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Wondering what to do in Svalbard in winter or summer? Here are ten amazing attractions!

Vista from the town of longyearbyen on svalbard to the other shore of the bay
Spitsbergen is the biggest island of the Svalbard archipelago and one of the coldest places on earth regular tourism is possible. Temperatures below minus 30° Celsius are common during the wintertime so close to the North Pole. It also lies in one of the most remote corners of the earth where everything from internet connection to watching TV becomes a challenge. Politically it is associated with Norway, but technically speaking it is just an unincorporated area above the Arctic circle.

It is thus the ideal place for anyone who truly wants to experience an invigorating respite from their day to day stress and tiresome chores, as well as for all people who want to be one with nature and forget about all the demands of our modern computer civilization. Here is my guide to 10 spectacular things to do in Svalbard / Spitsbergen.

1. Go polar bear watching in Svalbard

Number 2 on your things to do in Spitsbergen: Go polar bear watching

When people think of Spitsbergen only two things come to their minds: Snow and polar bears. While the first thing is quite trivial to cover (and in fact unlikely to avoid) the latter is almost impossible to achieve. That should not let you keep from trying. There is nothing more majestic that spotting the biggest carnivore on this planet in its natural habitat. You will need a good guide and you will need to be at the right spot at the right time and you will need a lot of luck!

A polar bear swimming through the ice

In Longyearbyen, there are a couple of resident guides that offer special snowmobile tours to the known polar bear habitats. Be aware that polar bears migrate over the course of the year – your guide will know where to be when to have the highest chance of spotting. I found the best season to actually see a polar bear is between March and April right on the edge of pack ice. Cruises will usually pick July when most of the pack ice melted away and the habitat of the bears is greatly reduced (but also very far out and not accessible on land). In recent years (and with the increasingly melting Ice) boat trips along the rugged fjords of Svalbard are actually (and sadly so) the easier way to spot polar bears.

Read my Travel Guide: Polar bear watching in Spitsbergen for more detailed information.

2. Ride a snowmobile

A snow mobile standing at the border to the endless pack ice on spitsbergen

There are hardly any cars on Spitsbergen. The reason is quite easy: few motors are fit enough to start at the bone-freezing temperatures so common on the island. Also, Spitsbergen is snow-covered most of the year and there is basically just one major road. All traffic shifted to snowmobiles. Everyone has at least one parked in front of their doors. If you really want to experience what Svalbard is like, you should definitely go and ride one. To be frank: In winter, without a snowmobile, you won’t be able to go anywhere except on a short stroll around the main settlement Longyearbyen. So actually there is no way around the first item on my list of things to do in Svalbard.

If you really want to experience what Svalbard is like, you should definitely go and ride one. To be frank: In winter, without a snowmobile, you won’t be able to go anywhere except on a short stroll around the main settlement Longyearbyen. So actually there is no way around the first item on my list of things to do in Svalbard.

A beautiful ice formation - entrance to an ice cave in Spitsbergen

Since Spitsbergen is loosely associated with Norway you will need a valid driver’s license to be able to drive one. Most snowmobiles allow for at least one fellow passenger on a seat behind the driver. While this is certainly not as much fun as driving yourself, there are other disadvantages to being a passenger as well. Snowmobiles actually go pretty fast (around 60km/h) and at double digit minus degrees things will get very chilly very fast.

me in spitsbergen, svalbard
Me in Spitsbergen

You will be provided with special gear and clothing but it will still be cold, especially around the face. For the driver that is not so much a problem since the exhaust of the snowmobile is re-directed to warm the feet and the handles are being warmed as well. There are no such feats for the fellow passengers on most snowmobiles. Also if you want to go anywhere meaningful you will drive quite a long time (around two to four hours!). Looking past the driver directly in front of you will offer you only a limited vista. So in essence: Do drive yourself or at least take turns driving and share the fun!

Also, if you want to go anywhere meaningful you will drive quite a long time (around two to four hours!). Looking past the driver directly in front of you will offer you only a limited vista. So in essence: Do drive yourself or at least take turns driving and share the fun!

3. Visit the Russian mining colony Barentsburg

Number 3 on your things to do in Spitsbergen: Visit the russian mining settlement Barentsburg

Western tourists will most likely have their hotel or lodge in Longyearbyen – the biggest permanent settlement on Spitsbergen. During the heyday of the coal mining on the island, another settlement was way more prominent, though: Barentsburg. Barentsburg is built around a coal mine and run by Russia. Around 1.500 permanent settlers used to live there once. These days, however, it is mostly abandoned, with only a skeleton force remaining to assert the Russians claim on Spitsbergen.

Post communist buildings in the abandoned mining town of barentsburg

Due to the preserving cold temperature, the settlement still looks somewhat untouched and has its very own Russian charm. You will even find some remnants from the communist era there. In summer you can reach it via boat, while in winter Barentsburg is accessible only via snowmobile. Regular tours are being offered and there is a snow road being maintained.

Pyramiden is another old settlement (and in fact one the northernmost city in the world, only surpassed by Ny-Alesund in Svalbard) that can be visited. Though unlike Barentsburg, it is totally abandoned now.

4. Visit the Isfjord radio station

Number 4 on your things to do in Spitsbergen: Visit Isfjord Radio Station

On the most western parts of the lower half of Spitsbergen (called Kapp Linné), a remote radio station is located. In the times before modern fiber optic cables and satellite phones, Isfjord Radio was the only connection to the mainland. These days you will find a boutique hotel there which also offers food and drinks for day tourists.

The hotel is actually the most opulent in Spitsbergen, despite its remoteness (official website of Isfjord Radio). If you plan a longer itinerary on Spitsbergen, do consider to spend a night or two at this place. The comfort and stylishness will really surprise you (especially compared to what is offered in Longyearbyen in terms of accommodations).

The endemic spitsbergen reindeer near Longyearbyen on the way to Isford Radio station

In summer there is an official boat going out daily. In winter you can only get there by snowmobile. I recommend combining the trip with a visit to Barentsburg since the Russian coal settlement is actual along the way and no detour is needed. In winter the one-way trip will take roughly 4 hours, though. So be prepared to spend a very exhausting day on the snowmobile to get there. The impressive glacial landscape you will see is well worth it, though! My urgent recommendation: But it on your list of things to do in Spitsbergen!

I put together a travel guide for hotels in Spitsbergen if you did not yet find a proper accommodation

5. Ride on a dog sled

Dog sledding in Spitsbergen - if you are looking for things to do in Svalbard, then you should definitely miss this fun activity

Snowmobiles may be the fastest, safest and easiest way to get anywhere in Spitsbergen, but it’s by no means the traditional way. In the ages before motorized transports, dog sleds pulled by huskies proofed to be the only reliable means of transport. So, in my opinion, no stay in Spitsbergen should do without at least one dog sleigh ride. Most long-term settlers of Spitsbergen have at least one pen with huskies to run their sleighs – for the sake of the tradition, for the fun of it and for the love of those beautiful animals.

A beautiful husky dog sled close up

Some of them offer special workshops where you will be introduced to the animals and the basics of being a musher. Ultimately you will be able to steer your own sleigh with your own dogs – though a guide will always be close by to ensure nothing happens (with you or the dogs). It will be cold, it will be fun and it will be another reason to visit Spitsbergen in winter.

> Read more about dog sledding in Spitsbergen here

6. Take a boat trip (only in summer)

Walruses in front of a glacier in svalbard

Svalbard has an amazing wildlife. There are just so many birds, whales, walruses..and let’s not forget the arctic fox… around Svalbard. During the summer months, you will have the unique opportunity to go on a boat trip into the fjords to see nature’s bounty!

7. Visit the Global Seed Vault

The building of the global seed vault in spitsbergen

It is an amazing feat of engineering. Hidden deep below the permafrost ground on an elevated hill over Longyearbyen you will find the Global Seed Vault (sometimes also called Svalbard seed vault). Seeds from every corner of the world are permanently stored here. Stored to retrieve in times of need, it is a modern Noah’s arch. Definitely, a must see in Spitsbergen!

Another attraction (though not really accessible by standard tourism) are the coal mines on Spitsbergen. These actually produce some of the best-graded coal (and thus in high demand among chemists) on this planet. You will see quite a couple of abandoned coal mines very close to Longyearbyen.

8. Go shopping in Longyearbyen

Number 6 on your things to do in Spitsbergen: Go shopping in Longyearbyen

Longyearbyen is nothing people would ordinary call a city – more like a small town. You will find a big grocery store, you will find a couple of restaurants and bars and some basic entertainment center. Since Spitsbergen became relatively popular in recent years you will find quite a lot of shops as well – most specialized on souvenirs or clothing suited for the low temperatures of the island and Svalbard tourism.

So please mark down on your list of what to do in Svalbard “Shopping in Longyearbyen”. You will find a lot of curiosities, fur items, and some handcrafts. Please don’t get the impression, however, that for shopping in Longyearbyen you should bring along an extra suitcase to pack all your purchases. The shopping tour is more about seeing how the residents still cope with the severe climate – if you find a nice souvenir that should be counted as a bonus.

The city of Longyerbyen at night spitsbergen

(on a sidenote: While alcohol is prohibitively expensive in Norway, there are no special taxes on alcohol in Spitsbergen. Which is why you will find a huge liquor section in the biggest store. For tourists coming from outside of Scandinavia the offered alcoholic wares there will still be more expensive than at home, though.)

9. Visit Svalbard Museum

Numbers 7 on your list of things to do in Spitsbergen: Visit the Svalbard Museum and see the stuffed polar bear specimens

Spitsbergen is home to the northmost university in the world. A lot of researchers come here to study – glaciology and other obvious stuff like that. In the basement of the huge building, you will find the Svalbard Museum. There you can learn all about the history of the island and its nature. The museum is actually well curated and is by no means boring or decrepit.

It is well worth a visit in my opinion, especially if you didn’t get to see a polar bear on your excursions outside. The museum has quite a big taxidermy department. I recommend you to end your stroll to Longyearbyen at the Svalbard Museum since it is located at the very end of what passes as the main street of the town.

10. Visit the church in Longyearbyen

Number 7 on your things to do in Spitsbergen: Visit the most northern church in the world

Up on a hill behind Longyearbyen, you will find the world’s most northern church and the only church on Svalbard (excluding a Russian orthodox chapel in Barentsburg). Apart from being able to attend a mass, the church also runs a little café. Especially in the winter time the hot coffee and warm waffles are more than welcomed by the chilled-out visitors. The interior of the church might not be comparable to things you will see in the Vatican, but it is still worth a visit and will only require a small detour on your way through the town. (Offical website of the Svalbard Kirke.)

BONUS: See the Northern Lights
Seeing the northern lights in SPitsbergen, Svalbard

It is possible to see the Northern Lights (Aurora borealis) in Svalbard on a clear day. But do not expect too much. Svalbard is actually a bit too high up north to see the amazing phenomena consistently. Northern Norway or Iceland are better places to pick! Yet, it is possible and there are even special Northern Light tours available. Obviously, this is only possible during the winter, as the sun never sets in high summer! 😉

Thus ends my list of things to do in Spitsbergen: If you are wondering whether there are other attractions you should not miss out, do not hesitate to leave a comment below! Oh, and don’t forget to pin my little Svalbard travel guide for later!

me in Spitsbergen. These are the top tourist attractions in Svalbard. There is more than just Longyearbyen and you really should consider a visit. Winter or Summer - travel to Spitsbergen anyway! Click for more information.

Picture credit: Christopher MichelFrode Ramone

13 COMMENTS

  1. We plan to go to Longyearbyen sometime this year. We are pensioners in our sixties but fit and wildlife photography is our main interest. However I don’t think we can afford a cruise ship, but could do day trips. If we come early Sept will we be able to do day trips? Was thinking of staying 4 nights (i.e. Three days for exploring)
    Any suggestions?

    • Hey Helen,

      I went there once with my dad who is very fit and in his mid fifties. He managed very well. It will be a cold place, but if you plan to go in September things will be considerably warm (around the freezing point more or less). Also hotels will be quite spartan. But if you are fit, do go!

      Staying 4 nights will be fine, i think. In September dog sledding isn’t an option, but you hinted that isn’t really what you are interested in. There are over a hundred species of birds nesting on Spitsbergen, so you will have a fun time.

      Seeing a polar bear is somewhat unlikely as you would have to take a rather long boat trip to the pack ice. I am not sure if you can fit that into 3 days.

      Spitsbergen is not a place where you can run around on your own easily. So you will have to book guided tours (in summer mostly by boat) to get to the nesting areas. (might see whales as well then)
      Of course some birds can be seen from the harbor area (which is just a short walk), but to get the real deal you will have to get out. Longyerbyen really is not that spectacular.

      hope that helped
      Norman

      • Hello Helen,

        well both works I guess. But i’d ask through your hotel what they can offer. There are a couple of indepentant agencies as well. Things are not cheap in Spitsbergen and I guess asking beforehand has the advantage of avoiding unpleasant financial surprises 😉 (and obviously comparing different offers).

        First of all I’d search for a good birding guide to Spitsbergen. They usually have the locations of the best areas and then choose a tour. Small as Longyearbyen is, you might just be able to get your individual tours 🙂 The locals are usually very knowledgeable about where to go.

  2. Dear Norman,

    We are visiting Longyearbyen in July. I’m aware Polar bear is difficult to see, but I need to be somewhere where there is a chance. I’m having difficulty in finding someone or a company that isn’t a cruise as I’ve booked a hotel now for a week.

    I also read above that I may find someone to take us out for a birding day which I’ll research thanks. Do you know of anyone or any company that may be able to help in both of these please?

    Many thanks in advance,
    Lee.

    • Hey Dee.

      If you are visiting Longyearbyen the absolutly only way to see polar bears would be by cruise. 90 Percent of the polar bears will on the rapidly receeding pack ice (which is not located in the bay around Longyearbyen). Some of them will be one land. However traffic is very much limited on land in summer and I am really not sure how you could possible reach the east cost (where the polar bears are easiest accessible).
      So a long day cruise might get you somewhere near the polar bear habitat, but actually you would have to go on a longer trip. They do offer these, but obviously you’d have to cancel your hotel.

      I’d recommend you to try arranging everything through your hotel, they will be able to help you along. Its not like there are 200 tour companies to choose from. More like 3 or 4.

  3. Hi Norman any advice on things to do in December during the polar nights? My main goal is to see the northern lights. Do I need to book a tour or will I be able to see it in town?

    • Hey Erika,

      if you want to see the northern lights, you should not be going to Spitsbergen. Spitsbergen is actually too high up north to see them consistently. Tromsø or Alta are so much better to see them.
      There are tours, though offered in Longyerbyen and it is not impossible to see them. You would probably have to get outside the town a bit. December will be very, very dark on Svalbard – meaning not much to do.

  4. Hey Norman,

    I was reading through your answers felt a bit of dissapointment since we will be in Longyearbyen in the second week of Decembre and will be staying there for a ((dark)) week. I somehow red on this northern light website that chances are high to see the aurora because it’s dark and nights can be bright. Any truth to that?what about boat or cruise excursions to spot the Polar bear in the area? And do you know if there is a possibility of seeing or soing a whale? Many thanks in advance. I’m doing my own research and I’m starting to think It will be better to visit Tromsø aswell to enhance the chances.

    • Hey Chai,

      there is the chance to see the northern light, but generally speaking chances are way higher in the lower regions..meaning Iceland, Tromso etc. Besides, Longyearbyen itself is not that dark at all. It is quite the big settlement that emits a lot of light – especially during the long arctic night.

      As for a day cruise etc…I don’t think that makes a lot of sense in December as most of the waters surrounding Spitsbergen should be frozen already. Besides you are not going to see a polar bear in the dark.

      Quite frankly I’d say December is the worst time to visit Spitsbergen. It mostly will be dark and cold…and activities will be severely limited.

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