Planning & Tips

Antarctic vs Arctic: Which Should You Visit?

When it comes to mind-blowing destinations, the Antarctic and Arctic regions undoubtedly top many travellers’ bucket lists. With landscapes built of towering glaciers and sweeping ice sheets filled with spectacular wildlife, both of these polar destinations will leave you in awe at their sheer beauty.

Whilst many people group the Arctic and Antarctic regions together given their sub-zero climates and isolated nature, there actually are many differences between them which make each destination unique. If you’re a keen explorer, you’ll want to get clued up on these, especially if you’re making the tough decision of which region to venture to on your next adventure.

That’s why our team of dedicated polar specialists here at Swoop Antarctica have delved into the best parts of a visit to these polar landscapes, laying the foundations for you to choose whether you prefer the Antarctic or Arctic (if not both of them!).

What Time of Year Should I Visit the Antarctic and the Arctic? 

One of the first things you’ll need to figure out when planning your polar adventure is what time of year is best to visit the Antarctic or Arctic regions. Both have their own ‘summer’ seasons, which take place over several months, but are certainly different from a summer you’d find in other parts of the world and happen at opposite ends of the calendar.

Moonlight in an Antarctic summer

The best time to visit the Antarctic is during the Antarctic summer, which in the southern hemisphere takes place from November to March every year, where visitors can revel in nearly 24 hours of daylight and the thriving wildlife that the region has to offer. We’ve broken down some of the highlights you can expect each month from an Antarctic Peninsula trip in the summertime below.

When to visit Antarctica

November: Penguin and seal breeding season, with winter snows receding and spring courtship behaviours on display.

December: Penguin chicks begin to hatch by mid-December.

January: The peak of Antarctic summer, where you can savour 20+ daylight hours.

February: A popular time to sail south to the Antarctic Circle, witness ‘penguin crèches’ on the Peninsula and plenty of feeding whales.

March: The best time to travel for whale watching

Gentoo penguin chicks in late summer

When to visit the Arctic

The best time of the year to take a trip to the Arctic is during the Arctic summer, which takes place from March to August. In our opinion, some of the unmissable moments of a trip to the Arctic by month are:

March: The best time for exploring with a snowmobile or dog sledge.

April: Mother polar bears emerge from their dens and ringed seal pups are born.

May: The midnight sun arrives, bringing 24 hour daylight. Arctic summer birds flock to the region to breed.

June: Sight polar bears, ringed seals, and beluga whales.

July: You can circumnavigate Svalbard and watch walruses aggregate in ‘haul outs’.

August: Peak hatching season arrives and you can glimpse the northern lights.

September: Another exceptional month to witness the northern lights.

October: It’s the busiest time of year in Churchill, Canada – the polar bear capital of the world – as the bears begin to migrate.

November: More polar bears arrive in Churchill, providing an exceptional time to spot them.

Summer hiking in Arctic Svalbard

What Weather Can I Expect in the Antarctic and The Arctic?

Whilst both the Antarctic and Arctic regions have very chilly temperatures, the Antarctic is significantly colder. Temperatures  hover around freezing point, so you’ll want to pack accordingly with the right gear for your cruise.

In comparison, the Arctic is warmer and during the warmest months of its year, you can expect temperatures to even be as high as 50F (10C).

The Northern Lights seen in Arctic Norway

The Antarctic is the windiest, driest and coldest place in the world , so you need to prepare yourself for these extreme conditions at any time of the year. Whilst the Arctic boasts warmer conditions, it sees more precipitation and wind at certain times of the year. So, if you don’t mind a colder nip in the air but aren’t a fan of the wet and wind, you might want to give the Arctic a miss unless you choose your time of year wisely.

Antarctic vs Arctic: The Wildlife

Both the Antarctic Circle and Arctic Circle boast exceptional wildlife, and some of the finest wildlife watching opportunities on the planet.  From the polar bear in the north to penguins in the south, there’s an array of wildlife wandering around the vast ice sheets of the Arctic and Antarctic circles.

Antarctic Wildlife

Wildlife in Antarctica, and the wider sub-Antarctic region includes a host of penguin species, including gentoos, chinstraps and Adelie penguins. South Georgia is home to immense colonies of king penguins, though you’ll have to head much further south to places like Snow Hill in the Weddell Sea to find emperor penguins. Travel in high summer to see fluffy chicks, who grow bigger and more curious as the season progresses.

Chinstrap penguins

Marine wildlife includes several seal species, including the apex predator leopard seal, alongside Weddell and crabeater seals. South Georgia is home to literally millions of fur seals and immense elephant seals. 

Whales head to Antarctic waters in the summer to gorge themselves on krill. The most commonly spotted species are humpback whales, though there’s a chance of seeing fin whales and minke whales, along with orcas. 

A zodiac of tourists watch a humpback whale in Antarctica
Whale watching on the Antarctic Peninsula

On the wing, the most notable seabirds are the elegant albatrosses, which accompany cruise ships heading south across the Drake Passage. 

Arctic Wildlife

The Arctic also has plenty of eye-catching species. One of its most charming inhabitants is the Arctic fox, known for its rich fur that changes colour with the season to camouflage it  perfectly against the snowy landscapes of the Arctic. 

Polar bear in Churchill
Polar bear in Churchill, Canada

Top of most people’s Arctic wildlife wish list however is the world’s largest land predator: the polar bear.  Stalking the ice in search of its prey, these spectacular creatures are a sight to behold, though strict regulations are in place about how close tourist ships may approach them.. Other species you may encounter during a trip to the Arctic include walrus, snowy owls, reindeer and Arctic hares.

Walrus in Svalbard
Walrus in the Canadian Arctic

Antarctic vs Arctic: The Landscapes

The Antarctic and Arctic regions’ landscapes are extreme and inhospitable, which is exactly why they are so beautiful. Whilst you might initially envisage seeing nothing more than expanses of flat ice sheets for as far as the eye can see, each region’s landscapes have their own distinct and varied characteristics.

Antarctic Landscapes

Nicknamed ‘the White Continent’  it’s not difficult to guess the landscapes that you’ll come across in the Antarctic. Antarctica itself is covered with an ice sheet covering 14,200,000 km2. Most cruise ships visit the Antarctic Peninsula, a mountainous finger that points north from the continent towards South America, and which provide a spectacular backdrop to any visit. 

Pack ice on the edge of the Antarctic Peninsula

Different from the Arctic, the Antarctic region’s landscapes are entirely built of ice, snow and rock. The Peninsula is surrounded by archipelagos of islands, while far inland on the continent there are vast polar deserts, dry valleys and soaring mountain ranges. On the Ross Sea coast you can even find two active volcanoes: Mounts Erebus and Terror. 

Arctic Landscapes

Eight countries contribute to the Arctic region: Norway, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, Greenland, Russia, Canada, and the USA. When you visit the Arctic, you’ll be stunned by its diverse array of landscapes. From mountains to vast icy plains, glacial lakes, and verdant hillsides, the Arctic’s terrain and scenery are vast and varied, making for a fascinating geographical location for all visitors. 

Cliffs of Svalbard
Arctic cliffscape in Svalbard

The most barren part of the Arctic is the Arctic tundra. Embodying the image that comes to mind when travellers think of the Arctic, it is composed of frozen ground, a lack of vegetation, impressive ice caps and glaciers, and some of the hardiest yet spectacular species on the planet. 

But, in the right locations during the summertime, the Arctic can host some very contrasting landscapes. For one of the most inhospitable destinations in the world, it offers areas home to rolling verdant hillsides and vegetation, and even meadows of wildflowers. 

Whilst the Arctic may not be likened to the luscious landscapes of the Amazon Rainforest, it offers an array of flora that you can find in its landscapes during the right time of year. 

Antarctic vs Arctic: History and Culture

Both the Antarctic and Arctic areas are rich in history, having been the sites of many expeditions that have secured their place in the history books. Names like Shackleton, Amundsen, Scott and Peary have all made their mark here, and along with the inhabitants of the north, all offer a host of incredible stories to share.  

Antarctic History and Culture

Antarctica has no permanent residents and was the last continent to be visited by humans, having been first sighted by European explorers as late as 1820. Roald Amundsen famously beat Captain Scott to the South Pole in 1911, while Sir Ernest Shackleton’s exploits still live on through the story of his epic Endurance adventure. 

The historic Stonington Base on the Antarctic Peninsula

Since then, Antarctica has been a site of significant scientific and natural interest. Today, the only people living in Antarctica are researchers in government-supported bases, carrying out scientific measurements. Only a handful over-winter every year. 

Arctic History and Culture

In comparison, the Arctic region has a rich culture and history that  developed as a result of its native populations. These include the Sámi of Northern Scandinavia, the Yakuts of Siberia, and the Inuit of Greenland and Canada, who each adapted to the extreme landscapes of the Arctic and have thrived as communities for thousands of years. 

Cultural artefacts in Svalbard

These cultures domesticate native species, such as reindeer or sled dogs, using them for transportation or herding in these freezing conditions. Hunting is frequently a large part of native culture and identity, and these communities still thrive whilst maintaining much of their autonomy in these extreme environments. 

Antarctic vs Arctic: Activities and Excursions

The polar regions’ shared icy conditions make them the perfect playground for excursions. Most popular are zodiac cruises to landing sites or to simply cruise around hidden bays, on a polar safari looking for wildlife. But both the Antarctic and Arctic regions offer even more scope for adventure. Here’s what you may expect to be taking part in during your trip.

Antarctic Activities and Excursions 

When visiting Antarctica, kayaking is a very popular activity offered by many expedition cruise ships. It offers the chance to paddle close to the ice and watch penguins porpoise through the water at close hand. 

Kayaking on the Antarctic Peninsula

If you want to get below the water, take a look at the snorkelling and diving opportunities. These are normally only offered on specialised itineraries, but offer travellers the chance to see what travellers can marvel at the scenery that lies below the surface, with invertebrate life, beautiful ice, and even the chance of a seal encounter.

Snowshoeing is also a great way to explore, where travellers walk up slopes in the powdery snow and icy terrain of Antarctica to explore some of the most out-of-reach destinations. Kitted out with snowshoes and ski poles, expert guides will lead you to some truly exceptional locations.

Arctic Activities and Excursions 

Kayaking is also a popular activity in the Arctic, but for trips on land the region is better known for its hiking and trekking opportunities. This is because of the Arctic’s more varied and open landscapes, where you can experience hiking across everything from verdant hillsides and valleys to trekking across vast expanses of ice and snow. 

Sled dogs in Greenland
Getting ready to go dog-sledding in Greenland

Finally, dog sledging in the Arctic region is a bucket-list adventure for many. Be pulled by indomitable huskies through the ice-filled landscapes of the Arctic region, feeling the crisp wind on your face.


When it comes to visiting the Arctic or Antarctic, each destination is a captivating option in itself. From beautiful native wildlife to rich history and culture, and activities that you can experience unlike anywhere else in the world, you’re bound to have one of the most adventurous experiences of your life, regardless of which region you choose to visit.

If a trip to the Antarctic has caught your attention, but you don’t know where to start in planning your adventure, our expert team will offer you a helping hand in planning your perfect Antarctic adventure. Get in touch or check out our Antarctic travel guide to start learning about what a trip to the Antarctic has in store for you.