Embark on a captivating adventure through Svalbard's pristine landscapes. Explore our curated list of must-see attractions, from majestic glaciers to fascinating wildlife encounters.
Roughly translated as ‘Bird Mountain’, Alkefjellet is one of the most spectacular bird cliffs in Svalbard. Home to approximately 60,000 Brunnich’s guillemots that nest right on the towering cliff face, Alkefjellet is a magnificent sight. The cliff face itself is made up of basaltic pillars which rise vertically from the waters of the Hinlopen Strait, between Spitsbergen and Nordauslandet, in places over 100 metres high. These sheer rock faces are home to thousands of nesting birds, often circled by Glaucous gulls looking for a meal, and Arctic foxes hunting nearby. Easily accessible from the sea, the steep walls are safe to navigate via Zodiac, and it’s easy to spend several hours just meandering along the cliffs watching the birds. The water adjacent to the cliffs is deep enough that ships can get very close to the cliff face too which is great for those wishing to stay on board.
The starting point for any trip to see polar bears in Svalbard, Longyearbyen is located more or less in the middle of the main island. Originally called Longyear City, the town was founded by John Longyear in 1906, and renamed Longyearbyen in 1926. With around 2300 inhabitants, the population of Longyearbyen is steadily growing as tourism to Svalbard gains popularity. When Spitsbergen was first discovered by the Dutch explorer William Barents, it was named so for its jagged peaks. Whilst the other islands of Svalbard are nature reserves and therefore inaccessible without gaining special permission, Spitsbergen, which broadly includes its group of surrounding islands Barentsøya, Edgeøya, Nordaustlandet and Prins Karls Forland, is where the modest population of the area go about their daily lives, and also is the starting and finishing point for your voyages of exploration into this Arctic wilderness.
Nordaustlandet is the second largest island in the Svalbard archipelago, the name translates to North East Land. As suggested by the name, the island lies north east of Spitsbergen, separated by the Hinlopen Strait. Completely uninhabited, the island is largely made up of sizable icecaps and tundra, and lies entirely within the Nordaust-Svalbard Nature Reserve. Apart from wildlife, the main attractions of Nordaustlandet are the icecaps, Austfonna and Vestfonna – in the east and northwest respectively. Austfonna is the most visited, and the seventh largest in the world. With a thickness of up to 560 metres, you can take a zodiac ride along the face of the icecap, an enormous glacial face that stretches for miles. The glacial meltwater waterfalls are stunning to behold, thundering over sharp edges into the sea below, creating rivers through the ice on the way. The sheer scale of the icebergs which calve from the glacier are mesmerising in themselves.
Ny Alesund is a research town where a number of nations run their stations under Norwegian administration and coordination. Previously a mining society, coal was mined until 1962 when the mine was closed after a number of serious accidents. One of the northernmost year-round communities, Ny Alsund now has a permanent population of about 30-35, although numbers in the summer can reach 120. The town boasts the world’s northernmost post office, and there are now a couple of hotels, plus a small café and souvenir shop. Ny Alesunds claim to fame is historical – as the launching point for North Pole Expeditions pioneered by Amundsen and Nobile. In 1925, Amundsen attempted to reach the North Pole with the seaplanes N24 and N25, but finally succeeded with the airship Norge in 1926. A monument to this successful crossing still exists in Ny Alesund today.
When you travel determines exactly how far you have to sail to find the pack ice. Early in the season, there is often a lot of pack ice around Svalbard’s northernmost islands. As the season progresses and the weather gets warmer, the pack ice retreats north, and eventually leaves the islands all together. Ships often have to sail for several hours to reach the edges of the pack ice, before pushing through into the ice in search of polar bears Once thing you can be sure of, is that where there is pack ice, there are polar bears. Often it is patience that is the key for spotting the bears, that and a well-trained eye. Expert expedition leaders have years of experience in the Arctic and are used to spotting bears moving slowly along the horizon. Some ships spend less time in the ice because they are not as capable of breaking back out of the ice that re-freezes around them, so again, a small ship which is strong enough to park in the ice is key to spotting the bears. Often just turning off the engines and waiting is the best way to see the bears, as curious youngsters often head over to the ships to explore. You’ll be amazed at the scenery this far north.
Sjuøyane, or the Seven Islands, are located at the far north of the Svalbard archipelago. As the name implies, this is a group of seven islands: Phippsøya, Martensøya, Parryøya, Nelsonøya, Waldenøya, Tavleøya, and Rossøya. Rossøya is the smallest and northernmost of the islands, making it the northernmost land of Norway. All of the islands have bizarre hat-shaped mountains, which make ideal breeding grounds for seabirds, and were named for members of the English North Pole expeditions, led by the explorers Phipps and Parry. When the ice breaks up around the spring (April – May) the islands start to wake up with the return of the seabirds. With huge numbers of little auks being the most common, it’s also possible to see nesting colonies of common and Brunnich’s guillemots, and smaller colonies of Atlantic puffins. Phippsøya is home to one of the few remaining colonies of ivory gulls, which are dwindling in numbers and are now considered to be near threatened.
The Svalbard archipelago is Europe’s largest wilderness, a fascinating collection of islands within Norway that are closer to the North Pole than they are to the capital city of Oslo. The northernmost human settlements on earth are found here, specifically on the largest island of Spitsbergen, where the ‘cold edge’ of Svalbard (its literal meaning) is tempered by the moderating Gulf Stream, making it a more habitable environment. When Spitsbergen was first discovered by the Dutch explorer William Barents, it was named so for its jagged peaks. Whilst the other islands of Svalbard are nature reserves and therefore inaccessible without gaining special permission, Spitsbergen, which broadly includes its group of surrounding islands Barentsøya, Edgeøya, Nordaustlandet and Prins Karls Forland, is where the modest population of the area – approximately 3,000 - go about their daily lives, and also is the starting and finishing point for your voyages of exploration into this arctic wilderness.