svalbard hike, booked through Spitsbergen Travel. With the weather overcast but not raining, we cross the Lars glacier (you get micro-spikes to put over your hiking shoes) and then up a steep ridge to the rocky summit, at 850m altitude (see full trip report). Around five hours of hiking.
Nordenskioldfjellet – I had booked the “Arctic Challenge” with Svalbard Wildlife Expeditions, which combined kayaking with an ascent of Hiorthfjellet on the other side of Adventfjord. Poor weather and choppy seas meant a change of plan, and we tackled the 1,053m Nordenskioldfjellet peak instead. It was the toughest of the hikes I did due to the gale-force, arctic winds that ended our summit aspirations at 780m altitude after about two hours of walking (see full trip report). At least it gave us some time for kayaking in the afternoon…
Plateaufjellet – also known as “Plateau Mountain”, this peak is above Longyearben and can be done in the evening (offered daily by Spitsbergen Outdoor Activities). I did this with my 8-year-old son in less then two hours, and while it’s only about 380m high you get great twilight views of Longyearben town and Adventfjord (see full trip report).
Fossil hike – another short short walk, that starts at the of the end of the Longyear valley and goes up to the foot of the Longyear glacier (with Svalbard Adventure Group). Good fun for the kids- it’s hard not to find a fossil – and gives you a sense of the Svalbard landscape with views down the Longyear valley (see full trip report).
A map of the Longyear area, below, shows the hiking and ATV tour route. The Hiorthfjellet hike (not shown) is on the opposite of the fjord; almost all the other walks start near Longyearben or at the top of the Longyear valley (near Nyben). Sarkofagen, which I didn’t do, is between the two biggest glaciers below (between Nordenskioldfjellet on the left and Trollsteinen to the right).
If you’re not on foot, a boat is the other way to get around in summer & autumn, and the only way to reach the other settlements in Svalbard.
Catch of the Day cruise – offered by “Better Moments”, the Catch of the Day cruise is on a small, enclosed rib boat with a maximum of 12 passengers. The itinerary changes based on the weather and sea conditions, and what wildlife has been spotted in previous days. The crew (of two) were passionate about what they do, and very knowledgeable… On our evening trip we set off across Isfjorden to get close to the Bore glacier (Borebreen), and then back past the abandoned Russian mining town of Grumant. View Google Photo Album.
Fjord-cruise to Pyramiden – A few operators offer this itinerary, which combines a fairly long journey up Isfjord and into Billefjord to the (almost) abandoned town of Pyramiden, with a stop at the Nordenskiöld glacier. We went with Henningsen Transport & Guiding on the MS Billefjord, leaving at 8:30am for the 11-hour round trip.
The journey out was interesting, with constantly changing light conditions making for some great photos. (And there was plenty of time for drooling over the camera lenses that people had with them – there was some very serious Canon and Nikon gear, with a few $10K+ lenses on board!)
We were then treated to an impromptu emergency evacuation training exercise, with the coast guard helicopter hovering over the upper deck of the MS Billefjord. A succession of people were lowered onto our boat, and then winched back up to the chopper.
As we neared the Nordenskiöld glacier, we spotted a polar bear – the only one we saw on our trip (and we met may people who hadn’t seen any). That was pretty cool, as weren’t too optimistic about our chances of seeing these elusive creatures.
Just after lunch we reach the Nordenskiöld glacier, which is enormous,: the overcast weather brings out the blue colour. And how better than to enjoy the sight than with a glass of Scotch over some chunks of glacial ice (although the plastic cups did bring the tone down a little!).
The final stop is at the Soviet town of Pyramiden, where we spend about two hours with a charming Russian guide, Sasha, exploring the abandoned buildings. It’s an amazing place – I’ve written a separate blog post covering our fascinating walk through the town of Pyramiden.
Better Moments private charter – we booked a full day charter with Better Moments, as my wife was very keen to visit Ny-Ålesund (we missed the last commercial trip by a few days). Unfortunately, due to choppy seas this wasn’t possible – while the trip to Ny-Ålesund looks like it follows a sheltered fjord, the crew explained that due to prevailing winds it would have been an uncomfortable three hour journey each way.
Instead, we headed to Isfjord Radio, a remote radio station that was originally an important telecommunications link between the Norwegian mainland and Svalbard and is now run as as tourist accommodation. After a “tea and biscuit” break in what is now a boutique hotel, we walked around the base, stopping to see some reindeers being skinned and prepared for winter and climbing an old radio mast for views over Isfjord.
From here we crossed the fjord, stopping to look at the Harriet glacier and admiring the rugged coastline, with occasional “trappers huts” that are privately owned and used mostly in summer. (We also spotted a lone reindeer, grazing near the shore.)
We saw many, many northern fulmars, especially near land… they nest in numerous bird cliffs along the coast, and have a salt gland that above their nasal passage that helps desalinate their bodies. You can sometimes see the excretion of a high saline solution from their noses!
Next stop was the Von Post glacier, which is about 15km long and teeming with bird life as we approach. Another overcast day (but no rain) again makes the compressed glacial ice look very blue!
Nearing the end of our long day, we leave the Von Post glacier (Von Postbreen) and head back to Longyearben.
We didn’t get to Ny-Ålesund, but in our 240km over about 8 hours, we visited Isfjord Radio, saw two glaciers and got some great commentary about the Svalbard landscape and wildlife. It’s a pretty expensive option (being a private charter), but does mean you can tailor the day to cover what would otherwise involve at least two separate tours.
Kayaking trip – while kayaking trips can be booked as a separate activity by different tour operators, I booked the “Arctic Challenge”, with the plan of crossing the Adventfjord by kayak, and then climbing Hiorthfjellet on the other side. As the weather prevented this, we hiked a different mountain in the morning, and then went kayaking in the afternoon.
We set off from Longyearben, after getting into our sealed “kayaking suits” (the water is pretty cold, so these are to ensure you survive a capsizing!) and getting some instructions on how to kayak. If you’ve kayaked before, it’s all pretty straightforward! If not, you’ll still be OK – one couple found it a little hard-going (and may have needed relationship therapy after the trip), but the rest of us had no problems. On the other side of Adventfjorden (photo, below right) is our original destination of Hiorthfjellet, covered in low cloud.
We were all in two-man (or two-people?) kayaks, except for one single kayak (due to an uneven number in our group) as we set out, following the coast south-west, toward the airport. After about an hour, we stopped on the gravelly beach near Renseverket, a derelict coal processing plant. Here we walked for a while along the coast, with the snow-covered mountains of Oscar II Land in the distance, across Isfjorden.
After our half our or so stroll along the coast, we head back… not quite what was planned – but we did get a hike and an enjoyable few hours kayaking!
The map below (from Google) shows the three boat cruises we did; Ny-Ålesund is at the very top left of the map (unfortunately, we didn’t get there).
To help work out when to go and how much sunlight you’ll have (outside the polar summer), try Time and Date, which gives you sunrise/sunset as well as twilight times for any date. There’s also sunrisesunset.info which does the same thing (enter Longyearben as the location).
To book activities, we found the best site to be Visit Svalbard, where you can enter a date and see a list of all activities from all the tour operators (“Book Activities” on the left-hand panel), including prices and the number of spots left (you can book online from here, although once I was in Svalbard I would visit a booking office or call the company to see if there were enough people for the activity to be going ahead).
Some of the tour companies we used that offer trips from Longyearben – all of which we were very happy with:
- Better Moments – lots of land and water activities; their “Catch of the Day” trips on an enclosed rib-boat are fantastic (book early) and we also did a private charter.
- Henningsen Transport and Guiding – cruises to Barentsburg and Pyramiden (they operate fairly large boats); we used them for our Pyramiden day trip.
- Spitzbergen Adventures – all-year, land-based activities, including overnight hikes (which I’d love to do next trip) and bespoke (tailored) hiking trips. They are also offer the Lens & Perspective photography tour, which I’d highly recommend, and I did the Trollstein day-hike with them (which is also offered by other companies).
- Spitsbergen Outdoor Activities – range of activities; we booked the evening hike up Plateau Mountain with them, which they ran even though it was just myself and one child on the trip.
- Svalbard Adventure Group (also known as Svalbard Booking) – also has a booking desk inside Svalbard Hotell, which is part of the same group, and offers a broad range of land and sea activities throughout the year. I did their “fossil hike” with the kids, which we all enjoyed (one of the easiest hikes you can do)
- Svalbard Wildlife Expeditions – offer some more “challenging” winter and summer activities. I booked the “Hiortfjellet – an Arctic challenge – kayak and mountain hike” with them, which was the toughest single-day hike on offer (although due to weather we ended up doing something different).
A full list of all activity providers is on the Visit Svalbard site.
If you’re into GPS mapping or just want an alternative to Google Maps for looking at where to go or where you’ve been, TopoSvalbard provides a free, on-line and interactive topographical map. You can even enter coordinates from your iPhone or GPS device to see exactly where you were.
Enjoy your trip… while I can’t say I’m a “Svalbard expert” having only been for a week, I’m very happy to answer any questions from our experience visiting this amazing place, from a tourist perspective!