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Svalbard Travel Guide: 391 reviews and 1,016 photos

Norway's Arctic outpost

Some visitors to Norway half-way expect to see polar bears in the streets... The cunning ones take home photos of the stuffed one in Tromsø's main pedestrian street. To find the real Arctic (by definition, a certain average summer temperature lows and the existence of permafrost), you will have to go to remote spots in the Finnmark county on the mainland. A better option to see the Arctic is to fly to the Spitsbergen Island in the Svalbard Archipelago, 1 1/2 hours north of Tromsø. There you may in fact, luckily or unluckily, encounter polar bears in the streets. And - you can do it from all over Europe in one weekend!

Here you will land at the mining- and research community Longyearbyen. There are five more communities scattered up here; Svea coal mines, the Russian/Ukrainian mining settlement of Barentsburg, a Polish research station, the weather station at Hopen Island, and the research community Ny Ålesund. Ny Ålesund is the world's northernmost permanent human settlement. A few trappers also huddle through the winter in remote lodges. The rest is absolute wilderness.

There is quite a bit of linguistic and geographical confusion here, let me try to clear it up:
- Svalbard is the name of the entire archipelago.
- Spitsbergen (or "Spitzbergen") is the name of the largest island of the archipelago.
- Longyearbyen is the main settlement, capital, so to speak, with the seat of the Governor.

When you look for travel information on VT you will benefit from looking at tips under all these names, especially Longyearbyen. Personally, I have choosen to lump all my tips under "Svalbard" only. I hope my tips will be useful. Happy search and even happier travel!

Svalbard - status, the basics

Svalbard - the name means "Cold Coasts" - is a territory to the north of Norway, and administred by Norway. Interestingly, it is not "owned" solely by Norway, but rather belongs to the signatory nations of the Svalbard Treaty of 1920. That is why you find Svalbard under "Europe" on VT, not under "Norway". The treaty designates Norway's sovereignty over the archipelago of some 60.000 sq.kms of mostly ice- and snow covered land, roughly the size of Ireland.

Thus, the Norwegian civil code is valid, such as regular police tasks, but with limitations, for instance as regards taxes and immigration. Signatory nations may engage in economic activity and research on the islands, so you will find Barentsburg, a Russian settlement and coal mine here Norwegian coal mines at Svea and some research facilities run by different nations, even a multinational environmental research and earth observation satellite station, SvalSat, and radio telescopes EISCAT for polar and and astronomical surveillance, a northern light observatory KHO and a university UNIS. The settlement and activities here run by Norway are first and foremost a political and scientific presence, heavily subsidized by a yearly parliament budgetary provision, just to show that Norway has interests and a firm upper administrative hand here. However, the coal mining - check the Norwegian company SNSK, - remains the main reason and perhaps a somewhat imaginary, romantic cultural backbone of Svalbard. News on Svalbard you find through this search engine Viddi, in the newspaper Svalbardposten, and more in general here on BarentsObserver.

You can visit the islands as a bona fide visitor or tourist. All nationals of signatory nations to the Svalbard Treaty can travel visa free, however, you need to pass through the Schengen visa area by plane to get here - or travelling via Ukraine and Russia is also an option, but flights are not scheduled. Unless you have a job you cannot stay beyond your intended tourist stay - if you run out of money and sustenance and become a burden you will eventually be thrown out. There are no social services provided should you become unemployed. However, there are jobs here if you are really into it. Check for jobs, you need to navigate a bit in order to find anything relevant. Svalbard is administratively linked to Troms County on the mainland. I guess those VT members living there are engaged in some job or the other.

Svalbard - in a pole position....

Svalbard, and that includes the entire archipelago, is a definite polar destination. It may become very cold, and there are certain objective and subjective dangers to be aware of. In addition, much of the archipelago is designated as strict national parks and nature preserves. These factors have severe implications on your liberties on travel around the archipelago. There are no particular formalities needed to get to Longyearbyen, but nevertheless many restrictions once you are there, regulating where you can go.

For most of the archipelago (outside "Management Area 10") you will need a special permit and search- and rescue insurance in order to visit. Or you book a trour with a tour operator. All the relevant rules and well-meant advice are listed in the governor's web pages: Sysselmannen. There are also English and French pages. The Governor has published a document called the Cruise Handbook that covers especially natural aspects of Svalbard geared towards coastal travellers The Cruise Handbook. Most relevant tourist information is gathered in the web pages by Svalbard Reiseliv, the tourist authority on Svalbard: Svalbard Tourism. Svalbard Tourism is the information, marketing and booking organisation of most of Longyearbyen's tour operators. In fact, there is a plethora of them...
Svalbard is a wonderful place to visit, so do not be discouraged by all the restrictions mentioned here, but get on with your planning! Even just hanging out in Longyearbyen for a few days - a weekend! - will be a rewarding experience. And only a short way outside the settlement you will get a good feel for the real Arctic.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Accessible Arctic dreamland, many things to see and do, weekend destination.
  • Cons:Far away, expensive, polar bears.
  • Last visit to Svalbard: May 2008
  • Intro Updated Jan 14, 2010
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Reviews (141)

Comments (14)

  • Maria81's Profile Photo
    Nov 12, 2011 at 3:03 PM

    Another amazing place - hope to make it there one day! and hugely informative page

  • Martin_S.'s Profile Photo
    Mar 22, 2009 at 12:47 AM

    Thanks for this wonderful and informative introduction to Svalbard..we just may make our 30th wedding anniversary trip there. Martin

  • Dec 29, 2008 at 3:44 AM

    Hei Saagar thanks for your very,very helpful reviews and tips about Svalbard! I do have one question, I hope you can help me on this: I would like to watch the northern lights, when it's the best time to do it in Svalbard?

  • nyperose's Profile Photo
    Oct 17, 2008 at 9:42 AM

    Hei, Virkelig flotte sider! Kjempe-interessant å lese dem. Hilsen Ellen i Lausanne

  • into-thin-air's Profile Photo
    Jun 3, 2008 at 12:09 PM

    Last time I saw Spitsbergen was in 1974 when the Grimsby based trawler “Gall” went missing – The wives of the crew thought that the Russians had sank it !! HMS Hermes was duly dispatched to look for it and I was on board !!

  • NorwayBound's Profile Photo
    Feb 6, 2008 at 3:51 PM

    Thank you!!! We are visiting at the end of February 2008 and you have provided more current information than I have found anywhere on Svalbard!!! I will keep watching for updates before we go!!!

  • May 2, 2007 at 4:24 AM

    Saagar, Amazing piece of information here - great work! Thanks for all the tips - quite handy and very insightful. Cheers Ashish

  • JohnniOmani's Profile Photo
    Jan 31, 2007 at 5:27 AM

    A stunning destination and great page, keep up the great work :) jz

  • TomFoolery's Profile Photo
    Mar 12, 2006 at 12:00 PM

    An incredible Svalbard resource! I'll come back and have a look before I visit there!

  • bijo69's Profile Photo
    Jan 30, 2006 at 8:02 AM

    Really looking forward to visit it this summer. Great info!

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