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Things to do in Svalbard: 15 literally cool ideas

Svalbard is one of the most fun and fascinating places you can travel to. Not only because it’s an arctic desert (so cool, literally!) there’s a wide array of things to do in Svalbard, no matter what your interest.

A sign on the outskirts of Longyearbyen featuring a picture of a polar bear and the text 'gjelder hele Svalbard', which means 'applies to the whole of Svalbard'. Discover the best things to do in Svalbard... some of which do involve polar bears.
Don’t venture out past these signs! Polar bears might be ahead.

Looking for things to do in Svalbard? It’s one of the best places you can travel to in the world and there’s no shortage of fun stuff to get up to, in this arctic paradise.

I loved every moment I spent on this remote archipelago and am constantly planning and scheming of ways to return one day.

You can visit Svalbard basically any time of the year and enjoy yourself. However, not all activities are available in certain seasons.

For example, your chances of seeing the northern lights in summer are pretty much not there, thanks to the midnight sun.

However, you can do other fun activities, such as travelling to the abandoned ghost town of Pyramiden. Swings and roundabouts, you know?

Some of the things to do in Svalbard are fairly expensive – it is a Norwegian territory, after all.

Others are easy to do if you’re visiting Svalbard on a budget.

Read on to discover how to make the most of your time in this fascinating archipelago.

Things to do in Svalbard & Longyearbyen

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A dog in Svalbard sits in its wooden kennel. Sign out the front features the pup's name: 'Kola', with a pawprint next to it.
Dogs ready to go out for a run.

1. Go dog sledding

This was definitely one of the best things to do in Svalbard if you love dogs. And fun times.

You may have your parade literally rained on, if there’s not enough snow to go sledding.

This happened to me. Instead we went dog karting, I suppose, being pulled along by some enthusiastic doggos to take in the views of the outskirts of Longyearbyen.

I understand that some people have concerns about dog-sledding in relation to animal welfare.

I share these concerns, but the dogs were very well-cared for.

The guide knew them all by name and told us that they regularly rotated the dogs, so that every animal got a run every couple of days.

No pressure was put on the animals and he was sure to stop regularly to give them breaks and water.

The dogs in return were lovely creatures, friendly and available for pats and cuddles!

Find out more about dog sledding in Svalbard.

A fluffy dog located in the town centre of Longyearbyen.
Hi doggy!

2. Pat all the dogs in general

Longyearbyen is home to many dogs. It feels like everywhere you turn in the town, you’re surrounded by (wo)man’s favourite four legged friend.

You do apparently need a permit to own a dog, but it seemed that many inhabitants of the town hadn’t had any trouble procuring one.

Interestingly, cats are banned from Longyearbyen.

This is because they’re an invasive and violent species and there are concerns for what cats would do to the local wildlife, which mainly consists of birdlife.

Weirdly, you can bring aquarium fish, rabbits and hamsters onto the island, with no permit required.

things to do svalbard
I didn’t see the northern lights but did have a six hour sunset.

3. See the Northern Lights

Surprisingly, Svalbard isn’t the best place to go to see the northern lights – you’d probably have a better chance of catching them in northern Norway or in Iceland.

There is a chance that they’ll make an appearance, particularly during the winter time when the entire island is bathed in a darkness otherwise known as the Polar Night.

The experience however, is worth it, regardless of whether you get to see lights.

You’ll be taken outside the city centre (with a local guide) and meet at Camp Barentz.

Inside a cosy cabin, you’ll settle in for a delicious dinner while watching a presentation about the aurora borealis.

And – hopefully – they’ll make their appearance.

Alternatively, you can head out by snowmobile and try to catch them! Double the fun.

A reindeer stands in front of a fjord in Svalbard.
Seeing reindeer in the wild is pretty cool.

4. Visit Pyramiden

This is one of the best things to do in Svalbard during the summer months.

Pyramiden is an old, abandoned Russian town north of Longyearbyen. It’s been deserted since 1998.

It’s pretty hard to reach in the winter but during summer boats stop at its shores, allowing tourists to get out and explore. Check out tour providers and book your spot on a boat.

Curious? Flora the Explorer has written an excellent post on what it’s like to visit Pyramiden.

The town plays host to the northernmost swimming pool in the world, as well as a statue of Lenin, in a nod to its Soviet background.

If you want to spend a couple of days exploring the town and its surrounds, you can stay in the Tulpan Hotel, which is open during the summer months.

View of Longyearbyen out accommodation window.
Longyearbyen, just after snow.

5. See Isfjord by boat

Alternatively (or, also) you can cruise on out by catamaran to Isfjord, the second largest fjord in Svalbard.

Keep an eye out for birds, seals and even whales as you make your way out to the fjord.

An old mine outside of Longyearbyen, on the side of a mountain. Exploring these is one of the best things to do in Svalbard.
An old mine outside of Longyearbyen

6. Explore a coal mine

Previously, Svalbard’s industry was based around mining, with mostly Russia and Norway leading the charge.

As such, there are abandoned and disused mines littered around the place. Mine Number 3 (Gruve 3) is open to tour.

One the way, you’ll pass the Global Seed Vault, which is inspired somewhat by the mines. More on this soon.

At the mine you’ll hear what life was like for miners and see the equipment left behind when the mine was shut down in 1996.

You’ll even get to put on a miner’s overalls and crawl through a mining shaft replica. And tour part of the mine, of course.

Longyearbyen city limits, with the polar bear sign. Hiking and snowshoeing are two of the best things to do in Svalbard.
The city limits to the east.

7. Go hiking or snowshoeing

Hiking is a popular past time during the summer months, one of the best things to do in Svalbard. The town of Longyearbyen is surrounded by mountains, which you’re able to explore.

There are a range of hikes available for people of all fitness levels.

They make for excellent opportunities for photography and you can go fossil hunting too – the area is filled plant fossils, some of which are 60-million years old.

You’re permitted to take them home as a souvenir!

In the wintertime, conditions may be right to go snowshoeing.

There are plenty of options available – you can walk across a glacier, go on an expedition to see the northern lights or visit an ice cave.

These all sound like pretty enjoyable activities to me!

Epic fjords in Svalbard at sunset.
Glorious mountains in Svalbard.

8. Kayak around the fjords

If you’re more nautically inclined, then a good kayak might be in order.

You can go for a short kayak tour, or book onto a multi-day journeys.

During some, you will stop for a guided tour, or a mountain hike.

Great way to stretch the legs after being cooped up in the kayak for hours on end.

A greenhouse in Svalbard, where produce is grown.
Svalbard has greenhouses!

9. Enjoy fine dining in the Arctic north

If you travel to eat like myself, book a seat at Huset in Longyearbyen. It’ll probably be one of the best things you’ll do in Svalbard.

Many ingredients are sourced locally, from Svalbard and the Arctic and they have a Nordic-themed tasting menu.

I would like all the food items in my belly, now please.

Outside the Global Seed Vault, just outside of Longyearbyen.
As close as we got to the Global Seed Vault.

9. Visit the Global Seed Vault

In this remote archipelago is one of the world’s 1750 seed banks.

These act as insurance for humanity, housing seed collections, should we by struck by some environmental disaster or famine, which would wipe out crops.

You can’t actually enter the seed bank, but you can go right up close to it (if you’re lucky, we were unable to as there’d be a leakage due to the aforementioned rain!).

This is worth doing, as it’s quite a beautiful structure.

The entryway is a design by Norwegian artist Dyveke Sanne, called Perpetual Repercussion.

The roof and the vault entrance are filled with mirrors and highly reflective stainless steel, which reflects the perpetual light in the summer months (the choice of name is starting to make sense now).

In the wintertime during the polar night, 200 fibre-optic cables light the piece a greenish-turquoise and it looks just a little bit pretty.

We did a tour which took us to the Arctic Greenhouse, where we learnt about the hurdles local scientists and chefs are trying to overcome in regards to handling food waste and growing produce locally.

Svalbard’s issues are pretty unique (dealing with permafrost, lack of light in winter, etc) and it is all hugely fascinating.

Looking down from the centre of Longyearbyen, behind a statue of a miner.
Mining culture has its place in Svalbard’s history.

10. Learn about the archipelago’s history at the Svalbard Museum

Longyearbyen contains the northernmost university in the world, where many go to conduct studies in Arctic Biology, Arctic Geology, Arctic Geophysics, and Arctic Technology.

Within the University Centre in Svalbard, you’ll find the Svalbard Museum, which contains information and artefacts about the natural and cultural aspects of the region.

It’s well worth a visit if you’re curious about both the natural and human history of the region and if you’re a fan of taxidermy, as there are many stuffed specimens housed here.

Hot chocolate in a cup with a puffin on it.
Nothing like a cup of hot choc to warm you to the bones.

11. Grab a hot choc at the northernmost chocolate factory in the world

Fruene is a café in Longyearbyen that is known as being the northernmost chocolate factory in the world.

You can buy chocolate treats shaped like polar bears, or featuring designs that are meant to resemble glaciers or the northern lights. Or, you can grab a hot chocolate and warm up, after battling freezing temperatures outside.

Although as a word of warning – it is really freaking hot in Fruene, especially compared to the temperatures outside. I found myself almost stripping down to my long johns to deal with the heat. I dislike being too hot and so found this aspect of the place a bit unpleasant!

Snowmobiles in Svalbard, against a backdrop of mountains. Riding a snowmobile is one of the top things to do in Svalbard.
Riding dirty on a snowmobile.

12. Ride a snowmobile

Snowmobiling is one of the best available Svalbard adventures and a fantastically fun activity!

Most residents of Longyearbyen don’t have cars and opt to journey around on snowmobiles instead.

Visitors can go on expeditions themselves, to see icebergs, old trapper’s huts and abandoned mines, look for Arctic wildlife and in some cases take the journey out to other settlements.

Some still have people living and working in them.

Others are ghost towns.

Snowmobiling is an option all year around, but it naturally depends on the level of snow at your time of visit.

ATVs in Svalbard.
Our vehicle of choice for the day.

13. Go for an ATV safari up a mountain

If it’s not, erm, snowy enough to snowmobile, you can go on an ATV tour instead.

I did this. we rode the quad bikes out to the old airport, then up the top of a mountain to check out one of the old mines dotted around Longyearbyen. The views were fantastic and I spotted my first reindeer in the wild, a very exciting moment for an Australian.

I would later go on to have a reindeer-based casserole for dinner that night and feel weird about the whole experience.

ATV-ing is certainly fun, although my travel-partner (who is also Australian) and I found it quite daunting to ride the bikes on ice.

Everyone else who was with us was nonplussed about this experience, but I’m sure they were far more used to dealing with these kinds of conditions than we were.

A prolonged sunset in the shoulder seasons in Svalbard, where the sky is a beautifully hazy pink for hours on end.
Or enjoy hours-long sunsets!

14. Enjoy the midnight sun or the polar nights

Svalbard is a land of extremes, in many ways.

Due to its location up the very top of the planet, the sun doesn’t set during the summer months (late May-September) and does not make an appearance from around November to March.

The winter season or Polar Night as it is known is “welcomed” in the most interesting manner – by a festival, known as the Dark Season Blues, held late October every year.

It is, as you can probably guess, the northernmost blues festival in the world! Attending this festival is definitely one of the top things to do in Svalbard.

Don’t discount spring or autumn for a trip, either.

During the shoulder seasons, there is about six hours of sunlight and sunrise passes seamlessly into sunset.

The colours are beautiful and light conditions were made ideal for photography.

We found there were plenty of things to do in Svalbard in October.

The town centre of Longyearbyen.
Longyearbyen is one of the most interesting towns I’ve ever stayed in.

15. Go shopping in Longyearbyen

Finally, Longyearbyen is a truly interesting place to go shopping.

I probably spent way too much money on souvenirs – buying postcards, magnets, a beanie, a travel journal and a puffin mug for my Mum.

Longyearbyen has a post office and I expect most friends or family members would get a real kick out of receiving a postcard from this part of the world.

We also spent quite a few nights at the aptly named Svalbar Pub, drinking their stock of a delicious sparkling cider (whoops, but there wasn’t much to begin with) and eating reindeer pizza. And still feeling weird about it.

Final thoughts on things to do in Svalbard

If you have the opportunity to go to Svalbard, do it. It’s one of the most amazing and unique places you can visit in the world.

My trip to Svalbard remains one of my favourites. I think about it often and can’t wait to return to see more of this remote and fascinating part of the globe.

Have you been to Svalbard? What did you get up to there? For more like this, check out my content on the equally beautiful Faroe Islands.

More about Svalbard

Pin me baby, one more time. 📌

Hiking, kayaking, dog sledding, snowmobiling - these are just some of the things to do in Svalbard (Norway). There's an option for every traveller, for sure.

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  1. after reading your story am even more excited to visit Svalbard, we will, My 11 year old son and with my Daughter and my self be in Svalbard from the 30th of December 2019 till 5th of January 2020, after spending same time at the Lofoten Island and Norway .

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