Northern Lights by night and day
Svalbard is more or less the only accessible destination on the planet where you can see the rare and fleeting daytime aurora during the long polar night. Of course, this doesn't mean you won't see the more common night-time aurora. With its Arctic desert climate, Svalbard has more clear nights with chances of seeing the Northern Lights than most other places in the Northern Lights belt. What's more, there is a huge range of excursions designed to take full advantage of this.
From November to February Svalbard is completely shrouded in darkness, even at midday. Nevertheless, the starlight illuminates the landscape and mountain contours surprisingly well. People drive snowmobiles and go dog sledding with powerful headlights, and gradually you start to forget that it's dark. Tourists generally prefer short excursions, choosing to relax and enjoy the friendly atmosphere in Longyearbyen's cosy restaurants and bars.
The first half of November and the first half of February mark the beginning and end of the dark months, also known on Svalbard as the twilight months. This is when the darkness is broken by a shimmer of pastel pink, gold and silver in the southern skies. Before night takes over again, the landscape is bathed in a deep velvet blue.
Between March and May, the light comes back quickly, and you can enjoy the midnight sun from the end of April. This is the light winter, when the residents of Svalbard go on long trips by snowmobile, ski and dog sled. Experienced outdoor enthusiasts with a love for long excursions tend to visit in this period. This is also the tourist high season, and there are more organised trips on offer at this time of year than any other.
So much to do
There are so many excursions on offer in Longyearbyen that, as a visitor, you really need to dedicate some time to deciding which ones are the best for you. Snowmobile tours range from short panoramic trips to the viewpoint high up in the Todalen valley to long trips to the east coast, where you might see the occasional polar bear. Dog sledding trips visit different valleys, away from the snowmobiles, and hikes through the ice caves beneath the Longyearbyen glacier transport you to a frozen world of crystals and icicles. Skiing and mountaineering expeditions are suitable for experienced adventurers, while others can enjoy shorter snowshoe trips. There are also Northern Lights excursions with caterpillar tracked vehicles. All of the excursions available on Svalbard are run by expert guides who are full of information and ensure that you have a great time while keeping you safe.
Life in Longyearbyen
The world doesn't have many small towns of 2,000 inhabitants that have as much to offer as Longyearbyen. As there is no VAT on Svalbard, it's a fantastic place to buy outdoor clothing and equipment in the town's well-stocked sports shops. While you shop, treat yourself to a cup of coffee at the world's northernmost café, or some pizza or Thai food at one of Longyearbyen's more informal eateries. Of course, Svalbard also boasts many fine restaurants, and the old Huset cultural centre is famous for its elegant kitchen and well-stocked wine cellar. Svalbard's night-life is no less impressive, with numerous cosy bars offering a great atmosphere and a range of sophisticated drinks at duty-free prices. Svalbard residents love to get together in the winter darkness and tell stories about life in the Arctic, and you might even end up queuing in front of the northernmost kebab van in the world.
A High Arctic community
Longyearbyen is both a fully functional urban community and an Arctic outpost. You'll be surprised at how normal the town seems, with shops, nurseries, a school, a medical clinic, a bank and a cultural centre with a cinema. However, little signs saying "please leave your firearm here", a snowmobile suit neatly folded up on a stool in a café and the sound of snowmobiles starting up remind you that you are at 78 degrees north. The Svalbard Museum is an award-winning museum that tells you all about the history and nature of Svalbard. Many people also visit Galleri Svalbard and the little church.
Safe and sound in the Arctic
Svalbard is a safe destination for anyone who uses Longyearbyen as a base and goes on organised excursions into the wilderness with a qualified guide. The guides have full safety training, and carry all of the equipment necessary to ensure the safety of their guests. Each guide also knows what you can and cannot do in the vulnerable natural environment and at protected cultural heritage sites, and, of course, how to behave in encounters with the impressive but unpredictable polar bear. You are allowed to leave Longyearbyen unaccompanied, but this is at your own risk and is only recommended for experienced wilderness experts. The dangers posed by polar bears, the climate and the lack of mobile phone coverage away from populated areas make this a particularly challenging environment. However, if you do choose to explore without a guide, please make sure that you are aware of the relevant regulations and know how to look after your own safety.
Visit Svalbard, the archipelago's official tourist organisation has extensive information and inspiration on its website.