Best Places to Visit in the Arctic Circle

February 18, 2021 Doug O'Neill

First-time visitors to the Arctic Circle are often overwhelmed by the numbers of species they
encounter in the remote polar wilderness. Photo: David Merron

The Arctic Circle is an imaginary line around the Earth at (approximately) 66°33' north latitude that defines the boundary of the Arctic. The Arctic Circle, just so you know, is not fixed. Its latitude depends on the tilt of the Earth’s axis which fluctuates due to the tidal forces determined by the orbit of the moon. What’s important to grasp is that the region north of this circle is known as the Arctic—and it has long captured the hearts and imaginations of travelers going back hundreds of years. To better understand the unique appeal of the Arctic, read polar expert Nick Engelmann’s blog in which he describes how an expedition to the Arctic differs from a voyage to the Antarctic.

Places to visit in the Arctic Circle

So, what countries have territory within the Arctic Circle? Russia (remote archipelagos), Canada (the Canadian High Arctic), Denmark (Greenland), Norway (Svalbard archipelago, which includes Spitsbergen), United States (Alaska), Sweden and Finland.

Before choosing from the list of places to visit in the Arctic Circle, you’ll want a sense of which Arctic destinations offer the best travel opportunities to have a true Arctic Circle experience. In Russia, the remote Russian archipelagos of Novaya Zemlya and Franz Josef Land, as well as seldom-visited Severnaya Zemlya top the list. Denmark’s Arctic domain is, of course, Greenland, which offers travelers a variety of wildlife, adventure and cultural experiences —not to mention excellent opportunities to see the Northern Lights. The Canadian High Arctic, as expedition guide Daven Hafey highlights in his blog post, offers a wide array of opportunities—including the chance to visit various Arctic communities and truly understand their connection to the remote north

Polar bears inhabit many areas within the Arctic Circle. As marine mammals,  the majestic creatures are frequently
observed at the edges of the sea ice as they search for food. Photo: Acacia Johnson

If you’re open to learning about multiple places to visit in the Arctic Circle on one trip, Quark Expeditions offers voyages such as Best of the Western Arctic: Canada and Greenland and the quadruple-destination dream trip  Four Arctic Islands: Spitsbergen, Jan Mayen, Greenland and Iceland.

Trips to Arctic Circle Norway

There’s so much to see, do and explore on trips to Arctic Circle Norway, which feature Spitsbergen, the largest island in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. Spitsbergen, which is truly one of the best places to visit in the Arctic Circle, is central to all trips to Arctic Circle Norway. Not only is it deep inside the Arctic Circle but it’s only about 600 miles from the North Pole.

Exploring Spitsbergen, in the heart of Arctic Norway, rewards visitors with immersive experiences that
connect them viscerally to their polar surroundings. Photo: Acacia Johnson

Known as “The Wildlife Capital of the Arctic,” Spitsbergen is the ideal place to witness polar bears going about their daily business of survival as they hunt for food and swim in the ice-cold Arctic waters. There’s plenty of other wildlife to see, including beluga whales, reindeers, walruses, artic foxes and an infinite variety of seabird species. And the landscape—huge icebergs, massive glaciers and snow-covered mountains—lure photographers from around the world.

Spitsbergen is one of the most diverse places to visit in the Artic Circle because of the breadth of opportunities to immerse oneself in the polar environment. That’s what polar traveler Paul Schuster captured in his blog Exploring Spitsbergen: Where and when to visit the Wildlife Capital of the Arctic. 

Quark Expeditions offers guests a choice of eight different trips to Arctic Circle Norway, each with its own focus. They include:

•             7-day Spitsbergen Highlights: Expedition in Brief  

•             10-day Introduction to Spitsbergen: Fjords, Glaciers and Wildlife of Svalbard 

•             12-day Spitsbergen Explorer: Wildlife Capital of the Arctic  

•             14-day Spitsbergen In Depth: Big Islands, Big Adventure  

•             14-day Spitsbergen Photography: In Search of Polar Bears  

•             14-day Arctic Saga: Exploring Spitsbergen via the Faroes and Jan Mayen 

•              15-day Three Arctic Islands: Iceland, Greenland, Spitsbergen

•             18-day Four Arctic Islands: Spitsbergen, Jan Mayen, Greenland and Iceland

I suggest you devote some time to checking out these various trips to Spitsbergen. You’ll quickly realize it’s one of the best places to visit in the Arctic Circle.

 Arctic Circle Tour Iceland

Iceland is a beautiful country, no doubt about it. There’s so much to engage outdoor enthusiasts from waterfalls to geysers to geothermal pools to craggy cliffs dominated by tens of thousands of birds.  Now, if you’re gung-ho about an Arctic Circle experience, there’s something you should know: only a tiny part of Iceland  actually lies within the Arctic Circle: Grímsey Island, which is located about 40 kilometers off the north coast of Iceland. The small island has an area of 5.3 square kilometres (which translates into 2 square miles) and has fewer than 100 people. Mainland Iceland is a few degrees south of the Arctic Circle.

The Northern Lights is a common experience in the Arctic Circle regions. Photo: Nicky Souness

However, if you’re determined to fulfill a desire to visit Iceland (and who wouldn’t!) and enjoy a truly immersive, far-reaching polar experience within the Arctic Circle, consider a polar expedition that enables you to spend time in Iceland, and then experience the wonders of nature in the Arctic Circle.

Quark Expeditions offers two voyages that provide both opportunities: Under the Northern Lights: Exploring Iceland and East Greenland and Three Arctic Islands: Iceland, Greenland and Spitsbergen. By starting or ending your journey in Iceland, you can explore that tiny country—as well as enjoy a polar experience within the Arctic Circle that includes polar bears in the wild, icebergs, mammoth glaciers, ice-laden waterways and remote fjords where few people have ever set foot.  

 Visiting the Arctic Circle Alaska

For an immersive Arctic Circle experience—away from the madding crowds—travelers will stand a much higher chance of fulfilling their Arctic dreams by joining an expedition that visits polar regions such as the Canadian High Arctic, Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, Greenland, Russia (especially places like Russia’s remote, seldom-visited Franz Josef Land) and, of course, the North Pole. Ideally, you’ll want to join a smaller polar expedition of no more than 199 passengers, such as those Arctic expeditions offered by Quark Expeditions.  These authentic multi-day polar expeditions immerse travelers in the Arctic environment.  

Many people do join large cruise ships to Alaska (with thousands of passengers onboard) and have the option of signing up for half-day or full-day shore excursions. Personally, I think you increase your chances of a truly immersive Arctic Circle experience by joining a multi-day polar expedition (with a limited number of fellow passengers) that rewards you with incredible wildlife, rugged landscapes—and all entirely free of populated, crowded ports.

Finland Arctic Circle Holidays

Every now and then you’ll by surprised by media stories and travel guides that refer to Finland as “landlocked.”  This statement is misleading—but merits some explanation. Finland touches three water bodies: the Gulf of Bothnia, the Gulf of Finland, and the Baltic Sea. But it doesn’t touch the Arctic Ocean—a crucial fact for those wondering about Finland Arctic Circle holidays. Some would say that Finland’s lack of access to the Arctic is a result of history and politics.  (Prior to World War II, Finland had a small stretch of shore on the Arctic Ocean in a place called Petsamo—which was Finland’s only year-round port on the Arctic. Finland lost Petsamo to the Soviet Union as part of the Moscow treaty. That has led some to occasionally describe Finland as “landlocked.”)

Why is this relevant to someone searching for Finland Arctic Circle holidays? You won’t find polar expedition vessels that can physically take you there if Finland has no port on the Arctic Ocean. But you can definitely join polar expeditions to Greenland, Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, remote Russia and the Canadian Arctic—all of which are reachable from the Arctic Ocean.

Good luck researching the best places to visit in the Arctic Circle. You’ll have the trip of a lifetime. I know I did!

About the Author

Doug O'Neill

A love of nature and writing has enabled Doug O'Neill to visit almost 50 countries around the world—and to immerse himself in some of the most incredible nature settings. Doug's role as Brand Copywriter at Quark Expeditions has been a natural step on a journey that started with a degree in Environmental Studies and later a Certificate in Journalism. When not travelling, Doug is usually hiking: he's a certified hike leader with Hike Ontario and the Bruce Trail Conservancy. He's the co-author of a nature book, “110 Nature Hot Spots in Manitoba and Saskatchewan,” published by Firefly Books in 2019. Says Doug: "Few destinations rival the Polar Regions—not just for the staggering beauty and incredible wildlife, but for the transformative experiences that occur the moment you set foot in the most remote parts of the world."

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