Visiting Svalbard: The Last Stop Before the North Pole

Svalbard, glacier, iceberg

There are many places that make you feel like you’re on top of the world, but there are only a few places where you literally are ‘on top of the world’!

Svalbard is a remote archipelago located half-way between Norway and the North Pole and is particularly well known for its unique wildlife of polar bears, walruses, arctic foxes and puffins. The largest island of the Svalbard archipelago is Spitsbergen, the only permanently populated island on Svalbard. There are five main settlements in Svalbard with Longyearbyen appointed as the only town and therefore the Northernmost town in the world. In total, Svalbard has just over 2500 people with the majority of these people living in Longyearbyen, followed by Barentsburg, a nearby Russian Settlement with around 500 residents. It’s difficult to imagine, but some of the remaining settlements have as little as 6 or 7 people living there, and these people are usually polar scientists carrying out climate, glacial, and geological studies.

Map of Svalbard

It’s amusing but not altogether surprising to hear that the number of polar bears in Svalbard out-number the amount of people. But despite this ratio, I’m afraid to say I didn’t manage to spot the King of the Arctic during my visit. Alas! It would have been a magical moment but I’ll manage to console myself…

What is surprising to hear is that despite its tiny population there are over forty different nationalities in Svalbard. More and more recently people have come from all corners of the world to call this unique and remote place their home. One of the more common nationalities on the Island is Thai which I found interesting, and because of this you’ll be able to find a popular Thai restaurant on the main street in Longyearbyen. But from my experience I would definitely recommend trying local cuisine like reindeer because it’s incredibly fresh and tender in this part of the world. Alternatively, there isn’t the possibility of going to a vegetarian restaurant in town, but veggies should still find a few options on restaurant menus. During my stay, the MUST – GO place to eat was the scrumptious Funktionærmessen Restaurant which is noted for its French inspired menu.  Who knew there would be fine dining near the North Pole? I didn’t…

Funktionaermessen restaurant at Spitsbergen Hotel

From talking to people who live in Longyearbyen I quickly discovered there is a great sense of community in this town. It’s a place where news travels fast, and everyone seems to know everyone, or at least they know everyone through six degrees of separation.

A fascinating fact I learnt is that people in Svalbard don’t close their doors – ‘why?’ – it’s a precautionary action in case anyone finds themselves within close proximity of a Polar bear, they’ll be able to run inside the closest house for shelter. Before arriving here, I wasn’t really aware of the dangers of polar bears (it must be something to do with all the cute and cuddly pictures I’ve seen of them playfully rolling around in snow). But during my visit I was constantly reminded by how much I should be aware of these natural predators – none more notable than during a hike lead by a guide from Spitsbergen Travel who had casually slung a rifle across her shoulder for protection. Carrying a gun for protection isn’t unusual here, and all visitors who wish to explore outside the immediate town centre must be accompanied by a guide who is trained in using a weapon.

Our guide carries a gun for protection

Hiking in Svalbard

Polar bears are highly intelligent animals that can run as fast as 40mph, and if that’s not intimidating enough, they are also equipped with an incredibly sharp sense of smell – so you can guarantee that if you see a polar bear, it saw and sniffed you out a long, long time before! But despite fearing polar bears, they are tremendously well loved and are considered a symbol of Svalbard. The inhabitants go a long way to protect them and harsh penalties are given to people who are found hunting these endangered creatures. If anyone does find themselves in a dangerous predicament with a polar bear they must try and scare it away first with a warning shot, and if that doesn’t deter the bear then… you don’t need me to finish off the sentence! When this does happen the incident must be reported to the police straight away.

Polar bear warning sign, Svalbard

My favourite aspect of being here is seeing the landscape, filled with glaciers, fjords, mountains and brightly coloured houses. And like the whole of Scandinavia, I love the fresh air – as soon as I step off the plane I take such pleasure at breathing in the cool, crisp air. Incredibly, 60% of Svalbard is covered by glaciers and I went out by boat to see the Von Post Glacier which is the smallest and nearest one to Longyearbyen. Since we used a small boat to get there we didn’t get too close due to ice calving and the potential waves that could be caused as a result. Apparently the bluer parts of the glacier indicate areas where ice calving has recently occurred.

Von Post Glacier in Spitsbergen, Svalbard

Von Post Glacier in Spitsbergen, Svalbard

The landscape of Svalbard, located between Norway and the North Pole.

Longyearbyen is a really photogenic place, surrounded by snow-capped peaks and colourful houses which are traditionally painted bright to break up the darker, barren days brought on by the harsher period of winter months.

Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen, Svalbard

Colourful houses in Longyearbyen, Svalbard

Colourful Longyearbyen town, Spitsbergen, Svalbard

People living here will experience what it’s like to live in two very contrasting seasons: the Midnight sun from April 20 to August 23, and the Polar night from October 26 to February 15. However, during the light period the sun is often hidden behind layers of fog the temperature never usually rises above 8 degrees. As I visited at the beginning of September I missed marginally missed the Midnight Sun, but I was surprised to find it was still light until 11pm. This meant I was still able to cram in a lot activities. Fun activities to do in Svalbard include husky sledding, snowmobiling, glacial hiking and fossil hunting to name a few.

Dog sledding in Spitsbergen, Svalbard

Dog sledding in Spitsbergen, Svalbard

Husky dog sledding on wheels

Needless to say, anyone wishing to come here can’t be afraid of the cold, but good advice was given to me by the Norwegians who like to say, ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing!’.

Are you interested in going to Svalbard?



A travel & culture blog specialising in Scandinavia and the Arctic, peppered with the rest of the world in between.


'Visiting Svalbard: The Last Stop Before the North Pole' have 27 comments

  1. September 15, 2013 @ 10:55 am Savi of Bruised Passports

    This looks amazing – would love to visit Svalbard.

    Is there a direct flight to Svalbard from UK or Norway?

    Reply

    • September 18, 2013 @ 7:03 pm admin

      Hey Savi! I should have included that information in the post (I’m such a sloppy travel blogger!, However no, there isn’t a direct flight from the UK, but you can still get a flight to Longyeabyen via Oslo from Gatwick with Norwegian.com. Excluding the time spend in Oslo, it takes approx 4.30 – 5hrs. Svalbard comes highly recommended!!

      Reply

  2. September 15, 2013 @ 2:12 pm memographer

    This is such a fun place to visit! Thanks for the info.
    Love the pics! The last one is adorable!

    Reply

    • September 18, 2013 @ 7:25 pm admin

      Svalbard is such a fun and extraordinary place. I hope I’ve tempted you to go…! 😀

      Reply

  3. September 16, 2013 @ 8:27 am TheTuscan

    You have a nice, nice job!
    The Svalbard are on second place on the list of the Northern places I’d like to visit, just after Greenland.

    Reply

    • September 18, 2013 @ 7:32 pm admin

      Haha thanks I do appreciate my job. Snap! I am dying to go to Greenland too, those icebergs beckon me! I’m trying to think of a good reason for my boss to send me… but I don’t think any of them are justifiable yet!!

      Reply

  4. September 17, 2013 @ 2:57 am Agness

    OMG, your photos are incredibly beautiful. I am so jealous you have been surrounded by such amazing scenery, lovely food and cute dogs. I really hope to make it there one day :):)

    Reply

    • September 18, 2013 @ 7:43 pm admin

      I hope you make it there one day too Agness, it really is a once in a lifetime experience! Playing with the dogs were definitely a highlight, I wish I could have taken one (or two) home with me!

      Reply

  5. September 17, 2013 @ 4:03 pm Richard

    Crazy that there are so many Thais there. Any idea why this is? It would seem strange eating Thai food when it’s so cold!

    Reply

    • September 18, 2013 @ 7:55 pm admin

      Good question, but it’s a question I don’t really know the answer to I’m afraid. Many have found employment in the shops and hotels so I can only presume that the relatively high Norwegian wages attracted them! Aside the wages, it is an attractive place to live because it’s tax-free and the surrounding area is stunning. However, coming from a tropical climate like Thailand, surely the weather must have taken a while adapting to!

      Reply

  6. September 20, 2013 @ 1:50 am Mike | Earthdrifter

    They use that expression all the time and it actually rhymes in Norwegian. It makes total sense. Svalbard has to be one of the most fascinating places on the planet. This is the first post I’ve read on Svalbard. Interesting info! How exotic!

    Reply

    • September 20, 2013 @ 8:30 pm admin

      I love the expression too, I would love to hear it in Norwegian as well – I bet it must roll of the tongue! Yes, Svalbard is fascinating, I feel really lucky to have been able to go. It has loads of really quirky facts and rules which I’m going to write about in another post!

      Reply

  7. September 20, 2013 @ 11:30 am Lena Magerøy

    Hi, I lived in Longyearbyen for six years, and I love the place! Reading this, and looking at your pictures makes me wanna go back! Great blog!

    Reply

    • September 20, 2013 @ 8:40 pm admin

      Hi Lena! Wow you must have some stories to tell! I imagine you must have seen Longyearbyen grow in the six year you were there… I’m really happy that reading this post brought some fond memories back. Thanks for commenting, and feel free to share more information about Svalbard with me :)

      Reply

  8. March 16, 2014 @ 3:31 pm Phoebe

    Ooh Shing jealous!! It’s time for me to go swanning off somewhere beautiful like this, it really is! And whatever rides atop that scallop looks AMAZING, as soon as I finish being a veggie for Lent I’m going to have to write a scallop recipe for http://theediblewoman.co.uk/
    See you sometime? x

    Reply

    • March 20, 2014 @ 6:16 pm admin

      Hello Miss-Edible-Woman-but-soon-to-be-Mrs-edible-Woman!

      Haha I believe the frothy thing is called espuma (beetroot espuma if my tastebuds remember correctly!) I hope you’re coping as a veggie, I’ve stopped eating meat completely but I still eat fish which has made the change less horrific!

      I’d love to see you, will you let me know when you’re next in London? Or I’ll let you know when I’m next in Leeds. Let’s do when cooking! (or eating out works equally well :)) X

      Reply

  9. September 16, 2014 @ 4:41 pm Angelina

    Love your blog! I was wondering what camera you used to take these images. I’m looking into purchasing a camera for my future travels. Any reccomendations?

    Reply

    • October 11, 2014 @ 9:08 pm admin

      Hi Angelina, I’m sorry for the late reply. I am not sure if you’ve already bought one but in case you haven’t, I’m using the Canon 550d, it’s a good basic camera that I would recommend if you’re starting out with photography and are moving away from point and shot. Or perhaps you could look into the newer model 650d, However, my advise is to not spend too much on your first camera, cameras can do so much these days, especially if you invest time learning all its capabilities. Youtube has a lot of tutorials for nearly all camera models so check out there too for more tips and advice.

      I hope this helped a little. Good luck!

      Reply

  10. October 10, 2014 @ 8:17 pm Maaike

    Just came across this article. I came back from Svalbard last week and I must say it was the most beautiful trip I have ever made. I got the trip as a birthday present from my mother for my 16th, 17th and upcoming 18th birthday (which will be in March) and we went with a small group of 30 people including crew sailing on a sailing boat around Svalbard. It was amazing, so wonderful to experience a place in the world in which you hardly find people, a wild, natural and quiet place with beautiful light and scenery, a place where nature rules men, not men ruling nature. I also saw a polar bear and the Northern Lights!
    It’s cold ofcourse but like you say ”bad wheather doesn’t exist, only bad clothing” and that’s definitely true! I just wore a lot of layers and a good coat and boots and I’ve barely felt really, really cold. On top of that I’m a Winter person so it’s not a problem for me anyway :’)
    Long story short, an astounding, whimsical place on Earth! By the way, I like your blog :) (and we share the same interest in countries; especially Scandinavia and the Arctic)

    Reply

    • October 11, 2014 @ 9:02 pm admin

      Hi Maaike, it’s great to hear from someone who has been to Svalbard and clearly feels the same way I do about it! You’re so fortunate to have been not once, but twice, and now you’re going again! What a fabulous birthday present. Perhaps if I drop enough hints, I will be so lucky to get a birthday trip to Svalbard too 😉 I can dream hah!

      “It was amazing, so wonderful to experience a place in the world in which you hardly find people, a wild, natural and quiet place with beautiful light and scenery, a place where nature rules men, not men ruling nature. I also saw a polar bear and the Northern Lights!” – you summed it up there – ”a place where nature rules men”.

      I’m envious that you saw a Polar bear! I would love to see some of your photos. Please feel free to share them with me.

      Regards,

      Shing

      Reply

  11. January 1, 2015 @ 1:02 pm 17 travel bloggers share their inspiring travel destinations

    […] I finally visited Svalbard, the last stop before the North Pole and also the Holy Grail for Arctic travellers, I stood in awe […]

    Reply

  12. February 10, 2015 @ 5:47 pm Juan

    Beautiful post and blog, well done!

    Reply

  13. May 24, 2015 @ 11:57 am Anubhav Ghosh

    Nice Blog Shing! Can i borrow a pic from this video for my First video on Youtube: Top 10 most colorful places on Earth?

    Reply

  14. October 8, 2015 @ 3:51 pm PATTY

    me gusto mucho tu blog, tus fotos están perfectas, esos paisajes hermosos que no todos tenemos la oportunidad de verles. En svalbard hay alguna forma de gobierno?

    Reply

  15. April 29, 2017 @ 7:01 pm Inspire me! Top travel bloggers share their most inspiring travel destinations. - Something I Read

    […] I finally visited Svalbard, the last stop before the North Pole and also the Holy Grail for Arctic travellers, I stood in awe […]

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    […] one of the last stops before the North Pole and is a gorgeous, glacier-covered landscape that’s unlike any other place in the world. The beauty of Svalbard is that many of the modern conveniences found in other parts […]

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    […] one of the last stops before the North Pole and is a gorgeous, glacier-covered landscape that’s unlike any other place in the world. The beauty of Svalbard is that many of the modern conveniences found in other parts […]

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