A palette of blue, white, and brown sweeps through the islands of Svalbard, from the Arctic Ocean to frozen sea ice, glaciers, and permafrost mountains. Norwegian for “cold coast,” Svalbard’s history includes its importance as a base for expeditions to the North Pole—only about 650 miles away.
This archipelago halfway between Norway and the North Pole is often referred to as Europe’s last wilderness, offering Arctic nature at its rawest and most powerful. The islands feature untouched glaciers and craggy mountains, but Svalbard is most famous for its polar bears and other wildlife, including reindeer, whales, seals, walruses, and Arctic foxes.
At 78 degrees North, Svalbard’s main settlement, Longyearbyen, is well within the Arctic Circle. It’s the only inhabited place you can experience northern lights during the day because it’s in complete darkness during the winter months until mid-February.
Here, where nearly everything seems to be the northernmost something (harbor, brewery, grocery store, chocolate maker, art gallery), the feeling of remoteness is keenly felt. There are more polar bears in the archipelago than people, and when leaving Longyearbyen, it’s the law that two-legged folks must be armed, just in case. But it’s perhaps one of the most accessible inaccessible places in the world—despite its remote location, there are daily flights to and from Svalbard throughout the year.
While nature is the big draw, the social setting is a story of its own. Traditionally, the islands were used as a whaling base in the 17th and 18th centuries, then home to trappers and coal miners. The Svalbard Treaty of 1920 granted sovereignty to Norway, but people of all the nations that signed the treaty are allowed to settle there, which means that the 2,500 annual inhabitants are an international mix of Norwegians, Russians, Thai, and others. Svalbard’s tourism industry now lures adventure travelers from around the world.
It doesn’t take much time to stroll through Longyearbyen on its pedestrian main thoroughfare, which begins near the Svalbard Museum and the University Centre in Svalbard (the northernmost institution for higher education and research). The settlement’s downtown counts hotels, restaurants, bars, bakeries, and tax-free stores, along with a post office, grocery store, and community center. Up the road in Nybyen (“new town”), is the Svalbard Art Gallery & Craft Centre, Huset (a restaurant and nightclub), and the domed farm of Polar Permaculture Solutions—where a chef in search of “the freshest food” grows microgreens, herbs, and produce.
A frontier spirit lingers here, with old mining buildings (now restaurants featuring reindeer filet and Isfjord cod) and new hotels decorated in trapper style—with driftwood, slate, and seal skins. But it’s far from a precious, Disney feeling. Walk outside, and the small town is surrounded on three sides by snow-draped mountains and the Longyear Glacier. The fourth boundary is the Isfjorden, a fjord that cuts into the island of Spitsbergen from the Arctic Ocean.
In the height of summer, Longyearbyen is filled with adventure travelers and those who are beginning or ending an Arctic cruise around the archipelago, but it rarely feels crowded. Between day trips outside the settlement, the Svalbard Museum, the North Pole Expedition Museum, and a handful of restaurants and shops—visitor numbers dissipate. At night, however, bars are packed. When they close at 2 a.m., the sun is still high overhead as evening revelers make their way to the nightclub at Huset, not yet content to call an end to the summer day.
The proximity to wilderness means ample opportunity for adventure, and visitors don’t have to be intrepid polar explorers to enjoy the options. Local outfitters like Basecamp Spitsbergen and Svalbard Wildlife Expeditions offer day-long boat safaris, glacier hikes, dog sledding, snowmobile tours, kayak trips, and visits to Soviet mining ghost towns. Extended adventures head farther into the wilderness by boat, snowmobile, dog sled, or skis—to off-the-grid cabins and tented camps where you don’t even miss the Wi-Fi for days on end.
The spirit of the wild Arctic is alive here, and Svalbard is as close as most humans can get to the North Pole and get a feeling for the remote frontier of polar exploration. You may be surprised by how much the region gets under your skin.