A visit to Longyearbyen is an experience you'll never forget, so you'll want to be mindful when you pick the time of year to visit to guarantee that all your polar adventure dreams are possible.
Longyearbyen is an amazing year-round destination, but it's important to remember the small community experiences distinct seasons and the changing weather, snow and ice conditions, and number of daylight hours can impact on the outdoor activities you can enjoy. You'll also want to familiarize yourself with the time of year polar vessels typically bring travelers to Longyearbyen, which is typically between May and late September.
In this article, you'll find out when is the best time to visit Longyearbyen, one of the world's northernmost communities.
Where is Longyearbyen?
Longyearbyen is the capital of Svalbard and is located on Spitsbergen, the largest island in the Norwegian Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. Spitsbergen Island is also known as "The Wildlife Capital of the Arctic."
Situated in the Arctic Ocean, about 1,300 kilometers from the North Pole, Longyearbyen is one of the world's most isolated communities. The town's fascinating history and location in the high Arctic makes it a unique starting destination to further explore the Norwegian Arctic.
Interesting Facts about Svalbard
Before the 1920s, Svalbard was largely uninhabited by humans until the Spitsbergen Treaty officially granted Norwegian sovereignty to the archipelago.
Longyearbyen has a long history as a coal mining town, and to this day practices and traditions from that time carry over. For example, it is customary in Longyearbyen to remove your shoes when entering shops, hotels or restaurants because traditionally coal miners left their dusty, dirty shoes outside.
There are no cats allowed in Svalbard. This is an effort to protect the bird wildlife in the area.
For months at a time, the sun leaves its last rays over Svalbard before plunging it's inhabitants into darkness, and this phenomenon is known as the Polar Night. When the sun returns in the summer and the season progresses, the days slowly begin to lengthen until the sun never sets and bright sunshine can be enjoyed 24 hours a day. This sunny winter weather is known as the Midnight Sun.
Buildings in Longyearbyen are built on stilts because of the frozen tundra landscape.
Svalbard is home to Alkefjellet, which loosely translates to "Bird Mountain," an impressive bird cliff that reaches 100 metres high. The rock face offers a safe nesting area for an amazing array of breeding birds looking to avoid Arctic foxes and predator gulls.
Some say Santa Claus lives in an abandoned coal mine in Longyearbyen. During the Christmas season, people have been known to leave letters to Santa in a nearby mailbox.
At one point, there were more polar bears than people on the Svalbard archipelago. Nowadays, you shouldn't leave the town of Longyearbyen without a rifle (or someone with a rifle) to protect you in case of polar bear encounters.
Two of the world's northernmost recorded hot springs in the world are located in Svalbard's Northwest Spitsbergen National Park. While visiting the hot spot, you might see get the chance to see arctic terns, puffins, and purple sandpipers that inhabit the park.
Top Things to do in Longyearbyen
For a small community located in the high arctic, you might be surprised to learn of the many activities and attractions that await you in Longyearbyen.
Many arctic expedition ships depart from Longyearbyen and most are scheduled to leave guests time to explore Longyearbyen before and after their expedition. While your visiting, you won't want to miss:
The local cuisine
Whether you're looking for a delicious meal or the perfect souvenir, you'll be pleased by the variety of shops, restaurants and pubs in Longyearbyen including:
Huset is Longyearbyen's premier fine-dining restaurant, offers one of Europe's largest wine cellars with 20,000 bottles and its famous focus on Nordic cooking techniques.
Kroa is Longyearbyen's most historic restaurant with a menu dedicated to seasonal ingredients and is hard to miss in the middle of the town.
Wanting to warm up with a cup of coffee or satiate your sweet tooth? Look no further than Fruene, the northernmost chocolate shop in the world.
One of Longyearbyen's snowmobile tours
Svalbard runs on snowmobiles and one of the best ways to travel in and around the frozen landscape is by snowmobile. Snowmobiling is such a popular way to travel in Longyearbyen, there are even roads that don't allow any other type of transportation.
Explore Svalbard with a snowmobile day trip through the tundra and spend your day observing fauna, and enjoying the views of mountains and ice bergs, before getting off your ride to go glacier hiking.
Or book a longer trip with snowmobile guides, and spend some of your polar nights camping - you might even get a chance to see the Northern Lights!
Local wildlife sightings
While Svalbard is known for polar bears, many other amazing creatures call the Northern Norway archipelago home. Get out of town and explore your surroundings for a chance to see amazing migratory birds, the Arctic fox, blue whales, and more!
Try one of the most popular winter sports: dog sledding around Longyearbyen is a great way to take in the natural beauty of the surrounding area. Mush through the snow and Arctic wilderness with Svalbard Husky for an experience you'll never forget!
How to get to Svalbard
If you're searching for a great first experience in the polar region, try the Arctic Saga: Exploring Spitsbergen via the Faroes and Jan Mayen expedition. This is an amazing opportunity to learn the rich history and culture of the area. You will experience the Midnight Sun for your chance to see Arctic wildlife, even in the middle of the night.
Looking to explore Svalbard and familiarize yourself with the wildlife of today, and culture of the past? The Spitsbergen In Depth: Big Islands, Big Adventure could be the expedition for you. Possible wildlife sightings on this trip include whales, walruses, Arctic birds, and reindeer and you'll also get the chance to explore the secluded landing sites of 16th-century maritime culture.
Is the Arctic wildlife of interest to you? Then explore the polar region and travel through Svalbard on the Spitsbergen Explorer: Wildlife Capital of the Arctic expedition that takes you around the northern, southern and west coasts of the Spitsbergen Island for your best chance to see the incredible wildlife that call the island home. Possible sightings include Svalbard reindeer, walruses, whales, seabirds, and polar bears in their natural, yet harsh, habitat.
For photographers (amateur or experienced), consider Spitsbergen Photography: Domain of the Polar Bear.
There are many ways to travel to Svalbard, and you can choose the one that works best for you. Various airlines fly to Svalbard, flights departing from Oslo take about three hours to arrive, and flights from Tromsø are only about one and a half hours. Feel free to speak to a Polar Travel Advisor who can explain the different types of Spitsbergen itineraries and answer all of your questions.
Weather in Svalbard
Located in the Arctic circle, you may be surprised to learn of the relatively mild temperatures in Svalbard.
In winter months, temperatures average 9°F (-13°C), but in the summer months temperatures rise and the average temperature in the summer is 45°F (7°C).
When you visit Svalbard during the summer months, you'll find that you can enjoy all aspects of what Longyearbyen has to offer. In the summer, the sea ice melts and increases your chances of spotting wildlife when boat trips and tours are open and running.
Because of the warmer weather from mid-May - September, these are the main seasons for visitors as more roads and waterways are open for travel. In the summer months, the icy waters break up and make shore landings possible for you to explore more of the area.
Wildlife highlights by season in Svalbard
The best time of year to see the wildlife in and around Longyearbyen is May - September but some months are better for some animal encounters than others.
May - September
Since the weather is the warmest during this time of year, there are more outdoor activities taking place that increase your chance of seeing Arctic wildlife in their natural habitats.
This is also the best season to spot polar bears because the melting ice allows for expedition ships to get closer to the shoreline to see the majestic animals.
Expeditions in June take advantage of the warm weather and possible wildlife sightings at this time of year include seals, walruses, and birdlife.
July is a great time to visit Svalbard to see whales as the ice melts and they return to the fjords. Svalbard can be home to up to 11 species of whales during this time, and you'll want to watch for minke whales, white beluga whales and bowheads.
Svalbard packing list
When you're packing for your visit to Svalbard, make sure you have the polar essentials including:
- enough clothing to be able to layer appropriately
- warm socks
- waterproof gloves
- buff, scarf, or other face protection
- ski goggles
- lip balm
- warm hat
Check out this helpful video while you're packing to make sure you don't miss anything!
Best time of year to visit Longyearbyen
Overall, it's important to remember that the best time to visit Svalbard largely depends on what what you want to do (and see!) when you arrive.
Are you interested in seeing the Northern Lights? Then a visit during September might be your best bet at making your Aurora borealis dreams come true. September is when the summer season in Svalbard turns to fall, and the solstice is one of the best times to visit Svalbard and see the Northern Lights.
Want to see if you can spot a polar bear on your visit? Then visiting from May to August is your best chance as the ice melts during this time and ships can pass through the icy waters - and the long bright daylight improves your chances even further. Try the unique Spitsbergen Photography: In Search of Polar Bears expedition on your search for polar bears and other wildlife.