The 10 best things to do in Svalbard
Fancy an adventure in an Arctic wilderness that’s home to more polar bears than people? Svalbard is your place.
A remote archipelago between Norway and the North Pole, it’s a land of ice-covered fjords, glaciers, soaring mountains, and raw, untamed nature. Oh, and for three months of the year, it’s plunged into 24 hours of darkness.
A true bucket-list destination, you can experience loads of things in this winter wonderland that few other destinations can offer. How many places can you see the Northern Lights at noon, photograph polar bears in the wild, and visit one of the northernmost points of civilisation on Earth?
Like the sound of it? Then take a look at these 10 incredible things to do in Svalbard.
Note: Due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, the availability of the activities could be affected. Remember to check current travel restrictions before booking travel.
1. See polar bears in the wild
Fancy seeing the world’s largest land predator in its natural habitat? You might get lucky in Svalbard. Home to around 3,000 polar bears, they outnumber people 3:2. However, sightings are a lot less common than you might think, so don’t get too excited!
Trying to spot them is one of the best things to do in Svalbard, and your greatest chance of seeing one is from a boat, as they spend most of their time near frozen fjords and bays, looking for prey. But you can only cruise during the summer months (May – September), when the ice has melted, and boats can navigate the freezing waters. Check out cruises at visitsvalbard.com.
Tip: There’s a strict rule for tourists in Svalbard. You can’t leave the main settlement of Longyearbyen without a weapon (to protect against polar bear attacks), so you’re best off planning some organised activities with a guide if you want to leave.
While we’re talking about rules, here’s another one for you: Cats are banned from the archipelago (to protect the local bird life), so don’t bring your moggy on holiday with you!
2. Enjoy the midnight sun or the polar night
In Svalbard, the sun doesn’t set from May to September. This phenomenon is known as the midnight sun. Between November and January, it doesn’t rise. This is the polar night. And both are amazing to witness.
If you’re visiting Svalbard to see the Northern Lights, polar night is prime time. With the sky dark for 24 hours, you could catch a glimpse of them during the night or day – maybe even over lunch!
Tip: Your best chance of seeing the aurora borealis in Svalbard is on an organised tour. On this Northern Lights Hunt by Snowcat experience, you’ll head into the wilderness and search for the Lights from the comfort of a heated truck. Plus, you’ll earn CashPoints when you book via GetYourGuide.
If you miss out on seeing the dazzling display in Svalbard, there are plenty of other places to catch the Northern Lights in Europe.
3. Try your hand at dog sledding
When visiting Svalbard, there’s nothing more exhilarating than flying across the Arctic wilderness with a pack of excited huskies for company. It’s a fantastic way to get close to nature.
You can try your hand at dog sledding, aka mushing, any time of year. In winter, the dogs pull sleds across the snow-covered landscape, while in summer they pull specially-made wheeled sleds.
With Svalbard Husky, you can go on an adventure with the dogs to see an ice cave, which is a magical experience. Or you can go on a Northern Lights hunt at night.
If you’re concerned about the ethical side of things, you can rest assured that with Svalbard Husky, each pup is treated well, has lots of rest breaks and enjoys a healthy diet.
4. Visit humanity’s back-up food plan
Next on our list of things to do in Svalbard is pay a visit to the Global Seed Vault.
Deep in the bowels of an icy mountain on Spitsbergen (the largest island on Svalbard) is a vault containing seeds from more than 930,000 varieties of food crops. Nicknamed ‘the Doomsday vault’, it’s an insurance policy for the world’s food supply.
The vault exists in case there’s a global disaster and crops are wiped out. The seeds will ensure that we can continue to feed ourselves. Forward thinking, right?
You can’t go inside the vault, but you can get a selfie outside, and learn about its importance at the Svalbard Museum in Longyearbyen.
5. Take to the water
No trip to Svalbard is complete without a boat ride. It’s the best way to see Svalbard’s stunning fjords, glaciers and sensational wildlife. Think walruses, arctic foxes, whales, seals, and if you’re lucky, polar bears!
Most boat trips will include a trip to Isfjord radio station, which, up until a few years ago, was an important telecommunications link between the Norwegian mainland and the inhabitants of Svalbard. Today it’s a cosy boutique hotel.
Tip: Boat trips are only available during the summer months when the ice has melted and light returns to the archipelago.
6. Indulge your sweet tooth at the world’s northernmost chocolate factory
Got a sweet tooth? Then one thing to do when visiting Svalbard is to stop by Fruene. The northernmost chocolatier in the world, this place makes divine sweet treats that are inspired by the Arctic. Think miniature polar bears and chocs with patterns inspired by the Northern Lights, amongst many other delicious goodies.
Tip: While you’re there, be sure to have a cup of hot chocolate in the café. It’s the tastiest way to warm up.
7. Have a snowmobile adventure
Snowmobiles are the preferred method of transport in Svalbard. So, why not do as the locals do and hop on? During the icy Arctic winter, when everything is covered in snow and ice, you can cover huge distances.
Experience the thrill of zooming past icy glaciers, frozen fjords and snow-clad mountains, without any traffic to worry about!
Tour tip: This is a top activity in Svalbard. Get your kicks while searching for the aurora borealis on this fabulous Northern Lights snowmobile safari.
8. Visit a ghost town
This is one of our more unusual things to do in Svalbard.
Pyramiden is a former Russian coal mining town. In the 1980s, it was a bustling town with a population of 1,000, but when the mine was closed in 1998, everyone left town in a hurry. Cups were left on tables, newspaper clippings on walls and skis in the corridors.
Time has stood still in the fascinating town in Svalbard, and it’s been listed by National Geographic as one of the world’s 10 best ghost towns. Pay a visit and turn back the clock to life ‘back in the USSR’. In summer, you can get there by boat, and by snowmobile in the winter.
Tip: There are still some residents in the settlement, so make sure not to enter any cabins that aren’t open to the public.
9. Take a hike!
If you’re in Svalbard during the summer months, take a hike. The main town of Longyearbyen is surrounded by stunning mountains to explore, and the islands have a lot to offer in the way of picturesque views.
If you’ve got kids in tow, why not combine a mountain hike with a fossil-hunting tour? You’ll get right up onto the moraine at the base of the Longyear glacier, where the kids can hunt for plant fossils that date back to the time of the dinosaurs.
10. Try reindeer steak at Huset
Special occasion? Book a table at fine dining spot, Huset. The restaurant prides itself on its high-end cuisine, from locally-caught reindeer steak to exquisite Scandinavian wine.
If you like a good glass of wine, you’re in safe hands. The restaurant has a healthy 20,000-bottle cellar which has received several awards from Wine Spectator.
Tip: When visiting Svalbard, or anywhere else in Norway, be sure to try some of the local dishes. See what else you might find on the menu in our ‘10 weird Nordic foods you’ve probably never heard of’ post.
A holiday with a difference…
If you’re looking for somewhere different to go on holiday, whether it’s in summer or in winter, Svalbard ticks all the boxes. Explore this incredible destination with Norwegian Reward and earn CashPoints on your flights, car hire and tours.
Tip: Svalbard isn’t the only spectacular place to visit in Norway. Wherever you go, the scenery will take your breath away. If you don’t believe us, see for yourself in our ‘10 spectacular places to visit in Norway’ post.