Wondering what to do in Svalbard in winter or summer? Here are the ten best tourist attractions!
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
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 than 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!
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
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 covered by snow 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 second item on my list of things to do in Svalbard.
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.
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!
3. Visit the Russian mining colony 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 was 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 Russian claim on Spitsbergen.
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 well-maintained snow mobile road .
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
On the most western parts of the lower half of Spitsbergen (called Kapp Linné) you will find a remote radio station. 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 spending 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).
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 actually 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 proper accommodation, yet.
5. Ride on a dog sled
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.
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.
6. Take a boat trip (only in summer)
Svalbard has some 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 Global Seed Vault (or Svalbard Seed Vault) is an amazing feat of engineering. Hidden deep below the permafrost ground on an elevated hill above Longyearbyen you will find a rather inconspicuous entrance seemingly leading nowhere. Seeds from every corner of the world are permanently stored here. 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 of 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
Longyearbyen is nothing people would ordinarily 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 a basic entertainment center. Since Spitsbergen became relatively popular in recent years, you will find quite a lot of regular shops as well – most of them specialized in 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 handicrafts. Please don’t get the impression, however, that you need to bring along an extra suitcase to pack all your purchases. Your shopping tour through Longyearbyen is more about seeing how the residents cope with the severe climate – if you find a nice souvenir that should be counted as a bonus.
(Side note: 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. It’s very popular among Scandinavians, though all other tourists will probably not find a bargain here. But it’s the only place to buy some beer or good wine, so you might as well check it out. It’s quite peculiar!).
9. Visit Svalbard Museum
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.
You should also be aware, that there is another museum in Longyearyben: The Airship museum. It is somewhat quirky and not very large, but I still found it to be quite fascinating. In case you are wondering why you’ll find it here: The earliest successful (well at least some of them) expeditions to the Arctis came by air! (They changed the name to North Pole Museum a couple of years ago.)
10. Visit the church in Longyearbyen
Upon 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 wintertime, 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
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! ;-)