Recommended for absolute Norway & Arctic enthusiasts: arrival not guaranteed, weather not guaranteed, booked tours not guaranteed, Northern Lights not guaranteed - but totally worth it
5 days in Svalbard, 700 km north of the North Cape
Last update July 2018
4-5 days trip
Got to do it!
Spitzbergen, which is the main island of the Svalbard archipelago, had been on our bucket list right from the beginning when we moved to Norway. And then, after 4 years, we eventually visited it in mid-February.
As we had never been to the arctic region before, we were quite excited to get so far north. And Svalbard is probably the place on Earth easiest to reach so far North.
There were mainly two reasons why we would recommend to come here in February, as we did: experiencing the darkness of the Arctic winter and seeing the light coming back.
When we arrived, due to rather high temperatures, it had gotten a bit stormy (people told us later that this happens from time to time during that time of the year) what made the last 15 min of our flight rather bumpy.
Luckily, our pilot managed to land in the first attempt, while the SAS flight scheduled to arrive just two hours later, did not: He made 3 attempts and had then to go back to Tromsø! They arrived the day after, with rather unhappy travelers I assume.
And of course, we also hoped to see the Northern lights during our stay. We took that actually for granted that we see them, after all it is dark most of the day.
But pretty quickly we were told that Svalbard is actually too far north to experience regularly Northern Lights... We never heard that before. Maybe they should call them rather the "Not So Northern Lights", would be more accurate. Admittedly, that would make it somewhat harder to sell.
Anyhow, first disappointment, but we stayed in good mood and started exploring the island.
You never walk alone...
Due to a lot of polar bears on the island, the infrastructure and the weather conditions, you are not allowed to leave the city for private tours without the permission of the mayor. People who do (mostly locals) or those with permission have to wear a weapon. So we booked tours with local guides and would recommend that for everyone. It is definitely not a good idea to sneak out of the city on your own.
What to do - in the winter
In total, we did 3 tours: one snow-scooter trip to Tempelfjord and Postbreen, one hike to a nearby ice cave (surprisingly scary and for sure nothing for people who are a bit heavy or claustrophobic) and finally a snow-scooter tour to a valley around the corner, with a nice view towards of Longyearbyen.
All this plus a nice evening at "Huset", the best restaurant in Svalbard with a great wine collection, made this trip one of the most memorable ones for us.
Tour 1 - Tempelfjord & Postbreen
The trip to Tempelfjord is for sure a highlight: Around 6 hours snow-scooter driving, speed varying between boring 30 and frightening 80km/h, with several stops at places worth stopping, a 45 min lunch break with hot coffee, cookies and some instant food (better than expected), in front of an impressive, and noisy, glacier wall.
The landscape is really unique, in particular for us who have not been to the arctic, Greenland or similar places.
With only -5 degrees it was rather warm that day and therefore the whole tour was absolutely pleasant. And the "blue hour" literally lasted for hours, was quite magic and perfect for taking lots of pictures, until the batteries froze.
We saw some reindeer with very short legs (Svalbard style, eh, type), a hole in the ice made by a seal for breathing, but it was apparently not in need for any breathing when we were there as we did not see any, an old empty hunter cottage from the last century, a sailing boat intentionally left freezing in the ice (where you can book yourself in for a night, see "unique hotels"), a frozen waterfall you could walk around and the 50m high end of a deep blue glacier that sometimes made funny noises.
But, disappointingly, we did see no polar bears. Not one. That was a real shame, we had hoped to see a couple of those. Not too close though, just close enough for a good picture.
Well, maybe next time.
View onto the glacier at the end of the Tempelfjord
Sailing ship that is intentionally left in the ice - you can actually stay overnight here!
Trip 3 - Not to Barentsburg ... again
The originally planned to Barentsburg, the old Russian mining town, was cancelled because of avalanche risks. So what to do with the day?
We managed to get another snow-scooter tour for the afternoon with a guide who took us and another couple on a 4-hour ride out of town and into a side valley. The daylight was already more or less gone when we started at 3:30 pm but that dipped the whole landscape into a translucent cold blue and white atmosphere, just breathtaking!
And it did not just look cold, it was very cold this time with around -20 degrees and the wind made it worse. The break with the usual cookies and coffee was therefore rather short and we took only a few pictures as our fingers got really really quickly really really cold. Thank God that the snow-scooters have heated handles, also for passengers.
On the way back we spotted a broad but somewhat washed-out string of green Northern Lights. Not as clear and bright as we hoped for and as we have seen it elsewhere but nice anyhow. When returning over rather icy bits of the frozen river to Longyearbyen in total darkness, we were longing for the hot bathtub back at the hotel and some warming drinks.
Above: Behind a frozen waterfall - Below: On the way back, getting dark
On the last day we tried to get to Barentsburg again. The Russian mining town is one of the primary destination for most Svalbard tourists, but once more it was cancelled due to avalanche risk...
So we had to stay in Longyeabyen, where the weather was very good, and went on a sightseeing tour to the church, the remains from the coal industry and the city museum, which is great for adults and kids alike.
Trip 2 - The ice cave
On the second day we booked a trip to a "nearby" ice cave. There are different tours to various ice caves, some on foot with snow shoes, others with dog sledges or beltevogn (a kind of mini caravan, unheated and quite uncomfortable as we were told by another visitors). Having been in Norway for already 4 years, we went for the sporty option...
The walk up the steep hill just outside Longyearbyen took about 1,5-2 hours and was not difficult but strenuous as it went up the hill really steep. On the upside, the wonderful views onto the city and surrounding landscape compensates for the strain.
Reaching the cave´s entrance we exchanged the snow shoes for some iron crampons, got helmets and head lights and watched the guide digging out the entrance for us which was fully covered with snow.
That went fast because the entrance is a rather tiny hole in the even ground, not much wider than a person.
To be honest, when we thought "ice cave", we were thinking of a big door or something leading into an even bigger cave or so. Not so hear. The only way in is to climb into that little hole and then slide down around 4-5 meter into the dark...
It's quite an odd feeling even when you are not claustrophobic. If you have a problem with small narrow places, you should definitely not go for that tour as you cannot wait outside: there is only one guide with a gun per group, meaning the whole group could not enter the cave and would have to return!
The cave itself offers stunning views and features lots of twists and turns, surprisingly different layers of white, brown, blue, totally clear and opaque ice, formed by melting water during the summer. But it always remains very narrow: at most places you cannot pass each other and once we even had to take off the backpacks because you otherwise could not have passed through. I guess the narrow entrance works a test really.
With the help of a couple of ladders and some 3-4 steps climbs with a rope descending safely we reached the end of our tour: a wider place where we had a short break with coffee and cookies - apparently the usual tour snack because we got it during all trips.
The cave continues a bit further on until it sharply drops for 30m, where we turned after the break and headed back for the entrance / exit.
To crawl out the last 4-5m of the cave through the snow tunnel was the hardest bit: you needed to push the rucksack ahead of you steep uphill while sliding back in again yourself. Again, luckily all fellow travelers were reasonably fit for that exercise.
The way down to Longyearbyen took less than an hour and you get time and more breath to enjoy the gorgeous nature around you if the weather allows - which it did. No sight of polar bears, reindeer, foxes, birds or other animals again, unfortunately.
Feels a bit strange to jump in the ice cave or to get out only with some help. But inside it is quite a show.
All in all
A fantastic, truly unique destination for a 3-day trip. We are looking forward to coming back here, then in the summer for a boat trip around the island to see a bit more. And finally get to Barentsburg.
PS: We have not written much about Longyearbyen itself: Well, you can comfortably stay overnight there, more and more hotels open, from simple to very charming, visit the museum, do some tax-free shopping and enjoy a nice lunch or two. That's it mainly. It's kind of cute but small of course. And, we nearly forgot, have a dinner at the "Huset", it's quite expensive like everything up here, but really good, not just for Longyearbyen but by all accounts!
1300 km south of the North Pole and 2050 km north of Oslo
3 hours by direct flight from Oslo; usually you get a connection via Tromsø
Things to do: (e.g. snow scooter tours, dog sledding; ice caves; sightseeing & museum in Longyearbyen
Our extra tip
Longyearbyen has good restaurants, e.g. Huset, Nansen - try out some arctic food - delicious!
You can shop tax free on the island
And particular for a winter trip
Bring your own woolen socks, ski underwear and all the other winter stuff
Slippers as you need to take off your shoes at most hotels and some other places
Crampons for the shoes (the simple ones)
a properly shaped thick ski-mask which also protects the nose (!)
Overnight stay we can recommend
Svalbard hotel, but there are several hotels, all are located centrally
Good to know
Don´t expect to spot much of Northern Lights, Svalbard is too far north for that - but you can be lucky
Be prepared to last minute changes due to bad weather conditions
Remember that you can not go on tours on your own outside the city
You need your passport to enter Svalbard as it is not part of Schengen (or a Norwegian bankkort or a Norwegian driving licence in the ´98 or later format)
Bring your driving licence, you need it for the snow-scooter tours
Best time: Mid February (when the sun returns) until late April (when there is still plenty of snow but nearly midnight sun already)
You might want to book some tours ahead of your visit to be sure, otherwise do all hotels help you booking activities
There are several experienced agencies that offer different tours, e.g. Spitzbergen Travel
Click on the map for opening the right clipping in google maps in a new window