Here’s a list of the 15 best things to do in Svalbard (Norway), along with famous landmarks, museums, and other points of interest.
Svalbard is an arctic archipelago, located between the North Pole and Norway. The largest three islands are Spitsbergen, Nordaustlandet, and Edgeøya. Svalbard is part of the Kingdom of Norway, where it forms an unincorporated area.
Longyearbyen is the main city, which is also where international tourists arrive in Svalbard. It’s a breeding ground for many arctic animals, including polar bears, arctic foxes, and reindeers. Some of the marine animals include whales, seals, and walruses.
In this article, I’m sharing some of the best places to visit in Svalbard as well as attractions and activities that shouldn’t be missed while visiting.
See the polar bears
Roughly 3,000 polar bears are living in Svalbard, which also means that they outnumber humans. With that said, seeing wild polar bears is not something that occurs on a daily basis.
The best chance of seeing a wild polar bear is by joining one of the polar bear tours that are available from May to September, which is when the ice has melted, allowing ships to navigate the waters.
There are no land-based polar bear excursions, and I recommend booking a tour with Oceanwide Expeditions, which has several cruise options that are sustainable and affordable.
Explore an Ice Cave
There are several ice caves in proximity to Longyearbyen, and exploring them is quite an experience. When entering these glaciers, it’s like you’re walking inside a different world, made of ice.
The ice caves have been shaped by the melting ice and snow which are later re-frozen as winter comes. Although it’s interesting to discover the kingdom of ice and glacier, it’s also important to note that you need at least moderate fitness to explore the ice caves of Svalbard.
Kayaking is a great way to have a close-up experience with the Arctic nature. Few activities in the world are as peaceful and exciting as kayaking on a fjord in Svalbard.
There are several tours that offer kayaking combined with guided walks to interesting places, such as Hiorthhamn, which is an old settlement that has been abandoned.
Svalbard Museum is located in Longyearbyen and can be found in the basement of the University Center, which is the northernmost university in the world!
The museum is quite interesting if you’re curious to learn more about Svalbard. The exhibitions on display will teach you more about the archipelago’s flora and fauna as well as how the first arctic explorers used to live.
Magdalenefjord is a scenic fjord that was first discovered by Willem Barents. In the 17th century, English whalers came here and established a whaling station.
In modern times, it has become one of the most famous places to visit in Svalbard, known for its spectacular glaciers and iconic mountain peaks. Since 2015 and onwards, ships that carry heavy fuel are no longer allowed, which is great so that the area can be preserved and explored sustainably.
Gravneset is perhaps the most famous site among tourists, known for its arctic beach with panoramic views. There are several smaller tours that include a stop at Gravneset and the Magdalenefjord, which is also a popular place to go kayaking.
Barentsburg was one of the main coal-mining settlements in Svalbard. It was originally built as a mining town by the Dutch, although it was sold a few years later to the Soviet Union, which continued with coal mining.
At most, some 1500 people were living and working here permanently. Nowadays, Barentsburg is home to around 450 people and remains as one of the main attractions in Svalbard. There are guided tours that will take you here, but it’s also possible to travel here on your own.
Pyramiden is another fascinating place to visit, at least if you find it interesting to visit a ghost town. This is a former coal-mining town that was built by Russia, where some 1000 people used to live.
It’s quite a peculiar place as it was left abruptly back in 1998 when the mine was shut down. It has been left more or less like it were more than 20 years ago, and you can still find old skis, cups, and even old newspapers when walking around.
It has also been named as one of the best ghost towns in the world, by National Geographic, making it one of the best places to visit in Svalbard for a unique experience.
Hike to Sarkofagen
One of the unique and most impressive sights you’ll see when you first arrive in Longyearbyen are the mountain ranges which cover large parts of Svalbard.
Surrounded by magnificent views and the unique Arctic landscape in all directions, a hike to Sarkofagen is definitely something not to be missed.
The moraine landscape here is more like a moonscape than the mountains you might have seen elsewhere in Norway. If you are lucky enough, you can also stumble over 60-million-year-old fossils on your way!
In Svalbard, you can visit the northernmost church in the world, namely Svalbard Kirke, which is also the archipelago’s only church, except the Russian chapel that can be found in Barentsburg.
Compared to other churches in Europe, I wouldn’t claim it to be something extraordinary, but it’s still quite impressive that they have built a church this far north. During wintertime, visitors can enjoy hot beverages and waffles at the cafe.
Global Seed Vault
If a global disaster strikes and all crops around the world are wiped out, the Global Seed Vault is built to be our savior. It also goes by the name of “The Doomsday Vault” and it holds seeds from over 930,000 crop varieties.
They are permanently stored here, deep below the permafrost. It’s located about 4 kilometers from the center of Longyearbyen. Outside visitors are not allowed without permission, but it’s still cool to see the entrance in person, and knowing what’s beneath the ground.
Svalbard has a total of two breweries, one located in Longyearbyen and the other brewery in Barentsburg. What makes them special is the fact that they are brewing beer with glacier water.
As the two northernmost breweries in the world, every beer-lover should come here. Visitors can follow along on a guided tour, and of course, also taste the locally brewed beers.
See the Northern Light/Midnight Sun
From May to September, the sun doesn’t set in Svalbard, known as Midnight sun, where you can enjoy the sunshine at night. And from November to January the opposite takes place, known as polar night.
To see the Northern lights in Svalbard, the best time of the year to come is during the polar night season. During this period, the sky is dark more or less day and night as the sun never rises, offering ideal conditions to view the phenomenon known as Aurora Borealis.
Wintertime is prime time for a snowmobile tour in Svalbard as everything is frozen and covered by ice and snow. It’s also the best way of transportation, and more or less the only way to travel long distances on land during winter.
Their prevalence is further displayed by the road signs in Longyearbyen, which warns other drivers that the roads are frequently crossed by snowmobiles. Joining a snowmobile tour is one of the best things to do in Svalbard if you want a unique experience.
There are various excursions by snowmobile to choose from, especially if you’re visiting during wintertime. But even if you arrive in summertime, there are options to drive a snowmobile as well, on the Longyear Glacier.
Isfjord radio station
Back in the days, before satellite phones and fiber optic cables provided a connection with the mainland, the only form of communication was made from the Isfjord Radio Station. Nowadays, there’s a nice boutique hotel on the site where you can stay overnight.
Despite being remotely located, it’s quite a stylish hotel with great comfort. Spending a night or two at the old radio station is definitely recommended if you’re staying for several days on the arctic island. It’s definitely a unique hotel experience.
Longyearbyen, the most northerly town, with the most northerly church, most northerly pub, and pretty much everything else, is located in the picturesque valley. Here, you can go for a stroll along with the postcard-perfect colorful houses with mountain views in the background.
It was named after John Munro Longyear, from the U.S, who initiated coal mining operations back in 1906. The permanent population is 2,368 according to the latest numbers, and there are around 350 students that are studying at the University Center.
A rather peculiar fact about Svalbard and Longyearbyen is the fact that it’s illegal to die here. Due to the frozen ground, human bodies aren’t being decomposed. With that said, there is actually a cemetery in Longyearbyen, that was constructed after 7 miners died from the Spanish flu in 1918.
Museums in Svalbard
Despite its remoteness and small population, there are actually three museums in Svalbard, including an art gallery. The North Pole Expedition is very interesting and with a focus on the importance of 3 airships. It was formerly named Spitsbergen Airship Museum.
Additionally, you can visit WildPhoto Gallery, which is run by two photographers named Ole Jørgen Liodden and Roy Mangersnes. They display their best images ever taken in Svalbard.
- Svalbard Art Gallery
- Svalbard Museum
- North Pole Expedition Museum
Festivals in Svalbard
If you want to visit some of the northernmost festivals in the world, there are several annual festivals in Svalbard.
- Polarjazz Festival
- Sun Festival
- Longyearbyen Literature Festival
- The beer Festival
- Taste Svalbard
- Dark Season Blues Festival
- Arctic Chamber Music Festival
Want more recommendations on things to do in Svalbard? Leave a comment below!