Spitsbergen travel guide
2 minute summary
The island of Spitsbergen is the archipelago’s largest – and is home to its only town. The frontier-like Longyearbyen is doubly cut off: firstly in its remoteness, and secondly because it is surrounded by polar bears, meaning anyone venturing beyond its boundaries must bring with them a rifle – or an armed guide. But the best way to explore Spitsbergen is not on land, but from the sea. Most travelers explore the inlets, fjords and islets onboard a sailboat or ice-strengthened survey vessel, with schedules dictated not by written itineraries, but by the wind and waves, the dispersing ice floes and the snowmelt. A breaching whale merits a detour, as do Arctic foxes, bounding along the tundra. Zodiac trips and kayaks take voyagers up close to the wildlife – you could be paddling within metres of an orca – or a 3-metre-long walrus. Disembark for a day of snowshoeing, glacier hiking or husky sledding – a Spitsbergen vacation will transport you entirely from the trappings of the modern world.
Read more in our Spitsbergen travel guide.
Spitsbergen map & highlights
MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR TIME
Spitsbergen is the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago – a cluster of islands sitting just over halfway between Norway and the North Pole. Longer expedition cruises may sail to Spitsbergen over several days via the remote Bear Island, though it’s more common to fly into Longyearbyen and embark there. There are few alternatives to cruising; roads only exist in the few scattered towns, with miles of (often snow-clad) tundra in between. Circumnavigation of Spitsbergen is only possible during the height of summer, when the pack ice has dispersed around the northern reaches, though most trips do away with itineraries altogether, leaving the route to be governed by the waves, the weather and the wildlife.
Please note: this map is for illustration purposes only and does not reflect the exact location in which each species is to be found. Your tour leader will have up to date information about where best to seek out wildlife at different times of year, and will take this into account during the expedition.
Founded at the turn of the 20th century as a mining town, today the capital of Svalbard is the archipelago’s most populous town with just over 2,000 residents, including an unusually large number or artists who are inspired by the northern wilderness. The museum reveals the island’s history of hunting, whaling and mining. Several tours depart from here – including dog sledding, snowshoeing and glacier treks.
Spitsbergen’s most famous inhabitant is the isbjørn – or ‘ice bear’. Around 3,000 of them inhabit the island’s glaciers, ice floes, tundra and mountain slopes; look out for them hunting ringed seals on the sea ice, particularly around June. Even when you can’t see them their presence can be felt; it’s illegal to walk without a rifle, and homes are left open should someone need to find shelter rapidly.
Having bounced back after centuries of being hunted for their valuable blubber, whales are now abundant around Svalbard. Species include minke, pilot and blue whales – as well as the ghostly white beluga. Active orcas - or killer whales - are also frequent visitors; you may even be lucky enough to kayak alongside them.
The walrus is likely to be the most surprising encounter on Spitsbergen. Few visitors expect them to be quite so enormous: up to 3.5 metres long with huge tusks which they use to haul their huge wrinkled bodies up onto ice floes, and to fight. They are now seen across Svalbard in large colonies, having been protected since 1952, when their numbers dwindled to just a few hundred following centuries of hunting.
Massive glaciers have shaped the entire island – modern ice rivers slice through the landscape, while the fjords and U-shaped valleys are evidence of the glaciers of the past. Hiking on a glacier is tough but requires no technical skill, so challenge yourself – and look out for fossils in the surrounding rock. You may also have the chance to spot calving glaciers from onboard your ship.
Not all reindeer are domesticated. The endemic and completely wild Svalbard reindeer is found across Spitsbergen, with thick, snowy-hued winter coats turning brown in summer – just one of their many adaptations to this harsh environment. Due to the scarcity of food, the reindeer gather in very small groups – unlike the huge herds of Lapland. Look out for wobbly-legged calves in June and July.