It has long been an ambition to see the Aurora Borealis, that strange and ethereal natural phenomenon when charged particles from the sun crash into the earth’s ionosphere and the Northern Lights dance in the sky. We failed to see them on a winter trip to Iceland so thought we would try again in a new country – Norway – a place we had very much wanted to visit. Our plan was to spend some time in the lovely northern city of Tromso from where we could fly up to enjoy a Svalbard holiday.
Svalbard is also known as Spitsbergen. It’s an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean located about halfway between the top of Norway and the North Pole. It is part of the Kingdom of Norway.
The islands were discovered by a Dutchman, Willem Barentsz, in 1596 and were used as a base by whalers in the 17th and 18th centuries. A coal mining industry was established in the early 20th century and people began to settle there. Longyearbyen is the largest settlement and has a population of around 2000 people from 50 different nationalities.
We visited Svalbard in winter but many of the activities we enjoyed can also be adapted for summer visits.
Arrival at Longyearbyen
As we flew from Tromso, we could see the sun slowly setting from the window. This would be the last daylight we would see for four days.
It was already night time when our aeroplane landed at 2pm, with only the runway and terminal building lit up in the perpetual darkness. All passengers will have their passports checked before flying in, so we effectively entered Svalbard when we left Tromso. Hence there was no need to go through any form of immigration on arrival at the airport.
Transfers are easy to arrange – there are two buses which each follow a particular route, dropping visitors off at hotels or the university accommodation. Alternatively it is possible to get a taxi.
We were travelling with carry-on luggage so hopped straight off the plane and found the friendly bus drivers who indicated which bus we should get on to reach our hotel. We had to wait inside the terminal until everyone was ready to leave. Well, we didn’t but it was really cold outside! Basically as soon as all the passengers have grabbed their stuff, the staff switch off the lights at the airport and everyone goes home.
The bus fare was 200NOK (Jan 2023). It is possible to pay with plastic everywhere in Norway, we didn’t need the nominal amount of cash we brought. (The bus drivers were happy to take cash as well and even joked that they’d have our boots if that was our only means to pay!) The bus dropped us off on the road by our hotel, The Vault, which was just a two minute walk (five minutes if we were walking on ice without spikes) from the town centre.
(The transfers back to the airport basically follow the bus routes in reverse. Your hotel should be able to give you the bus pickup time for your flight. It’s worth arriving a few minutes early – wrapped up warm, of course. There isn’t a bus stop per se – we just waited on the other side of the road from where we were dropped off and flagged the bus down when it arrived.)
On arrival in our cosy room the TV screen was on. It was counting the days until the sun would appear as well as providing useful weather information and aurora forecasts.
Practicalities for Visiting Longyearbyen
Most shops and restaurants are located along the main road in Longyearbyen. There is a supermarket, booze emporium, various clothing stores, a mini mall and a tourist information centre all within close vicinity. If you have forgotten any items of kit or haven’t brought warm enough clothing there are shops where you can buy suitable outdoor clothes or expedition gear if you are feeling intrepid.
If you are walking around Longyearbyen you must stay within the safe zone. This defined area means that you are safe from polar bears! If you are outside the zone, marked by the polar bear sign, you should carry a gun (eep!) and know how to use it (double eep!). The safe zone is pretty large and covers the main town area.
Hence, as visitors, while it is fine to walk around the safe zone and visit local attractions it is essential to pre-book tours with operators who know the region and know what they are doing in terms understanding the risk.
During winter in Svalbard it is dark all the time. And cold all the time. But it’s a strangely refreshing cold because the humidity is very low. However it is absolutely essential to wrap up warmly because when the wind blows it blows right through you.
Things to do on a Svalbard Holiday
While we travelled in the hope of seeing the Northern Lights, we didn’t plan to sit around waiting for them to appear. It’s largely a matter of luck as to whether they will come out to play when you are there. Longyearbyen has a couple of interesting museums, an lovely art gallery and plenty of excursions to enjoy.
North Pole Museum
This small and friendly museum showcases expeditions to the North Pole. Unlike Antarctica, where the South Pole is located on a land mass, the North Pole is located on top of the sea, so expeditions to travel to reach it were significantly more challenging. Throughout our trip to the Arctic, we discovered the bravery and ingenuity of explorers, who attempted to reach the pole via ships drifting through the pack ice or by airship.
The museum offers a plethora of exhibits, including documents, newspapers, cine-films, letters, artifacts and even bits of airship.
The whole exhibition is fascinating. And, we learned, it wasn’t until 1969 that a British Trans-Arctic Expedition actually managed to reach the North Pole on foot, just a couple of months before humans landed on the moon!
The Svalbard museum has a large interactive room exhibiting all aspects of the archipelago, from the geology and geography to the wildlife and industry.
They also offered a small temporary exhibition about the people of Longyearbyen.
Located on the main road in town a new art gallery has opened recently. It’s a cool space to view art and also has a café.
We discovered the remarkable works of Kåre Tveter, an artist whose minimalist approach to painting perfectly captures Svalbard’s landscapes.
With just a few colours his art conveys the stark beauty of the region.
Husky Sled and Ice Cave Visit
One of the best trips we took was a full day husky sled drive excursion to an ice cave. Nikolas from Green Dog picked us up from our hotel and took us to their base a few kilometres out of town.
Green Dog provided all the equipment we needed so we changed into our exposure suits, mittens, hard hats with torches and boots, and went straight out to the dog yard. Karl was the first dog we met and he was super-keen to have a hug. In fact, all the dogs wanted cuddles.
Huskies have evolved and been bred to enjoy the cold weather. They have two coats – a thick undercoat for warmth and a guard coat with coarse hairs that are water, wind and snow-proof. Each dog has its own kennel in the yard but it had to be really cold for them to actually sleep inside them.
We received a briefing on how to use the sled, how to direct the dogs, how to get them to stop and how to get the sled to stop in an emergency.
Then we fastened the dogs to the harness. They were itching to go, barking excitedly and jumping. As soon as we set off the dogs were absolutely silent, fully focussed on pulling the sled.
We travelled through stark and beautiful landscapes in the dark. As we reached the ice cave we let the dogs off their harnesses and rewarded them with some hunks of meat.
Then it was time to visit the ice cave. The cave is part of a glacier – around 60% of the archipelago is covered with glaciers. The ice cave changes each year as the glacier melts during the summer months and re-freezes. There are some wide bits and wiggly bits to traverse through. It’s not an extensive route but it’s great fun to slip and slide inside the cave and marvel at the ice formations – you can see rocks sticking out of the sides of the wall and crystal-like icicles.
After a quick lunch of rehydrated food – which was surprisingly tasty – we hitched up the dogs and started the return journey. We flew across the glacial moraine fields back to the dog yard.
We are always cautious about doing activities which involve animals as we want to be sure that they are treated well but we can honestly say that the huskies were the happiest dogs we had ever met.
If you visit in summer it is possible to go sledding on wheeled sleds. The ice cave isn’t available for exploration but the route will take you through some interesting scenery.
It is also possible to visit the ice cave via snowmobiles during the winter. You need a valid driving licence and a good command of Norweigian or English to be able to drive one.
Gruve 3 Coal Mine Visit
We also enjoyed an excursion to Mine Number 3. Longyearbyen was established as a settlement after excellent quality coal was discovered. It might seem surprising that an Arctic landscape with no trees should have coal. But around 65 million years ago Svalbard was located near the equator and the movement of tectonic plates over the millennia has now placed it in its icy position in the world. The seam is very thin – twelve metres of forest turned into just one metre of coal.
We were able to visit the mine and learn about its history, construction, its people and how they mined. There is around 200 metres of mountain above the mine so safety was really important, especially in terms of shoring up the tunnels. Apparently you can hear the mountain creak.
This was also the first mine to employ female workers. They were largely involved with engineering jobs but some women worked at the coal face and were very much respected by their male counterparts.
The miners would crawl along the seam, in a tunnel that was between 38cm and 50cm high, and mine using heavy drills for 8 hours a day. Pay was exceptionally good.
You can borrow an overall (choose one that’s size larger than your usual size as you just wear it over your clothes) and crawl into the seam. It is incredibly claustrophobic. Not sure either of us would last even an hour in there, no matter how much pay we received.
The mine also holds a seed bank and archive for a number of countries.
The trip is easy to book via Get Your Guide.
The world international seed bank is also located near the mine. It stores millions of seeds from all around the world, the idea being to help provide a degree of food security for the world.
Snow Cat Northern Lights Tour
The aurora forecast indicated that our best chance of seeing the lights was on our last day so we booked a snow cat tour to take us out to the countryside, away from the city lights, to see if we could spot them.
The trip is probably more exciting if the Northern Lights are in the sky. You get in a big vehicle with a load of other people, drive to a hut, have a warm drink, wait for the lights, come back.
Sadly, we didn’t get to see the Aurora. With this sort of thing it is pure luck; we had booked the trip several weeks beforehand so there was no real way of knowing how active the sun and how cloudy the weather would be. Ever the optimists, we plan to try again!
Svalbard for Foodies
The great thing about Longyearbyen is that it’s located at 78 degrees north so you can say that you’ve eaten the world’s northernmost food, drunk the world’s northernmost beer and so on. The fish in Svalbard – and indeed the rest of Norway – is excellent quality and highly recommended. Our breakfast at the Vault was a buffet comprising smoked and pickled fish, rye bread, brown cheese and pickles. Perfect!
Svalbard Brewery is located a couple of kilometres out of town (but still within the polar bear safety zone). They are open for brewery tours and some evenings the taphouse is open for drinking but you do need to book in advance.
We enjoyed a tasting flight and then some more of their fine beers. They have a broad variety of styles on offer.
The best was the Gruve 3 stout, inspired by a local miner – bourbon and caramel flavours combine in this delicious 9% beer. Yeah, we caught a taxi back to the hotel. (The brewery kindly phoned for one for us.)
Fine Dining at Huset
We decided to treat ourselves to a dinner at acclaimed restaurant Huset. Set in a former community centre built in the 1950s, it’s located a few kilometres out of town, so we needed to take a taxi to get there. Taxis are plentiful but not very cheap. Still, this was a treat. The ethos of this restaurant is to present food from the region in the form of a Nordic tasting menu.
Our welcome was warm and friendly, each dish was presented beautifully and came not only with an explanation of what we were eating but information about its provenance, sometimes even including the name of the hunter. It was also lovely to see the chef himself serve some of the courses – it’s always nice to be able to compliment the cook directly.
Prices for the tasting menu were similar to tasting menus in the UK.
The lovely staff at Huset also offered us a chance to tour the building and see their astonishingly well-stocked wine cellar. It’s one of the best in Europe and has around 15,000 bottles. We tentatively tiptoed around the cellar, a little bit scared of turning too quickly and knocking over several thousand pounds worth of exceptionally good wine.
The tasting menu can be accompanied by a wine pairing and it is also possible to request a beer pairing to accompany each dish. All the beers are local and supplied by Svalbard Brewery.
The food was exquisite and beautifully presented. It made for a truly memorable evening.
Our hotel restaurant just happened to transform into the Nuga Sushi Bar in the evenings so we felt it would be rude not to partake, especially as sushi is our favourite food in the world. It’s always interesting to see how other cultures present sushi and Norway is one of the largest seafood exporters in the world, so local fish is guaranteed to be very fresh and top quality. We enjoyed a sushi platter. The tuna was – unsurprisingly – not the greatest we have ever tried (tuna not being a fish indigenous to Norway’s waters) but the salmon was fresh and delicious and the scallops were probably the largest and juiciest we have ever eaten.
There are plenty of restaurants along the main street and in the mall. Stationen offered what we would call pub grub. Straightforward honest food and some seriously good fish and chips!
The supermarket in town has a wide variety of products if you don’t fancy eating out. There are all sorts of fresh products and convenience food. You can even buy dried expedition food which you can rehydrate if you have a kettle in your hotel room.
If you enjoy a tipple, alcohol in Norway is expensive. Svalbard is actually less expensive than the mainland due to a different tax regime but it’s still pretty pricey. You can only buy booze in the alcohol store, next door to the supermarket. Keep an eye out for opening times.
There are alcohol restrictions for local people. They can buy as much wine as they like but are restricted on how much beer or spirits they can buy in a month. Residents have an alcohol card to record their purchases. This convention dates back to Longyearbyen’s mining heritage – apparently miners aren’t fond of drinking wine but enjoy beer and spirits!
Tourists can buy as much booze as they can drink but will need to show their airline boarding pass or ticket at the checkout to prove that they are not living in the area. And there will be restrictions on how much alcohol you can take off the island.
What to Bring to Svalbard in Winter
Warm clothes. When we say warm clothes we mean proper warm clothes. We recommend layers and clothing to cover your whole body. We took a base layer (tops and bottoms), several long sleeved tops, thick trousers, double pairs of socks plus hats, gloves, scarves and balaclavas.
Solid outdoor shoes – in winter you will be walking on ice and in snow. You need to have decent walking boots and they need to be waterproof.
Spikes – these nifty little rubber fittings have small metal spikes underneath and can be attached to most types of shoe and boot. They give a massive amount of grip when walking on ice and make the world of difference between slipping and sliding all over the place and walking normally.
Reflective jacket or strips. It’s dark all the time so it’s good to be visible to oncoming cars if you need to cross the road. The tourist information bureau has some that you can borrow if you wish.
Indoor Shoes – Longyearbyen was established as a mining settlement and the miners spent long days at the coal face. When they returned to their accommodation their boots would be covered in coal dust – so there is a convention that people remove their shoes indoors. Our hotel had multiple lockers to put boots in. We did take some indoor shoes to wear but changing them was a bit of a faff so we ended up walking around indoors in our socks, which worked fine for us. But bring some indoor shoes or slippers if you wish.
A camera that works well in low light. In retrospect, our phones and camera struggled with the darkness. Many of the shots we took were wobbly due to the light conditions.
Although some of the shots turned out to be quite arty and cool – quite by accident.
Even though we didn’t see the Northern Lights, we had an amazing time in Svalbard. Everyone was very friendly and welcoming and it was strange but curiously wonderful to experience darkness all day.