Spitsbergen map & highlights

Spitsbergen is the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago which sits just over halfway between Norway and the North Pole. Longer expedition cruises may sail to Spitsbergen via the remote Bear Island, though it’s more common to fly into Longyearbyen and embark there. Circumnavigation of Spitsbergen is only possible in height of summer when pack ice has dispersed, though most trips do away with itineraries and leaving the route to be governed by waves, weather and wildlife. You can also go on a land based trip on Spitsbergen, although roads only exist in the few scattered towns, with miles of (often snow-clad) tundra in between. Huskies and snowmobiles are the way to travel during the white seasons; no roads required.

1. Glaciers

Massive glaciers have shaped the entire island – modern ice rivers slice through the landscape, while the fjords and U-shaped valleys are evidence of the glaciers of the past. Hiking on a glacier is tough but requires no technical skill, so challenge yourself – and look out for fossils in the surrounding rock. You may also have the chance to spot calving glaciers from Spitsbergen small ship cruises.
Dog sledding

2. Dog sledding

Not for the faint hearted, explore the winter wilderness with those who know it best: working husky dogs. Looking after your own team, this is serious expedition territory, staying in Arctic tents for a couple of nights and then at west coast lodge for another couple. From the mad barking before ‘take off’ to the sublime silence when they are released to happily drive you through wilderness, there is nothing like it.
Isfjord Radio

3. Isfjord Radio

Once a remote radio outpost, now a hotel enveloped by dramatic Arctic landscapes. Combine fantastic landscapes with fine food at this unique place to stay, and also enjoy a polar dip, accompanied by armed guides looking out for polar bears. Not that you will be hanging around – the sauna will be waiting for you at all times! With no road connections, access it by boat in summer and by snowmobile in winter.

4. Longyearbyen

Founded at the turn of the 20th century as a mining town, today the capital of Svalbard is the archipelago’s most populous town with just over 2,000 residents, including an unusually large number or artists who are inspired by the northern wilderness. The museum reveals the island’s history of hunting, whaling and mining. Several tours depart from here, including dog sledding, snow shoeing and glacier treks.
Nordenskiöld Glacier

5. Nordenskiöld Glacier

This is the northernmost point that is accessible by motorised vehicle; stunning natural beauty doesn’t always come easily. But stunning it is, visible from remote, off grid lodge accommodation with views straight out to this blue icy spectacle. Go glacier walking, with training given on site, or sea kayak around it and also take on some snowshoeing or cross country skiing around nearby fjords and snowy valleys.
Northern fjords

6. Northern fjords

Ice breaker expedition ships can take you up to these northern fjords, such as the glacier dominated Raudfjord, or Liefdefjorden where you can visit the tundra island of Andøya. This remote spot is home to eiders, pink-footed geese and kittiwakes feasting in icy waters around Monaco Glacier. These northern fjords are also the terrain of the king of Arctic wildlife: the polar bear.
Ny Ålesund

7. Ny Ålesund

Accessible on small ship cruises around northern Spitsbergen, this small research hamlet was once a mining town. Mining activity came to a tragic end after an accident in 1962; the great draws here today are reindeer, ringed seals, glaciers, polar bears, walruses and beluga whales. Ny Ålesund is also famous for being the starting point for several North Pole expeditions.
Polar bears

8. Polar bears

Spitsbergen’s most famous inhabitant is the isbjørn – or ‘ice bear’. Around 3,000 of them inhabit the island’s glaciers, ice floes, tundra and mountain slopes. Look out for them hunting ringed seals; they are most concentrated along the northern and eastern shores. Even when you can’t see them their presence can be felt; it’s illegal to walk without a rifle, and homes are left open should someone need to find shelter rapidly.

9. Reindeer

Not all reindeer are domesticated. The endemic and completely wild Svalbard reindeer is found across Spitsbergen, with thick, snowy hued winter coats that turn brown in summer – just one of their many adaptations to this harsh environment. Due to the scarcity of food, the reindeer gather in very small groups, unlike the huge herds of Lapland. Look out for wobbly legged calves in June and July.

10. Snowmobiling

Land based trips across Spitsbergen nearly always include some serious snowmobiling. This is not just a spin in the park, however. You need a full driver’s licence, and will get training to cope with the frozen, mountainous terrain. You will also need protective winter gear, which will be provided by tour operators. Snowmobiles will give you access to otherwise inaccessible winter wilderness terrain.

11. Walruses

The walrus is likely to be the most surprising encounter on Spitsbergen. Few visitors expect them to be quite so enormous: up to 3.5m long with huge tusks which they use to haul their huge wrinkled bodies up onto ice floes, and to fight. They are now seen across Svalbard in large colonies, having been protected since 1952, when their numbers dwindled to just a few hundred following centuries of hunting.

12. Whales

Having bounced back after centuries of being hunted for their valuable blubber, whales are now abundant around Svalbard. Species include minke, pilot and blue whales – as well as the ghostly white beluga. Extremely rare narwhals can occasionally be seen off the northeast coast, while much more active orcas are frequent visitors. You may even be lucky enough to kayak alongside them.
Wildlife photography

13. Wildlife photography

There are a few trips to Spitsbergen where you are accompanied by wildlife photography experts, such as Mark Carwardine. These really are trips of a lifetime, and you don’t need to be an expert photographer to enjoy them either. If you want to travel with world renowned wildlife experts, and get superb photographic advice at the same time, seek out these one off trips. Read more here.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Spitsbergen or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: Anette Holmberg [Spitsburg from above: Kitty Terwolbeck] [Glacier: Kitty Terwolbeck] [Dog sledding: Jon K. Bernhardsen] [Isfjord Radio: Lyn Hill] [Longyearbyen: Christopher Michel] [Nordenskiold Glacier: Prillen] [Northen Fjords: Gunvor Røkke] [Reindeer - Ny Alesund: Christoper Michel] [Polar bear with kill: Juan-Vidal Díaz] [Reindeer: Kitty Terwolbeck] [Snowmobiling: Bernt Rostad] [Walruses: claumoho] [Whale: Guillaume Baviere] [Wildlife photography trip: Guillaume Baviere]