Svalbard is a small Norwegian island located north of the Arctic circle; roughly in between Norway and the North Pole. It has a little over 2.500 permanent inhabitants, making it the most northern settlement in the world. One of the few things I heard about this archipelago is that the weather conditions can be rough and the vicious polar bears are the biggest threat. In fact, the number of polar bears (3.500) even outnumbers the humans. So why on earth would you visit Svalbard?
Fellow adventure traveller Marta Tyśnicka is crazy about hard-to-reach destinations; her bucket lists consists of Antarctica, Greenland, Baffin Island, Siberia and Svalbard. She set her sights on visiting Svalbard, and in this guest post, she will share her experiences, tips, photos and videos.
Why visit Svalbard?
Some of us choose package holidays to golden, sandy beaches with palm trees and hour-to-hour fixed itineraries, rather than the nothingness of lands untouched by man – lands that are stark, desolate and where you can walk for hours feeling completely free, without encountering a living soul?
While the former is sufficient for most, I am the type of person that needs something different, something for both the body and the soul. Since childhood, I have always been curious about the world in terms of differences in cultures, the habits of others, and the land beyond the horizon – lands far, far away where man is yet but a stranger. Lucky for me, these lands can still be found on this earth if you look hard enough. That’s why I absolutely love places with unspoilt nature!
I have experienced circa 30 countries in my life, yet I still feel like I know nothing about the world. Rather than feeling overwhelmed, it fires up my insatiable hunger for travel.
These lack of boundaries brought me to many interesting places, but recently my curiosity was piqued by a whisper in my ear – ‘Come..come into my world!’ – It was the primaeval North that got a firm grip on me.
I might sound funny but feeling cold and wandering through snow makes me breath deeper and truly liberates me. I mean, oh my god, the glaciers, the Aurora, the many different types of snow, the locals of the north, the flora and the fauna… They own me.
The glaciers, the Aurora, the many different types of snow, the locals of the north, the flora and the fauna… They own me.
No wonder Svalbard (or Spitsbergen, as the Dutch named it before 1925) was destined to become my next destination. Travelling beyond the Arctic Circle is not a cheap thing to do, so I had to wait for the right moment to come. I was comparing flights on a regular basis, but each time I got slapped with exorbitant prices. I’m talking 600 euro for a 3-stop flight. Insert facepalm here. But then, suddenly, the opportunity did knock.
Best time to visit Svalbard
Svalbard can be visited all year long, although you might want to bring a few extra layers in the winter time. Expect a bone-chilling average of -15 degrees Celsius (around 0 degrees Fahrenheit) from November/December to around April. The Arctic summer on Svalbard will provide temperatures just above 0 (Celsius). It’s a winter wonderland all year long, but the summertime is best for hiking and boat trips, while the winter is perfect for dog sledging, snow scooters.
Keep in mind that the island gets draped in darkness during the winter months (November – February), with darkness around the clock between mid-November and the end of January. This will limit your ability to do the activities, but on the other side provide magical starry nights and the Northern Lights!
The best time to visit Svalbard is in August. The temperatures will be around 4 degrees Celsius with lots of local flowers everywhere. Because of the midnight sun, you will be able to fully enjoy the island’s activities without having to worry about getting back before dark.
Do I need a visa to visit Svalbard?
To get into Svalbard, you need a visa for Norway, no other supplements or other permits. It’s funny because I thought Norway was part of the EU (and it’s not). So only on the last day, I decided to pack my passport. I’m glad I did because they definitely wouldn’t have let me on the plane!
As said, Norway is not part of the EU, but they did sign the Schengen Agreement in 2001. If your country is a member of any of the Schengen countries, you can get a 90-day visa for Norway for free. There are some other countries that Norway has a visa exemption agreement with. If your country doesn’t fall under any of these categories, you can find out how to get a visa for the Schengen area.
How to get to Svalbard
One day, using one of the Polish cheap-ticket-hunting pages on Facebook, I found a 1-stop (in Oslo) ticket to Svalbard from Warsaw for only 190 euro! I would travel in August, about a year later. Of course, I bought the ticket without any more thought. My fingers literally flew over the keyboard! To make my “investment” less painful, I reserved accommodation a month later, and in the following weeks, I also purchased more and more activities to avoid the higher cost of booking these last-minute. This way, I managed to book my trip to Svalbard around 3-4 times cheaper than it would normally cost. My dream became reality!
After months of waiting eagerly, the day came. I boarded my plane on a hot late summer’s day, leaving behind the world dominated by man with his petty cares and truly insignificant significances – and landed in a world located 800 km from the very North Pole – no trees, no cats (for good reason), no skyscrapers, no noise – and one where polar bears outnumber humans!
Things to do on Svalbard
My stay in Svalbard was a dream. I have never experienced something with this much beautiful, soul-calming tranquillity. I took a polar safari boat to get very close to the blue glacier and I was treated to a glass of whisky chilled with ice that was tens of thousands of years old. I saw the ghost settlements of failed mining attempts – abandoned as if the workers had gone home yesterday, yet they had left decades ago. I hiked to Trollsteinen over a glacier, the living ice rumbling beneath my feet.
I watched a minke whale frolic and mother bears introducing their young to the cold world. I saw a white, swift arctic fox staring at me through my hostel window – as if she was the visitor to a human zoo.
Later, whilst eating my breakfast, a curious white, snowy-furred Caribou joined the fun. You can only imagine my face! I immediately FaceTimed my boyfriend screaming “look, look! There is a real white caribou next to my kitchen window!” All of my boyfriend’s co-workers gathered around his phone to get a glimpse of this indescribable view.
Of course, a day spent in an open boat surrounded by white polar birds was a must-do on this island as well.
My Svalbard tips
- I flew with SAS, which quite often offers discounted flights to Spitsbergen. At the time of writing, for instance, there is a promotion on for flights in the summer of 2018.
- I slept in a very inexpensive yet comfortable hostel called Gjestehuset 102. Breakfasts were included. which was a great way to save some costs.
- I booked all my activities via the Hurtigruten Svalbard. This is the best website I found to book summer and winter activities 🙂
- I took all my food with me from Poland. Yep! This included canned tuna, rice, bread, energy bars and so on. Grocery shopping is very limited (and expensive) in Spitsbergen! It was very very useful as the hostel had a common kitchen to prepare my rice, tuna, tea and other “normal” warm meals from my ingredients.
- If you look hard enough and book well in advance, you can put together a trip that would be about half the price of what you would pay when booking a package deal at a Polar tour operator.
Video impression of Svalbard
On my trip, I shot many hours of video. I used the online video editing service of Cutbay to get the video into the final edit. Check it out!
Will you get attacked by polar bears in Svalbard?
There are a lot of myths around polar bear attacks in Svalbard. They seem to be everywhere on the island, roaming around in search of their next victim. That surely can’t be accurate, right? The official website of Spitsbergen (another name for Svalbard) Travel mentions that there is a safe zone that surrounds the towns. Outside of this zone, weapons should be carried at all times. On any organised tour you will go on, the tour leader will be well equipped.
Now let’s talk numbers here. There are approximately 3.000 polar bears on the archipelago of Svalbard. Between 1995 and 2011, there were 4 reported deaths from polar bear attacks in the region. Here is one account of an attack:
In March 2015, a polar bear dragged a Czech tourist out of his tent as he slept on Svalbard, clawing his back before being driven away by gunshots, as a huge number of tourists descended on the island before a solar eclipse there. “It was going for my head. I used my hands to protect my head,” Jakub Moravec told the Associated Press from his hospital bed in the Svalbard archipelago’s main town. He turned over to reveal shallow gashes on his back.
Associated Press reported: Moravec was among a group of six on a combined ski and snow scooter trip on the remote islands. The group was camping north of Longyearbyen. No one else was injured in the attack. Zuzana Hakova, a member of the group sleeping in a different tent, told local newspaper Svalbardposten that her mother shot three times at the bear, prompting the animal to flee.
Polar bears are protected by law, so you won’t find any polar bear safaris in case you want to see them. The highest chance of seeing polar bears is on a long cruise around Svalbard and it’s islands.
Global seed vault
In early 2008, the Nordic Gene Bank (now NordGen) has started collecting samples of all (yes, all) plants in the world. The goal is to have “duplicates” of all of the world’s vegetation “just in case” something major, like a zombie-outbreak, might happen. The seeds are stored in a 1000 m2 (11.000 sq ft) underground “bunker” underneath the permafrost layer that was built to sustain any natural disasters. Even though the bunker flooder due to Global Warming in 2016, they have collected almost 1.000.000 different seeds.
As you can imagine, it is not possible to visit the inside of this spectacular structure. However, the Svalbard Science Destination offers guided tours to visitors who wish to see view the vault from the outside.
Vice made a great documentary about the vault in 2016, which you can view below.