Svalbard: guide to visiting this Arctic wilderness
Updated: May 7
First off, where is Svalbard? That is a question I get asked quite often and often I just say it’s near the North Pole. Well, it is kinda like when looking at a map. Svalbard is a group of islands which lies 650 miles (1050 kilometers) from the North Pole and 526 miles (846 kilometers) from Nordkapp, the northernmost point on mainland Norway. Svalbard isn’t a country, no country claims the land however Norway does administrate the rules and laws here. Most visitors (like myself) head to the main settlement of Longyearbyen which is located near the northernmost airport in the world. From there, tours can be booked and visitors do venture out to the other parts of the island. I was fortunate to come here in the twenty-four daylight one summer and not only have I been here once, I have been here twice! The other time was one winter when I got to experience the twenty-four hour darkness. That’s how far up in the world Svalbard is.This is my guide on what to do while checking out Svalbard.
How to get to Svalbard: well, there are two ways. One is to get on a cruise which is doing an Arctic tour (usually combined with mainland Norway and possibly Faroe Islands and Iceland). The other way is by plane and the only two destinations Svalbard airport (also known as Longyear) where planes fly to are Oslo and Tromsø on the mainland. The airport is located 5km (3.1 miles) west of the main settlement of Longyearbyen and most passengers either grab a taxi into town or catch the public bus (public bus usually drops and picks up passengers from the hotels in town). The two airlines which serve the airport are SAS and Norwegian.
Accommodation: Svalbard is getting popular with tourism over the last decade however there is only a certain amount of hotels and rooms in the settlement. Radisson Blu Polar Hotel, Spitsbergen Hotel, Gjestehuset 102, Hotel Svalbard - The Vault are a few of the hotels on offer. On my summer visit however (as I was on a budget at the time), I stayed at Mary-Ann’s Polarrigg down near the seafront. The hotel consists of a courtyard surrounded by three buildings, all named after rigs (as the buildings were used as a miners barracks). There is the luxury rig, the transportation rig and the mining rig. Olga and I managed to get a stay in a double room (as it was a last minute deal for us and tourism is at its highest in Longyearbyen during the summer months so book ahead). The hotel also has the Vinterhagen restaurant. We had a very comfortable stay here and it was an ideal base from all the facilities in town (supermarket, other shops, bars and restaurants are about a five-ten minute walk away).
What to do and see in Svalbard
I start off with the tours I did which were mainly done outside the settlement of Longyearbyen. As a visitor, you must be with a tour guide or someone who knows the land outside the settlement. They will look after you as they will probably have a gun to protect you from polar bears. Yes, Svalbard is that high up. The main problem when leaving the settlement is those beautiful cuddly white creatures who blend into the snowy background very well. Even though not many cases of polar bear sightings have been recorded near Longyearbyen, bears still come down here now and again. On the rest of the island, there maybe a chance of bumping into one. So, if you are looking to leave Longyearbyen, the best way to do this is with a tour company, which all the information can be found here.
The first tour Olga and I did was the hike to Foxfonna glacier, then onwards towards Foxdalen before having lunch in a trappers cabin. We continued our hike through a valley surrounded by mountains and by the end of the day we walked around 11km. Hiking boats and warm clothes are needed and we had lunch with drinks included. There are no roads to walk on, it's all off-road and on mountainous terrain.
The second tour we did was a Fjord cruise towards the Esmark Glacier through the Isfjorden before heading to the Russian settlement of Barentsburg where everyone on the boat was met by a Russian-English speaking guide to show us around the settlement. There are two Russian settlements in Svalbard, Barentsburg and Pyramiden (which we didn’t get the chance to see whilst here. It was left abandoned by the Russians in the 1990s and everything is left the way it was). There are around 500 people living in Barentsburg to which most people work in the mining industry. Russia still maintains mining operations here thanks to the Svalbard Treaty which dates back to 1920. As mentioned earlier, Svalbard is not a country but is under Norwegian sovereignty but the treaty allows citizens of the signatory countries equal rights to grab natural resources, so Russia and a few Polish people are based on the island having fun digging that coal).
Whilst in Barentsburg we saw the northernmost consulate in the world (which belongs to Russia) but the settlement maintains Norwegian phone numbers and mail addresses. Also here is the northernmost Orthodox church in the world as well as an old fashioned Lenin statue.
On the return to Longyearbyen the cruise passes the area known as Grumant and we checked out many birds who love the cliffs. Also I found railway tracks hanging over a cliff edge which was used when coal mining was really popular. They are the world’s northernmost railway tracks, however they are disused.
What to see and do in Longyearbyen itself
Longyearbyen was founded in 1907 (however the area was used for various projects for over ten years previous) and started out life by being called Longyear City until the 1920s. Starting out as a mining community, the settlement (as well as Svalbard) is now known for its tourism as well as scientific research in the Arctic. As well as being based here to take on the tours elsewhere in Svalbard, the settlement has quite a few things to do and see.
To get a great sense of the cultural and natural history of Svalbard, we totally recommend heading to the Svalbard Museum which is an excellent exhibition where information and displays are clearly presented and easy to follow. There are also a lot of models, artifacts and reconstructed environments to check out. There is also the Life in Light and Ice exhibition to have a look at which shows visitors an excellent journey through the history of Svalbard from the 17th century when the first whalers came to the area. Since then a lot of trappers from Norway, arctic expeditions have come through to extract the lands for minerals to the present day on tourism, research and modern day mining.
To the west of the settlement perched up on a small hill is Svalbard Church, the northernmost church in the world and is open twenty-four hours a day. On my second visit here in the winter months, I was out for a run (as you do in freezing temperatures) and stopped here to take a photo (or two before my hands froze!). Whilst doing this, the lights from inside the church were on and there were people singing a hymn. It was a beautiful moment, a memory I will cherish from this part of the world. Nearby is the world’s northernmost sundial.
For beer lovers a trip to the northernmost brewery in the world is a must. One to tick off the bucket list. Anyone who wants to visit the Svalbard Bryggeri, it is visible that visitors book in advance as they run only three times a week and there is only a certain amount of space on the tour. Located on the main road heading west out of the town towards the airport (and not very far from the ‘Polar Bear’ road sign), the brewery is on the seafront, a beautiful location. See below for my full review on the brewery. This is also the setting where Ben Coombes from Plymouth, England drove a TVR from that bar to the southernmost bar in the world via Europe, United States and South America. As I write this, I am currently reading his book about the adventure. Totally recommend it. Check out his adventure here.
The Northern Lights, let's go to the Arctic for the Northern Lights. However whilst I was here in the middle of winter, there was no sign of the Northern Lights. The reason it doesn’t happen as often like places in Mainland Norway, Sweden or Finland is because of the belt in the sky. Svalbard is located north of the Northern Light belt. I would say to my readers that if you are planning a visit here for the Northern Lights, just don’t expect to see them. If you do, then it is an added bonus. Instead I got to enjoy beautiful dark clear skies and got to see the stars in the middle of the day. I just love the polar night here, however it did kind of mess up my body clock a little bit (like sleeping in till midday and going to sleep around 2am-4am).
In the summer months however, the twenty four hour daylight is also something I wasn’t used to. Trying to get to sleep in the hotel was a bit difficult but when I put a dark sheet over the window to block out the sunlight, sleep got a bit easier.
Another activity I did but only recommend it if you are fit and able to run in freezing temperatures is going running. In the middle of the winter. On icy roads. Whenever I go to the Arctic, I tend to eat more (and drink a bit as well if my bank account allows me) so I like to keep fit. I would go out for a 5km run every day around the settlement. It is difficult and by the end of the run, my sweat does tend to freeze so once back at the accommodation, the clothes come off quickly. Sounds stupid and insane, but its keeping me fit and I love it.
Even in Longyearbyen, there is some wildlife to check out. I have seen Arctic Foxes run along the streets and on the outskirts some reindeer. Down near the waterfront there is a nesting ground for the Arctic Tun. Just remember to wear a hard hat or grab a stick nearby and keep holding it up. Those birds will dive right at your head and knock you out. This was the first time we encountered them, didn’t know anything about them and we soon learned straight away as soon as we got back to the roadside. Also don’t expect to see polar bears in Longyearbyen, it hasn’t happened in a long time but you never know.
By now you have gathered that Svalbard is very high up in the world. A lot of the world’s northernmost things/items/crazy stuff are found here. Here are just a few of them (and most of them I have seen, I just love crazy stuff like this!).
World’s northernmost settlement with over 1,000 people is Longyearbyen (over 2,300 people live here on the last stats in 2019) which also has the world’s northernmost kindergarten, primary, secondary schools and higher education institute - Svalbard university. Also there is the world’s northernmost LTE (Long-term evolution) cell tower - (something to do with broadband and internet) and don’t forget the world’s northernmost church: Svalbard (Lutheran confirmation).
In transportation, Longyearbyen has the world’s northernmost bike-sharing system (like those Boris Bikes in London, UK), Bus Station (didn’t see this, I just thought the buses drive around picking up people outside their hotels, probably just a bus stop somewhere in the settlement!), Car Rental, Harbour, Gas Station, Limousine service, Roundabout (spent a lot of time looking for this and couldn’t find a dam roundabout in Longyearbyen!), taxi rank, and airport (with scheduled flights). By the seafront is the world’s northernmost lighthouse.
In services and shops, again, Longyearbyen has a lot of the world's northernmost. There is the bakery, bookshop, call centre, children’s clothing store, cottage (to rent), make up studio, massage, plumbing company, police station, shopping mall, soft serve machine (which makes the soft ice dessert), tourist office, vet, pharmacy, hotel (fully serviced and this would be the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel), airbnb accommodation, toy store, ATM machine, library, bottled water factory, chocolate factory, dentist and hospital. For venturing out there is the world’s northernmost gourmet restaurant, brewery, kebab place, nightclub, and pizzeria.
World’s northernmost culture stuff: circus (really, I didn’t see a circus anywhere but there is one here!). Also Longyearbyen has the world’s northernmost children's choir, mens choir, mixed choir, electric organ (located in Svalbard church), cinema, art gallery, photo club, a range of festivals from rock, jazz, blues and even an Oktoberfest. When it comes to sport, Longyearbyen has the world’s northernmost Judo club, Marathon race, ski race, swimming pool and gym.
Now to get even more quirker (are you keeping up with my guys or am I boring you..???) Longyearbyen has the world’s northernmost newspaper, sauna, wine cellar, mine, radio station and sundial. However I found out Svalbard has had its first ever bank robbery in 2019 (making this the world’s northernmost) which I was shocked to read. If you are interested, you can read this here. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-48205225
Longyearbyen is an amazing place to come to. I call it the gateway to the Arctic if planning to go to other parts of Svalbard or maybe even the North Pole. It is a great place to educate about the land, the wildlife, and the ecosystem. To see the polar sun and the polar night. To learn about the history from the first settlers, the first whalers, the trappers to name a few. I would recommend at least a week up here and get on some of the tours to explore some of the island. I had a great sense that I was far away from home, however I wasn’t lonely. The locals up here are very welcoming and willing to answer any questions, giving you an insight to life up here. All I say is, book up in advance to get the best deals and make sure you got the right footwear and clothes.
Svalbard Bryggeri: checking out the northernmost brewery in the world
Times have changed in between my two visits to the archipelago of Svalbard high up in the Arctic and not too far away from the North Pole. When I first went in the summer of 2009 (wow, ten years have passed already!) there was no brewery. I didn’t even know at the time that the guys behind Svalbard Bryggeri already put in a planning application to build a brewery whilst I was there but it was refused. Back then there was a law that no making alcohol was allowed on the island and eventually the law was changed in 2014 Before I made my second visit to Svalbard in January 2018, the brewery was up and running and the company was on its way to brewing 250.000 litres of beer.
For beer lovers this is the ideal tour, to visit the northernmost brewery in the world. One to tick off the bucket list. However it is visible that visitors book in advance as they run only three times a week and there is only a certain amount of space on the tour. Located on the main road heading west out of the town towards the airport (and not very far from the ‘Polar Bear’ road sign), the brewery is on the seafront, a beautiful location, however when I went, it’s the middle of winter and there is twenty-four hours of darkness so the sea couldn’t been seen.
The brewery looks like a tiny modern warehouse from the outside. To get to the tour I even walked through the main area of the building where the beer in tins etc is stored ready to be shipped out around the island and elsewhere. The beer can be brought in the local alcohol shop (where the residents are limited on how much beer, wines and spirits they can buy a month due to the risks of mental health and suicides...not sure if that is completely true. However the locals do have an alcohol card which is punched every time they buy something from the shop) and are the main beer to be sold on Norway’s Norwegian airlines. One day I hope they sell beer in my home country as I really do love this brand.
Heading up a staircase I found myself in a room with a table and chairs plus a mini bar at the back. The room was on the upper level of the building and had windows to one side to which tour visitors can see the production room. Once all the visitors were ready, the tour commenced by a local girl who spoke very good English and was very passionate about the company. I can tell by her voice. She explained what the brewery produced and there are five different types of beer produced. The IPA, Pale Ale, Pilsner (my favourite), Stout (for me personally, not a big fan) and Weissbeer. However, to produce good beers, they need the finest products to produce them, so they have to be imported from the European mainland. The hops come in as far from the United States, England but also Germany (as well as yeast) and the malt came in from Finland.
What I love about the beer tasting (apart from the mighty fine tastes of the beer) is the testing glasses they came in with the company's logo on them. I thought they were cute. Afterwards I had the chance to buy a couple of ‘proper’ large beer glasses to take home with me to which I still have to this day (yes, they survived the two flights back to England from Svalbard in the luggage).
Now for the lowdown, simply, if you love beer, you love the Svalbard Brewery. I did this on a Saturday evening before heading into town for an evening meal to which I drank more beer from the brewery (they sell it in most restaurants and bars here also). The only thing I need to advise you on is to book tickets in advance which they can be done here.
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