Spitsbergen is the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago, and is the only permanently populated island in the chain. Originally used as a whaling base in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was then abandoned until coal mining began toward the end of the 19th century, when several residential settlements were established.
These days, the island’s mining industry has ebbed, making research and tourism important for the region’s economy. The administrative centre, Longyearbyen, has about 2,000 residents and is one of the northernmost settlements in the world.
Aside from Longyearbyen, there are two other settlements of interest on Spitsbergen: Ny-Alesund, which is a research station, and Barentsburg, a Russian mining camp. Large cruise ships will often stop at one of these three locations before continuing to explore fjords and the coastline, whereas smaller, purpose-built vessels will often get in closer to glaciers and other natural attractions.
The name ‘Spitsbergen’ comes from the local topography – the term means ‘sharp-pointed mountains’. This name was given to the island by Dutch navigator and explorer Wilhelm Barentsz in 1596.
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The port at Longyearbyen is fairly close to the town centre and near enough to walk comfortably. The port at Barentsburg is located right in the middle of the camp, with quick and easy access to a museum. The port at Ny-Alesund is close to the settlement, on the island’s northward-facing coastline.
The cruise piers at Longyearbyen have limited facilities. Once in town, you can find dining facilities, shops, public phones and other necessities.
How To Get Around
It is easy to navigate the small settlements in Spitsbergen on foot. There are no local transit options available, although a shuttle bus may be found at the piers to carry passengers into town. Snowmobiles are also a popular mode of transport for locals.
The major airport for the area is Svalbard Airport, which is located north-west of Longyearbyen, about an 8-minute drive from the town.
- Currency - The local currency in Spitsbergen is the Norwegian Krone (NOK). Coins are available in 50 øre (1/2 krone), 1, 5, 10 and 20 kroner denominations. Notes are available in 50, 100, 200, 500 and 1,000 kroner denominations.
- Time Zone - Spitsbergen falls within the Central European Summer Time Zone (CEST), which is two hours ahead of Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). Daylight savings time is in place between March and October, putting the city three hours ahead of UTC.
- Weather - Spitsbergen has an arctic climate, usually experiencing cool summers and cold winters, with little rain in any season. Spitsbergen is warmest in July with an average temperature of 7 degrees Celsius and coldest in January with an average temperature of -13 degrees Celsius.
- Dogsledding - If you have a day to spend in the area, take advantage of one of the dogsledding tours on offer. You could find yourself guiding your very own team of dogs to an ice cave hidden in a glacier, before exploring the beautiful formations. Tours are generally led by an experienced and armed guide and the price usually includes warm clothes, a light lunch, and drinks and snacks. Bookings must be made prior to arriving in Spitsbergen to allow preparation time for the expedition and participants must be over a required age.
- Svalbard Museum - The Svalbard Museum in Longyearbyen showcases photographs, drawings, maps and artefacts from early exploration of the islands and the North Pole, as well as presentations of the whaling and mining industries. It includes a museum shop which sells souvenirs, jewellery, fossils and other items. The Svalbard Museum is open daily from 10am to 5pm when cruise ships are docked.
- Snowmobile Safari - If time permits, there are several snowmobile safaris available to visitors in the area, heading towards the east coast, Barentsburg, Tempelfjord or the abandoned town of Pyramiden. These trips vary in difficulty, price and age restrictions, so be sure to check these details when booking prior to your arrival in Spitsbergen. Prices generally include lunch and drinks, but it is worth verifying this when booking.
- Museum Spitsbergen Airship - For those interested in historical aircrafts, the Spitsbergen Airship Museum houses exhibitions related to the various airships that set out from Longyearbyen to reach the North Pole throughout the 20th century. It includes models of the various aircrafts and ships that made (or attempted to make) the journey, and screens related films on demand. Opening hours are 11am to 3pm, but the museum often offers extended hours when cruise ships are in town.