Spitsbergen travel, Longyearbyen, is a much-discussed topic as travelers around the world research and plan their adventures into the Norwegian Arctic. Longyearbyen is the northernmost permanent settlement in the world, situated roughly at the halfway mark between mainland Norway and the North Pole. This settlement of approximately 2,300 people (formerly a coal mining town) is popular because it's the jumping-off point for voyages into the Norwegian Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, of which Spitsbergen is the largest island.
Plataberget Mountain overlooks Longyearbyen, the northernmost town in the world. Photo: Grange Productions
There's a lot to see and do during a short visit to Longyearbyen, which has a selection of art galleries, museums, pubs, restaurants, a school, a university, and a sports complex.
Where is Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen, Norway?
Svalbard became part of Norway following the signing of the Svalbard Treaty of 1920 and the Svalbard Act of 1925. Other nations, especially Russia, have long held interests in Svalbard. Longyearbyen sits on Isfjorden, the second-longest fjord in Svalbard, located on the west coast of Spitsbergen. Buildings in the northernmost town in the world are built on stilts due to the frozen tundra. Longyearbyen is approximately 2,000 kilometers north of Oslo, the capital of Norway. Longyearbyen is 580 miles (930 km) north of Tromsø, where planes frequently stop en route from the capital city. For details on how to get to Longyearbyen, see our Explorer's Guide: How to get to Spitsbergen.
Top 5 things to do in Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen, Norway
A polar bear exhibit in Svalbard Museum. Photo: Grange Productions
While it's relatively small, Longyearbyen has enough to engage guests who arrive by plane and have time on their hands before their polar vessel embarks. As one Quark Expeditions guest wrote in the blog 24 Hours in Longyearbyen, you can tour Longyearbyen by taxi, but setting out on foot is much more conducive to connecting with locals who are from all over the world. And it's definitely a walkable town.
So, the top 5 things to do in Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen, Norway:
1. Do a walking tour of this town that has no street names.
Because of the simple layout of Longyearbyen, and the relatively small population, there are no street names. But you won't have any difficulty finding your way around. The multicolored houses, which are on stilts, surround the center core of the town where a few hotels, pubs, restaurants, and cultural attractions are located. Pay attention to the warning signs: You mustn't walk outside the village limits. See the above note about polar bears. The Visit Norway tourism board has curated a Longyearbyen walk to guide you.
Longyearbyen boasts a small cluster of restaurants and stores in the walkable town centre. Photo: Grange Productions
2. Visit the University Centre in Svalbard.
Located at 78º North latitude, this is the world's northernmost higher education institution. Pay attention to the cloakroom and “parking lot.” You'll see that students wear parkas and ski leggings to school during the cold season, and out front, you'll likely see a large number of parked snowmobiles.
The University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) was founded in 1993 to offer university-level educational programs in Arctic studies, to further Arctic research, and to support the development of Svalbard as an international research entity.
3. Svalbard Museum.
For a deep dive into the historical, cultural, natural, and scientific background of Svalbard, the Svalbard Museum is definitely a must-visit during your stay. Photography, archival, and artifact collections detail the history of this northernmost settlement. The museum's photographic collections chronicle the various chapters in the history of Svalbard including its hunting and trapping days, mining era, the Arctic region during the Second World War, and up to present-day tourism.
4. North Pole Expedition Museum.
In the building just behind the University Centre is the North Pole Expedition Museum. It's an ideal outing if you're about to head out on your polar expedition. Learn about the passion and national pride that motivated the early Arctic explorers, who came from mainland Norway, Russia, Italy, America, Sweden, Holland, France. the Czech Republic, and Finland, among others.
5. Visit Svalbard Church.
Situated on the side of a hill overlooking the town of Longyearbyen is the local parish church, Svalbard Kirke, which is a worship center but also a de facto community center where locals can attend concerts and other music performances. The red wooden church, built in 1958, seats about 140 people and was the most northerly church in the world until the 2017 construction of St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church at the air force base in remote Nagurskoye.
You'll find much more to entertain yourself. Retail therapy is also an option, too, at Lompen Senteret commercial center, which houses all manner of stores, shops, eateries, and outdoor gear stores.
Best time to visit Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen, Norway, by cruise ship
The best time to visit Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen, Norway by polar vessel is the period from May to September, which is when most polar expeditions visit the area. Polar bear sightings are fairly common during this period, especially along the ice edge where polar bears hunt for food. And if it's whales you're keen to see, read our Best Time to Enjoy Svalbard Whale Watching blog.
What to expect on a cruise to Spitsbergen?
For an inspiring video detailing what to expect on a cruise to Spitsbergen, watch Why Travel to Spitsbergen With Quark Expeditions. You'll get a clear idea of the onboard activities and off-ship adventures available to guests, and also of what life is like onboard a polar vessel in the Arctic.
For a detailed breakdown, read the itinerary pages for voyages such as Quark Expeditions' Spitsbergen Explorer: Wildlife Capital of the Arctic and Intro to Spitsbergen: Fjords, Glaciers, and Wildlife of Svalbard.