Planning to spend time in Svalbard, in Arctic Norway? You'll likely be staying in Longyearbyen, one of the world's northernmost towns that offers many highly recommended experiences for visitors. In this article we look at the 15 top things to do in Longyearbyen.
During your stay, you will find a range of shops, pubs, and places to eat while the untamed nature of the Arctic wilderness and the adventures it promises are never far from view.
Where is Longyearbyen?
Located in the Arctic Ocean between the Barents Sea, the Greenland Sea, and the Norwegian Sea, Longyearbyen is one of the most isolated communities in the world.
As the world's northernmost community with a population of more than 1,000, Longyearbyen is the capital of the Svalbard archipelago, located on Spitsbergen, the largest island in the Norwegian archipelago.
A few fun facts about Svalbard
For three months of the year (from November to January), the sun sets over Svalbard and leaves Longyearbyen in total darkness during the polar night. But if you're visiting in the summer months between May and September, you'll experience the midnight sun, and enjoy bright sunshine 24 hours a day.
By law, you'll have to leave your feline family members at home. Cats are banned in Svalbard to help protect the local bird wildlife.
Fewer than 2,500 locals make up the population of Longyearbyen.
And of those locals, many don't call Longyearbyen home for long. The average length of time people live in the community is only slightly more than six years.
During the winter months (October to May) temperatures average 9°F (-13°C) but the summer months warm up to an average 45°F (7°C) thanks to the warm Atlantic current that moderates Longyearbyen temperatures.
Due to the long history of mining in the community, and the dirty shoes that accompany coal miners, convention in Longyearbyen is to remove your shoes when entering shops, hotels or restaurants.
Some say Santa Claus lives in the ruins of Coal Mine 2 in Longyearbyen. During the Christmas season, people have been known to leave their letters to Santa in a nearby mailbox.
If you're leaving town, it's best to do so with an organized tour or the right protection in case you cross paths with a roaming polar bear. In fact, it's outrightly discouraged to leave the town centre without a rifle. It's common to see locals walking about with an approved fire arm to protect against polar bears.
Top 15 things to do in Longyearbyen
For a remote and secluded town you'll be surprised at the number of attractions and experiences you'll find available to you when in Longyearbyen. Polar expeditions through Spitsbergen depart from the port in Longyearbyen, and such voyages are scheduled such that guests typically have the opportunity before and after their expedition to spend time in Longyearbyen.
Whether you're looking for an Arctic adventure, want to learn more about explorers at the North Pole Expedition Museum, or wish to spend an afternoon in one of the world's most unique breweries, you'll find what you're looking for during your visit.
1. Hike or ski the Arctic landscape
One of the best parts of visiting Longyearbyen is leaving town, and adventuring in the Arctic wilderness.
One way to do so is to book a hiking guide to stay safe from any potential polar bears, and hike the Plateau Mountain. Leaving from Cableway Central, the tour rewards hikers with stunning views over the town, and the natural landscape.
Getting out of town will give you the chance to explore your surroundings and experience first hand the local biodiversity that makes Svalbard the Wildlife Capital of the Arctic including reindeer, seals, Arctic foxes, walruses, whales and migratory birds.
2. North Pole Expedition Museum
Delve into the history, events and the efforts of early explorers of the North Pole who have left a lasting legacy in the Arctic at the North Pole Expedition Museum.
Here, you'll find a range of original film footage, telegrams, pictures, newspaper clippings, and artifacts that tell of the bravery and amazing stories of the first explorers to the North Pole.
You're sure to leave inspired by the passion, spirit and wonder of explorers before you.
3. Svalbard Church
Spend time at one of the world's most northernmost churches, originally erected in Longyearbyen in 1921.
Svalbard church was destroyed during WWII and rebuilt as it currently stands in 1956 on a hill overlooking the town.
4. Search for polar bears
Svalbard is known for its polar bear inhabitants, because there was a time when there were more polar bears than people on the archipelago. While polar bears are most commonly found wandering the northern part of the island, they have been spotted close to Longyearbyen. This is why anyone leaving town must do so with the right protection.
The best time to see polar bears in their natural habitat is between May and August - as the ice melts and ships can travel through the icy waters.
There are many opportunities in and around Longyearbyen to safely spot polar bears too—especially on polar expeditions staffed with wildlife biologists and experts who know how to safely locate polar bears in the wild. One of these is Quark Expeditions' Spitsbergen Photography: Domain of the Polar Bear. See how many you can find, whether in a museum, on one of many signs, as art installations or as graffiti on the sides of buildings in town all year round.
5. Svalbard Brewery
Raise a glass to exploration at Svalbard Brewery!
When you visit Svalbard Brewery you'll have the chance to experience a unique tasting of beer brewed locally and inspired by the vast Arctic wilderness.
The ice and cold weren't the only obstacles in founding a brewery in Svalbard, in fact the founders had to change Norwegian law in order to allow alcohol to be brewed in Svalbard legally.
Established in 2011, the first Svalbard craft beer was on store shelves in 2015.
6. Svalbard Museum
One of four museums on the island, the Svalbard Museum will entice you inside to explore the interesting history and Arctic nature that surrounds you during your stay.
A large array of detailed exhibits and collections will help you learn more about Longyearbyen's cultural and local history as well as the geology and geographical formations of the region, as well as the animals and plant life of Svalbard.
7. Shop and dine
Longyearbyen is home to many shops for clothing, souvenirs or outdoor equipment, all of which you can shop duty-free.
And there are many restaurants to satisfy your adventurous taste buds too.
Take the opportunity try reindeer steak at the fine-dining restaurant Huset, known for having one of Europe's largest wine cellars.
Book an evening at Camp Barentz to enjoy a traditional Arctic dinner in a cabin modelled to recreate the cabin of Willem Barentz, who is credited with discovering Svalbard. In addition to enjoying drinks, dinner and dessert, you'll also get the chance to learn all about polar bears during a presentation by your host.
There are many opportunities to indulge in local cuisine at different restaurants throughout town, whether you are looking for moose burgers, pastries, stews, or soups. You'll find many options to try something new.
8. Visit a coal mine
Coal mining in Lonyearbyen is a critical part of the town's history. Throughout your adventures you may see abandoned mines, but there is still one working coal mine you might see as well.
Coal Mine 3 is available for public tours and is a great opportunity to learn more about coal mining and the working conditions inside a mine.
Sign up for a one of the guided tours (which will equip you with the necessary protective clothing) that will take you into the mountain for your own first-hand coal mining experience.
9. Ice Caves
In and around Longyearbyen, glaciers are home to ice caves that offer a path into the world beneath the ice.
Sign up for a tour and experience the quiet world few get to see, and take in the scenery of blue glaciers, snow crystals and icicles you'll never forget.
10. The Global Seed Vault
With seeds from all over the world, Longyearbyen is home to the world's food supply safety net.
Carved into the Svalbard hillside near the Longyearbyen airport, you'll find the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, where over one million seed samples are stored and protected.
Colloquially dubbed the 'Doomsday Vault,' the structure functions to protect essential seeds in case of global disaster.
While you can't go inside the Vault, you can photograph outside, and learn more about its global importance at the Svalbard Museum.
11. See the Northern Lights
Svalbard is one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights.
When the darkness descends in Longyearbyen during the Polar Night, the Aurora borealis can sometimes be seen throughout the day.
But remember, if you're visiting during the Midnight Sun when the sun never sets, the elusive light show won't be visible.
Svalbard drives snowmobiles. In fact, snowmobiles are the preferred method of transportation in Longyearbyen. So much so, there are even dedicated roads specific for snowmobiles throughout town. And you'll see scores of snowmobiles parked outside the local university!
Take a short daytrip tour through the tundra to see the icebergs, mountains, and glaciers unique to Svalbard.
Or head out on a multi-day trip snowmobile trip and camp in the wilderness with experienced guides who can share their knowledge of the vast geography, history and wildlife that surrounds you.
13. Dog sled
Mush through the Arctic tundra with Svalbard Husky. A local, family-owned company with more than 100 Alaskan Husky is ready to take you on a variety of tours to explore Longyearbyen.
Travelers can glide across the snow on thane Arctic sledding tour, explore ice caves with the dogs, or pursue the Northern Lights.
14. Satiate your sweet tooth
Visit Fruene, the northernmost chocolate shop in the world.
Taste the chocolate and treats inspired by and created in the Arctic including polar bear chocolates, freshly baked buns, bread, and hot chocolate for a delicious way to warm up before your next adventure.
15. Kayak or explore on boat tours
The best way to get an up close experience with the incredible glaciers of Svalbard are by taking to the water.
Getting off into the sea is also a great opportunity to experience the wildlife you won't find on land.
Best way to get to Svalbard
Various airlines fly to Svalbard. Departing from Oslo, you can expect a flight time around three hours and from Tromsø flights are shorter at about one and a half hours. All guests must have travel with their passport or national ID card.
Other airlines fly directly to Longyearbyen throughout the year from Oslo. And during high travel times from March - August, there are more flights available for booking.
Throughout the year, some domestic airlines fly weekly to Longyearbyen and from March - August the number of flights increase to more than one per day.
Best time to visit Longyearbyen?
In Svalbard, you'll find lots of options for nature experiences all year round. While July is the warmest time of year to visit, the best time to visit Longyearbyen largely depends on what you want to do when you arrive. For many, visiting during the Polar Summer gives a chance to experience all that Longyearbyen has to offer!
Polar Summer (Mid-May - September 30)
- During the Polar Summer you'll experience the Midnight Sun when the sun never sets on your adventures. Many polar expeditions schedule their voyages for this time, as well. Early spring offers visits an incredible range of authentic, immersive polar experiences in Spitsbergen.
- When you visit in September, the days start getting shorter and with the earlier sunset, your chances of seeing the Northern Lights increases!