I have been living in Norway for a year and a half now and finally got the chance to visit the incredible land of Svalbard, way up at the top of the arctic, close to the north pole! This wondrous place full of wildlife, glaciers, and dramatic landscapes is like nothing you have ever seen, but a trip to Svalbard definitely involves quite a bit of preplanning.
The main town and gateway to visit Svalbard is called Longyearbyen, this is where the majority of people base themselves, and from where all the tours depart. Since you cannot leave the settlement without a gun (and an appropriate permit) to protect yourself from polar bears, as a tourist you will need to take guided tours and day trips to experience nearly all the things to do in Svalbard.
Since tour spaces are limited, if you are traveling during the summer season (June – September), you need to book at least 2 months in advance as the places do sell out, and without tours to leave the town, Longyearbyen could get quite boring. Outside of summer, I still advise you to book at least a few weeks in advance, otherwise, you will be left with few options.
I am not going to lie, the tours in Svalbard are quite pricey but they are 1000% worth it! So let’s go find out the best things to do on your epic adventure to the arctic!
If you are in a hurry
In case you don’t have time to read the entire post of things to do in Svalbard and need to book your tours right now, here is a summary of the most important things to know.
Here are the main things to book in advance:
Seasons to visit Svalbard
Before you even start planning your activities, the first thing you need to decide on is when you are going to visit. Svalbard has 3 seasons for tourists (yep, just one of the many non-typical aspects of Svalbard).
- Polar Summer (mid-May – End of September): Busiest season with 24 hours of daylight, lots of boat trips but no snow activities.
- Northern Lights Winter (October – end of February): Quietest season with minimal daylight, lots of snow activities but no boat trips due to the frozen sea ice.
- Sunny Winter (March – mid-May): 24 hours of daylight, some snow activities are still available and some summer boat trips have started.
Different things to do in Svalbard are only available at certain times of the year due to snow and ice conditions so in each of the following attractions, I will mention the seasonal availability.
1. Take a boat trip to see Svalbard’s wildlife (including polar bears!)
The best way to see the wildlife in Svalbard’s arctic wilderness is to take boat day trips. While you also see lots of wildlife on the boat trips to the 3 settlements in Svalbard (which I will talk about later on in the post), if you want to see a specific animal it’s better to take smaller RIB boat tours that can get up much closer to them!
There are maaaany different animals that you can spot from boats when visiting Svalbard including polar bears, whales, walruses, seals, the arctic fox, arctic terns, and other birds, and there are boat trips designed to find each one. So if you have a specific animal in mind that you really want to see, your best bet is to book the appropriate tour.
NOTE: Since polar bears are protected in Svalbard, there are no “polar bear expeditions” designed to track them down, but if there has been a sighting in the area, nearly all the tours will try and see it from a distance.
Here are some of the trips I recommend:
- Whale safari – If you want a chance to see the biggest animal on the planet, the blue whale, booking a whale safari is a no-brainer! While there is no guarantee to see them, the fjord is known as a summer feeding ground (June & July) for the blue whale, fin whale, humpback whale, and beluga whales!
- Walrus safari – This tour takes you to a well-known walrus colony where many of these giant creatures relax every day. Note some of the other tours like the one to Ny-Ålesund go past the colony on the way, so if you’re planning on taking multiple boat trips, check the other itineraries to see if you need to make a separate trip for this one.
- Bird jumping in Trygghamna – For one week in July, you can watch as the baby birds jump from a cliff and fly for the first time. Sometimes hundreds of birds take off at the same time!
- Frozen Svalbard Photo Tour – Photography enthusiasts, this is the trip for you. It will visit the walrus colony as well as get close to the glaciers so you have a chance of spotting many different types of wildlife with a professional photographer.
- Catch of the day – This is not a fishing trip like many think from the title, but rather, the captain will take you to spots where it is known wildlife has been lingering in the previous days. So if you don’t mind what you see but you want to see something, I would choose this one. In the 6 days that I was in Svalbard, the only person at my hotel who saw a polar bear saw it on this trip!
Season: Polar Summer months (Mid May – End of September)
2. Go on a snowmobiling adventure
I visited Svalbard at the very end of the snow season (middle of May) and was actually lucky enough to book the very last snowmobile tour available!
Snowmobile tours are a great way to visit Svalbard if you want to venture all the way inland into the valleys and glaciers. You also have the chance to spot arctic foxes, Svalbard reindeer, many birds, and polar bears.
We wanted to do a full-day snowmobile trip to the east as this is the wildest part of Svalbard that you can visit in a day and is also the place with the highest chance of seeing polar bears.
Unfortunately, the trip was sold out so we opted for a 4-hour midnight sun tour instead. This was still a great alternative as we got to drive through a valley nearby to Longyearbyen, up to a beautiful spot surrounded by mountains with a great vantage point to see the sun still high above us in the sky at midnight!
There are many operators who run snowmobile trips to different locations however we chose to go with Better Moments which was one of the few tour operators that were still running snow trips this late in the season. Our guide Eli was really great at helping everyone have a fun night on the snowmobiles and even gave us some helpful local tips to help with the rest of our trip!
You don’t need any prior snowmobile experience however you do need to bring a valid driver’s license to drive. All the gear is provided including snowsuits, helmets, boots, etc.
Season: Full winter (October – mid-May)
Price: €200 – €360 per driver (passenger is slightly less)
3. Visit a soviet ghost town (Pyramiden)
In the past, there was no singular country that was in charge of running Svalbard and any nation could come and set up their own colony here. Russia decided to create the most perfect example of communism they could and build Pyramiden (named after the pyramid-shaped mountain at the bottom of which it sits).
They selected the best communists in every field including everything from doctors and nurses to shopkeepers and miners and sent them to live in harmony in Pyramiden on Svalbard.
After 53 years of occupation, Pyramiden was closed down in 1998 due to falling coal prices and a plane crash that killed 141 of its occupants. Today, you can take tours of Pyramiden and see all the empty communist-era buildings and old mines still standing as they were when the city was closed down.
This is one of the most interesting things to do in Svalbard and to get to this abandoned Russian mining town in the winter you can join a snowmobile tour, however, it takes 2 days to get there and back this way, so it is much more popular to visit by boat tour in the summer.
NOTE: Even though some companies run this tour in May (and even earlier), often you do not actually get to dock and explore Pyramiden due to the snow ice. We knew this was a possibility when we booked in late May however, we were not aware that there was still going to be kilometers of ice this late, meaning we could barely even make out the buildings of Pyramiden in the distance.
PRO TIP: Call the company before booking your dates to ask about the sea ice, they generally have a good idea of if it will be possible to dock or not.
If there is going to be too much ice, I would advise booking one of the other boat trips to either Ny-Ålesund (#7 on my list) or Barentsburg (#10) as they are not affected by the ice. I wish we had known this before visiting Svalbard as while we did see some walruses, seals, puffins, and polar bear footprints, it was a bit disappointing not to see the town itself.
Season: Summer (Mid May – End of September)
4. Learn about the island at the Svalbard Museum
As someone who doesn’t usually go to many museums, I really think that my visit to Svalbard wouldn’t be the same if I hadn’t learned all about the island’s history at the Svalbard Museum.
The museum goes through the entire history of Svalbard, explaining the different stages of exploration from whale and walrus hunting, to trapping, the discovery of coal, polar exploration, the creation of the Svalbard treaty, and even up to the present day of tourism and scientific research.
In the center, also showcases all the different types of animals that can be found here with many of them on display.
There is quite a bit of reading involved here so it will take around 1-2 hours to go through the whole exhibit but overall, the timeline was laid out perfectly to get a good overview of how Svalbard came to be!
Season: All Year
5. Try dog sledding – one of the best things to do in Svalbard with kids
If you come to Svalbard in the winter, there’s no better way to mimic the thrill of the original arctic explorers than to go dog sledding amongst the mountains and glaciers!
You will even be taught how to drive the sled yourself and get your own dog team to lead on an adventure!
There are so many different tour lengths, destinations, and other options for you to choose from in Svalbard with everything from just a few hours up to week-long trips into the wilderness.
While I didn’t have the chance to go dog sledding myself, the tour which caught my interest the most was this Dog Sledding trip to an Ice Cave. In this full-day trip, you will not only be taught mushing (driving the dogs), but you will also get to explore inside an ice cave on foot!
Season: Winter (Jan – mid-May)
6. Tour the northernmost brewery in the world
If you have been to Tromso, you may have noticed that the Mack Brewery slogan claims to be the northernmost brewery in the world. In fact, this is only partly true!
Up until 2014, it was prohibited to make alcohol on Svalbard, meaning Mack could safely claim the title. However, one very determined man managed to change the law in order to open the Svalbard Brewery.
The craft brewery is located on the edge of Longyearbyen and the tour and tasting take place in a small bar looking down on the production area. While you sample very generous quantities of 5 different beers, your guide will talk you through their process of making beer while weaving in stories of how the brewery came to be.
I have been on quite a few brewery tours during my travels but this one was possibly the most entertaining so far, thanks to the interesting (and funny) story of how they got to be here!
I won’t spoil too much but you can imagine that it takes quite a determined person to change a law, just to make beer in such an unforgiving place!
Season: All Year
7. Send a letter from the northernmost town in the world
While Longyearbyen is the northernmost permanent settlement in the world, there is another town right at the top of Svalbard called Ny-Ålesund that you can visit via boat.
Formerly a mining settlement and the starting point for many Arctic expeditions to the north pole, nowadays Ny-Ålesund is predominantly a scientific base where researchers from all around the world come to study the arctic. But it is also a fully functioning town with its own post office, so why not take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to send a postcard from the top of the world!
Here you can also collect a special stamp for your passport, one of the most unique things to do in Svalbard and such a cool souvenir!
If it is the correct time of year, the boat will also stop at Poolepynten, a walrus colony on the way to Ny-Ålesund!
Season: Sunny winter & Polar summer months (May-August)
8. Check out the Polar Expedition Museum
As I mentioned earlier, I am not usually one to rush to a museum, however, I was really excited to visit the Polar Expedition Museum as it is something I am quite interested in.
Located behind the Svalbard Museum, the Polar Expedition museum is housed in a two-floor building. The museum goes through the history of the race to the north pole covering many attempts from Greenland and Alaska by boat, with dogs, and on foot, but mainly focuses on the airship attempts from Svalbard.
My favorite attempt was about the guy who tried to freeze his boat into an ice sheet and float his way to the north pole!
I really enjoyed the variance of information here as each section was summarised in one paragraph, perfect if you want just a brief overview. But if you want to learn more, you can read newspaper articles, journal entries, and detailed text blocks displayed on tv screens alongside documentaries and photos of the original expeditions.
PRO TIP: There is a lot of content in this museum including many full-length original expedition movies. Your entry ticket is valid for 3 days so I advise coming here early on in your trip and returning at your leisure so you don’t need to fit all this material into one visit.
Season: All Year
9. Go underground in a real coal mine
One of the first things you will see when you arrive in Svalbard is all the visible remains of old coal mines. I can almost guarantee that seeing the aerial trolleys and base stations in the mountains surrounding Longyearbyen will instantly make you curious about one of Svalbard’s biggest industries!
While there have been many mines around Svalbard over the years, today there is only one functioning mine remaining and even that is due to be closed down soon in favor of more renewable energy sources.
But to really understand what it was like for the miners who have the backbreaking job of extracting the coal, you should take a tour of Mine 3. Here you will get to see the old machines and equipment used to extract the coal and even have the chance to crawl into a replica mine shaft to experience the confined spaces where the men worked. Afterward, you will be guided 300m into the real mine to see what it is like underground!
Season: All Year
10. Visit Barentsburg, a Russian mining town in Norway
Now that you have gotten used to hearing the Norwegian language and spending krone, let’s flip that on its head and visit Russia in Norway!
As I mentioned earlier, when coal was discovered, Russia decided to set up some mining towns in Svalbard, and one of those settlements is still a functioning town today!
Barentsburg is fully owned and operated by the Russian state, the people living here are either Russian or Ukrainian citizens, they are paid in the Russian ruble, and Russian is spoken as the primary language.
In winter you can reach Barentsburg on a long snowmobile tour however the most common way to visit this mining town is on a boat trip. Once you have reached Barentsburg you will be guided by a local Russian around the town and shown the eclectic range of architecture styles before being given some free time to explore.
Some friends took this trip and said that even just visiting the grocery store was a cool experience to see all the Russian products on the shelves marked with two prices (ruble and krone).
PRO TIP: “Polargirl”, the boat I went on to Pyramiden, also does trips to Barentsburg. When onboard, I heard them give substantial discounts to a couple of people who wanted to join the trip to Barentsburg the next day. While I can’t guarantee this will work for you, it’s worth trying if you are visiting in the low season (in the summer months everything will already be booked out).
Season: Polar Summer months (May – October)
11. Take advantage of the duty-free shopping!
One of the best things to do in Svalbard for shopaholics is to visit all the boutique shops in Longyearbyen. Svalbard is a tax haven meaning you won’t have to pay any taxes on your purchases here and prices are much lower than in mainland Norway (very exciting for someone who has spent any time in Norway recently)!
You can get everything from food to alcohol, perfume, sporting equipment, souvenirs, and luxury items at lower prices than in mainland Norway. But remember that you are still on an island in the arctic archipelago, so while they do have plenty of outdoor clothing and equipment, you can’t really buy things like phones and laptops.
12. Take a picture with the Polar Bear sign
This one is pretty much mandatory for everyone visiting Svalbard! As I mentioned earlier, you cannot leave the town without protection against polar bears. To mark the edge of the “safe zone” you will find one of the famous polar bear signs.
There is actually one right at the exit of the airport with a bunch of signs pointing to different far away locations, but since this one is just in front of a car park, it doesn’t make for the best photos.
Here is the google maps location for the most scenic polar bear sign in Longyearbyen for the best photo! Just make sure you don’t go further without a hiking guide.
13. See the Global Seed Vault
The Global Seed Vault was built over 100m into the side of a mountain, 130 m above sea level in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, and is designed to protect the world’s future when it comes to farming.
What is so unique about this so-called “doomsday seed vault” is that it is built into the permafrost, a layer of earth that remains frozen year-round, maintaining a cool -3 to -4 degrees celsius temperature, even if the electricity were to be cut.
It’s big enough to hold 1.5 million seed samples which could save humanity if needed!
You can’t actually visit inside the Global Seed Vault, although many tours bring you outside the entrance where you can take a photo of this cool attraction.
In my opinion, unless visiting the Global Seed Vault is simply a stop on the way to another attraction, I don’t think it’s worth taking a tour just to stand outside, as you can actually see the Global Seed Vault from the airport (just look up the hill)!
14. Experience the midnight sun or the northern lights
Since Svalbard is so close to the north pole, it has huge seasonal changes, swinging from 24 hours of darkness between 1 of October – 28 of February, to 24 hours of daylight between 20 April to 22 August.
This means you will rarely see the sunset in Svalbard!
Both seasons offer incredible experiences, unlike anything you have seen before. We visited during the midnight sun where the sun did circles above us all day and all night, without even dipping slightly. During this season you can take many night tours to take full advantage of all this daylight like the midnight sun snowmobile tour we took.
During the winter, while there is 24 hours of darkness you do have the chance to see the northern lights in the middle of the day! There are a few tours with different modes of transport you can take to see the northern lights however I recommend choosing a snowcat tour. Since you will be visiting in winter, it is going to be extremely cold, and as you can be waiting around for quite some time, it’s best to have somewhere warm to sit.
NOTE: I don’t recommend coming to Svalbard solely to see the northern lights. Some of the locals told us that because of the frequent bad weather conditions and the location so close to the pole, the northern lights often skip Svalbard and statistically speaking, you actually have a much better chance to see them in the north of mainland Norway.
Midnight Sun Season: 20 April to 22 August
Northern Lights Season: 1 of October – 28 of February
|🤩 Range of activities:||High|
|👪 Family-friendly score:||Okay (not for small children)|
|🏛️ Best museum:||Svalbard Museum|
|⛵ Top Boat Trip:||Catch of the day|
|🏫 Best Town to Visit:||Pyramiden|
|🧒 Best kids activity:||Dog sledding|
|🔥 Best adventure tour||Snowmobiling|
|🥩 Must try food:||Reindeer Steak|
|📅 How many days:||6|
|🍽️ Dinner for 2:||€30|
|💵 Avg hotel price:||€200|
|✈️ Cost of traveling:||High|
Where to stay in Longyearbyen, Svalbard
Longyearbyen is where practically everyone stays when visiting Svalbard as this is the main settlement and where all the tours depart from. There are not as many hotels here as there are in other tourist towns so you really have to make sure you book your hotel rooms well in advance (especially if you’re coming during the summer months).
I visited Svalbard in the middle of May (not high season) and managed to get the last hotel room available in the whole of Svalbard and it was more than a week before my flight!
Luxury (€350 and up)
- Svalbard Hotell – Polfareren – This 4-star hotel is one of the most luxurious places to stay on Svalbard and is located right in the heart of town. The comfortable modern rooms feature Arctic photography and the onsite restaurant is one of the best in Longyearbyen.
- Radisson Blu Polar Lodge – Just a very short walk from the center of Longyearbyen, Radisson Blu is an amazing 4-star, full-service hotel with incredible views of the stunning mountains and a great buffet breakfast.
Mid Range (€170 – €350)
- Svalbard Hotell – The Vault – The vault is a mid-range, boutique hotel for those who prefer something a little more intimate, still with a great location in the center of Longyearbyen.
- Mary-Ann’s Polarrigg – Built from old rigs, this quirky hotel certainly has the most character in all of Longyearbyen and is located just outside the main center of town (still within easy walking distance) with an onside bar and restaurant as well as a games room!
Budget (up to €170)
- Coal Minders Cabins – This budget accommodation option has everything you need including private rooms and shared kitchen and bathrooms. It’s a little bit further from the center than the more expensive hotels but still, just a ~15 min walk!
- Gjestehuset 102 – The cheapest place to stay on Svalbard with both private and dorm rooms available for reasonable prices. A little far away from the center of Longyearbyen but still within walking distance (~20 mins walking to the center).
Now that you have chosen all your favorite things to do in Svalbard and booked a hotel, it’s time to give you some more practical information that you will need for visiting this incredible arctic island.
How to get to Svalbard
To get to Svalbard you can either take a (long) cruise ship or fly from Norway to Longyearbyen, Svalbard. Since flying is by far the most common method, that is what I will talk about here.
There are direct flights to Longyearbyen from both Oslo (3hs) and Tromso (1.5 hrs) however there are also routes that will take you from Oslo to Tromso and then onwards to Longyearbyen.
PRO TIP 1: The flight prices vary wildly between days of the week, if you are flexible with your dates you can score tickets for less than half the price of more popular times. Check Skyscanner for the best prices.
NOTE: Before you depart from the Norwegian mainland, you will have to go through security and passport control since you will be leaving the EU. If you are flying directly from Oslo or Tromso this is no problem however if you choose connecting flights from Oslo – Tromso – to Svalbard, you will have to get off the plane in Tromso with all your belongings, walk around the building and go through security & passport control again with all the other passengers – it’s a bit hectic.
PRO TIP 2: If you book your flights from Oslo, through Tromso, spend a couple of nights exploring the city and its surroundings to avoid the hassles of getting on and off the plane for customs and security.
Getting from the Svalbard airport to your hotel
The Longyearbyen airport is located 5km from the town (with all the hotels) and although there is a walking path, it is not in the “polar bear safe zone” so let’s forget that idea right away.
You have two options to get to your hotel from the airport. By hotel bus or taxi.
Hotel shuttle bus
For every plane that arrives there is a bus that will be waiting directly outside the terminal. (They call it a shuttle bus but it is actually just a regular-sized bus). This bus stops at every single hotel and costs €10 per person. You can simply hop on board and wait for the driver to come around to collect your payment (card only).
Although this is a simple option, I don’t actually recommend it if you are traveling with two or more people. This is because the bus won’t leave until it is full.
We were the first ones onto the bus (hand luggage ftw!) but we had to wait for 1.5 hours for the bus to leave.
Although we did not take any taxis while we were in Svalbard, the receptionist at our hotel told us that a taxi to the airport normally costs between €17-25. Which is basically equivalent to 2 people on the bus.
There are two taxi companies in Svalbard, you might see a couple hanging around the airport after dropping people off but if not, you will need to call them to arrange a pickup.
Frequently asked questions about Things to Do in Svalbard
🇪🇺 Is Svalbard in Europe or the EU?
Svalbard is a part of the continent of Europe but it is not in the EU. This means when you fly out of Norway, you will have your passport stamped as exiting the EU. However, the Svalbard treaty states that there are no visa requirements.
📆 When is the best time to visit Svalbard?
I think spring (April & May) is the best time to visit Svalbard as you get to experience a bit of all the seasons. The midnight sun will be shining, there’s usually still snow in the mountains and the boat trips will be starting.
🐻 Can I see a polar bear in Svalbard?
Yes! Although it is not guaranteed to see a polar bear, there are more polar bears than humans who live in Svalbard. The best chance to see them is to take boat trips away from Longyearbyen or join a tour to the east of Svalbard.
⏳How many days do you need for visiting Svalbard?
This depends on how many tours you book, we stayed 5 nights and thought it was perfect for us. I recommend having enough time for 1 tour per day + 1 rest day to explore the town of Longyearbyen.
✨ Can you see the northern lights in Svalbard?
Yes, as the entire archipelago of Svalbard is above the arctic circle, you can see the northern lights during the polar night months between October to February if you have clear weather while visiting Svalbard.
Now you should have a clear idea about all the different things to do in Svalbard for you to choose from and even have all the practical info you need about where to stay and how to get to this arctic tundra.
I remember how overwhelming it was when I first started researching for this Svalbard trip so I hope I have helped you understand Svalbard a little bit better and plan your Svalbard itinerary.
As I mentioned before, whether you are visiting to see the northern lights on a polar night, or to take a boat trip around the Svalbard archipelago, you really need to book everything months in advance for a trip to Svalbard. I am in no way exaggerating this since you basically can’t do anything adventurous without joining a tour (and they sell out quickly)!
If you have any questions or want to hear my opinion on anything else, let me know in the comments and I will answer you as soon as possible.
Happy arctic adventure!