If you have never heard of Svalbard no one would blame you. Svalbard is a Norwegian Island way up north in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. The only way to get there is via a flight from either Oslo or Tromso in Norway and it takes about 3 hrs from Oslo, which shows you just how far north Svalbard really is.
There are two main towns in Svalbard, Longyearbyen, and Barentsburg. Longyearbyen is the tourist hub of Svalbard where you’ll find some delightful hotels and restaurants, plus it’s where the airport is.
Barentsburg is a small town that mainly consists of a Russian mining community and it sits on one of the largest coal mines in the world. The town has a few accommodation options and a fun miners town atmosphere to it. Both are worth a visit during your stay.
Svalbard is a land of rugged mountains, fjords, lakes, rivers, glaciers, and many many polar bears. There is a lot to do and explore on the island and if visiting the arctic has always been a dream of yours then Svalbard is the place to go.
Since Svalbard is so far north, they have 24 hr daylight in the summer and 24 hr darkness in winter, meaning the activities differ quite dramatically depending on what time of year you’re there. Here are the top things to do in Svalbard in summer and winter.
One of the main reasons to visit Svalbard in the winter is to see the northern lights. The island is so far north and has so few inhabitants and thus minimal light pollution, it’s possibly one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights.
Now, seeing the northern lights isn’t quite as easy as just looking out the window of your hotel, unless you’re very lucky. And even if you were so lucky, the light pollution in the area will dumb down their effects. Your best bet for seeing the northern lights is by booking a tour.
The tour guides are trained pros at knowing when and where the northern lights are going to show up based on the time of year and the weather conditions on the day. They’ll take you to the best spots, make a fire, serve you tea and coffee so that you can stay warm, and wait to see the lights dancing across the night sky.
Instead of hopping in a van, you can also see the northern lights on a hiking tour, snowmobile tour, or even on a dog sled tour. These are far more adventurous ways of seeing them and your tour guides will provide you with all the clothing needed to ensure you stay warm while out in the freezing cold.
The best time to see the northern lights is during dark winter which happens between the 1st of October and the 28th of February.
A trip to Camp Barentz is a great thing to do in Svalbard during the winter. Camp Barentz is a wooden cabin just outside of Longyearbyen which has been built as a replica of the house Willem Barentsz, the man who discovered Svalbard, and his crew made when they got stuck in the ice using the wood from their ship.
The experience involves having dinner with other travelers and it’s a great way to meet people while you’re in Svalbard. Over the course of the evening, you’ll sit around an open fire in the cabin, eat something traditional like reindeer stew, and learn all about polar bears and other stories about the arctic and the adventures people have had in it.
One of the best things about visiting Camp Barentz is that it’s away from town and all the light pollution making it a great place to see the northern lights from. It’s ideal to watch the light dance around the sky, as when you get cold, you can just hop back into the cabin and warm up around the fire.
While you can, of course, go dog sledding during the summer, doing it during winter is kind of more amazing. In Boletdalen you’ll find the Green Dog Sledding Company and a visit there is one of the best things to do in Svalbard in the winter.
On your arrival, the team will begin to teach you how to dog sled and within no time you’re being suited up in polar gear, everything you need to stay warm, and the sledding begins.
First, the dogs are all split into teams and due to their excitement of going sledding, there is absolute chaos getting them in line. Once they’re ready to go, you’ll head into the wilderness of Svalbard being pulled around by Alaskan huskies, just like the first explorers of the arctic and antarctic did.
It’s quite incredible being pulled around the snow in pretty much complete silence with nothing but winter light, stars, and the moonlighting your way across the snow. If you’re lucky, the northern lights might even make an appearance whilst you’re dog sledding.
Once you’re heading back, the dogs pick up the pace, excited for their meal at the end. When you get back, you can’t quite believe what you just experienced and then you get to play with the husky puppies after too.
The world’s northernmost brewery is, of course, on Svalbard. The Svalbard Brewery was first started in 2011 but the founders Robert Johansen and Anne Grete, a lovely wife, and husband duo.
The reason it took so long for a brewery to open on Svalbard is that it was illegal. A law was passed in 1928 to stop any brewing on the island in order to help the miners stay sober but it was changed due to the influx of tourism to the area.
The beer is made using water from a glacier that is over 2000 years old and German hops. There is quite a selection to choose from and they are all pretty delicious. While at the brewery, you’ll also get to go on a tour and learn about the brewing process and the history of brewing on Svalbard.
There isn’t a better way to connect with nature and explore the truly amazing Fjords of Svalbard than on a kayak. It’s just you and the sea and nothing else but the sight of amazing wildlife like walrusses, sea birds, polar bears, and more.
One of the most amazing things to do while kayaking in Svalbard is to paddle around some ice burgs. Their color is a blue that can’t be replicated and the sea around them is the same. It’s super clear and you can see the ice burg going deeper and deeper into the ocean.
Another great thing to do is paddle down the edge of a glacier and then stop paddling and sit in silence. You’ll start to hear the ice of the glacier cracking as it moves incredibly slowly, eating away at the landscapes beneath it.
When you visit Svalbard, chances are you’ll be staying in Longyearbyen as it has the best hotels and is best suited to tourists. The surrounding area around Longyearbyen is covered with stunning mountains, a beautiful coastline, and there is a glacier not too far away either so hiking is a thing you must do while you’re in Svalbard.
Remember, you’re going to have to be armed to go on a hike so it’s always best to take a guide with you who knows how to behave when things get a little serious during a chance encounter with a polar bear.
While hiking in the summer, why not time your hike to coincide with the midnight sun? Because Svalbard is so far north, the sun never sets in summer. Instead, the sun attempts to drop below the horizon only to rise again, giving you sunset and sunrise all in one sitting – this is the midnight sun.
If you plan to be at the top of a mountain or hill overlooking the sea for the midnight sun, you’re likely to be blessed with the longest, most dramatic, and colorful sunset & sunrise you’ve ever seen. The sea, the glaciers, and the sides of the mountains all light up in the stunning evening and morning light, and the colors in the sky are out of this world.
Svalbard is one of the best places in the world to see polar bears. There are about 3,000 or so polar bears on the island and they actually outnumber people as Svalbard is only home to around 2,000 residents.
It’s not a guarantee that you’ll run into a polar bear, despite the rule of having to be armed when leaving town just in case you bump into an angry polar bear. Your best chance of seeing a polar is bear is by going out on a boating safari as the polar bears tend to hang out in the fjords and along the shoreline so they have easy access to their hunting grounds, the sea.
It’s not just polar bears you might see on your boat safari. The cliffs of Svalbard are covered in seabirds nesting during the summer and, if you’re lucky, you might even see an arctic fox hunting for chicks along the top. There are also tons of walruses that live along the shore in the summer and you’re likely to see whales and dolphins too.
Even if you don’t get to see a polar bear or an arctic fox, the cruise around the fjords and past ice burgs are one of the best things to do in Svalbard anyway. The sheer beauty and drama of the wild landscape are hard to grasp on a hike but from the sea, you can see it in all its glory.
A Thing to do in Svalbard, that you really can’t do in many parts of the world, is to visit a town that was pretty much abandoned in seconds.
The town of Pyramiden was a Russian mining town and was home to around 1000 people back in the 1980s. They were all living quite a normal arctic mining lifestyle until 1998 when the mine was suddenly closed. All the residents see do leave the town within minutes and left the town as it was at that exact moment.
You’ll see tables left with glasses and cups on them, sinks with washing up still drying, everything is as it was when they up and left.
It’s quite a different experience and not one you can have in many places. National Geographic has listed it as one world’s best ghost towns and it’s a step back in time.
Since the sudden evacuation of sorts, some people have moved into the town so be careful not to walk into one of their houses.
One of the first things you should do in Svalbard is to visit the museums in Longyearbyen so that you have a sense of the history of the place and the hardships of the explorers who discovered and settled in Svalbard. Learning this prior to doing everything means you can process and imagine what it took while you enjoy all your other adventures.
The Svalbard Museum and North Pole Expedition Museum will give you all the information you could ever need about the natural and cultural history of Svalbard and the history of the expeditions undertaken in the arctic.
It really puts things in perspective and gives you a huge amount of respect and understanding of just how people found, explored, and lived in Svalbard. You’ll also learn about all the different species that live in Svalbard or visit in different seasons.
There is so much to do in Svalbard that we have barely scratched the surface in this article. Activities like snowmobiling, trying the local cuisines, visiting an old coal mine, or a functioning one, and even the world’s doomsday seed bank are just a few of the things to do in Svalbard we missed.
In any case, a visit to Svalbard will be a trip of a lifetime and something you’re not likely to forget.
Roger is a little obsessed with travel. He has been to over 40 countries, broken 3 suitcases and owned over 10 backpacks in 12 months. What he doesn't know about travel, ain't worth knowing!