Svalbard, the exotic and isolated archipelago; where reindeer inhabit unsullied nature reserves and polar bears roam the shimmering glaciers. Located 78 degrees north, to most, it’s surprising that people even manage to live there. Nevertheless, it’s becoming an increasingly popular, yet exclusive travel spot. No wonder, as the amazing place offers incredible experiences, unique wildlife and a whole range of bucket list worthy activities.
Here is the little Svalbard bucket list with the top 7 things to do on the island. After reading these you are likely wanting to find that warm, thick jacket of yours deep inside your closet, and jump on the very first plane.
1. See the Northern Lights
The Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) — the astonishing natural phenomenon that has inspired and amazed generation upon generation.
Similarly to star-gazing you should head out of the city and avoid any unnecessary light pollution. The darker around you, the better view you are likely to get. And while you could essentially stroll around yourself and find a decent spot, the best option for most is to go on an organised trip with experts who knows where to go etc.
We used BetterMoments and their night boat cruise to see the light, which costs around 1,000 NOK per person. Not only was the trip great in being able to marvel at the amazing “colourful haze” in the sky, but it was awesome as the trip also offered a lot of informative history about Svalbard and included visits to abandoned mining towns and more.
If you’re there during the snowy season then you could also opt for a northern lights snowmobile trip. These are usually a bit more expensive but offer greater flexibility (i.e. taking photographs of the light on the boat is close to impossible due to the shaky movement of the boat resulting in blurred photographs). Whereas on a snowmobile excursion you could jump off, pull out the tripod, and shoot to your heart’s content.
BetterMoments’ cruise also offered a really cool bucket list worthy dish — smoked reindeer heart. Hehe, my girlfriend, Elaine, didn’t mind it at first, but once we were told what we were actually eating, she abruptly stopped. I, on the other hand, I loved it and thought it was quite tasty, and so did my parents. So we kept munching on it throughout the trip!
Fun fact: When you’re as far north as Svalbard, the Northern Lights is actually to the south! Moreover, Svalbard has both day and night Aurora Borealis and they are both visible during the winter when it’s dark most of the night AND day.
How to Photograph Northern Lights | Dave Morrow Photography
Auroral Activity – Aurora Forecast | Space Weather Live
2. Ride a Dog Sledge
Regardless of the season, you’ll be able to ride a dog sledge. However, in the summer months, you have to opt for “dog sledge on wheels”. Some might think that the latter is not as fun, but I’ll guarantee you it’s also an awesome experience.
You’ll not only be able to ride your very own sledge but also prepare the dogs for the trip (which involves a lot of cuddling). Most trips go to the majestic Adventdalen, wich holds beautiful nature, lots of wildlife, and industrial heritage.
After many email inquiries with various dog sledge companies, we came to the conclusion that SvalbardHusky best suited our needs and their 4 hour dog sledge experience. What’s cool is that they offered a 15% discount simply as we booked through email (and that we didn’t need to pay in advance). You should check with them if that offer still remains should you want to do the dog sledge activity as well.
3. Take a Bath in the Arctic Ocean
Personally, I have the challenge to swim in every major ocean in the world on my bucket list. If that sounds like a cool challenge to you as well, then you simply have to take a dip in the Arctic Ocean — and that’s cold! (The other major oceans in the world include the Atlantic, Indian, Pacific and Southern).
There are plenty of places you can go for a swim in Longyearbyen. First of all, there’s essentially a beach stretching all around the waterfront of the city. However, don’t except fine-grained sand, sunbeds, palms and the like. Rather, simply expect bigger, flatter, rocks — that still were okay to walk on bare feet — and that’s about it. And certainly, don’t expect warm temperatures. The water is usually close to 0 degrees Celsius.
Although the bath in itself is very, very cold. You quickly regain normal temperature and feel refreshed afterwards. I learned this in the army as we had to take baths in ice-covered lakes on several occasions. What’s important is that once you get up from the water you should quickly dry yourself and then put on several layers of clothing, usually a thinner layer onto your skin that breathes well, and then thicker layers, ending with a layer of wind- and rain-proof apparel.
Then you’re all set and quickly regain normal temperatures. Ironically, you might actually feel a slight burning sensation afterwards as the body reacts to the cold shock and heats up again.
This is not for the faint-hearted, and regardless of whether you’re an athlete or prefer your spare time in front of the “telly”, there are certain precautions you ought to take:
- No matter how you may want to do it, please do not lay out on a long swim. I really suggest you stay at shallow depths where you can stand so as to avoid any unnecessary risks associated with cramps and loss of control.
- If you have the opportunity you may want to take the bath in a more remote place. Just remember that you should absolutely not stroll around the wilderness by yourself and that you are required by law to carry firearms should you choose to venture outside the city in Svalbard. This is a security precaution against the chance of a wild encounter with polar bears.
- Have someone with you. Having someone to take the cold dip together with makes it more fun, there’s a bigger chance of being both sufficiently motivated and more accountable in accomplishing it, and it’s a good security precaution to take.
4. Eat at Huset
Huset, literally meaning “The House”, is a renown restaurant in the city of Longyearbyen. They offer both delicious 5/7 course dinners, as well as a bistro with traditional affordable dishes. Depending on the size of your wallet (and stomach) you choose what suits you best. Regardless, you cannot go wrong with either.
I always stress that people should go out of their comfort zone and try new food wherever they may travel to, especially food that is native to the area/country or other unusual dishes. So, while you’re in Svalbard and at Huset, you ought to try something new.
What about trying reindeer sausage, reindeer stew, lamb shank etc. in the bistro?
Or perhaps smoked mackerel, mountain sorrel from Svalbard and more in the restaurant’s 5/7-course dinner?
If you just want to “wing it” they do offer the “daily dinner” from 4 to 6 pm. You won’t know beforehand what you’ll get, but I’ve heard the locals all come frequently for this.
Huset (Official website)
Huset | Tripadvisor
5. Snowmobile Trips and Polar Bears
If you’re finally this far north, in Svalbard, a relatively remote area of the world, then you definitely ought to seek out the experiences unique to the area. You might never get the chance again!
Thus, you should look for great snowmobile trips that take you into the wilderness giving you the chance to spot polar bears, seals, magnificent out-of-this-world landscape, a rich biosphere, and more. You may also do boat cruises dedicated for this purpose. And no, penguins do not exist here — that’s the other side — the Antarctic.
Thankfully, all polar bear hunting is forbidden in Svalbard, and it has been few incidences where the bears have attacked humans.
Fun fact: And while we’re at it. Did you know that polar bears aren’t exactly white? In fact their skin is quite black, and supposedly their fur is “transparent”? Weird, I know. Each hair shaft is pigment-free and transparent with a hollow core that scatters and reflects visible light, much like what happens with ice and snow.
Best Time to See Polar Bears in Svalbard | Natural World Safaris
6. Go on an expedition
Now this is for the really hardcore of you who want to take it to the next level and really embrace the arctic wilderness. Such excursions are obviously both costly and time-consuming, however, if you want to experience the “real” Svalbard, then this is your bet.
Going on an expedition often requires tailor-made trips so you should definitely contact several actors for price quotes and offers.
7. Other Svalbard Bucket List Items
- Hike the mountains surrounding Longyearbyen. You’ll get a breathtaking view of the area!
- Visit the Svalbard Museum.
Another bucket list achievement I personally achieved on my trip to Svalbard was to bring my parents on an overseas trip. My parents have brought me on tonnes of amazing vacations growing up, so I’ve wanted for ages to return the favour. This was certainly a very deep and meaningful life goal accomplished.
General Tips About Svalbard
- Flight. You can, among others fly from Oslo, Norway, to Longyearbyen. A three-hour flight. SAS and Norwegian are those with most frequent flights to/from Svalbard.
- Season.Generally, most activities are from February to October.
- Obviously, consider what season you want to visit Svalbard at. There are various activities exclusive to each season, particularly between the summer and winter. For example, you may not do a normal dog sledge ride in the summer (unless on “wheels”) and same goes for snowmobiles unless on dedicated trips on glaciers or more remote places in the summer.
- Related to the above, consider seasons also in terms of prices and weigh that up against the needs and wants for certain activities. We went in the middle of October which is considered the very end of the season. However, this also meant that our round tickets were comparingly cheaper than other flights throughout the year, at around 1,300 NOK each. In October it gets darker earlier (around 5 pm), but yet lacks the abundance of snow. We couldn’t care less about that, but you might.
- If you’re flexible and money is not an issue, then I would suggest visiting in March-April. This is really the prime time.
- Credit card vs. cash. There’s only one ATM in the city. However, there’s really not a major need for cash as all the operators, shops and restaurants and the like that we came across all took credit cards as well.
- Taxi. You’ll easily catch a cab within a few minutes by calling for one. They have a general policy of not taking more than 5 minutes after you’ve called. We opted for a taxi a lot as my dad had a fractured rib. However, the city of Svalbard, with a little over 2,000 inhabitants, does not take long to walk around anyways.
- AirBnB. We opted for an AirBnB apartment which are comparatively cheaper than hotels, and definitely is cosier for a group of 4 people and more.
- Activities include pickup. Most activities include pickup and drop-off at your hotel. Just be aware that some may only offer transport to/from hotels — and not AirBnB apartments (but which are near anyways).
- The beach in Longyearbyen has some really nice-looking rocks with various cool colours and shapes. My family brought a few with them.
- White whales. Do some brief research on whether white whales are in the area during your stay. We were really lucky as it turned out to be many of them at the time of visiting. So many in fact that it made the national news.
Various other actors:
Longyearbyen | Wikipedia
Svalbard | Tripadvisor
What do you think? Have you done any of these items on my Svalbard bucket list? Or do you think that something is missing? Let me know!
Jon | Bucket List Fanatic