Svalbard had been on my bucket list for years, and it felt like the last Norwegian frontier I had yet to explore.
I remember as a kid watching the weather forecast on TV when I was in Norway and wondering where this Spitsbergen they always mentioned was. It appeared in a little box next to the map of mainland Norway, but the temperatures were usually a lot colder than the other Bergen.
I mean, I could have just asked my parents, and I guess I eventually did, but thinking back it feels like one of the great mysteries of my youth.
Well, it turns out Spitsbergen is the main island of Svalbard, and it is indeed very far from Bergen. In fact it’s closer to the North Pole than to Bergen! Svalbard’s towns are the northernmost permanently inhabited spots on the planet (aside from a few research bases).
I feel like that’s really reason enough to want to visit, but probably its main attraction is the distinct landscape with pristine glaciers and the Arctic wildlife, including polar bears, walruses, humpback whales, orcas, and even narwhals! There’s clearly a lot to see in Svalbard.
And so I was a little hesitant when the tourism board asked if I’d be interested in visiting Svalbard in December during polar night.
The thing about polar night in mainland Norway is that while the sun doesn’t rise at all, there are still several hours of daylight, or “blue light,” so even if you come to northern Norway during the polar night you’ll still be able to see quite a lot. But that isn’t the case in Svalbard. During the darkest period Svalbard is exactly that: dark.
And so I wondered, is it worth visiting Svalbard when I won’t be able to see anything?
But then I remembered Merethe telling me how much she loved the winters in Svalbard when she lived there, and I was curious to find out why.
And now I get it. Svalbard during polar night is a totally unique experience, and I’m so glad that’s when I finally visited. As for not being able to see anything, well, I was very much mistaken about that.
Experience a true polar night
A lot of people seem to think that polar night means 24 hours of darkness. So when I tell them that no, the sun won’t rise but yes, there will still be a few hours of daylight during their northern lights trip to Tromsø they’re relieved to find that they will still be able to see some of Norway’s famous landscape. But mixed with that relief is often a tiny bit of disappointment.
Polar night just sounds so cool! Yes, also literally. I mean, how crazy is it that the sun doesn’t rise at all during the day?
Except the reality isn’t actually so crazy, because it still gets light and dark like anywhere else in the world. I mean, I personally love polar night in Norway because the blue and pink light during that period is so dreamy, but it’s maybe also not quite the extreme experience you had at first imagined.
But in Svalbard it actually is!
Somehow I hadn’t quite anticipated how foreign Svalbard’s true polar night would feel, but it really was like no other travel experience I’ve had. It’s like those sci-fi space movies where the aliens live on a planet with three suns, except planet Svalbard has zero suns.
And no, I’m not sure how I’d cope spending an entire winter in Svalbard. But spending a week in the darkness was actually really fun!
Daytime northern lights
While I was excited to experience day without light, there were some other lights that definitely made that experience more memorable.
One of the slightly annoying things about the northern lights is that because of the way the aurora oval is positioned and how the earth rotates during the day, even though it’s dark on mainland Norway for most of the day during polar night, the best chances of seeing the aurora still tend to be later at night. So while you might think you’ll have better chances of seeing the northern lights in December, when it’s dark for longest, actually your chances aren’t that much higher.
Except in Svalbard!
There’s a lot of science behind this that I’m probably going to get wrong (astronomers, please correct me!) but my understanding is that basically particles from the sun come at Earth when we’re facing the sun during the daytime, then they pass Earth but are pulled back by gravity, at which point they’ve gained a lot of speed and appear to us in brilliant displays of northern lights. And so by the time they’ve been pulled back towards Earth it’s nighttime.
We usually can’t see the particles when they’re coming directly from the sun because this happens around midday, when there’s still some daylight in mainland Norway. Plus because they haven’t gained speed yet, they’re not as strong as the nighttime northern lights.
But in Svalbard it’s dark enough to see them! They appear as faint wisps in the sky and aren’t quite as impressive as the nighttime northern lights, but watching them dance overhead in the middle of the day is an incredible experience.
Nighttime northern lights
It was very surreal to watch the northern lights overhead in the middle of the day, but the nighttime northern lights in Svalbard definitely stole the show.
I had two nights with clear skies while I was in Svalbard, and both had incredible northern lights displays. And I loved that Longyearbyen is still dark enough that I could watch the lights dance above me from just outside my hotel.
But my best views of northern lights in Svalbard were definitely at Camp Barentz.
Hurtigruten Svalbard organizes a northern lights evening at Camp Barentz, just outside of Longyearbyen, with a reindeer stew, seemingly endless drinks, and a presentation about the northern lights.
But to be honest I can’t tell you that much about the evening because I spent most of the time outside taking photos of the northern lights.
Enjoy Longyearbyen’s offerings
I’ve always associated Svalbard with wildlife excursions and pristine nature, so I was pleasantly surprised by how enchanting Longyearbyen is.
I guess I figured there wouldn’t be much to do there, as it’s quite a small town, but there were some amazing restaurants, lots of shops and galleries, and I also enjoyed learning more about Svalbard’s unique history at the Svalbard Museum.
One of the highlights of my entire stay was a seven-course dinner at Huset Restaurant in downtown Longyearbyen. It was one of the best meals I’ve had in Norway – and certainly not something I had expected from this small former mining town by the North Pole!
I was also surprised to find that Svalbard has its own brewery – especially because I could have sworn Tromsø’s Mack Brewery’s logo boasted that it was the world’s northernmost brewery? At any rate, if you’re into beer you should definitely stop by Svalbard Bryggeri for a tasting.
Can I go anywhere in Norway without tracking down some huskies? I mean, why would I?
I was a little nervous about the prospect of husky sledding in the dark, but sledding under the night sky was totally magical.
And I loved the huskies at Arctic Husky Travellers.
As I always mention when talking about husky sledding, it’s more than clear that huskies love to do this in the winter. But when choosing a place to go husky sledding it’s important to pick a place where you know the huskies will be properly loved and cared for. There are some bigger husky kennels with tons of staff that switch out each year, where I’m not sure how well cared for the dogs are, especially if they get injured or become too old to pull sleds.
Because of this I always choose smaller, family-run husky experiences. And at Arctic Husky Travellers it was clear that Tommy loves each and every one of his huskies, and he’s even taken them on two North Pole expeditions!
I’ve been on so many mountain hikes in Norway at this point that it takes something really special to make a hike here stand out to me.
It turns out a hike in the dark up a glacier to an ice cave will do the trick. And just in case it didn’t, when we returned from the cave the daytime northern lights made an appearance. Svalbard was definitely showing off.
When I looked at my itinerary I 100% expected husky sledding to be the highlight of my time in Svalbard, but I think this hike might even give those huskies a run for the top spot on my list.
The hike was organized by Svalbard Wildlife Expeditions, who provided us with all the necessary gear including helmets, ice grips, and walking poles. The hike itself took about two hours up the mountain and an hour down, and it was quite challenging – to the point where our group did discuss turning around once. But we all made it!
I was super proud, and surprised, to have been at the front of the group for the hike up. Like, maybe taking up running this year really has improved my fitness level?! But then in the ice cave we all chatted over hot mugs of black currant juice and everyone said where they were visiting from, and I realized that aside from our guide I was probably the only person who was used to walking in snow.
Which is all to say, even if you have no experience in winter conditions you should be able to manage this hike – and I definitely recommend trying! The ice cave itself was also really cool (also literally), but I’d say my favorite part of the hike was going up the mountain in the winter darkness.
At that exact moment Arctic explorers Børge Ousland and Mike Horn were in the final days of their epic North Pole expedition after some dramatic delays, and I remember thinking as I hiked in the darkness that this was exactly what they were experiencing, just a short ways north of me. Okay, maybe not exactly.
I didn’t actually get the chance to go snowmobiling in Svalbard, but I’m including it here because I do think it’s one of the quintessential Svalbard winter experiences, especially for locals. When I’ve asked people who have lived in Svalbard how they survived the dark winters there, they always mentioned the magic of the daytime northern lights, as well as zipping around the island on snowmobiles.
I was meant to take Hurtigruten Svalbard’s electric snowmobile northern lights tour, but it turned out I was the only one signed up and the minimum needed to run the tour was two participants. If only I had been joined by a friend!
Do you want to come with me to Svalbard next time?
I visited Svalbard as part of a paid collaboration with Visit Svalbard and Visit Northern Norway