Visiting Svalbard in the winter – Polar nights

Visiting Svalbard in the winter – Polar nights

If you want to visit the arctic circle and you’re looking for a cheap way to do it, then a trip to Svalbard might be your answer. Longyearbyen, located at 78°N, is connected with affordable direct flights from Oslo, Norway. From November 11th to January 30th Polar Nights occur where the Sun falls between 12 and 18 degrees under the horizon and Svalbard is plunged into 24 hour darkness. Visiting during this period offers a truly unique and unusual experience you won’t find in many places but it isn’t for the faint-hearted. Along with the darkness comes deep snow, the threat of polar bears and temperatures dropping below -25°C.

 

How to get to Svalbard

Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago located in the arctic circle. In the winter no boats can reach it. The only way is to fly to Longyearbyen in Spitsbergen.

There are three direct flights:

Oslo, Norway (I took this route) – 3.5hrs run by Norwegian Air and SAS

Tromso, Norway – 1.5hrs run by SAS

Moscow, Russia – when I was catching my return flight to Oslo from Longyearbyen I saw a flight to Moscow but these are rare and don’t operate regularly.

Note – the flights are from Oslo Gardermoen airport, NOT Oslo Trop. Trop is a tiny airport used by RyanAir and WizzAir. It’s located 110km from Oslo centre – about a 1h45min bus journey. I transferred from Oslo Gardermoen to Trop for a connecting flight. You need at least a 5 hour transfer time between flights to make it, due to the the limited transport between Oslo centre and Trop.

Once in Svalbard, there’s a shuttle bus waiting outside the airport which takes you to all the hotels. You can’t miss it. It costs NOK 75 for an adult or NOK 50 for a student.

Longyearbyen, Svalbard
“Beware of polar bears” sign

 

Things you CAN do in the polar nights

Due to the limited frequency of flights it’s best to plan out your trip in advance so you don’t miss anything – I know this from experience as a few of the places I wanted to visit weren’t open everyday.

Note – you can’t walk around outside the city limits on your own. Why? Because:

  1. There’s total darkness 24 hours a day so you can’t see steep cliffs, iced over lakes, big rocks….
  2. Polar bears – a very real threat. There are over 3,000 living in Svalbard, outnumbering the human population. If you do trek out on your own, you must take a rifle to scare off any polar bears.

There are polar nights winter hikes where a tour guide takes you in a small group to the nearby icecaves. The guide has a rifle and you’re equipped with a head light and spiked boots. It costs around NOK 890 (€90) for a half-day walk.

No guns in Svalbard city shops
No guns allowed inside

Northern Lights

Svalbard isn’t the best place to see the northern lights, as it’s so far north. If you really want to see them, you’re best off heading to northern Norway, like Tromso or Alta.

I suggest downloading an app like My Aurora Forecast so you can keep up-to-date with if and when they’ll appear. When they do, try and move away from light sources and get out a tripod and camera to snap a shot.

There are two types of northern lights excursions – by snowcat or electric snowmobile. Snowcat costs NOK 795 (€78) and snowmobile NOK 2295 (€260). It’s not cheap and the northern lights aren’t guaranteed so it’s up to you if you take the chance.

Svalbard Museum

This museum gives a nice overview of the history of Svalbard and introduces the animals that live there. It’s NOK 90 (€9) to enter.

Svalbard museum
Svalbard museum

Svalbard Brewery – The world’s northernmost craft brewery

Brewery tours run three times a week – Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays at 18:00 and require pre-booking (through their website). It costs NOK 429 (€43) and you can taste five beers. I don’t know the size of the tasting as I missed this. I arrived on Thursday, had book dog sledging on Saturday and was leaving Monday.

You can visit the brewery’s bar on a Friday night between 17:00-22:00 if you don’t want to take a tour, however many of the Svalbard Brewery beers are available in the local pubs.

Speaking of pubs

You’re going to want to spend as much time as you can indoors. The local pubs include:

Svalbar Pub – board games, many beers on tap, including from the Svalbard Brewery. You can’t go wrong with the Spitsbergen Pale Ale 😉

Karlsberger Pub – small pub with a very large whisky collection! Opposite the pub is the restaurant Stationen, here you can get a whale burger, if that’s your thing.

Barentz Gastropub (a.k.a the one at the Radisson Blu Hotel) – They have a great range of pizzas and Svalbard Brewery beers on tap. It’s also the world’s northernmost pub. I stayed at the Radisson Blu and I’d recommend this hotel and pub. Great location, English speaking staff, overall everything was very convenient.

Don’t go out on a Sunday – I made that mistake, everywhere was empty. It seems the locals don’t go out on a Sunday so head out on a Friday and Saturday night if you want a chance to meet people.

If you don’t like pubs then there’s plenty of cute coffee shops on the high street (the one pedestrian street running through the town).

Karlsberger Pub's whiskey collection
Karlsberger Pub’s whiskey collection
No dogs allowed, Svalbard pub
No dogs allowed

Dog Sledding

The highlight of the trip was riding a dog sled through the snowy valleys under the moonlight. During the polar nights the dog sledding activities are advertised as “northern lights safari”. There’s a very low chance of seeing them but the ride itself is exhilarating.

While the actual sled ride is only 1.5 hours (where you take turns with a partner, one drives and the other sits in the sled), it’s a whole afternoon activity. Gearing up in the outfits, cuddling the dogs, harnessing them and preparing the sled.

It was more difficult than I expected. The dogs are a mix of husky and malamute and when they jump up at you (and they all will) they have enough strength to knock you straight over. You have to be very firm when harnessing them as they like to play. After, you’re thrown into driving the sled with 6 dogs attached and all they want to do is run! Holding the foot break requires serious weight on it. My mum didn’t feel confident to drive so she sat in the sled. She said it was a bumpy, but enjoyable, ride.

There are two dog sledding companies in Svalbard. I went with Svalbard Husky and it cost NOK 1450 (€150).

Being shown how to drive the sledge
Being shown how to drive the sled
Extremely friendly dogs! Svalbard husky
Extremely friendly dogs!

Coal Mine

The other major activity to do in Svalbard is take a tour of a coal mine. During the polar nights Coal Mine 3 is open. For a half day tour it’s NOK 690 (€70). It gets really cold down there, so wrap up well.

 

Things that you CAN’T do

You can’t go in the Global Seed Vault. Did you know that Svalbard is home to a giant vault with the capacity to store over 4.5 million seed samples – that’s billions of individual seeds. Unfortunately and understandably, you can’t go inside. But in the summer months tours go to see the entrance, but the actual building is under a mountain.

You can’t go to Pyramiden, the abandoned Russian settlement, between November and March. The ice prevents boats from reaching it and snowmobile tours aren’t running. I asked on travel facebook groups, emailed hotels and tour operators but found it was impossible to find someone to take me there in December.

You can’t see Polar Bears. A cruise around the island is the only way to spot them and in winter the frozen water stops boats. This is a summer activity. The same goes for arctic foxes, bearded seals and walruses. However, there’s a chance you’ll encounter a Svalbard reindeer wandering around the town.

Closest I got to a polar bear
Closest I got to a polar bear

 

Don’t take children

To my surprise on the same flight and in the same hotel as me, was a family with two children under 5. I have no idea what they did in Svalbard, there is nothing child friendly to do here. The husky rides are age 8+, they’re too young to go on a snowmobile and I’m sure young children would find the 24 hour darkness too confusing to understand. I’d save your money and take the kids to a more suitable place like Lapland.

 

Fun facts

Anyone can move to Svalbard and set up a business.

But don’t expect new housing – a lot of the island is protected and there’s a risk of avalanches making it impossible to build more accomodation.

You also can’t die in Svalbard. It’s against the law. Mainly because of the permafrost and the bodies can’t decompose.

Town of Svalbard
Town of Svalbard

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