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Midnight Sun or Northern Lights? A Travel Guide to Svalbard, Norway

Located in the northernmost reaches of Europe, Svalbard is a world of extremes. Harsh arctic winters shrouded in darkness are balanced by the endless sun in the summer, illuminating the breathtaking glaciers, fjords, and diverse wildlife. Adventurers, scientists, and nature enthusiasts alike are drawn to this grouping of islands to experience the wonders of the untamed arctic landscapes.

Where is Svalbard

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Svalbard is an archipelago (a group of islands closely scattered in a body of water) under Norwegian jurisdiction, nestled between the northern coast of Norway and the North Pole. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, Svalbard was a base for whalers who ventured up that far north. The islands were mostly abandoned until the 20th century when coal mining started, establishing permanent communities. Then, in 1925, Svalbard was fully incorporated into the Kingdom of Norway. Seven national parks and twenty-three nature reserves protect the untouched ecosystems of these northern islands.

Where to stay in Svalbard

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Svalbard has various accommodation options in and around Longyearbyen: hotels, short-term rentals, cabins, research stations, and guesthouses.

Hotels and guesthouses in Longyearbyen

Since Longyearbyen is the largest settlement on Svalbard, they have the largest range of lodging. These hotels and guesthouses vary in price and comfort, but every budget has price options.

Cabins and guesthouses outside Longyearbyen

For a more remote experience, staying outside the main settlement is a good option. Guesthouses and cabins are available and offer a chance to be more immersed in Svalbard's natural beauty.

Field huts and field stations

Some research stations offer accommodation for visitors but on a limited basis. Priority goes to researchers or students participating in specific programs. These housing options require much-advanced planning and approval but are not out of the question for the public.

Tourist Camps

These camps are set up during the summer months in more remote areas of Svalbard for adventurous visitors interested in a wilderness experience. The camp experience includes well-equipped lodging areas and various guided activities.

Lodging is limited on the islands and may be booked up quickly, especially during the peak travel season in summer, so plan to book in advance.

Summer or Winter in Svalbard

Both summer and winter in Svalbard have their unique perks! There are many unique attractions and activities during both seasons. 

Summer (Late April to Early September)

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Midnight Sun: This is one of the most spectacular elements of Svalbard's summer. From late April to late August, the sun does not set, resulting in 24-hour daylight.

Hiking and Trekking: The snow-free landscapes and warmer temperatures are ideal for hiking, especially with the 24-hour daylight. Mountains and glaciers are just two of the beautiful outdoorsy things to explore.

Wildlife: Arctic animals can be spotted, including polar bears, numerous seabird species, arctic foxes, reindeer, and walruses.

Flora: Despite the harsh winter climate, summertime gives way to many beautiful flowers, creating a colorful and fragrant landscape.

Boat Tours: View glaciers, icebergs, and marine life on a boat trip around the islands and fjord.

Winter in Svalbard (Late October to Early March)

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Polar Night: From late October to mid-February, Svalbard experiences Polar Night, when the sun remains below the horizon. Polar Night is a unique time to witness the mysterious side of the arctic, during a phenomenon that so few areas of the world experience.

Northern Lights: The dark skies and lack of light pollution make Svalbard an optimal location to view the Northern Lights.

Ice Caves: Both ice caves and grottoes can be explored during the winter for a chance to see stunning and naturally artistic ice formations.

Snow Activities: Snow-based activities are in no shortage in Svalbard in the winter! They include snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, and dog sledding.

Both summer and winter have much to offer, so ultimately, the decision comes down to Midnight Sun with warmer temperatures or Polar Night with snowy weather.

Svalbard Expeditions

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Visitors who want to explore the arctic landscape and wildlife have many expedition options! Here are some popular Svalbard expeditions:

Snowmobile Adventures: Snowmobiles are a popular and fun way to explore Svalbard's beautifully snowy landscapes. Whether a tour for a few hours or a multi-day trip, there is something suitable for everyone.

Wildlife Safaris: Most people think of Africa for a safari, but Svalbard is home to amazing arctic wildlife, which lends itself to amazing safaris. These safaris are often by boat or snowmobile and offer opportunities to observe these animals in their natural habitats.

Dog Sledding Expeditions: Dog sledding is a traditional way to experience Svalbard's winter landscape. Tours range from a few hours of husky-pulled excitement to multi-day trips.

Northern Lights Tours: One of the most popular tours is the Northern Lights expedition, and rightly so, since Svalbard is one of the best places in the world to experience them. These tours are a photographer's dream since they are in areas without light pollution, which maximizes the chances of seeing the Aurora Borealis.

Glacier and Fjord Cruises: Whales can often be spotted during these boat expeditions while enjoying the astonishing views of the fjords and glaciers.

With so many Svalbard expedition options, there is truly something for everyone, regardless of the season.

Svalbard Wildlife

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Svalbard's arctic environment is home to many species on land and in the sea.

  • Polar Bears: The apex predator in Svalbard, polar bears are perhaps the most iconic of all the arctic animals and are often seen hunting seals on ice floes.
  • Reindeer: In North America, reindeer are also known as caribou and are the largest land mammals in Svalbard. They graze on the arctic tundra and are essential to the local ecosystem.
  • Arctic Hare: These arctic hares are well adapted to the chilly environment and are frequently seen on the Svalbard tundra.
  • Arctic Fox: The arctic fox is the only land mammal native to Svalbard. In the winter, the fox has a thick white fur coat, but in the summer, it changes to brown to adapt to the changing scenery.
  • Walrus: Walruses are sometimes seen along the coast and are known for their large tusks and distinctive appearance.
  • Whales: Although not as common as in other arctic regions, humpback, orca, minke, and beluga whales can sometimes be spotted.
  • Lemmings: Lemmings are small rodents and are a primary food source for many arctic predators, making them an essential part of the food chain.
  • Seals: Several seal species have made Svalbard their home, including the bearded seal, harp seal, hooded seal, and ringed seal. They can often be seen in coastal waters and on the sea ice.
  • Birds: Many species of birds nest on the cliffs on the island, turning Svalbard into a vital breeding ground for many seabirds. 

These animals have adapted to survive extreme weather during the long polar nights and short summers. Many guided tours will provide viewing opportunities, all while ensuring the wildlife and habitats are protected.

Long Story Short...

With seven national parks and twenty-three nature reserves protecting the untouched, fragile, and breathtaking environment, whether it's the midnight sun or the northern lights that draw you in, you're bound to fall in love with the beauty of Svalbard.

 

Written by Andrea Jeschke