If you are looking for the perfect trip in Europe in wintertime, the Norwegian archipelago Svalbard is an unforgettable experience. Be prepared for the cold and that it’s too dark to see anything…
You are on the 78th parallel north. Halfway between Norway and the North Pole. Looking for the Northern Lights on Svalbard means you have to look south! It was the experience of a lifetime!
Find my lifesaving tips to Svalbard at the end of the article.
I’ve always wanted to experience the Northern Lights, ever since I first heard about it. And so has my mom, so when our Oman trip in couple of years ago fell flat, we jumped on the last 2 seats for a group tour to find the northern lights. Read on to see if we succeeded…
SEARCHING FOR THE NORTHERN LIGHTS ON SVALBARD
WHEN & WHY
The Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis is a spectacular natural phenomenon. It’s was astronomer Galileo who named it. The colourful waves comes from energy from the sun reaches the atmosphere especially around the North pole. There’s also a southern version Aurora Astralis. If you are talking about the phenomenon in general, you can also say Polar Lights or Aurora Polaris.
The northern lights have always been surrounded by mystique. In Finland, traditions says it’s herrings reflected in the sky. The first image of it was snapped in 1882 – also in Finland (must go here on the next Aurora-trip).
Northern lights are of course most common during the nighttime. But you can also see it during the daytime, since the sun never rises during an arctic winter.
Longyearbyen on Svalbard is the only city, that has northern lights during the day! I saw the green light at both 9 in the morning, noon, afternoon and evening. But the best time is between 00.00- 03.00.
HOW TO FIND
THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
On Svalbard, there are different ways to see the northern lights. Dogsledding, hiking, going by bus or snowcat; there are many ways to hunt for the magical lights. I tried almost all of them, and the most effective one turned out to be the least expected.
No matter what activity you’re going on, you’ll most likely end up trying a few things. Few people come here to relax.
Dog sledding can be done both during the day and in the afternoon. But as it’s dark 24 hours a day in January, it doesn’t really matter.
Getting away from the lights of the city. Hiking in complete darkness in the Arctic night surrounded by polar bears and with snow holes might seem a bit to adventurous. But don’t miss this. It was one of the 2 best experiences.
And while you are out, you can visit an ice cave. What a crazy experience. It takes 2-2,5 hours of hiking in the dark to get there. And obviously you also have to go back, but somehow that went faster. Depending on weather of course.
Inside the cave it feels warmer than outside, and you’re treated to hot juice and biscuits. And then everybody shuts off their headlamps and it’s dead dark. I’m still overwhelmed by that feeling.
Be sure to book a professional guide with a gun and use the right gear. Our 2 guides also had a dog to keep two eyes and a nose out for the polar bears. One member of our small group gave up and one of the guides had to follow her back to the city. So I was very happy we had the dog to help our one guide in case any of got hurt.
I’ll write an entire post on the most fantastic hiking trip of my life as soon as possible. With more pictures for you.
This is something for the arctic explorer! Camp Barentz is a cabin a little outside town. The small wooden hut is a replica of a hut by Arctic explorer Barentsz.
Willem Barentsz was born in 1550 – a Dutch navigator and cartographer. Looking for the famous Northeast passage, he discovered Spitsbergen– the main mountain on Svalbard. 400 years before anyone made it to the North Pole. Barentsz became trapped for a year on a cold Russian Arctic island in a hut. In Svalbard Museum you can see objects from the island.
At least, he got several places named after him – like Barentsburg. The Russian mining city can be visited – most easily during the summer. One of Barentsz’s crew members made drawings of their meeting with a polar bear. Instagram of the 1500s. His ship is now reconstructed and is going on a voyage in April 2022. Imagining going to the Arctic in this small wooden toy boat…
When you arrive to the camp, you get picked up by the bus by a young woman with a gun. You curl up inside on benches with warm hides watching the fire. As a welcome drink is snaps (which we Danes love) and for dinner is steaming hot reindeer and carrot stew. (yummy). You can easily relax since the hosts lookout for the wanted green stripes on the sky. In the meantime, they tell stories of the good old days of Arctic exploring and the fragile nature on the island. A special treat is bonfire-coffee – made WITH coal from the bonfire.
Unfortunately, we didn’t see any northern lights this evening. And it was somehow even more disappointing, when you listened to someone talking about it all evening.
But finding the outdoor toilet in the dark without a gun for the polar bears was also memorable. For a history nerd like me, Camp Barentsz is a special experience you don’t get anywhere else.
A snowcat is like a belted truck with benches inside. My second trip in one of these- the first being on a beach Denmark’s most northern point.(although that’s more accurately a sand-cat)
The 2-3 hour evening trip went south of the city past the old airport. A top sight on the small trip is an old German airplane, that landed during WWII. So cool. Don’t touch it, since it’s a heritage site.
The snow-cat also pass the most photographed place on Svalbard. The polar bear sign. Sara was here!
Along the way the guide tell of the northern lights and the polar bears. (By now you know a lot about Aurora Polaris and white bears) 3000 polar bears roam the islands, but in winter they’re out on the ice. No worries. But still bring your lovely safety vest. It’s the law.
It’s damn cold – also inside the snowcat – so gear up.
Tapas is maybe not your first thought, when you think of the Arctic. But why not combine food and the search for the magical light. Arctic Tapas is a thing. Or it was. I can’t find the company anymore, so maybe Corona destroyed them.
We had tapas made from local ingredients and drank akvavit (again Snaps) as you search for the northern lights! Such a weird concept. But it turned out to make pretty good sense compared to the snowcat. If you thought the snowcat was cold, maybe this is just the thing for your. You sit on warm seats and then jump out, when there’s northern lights. If there’s any. We did see a very weak green shimmer, but it was quickly gone.
You can also go by snowmobile, which is the favourite means of transportation on Svalbard. Unfortunately, you need a drivers license. I don’t have one and my then 66-year old mom wasn’t up for driving us.
Sometimes you are just trying to hard.
We got a great tip tp download the Aurora app. This was a great decision. Check it regularly and then venture out whenever it says the possibility is high. It turned out to be not only the cheapest, but the most effective way to catch the lady Aurora.
After we came back late evening from the tapas-bus tour, the app showed increased chances after midnight. SO an hour later, we went down to the harbour (still inside the cityline and out of polar bear zone). And there was the most beautiful northern lights, that we saw on the whole trip. And the rest of our group slept through it!
Unfortunately, my camera kept freezing (literally) – so this is just my Iphone When I came home I bought a new camera, so now I’m ready for next time. And there will be a next time.
WHAT TO DO IN LONGYEARBYEN
The northernmost city in the world, and the only city in where you can see the Aurora during the day. Longyearbyen literally translates Long- year-city. Maybe because it’s so dark for so long.
The atmosphere is completely “klondike” – people from everywhere, you have to support yourself to live here, everyone has guns and the extreme environment. I have to admit, I was surprised that the lady in the supermarket was from Thailand, but I love the international vibe. Tourists have been coming here since the 1800s – mainly rich Russians in boats.
The main sight in Longyearbyen is Svalbard Museum. It’s actually pretty good, considering how difficult it must be just to get something printed or a new showcase and the fact that there are almost no cultural competition.
Visit to learn about the flora and fauna on the island. But most exciting was objects from the arctic explorers like Barentsz.
You can walk the entire city in less than 2 hours. Just outside town are wild reindeers, a church and a cemetery. You are not suppose to die on Svalbard or be buried here, since it’s too cold to dig a hole. Apparently. We also passed a glowing tent, where an Brazilian guy is trying to develop permaculture.
Longyearbyen has a few shops, where you can buy lovely Norwegian knitted sweaters and warm mittens. Or buy something with a polar bear on it. I bought a luggage tag. If you buy fur from polar fox, you have to make sure it’s been approved by Sysselmannen and has an official tag. That way the hunting is controlled and any earnings go back to the community.
Svalbard is not a place you travel to for the fine dining, but if you are not a vegetarian, you’ll be ok. Especially, if you like reindeer. Which I do!
- Funktionærmessen at Funken Lodge– excellent reindeer and bar
- Stationen – whale burger for 12 euro. I always try local food, but I’ve had better in Iceland. (Not an endangered whale)
- The vault at Svalbard Hotel – lunch soup offer. Nice and relaxed spot.
- Kroa – pizza and beer. Western like theme – we were the only women.
We were suppose to stay at Funken Lodge, but was moved to Radisson Blu which was under construction. The rooms were big, but it was boring – and with construction noise! We ended up complaining and got a refund for parts of the trip. We still had our dinner at Funken Lodge and it was so cosy. Will definitely recommend to stay here. Also because it had a rare fireplace (maybe because there are no trees for wood?)
NEED TO KNOW ABOUT SVALBARD
Svalbard is way more extreme and challenging, than any other places I’ve travelled to -including the Sahara desert. So here are my hard-earned need-to-know tips, so you’re up to good start on your Arctic adventure.