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Longyearbyen is a small town of less than 2,500, but it’s the largest settlement and capital of the Svalbard archipelago which lies between the Norwegian Sea, the Arctic Ocean, Barents Sea and the Greenland Sea. It’s one of the most secluded places in the world, home to more polar bears than people and boasts a landscape of craggy mountains and pristine glaciers while being one of the northernmost permanently inhabited places on the planet.
For those who enjoy getting off the beaten path, there are few better destinations – here’s what you can do once you get there.
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What Is It? There are numerous hills in the area that offer breathtaking views, and as Longyearbyen is tucked between mountains, you’ll have multiple options for hiking. The Plateau Mountain hike is a local favorite.
Why Do It? The trek offers great views over the town and fjord, along with opportunities to spot colorful flora, Svalbard reindeer and migratory birds.
Good to Know: The route begins at the Cableway Central at Skjæringa. As it’s outside of the safe area for polar bears and travelers through steep, uneven terrain you’ll need polar bear protection and experience, or preferably a guide.
What Is It? A small museum of natural and cultural history, Svalbard Museum focuses on the archipelago’s wildlife and geology, as well as the local history of Longyearbyen and settlements nearby. It covers everything from the first whalers in the 17th century through Russian Pomors, Norwegian trapping, Arctic expeditions and mineral extraction to today’s society, based on tourism, research and mining.
Why Do It? It’s the place to go for learning more about life in the Arctic, with themes of the exhibition ranging from the interplay between nature and people to daily life and survival here. You’ll also get a detailed explanation as to how animals adapt to extreme weather conditions.
Good to Know: The museum has a shop with Arctic literature, local crafts, postcards and a variety of other souvenirs. Watch for polar bears in the surroundings, as they do appear from time to time.
What Is It? This museum focuses on the heroic efforts made by pioneers to reach the North Pole while revealing the history and importance of the expeditions have had in the Arctic.
Why Do It? Fascinating for would-be explorers, it includes three main exhibits that chronic expeditions around the turn of the 20th century, including the Wellman Expeditions, with American journalist Walter Wellman launching unsuccessful attempts; the Norge Expedition, a multinational effort by Italian, Norwegian, and American contributors, including Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen who had earlier led the first successful expedition to the South Pole; and the Italia Expedition, a 1928 expedition that resulted in a crash and the loss of several crew members.
Good to Know: The on-site souvenir shop sells a range of polar-related items, along with gifts, cards, clothing, information and illustrations about the Arctic regions.
What Is It? The perfect opportunity to buy gifts, souvenirs and other items.
Why Do It? All shopping in Longyearbyen and throughout Svalbard is tax-free. You can buy everything from wool sweaters to polar bear stuffed animals. Alcohol prices are also cheaper here than what you’ll find at inland Norway stores you might want to pick up some of the local beer too.
Good to Know: Most shops, including clothing boutiques and souvenir shops are in the pedestrian-friendly downtown business district.
What Is It? Longyearbyen is home to seven coal mines, one that is still in operation and one, Coal Mine 3, available for public tours.
Why Do It? You’ll find out what it was like to work in the coal mines on a guided tour that brings you deep into the mountain with protective clothing included.
Good to Know: In addition to touring Coal Mine 3, you can see the ruins of Coal Mine 2 in the south part of town. Also known as the Santa Claus Mine, some say that Santa Claus lives there and at Christmas people leave letters in a mailbox nearby.
What Is It? An evening at a wilderness camp in the Arctic with dinner and a polar bear presentation.
Why Do It? It offers a great introduction to the area, its history and discovery, and polar bears, along with a delicious local meal with dishes like reindeer stew and Arctic brownies.
Good to Know: Dress warmly. Dinner is included along with soda, coffee, tea or alcoholic beverages.
What Is It? There are a number of ice caves in the glaciers near Longyearbyen and beyond.
Why Do It? You can explore the world that lies beneath tons of ice and even wander through the frozen corridors. You’ll see stunning shades of blue, icicles and snow crystals.
Good to Know: Multiple outfitters offer the experience, including Spitsbergen Outdoor Activities. It includes a headlamp, crampons and a helmet.
What Is It? The Global Seed Vault houses 2.5 billion seeds as the world’s safety net in case of a major regional or global disaster. Almost one million different types of seeds are safely stored beneath Svalbard’s permafrost here.
Why Do It? Just to be able to say you’ve been there as it’s not an easy place to reach, temperatures can reach −51.3 °F and there are polar bears all around as it’s important for the facility to be as secure as possible. While you can’t go inside, selfies are allowed.
Good to Know: There are guided tours that will bring you to the seed vault and tell you all about it.
What Is It? Polar bears can be seen all over town, in road signs, works of art and graffiti, as well as the occasional live animal.
Why Do It? Counting the polar bears is a fun thing to do while you’re in Longyearbyen. The “Beware of Polar Bears” signs also make for great photo-ops as there are few places in the world that have them.
Good to Know: Keep in mind that it’s fairly rare to see an actual live polar bear in town.
What Is It? Svalbard Brewery is the world’s northernmost brewery.
Why Do It? Why wouldn’t you want to tour the world’s northernmost brewery? It’s another opportunity to do something few others have. You’ll learn about its history, enjoy a beer tasting and tasty Russian food.
Good to Know: The brewery was established in 2011 and served its first beers to locals and visitors in August of 2015. Prior to that, a 1928 law prohibited the production of alcohol on Svalbard and it took great effort to change it.
What Is It? The Svalbard archipelago is one of the world’s best places to see the northern lights.
Why Do It? Watching Mother Nature’s colorful light show in the sky is an experience of a lifetime.
Good to Know: If you come in the summertime, under the Midnight Sun, there will be no darkness, which means the aurora won’t be visible. While you might see them throughout much of the rest of the year, joining a two-day snowmobile expedition that uses Longyearbyen as its starting point will increase the odds. December is the best month, with the skies completely dark. It’s also more likely to be dry, with less of a chance for cloudy skies to block the lights.
What Is it? Kayak trips are available from Longyearbyen that will bring you close to Arctic nature, including a glacier.
Why Do It? There’s nothing like paddling through icy waters surrounded by breathtaking Arctic scenery. The glaciers make for stunning photo backdrops.
Good to Know: You’ll head out in sturdy kayaks wearing a warm dry suit and accompanied by an experienced guide. Some trips also include a guided walk to the abandoned settlement of Hiorthamn and lunch on the beach.
What Is It? Everyone in Svalbard drives snowmobiles with the Arctic landscape covered by snow, it’s the best way to get around.
Why Do It? Experience life as a local while visiting interesting sites like a mining community or an abandoned town, traveling through narrow, snow-white valleys and over big glaciers.
Good to Know: The Snowmobile Tour to the East Coast is a favorite, a 10 to 12-hour excursion using the most environmentally-friendly snowmobiles, passes large glaciers and frozen rivers along the way to the top polar bear hunting grounds.
What Is It? Thanks to Svalbard’s remote location, you can enjoy skiing idyllic winter landscapes on untracked runs, far from the crowds or obstacles.
Why Do It? Norwegians love skiing, and Longyearbyen is arguably the best place to base yourself to enjoy the locals’ pastime. Explore the wild nature on skis is an unforgettable experience.
Good to Know: Trollsteinen is by far the most popular run near town. You’ll cross the Larsbreen glacier and enjoy breathtaking views of Longyearbyen, the Adventfjord and the Hiorthfjellet mountain. Just remember to be cautious of polar bears and carry the necessary protection.