Arctic Tours and Travel Guide
Arctic Attractions & Landmarks Guide
The Arctic -- the polar region lying above the Arctic Circle (66 degrees latitude north) -- is best explored by small ship and expedition-style cruise vessels. Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Canada and the United States all have Arctic lands; Greenland, a largely self-governing Danish territory, is another prominent Arctic region (the Arctic Circle just skirts the northern edges of Iceland). Popular Arctic cruise routes include Canada's Northwest Passage; Scandinavia to Greenland via Iceland; and to the far north Norwegian island of Spitsbergen.
Arctic Tour Highlights
The Arctic -- the earth’s northern polar region, 66 degrees latitude north and above -- ranges across a number of countries including much of Scandinavia, Russia, and North America. Unlike Antarctica, its southern counterpart, the Arctic has no penguins, but it does have polar bears and more marine mammals.
The Gulf Stream and generally warmer temperatures than in Antarctica help make Arctic exploration more accessible, offering a number of choices for experiencing life above the Arctic Circle. Travel is restricted only by the laws of the various countries and the relative scarcity of transportation.
An ideal way to explore the Arctic is by expedition-style cruise vessels. More routes are opening up to cruising, such as the Northeast Passage from northern Norway to Siberia and Alaska via the Russian Arctic.
Greenland is ground zero for climate change, as its glacial ice – representing about eight percent of the world’s supply – is rapidly melting, threatening to raise ocean levels and temperatures. But much of its interior remains a wonderland of white, and icebergs still fill its bays. Fascinating towns and small settlements dot both west and east coasts, which you can visit either by small cruise ship or via land and air transportation.
Only a tiny fraction of Iceland lies above the Arctic Circle, but this volcanic land of black lava, geothermal pools, moon-like landscapes, and neat, brightly painted houses is one of the far-north’s most visited areas. Part of Europe but lying a third of the way toward the North American continent, Iceland boasts one of the world’s most literate populations and is easily accessible by air as well as sea.
The Arctic coast of Norway is accessible by the half-cruise, half-cargo ships of the Hurtigruten, which makes two-week round trips between Bergen and Kirkenes, near the Russian border. With its views of fjords, snow-capped mountains and tiny remote villages, the Hurtigruten is one of the world’s most beautiful voyages.
In both Arctic Norway and Finland, you can ride in reindeer sleds and visit the Sami, the nomadic people who drive their reindeer herds through the frozen wilderness. The Finnish town of Rovaniemi lies directly on the Arctic Circle and claims to be the home of Santa Claus.
Small ships now make the journey to Spitsbergen (Svalbard), a Norwegian island archipelago hundreds of miles north of the top of continental Europe. Spitsbergen is home to some of the farthest north settlements in the world, as well as glaciers, icebergs, and an array of wildlife including polar bears, walruses, and flocks of seabirds.
One of the top places to view the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) is in Abisko National Park near Kiruna in northern Sweden, where skies tend to be clear despite frequent overcast in the region. A chair-lift leads up to a lookout tower at the Aurora Sky Station for the best viewing.
Top Arctic Travel Activities
What does one do in the Arctic, where the sun is more than a little shy for much of the year and one of the most popular highlights happens in the middle of the night? Believe it or not, the breadth of adventure and outdoor recreation in the Arctic region is staggering, whether you’re in it for the wildlife, the glacier hiking, the kayaking or the cruising. It’s all here.
Wildlife Wonderland in the Arctic
Topping the list of favorite Arctic activities is the chance to see some incredible polar wildlife. In a region with a modest number of human inhabitants, the wildlife reigns supreme, including beluga whales and narwhals, walrus, ringed seals, Arctic fox, polar bears, musk ox, reindeer, Peary caribou and countless others. Birdwatchers will add significantly to their life list in the Arctic as they trek along the frozen tundra in search of puffins, cormorants, Arctic terns and more.
Off-Piste Snowmobiling in the Arctic
Sightsee at speeds of over 60 miles per hour on an all-terrain snowmobile, flying across the Arctic tundra. You’ll have the opportunity to access corners of Arctic countries to which no roads lead, glimpsing wildlife along the way if you’re fortunate. Plus, after a day of exhilarating racing across glittery snow and ice, a hot meal and warm beverages are even more satisfying.
Favorite Kayaking Spots in the Arctic
Sea kayaking is a favorite outdoor activity throughout the Arctic region, if only for its ability to take the paddler up close and personal with marine life and gigantic, calving icebergs.
This intimate mode of travel allows for independence and really some of the most memorable moments as you cut through the freezing waters listening to Arctic birds squabble overhead, chunks of ice floating right beside you.
It’s a front-row seat on the rugged, unspoiled Arctic wilderness. Among the many top kayaking spots in the Arctic are Sermermiut and the Blue River in Greenland, Peel Sound in Nunavut and the Svalbard Archipelago.
Arctic Whale Watching
If you’re on a boat for any period of time in the Arctic, you’re likely to see one of the 17 different species of whale that reside in the polar waters. Among them: year-round residents beluga, narwhal and bowhead, as well as several migratory species, including humpback, fin and minke. Favorite Arctic whale-watching destinations include Disko Bay in Greenland, Svalbard, the Northwest Passage and Hudson Bay.
Polar Bear Tours in the Arctic
A sighting of the world’s largest land predator, the polar bear, makes for the thrill of a lifetime. The hottest polar-bear-sighting spots in the Arctic include the Svalbard Archipelago, the Northwest Passage, Churchill and Wrangel Island in the Russian Arctic. As you sail by Zodiac or paddle a kayak amidst glistening icebergs and ice floes of all shapes and size, keep an eye trained for these massive, iconic Arctic mammals.
Seeing the Northern Lights on Arctic Tours
Words fail the showstopping Aurora Borealis, undoubtedly one of the world’s greatest natural phenomena. And, it’s the number one reason to travel to the Arctic during the cold, dark winter months.
The Northern Lights sightings are the best between September and early April - practically guaranteed anytime there is a clear night (and that’s most of the time) and best viewed between 10 PM and 2 AM. An “active” Aurora Borealis show will abe about a half-hour long and takes place about every two hours.
Many Arctic tours focus on Northern Lights viewing and can arrange for sleeping under this ethereal magnificence in glass-domed igloos - truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Some of the most popular Northern Lights viewing spots in Europe include the far northern regions of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland, including Tromso, Norway, and Abisko National Park in Sweden.
Photography Tips for Traveling in the Arctic
You’ve made it to the top of the world - don’t return home from your Arctic tour without sufficient photographic evidence! Whether it’s the latest phone camera or a suitcase full of lenses, be sure to bring a camera to the polar regions.
The varying opportunities in the Arctic are a photographer’s dream, be it the blue light of spring, the Aurora Borealis or the Midnight Sun. Where else can you immortalize the spray of the Arctic Ocean as a house-sized iceberg calves from a glacier, a minke whale breaching just a ship’s length away from you or an Arctic fox slinking past amidst colorful tundra flora?
Arctic photography tours will typically offer instruction by professional photographers throughout your trip through workshops and one-on-one tutorials as they help you attain that perfect shot. And, to secure the perfect subject, your polar photography tour will often have you venturing out by zodiac to land on icy shores - the best opportunities for Arctic photography will be during the polar summer, from June to August, when there are 24 hours of daylight.
Among the most popular spots to photograph in the Arctic are the colorful town of Ilulissat on Disko Bay in Greenland, the wildlife - from marine birds to polar bears - in the Svalbard Archipelago and Churchill, for the very best polar-bear photo opps.
A few worthwhile tips for your next photography tour in the Arctic:
Protect your camera equipment from the cold Arctic weather. Think anything that will cover and protect your photography gear from wind, snow, ice, etc. even if it’s just some heavy-duty plastic bags.
Stay warm. There’s a reason you packed thoroughly for your polar expedition. When you’re outside in the Arctic for long periods of time, not moving around much as you await the perfect shot, those extra insulating layers are going to seem well worth the space they took up in your suitcase. Have some pocket handwarmers close by and bring along a pair or two of thinner gloves for when you’re setting up your photo equipment - but then switch to heavier, warmer mittens when you’re waiting around for that polar bear to move into your frame.
You can’t pack enough extra batteries. The cold may or may not affect your lithium camera batteries negatively - they’re typically fine, but plan for all circumstances. To get ahead of a possible shorter lifespan for your camera batteries, pack extra and charge them.
Account for snow. You’re taking photographs in the Arctic, after all - there will be snow! Your Arctic photography tour guide can help you account for all that white by adjusting your exposure, slowing shutter speed, bracketing and other methods.
Pack a wide-angle lens. To best capture all those stunning and vast Arctic landscapes, pack a wide-angle lens of 24mm or less.
Be patient, but pay attention. Whether you’re snapping a photo of an Arctic fox or a polar bear, use a long lens to protect both yourself and the wildlife. Consider a telephoto lens (minimum 300mm), a mid-range zoom lens (70-200mm) and possibly a tripod or monopod.
What Kind of Food Can I Expect in the Arctic?
If there’s one place where farm-to-table has met its match, it’s the Arctic. In a place as rugged, barren and frozen as the polar regions of the world, fresh ingredients can be scarce.
Have no fear, foodies - Arctic country chefs have taken it upon themselves to be as creative as possible, resulting in surprisingly haute cuisine, from Svalbard - home to the most northerly gourmet restaurant in the world - to Barrow, Alaska, the United States’ northernmost city and home to the Top of the World Hotel.
Among the locally sourced delicacies of the Arctic regions are reindeer, eider eggs, bearded seal, goose, grouse, snow crab, scallops, shrimp, cod, Arctic char, wild caribou, crowberries and cloudberries, muktuk (frozen whale skin and blubber, eaten raw), baked clip fish, mushrooms, lingonberries, muskox, North Atlantic puffin and more.
Be Among the First
Transiting the Northeast Passage – from Europe to Asia via the Russian Arctic – represents a new thrill in Arctic exploration, now available by expedition-style cruise ships with high ice-class ratings. Until recently, this area was off limits due to both political and climatological reasons.
Arctic cruises visit Murmansk, the largest city north of the Arctic Circle, and continue through the Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean to Russian Siberia until reaching Nome, Alaska. Expect to see polar bears, whales and seals along the way.
Northern Canada is a far cry from the urbanity of the cities lying near the U.S. border that harbor most of this huge country’s population. The town of Churchill in northern Manitoba is the place to see polar bears and Beluga whales, while the vast, remote province of Nunavut beckons adventurous travelers to encounter Inuit villages that include the northernmost permanent settlement in the world.
Cruises through Canada’s Northwest Passage sail the coast of northern Nunavut east to Greenland or the reverse, with generally excellent wildlife viewing on remote islands.
Most visitors to Alaska confine themselves to cruises along its southeast coast or inland trips to Denali National Park, but the state’s remote Aleutian Islands and far northern tundra area stretching north to Nome offer adventurous travelers an entirely different experience in the “Last Frontier.”
You can go dog sledding in Arctic Alaska, fish for salmon in far northern waters, watch for bears and birds, and get around by small plane (or properly equipped vehicles along rough roads).
Things to Know Before You Go
What Countries Are Included in the Arctic Region?
So, you want to travel north - far north - to the Arctic Circle. There are eight different countries that have land within the Arctic Circle, though some of these regions are more interesting (and more accessible) to adventure travelers than others.
The Arctic region countries include Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, the United States (by way of Alaska), Canada (including Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut), Denmark (Greenland) and Iceland (on its offshore island of Grimsey).
What and Where is the Arctic Circle?
It’s going to be impressive enough when you tell your friends you’re traveling to the Arctic for your next vacation. Now, here are a few fun and interesting facts about the Arctic Circle and the Arctic region to throw around with friends and colleagues before you depart:
- The invisible Arctic Circle marks the area where Midnight Sun occurs during the summer and where, in winter, the sun does night rise.
- The North Pole is the very center of the Arctic Circle.
- If you travel to Scandinavia, you can witness natural phenomena any time of year - the Midnight Sun, the Northern Lights and polar nights (when the sun does not rise).
- The Arctic Circle location changes a little bit all the time, based on the earth’s movement - it is 1,650 miles south from the North Pole to where the line is located, and it is 66° 33′39″ north of the Equator.
Should I Avoid Arctic Travel in Winter?
If you’re seeking the Northern Lights, dog sledding, snowmobiling, ice hotels and other cold-weather Arctic activities, then by all means, don’t shy away from the Arctic region during the winter months. The sun may not appear much during the cold-weather months, but the Arctic Circle shines from November to March in terms of outdoor adventure.
One of the best times to visit the Arctic is right at the tail end of the Arctic winter - March and April, when you can dogsled on firm, snow-packed surfaces, experience the region’s ethereal “blue light” and long shadows, still glimpse the Aurora Borealis (the more north you are), go skiing in East Greenland and Spitsbergen, glimpse Arctic foxes and other awakening wildlife and embark on some of the first expedition cruises of the Arctic sailing season.
This being said, the long hours of darkness may mess with your internal body clock, so veteran Arctic travelers suggest planning your outside activities for the middle of the day when the limited sunlight is shining, then heading inside for museum visits in the later afternoon and early evening.
Packing List for the Arctic
A trip to the Arctic isn’t the time to scale back your packing efforts - you are going to want every layer, every extra pair of socks and every spare phone or camera battery you can possibly fit into your suitcase.
Be sure to pack these essentials for your Arctic cruise and/or Arctic region land tour:
- Favorite cotton t-shirts and long-sleeved shirts
- Casual pants
- Wool sweaters
- Fleece jacket
- Long-underwear top and bottom
- Thick, insulated parka
- Waterproof jacket
- Thick wool socks for hiking and being outdoors for long periods
- Wool or cotton socks for indoor time or inside the ship
- Windproof, waterproof pants
- Pocket handwarmers and toewarmers
- Waterproof gloves
- Winter hat - snug-fitting so it doesn’t blow away!
- Scarf or balaclava
- Comfortable, sturdy hiking or trekking shoes or boots
- Loungewear for inside
- Sunscreen and lip balm with sun protection
- Sunglasses with UV protection
- Bathing suit (you never know!)
- Inside, slip-on shoes
- Battery chargers for all of your electric devices
- Seasickness medication, if you are prone
- Camera, tripod, etc.
- Spare camera batteries
- Refillable water bottle
Your Arctic cruise or tour operator will also usually provide you with a complete packing list, depending on how long, where and by which mode you’ll be traveling throughout the Arctic countries and waters.
Common Arctic Cruise Routes
Considering so much of the Arctic region is comprised of the Arctic Ocean, cruising in the polar region is a popular way to see a lot in a short period of time.
If you have up to two weeks and want to get the most out of an Arctic experience, consider a longer, upscale polar cruise - one of the safest, easiest ways to explore the Arctic Circle and give you more than a little to write home about, we promise. It’s even possible to stand at the North Pole these days - get there by rugged icebreaker and feel like a true Arctic adventurer, or take an exhilarating helicopter ride to the top of the world.
The cruise season in the Arctic is from May to September, during the time of the Midnight Sun or 24-hour daylight. This is a popular time to spot colorful Arctic flora, as well as northern wildlife and their young, and to cruise in areas inaccessible during other points of the year.
(Keep in mind that if your goal is to see the Northern Lights, you’ll have to visit during the polar winter and - while not widely available - there has been an increase in the sailing to the very northern parts of Norway during the winter in order to glimpse this magical natural phenomenon.)
Remember, the Arctic region covers a vast area, so spend some time reviewing various polar cruise options and base your choice on how much time you have and what time of year you’ll be sailing. One of the most accessible Arctic cruise routes is to sail along the coast of Norway into the Arctic Circle. And, for the best polar bear viewing, consider Spitsbergen in the Svalbard Archipelago, Greenland or the Canadian Arctic.
Some of the most common Arctic cruise routes include:
Halfway between Norway and the North Pole, the Svalbard Archipelago is centered around its largest island, Spitsbergen. Cruises in this high Arctic wilderness allow for exploration of glaciers and fjords, crossing 80º N, where you’ll be just 600 nautical miles from the North Pole, searching for polar bears during the long days of Midnight Sun, seeing Edgeøya and Kvitøya and venturing ashore for hiking and wildlife-viewing expeditions.
A Svalbard cruise has the added benefit of time in Longyearbyen, with its Svalbard Museum, rugged mountain vistas and opportunities for dog sledding and glacier walks.
2. Northwest Passage
Follow in the wake of some of the earliest adventurers - including Franklin, Peary and Amundsen - to see the Arctic region as you sail the route through the Canadian Arctic archipelago that links the northern Atlantic and Pacific oceans. This is one of the best places in the world to see polar bears - Nunavut is the polar bear capital of the Arctic - and you will likely have the chance to explore some of Canada’s thriving Inuit communities.
Fjords, whales and some of the purest air you’ll ever breathe - a Greenland cruise is a highly sought adventure travel destination. From the abundant whales and massive Ilulissat Icefjord of Disko Bay to the Inuit history and culture of Nuuk, there’s so much beyond the icecap in Greenland.
4. North Pole
Check it off the bucket list and stand at the North Pole. You’ll sail by rugged icebreaker to get there, bullying its way through the icy, freezing waters to deliver you to a destination to which few have traveled.
Perhaps the best-known Russian Arctic cruise destination, Wrangel Island can almost guarantee polar sightings for you. Rumor has it that the island boasts the world’s highest density of polar bear dens and an incredibly high number of cubs are born here in the remote region of Chukota.
Russia Arctic cruises are expedition cruising in every sense of the word - this is a polar region that is not often visited, isolated, rugged, wild - an Arctic adventure opportunity full of bird and marine life and the opportunity to learn from indigenous groups who are eager to share their lifestyle and culture.
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