21 Best Riads in Marrakech: Curated Guide to Where to Stay [New Picks for 2024]

Planning a trip to Morocco involves a lot of components, but easily, one of the most fun parts is sifting through all the picture-perfect Marrakech riads and dreaming about which one you want to wake up in.

Riads are an indispensable part of a Marrakech trip: these historic family-run Moroccan guesthouses located in the old medinas are quite literally reason enough to travel to Morocco.

Dinner table in a marrakech riad with colorful plates set up and ready for a meal to be served

It can be utterly overwhelming to pick where to stay in Marrakech, so I’ve written this guide [and fully revamped it for 2024, picking new properties that have arisen since I last wrote the post].

My goal with this post is to show you all the best riads in Marrakech for all budgets (skipping over bigger luxury hotels) — this way, you can spend more time planning other parts of your Morocco trip, like taking a trip to the Sahara desert or deciding what to wear.

What is Staying in a Riad Like?

a charming pool in a riad in marrakech with a seating area and mosaic tilework

Morocco is a country that is largely hard to access for tourists, where culture dictates a big divide between not only men and women, but also locals and visitors.

Most riads are quite small and intimate, with a central floor plan based around an open central courtyard with plenty of lounge spaces to access, as well as a roof terrace.

Meanwhile, up above on the floors surrounding the courtyard, there are private rooms with their own en-suite bathrooms.

Since you are being hosted by a local family, often the same family who has owned the house for generations, these Marrakech riads are a special liminal ‘third space’ where you are hosted and thus get a small glimpse into the lives of locals.

Riads can range from small and humble (Shakira, Shakira) to much more luxurious, with spa and pool amenities.

Why Stay in a Riad?

Colorful palm fronds and a pool with sun loungers on a riad rooftop

So, you might wonder, aren’t there any hotels in Marrakech? Well, yes, but a riad is a much better choice.

Partly, it’s because Marrakech riads are insanely photogenic, but that’s not the real draw of staying in one (for me, anyway). It’s all about the host. Your riad hosts can make a huge difference in your stay – recommending guides, drivers, and off the beaten path spots where you won’t get ripped off as a tourist.

Unfortunately Marrakech is a bit of a viper’s den: scams are rampant and it’s a rite of passage to get taken advantage of in some way, shape, or form during your time there.

Gorgeous pink toned interior of a traditional marrakech riad with plunge pool for relaxing

But your riad host is almost like a ‘fixer’ – solving cultural and logistical problems, negotiating fair deals (though of course, not just out of good will — they’ll also get a small cut), and just generally helping you navigate the more difficult aspects of Moroccan culture for outsiders.

Since they typically only has a handful of guests at one time, as a riad is much, much smaller than your traditional hotel, they can offer you that 1:1 attention that Marrakech, quite frankly, demands.

How Much Does Staying in a Riad Cost?

Colorful interior of a riad courtyard with all sorts of stripes, patterns and bright colors

I’ve picked gorgeous and stylish Moroccan riads in each budget category for a wide selection of the top riads in Marrakech.

For the purposes of this article, I’ve generally defined budget as being generally under $100 USD a night, mid-range as $100-200 USD a night, and luxury as $200+ USD per night.

However, keep in mind that prices do fluctuate depending on room type/size available, time of year, and other variables, so use the budget categories as a guide rather than as gospel.

You may see some hotels in the luxury category for as little as $100 a night in certain low seasons (mid-summer and the dead of winter, generally), so these are really loose guidelines, but they should be helpful in getting started.

My Top 3 Picks for Marrakech Riads

This post can admittedly be a bit overwhelming, with a whopping 21 options!

If that’s overwhelming, I’ll give my top pick for each budget category below, so you can more quickly navigate this post.


Photo of one of the common areas in the beautiful riad in Marrkaech


✔️ Pool, spa, courtyard, and rooftop terrace
✔️Colorful Moroccan decor


pool with trees around it

Riad Les Ammonites

✔️ Small plunge pool in garden
✔️ Spa and hammam


Interior courtyard of the riad with a small plunge pool with green tile

Riad of the Moon
✔️ Beautiful courtyard
✔️ Small pool

Top Picks for Luxury Riads in Marrakech

Angsana Riads Collection – $$$ – Book Now

Photo of one of the common areas in the beautiful riad in Marrkaech
Angsana Riads Collection | Photo Credit: Hotels.com

The amount of beautiful public spaces Angsana has is hard to comprehend.

You’ll really feel like you’re a guest in someone’s mansion, between the courtyard, the rooftop terrace, lounge with reading nooks and fireplace, outdoor pool, hammam and indoor pool, tea and breakfast rooms, etc.

You could play one epic game of hide-and-seek in this riad, that’s for sure.

The attention to detail here is what sets this riad apart.

From the daily fresh flowers in their fountains to the beauty of their free continental breakfast spreads to the gorgeous pots they serve their rave-reviewed tagines in, everything is beautiful here.

Their rooms are also quite beautiful, with genuine Moroccan furnishings and beautiful artwork that complements the rooms perfectly. Some rooms have a bathroom with their own tub, whereas others have showers. 

Every room in this riad is a little different (and that’s what makes it special) so be sure to sort through the room photos before you pick your room.

Check Rates on Booking || Check Rates on Hotels.com

Riad El Hara – $$$ – Book Now

Beautifully lit hotel pool on the top of a rooftop, lots of blue color and some foliage to make it feel like a garden, with some sun chairs
Riad Al Hara | Image Credit: Hotels.com

If we’re purely talking aesthetic value, Riad El Hara is one of the most Instagrammable riads in Marrakech. Every corner, from its jade and mint colored courtyard to its ornate arches with gauzy curtains to its beautiful cerulean-tiled rooftop pool, begs you to photograph it.

But a luxury riad isn’t just about looking nice in pictures, of course: it has to have the service and amenities to back it up.

Besides the standard spa and restaurant, this riad also offers a library, free airport pickup, and even in-room childcare (at an additional cost, of course, but this is really useful for families who want some 1:1 couple time).

The shared properties are really lovely, but to be honest, they often are in riads of all budgets.

What really sets apart a luxury riad from a more modest one is what the private rooms are like: and here is where Riad El Hara excels. 

Their rooms are soundproofed (something you’ll appreciate when that before-sunrise call to prayer warbles on), with large sitting areas separated from the bed area.

Many of the rooms have fireplaces, and the bathrooms are so gorgeous they look like they’re straight out of an interior design magazine.

The beds are very comfortable, with memory foam beds, Egyptian cotton sheets, and down duvets (great if visiting in the cooler months of the year). And if you’re visiting in the hotter months, of course, the hotel has A/C. 

Check Rates on Booking || Check Rates on Hotels.com

Riad Almisk – $$$ – Book Now

Interior courtyard with palm leaves in the lovely Riad Almisk
Riad Almisk | Photo Credit: Hotels.com

Another gorgeous luxury riad option, Riad Almask has one of the most beautiful roof terraces in Marrakech, all the better for their generous daily breakfast spread.

With sun loungers, arches, and plenty of interesting architectural elements, this sets it apart from more standard riad roof terraces.

Their courtyard is lovely too, with a floor with a beautiful rainbow mosaic of tiles, a fountain overflowing with freshly picked flowers, and tons of lounging areas in little nooks and crannies.

And don’t forget that beautiful hammam!

The rooms are some of the most spectacular and unique of all the Marrakech riads listed here. I particularly love how detailed and intricate the painted ceilings are: it’s like laying in bed and looking up at a piece of art. 

The seating areas are also quite spacious so you have a lot of room to spread out and not feel cramped in your bedroom, something I really appreciate as a messy traveler.

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Riad Dar Anika – $$$ – Book Now

The interior of the riad at night with beautiful lights and the pool all lit up
Riad Dar Anika | Photo Credit: Hotels.com

Some riads opt for a more minimalist style; Riad Dar Anika is all about maximalism and expression.

With an ornate dining room that looks straight out of a Moorish palace, there’s simply a feeling of elegance in much of the riad, perfect for those who really want to feel pampered.

Compared to the maximalist style of the rest of the riad, the rooms are a little simpler, which makes them feel more spacious.

You’ll find all the typical Moroccan design elements you want but in an uncluttered atmosphere.

Other amenities include a roof terrace, a covered plunge pool in the courtyard, on-site spa offering massages and treatments, and on-site babysitting for an additional charge.

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Riad Noir d’Ivoire- $$$ – Book Now

Fountain full of flower petals with blue plunge pool in a courtyard and green foliage from trees
Riad Noir d’Ivoire | Photo Credit: Hotels.com

After a while of looking through luxury riads, they can blur together a bit.

They all offer beautiful Moroccan design, pools, roof terraces, and ample courtyard space for lounging.

So what sets Riad Noir d’Ivoire apart? Its premium rooms, especially its two-story honeymoon suite complete with an in-room hot tub.

And I promise I won’t tell if you book the suite for yourself even if it’s not your honeymoon.

But don’t worry, even its standard double rooms are absolutely beautiful.

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Riad Les Yeux Bleus- $$$ – Book Now

Small plunge pool lit by sun with several white lounge chairs
Riad Les Yeux Bleus | Photo Credit: Hotels.com

There’s a lot to love about Riad Les Yeux Bleus (Riad Blue Eyes in English) but let’s start with that gorgeous pool and courtyard!

Another thing I think is quite special about it is how colorful its rooms are, with options ranging from canary yellow to brilliant blue, all with fun pops of color.

Besides its beautiful rooms and courtyard, it also has a lovely rooftop courtyard, an on-site café and a bar/lounge. However, note that it doesn’t have an on-site spa!

You can ask the concierge to arrange you a spa day, but it’s worth noting there’s no on-site hammam.

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Riad Monceau – $$$ – Book Now

Night view of the riad with pool all lit up and outdoor seating for nighttime dinner and louging
Riad Monceau | Photo Credit: Hotels.com

This luxury riad has one of the best locations in Marrakech: just a one-minute walk from Jemaa El Fna Square (and a few minutes more to the souks for shopping).

The rooftop views of Koutoubia Mosque and the medina are hard to beat, too!

Besides its great location, there’s also all the perks you’d get with a typical riad of this caliber: a wonderful courtyard with a pool, an on-site spa and hammam with hot tub, and in-room breakfast.

The rooms are lovely and charming, very typical of Morocco with some unique art, and some even have a spa bath or a fireplace.

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Top Picks for Mid-Range Riads in Marrakech

Riad Les Ammonites – $$ – Book Here

Lots of greenery and cacti and a plunge pool and two tables set out in the sun at a Marrakech riad
Riad Les Ammonites | Photo Credit: Hotels.com

With a garden straight out of Eden and a nautilus-shaped small plunge pool that would make Fibonacci proud, the courtyard of Riad Les Ammonites is everything you look for in a Marrakech riad.

The room types are varied and unique, each with their own distinct personality evoking the beauty of the medina (without any of the chaos of it)

Despite being a budget-friendly property, it’s also an all-in-one destination. There’s an on-site spa with a Turkish bath (hammam) where you can also request massages and other treatments.

There’s also a delicious restaurant in-house serving homestyle Moroccan cooking.

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Riad Le Rihani – $$ – Book Here

the beautiful pool courtyard area of Riad Rihani with orang trees and a large dipping pool and a palm tree and sun terrace with chairs and lounge furniture
Riad Le Rihani | Photo Credit: Riad Le Rihani

With a lovely aesthetic, the eco-friendly Riad Le Rihani is one of the most stylish and Instagrammable riads in Marrakech on this list — you’ve probably already seen photos of that pool before ever reading this post.

From the moment you arrive and are welcomed with traditional Moroccan pastries and mint tea, you’ll feel at home.

Centered around an outdoor pool, there’s also a rooftop terrace where you can relax in a canopy bed, a hotel library, a fireplace area, and a hammam offering a handful of different massage treatments.

Each room has its own individual personality, stylishly decorated with a luxe yet relaxed Moroccan aesthetic.

an interior of the riad with a yellow bed, faux fireplace, seating area, work desk, and more
Photo Credit: Riad Le Rihani

In terms of rooms, there are everything from double rooms to suites to larger 4-person family suites if you want or need more space.

Since many riads in Marrakech can be a little on the cramped side, the spaciousness of Riad Le Rihani is a huge plus, especially for couples or for families.

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Riad Yamina 52 – $$ – Book Here

The beautiful hotel pool of Riad Yamina with tile around it
Riad Yamina 52 | Photo Credit: Riad Yamina 52

The courtyard at Riad Yamina 52 is basically a garden which the entire riad is built around, complete with a dip pool in the middle of everything so you can fresh after a hot day out exploring the medina.

There’s also a gorgeous cradle of trees above it, shielding the pool (and your skin!) from the sun. 

interior of a marrakech riad in red carpet, wooden chairs, etc.
Image Credit: Riad Yamina 52

There’s also a rooftop terrace to enjoy a shady mid-day break from exploring Marrakech when you want some peace and quiet.

The rooms are pretty much a Morocco-inspired Pinterest board come to life: beautiful rugs, traditional lanterns, wooden furniture, colorful textiles. 

There are a variety of rooms at a range of price points, from surprisingly affordable doubles to more luxurious suites.

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Riad Charme d’Orient – $$ – Book Here

Riad Charme d’Orient | Photo Credit: Hotels.com

This captivating courtyard’s aesthetic is almost reason enough to book this charming riad. The fact that it scores a 9.7/10 on Booking, a near perfect score, almost helps seal the deal.

Similarly, there’s an on-site spa and hammam with massage services as well as a restaurant serving up Moroccan food cooked from the heart.

The big difference from other Marrakech riads? This is an adults-only property, making it perfect for a romantic, childfree escape.

The style inside the rooms may be traditional, but the rooms are quietly, modernly luxe: Tempur-pedic mattresses and Egyptian cotton sheets for all. 

Now that’s a recipe for a good night’s sleep. And with how delicious breakfast the next morning looks… you just might wake up drooling.

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Casa Lalla – $$ – Book Now

A peaceful courtyard in a riad
Casa Lalla | Photo Credit: Hotels.com

This peaceful riad offers a great value with all the perks you’d want.

We’re talking spa, a rooftop terrace with an Atlas Mountains view, a plunge pool, and a beautiful breakfast room in the courtyard.

The rooms are a little on the basic end but they’re quite comfortable and spacious regardless.

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Ryad Dyor – $$ – Book Here

Sunny day in the courtyard of a Marrakech riad with pool and orange trees
Ryad Dyor | Photo Credit: Hotels.com

The design of this riad is understated beauty at its finest: white walls broken up with pops of color, beautiful tilework, plants, and a touch of intricate, local detail.

This central Marrakech riad has a plunge pool and hammam on site — and at night, the courtyard gets an even more magical look with lanterns and candles surrounding the pool area.

From beautifully embroidered pillows on a bench inviting you to relax, traditional leather poufs to sit on, wood elements, intricate Moroccan tilework, this Marrakech riad screams tasteful luxury, whereas some other riads can be a little over-the-top in their design.

The rooms are large, extremely spacious, and a beautiful mix between modern and traditional Moroccan elements, with soaringly high ceilings and tasteful decoration. Some even have spa baths!

The riad is slightly larger than others, as it’s a combination of two family-owned riads which have been blended together; the original property dates back centuries and the walls are over 300 years old!

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BCK Art Riad – $$ – Book Now

Detail from the top of the riad looking down onto the pool
BCK Art Riad | Photo Credit: Hotels.com

From the gorgeous pool to the plush Berber rugs to its colorful aesthetic, BCK Art Riad stands out in every way. 

There are so many nooks and crannies of this designer riad to relax in, and there’s colorful art on the walls to add vibrancy and a modern touch to the more traditional Moroccan elements.

The rooms are decorated in a more modern style, with quirky wall art, white linens, and exposed wood elements, perfect for someone who prefers a little more of a streamlined look rather than over-the-top glamor. 

One thing to note — this riad is a little more away from Djemaa El Fna than others – about 1 kilometer away – but this means it’s a little extra tucked away from the noise.

Top Picks for Budget Riads in Marrakech

Riad Marraplace – $ – Book Now

Detail of the riad with arches and courtyard
Riad Marraplace | Photo Credit: Hotels.com

If you don’t mind foregoing a courtyard pool, this is a great riad in Marrakech!

You can still enjoy all the beautiful aesthetics of a top-quality stay without the triple digit price tag.

The rooms are still beautiful — think lots of wood detailing, stained glass windows that stream in light beautifully, and all sorts of ornate carvings original to the design.

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Riad Eloise – $ – Book Now

The pool and interior of the courtyard at a riad
Riad Eloise | Photo Credit: Hotels.com

If you want to save on your stay in Marrakech but still enjoy riad amenities like a pool, Riad Eloise is a great choice. 

So what’s the catch? It’s a 15-minute from the main square, but personally, I find that a blessing, not a curse!

Other than that, it’s a great stay, with a rooftop terrace, pool, and in-house restaurant. Note that there is no spa, so you’ll have to make reservations elsewhere if you want pampering.

The rooms aren’t the most updated, but for the price, you have to make a sacrifice or two.

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Riad of the Moon – $ – Book Now

Interior courtyard of the riad with a small plunge pool with green tile
Riad of the Moon | Photo Credits: Hotels.com

This affordable guesthouse is a great option for those looking to save a little while still having the full Marrakech riad experience. 

It does a plunge pool, albeit a very small one, but still great for photos and for cooling off!

The rooms are rather basic which is where you get the savings from, but if you want to enjoy the common spaces more, this is a great choice. 

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Riad Villa Sidi Baba – $ – Book Now

View of one of the bedrooms in the riad
Riad Villa Sidi Baba | Photo Credit: Hotels.com

Another great riad except for the small fact that this one has no pool to enjoy in the courtyard.

Aside from that though, it’s incredibly beautiful — I especially love the detailing on the doors, which are very photogenic.

The rooms are a little small but comfortable, but this property is more about its shared spaces (like many riads, let’s be honest).

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Riad Chayma – $ – Book Here

Courtyard and covered plunge pool
Riad Chayma | Photo Credit: Hotels.com

The courtyard of this Marrakech riad is a little unique in that the plunge pool is covered and set aside rather than being underneath the hot sun.

This is great for summertime swimmers who don’t want to burn! It has a really lovely atmosphere, too, and the courtyard is a great place to enjoy your daily breakfast.

The rooms of the riad are quite beautiful, integrating traditional wooden Moroccan furnishings with eclectic textiles for a place that truly feels personal and distinctly Marrakech.

This property is also adults-only, making it great for couples looking for some quiet R&R time without the noise of kids. There’s also a spa, as well as a rooftop terrace to enjoy mint tea and mocktails on.

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Riad Al Nour – $ – Book Here

The interior courtyard of a Marrakech courtyard with brightly colored tableclothes and chairs, no pool, but a small fountain
Riad Al Nour | Image Credit: Hotels.com

One of the big reasons to pick a Marrakech riad comes down to how much you like the courtyard. Unlike traditional hotels, where you spend more time in your personal room, Marrakech riad courtyards are the main public space you’ll enjoy.

While this particular budget riad doesn’t have its own plunge pool, th e courtyard makes up for it with a dense grove of orange trees, a colorful sitting area, and rooftop terrace if you want to change it up and relax with a view.

The hotel utilizes a lot of color in its design, with vibrant monochromatic rooms with lots of Moroccan detailing and decor, including en-suite bathrooms inspired by hammams.

I also love the attention to detail all throughout the riad, like how the upper floor’s walkways that overlook the courtyard are lined with beautiful blue tilework that reminds me of Turkey’s famous Iznik ceramics.

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Riad Samsli – $ – Book Now

Red and pink toned courtyard in the riad with flowers in the fountain and seating areas
Riad Samsli | Photo Credit: Hotels.com

This lovely budget-friendly riad is still quite aesthetic!

It has its own plunge pool and a really beautiful red and pink tiled courtyard, complete with some trees for greenery. No spa, though, so take note of that.

The rooms aren’t extremely modern but that’s part of the charm. They have some original detailing from the riad, like wood-carved ceilings and stained glass windows in the rooms.

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3 Days in Marrakech: Itinerary for a Perfect Introduction to Morocco

Marrakech is a shock to every sense you have. It can be, quite frankly, cacophonous.

From the loud warblings of the call to prayer and the persistent beckonings of the men who run shops in the souks constantly strike your ears, to the pungent smell of incenses cover up a lingering smell of leather bags and the donkeys who dutifully pull carts through the medina day and night.

But then it’s also incredibly beautifully. Think of artfully stacked olives that almost beg you to take one away and destroy the whole pile. Leather that looks so soft you can’t help but reach out and touch it.

man wearing a white hat in a shop selling colorful ceramic plates in marrakech medina

Marrakech is, to put it lightly, a place you experience with every one of your senses, and this Marrakech itinerary will walk you through the best way to do so without the overwhelm.

It’s a city that will confuse you, frustrate you, and delight you… maybe even reel you in and get you to fall in love with it. It’s a city of highs and lows, and I think 3 days in Marrakech is perfect to get a sense of its energy, see what you need to see…. and get out before the chaos consumes you.

Don’t let the pretty, girl-twirling-in-dress photos on Instagram lie to you – Morocco is intense, and Marrakech is especially so as it is the touristic capital of Morocco with the most flights.

view of a riad in marrakech in pink tones

While Marrakech is safe enough in terms of physical safety, traveling there requires being “on” all the time, your attention being pulled in several directions at once.

I found Marrakech tiring but ultimately worth all the memories; however, it’s certainly not all floaty dresses and ornate walls like the Instagram girls would have you believe!

I’ll also note that I was traveling mostly solo in Marrakech as a young female traveler, so my experiences may differ from people traveling as couples or families.

Sahara desert in Morocco

This Marrakech itinerary covers quite a bit in a short amount of time and is meant to be a standalone post for if you’re planning a long weekend in Marrakech.

If you just have 3 days in Morocco, I’d advise spending them all in Marrakech with one or two half-day outings to tick off a bucket list item — whether that’s a hot air balloon or a camel ride through the desert at sunset.

If you have a longer time allocated for Morocco, I’d recommend doing a 3-day Sahara Tour (read this post for details on planning one!) or spending timeat a desert camp in the Sahara, and then continuing onto Fes and Chefchaouen, or wherever else is on your Morocco itinerary.

If you have more time planned in Morocco, you can continue onward to this 10-day Morocco itinerary.

This post was first written in 2019. It was updated twice in 2022 and last updated on April 17, 2024 to reflect changes to attractions, etc.

My Top 3 Marrakech Experiences

I go into quite a bit of detail in this guide and lay out every activity, day by day.

If you’re just in a hurry to plan your trip, here are the top activities I recommend planning your Marrakech itinerary around!


Palmaraie Sunset Camel Ride
✔️ 1 hour camel ride in palm oasis, the second half at sunset
✔️ Stop at a Berber house for tea and snacks

↳ Book it


view of hot air balloons over the marrakech agafay desert

Sunrise Hot Air Balloon Ride
✔️ 1 hour hot air balloon flight covering 10+ miles
✔️ Local village visit for mint tea and home-baked bread

↳ Book it


view of one of the palaces of marrakech with beautiful landscape

Marrakech Palaces Tour
✔️ Guided tour of Bahia & Badi Palaces & the Saadian Tombs
✔️ Skip all lines with local tour guide

↳ Book it

3 Days in Marrakech Itinerary: Day One

large minaret in marrakech and palm fronds


  • Check into your riad
  • Visit the Koutoubia Mosque area
  • Walk around and admire Jemma El-Fna
  • Shop in the Marrakech Souks
  • Finish your evening with a sunset camel ride
🚖 Morocco Travel Tip: Book a Transfer Service
(4.5/5 stars with 2,900+ reviews)

Morocco is notorious for scams and nowhere are scams more ubiquitous than at the Marrakech airport.

One of my top Marrakech tips is that I highly recommend pre-booking a private transfer from the airport — it’s less than $20 and it’ll save you a lot of headache.

Plus, they will help you find your riad, which is easier said than done given that Google Maps is virtually useless in the medinas of Marrakech (following my blue dot led me into a brick wall seemingly infinite times).

Pre-book your Marrakech transfer here!

Check into your riad.

One of the best things about visiting Marrakech is that the price to quality ratio is in your favor.

A nice but not fancy riad will cost a mere $20 or $25 a night, great for travelers on a budget (as I was at the time of my visit)!

However, if you’re visiting Marrakech with a bit more money to spend, you’ll be spoiled for choice after beautiful choice.

A few of the most Instagram-famous riads are extremely pricy, such as Riad Yasmine and La Mamounia. However, you really don’t need to pay that much to have a beautiful stay.

Here are my riad recommendations broken down by budget. I’ll list my three top picks for a short stay in Marrakech, but I also have a full guide to Marrakech riads here.

For reference, I view budget as under $50 per night for a private room, mid-range as $50-100 per night, and luxury as $200+ per night.

Prices generally follow these lines but may go up or down due on time of year, availability, etc.

rooftop canopy of a hotel in marrakech with a shady place to enjoy the marrakech skyline

Budget: Nondescript on the outside, Riad Dar Maria is gorgeous and cozy on the inside.

Updated design makes the indoor courtyard a lovely place to relax, and comfortable private rooms with AC offer excellent value for the price. The riad is family-run and treats you like one of their own.

It comes highly recommended by fellow travelers with a 9.5 average rating on Booking.com.

Click here to see lowest prices and current availability.

the rooftop courtyard of a cute and chic marrakech riad

Mid-range: The lovely Riad Enchanté lives up to its name – it will truly delight and enchant you.

With stunning tilework, a rooftop terrace (with jacuzzi!), large rooms with AC, and amazing attention to detail (check out those lovely wooden doors), it’s hard to find a better spot for the price.

You’ll probably never want to leave this homey, delightful riad in Marrakech!

Click here to see lowest prices and current availability.

pool in a marrakech riad courtyard with a pretty sofa

Luxury: For five-star comfort at not insanely outrageous prices you can’t do much better than Villa Lavande!

This is a traditional riad with a comfortable in-house hammam, a gorgeous pool, air conditioning (a must if you travel in summer), and helpful staff.

Cooking lessons are available on-site in case you fancy learning how to make your own tajine… or you can simply eat at the in-house restaurant beloved by guests. It’s located in the medina but away from the hustle and bustle, the best of both worlds.

Click here to see lowest prices and current availability.

Not enough? I have 21 more suggestions for riads in Marrakech for all budgets here.

Meander over to Koutoubia Mosque.

Unfortunately, unlike in other Muslim-majority countries I’ve been to like Turkey, Bosnia, Azerbaijan, Albania, and Kosovo, non-Muslims are not permitted to enter mosques in Morocco.

And honestly, given the way that Instagram has kind of ruined Morocco, I don’t really blame them for excluding non-Muslims from the mosques.

(Instagrammers twirling around in revealing dresses inside holy sites isn’t exactly halal, and judging by the way tourists treat the rest of the country, I get it.)

However, that doesn’t mean you can’t admire the gorgeous mosque from the outside!

Built at the height of the Islamic Golden Age, the wonderfully ornate Koutoubia Mosque is an architectural achievement, especially considering its age (nearly a millennium old).

Originally, there was a different mosque in its place that preceded the current one, but it was leveled because it was found that it wasn’t properly aligned with Mecca.

After Koutoubia Mosque was built, hundreds of booksellers gathered around its base – giving the mosque its name as “koutoubia” means booksellers in Arabic.

The height of the minaret, 69 meters high, is quite an achievement as well, making it the tallest building in Marrakech.

Due to an ancient law that nothing can be taller than a palm tree, the Koutoubia Mosque continues to stick out as an exception to the rule, an important monument… and a much-needed point of reference in the winding alleyways of the medina.

Gawk in awe at Jemaa el-Fnaa… from a distance.

lots of people visiting jemma el fna, the main marketplace in marrakech

Jemaa el-Fnaa is where you’ll find the best and worst of Marrakech. And as such, it’s a must on any Marrakech itinerary… with some caveats.

It’s a must-visit as it’s been hailed as a Masterpiece of World Heritage by UNESCO since 2001, and the folks at UNESCO are rarely wrong.

You’ll find the freshest, most delicious orange juice at a mere 50 cents (5 dirhams) a cup, the lively sizzle of grilling meat…

… And you’ll also find snake charmers who have abusively de-fanged their cobras, monkeys who have been snatched from the wild in order to pay tricks, and women grabbing your hand to try to give you a henna tattoo at an exorbitant price.

To save yourself a headache, do not take any photos of the snake charmers, henna artists, etc. and do not allow anyone to hand you their monkey or put any henna on you as you undoubtedly will be hounded to pay. Just ignore or say no to people and move on (welcome to Morocco).

I don’t mean to dissuade you from visiting Jemaa el-Fnaa; I just want you to know what to expect. It’s the center of the medina, so it really is the perfect place to start exploring the wonderful yet utterly chaotic city that is Marrakech.

Its many food stalls and grills constantly operate and offer freshly grilled kebabs – follow my rule of thumb to look for locals queuing up, as I’ve always found that the best food to be had is right where you can see the locals eating.

On the busy streets leading up to Jemaa el-Fnaa, you can find horse-drawn carriages who are happy to take you around for a short ride around Marrakech. Be sure to bargain to get a fair price as they will certainly inflate the rates.

While I don’t suggest shopping in Jemaa el-Fna proper, and saving your shopping for the souks just beyond it, you can’t deny the chaotic main square has an ambiance like no other.

At this point on the Marrakech itinerary, you’ll be visiting by day, I highly recommend also coming back at night to see the square in an entirely new light (literally).

Shop in the souks.

Let’s be real: if you didn’t come to Morocco to shop, why did you even come at all?

I had mixed feelings about my 3 days in Marrakech but there is one thing I cannot deny: the shopping is unreal.

Unfortunately I visited Morocco when I was still living nomadically (I’ve since settled down and have a proper home base) so I wasn’t able to buy much.

However, if you’re visiting Marrakech and then returning home after… seriously, bring a spare suitcase because the shopping here is amazing.

So, what exactly are the souks? Put simply, souks are North African marketplaces and bazaars that sell a variety of good.

In the case of Marrakech, the souks are entire streets built like mazes that stretch in every direction and are filled with shops of all types and sizes, primarily selling leather accessories, clothing, jewelry, and home decor goods.

Due to the nature of the souks, prices vary wildly and you are expected to haggle (you’ll be considered a fool if you don’t).

Luckily, no matter where you shop, generally the goods are at least of decent quality and they are often handmade in nearby factories and shops rather than being sent in from China as in much of the world.

Be aware that accepting tea in a shop will likely embolden the vendor to demand you make a purchase (unlike the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul where accepting a cup of tea is much less fraught).

Always remember that you are under no obligation to pay for an item if you do not like the price, and feel free to walk away. In fact, walking away will often get you the best price you can get.

Don’t show too much enthusiasm (but don’t be rude) and mention that you are shopping around if you want to get the best price.

All vendors speak English as well as a variety of other languages very fluently so language barriers, for better or worse, are not an excuse to not buy!

A few things I recommend buying, if you’re interested: leather bags, leather shoes, leather poofs (they come un-filled so they are easy to transport), plates, bowls, tajines, and lamps.

The clothing is rather gimmicky and doesn’t actually appear to be traditional, so it’s not my style.

If you’re a frequent traveler like I am with little space in your bag, I’d settle on just spices and the delicious, delicious olives that can be had for about two dollars per kilo so you can consume them before you leave!

End the day with a sunset camel ride.

The ethics of using animals in tourism is something that concerns me a lot, as an animal lover and as someone who tries to be a responsible traveler.

It’s complicated, and I’ve covered in detail on certain posts of mine, such as my posts on dog sledding and reindeer sledding in Arctic Norway.

Riding elephants is never okay (mostly due to the horrors they endure to become domesticated enough to tolerate a human on its back) yet riding horses is fine.

So where exactly does riding a camel fall into that?

I rode camels through the Sahara Desert in 2016 and loved my experience without really thinking much of it.

However, as I wrote this post in 2018 and updated it in 2022, the landscape of ethical animal tourism has changed. Thankfully, we are paying much more attention to animal welfare these days.

Look for happy faces like this guy’s

Before I could decided whether or not you should do a camel ride, I looked into it and did some research specifically on the ethics and history of camel riding.

Basically, the same rules apply to horses and donkeys as camels. Camels require adequate food, water, shelter, access to medical care when necessary, and freedom from abuse or overwork.

If an operator can provide all that, there is nothing unethical about riding camels (this article has great insight into camel riding in Morocco specifically, and mentions an important note that you should always pay a fair price for your camel ride as not paying enough may lead to camels not being fed or cared for properly).

up close photo of a camels face in morocco

I did some research into reputable companies and while I can’t find any sort of animal welfare certification system in Morocco, this sunset camel tour has excellent ratings with several reviewers remarking that the camels seemed well-looked after.

Additionally, the price is fair enough to ensure the animal’s welfare is being taken care of, without being outrageous for the consumer. If you use them, please comment back with your feedback so we can know how it was!

🐪 Camel Tour Suggestion: Palmeraie Sunset Camel Ride
(4.8/5 stars, 140+ reviews)

This camel tour from Marrakech includes transfers to and from your hotel, and includes a 30-minute ride to a Berber dwelling in the Palmeraie, where you’ll enjoy a snack and traditional Moroccan mint tea.

After tea, you’ll head back to your transport — as the sun sets while you’re on camelback!

Check availability and prices for this Palmeraie sunset camel ride!

Tip: Please be aware that with 3 days in Marrakech, you can’t actually get out to the proper Sahara sand dunes (those are about a two days’ drive west to the Sahara) but rather the Palm Grove, which is an oasis outside of Marrakech.

If you do have enough time for a Sahara desert tour because you’re planning to continue your trip beyond Marrakech, please read my review of my Sahara desert tour as I had a really unpleasant experience with my guides I don’t want anyone to experience.

The TL;DR of it is that I woke up with my guide in my face about 10 seconds away from groping me so do your research to find a reputable tour company before you book.

3 Days in Marrakech Itinerary: Day Two


  • Start with the Ben Youssef Madrassa
  • Visit the ruins of the El Badi Palace
  • Marvel at the ornate Bahia Palace
  • Check out the Jewish Cemetery
  • Admire the Saadian Tombs
  • Do an evening souk and food tour

Visit the newly-renovated Ben Youssef Madrasa.

the ornate tilework at the ben youssef madrasa a must on a marrakech itinerary

Since mosques are closed to non-Muslims, madrasas (Islamic schools) and palaces are the only places you can really see Islamic tilework in their full glory.

And nowhere else in Marrakech can you find tilework quite as impressive as at the Ben Youssef Madrasa!

For that reason, the Ben Youssef Madrasa is an absolute must-visit on this Marrakech itinerary.

The madrasa’s work is finally finished after being shut down for a few years for renovation work, so the mosaic tilework should be even more spectacular now.

As of the last update on June 3rd, 2022, the madrassa is reopened to the public!

Entrance costs 20 dirhams or about $5.50 USD.

Marvel at the history of El Badi Palace.

people walking around the grounds and reflecting pools of the el badi palace

El Badi Palace literally translates to “the incomparable palace.”

Perhaps that was true at the time, but a lot has happened in the nearly five centuries since its construction!

It’s a bit worse for wear, but at the same time, you can see spots of the former beauty of this ruined palace.

It took 15 years to build, demonstrating the best craftsmanship of the Saadian era. At the height of its grandeur, the palace had 360 rooms, decorated to the nines with handcrafted furniture, as well as a courtyard complex with a pool. 

Rich with gold, onyx, Italian marble, and exquisite tilework, the Palace was an ostentatious display of the Saadians wealth.

While much of the original palace is in a state of disrepair, there are still several gorgeously preserved parts of the palace with excellent tile mosaics, ornate stained glass windows, and beautiful courtyards.

There is still plenty to photograph and visit, all while you imagine the former beauty of it in its heyday.

Continue your sightseeing at Bahia Palace.

Whereas the El Badi Palace is a bit worse for wear after centuries of disuse, Bahia Palace is in remarkable condition!

Built in the second half of the 19th century, Bahia Palace is arguably the most well-preserved historic monument in Marrakech, and its simple color scheme of white, wood and understated tilework is gorgeous.

It’s a glorious palace, one that was built over the course of 14 years, across an area of two acres, sporting around 150 rooms.

To say that it’s beautiful would be doing it an injustice: it’s mindblowing.

Its many ornaments, lavishly-decorated doors, breathtaking fireplaces, floors and ceilings of the finest wood: every single detail adds up together to achieve something that is truly spectacular.

Visiting Bahia Palace is an unforgettable experience for any visitor and a must-do whether you have 24 hours or three days in Marrakech.

🕌 Tour Suggestion: Bahia & El Badi Palace Tour
(4.6/5 stars, 150+ reviews)

While you can visit each site individually, you may get more enjoyment seeing it as part of a guided tour and understanding the context and history behind these beautiful buildings.

This guided tour lasts 3 hours and includes El Badi Palace, the Bahia Palace, and the Saadian Tombs (optional).

Note that this tour only includes a guide — entry fees are not included. However, you will get skip-the-line entry with your guide.

Book this tour of Marrakesh’s palaces here!

Explore the Saadian Tombs.

colorful tilework on the tombs that mark the saadian tombs

The Saadian dynasty was an important part of Moroccan history, when Morocco flourished and grew as an important power: hence, their presence in much of the architecture and monuments of modern-day Marrakech.

The tombs of the Saadian dynasty, built by Sultan Al Mansour in the 16th century, contain marvelous tombs and mausoleums built to commemorate his family.

His successors have since walled off the Saadian Tombs, but they’re still accessible by a small passage through the Kasbah mosque.

The Sultan’s own tomb is quite intricate and ornate, and it’s surrounded by the tombs of his favorite counselors and princes.

Still, even the Sultan’s resting grounds is overshadowed by his mother’s mausoleum!

It’s a resting place made for maximum splendor, truly fit for a queen, with many plaques and carvings offering poetic blessings.

Visit the Jewish Cemetery.

graves at the jewish cemetery in marrakech
The Jewish cemetery in central Marrakech

While today, Morocco is synonymous with its majority Muslim population, it has historically been an important site for Jews for centuries.

You can see that history at the Jewish Cemetery nearby Bahia Palace, but its simplicity and bareness will be quite a contrast to the ornateness of Bahia Palace.

The Jewish Cemetery in Marrakech is the largest of its kind in Morocco and has been in continual use since the 16th century.

Today, the Jewish population of Marrakech is quite small – a mere 200 or so Jews – as much of Morocco’s Jewish population moved after the founding of Israel.

In fact, Moroccan Jews make up the second largest Jewish community, numbering about 500,000 in a country of around 9 million.

Despite the mass exodus of Moroccan Jews since the founding of Israel, the area around Marrakech is still important to Jewish history, with several important Jewish pilgrimage sites located in the outskirts.

While Morocco’s population is 99% Muslim, the country has done an excellent job of protecting its Jewish citizens and Jewish history.

After the Jews were expelled from Spain, many Sephardic Jews fled to nearby Morocco by crossing the straight of Gibraltar, and subsequently, they became integrated into Moroccan society.

During World War II, King Mohammed V protected the Moroccan Jews from being shipped to Europe to be exterminated in the Holocaust, defying Hitler’s orders by saying “in Morocco we don’t have Jews, we only have Moroccan citizens.”

This is emblematic of the religious tolerance that Morocco has exhibited for centuries, proudly 99% Muslim yet allowing Christian, Jewish, and to a lesser extent Baha’i communities to maintain places of worship.

End the night with a food and souk tour.

jemma el fna all lit up at night after the sun has set

Walking through Marrakech’s souks can be a bit stressful for first-timers to Morocco and the socially anxious amongst us – at least it was for me.

Taking a guided tour of the souks is definitely a way to reduce the stress factor.

It’s something I learned by the time I got to Fes and it made my time there so much more rewarding.

🥘 Food Tour Suggestion: Jemma El Fnaa Food Tour with Dinner
(4.7/5 stars, 280+ reviews)

The souks can be overwhelming – but not if you explore with an expert local guide.

They’ll help you tour the market and point out different local snacks to try to whet your appetite before you sit down for a Moroccan feast for dinner!

Check availability for the Dinner & Souk Food Tour here!

Alternate Ideas for your Day Two in Marrakech Itinerary

If hopping from palace to palace is too on the tourist trail for you, there are ways to get a bit more local.

You could start the morning with a tagine cooking class, learning hands-on how to make Morocco’s most famous dish with the assistance of a local!

Afterwards, you could check out the excellent photography museum, Maison de la Photographie, to see some work from Moroccan artists, or relax in the not-so-secret Le Jardin Secret.

Cap off your evening with either an evening food tour or visit the hip, artsy Café Clock for a meal and drinks (note that there is no alcohol available — read here to learn about the complicated status of alcohol in Morocco) with the locals.

3 Days in Marrakech Itinerary: Day Three

For here, we have two options: A hot air balloon followed by a wander through a colorful garden, some last-minute shopping, and a hammam treatment before you leave.

If you prefer to get out and explore more of Morocco, I suggest taking a day trip out into the Atlas Mountains and the Agafay Desert.

Overview Option One:

  • Take a hot air balloon ride over the desert
  • Explore the beautiful colors of the Jardin Marjorelle
  • Finish any last-minute shopping in the souks
  • Relax in a hammam

Overview Option Two:

Atlas mountains in Morocco
The beautiful Atlas Mountains on the way to the desert.

Take a full-day day trip to the Atlas Mountains and Agafay Desert, which includes the following:

  • Photo stop at Tahnaout
  • Visit to an argan oil factory
  • Explore the charming towns of Asni, Imlil (a great spot for a short hike), and Tamatert
  • Have lunch with a Berber family in Ait Souka
  • Stop at two beautiful viewpoints
  • Have a camel ride and tea in the Agafay Desert.

Book your day tour of the Atlas Mountains, Imlil Valley, and Agafay Desert here!

Wake up early for a hot air balloon ride over the desert

Worth the alarm at an ungodly hour

If you have the time and the funds for a hot air balloon ride in Morocco, I think it’s the best way to cap off three days in Marrakech.

I wasn’t able to afford it when I visited Morocco many years ago, fresh off of quitting my job to start this blog.

However, I rode a hot air balloon in Cappadocia in Turkey and just. wow. It’s one of the most magical experiences I can remember.

As when I went with Voyager Balloons in Cappadocia, it’s always crucial to pick a reputable hot air balloon company with pilots with thousands of hours of flight time under their belt.

🌅 Hot Air Balloon Recommendation: C’iel d’Africa Shared Balloon Tour
(4.7/5 stars, 575+ reviews)

This is the top-rated hot air balloon ride in Marrakech, so you can rest assured you’re in experienced, safe hands.

They offer a combined tour of a sunrise hot air balloon plus camel ride in case you didn’t do a camel tour before.

Check availability and rates for this hot air balloon tour here!

Admire the colorful grounds of Jardin Marjorelle.

After a hot air balloon ride, you’ll probably be a bit beat from the early morning wake-up and excitement.

And what better way to relax than in one of Marrakech’s most gorgeous gardens?

Amidst all the hustle and bustle of the busy streets of Marrakech lies the gorgeous Jardin Majorelle.

It’s a quiet and calm reprieve that’s surrounded by a chaotic and active lifestyle, so this garden is truly an oasis in the desert.

It was originally created by Art Deco painter Jacques Majorelle – who ended being more known for the garden rather than his paintings – around 1920, and it was later bought and renovated by fashion designer Yves St. Laurent.

While the garden itself is lovely, with cacti and gorgeous blossoming flowers, it’s most famous for the hue of its walls, an intensely vibrant cobalt blue that’s now called Majorelle blue.

Today, Jardin Majorelle open every day of the year, and it’s remained a visitor favorite for quite a long time. It’s one of those places where you can sit back, relax, and just enjoy the scenery.

Enjoy a hammam experience.

The traditional black soap used for Moroccan hammam experience

Hammams are common throughout North Africa and the Middle East, a tradition dating back from when private bathrooms with running water weren’t that common.

Over the years, hammams became more about relaxation and socializing than getting clean.

You can’t miss trying a traditional scrub in Morocco – you’ll literally feel brand new after, as they’ll slough off roughly half a human’s worth of a dead skin.

There are several kinds of hammam experiences you can have, from ultra local to ultra luxurious. I recommend going somewhere in the middle.

My friend I was with in Morocco went to the spa at Riad Laârouss and found it to be a great experience, as they gave her tea when she got in and explained the whole procedure to her!

Meanwhile, I went to some random hole-in-the-wall because I was trying to save money and stumbled (naked, I should add) through the whole experience with my very rudimentary French.

The way a Moroccan scrub works is that first they use a eucalyptus-scented black soap, applying it to your whole body while you are fully nude. Don’t worry, if you’re a woman, you’ll have a female attendant!

I’ve been told by male visitors that they were still attended on by women, but they were asked to keep their shorts on (for obvious reasons!).

After they’ll apply argan oil and then scrub – hard – using a rough glove to exfoliate off the dead skin. You can just get a steam and scrub or finish up with a lovely massage afterwards.

Learn from my mistakes: don’t cheap out and run into a random hammam.

I recommend booking with a tour company that caters to English-speaking clientele (I use GetYourGuide for all my travels) and allows you to pre-book online to avoid communication issues as I had!

This tour has generally positive reviews and is inexpensive.

If You Have More than 3 Days in Marrakech…

Have more time in Morocco? I suggest getting out of Marrakech!

Next up, I highly recommend doing a Sahara desert tour – just be sure to read my guide beforehand, as there’s a lot you should know before booking.

If you’re planning a day trip outside of Marrakech, there are a few options. Essaouira is a coastal city that has starred in Game of Thrones.

It’s an excellent day trip from Marrakech if you want to squeeze in some time at the sea on your trip.

Check day trip itineraries to Essaouira here!

Want to freshen up in some waterfalls?

Spend a day chasing waterfalls in the nearby oasis of Ouzoud Waterfalls in the middle of the stunning Atlas Mountains.

Check day trips to the Ouzoud waterfalls here!

Want to get active?

Check out this small group trek through remote Berber villages, combining nature and culture on a hiking trip.

Check out this 3 village hiking tour here!

3 Top-Rated Marrakech Experiences

What to Pack for a Weekend in Marrakech Itinerary

I have a full Morocco packing list here — here’s the quick version of it, with a few essential things highlighted you shouldn’t miss!

Appropriate clothing: Morocco is a conservative country, and it’s both the most respectful and the most comfortable thing for you to do to blend in in terms of dress when you visit. For all genders, this means shoulders and knees covered; however, women who don’t adhere to clothing norms will attract more attention than men. As a woman visiting in the summer, this meant loose, linen-blend T-shirts and long skirts with sandals.

Some earplugs or good noise-canceling headphones: If you’ve never visited a Muslim country before, you’re in for a treat the first time you hear your pre-dawn call to prayer! I personally love hearing the call to prayer… at all times except that first one in the morning, before the sun even rises. I love Hearos — they’re the best ear plugs I’ve used.

Adapter: Morocco uses C and E plugs, the same as most of Europe (save the UK and Malta). Pack an adapter if you need it!

Travel medications: I keep a medicine kit on me at all times — there’s nothing worse then feeling sick on the road and knowing you have to stumble through a pharmacy interaction. I carry Pepto-Bismol for standard stomach troubles, Imodium as a nuclear option, some sort of painkiller like ibuprofen for headaches and minor pains, and some sort of motion sickness tablets. Plus any prescription medications you may have as well!

Travel insurance: In this day and age, you can’t be too careful. I always protect my trips with trip insurance, in case of illness, accident, cancellations, or delays. I personally use and recommend World Nomads!

More Morocco Travel Resources

I’ve written quite a bit to help you plan the perfect trip to Morocco! First, start with my Morocco travel planning checklist – it walks you through every step of the planning process.

Next, check out my Morocco packing list with specific advice for what women should wear in Morocco.

If you need more advice on where to stay in Morocco, I have a guide to the best riads in Marrakech on any budget, as well as a guide to riads in Fes!

Did I leave anything out? What else would you recommend to see in Marrakech in 3 days?

17 Amazing Things to Do in Alta in Winter [For the 2024-2025 Season!]

Snow-covered mountains and plateaus that glitter in the sun by day and cast a beautiful backdrop for the aurora at night: these are my memories of visiting Alta, Norway this past winter.

I had an amazing time visiting Alta in early February, 2024 and found that it far exceeded my expectations — so I felt quite compelled to write this guide to share my findings with you!

For a relatively small city, there’s quite a lot to do here, from dog sledding to chasing the Northern lights to visiting its museums to enjoying some excellent Arctic fine dining.

View of Alta's city center in the downtown with the lights almost all the way on for nighttime but still a little twilight
The beauty of Alta’s downtown

After visiting Tromsø in winter twice, I’m happy to report that Alta definitely holds a candle to it and is definitely a worthwhile place to visit in Norway in winter.

If you want to escape the ever-increasing mass tourism in Tromsø in favor of a lesser-visited Arctic Norway destination that is well set up for tourism but could use more of it, this guide is for you!

This post will explain all of the best things to do in Alta in winter and give you suggestions for having the perfect winter trip there.

Visit (or stay the night at!) the Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel.

Allison Green sitting in an ice hotel in Norway with a yellow sweater and snow boots
The Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel is absolutely worth a visit!

One of the main reasons people travel to Alta is to see one of the best igloo hotels in Northern Norway!

Personally, after having visited the Tromsø Ice Domes (as well as ice hotels in Sweden and Finland) in the past, I can definitively say that the Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel is my favorite of them all.

As a bonus for budget-minded travelers, it’s also one of the largest igloo hotels, making it surprisingly affordable to splurge on an overnight stay in one of the economy double rooms. However, note that these double rooms offer less in terms of aesthetics.

For the really spectacularly-styled rooms, you’d want to upgrade to a suite room. These have beautiful ice sculptures over the bed as well as a seating area (covered in reindeer hides, because no one wants a cold butt) as well as colorful aesthetic lighting that makes the blue ice of the snow hotel really come to life. Obviously there’s a lot more effort involved in this — hence the higher prices. 

Check prices for rooms and suites at the igloo hotel here!

A basic double room at the ice hotel
These are what the economy doubles look like – they are very simple!

Even if you can’t afford to spend the night (or simply don’t see the appeal in paying upwards of 200 USD per night per person to freeze in a hotel room), don’t worry. You can visit the Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel for 350 NOK (about 32 USD).

With your entry ticket, you can stay however long you like before the guests arrive for the night (check-in for guests begins at 8 PM) and take all the photos your heart desires.

We spent about an hour at the igloo hotel, enjoying the various rooms and suites and taking pictures of the many ice sculptures and cool features of the hotel, like the ice chapel, the ice bar, and the aurora room with constantly shifting light displays.

Opening for the season each year on December 20th, the igloo hotel works with local ice artisans (as well as some foreign artists) to create new sculptures with a different theme so you’ll never see the same exact hotel twice!

Stay up late in search of the Northern lights.

The aurora in Alta over a snow-covered cabin
The only night we saw the Northern lights in Alta

One of the main reasons people visit Alta in winter is that it’s considered the City of Northern Lights!

That’s because Alta has a long history of being an important place to learn about the aurora borealis. Fun fact: the world’s first Northern Lights observatory was built in Alta, on the mountain called Haldde, in 1899!

There are various ways to search for the Northern lights in Alta — I wrote a whole post about it, so I won’t reinvent the wheel in this post.

To be honest, we had a (frankly) disastrous minibus Northern Lights tour, but there are other aurora tours that I would recommend trying instead of the horrible tour I took. I wrote about it here if you’re feeling like indulging in a bit of schadenfreude — or just learning what tour to avoid.

If you want a different (read: actually good) tour, check out this one!

People on a snowmobile tour exploring the Northern lights wilderness in Svalbard
Snowmobiles under the Northern lights

If you want a more adventurous way of seeking the Northern lights, you can have fun doing a snowmobile safari in the winter months—as long as there is enough snow to operate the snowmobiles safely, generally by December or January!

There are other ways to experience the aurora more actively, like taking a snowshoe tour under the aurora which is offered by some tour operators or you can even try fatbiking on snow in search of the aurora, which is a unique option I haven’t seen offered anywhere else in the Arctic.

Still, frankly, I suggest either going by car or having some long-distance transit like dogsledding, snowmobiling, etc.

This offers you the best chances to find the perfect place with a clear sky — which is the only way you stand a good chance of seeing the lights, no matter how much solar activity there is or isn’t.

Here’s a snowmobile Northern lights safari option or a dog-sledding Northern lights option

Go dog sledding with an award-winning team of dogs.

Dog jumping with excitement while dog sledding in Alta
Sled dogs + cold winter days = unparalleled excitement

Did you know that you can go dog sledding with literal champions?

Holmen Husky Lodge is one of the best dog sled operators I’ve ever toured with, and I’ve gone dog sledding four times — in Alta (which I write about here), Tromsø, Rovaniemi, and Abisko.

The most notable thing about Holmen Husky Lodge is that it focuses primarily on its dogs and dog sledding operations. Yes, they also have accommodations, but they truly focus on their dogs in everything they do and it shows!

Holmen isn’t allowing tour bookings yet for the season, but you can book a similar husky tour experience here.

The views going dog sledding in Alta - so beautiful! View of sled and snow covered trees and dogs running
Dogs running their favorite home track at Holmen Husky Lodge

When you visit Holmen Husky Lodge on tour, as you suit up in your exposure suits and get ready for your dog sledding tour, you’ll see all the ‘diplom’ or awards of their various dogs for completing massive circuits of the Finnmarksløpet, either 600-km or sometimes even 1,200-km distances!

Of course, not all the dogs at the husky farm are race runners, but they have a core dog sledding team of champions that you can meet and greet. And trust me, the success hasn’t gone to their heads — they’re not above tackling you with kisses and love.

Join the crowds to send off the Finnmarksløpet racers.

Signs that say 'Diplom 600km' given to dogs who ran a long distance
Dog ‘diplomas’ for Finnmarksløpet runners at Holmen Husky Lodge

Haven’t yet picked what dates you want to visit Alta? In my opinion, the absolute best time to visit is the annual Finnmarksløpet, the longest dogsled race in Europe!

It’s actually sort of a 3-in-1 event: there’s the famous FL-1200, which tackles 1,200 kilometers (or 745 miles for my fellow Americans) of wild Finnmark terrain. This is the toughest race there is and only about 40 mushers attempt it each year.

The middle-of-the-road race is the FL-600, which is the most popular race for mushing teams. They cover 580 kilometers (confusingly, not exactly 600, but I guess they round up!) — that’s 360 miles, which is also quite impressive.

Two dogs sleeping in their side-by-side boxes filled in hay in the winter
Two Finnsmarksløpet veterans, resting at Holmen

Finally, there’s also a competition for young mushers, the FL-Junior. This is exclusively for young mushers between the ages of 14 and 18, where they race 200 kilometers (125 miles) with a team of six dogs.

All these races depart at different times, starting with the FL-1200, and staggering other races later on in the week, alongside other festivities during the race week.

This is Alta’s favorite time of year, so don’t worry, the dates for the next Finnsmarksløpet have already been determined; they will begin on March 14, 2025.

Have an exquisite fine dining meal at Trasti & Trine.

The interior of a fine dining restaurant in Alta, Norway
The cute and cozy interior of Trasti & Trine’s dining room

Hands down, the best meal I’ve ever eaten anywhere in Norway (and I’ve spent at least 3 months in Norway!) was the fine dining tasting menu at Trasti & Trine, a boutique hotel with an accompanying restaurant.

We had originally considered staying here, but the aurora cabins we really liked were booked up and only the normal guesthouse rooms were available. We wanted a more convenient location so we instead decided to stay in the center at the Thon Hotel Alta.

While our hotel was excellent, after tasting the food at Trasti & Trine, I am completely certain that we would have had an even more magical experience there… and I have it bookmarked for my return visit to Alta, which I’m hoping will be in the summer next time so I can see all its beauty once the snow has melted.

OK, back to the meal: it was somehow both extremely decadent and decidedly local, choosing down-to-earth ingredients with a beautiful presentation.

Fine dining menu at trasti and trine in alta, norway
A tasty reindeer dish at the end of our tasting menu

Things got off to a great start with our amuse-bouches: a taste of shrimp salad first, and then a delicious dish of smoked ptarmigan (a local bird) with lingonberries. It was an excellent introduction for what was to follow!

The tasting menu continued with more starter-style dishes, including a unique paté made of reindeer and bear (surprisingly not gamey at all!), and a delicious dill-salmon sashimi served Nordic-style alongside some herbed sour cream.

And honestly, even the bread course was delicious: the tastiest seed bread that words can’t describe served with dill-cultured butter. Despite our best intentions to save room for the rest of our courses, we quickly devoured the bread in front of us like starving peasants, and accepted another refill without a second thought.

Our main dishes didn’t want to make us choose between land and sea, so we were generously offered both. First up was a delicious, generous portion of cod filet, gently poached and served in the tastiest mushroom bouillon broth alongside a bit of steamed kale.

And finally, the pièce de la résistance, our final savory course of the night: perfectly-cooked medium rare reindeer nestled on a bed of parsnip puree, served with oyster mushrooms and beets.I still dream about how tasty that reindeer is!

Of course, a meal isn’t a meal without dessert, and this one—an Arctic berry sorbet with juniper, almond praline, and vanilla cream sauce—was refreshingly light after such a long meal.

This fine-dining menu at Trasti & Trine isn’t particularly cheap, but I think it’s worth it for all that you get. I counted and we had eight different dishes (if you include the bread course and amuse-bouches). It was 1495 NOK per person (about $136 USD), pricy but not outrageous for a tasting menu of such a caliber.

If you want a more down-to-earth but still delicious meal, they offer 2-course and 3-course “country style” dinners for 495 NOK ($45 USD) and 595 NOK, respectively ($54 USD)

Stay the night in an aurora cabin.

Aurora glamping dome in the forest
A glamping dome available at Holmen Husky Lodge

There are a bunch of really cool accommodations in Alta with huge panoramic windows, so you can see the Northern Lights right from your window!

Note that the aurora has to be really strong to see it through a window with your naked eye. I’ve only seen it through a car window once, and it was going so hard, it was practically rioting.

However, having those large windows can help you spot clear skies and then try to go outside for a better view of lights.

And yes, you can take those gorgeous photos of you inside an aurora cabin with the Northern lights swirling overhead—it’s not Photoshop composite magic.

View from a window of an aurora camp in Tromso
View of the Northern lights as it might appear on a long exposure shot inside a glass igloo

 It is, however, long exposure magic, and you can only get those types of photos with a tripod set up and increasing the shutter speed to at least 2-3 seconds to capture both you inside the cabin and the Northern lights outside the window.

As always with the Northern lights, whether you take the photos indoors or outdoors, the lights will always appear more “neon” to the camera than to the naked eye.

Now that I’ve given you the appropriate expectations, here are a few unique Northern lights hotels you can stay at in Alta.

Beautiful view of room in the traditional style of aurora lodges in norway
Room at Sorrisniva Arctic Wilderness Lodge | Image courtesy of Hotels.com
  • Trasti & Trine: They have funky cabins with geometric windows that face to the sky so you can try to glimpse the aurora overhead! Also, the best food you’ll eat in Alta, hands down. They also have dog sledding.
  • GLØD Explorer: They have heated canvas domes with some glass panels so you can try to find the aurora, and they also offer a lot of fun activities like snowshoeing!
  • Sorrisniva Arctic Wilderness Lodge: Not an aurora dome, but the panoramic windows at Sorrisniva are huge (including a panel on the ceiling) and the property is beautiful, and its remote location means lights are easy to spot!

Go whale watching in the Alta fjord.

Orca and fishing boat in the winter in norway
Both orcas and humpbacks are common visitors to Alta’s fjords

Whale watching is one of the other major draws for visitors to Alta in the winter season, because the whales visit Alta’s very own fjord regularly each year. 

And specifically the Alta fjord, not a fjord very far away in the case of Tromsø. That alone makes it one of the best spots in Norway to go whale watching.

You see, Tromsø is known for its whale watching, but to be completely transparent with you, it actually really shouldn’t be. At one point, the whales did visit the Tromsø fjord… but now, due to overfishing and changing climates, the whales steer clear of the area near Tromsø and instead choose the all-you-can-eat herring buffets out in Skjervøy.

This may not mean much to you if you’re unfamiliar with Norway’s geography… but Skjervøy is a far distance from Tromsø, requiring either a winding 3-hour bus ride alongside the fjord’s edge or (worse for seasick-prone people like me) a 3-hour choppy boat ride just to get to the spot for whale watching, where you might only have an hour or so to spot whales before you have to go home.

whales in tromso

Alta, meanwhile, has whales right in its very own fjord as well as ones very close by.

This means you can have a shorter tour (which is good in the sometimes-rough winter seas) and have that time dedicated to searching for whales. 

Check out whale watching tours in Alta here!

Alta is also less impacted by mass tourism, so these boats are smaller and more ethically-run. Unfortunately, I visited Alta in February just as the whale watching season came to an end so I was not able to do this tour for myself. 

If whale watching is important to you, I recommend visiting in January so you can both get to watch the whales and also do fun snowy activities like snowmobiling, dog sledding, etc.

Explore the Alta wilderness by snowmobile – day or night!

Snowmobiles out in the middle of Svalbard, an easy way to get out off the main roads of Svalbard
Snowmobiles under the Northern lights — it doesn’t get better than that!

Alta is best known for its wild nature, between the twists and turns of the pristine Alta River and its location at the edge of the Finnsmarkvidda, Norway’s largest plateau area which is home to the most extreme temperatures in Norway.

Alta’s relatively flat landscape out on the plateau makes it an excellent place for beginners. But it’s definitely not only for beginners, as experienced snowmobilers, too, will find the stunning beauty of Alta’s winter magic enchanting.

It’s hard to be blasé in a landscape this beautiful and untouched!

You can book a daytime snowmobile excursion here or a nighttime snowmobile in search of the Northern lights!

Visit one of the world’s northernmost chocolate factories.

different kinds of chocolate on sale

Did you know Alta is home to one of the world’s most northerly chocolate factories? I love random fun facts like this (this is why I love pub quizzes!).

OK, let me get pedantic for a quick second. Technically, Fruene in Svalbard is the world’s northernmost chocolate-maker at 78° N. But still, Alta isn’t that far behind — and I’m never going to slight anyone who tries to bring chocolate to remote places.

On a cold winter day, nothing warms me up on the inside quite like eating some delicious chocolate. 

But even better, you can actually tour Æventyr, the chocolate factory (that also happens to run tours, because Alta’s a small town), and see how the magic is made! Learn more here.

Wander down Alta’s main street, Markedsgata.

The markedsgata main street of alta
Alta’s main pedestrian street

Admittedly, Alta’s downtown scene isn’t the most bustling, but it does have an incredibly scenic pedestrian main street: Markedsgata.

This car-free road brings you past the handful of restaurants in Alta’s dining scene, past the shopping mall entrance, and brings you all the way to the Cathedral of the Northern Lights.

It’s especially beautiful in the winter when there are some festive lights adorning some small trees!

Photograph the beautiful Northern Lights Cathedral.

One small faint band of aurora over the northern lights cathedral
Very faint aurora with the Northern Lights Cathedral in Alta

Whether you can capture the Cathedral of the Northern Lights with its namesake aurora or not, trust me when I say that it’s still the most interesting architectural site in Alta.

OK, Alta isn’t exactly dripping with beautiful architecture — it’s a bit of a strangely laid-out city that was formed when a few villages came together to become one municipality. 

But still, beauty is beauty, and the Cathedral of the Northern Lights definitely boasts a certain architectural elegance — one of the decidedly modern variety. Its fluid style reminds me a bit of a Frank Gehry building, but with a clearly Nordic vision behind it. It’s spectacular.

View of the alta cathedral on a clear day with soft morning light falling on the building
The beauty of the cathedral by day

Since it’s so centrally located in the heart of the city of Alta, I think it’s totally worth seeing it at least twice, if not more. You have to see it during the day to really understand its architectural design and appreciate the subtle curves of the metal and how that echoes the dance of the aurora.

And then of course, on a clear night, you have to try to photograph the aurora with it — you definitely won’t be the only photographer trying, but it won’t be crowded per se — and it’s absolutely worth it.

Learn about the region at the excellent Alta Museum.

The exterior of the alta musuem with an ice sculpture in front
The lovely Alta Museum is worth a visit in winter, even without its rock art displays

One of Alta’s main claims to fame is the UNESCO-listed Rock Art of Alta, but you can’t see it in the winter because it is located outside and well, Alta is basically nestled up under a giant duvet of snow all winter long.

Still, even if you can’t see its rock art (some of which dates back as far as 4200 BCE!) it’s still absolutely worth visiting the Alta Museum in the winter. Note, though, that you can see a few petroglyphs inside on display even outside the summer season. 

Not only can you warm up there, but you can learn so much that it’s almost overwhelming. Trust me, I visit a lot of regional museums. Most are fairly lackluster; this one is not. 

It’s one of the most well-executed museums of its kind that I’ve ever visited, and I definitely walked away from the museum with a far more complete understanding of the Finnmark region as a whole, as well as Alta’s specific history.

As a bonus, the museum café has one of the most scenic views in the entire city, where you can sip a cup of delicious coffee while admiring the snowy landscape and the fjord out of a ton of panoramic windows. 

It might seem basic, but since most of the city is located inland as opposed to on the fjord like many Norwegian coastal towns, this is something quite special in Alta.

Allison walking along the balcony at the alta museum overlooking the fjord
One of the best photo spots in Alta!

Their terrace area is particularly beautiful and it’s one of my favorite spots to photograph in Alta.

Admission in the winter is 100 NOK (about $9 USD), a savings compared to the summer price of 150 NOK because you cannot see the rock art now.

Discover the region’s salmon fishing history.

Detailed information of the salmon industry in norway
House of Salmon is a must-visit in Alta!

Another great place to visit in Alta to understand its history is the House of Salmon in the center of Alta, which tells the interesting story of salmon fishing and farming in Norway.

For example, did you know the Norwegian salmon industry is the reason why Japanese people eat salmon (sake) in their sushi? Traditionally, they never did, but Norway put on one hell of an ad campaign in Japan and now salmon sushi is extremely mainstream all over Japan.

​Plus, it’s absolutely free to visit—and free is a highly valuable (and quite rare) word when it comes to touring expensive Norway!

Have a delicious meal (and meet the reindeer) at Sámi Siida.

A plate of meat, potatoes, and a carrot and cabbage slaw with traditional sami ingredients
Reindeer schnitzel with caramelized onions or stežan in Sámi
An orange mash, reindeer, lingonberry and boiled potatoes at a typical sami meal
Smoked reindeer with turnip mash or suovasbiergu in Sámi

One of the places I enjoyed visiting most during my time in Alta was Sámi Siida, a casual-cozy restaurant serving up traditional Sámi dishes (think: tons and tons of reindeer). We had reindeer schnitzel and a smoked reindeer stew: both were fabulous.

If you prefer to meet, not eat, your reindeer, they also offer reindeer feeding and reindeer sledding experiences here, but I didn’t personally try either.

A sami reindeer at the reindeer herding camp at Sami Siida
Reindeer are a huge part of life in Northern Norway!

I strongly recommend that all visitors to Norway (and other parts of Lapland) learn about Sami culture (the Sami people are the indigenous people of the Arctic) to keep preserving this unique part of the North’s cultural heritage and ensure that tourism dollars are shared with the region’s original inhabitants.

This place is one of the best places in Alta to start (though I think that the reindeer experiences in Tromsø generally do a better job at educating people about Sámi culture, but a win is a win).

Catch a movie at the Aurora Kino.

Aurora kino movie house and movie theater in the downtown of alta

If you want to do something at night and the forecast looks way too crummy to have a shot at the Northern lights, it’s definitely a good idea to go for a movie night at the local movie house, Aurora Kino.

Generally they will play English language films subtitled in Norwegian or vice versa so it should be easy to find a film you understand — just ask beforehand to be sure.

Cozy up at the local library.

The exterior of the local library in Alta
Libraries in the Nordics are my favorite!

Looking for a free place to sit down for a while and warm up and just generally soak in the cozy Nordic vibes? The Alta Bibliotek (local library) is just the place to do that.

I fell in love with Norway’s libraries when visiting Tromsø last February and I ended up going almost every day to answer emails and just get some work done in a cozy, free environment.

Browse (or shop!) at Amfi.

AMFI shopping complex in center
I love to window shop when it’s cold out!

One of the biggest shopping areas downtown is the Amfi Mall located right near the Thon Hotel as well as Markedsgata.

There’s all sorts of shops in here, from an H&M to a winter sports store to interior design store, as well as cafés you can stop at for a quick pick-me-up.

It’s a great place to while away a few cold hours in Alta between activities.

Northern Lights in Alta: How to See It Independently or on a Tour

Alta is known as the city of the Northern Lights — but does it deserve this self-appointed title? This post is dedicated to helping you decide just that.

As one of the most northern cities in the world, Alta definitely has some solid rationale behind its claim to fame when it comes to the Northern Lights side of things. I mean, this city even has a cathedral named after them (with its architecture inspired by the dance of the lights).

But is Alta really that much better than other places in the Nordics to see the Northern Lights? Yes and no—this post will explain further.

I wrote this post after I spent four nights in Alta in February 2024. In the post, I’ll go into detail about my experience both seeing (and not seeing) the Northern lights in Alta. 

I’ll also make suggestions for you based on what I personally experienced (including the tour I suggest you avoid!).

The aurora in Alta over a snow-covered cabin
The only night we saw the Northern lights in Alta

Of those four nights, I saw the Northern Lights once and went on a Northern Lights tour once—and coincidentally, those two did not coincide, as I’ll explain.

Before I describe my experience seeing Alta’s northern lights, I’ll explain more about the aurora’s importance in Alta and the best time to see the lights to help you plan your visit.

The Aurora Season in Alta: Best Months & Best Time of Day

The bright dancing lights of the aurora in Alta City with the northern lights cathedral and light trails from cars in the foreground

The overall aurora season in Alta runs from late September through early April, generally with the best conditions around December.

During the other parts of the year, Alta either experiences the midnight sun or is transitioning into and out of the midnight sun season, so there is not enough dark sky at any point in the day to see the aurora, even if solar wind conditions were to be perfect otherwise.

During the aurora period, you can see the aurora any time the sky is dark enough — so long as there is enough solar activity in the area and you have a clear sky. 

But how do you know when the sky is dark enough? As a rule of thumb, about two hours of sunset and two hours before sunrise, the sky is dark enough for proper aurora hunting.

Also be aware that Alta is quite high above the Arctic Circle — not Svalbard high, but still quite high, 230 miles (375 kilometers) above it in fact.

This means that it experiences ‘polar night’ when the sun does not rise above the horizon for nearly two months: that’s right, there are no sunrises or sunsets at all between November 25th and January 17th!

However, unlike Svalbard’s polar night which is true 24/7 pitch darkness, the polar night in Alta is a lot brighter. Even on the longest and darkest day of polar night, the winter solstice, Alta still has a period of twilit ‘blue light’ between around 9 AM to 1:30 PM, giving you the sense that a day has passed. 

I visited in early February when the sun was coming back and I had a good combination of sunlit days for activities and dark skies for aurora chasing.

Alta’s Aurora History

brilliant movement of the aurora borealis happening in alta norway

The aurora borealis was a subject of a lot of interest in the 19th century, when scientists determined that there was a prime ‘aurora zone’ where the aurora was most likely to occur. The aurora arms race began!

One particular research expedition team from France stationed in Altafjord in the 1830s, generating important data that firmly placed Alta on the map when it comes to spotting the aurora.

That data was a large part of the rationale behind the Norwegian Parliament giving approval to build the world’s first aurora observatory in Alta in 1899, on nearby Haldde mountain.

The observatory was the primary basis for Northern lights research in Norway until 1926, when the observatory was moved to Tromso, partly because of the city’s large research university.

Unfortunately, the observatory was burned down by occupying Nazi forces in 1944; luckily, a few stone walls remained. In the 1980s, the observatory was lovingly restored. It no longer works as an observatory, but now it’s actually a DNT cabin!

DNT cabins are low-cost, low-amenity cabins that you can stay at, run by an organization called Den Norske Turistforening. You have to bring your own supplies and follow all the rules of use, but they are a great way to experience Norwegian cabin culture for a very low price.

There are only six beds at the old observatory, so I recommend booking it online here and also reading all the rules if you want to stay there!

Note that there is no direct road to the cabin; it requires a 2-hour hike in the snow uphill, often during low light or dark conditions. This hike should only be undertaken if you’re an experienced winter hiker with all the gear you need for a safe overnight stay.

My Experience Seeing the Northern Lights in Alta

Mild northern lights display in alta with cabin and shed full of firewood
A small aurora display in Alta in February 2024

I had very bad luck with the aurora season of 2023-2024. While it was supposedly the solar maximum, I spent six weeks in the Arctic and I didn’t see as much as I had hoped.

Fellow aurora hunters confirmed the year was less spectacular than anticipated… but that’s just how life goes! Much of the best solar wind conditions occurred during the day, which meant no visible aurora.

Additionally, it was pretty cloudy and stormy this year, more so than I’ve experienced in my past winters when I spent aurora hunting.

That said, I did get to see the Northern lights in Alta! My friend Megan and I saw them on a clear, crisp, cold night after having a marvelous fine-dining tasting menu at Trasti & Trine, a lovely boutique hotel, restaurant, and dog sled operator. After we finished dinner, we went out to look at the sky. The lights were absolutely spectacular!

One small faint band of aurora over the northern lights cathedral
Very faint aurora with the Northern Lights Cathedral in Alta

After snapping pictures there, we tried to high-tail it back to Alta city center to take pictures of the Northern Lights cathedral with the aurora behind it. We took one or two photos of the Northern lights appearing behind the cathedral before they disappeared into the night.

Well, we had an aurora tour booked the following night. Unfortunately, this was the worst aurora tour I have ever been on.

While the tour operators of course cannot help it if the lights do not come, sadly, our tour guide was really inexperienced and did not know how to chase the aurora.

view of the cloud map
It was always going to be a challenging night, but we could have tried the less cloudy parts.
another view of the cloud map
Instead, we drove right into the heart of the snowstorm???

He stayed far too long in places with 100% cloud cover, did not pursue less-cloudy parts on the map (which we showed him on our cloud-tracking app, Windy, which I highly recommend you download before your trip).

Of course, there’s no guarantee we would have seen the northern lights had we followed our weather app, but we would have at least had a shot. We stood no chance with the tour the way it was conducted.

He made a series of increasingly questionable decisions… including choosing to drive headfirst into a snowstorm and start a bonfire in a parking lot.

Person sitting in a parking lot with a bonfire
When I tell you this had bootleg Willy Wonka experience vibes, you just have to trust me: it was that bad.

We found ourselves wishing we had just chased the aurora ourselves, as we had rented a car in Alta for maximum freedom.

We did choose to do a tour just to see if we could recommend it to our readers… and unfortunately, we found that we couldn’t recommend this tour in good faith. If you want to see what tour, either to take it or avoid it, the one we used was this tour.

However, I will say that the tour company we went with, Æventyr, saw our negative reviews of the tour and, without any prompting or communication, chose to refund us half of the amount of the tour.

I appreciated their token of goodwill, and I would consider taking a different tour, like their whale-watching tour, with them. They seem to be a good company that just happened to make a bad hire (or didn’t offer enough training).

Seeing the Northern Lights on a Tour in Alta

Beautiful northern lights in Alta, Norway with pine trees and other snow landscape

There are several different ways you can try to see the Northern lights. There are two schools of thought and I’m not really sure which one I subscribe to. Both have their merits.

The first school of thought is to take a dedicated aurora-chasing tour by minibus. This is how you will most likely see the aurora (assuming a competent guide and well-run company) and this is what I did.

However, if you are unlucky and have an aurora tour guide that does not actively track weather conditions and brings you to a few spots regardless of the conditions at those places, there’s not much that you will gain from this kind of tour.

My tour brought us to a few pre-determined places, but we did not actively track or chase the aurora. If you want to try a different tour and hope it’s different, I’d suggest this one instead as it has some really good reviews (that said, ours did too when we booked).

Book your aurora chasing tour by minivan here!

People on a snowmobile tour exploring the Northern lights wilderness in Svalbard

The other school of thought is to do an activity you would enjoy no matter what, but do it at night and hope you get to see the aurora as a bonus!

The pro of this is that you will have fun no matter what. The con is that you can’t be sure you’ll see the Northern lights where you are, and you may be locking yourself into a cloud-covered area while doing an activity when the aurora is active elsewhere.

If possible, you should split the difference and do both, but I understand that it is an expensive proposal.

If you can afford it, I would spend one day on a van tour of the aurora and one day doing a fun activity like snowmobiling or dog sledding under the northern lights.

Of the two, I recommend snowmobiling because you can go further and faster. Additionally, dog sledding tours follow a set path to make running their tours easier (and safer for the dogs, especially in the dark).

On the other hand, snowmobiling tours may have a few routes they typically know well and go, but it is more likely that your tour guide will adjust for the best chance of seeing the northern lights.

Book your snowmobiling aurora chase tour here!

Seeing the Northern Lights Independently in Alta

View of the Northern lights over a fjord in alta norway

You can definitely try to see the Northern lights independently in Alta. However, you really need to rent a car for this, as the most important factor in chasing the Northern lights is the ability to change course quickly and follow the clear sky.

Also, it’s worth knowing that Alta is a strangely laid-out city, with the city center inland of the fjord. You’ll want to be able to drive to the outskirts of Alta both for better photo compositions and for an increased chance of seeing the lights.

I’ll list a few places you can drive to in order to look for the aurora, but none of them are guaranteed. While I stand by these suggestions, I also strongly suggest that you check out the Windy app (free version is fine!) and go to the places where it predicts a lack of cloud cover.

  • Alta Museum: It’s located on the fjord, which is a beautiful setting for photos, but since it’s coastal, it may be more socked-in with cloud cover. I still highly recommend it if you have a clear night!
  • Trasti & Trine: This boutique hotel and restaurant more inland than Alta, and it’s a delicious place to enjoy a meal. This is where we saw the lights. However, the composition here isn’t the most beautiful as other places can be as there can be a lot of trees in the way. However, there is a path into the forest that you can walk if you are staying here overnight. Since we were just dinner guests, we didn’t want to intrude too much.
Allison Green sitting in an ice hotel in Norway with a yellow sweater and snow boots
The Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel is absolutely worth a visit!
  • Sorrisniva Arctic Wilderness Lodge: This is a really fun place to visit whether or not you see the lights! While there, you can also visit the incredible Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel, so an outing there won’t waste time, even if you don’t see the lights. An entrance ticket is 350 NOK or about $32 USD and it’s fully worth it.
  • Raipasveien and Holmen Streets: If you cross the Alta River right where you find the Sami Siida restaurant, you’ll head into an area that has a lot of Alta’s more rustic accommodations, such as GLØD Aurora Canvas Dome and Alta River Camping. You could drive this loop of a road and try to find some cool places to stop!

Best Time to Visit Svalbard: Monthly Weather, Daylight & Activity Breakdown

While Svalbard is a beautiful place to visit, it’s also an extremely expensive one… which means it becomes even more imperative to pick the right time to visit Svalbard for the experiences you’re hoping for.

Here’s the rub: for many, Svalbard is a “once-in-a-lifetime” type of place. Between expensive flights and the necessity of taking a lot of tours because independent travel is all but impossible to non-locals, you can expect to spend a pretty penny in Svalbard. 

But here’s the other thing: there’s no way you can ever do all the activities that make Svalbard so special in one single trip, simply because this place is so seasonal and conditional upon the weather. 

Glacial ice in one of the northern fjords off the coast of Spitsbergen in the summer months

Planning your Svalbard itinerary means making some hard choices. Unless some very specific conditions align, you won’t be able to dog sled across the frozen tundra and go kayaking among glaciers in the same visit.

If you’re not bound to a specific vacation schedule and have the luxury of choosing when to visit Svalbard, I advise you think about what activities you want to do first, and then from there, pick the right month within that time period.

The Three Seasons of Svalbard

View of the Svalbard seed vault looking over Isfjord in the february blue hour month
My visit to Svalbard was in mid-February, between the end of polar night and the sun’s return

Forget what you knew about the four seasons in temperate climates or the two seasons in tropical climates. Being so close to the North Pole, Svalbard really has three seasons — and two are just different flavors of winter

As agreed upon by Svalbard residents, the three proper seasons in Svalbard are:

  • Sunny Winter (March through Mid-May)
  • Polar Summer (Mid-May through September) 
  • and Northern Lights Winter (October through February)
Dog sledding tour happening in Svalbard with a perspective as if you were the one dog sledding

This post will start with sunny winter as that’s really when the tourism season starts in Svalbard, although some snow activities like visiting the ice caves do begin a little earlier in February.

February was when my visit was, so I have the most personal tips and advice from that period, and I’ll be writing a dedicated post about visiting Svalbard in February soon.

Sunny Winter (March to Mid-May)

People snowmobiling in bright weather conditions in the middle of sunny winter in Svalbard

Pick sunny winter if…
✔️ You want to go snowmobiling and dog sledding
✔️ You want to enjoy Svalbard before cruise ships start docking 
✔️ You want to enjoy the cold of winter with the benefit of long sunny days

Skip sunny winter if…
❌ You want to see the aurora borealis
❌ You really can’t handle the cold
❌ You want to see lots of wildlife

March in Svalbard

Winter mountains near the town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard in March, with blue light as well as pastel pink glow lighting up the tips of the mountains as it transitions to sunny winter.

At a Glance: 

  • Temperatures: Average highs of -8°C (18°F), average lows of -14°C (7°F), with much lower days possible.
  • Sunlight: The sun returns on Longyearbyen at the beginning of the month and days are bright, almost endless by the end of the month.
  • Activities: Snowmobile safaris, visiting ice caves, dog sledding, aurora tours possible at the beginning of the month

March may be the most rapidly changing month in all of Svalbard’s winter season!

The beginning of the month has days that are about 7.5 hours long, with sunrise around 8:30 AM and sunset around 4 PM. But by March 15, sunrise is already at 6:30 AM  (a full two hours earlier in just two weeks) and sunset is around 5:45 PM (nearly two hours later), giving you 11 hours of daylight. 

By March 30th, days stretch as long as the longest summer days in lower latitudes. By now, the sunrise is around 5:20 AM and sunset isn’t until 8:45 PM — plenty of time to explore and enjoy!

As usual, you can expect twilight hours to stretch about two hours before and two hours after sunset, giving you even more light… and thus ending the aurora season in Svalbard rather abruptly.

With so much sunlight and also so much snow, this is the best season for all the snow sports!

Three snowmobiles and a winter landscape with mountain, and the sun is starting to set behind the mountain despite it being quite bright outside, there is one person in the shot too.

Snowmobiling trips like this one to East Spitsbergen or this one to the ice caves are a great way to enjoy the sunny winter months. It’s the only way to see certain parts of Spitsbergen that are generally inaccessible at other parts of the year.

A particularly unique snowmobile excursion only available in March and parts of April is this blue light snowmobile safari, where you get to see Svalbard in its most beautiful colors, not quite day and not quite night!

March is also a very festive feeling month in Svalbard because this is when the town of Longyearbyen celebrates Sun Festival Week, the week leading up to March 8, full of concerts and fun cultural activities.

While the first sunrise for the year will have been in mid-February, it takes about 3 weeks for the sun to rise high enough above the horizon to peek above the tall mountains that block light from the east from falling on Longyearbyen.

Overall Rating for Visiting: ⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4/5): The sunlight is beautiful and snow is plentiful for snowmobiling and winter sports, but this is often the coldest month of the year, so bundle up and pack wisely. Coming during Sun Festival Week can be a ton of fun to celebrate the unique return of the sun to this high Arctic town!

April in Svalbard

Reindeer grazing during the midnight sun period in Svalbard

At a Glance:

  • Temperatures: Average highs of -5°C (23°F), average lows of -10°C (14°F).
  • Sunlight: The month begins very bright and ends in midnight sun, starting on the 18th.
  • Activities: Snowmobiling, ice caves, dog sledding, 

It may be hard to believe that a month where the Midnight Sun begins can be considered winter, but Svalbard is an unusual place! 

On April 1, sunrise is around 5:15 AM and sunset is at nearly 9 PM… already almost 18 hours of daylight! By April 18, though, you’ll see the last sunset for several months, when the sun sets for the final time for several months, translating to 24/7 sunshine at the end of April.

A glacier in Svalbard, Norway with a person traveling on a jet ski on a sunny day in March in sunny winter

This is another great month for snow sports before the warmer months settle in and end snowmobile season. Snowmobile trips are a major draw at this time of year — I recommend the snowmobile tour to Eastern Spitsbergen and the snowmobile safari to glacier ice caves. 

This is also still prime dog sledding season, and you can join tours to the ice caves or around Adventdalen or Bolterdalen if you want a less strenuous, more relaxing dog sled experience.

Overall Rating for Visiting: ⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4/5): The combination of midnight sun and all the snow sports you can dream of is a perfect combination. However, most boat tours haven’t yet started, and the migratory birds and other wildlife generally haven’t returned yet.

May in Svalbard*

May in Svalbard*

Some streaky snow remains in the downtown area of Longyearbyen with its famous colorful painted houses with the sun quite high in the sky in the middle of the midnight sun

* Technically, the first half of May falls under “sunny winter” and the second half falls under “polar summer”. But since you can still often do many snow activities at the beginning of the month, I’ll put it in the winter section.

At a Glance:

  • Temperatures: Average highs of 1°C (34°F), average lows of -3°C (27°F)
  • Sunlight: Full sunlight all month long
  • Activities: Snow sports like snowmobiling at the beginning of the month, changing to boat tours and hiking-based activities by end of the month.

Welcome to the full-on midnight sun season: there are no sunrises or sunsets all month! May is the transitional month between Svalbard’s sunny winter and polar summer seasons, but it feels very summery with never-ending days. Plus, average temperatures finally climb above freezing: what passes for balmy in this part of the Arctic Circle.

This isn’t quite a shoulder season month, because it’s very much high season in Svalbard. However, the unique opportunity to enjoy both snow and boat activities is only possible at this time of year. However, the timing is hard to get exactly right, so it should be thought of as a bonus if everything aligns.

The warm light of the midnight sun being cast on ice in the fjords, a contrast between winter and summer

It depends on the temperatures this time of year, but usually around halfway through the month, snow sports like snowmobile safaris and dog-sledding on the snow come to an end. Until then, though, you can enjoy activities like midnight sun snowmobiling and even snowmobiling all the way to Eastern Spitsbergen in hopes of spotting polar bears where they’re most likely to be.

Once there’s not enough snow for snow sports, activities shift more towards boat trips (such as ones to walrus colonies as well as RIB safaris to glaciers), hiking tours, and dog-sledding on dry ground using a cart with wheels rather than a dog sledge.

Overall Rating for Visiting: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ (5/5): Midnight sun, boat season starts, and if you’re lucky you may still have enough snow for some snowmobile trips! This is the best of all worlds for Svalbard… and it’s before cruise season starts. 

Polar Summer (June to September)

People kayaking in front of glaciers in the arctic ocean in svalbard

Pick polar summer if…
✔️ You want to go on boat trips and visit other parts of Svalbard
✔️ You want to see wildlife, including possible polar bears
✔️ You want to experience the sun never setting!

Skip polar summer if…
❌ You’re bothered by cruise ship crowds
❌ You’re traveling on a tight budget
❌ You want snow and Northern lights

June in Svalbard

A bit of remaining snow on top of a mountain in front of the town of Longyearbyen, on a summer's clear sunny day with blue sea

At a Glance:

  • Temperatures: Average highs of 6°C (43°F), average lows of 3°C (38°F)
  • Sunlight: Full sunlight all month long
  • Activities: Boat tours, sea kayaking, wildlife excursions, hiking

June is full polar summer at its best — all the outdoor activities around this time of year focus on boat trips out on the Arctic Ocean!

Now that it’s finally calm enough and sea ice has subsided some, it’s possible to visit some of the more remote places like Ny-Ålesund, the research town that’s the northernmost permanent settlement in the world, and Pyramiden, an abandoned Soviet-era mining town.

The town of Ny Alesund in the most northern and remotest part of Svalbard that is still occupied by humans year round

Also, sea kayaking season begins again! This is one of the most unique things you can do in Svalbard but you can only do it for a short window of perfect conditions during the summer months, from June through August.

This is the first month that the migratory birds begin to return to Svalbard, meaning you can do fjord safaris to bird cliffs and also do land-based photo safaris. This is also when you have the best chance to see polar bears on a boat tour, especially if you’re going further afield.

Wildlife lovers will also love the chance to go on a walrus safari to Borebukta, a walrus colony where you’re basically guaranteed to see these enormous sea clowns.

Overall Rating for Visiting: ⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4/5) Relatively warm temperatures, all the boat activities you can dream of, and endless summer days! The downsides are that all the snow sports have ended and cruise ship season has begun.

July in Svalbard

At a Glance:

  • Temperatures: Average highs of 10°C (50°F), average lows of 6°C (43°F)
  • Sunlight: Full sunlight all month long
  • Activities: Boat tours, sea kayaking, wildlife safaris on land and sea, guided hikes, enjoying the midnight sun

Boat season continues under the midnight sun all July, which also happens to be the warmest month in Svalbard… though that’s not necessarily saying much in the polar regions.

You can take a boat tour to Ny-Ålesundgo kayaking among glaciers, visit walrus colonies by RIB boat, etc. Virtually all boat tours operate during this month giving you tons of choices.

Walrus colony herd on the sand beach in Svalbard, Norway

If you’re looking for some stuff to do on land, you can take a wildlife photo tour from Longyearbyen, where you’ll travel by car around the wilderness parts of town and see what you can spot, including Arctic foxes and birds.

You can also go on a variety of hiking tours in the mountains around Longyearbyen, but note that you must always hike with a guide due to polar bear safety measures.

Overall Rating for Visiting: ⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4/5) The warmest month in Svalbard! This is a full month under the midnight sun, lots of different boat tours you can choose from, but this is another peak season month with lots of cruise ships arriving and making Longyearbyen extremely busy. Also quite pricy.

August in Svalbard

The colorful houses of Longyearbyen next to tundra landscape with some green grass and orange growth on the mountains

At a Glance:

  • Temperatures: Average highs of 9°C (49°F), average lows of 5°C (41°F)
  • Sunlight: Full sun for most of the month, with midnight sun coming to an end around the 25th.
  • Activities: Boat tours and excursions, kayaking, hiking tours, birdwatching and wildlife excursions

August in Svalbard is all about exploring Spitsbergen by boat and on foot! This is the last month you can enjoy some activities that require calmer seas, like sea kayaking among glaciersand the RIB boat tour to the walrus colony in Borebukta.

If you’re looking for something land-based to mix it up, consider this wildlife photography safari, which departs by car from Longyearbyen and brings you on guided hikes to areas where some of the archipelago’s most iconic land-based wildlife, such as Svalbard reindeer and Arctic foxes, like to hang out. 

A summertime view of the  abandoned Russian arctic settlement of Pyramiden, a former mining town,  with the bust of Lenin on display and a glacier in the background

Note that you are unlikely to see a polar bear on this tour, as they don’t tend to hang out very close to Longyearbyen, but anything is possible — that’s why you always have to have a guide with polar bear protection!

If you want a chance to see polar bears, you’ll have more luck on a tour like this one, the fjord cruise to Nordenskiold, which goes near the abandoned mining town of Pyramiden, a popular polar bear hangout spot.

Note that if you’d like to go to Pyramiden, not many tours go there due to the war in Ukraine and tensions that have arisen with Russia as a result of it. However, Henningsen Transit and Guiding does offer tours there, though you won’t find it advertised by Visit Svalbard (again, due to the war).

Overall Rating for Visiting: ⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4/5) Beautiful nearly endless days and the chance to see the midnight sun end make this a special month in Svalbard. Great conditions for all sorts of boat excursions, although August is also another peak cruise ship month, the only thing that knocks it down a star.

September in Svalbard

Summer view of the main street of Longyearbyen town, with nobody out and about, and the tall mountain looming over the town

At a Glance:

  • Temperatures: Average highs of 5°C (41°F), average lows of 1°C (34°F)
  • Sunlight: Generally long days and short nights. The month starts with 18 hours of daylight and ends with about 11 hours.
  • Activities: Sea kayaking season ends, but aurora season begins near the end of the month.

As September begins, the seas begin to get a bit rougher and sea kayaking season comes to an end, as do several boat tours, such as the one to Ny-Ålesund and the walrus watching tours.

Some continue like this nature and wildlife boat tour and the fjord cruise to Nordenskioldthough the birds tend to migrate away by mid-September, making it less appealing for birdwatchers after mid-month.

Scruffy looking arctic fox in his summer coat, on the tundra floor with some wildflowers

This month is quite spectacular because now that the midnight sun is over, you get some really spectacular sunsets and sunrises, and at this latitude they’re particularly long-lasting and beautiful.

You can still do some hikes and many of the land animals of Svalbard are still able to be easily spotted on a wildlife photography safari.

Overall Rating for Visiting: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ (5/5) Cruise ship season comes to a close yet still you can do a few boat tours and see some of the last remaining wildlife of the season, especially if you visit in the beginning of September rather than the end. Long days near the beginning of the month, with the chance of auroras increasing near the end of the month!

Northern Lights Winter (October to February)

Pick Northern lights winter if…
✔️ You want to see the Northern lights (obviously!)
✔️ You’re curious about experiencing a day in the polar night
✔️ You’re on a budget and want to cut costs significantly

Skip Northern lights winter if…
❌ You get negatively impacted by low light conditions, such as if you have SAD
❌ You want to see the diversity of Svalbard’s wildlife
❌ You’ll feel like you’re missing out on a lot of its activities

October in Svalbard 

Snow begins to return to Longyearbyen with some orange contrast of the autumn tundra creating beautiful color

At a Glance:

  • Temperatures: Average highs of 0°C (32°F), average lows of -4°C (25°F)
  • Sunlight: Short but still distinguishable days at the beginning of the month with the final sunset of the year on the 25th. Twilight hours only at the end of October.
  • Activities: Northern lights tours begin again, some boat tours continue

A select handful of boat tours continue through most of October, including the fjord safari to Nordenskioldthough the birds will have usually left by mid-September so this tour is more about enjoying the landscape by now, rather than the wildlife.

The month starts out with about 10 hours of sunlight, with sunrises at 7:30 AM and sunsets at nearly 6 PM. But you start losing daylight quickly, about 15-20 minutes per day for the entire month of October, speeding up rapidly in the last days before the final sunset of the year in late October. 

One small band of the Northern lights appearing over the town lights during the winter in Svalbard

On the 25th, there are a mere two hours of daylight, and by October 26th, the sun is down all day and will be for the remainder of the year, as polar night approaches.

But that just means more time for aurora tours, and they are abundant in October — I suggest this land-based one, as none of the snowmobile tours will be running.

Overall Rating for Visiting: ⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4/5) This shoulder season is a great time of year for those looking for good value! You compromise a bit and can do some of the last of the summer activities, like fjord safaris, while also getting to have a good chance of seeing the Northern lights. Cruise ships are gone and prices are lower, it’s not too cold yet, and the island of Spitsbergen turns a beautiful orange autumn color as it transitions into winter. 

​November in Svalbard 

The colorful houses of Longyearbyen with a light dusting of snow and just a little hint of the aurora in the distance
  • Temperatures: Average highs of -3°C (27°F), average lows of -8°C (18°F)
  • Daylight: None at all, but the first 10 days have some twilight before the true beginning of Polar Night.
  • Activities: Cozy city activities around Longyearbyen like museums and cafés, Northern lights tours. 

 November is the first month of the winter in Svalbard where there is no sunrise or sunset. However, the first 10 days of the month have some hours of civil twilight, which is when the sun is still more than 6° below the horizon, giving you enough light that it doesn’t feel like pitch blackness. 

If you come around the beginning of the month, things are a little better. November 1 starts off with a decent amount of light, with civil twilight starting around 8:45 AM and ending around 2:35 PM.

However, that quickly fades about 20 minutes per day, with November 11th being the final day with any twilight at all, and only from 10:50 AM to 12:25 PM.

The polar night falling on the town of Longyearbyen in the winter

The good thing about November 11th? That’s when the Christmas hotel opens at Base Camp Explorer, adding one small cozy spark to an otherwise slightly lackluster month.

There’s not enough snow for snowmobile based activities, and it’s too dark to safely be able to do any boat tours, so you’re limited to land-based activities… by car, since there’s almost certainly not enough snow for snowmobiling yet.

There’s not much happening at this time of year, to be honest, but you could join a Northern lights chase by car if you want to increase your chances of seeing the aurora.

mushroom soup at a restaurant in longyearbyen

Other than that, this is a time of year to nest, eat comforting food at restaurants, shop along the main street, and just accept the darkness.

Overall Rating for Visiting: ⭐ (1/5) With no sunlight and just a very brief period of twilight, this is a rough time of year to visit Svalbard. There aren’t yet Christmas festivities and it’s too early for snowmobile season. However, it’s not that cold yet, it won’t be crowded, and prices are very low.

December in Svalbard

True pitch black darkness in Longyearbyen during the polar night with very little lit up and visible in the dark night sky
  • Temperature: Average highs of -5°C (23°F), average lows of -10°C (14°F)
  • Daylight: None at all, not even twilight.
  • Activities: Christmas events, museums and restaurant hopping, Northern lights tours, a few snowmobile tours might begin.

There is no twilight at all in the month of December, making this a full month of the true Polar Night. The light conditions will not change virtually at all during the month of December — except during the full moons, which in the pitch black of Svalbard’s polar night, almost feel like a proper day. 

Svalbard does get into the Christmas season, though, which helps add a little light back into this incredibly dark month. On the first Sunday of the Advent, there’s a torchlit march up to Santa’s mailbox (he takes up residence in a mine above Longyearbyen during December) and then back to watch the Christmas tree be lit.

The warmly lit interior of Cafe Huskies with several people inside enjoying drinks and chats with friends and a husky sitting on the couch

Other than that, this is mostly a month about trying to embrace the dark rather than resist it.

Think bowls of soup in cozy restaurants, enjoying drinks at the pub by a fireplace, and giving scritches to retired sled dogs at the local husky cafe.

Depending on snow conditions, some snowmobiling tours will start up again, like this one that brings you in search of the Northern lights out in Adventdalen. You can also join other Northern lights tours, like this Northern lights tour where you chase the lights by car.

Overall Rating for Visiting: ⭐⭐  (2/5) The Christmas décor and festivities make polar night more festive, and there’s a chance of having enough snow to do things like dog sled and snowmobile as long as there has been enough snow. Still, the darkness is quite oppressive and doesn’t let up at all, so it’s hard to see the beauty of the landscape.

January in Svalbard

Another dark period over the town of longyearbyen as seen from a vantage point near an old dismantled mining area
  • Temperature: Average highs of -5°C (23°F), average lows of -10°C (14°F)
  • Daylight: None, although polar night officially ends on the 29th, and a few hours of twilight begin to appear each day as the “Blue Hour” season approaches.
  • Activities: Museums and restaurants in Longyearbyen, Northern lights tours, some snowmobile tours.

Polar night continues until the end of January, officially ending on January 29.

That’s when civil twilight returns, even if just for less than an hour (from around 11:50 AM to 12:30 PM, in fact). By January 31, that extends to a few hours of twilight, from 10:55 AM to about 1:25 PM. 

All those hours of darkness leave you plenty of time to chase the Northern lights by car or by snowmobile (there are shorter tours and longer tours that include time at an aurora camp located inland which is the best place to have a shot at seeing the lights, away from the coast).

People on a snowmobile tour exploring the Northern lights wilderness in Svalbard

Even though there’s enough snow, not all the snowmobile tours are back up and running: just the Northern lights-focused ones. That’s because you can’t really see much, so the landscape-focused tours won’t start up again until February or even March.

In lieu of snowmobiling, there are a few dog sled tours you can do, such as this dog sled tour to an ice cave (starting mid-January), or this dog sled tour in search of the Northern lights.

Overall Rating for Visiting: ⭐⭐ (2/5) Still a very dark month, though there’s some light at the end of the tunnel near the end of the month. Snowmobiling is generally possible, but with polar night very much on for nearly the entire month, most tours do not run. Dog sledding is a good option too, but like December, you won’t get to see much of Svalbard’s landscape in the pitch black.

February in Svalbard

Blue light in Svalbard as the season shifts towards a beautiful twilight period as it exits polar night
From my February 2024 trip; taken around 4 PM
  • Temperature: Average highs of -6°C (21°F), average lows of -11°C (12°F)
  • Daylight: None at the beginning of the month, but some twilight and “blue hour” The sun rises above the horizon after the 15th, but won’t yet fall onto Longyearbyen until March.
  • Activities:

This month changes quite rapidly in Svalbard, and it’s when the real winter tourism season begins in earnest… yes, after four months of ‘winter’ have already passed. That’s what happens when there’s about 2/3 of the year in some state of winter! 

The first half of the month has no true sunrise or sunset. On February 1, civil twilight lasts from 10:40 AM to around 1:40 PM… a whopping 3 hours of mild blue light. But by around February 14, the last day without any sunrises, that civil twilight period lasts between 8:30 AM and 3:55 PM, giving you what feels like almost a full daytime. 

View of the mountains in blue hour with a slight bit of pink in the clouds
Some of the first pink tones of the February 2024 season!

The sun starts to rise around February 15, but you won’t see the sun in Longyearbyen village until March. Still, as soon as the sun starts rising, days get a lot longer and brighter even if you can’t lay eyes on the sun. 

On the 15th, the sun rises from 11:30 AM to 12:50 PM, but then by February 28th, the sun is up from between 8:30 AM and 3:45 PM, and twilight extends that brightness by about two hours before and two hours after sunrise and sunset.

As the sunlight returns, so do the snowmobile tours that explore more of the island for more than just the Northern lights.

Snowmobiles in front of the town of Longyearbyen in summer
Still a few days from the first sunrise of the year, but plenty of dim twilight.

Halfway through the month, the snowmobile tour to Eastern Spitsbergen begins, which is one of the coolest snowmobile tours you can do on the island. You can also snowmobile to the ice caves in a glacier, or visit the same ice caves a more adventurous way… by dog sled!

This is the last full month of aurora watching, so you can join an aurora tour by car or by snowmobile (there are 3.5 hour shorter tours and longer tours (about 7 hours) to an inland aurora camp.

Overall Rating for Visiting: ⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4/5): Another slice of shoulder season perfection, especially if you visit near the end of the month. The twilight conditions are quite beautiful, giving Svalbard its famous “Blue Hour” color. But if you visit near the beginning or the end of the month, the sunlight conditions can still be quite challenging for many visitors. It’s quite cold, which is fine, but there are often a lot of winter storms this month, making it less likely to see the Northern lights.

Svalbard in Winter: What You Need to Know + 17 Fun Things to Do!

Endless nights livened up by candles and string lights underneath a galaxy of stars and streaking auroras. Pastel blue light washing over snow-capped mountains with not a tree in sight. Brilliant sun shining day and night above snow-covered tundras, pristine nature marred only by a few snowmobile tracks showing the path to adventure.

Believe it or not, these are all the same season, just different flavors. Welcome to Svalbard in winter.

Lit-up informational placards displayed around Longyearbyen with mountains visible across the fjord in the distance
Beautiful Longyearbyen in the February blue

🏔️ Planning your winter Svalbard trip in a hurry? Here are my quick picks!

❄️ Best Winter Activities
1. Snowmobile safari to an ice cave in a glacier
2. Eastern Spitsbergen snowmobile safari with chance of polar bears
3. Arctic wildlife photography safari 
4. Budget-friendly aurora chase by car

🛏️ Best Places to Stay
1. Svalbard Hotell Polfaren (mid-range, where I stayed and recommend!)
2. Funken Lodge (slightly pricier but beautiful boutique option)
3. Coal Miners Cabins (budget rooms with shared bathroom)

Ever since I first saw Svalbard on a map, tucked in a top-most corner near the seam of a page, and truly processed how remote it was, I wanted to go. At this age, I knew nothing of polar nights and midnight suns, or even polar bears. I just knew that it was far and that I liked the idea of far.

Then I fell in love with the Arctic, slowly but surely over many visits: first a trip to Kiruna and Abisko, later a trip to Tromsø, next a trip to Rovaniemi, and then back to the Norwegian Arctic again. And Svalbard? Svalbard is as Arctic as it gets, and winter there is an experience like no other.

I visited Svalbard in February, right at the tail end of Northern Lights winter but before the dark season properly came to an end.

A bunch of snowmobiles in front of the town of Longyearbyen, where you start the ice cave tour
Snowmobiling is the best thing about Svalbard’s winter season!

As a result, I got to experience a nice mix of many of the activities that make Svalbard winter so unique: Northern lights tours, snowmobile rides, and gorgeous pastel light.

Here are my favorite activities to do in Svalbard in winter, and some that I want to do on a future visit.

You really need to visit Svalbard at multiple times throughout the year to properly do everything on your Svalbard bucket list, because the seasons in Svalbard are each so different and that really impacts what activities you can do.

When is Winter in Svalbard?

Svalbard with blue light and golden light shining out of the windows in the February winter season with a crescent moon over the town of Longyearbyen
Beautiful soft light during February’s enchanting twilight

How long does winter last in Svalbard? Quite a long time, about two-thirds of the year. Only the period between May 17 and September 30 is considered Polar Summer by locals. Even part of the Midnight Sun season coincides with what is still considered “Sunny Winter”!

Winter in Svalbard is divided into two main parts: dark winter (which they’ve tried to rebrand as “Northern Lights Winter”) and sunny winter. But dark winter, too, can be divided into the true Polar Night, which has 24-hour darkness and two periods of Twilight preceding it. 

The Twilight period lasts from October 1 through November 10 and again from February 1 to 28.

February’s twilight hours are called the “blue hours” for the beautiful azure light mimicking daylight, even though the sun never rises above the horizon.​

View of the frozen river landscape overlooking Adventdalen in Svalbard
Technically, the sun never rose this day, but it didn’t feel like it with this much twilight!

Here’s a quick breakdown of the sub-seasons of winter and when they fall. Note that this has a lot more to do with light conditions (and thus what activities are available to you!) than it does with temperatures.

  • October 1 through November 10: Northern Lights Winter (Twilight Period, Part 1)
  • November 11 through January 31: Northern Lights Winter (Polar Night)
  • February 1 through February 28: Northern Lights Winter (Twilight Period, Part 2)
  • March 1 through May 16: Sunny Winter (note: Midnight Sun begins around April 18)

Winter Temperatures in Svalbard

Northern Lights Winter

Aurora over the town of Longyearbyen's famous colorful houses
Unfortunately, I never saw the aurora in my 4 nights in Svalbard in winter… it’s unpredictable!

While these are the average highs and lows, extreme temperatures are possible during storms.

Icy cold temperatures of -20° C (-5° F) are frequent in the winter, and on my February trip, the high temperature one day was -15° C (5° F), but it felt much colder due to the windchill!

  • October: Average highs of 0°C (32°F), average lows of -4°C (25°F)
  • November: Average highs of -3°C (27°F), average lows of -8°C (18°F)
  • December: Average highs of -5°C (23°F), average lows of -10°C (14°F)
  • January: Average highs of -5°C (23°F), average lows of -10°C (14°F)
  • February: Average highs of -6°C (21°F), average lows of -11°C (12°F)

Sunny Winter

A group of five people snowmobiling through a valley with huge mountains surrounding them as they traverse the rugged Svalbard landscape
Sunny winter is all about enjoying the snow-covered Svalbard landscape… no matter the temperatures!

While these are the average highs and lows, extreme temperatures of up to -35° C (nearly -40° F) are possible during winter storms. Temperatures of -20° C (-5° F) are frequent, especially in March.

Windchill can significantly impact the real feel of the winter conditions. It can seriously increase your risk of frostbite, so be incredibly cautious when doing outdoor activities during colder seasons.

Note that while sunny compared to other parts of the winter in Svalbard, March is typically the coldest month of the year.

  • March: Average highs of -8°C (18°F), average lows of -14°C (7°F)
  • April: Average highs of -5°C (23°F), average lows of -10°C (14°F)
  • May: Average highs of 1°C (34°F), average lows of -3°C (27°F)

15 Cool Things to Do in Svalbard in Winter

Allison Green's hand holding a warm beverage as she drinks a cup of warm juice after her tour
Drinking delicious hot beverages on a Svalbard winter tour just hits diffferent!

This guide to Svalbard winter activities is a little unique in that I’ve also included when you can do each activity.

The winter season in Svalbard is broken into so many unique parts, so I don’t want you to be disappointed if, say, you arrive at the end of March and realize you’ve missed aurora season or you arrive in December and snowmobile season hasn’t started yet.

Svalbard’s winter covers many different conditions: there are days when you can see the aurora borealis literally in the middle of the day, and there are days when you won’t see a moment of darkness at all. 

Visit an ice cave in a glacier

All bundled up for my winter Svalbard trip in February 2024
Visiting an ice cave in Svalbard is a real winter highlight!
  • When: Mid-February through mid-May

Visiting an ice cave by snowmobile was my favorite Svalbard tour I did during my time there in February! 

This is an adventurous tour, not for the faint of heart. We got on our snowmobiles and drove more than 50 kilometers to and from an ice cave near the Tellbreen Glacier, deep into the heart of Spitsbergen. 

It was only my second time driving a snowmobile but I felt safe and pretty confident as we navigated first through the huge valley expanse of Adventdalen before later zig-zagging our way through slightly more treacherous terrain to get to the interior where we could find the glacier.

Once we reached our endpoint, our guide made sure the area was safe and led us down a rickety ladder into a beautiful ice cave, crystals glittering in the glow of our headlamps.

It was a magical experience seeing the glacial ice and the air bubbles that had been trapped inside of it for thousands of years, water just as pure as they were the day it froze.

Book your snowmobile safari to a glacier ice cave here!

Learn polar history at the Svalbard Museum

Different displays of animal life you find on Svalbard archipelago on display at the local museum
The interior of the newly-renovated Svalbard Museum
  • When: All winter

One of my favorite places in Svalbard, the newly-renovated Svalbard Museum, is equally educational and entertaining. You’ll learn all there is to know about Svalbard here, from its geological roots stretching back millions of years to its more recent history of exploration (and exploitation).

You’ll learn about its fascinating history as both a whaling station and fur trapping hub, as a base for scientific research and expeditions, and its time as a major hub for mining… before now shining as an icon of sustainable tourism in the Arctic.

Go on an Arctic wildlife photography tour 

Tour with with giant camera and binoculars looking around the fjord in Svalbard in an icy winter landscape trying to spot wildlife
Our tour guide looking for walruses in the harbor of Svalbard
  • When: October, February-May (not available during Polar Night)

Here’s the thing about visiting Svalbard: even if you fly in as an independent tourist, you can see very little of the Svalbard archipelago (basically, just a few streets in Longyearbyen) without an organized tour. 

Why? Because it’s not permitted to leave the settlement of Longyearbyen without a rifle, and that’s not something the average tourist can obtain while traveling to Svalbard on a quick trip.

So doing a car-based tour like this Arctic wildlife photography safari is the perfect way to see the nature around Longyearbyen as much as the roads will allow.

Admittedly, there’s not as much wildlife in the winter as there is in the summer. Expect to see a handful of Svalbard reindeer—they’re pretty much everywhere on the island of Spitsbergen.

An arctic fox in the Svalbard landscape sitting on some rocks
An Arctic fox in the wild — unfortunately the cold killed the battery of my camera that had a proper zoom lens, so I had to use my phone!

If you’re lucky, you’ll see an Arctic fox (we saw two!) and possibly a walrus (we saw one way out in the water).

Note that many of the Arctic foxes near Longyearbyen wear a collar around their necks, which helps researchers at the local university identify them and track the health of the population. As cute as they are, they’re definitely no one’s pets!

Most birds migrate away from Svalbard in the winter months. Still, we were lucky enough to see some cool Svalbard rock ptarmigans.

The feather-footed svalbard rock ptarmigan which turns snow white in winter to camouflage
The Svalbard rock ptarmigan turns snow-white in winter and deep brown in summer!

This is a unique and very hardy species that lives on Svalbard year-round (this fascinating bird literally grows feathers on its feet to act like snowshoes—wild, right?), as well as some common eiders out in the water.

This was one of my favorite activities I did in Svalbard in winter because it gave me a sense of the area around Longyearbyen and what would be your backyard if you were a local.

Book this Svalbard photography safari here!

Check out the unique Global Seed Vault

The cool structure of the Svalbard global seed vault with the fjord views behind it
The seed vault stands on a hill overlooking Longyearbyen and the Isfjord
  • When: All winter, but better in twilight or daylight

Did you know that Svalbard is home to a ‘doomsday vault’ of more than 1 million unique species of seeds — representing nearly every country on planet Earth?

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault was chosen to be located here for two main reasons: one, Svalbard is demilitarized and far from the European mainland so it’s unlikely to be affected in the case of war; and two, the permafrost (theoretically) keeps the seeds at a safe and stable temperature in case of power outages.

Eventually, this massive vault can hold up to 4.5 million different seeds, and in the event of some big catastrophe, it can possibly help us repopulate the world’s biodiversity in food supply.

Of course, you can’t actually enter the building… that’s humanity’s future at stake, they’re not going to let some random tourists in! But it’s still quite cool to see, and it looks even more otherworldly surrounded by snow.

Visit the world’s northernmost brewery, Svalbard Bryggeri

A dark beer from the svalbard brewery and a finished beer next to it
Photo Credit: Megan Starr
  • When: All winter

While Mack Brewery in Tromsø stubbornly (and erroneously) claims to be the world’s northernmost brewery, that honor actually belongs to Svalbard Bryggeri, which you can visit all year round in Svalbard.

Unfortunately, due to health reasons, I’ve had to quit alcohol and thus didn’t go to visit during my trip to Svalbard…

Can of sparkling water with lemon that says "svalbard vann" which means svalbard water. Allison's hand holding it in front of a poster of a polar bear.
Sparkling water from the Svalbard Brewery

… but I did taste their delicious carbonated water, which you can pick up at the Svalbardbutikken and restaurants all over Longyearbyen.

If you’re curious about visiting the brewery, my friend Megan has written a comprehensive guide.

Have coffee and cake in a lovely husky cafe

The warmly lit interior of Cafe Huskies with several people inside enjoying drinks and chats with friends and a husky sitting on the couch
If you’re a dog lover, you can’t miss this place in Svalbard!
  • When: All winter

One of the things I was most excited to do in Svalbard in winter was visit Cafe Huskies, a cute little coffee shop and bakery staffed by a team of retired sled dogs (oh, and some humans who help take orders)

Their coffee was absolutely perfect and they had a really excellent selection of pastries and cakes. Megan had a delicious caramel cheesecake and I had an otherworldly raw cake with all sorts of nuts, agave, and chocolate.

They also have sandwiches and (somewhat confusingly but I’m sure deliciously) poké bowls pre-made that you can grab for a light lunch.

There’s also a small gift shop where you can grab husky-related and Svalbard-related gifts!

Grab chocolates from the world’s northernmost chocolate factory

A selection of chocolates made on Svalbard including white chocolate polar bears
How cute are these chocolates as a gift?
  • When: All winter

You’ll find when visiting Svalbard that almost everything is labeled with the superlative “northernmost” — this is the northernmost lamppost in the world! — and so on. 

And mostly, I just nod along, as it’s not much of a contest when you have only Ny-Ålesund north of you. But I find a hard time being blasé about anything chocolate-related.

Fruene makes their own chocolates at 78° N, so it can boast exactly that. It’s also a lovely little café and wine bar! This is another great place to grab some souvenirs and also a cup of coffee or light lunch.

Enjoy the cozy pub and restaurant scene of Longyearbyen

A delicious plate of pea puree and cod with pork belly
Arctic cod with a pea mash and bacon, served at Polfaren
  • When: All winter

I was pleasantly surprised by just how lovely the restaurant scene in Longyearbyen is!

You’d think that this small settlement on an Arctic archipelago wouldn’t have a ton to offer in the food department, but considering the town’s small size, there was a very wide range of delicious places to eat.

You can have everything from a simple soup of the day at Kroa for about 160 NOK (about USD 15) to an exquisite multi-course meal at Huset, the best fine dining restaurant on the island, where an exquisite tasting menu costs 2200 NOK (about USD 206). 

A bowl of mushroom soup and bread served at Kroa with water
My budget is decidedly more on the “soup” end of the spectrum

For something in the middle, try dining at Polfaren in Hotell Svalbard. It has delicious mains roughly in the 300-400 NOK range (that’s about 28-37 USD) and is a nice place to enjoy a more substantial meal without seriously breaking the bank.

Other recommended restaurants:

  • Stationen for delicious and affordable burgers around 200-250 NOK (about 18-23 USD)
  • Funktionærmessen for good value 4-course tasting menus (850 NOK or around 80 USD) and main courses around 400 NOK (37 USD)
  • Gruvelageret for high-concept 4-course tasting menus (1250 NOK or around 115 USD)

Search the sky for the Northern lights

Person on a tour of the Northern lights in Svalbard, standing on top of a car holding their hands up to celebrate, as the Northern lights streak across the sky in bright green colors
Visit during Northern lights winter for a chance to see the beautiful aurora
  • When: October through mid-March

To be honest, seeing the Northern lights in Svalbard isn’t the most straightforward place to see the aurora.

Svalbard is located so far north of the Arctic Circle that it’s outside of the optimal “aurora zone,” and daylight hours shift so rapidly that the aurora season is about two months shorter in Svalbard than in other places like Abisko, Rovaniemi, and Tromsø.

That said, you have the unique opportunity to see the aurora in the middle of the day during polar night, so that certainly makes up for it. It’s one of the most special things about the Polar Night time of the year!

You can sometimes see the Northern lights as you’re just walking around Longyearbyen if there is a lot of solar activity and you have a clear sky.

Snowmobiles out in the middle of Svalbard, an easy way to get out off the main roads of Svalbard
Snowmobiles are a great way to have a better shot at seeing the lights!

But there are other ways to see the Northern lights in Svalbard, such as going on a dog-sledding tour under the night sky, going on a car chase tour of the Northern lights, visiting a wilderness camp, or going snowmobiling during dark skies, hoping the lights appear overhead.

Here are a few of the different Northern lights experiences you can try!

Visit the North Pole Expedition Museum

The cute exterior of the North Pole Expedition Museum located in longyearbyen with snowmobiles and a polar bear cut out in front
The cute exterior of the North Pole Expedition Museum
  • When: All winter

Admittedly, this museum could use a facelift, as it’s a bit hard to navigate and pales compared to the Svalbard Museum. But that’s not for lack of the lovely staff’s efforts, who will do their best to tell you the best way to tackle this museum, which feels like it’s been put together by a hoarder rather than a curator. 

I was expecting something similar to the Polar Museum in Tromsø, one of my favorite museum experiences. However, it’s a bit scatter-shot, with a disproportionately large section of the museum dedicated to airship exploration and rescue missions, as well as challenging the varying accounts of people who claimed to be the first to reach the North Pole.​

Despite some of the shade I’m throwing towards the museum, I think it’s worth going. There are only a few museums in Longyearbyen, so you might as well enjoy them!

I learned even more than I previously knew about Roald Amundsen, one of the greatest polar explorers, and his attempts to reach the North Pole — and also about many polar blunders of other explorers along the way.

Admire the brightly-colored houses of Longyearbyen

A snowy day in Longyearbyen but you can see the colorful houses painted brightly in the snow
Even a snowstorm won’t dampen these colors!
  • When: Year-round, but best lighting in October, February-May

​Of course, the brightly-colored Longyearbyen houses in candy-bright colors are there all year round… but during the darkest of the winter months, you won’t really be able to admire them in all their colorful glory the same way you would once Twilight Season or Sunny Winter rolls around.​

The hillside neighborhood, Lia, is one of the most spectacular parts of Svalbard’s architectural scene. With beautifully painted rows of housing, it has earned the nickname “spisshusene,” the pointed houses, for their shape as well as their brilliant color. 

The idea behind these colorful houses was the brainchild of Ingvald Ohm, who then worked with the color designer Grete Smedal — a female designer from Bergen (a city that knows a thing or two about color) to create a color palette that complemented Svalbard’s tundra and its ever-changing seasons.

She also considered how the snow-covered landscape would look with these colors, as well as how the colors would look in the dark of the Polar Night — pretty cool, huh?

She eventually chose colors in red, yellow, green, and teal to represent the naturally-occurring colors of the Svalbard tundra. Those colors are now part of the government’s official color scheme for all buildings in Longyearbyen and are now codified into Svalbard’s building codes.

I learned all of this cool information from the Arctic University of Norway’s records — you can read more about it here.

Take a snowmobile safari to Eastern Spitsbergen

Three snowmobiles looking at glacier ice and other landscape features with a pastel sky in Spitsbergen
Spitsbergen’s gorgeous and remote east | Photo Credit: Megan Starr
  • When: Mid-February through mid-May​

I didn’t get a chance to do this tour because I left Svalbard before these tours began again, but my friend Megan stayed a few days longer than I did. She enjoyed this tour so much that she said it’s the best thing she ever did in Svalbard — and she’s visited five times!

This tour is called the Polar Bear Snowmobile Safari from Longyearbyen but you should be aware that it is not a true safari where they track and try to find polar bears.

That is strictly illegal on Svalbard, and for good reason. Polar bears are extremely dangerous to humans and also vulnerable to extinction. An interaction, particularly on land, between tourists and polar bears should be avoided, not sought out. 

However, the largest concentration of polar bears in Svalbard can be found on the Eastern coast of Spitsbergen island. This is because this side of the island has far lower average temperatures than the rest of Spitsbergen because it is not impacted by the Gulf Stream, which brings warmer, more temperate weather.

Person riding a snowmobile in the arctic environment with a glacier backdrop behind them
The eastern part of Spitsbergen is a beauty!

As a result, there is a ton of sea ice and glaciers here, making this the wildest (and coldest) part of the Svalbard archipelago and where you are most likely to see polar bears. 

This is not a ride through peaceful trails but rather an active, all-day adventure that will leave you exhilarated (and exhausted).

Expect to travel at least 150 kilometers and for it to take the entirety of a day. On her tour, Megan did not see any polar bears, but she still ranks it as her favorite Svalbard adventure she’s ever done.

Go dog sledding, night or day

The dog sled tour arriving at the ice caves in mid day in February
Dog sled tours arriving at the ice cave entrance
  • When: All winter

One of the most incredible things you can do in winter in Svalbard is go on a dog sledding trip — many different ways, in fact, depending on the time of year, how much daylight you have, if there’s a lot of snow on the ground, and if there’s anywhere cool you want to go, too.

While doing the ice cave tour of Svalbard by snowmobile, I was surprised to see a few teams of dog sleds roll up right to the same place as we were!

Since I love dog sledding so much (and have done it in four places — Tromsø, Alta, Rovaniemi, and Abisko), I found myself briefly regretting going by snowmobile instead of by dog sled. 

If you go dog sledding in Svalbard in the winter, you can have several different types of experiences.

During the season, when you have enough daylight or twilight, as well as enough snow, you can do a variety of dog sled rides through a few different landscapes of Svalbard.

Point of view perspective of mushing your own dog sled while in SValbard in a winter landscape
Mushing your own dog sled is so. much. fun.

If you don’t want to go to the ice caves, you can also go around in some of the more accessible, less hilly areas around Longyearbyen, like Bolterdalen and Adventdalen.

If you’re visiting Svalbard during the complete darkness of the Polar Night season, you can also do combination dog sled and aurora tours… at any time of day or night!​

Here are a few different dog sled tours you can pick from:

Take a photo with the polar bear sign

Allison in front of the sign warning about polar bears in Svalbard
You simply must take a photo with the Svalbard polar bear sign!
  • When: All winter, but better photos in twilight or daylight

Besides the typical colorful houses of Longyearbyen, the other most iconic photo of Svalbard is the polar bear danger sign, which can be found on the outskirts of town.

We visited it during our Arctic wildlife photography trip as we made our way towards the abandoned mine area. It won’t take you too long to see it, but it is a great photo souvenir of Svalbard!

Go on an icy boat cruise

Ice in the water as seen from a boat sailing through a winter sea in Svalbard
Cruising through icy seas in February | Photo Credit: Megan Starr
  • When: Depends on the sea ice, but some boats start again mid-February

Again, this is another tour I could not do because I visited Svalbard too early in the winter season to enjoy all of its best activities.

If I had to pick the best time for Svalbard, late February is better than mid-February, and March is even better than February. It’s unbelievable what just a few weeks will do in a place that changes as rapidly as Svalbard!

Your wildlife-focused boat tours and ones that include a sea kayaking component typically start up again in polar summer, but my friend Megan clued me in on a little hack. You can go on a boat cruise with Henningsen Transport, which begins running its boats as soon as it is safe to hit the seas!

You can take the Glacier Cruise they offer on Fridays, as early as mid-February. They also provide transportation to Pyramiden and Barentsburg, but there is no guarantee you can dock (and in the case of Pyramiden, it is all but a certainty that you can’t until at least June).

However, these are towns owned by Russian state-owned mining companies. As a result of the war in Ukraine, Visit Svalbard does not promote them out of solidarity with Ukraine. Whether or not you choose to visit is up to you but I leave you this information to make your own choices!

Take a tour of a now-defunct coal mine

Headlamp casting a shadow on the mine's interior
Interior of the Gruve 3 Mine
  • When: All winter

Svalbard is slowly trying to shift away from its mining roots, with the last mine in Longyearbyen planned to close in 2025. But it still values its mining history, as the Arctic island shifts more towards tourism instead of mining as a sustainable economy for the future.

You can visit a former mine, Gruve 3, which was shut down in 1993. This mine is located on the outskirts of Longyearbyen on a Gruve 3 Mine Tour near the Global Seed Vault.

The tour lasts about 3 hours and includes transportation and a full guided tour including equipment like coveralls, headlamp, and helmet. Just be sure to dress warmly as it is very cold in the mine in the winter!

Book your Gruve 3 Mine tour here!

Go on a polar night ATV ride

people on quad bikes under the polar night in svalbard
Photo Credit: Manawa via Svalbard Adventures
  • When: November

There’s a brief period of time during polar night when there’s no daylight but there’s also not enough snow to safely snowmobile around Longyearbyen.

Luckily, no one in Svalbard just sits on a problem without trying to solve it: this is a hardy Arctic community where people come up with solutions, not complaints.

If you happen to plan your Svalbard trip for November, you can go on an ATV ride in search of the Northern lights, checking out frozen ice formations and other cool sights under the polar night sky.

This is the same tour company I did my Northern lights snowmobile tour with and I can highly recommend them if you arrive in Svalbard before snowmobile season starts.

Where to Stay in Svalbard

Hotel in Svalbard the Hotell Svalbard Polfaren in the downtown area of Longyearbyen with white bed with yellow bedding and pillows

During my trip to Svalbard we stayed at the charming Svalbard Hotell Polfaren, which had spacious rooms and a really cozy lobby with a fireplace roaring at all times and 24/7 free coffee, which I appreciated in the darkness of winter.

It’s a great mid-range option with prices right smack-dab in the middle of what’s normal for Svalbard. In off-season we paid about $180 USD per night for a double room; in high season, expect to pay more like $250-300 USD a night.

If Polfaren is booked up, there’s also The Vault, another branch of the Hotell Svalbard, located right across the street and offering all the same amenities.

For a slightly nicer option, Funken Lodge is a gorgeous boutique hotel locate just a short walk from downtown.

The rooms are more modern and stylish, but it’s not that much more expensive than other offerings, typically around $250-300 USD per night. It’s also home to one of the best restaurants in Svalbard!

If you’re trying to stick to a budget in Svalbard, it’s not easy… but there are some more affordable accommodation choices, like Coal Miners Cabins, where private rooms with a shared bathroom start around $100 USD per night.

Winter Festivals and Events in Svalbard

Avalanche fencing on the mountain and small houses with cozy warm glows in lights coming off the houses
Charming festive lights during the winter season in Longyearbyen

There are a number of winter festivals and fun events in Longyearbyen to make the long, cold winter just a little more pleasant.

The dates change every year and aren’t yet determined for the 2024-2025 season, but the approximate timeframe should remain the same, so I’ll just give an outline for when you might expect them to occur.

  • October: Taste Svalbard food festival in the beginning of the month, Dark Season Blues Festival at the end of the month
  • November: Christmas Hotel at Basecamp Explorer reopens mid-month
  • December: Torchlit walk to “Santa’s Mine” and lighting of the Christmas tree on the first Sunday of Advent
  • February: Polarjazz Festival at the beginning of the month, Arctic Chamber Music Festival at the end of the month
  • March: Sun Festival Week is the first week of March every year as the sun returns to Longyearbyen
  • April: Svalbard Ski Marathon occurs around mid-month, close to the midnight sun’s return

What to Wear in Svalbard in Winter

All suited up in my winter snowsuit!
When in doubt… throw on a polar suit from one of your tours!

This post is already so long so instead of going into a huge amount of detail, I’m going to refer you to my Svalbard packing list post here. But here’s a quick bullet point list of what an average “Svalbard winter outfit” should entail!

  • Very warm, waterproof parka
  • Wool base layers
  • Waterproof pants or ski pants
  • Wool sweaters
  • Neck gaiter and/or scarves
  • Warm hat
  • Wool socks
  • Snowboots
  • Mittens and photography gloves

Climbing the Leaning Tower of Pisa: Guide for a Perfect Visit [2024]

The Leaning Tower of Pisa may just be the world’s most successful failure. 

Its unintended tilt results from a few careless mistakes and many painstaking fixes, and its unique history is a marvel that captivates visitors to this day.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa was never supposed to be anything special. It was constructed in the 12th century by Bonanno Pisano, a relatively unknown architect.

View of the intense tilt of the leaning tower of pisa
Look at how much it leans! Taken March 2024

It was intended to be a simple belltower for the Cathedral of Pisa. Easy, no?

Well, many things went awry… why is why it took nearly 200 years to build a simple tower. By contrast, the Colosseum of Rome, still the largest standing amphitheater in the world, took merely ten years).

⌛ Planning your Pisa trip in a hurry? Here are my quick picks.

🏝️ Best Pisa Tours & Experiences
1. Leaning Tower & Cathedral Complex Tickets (#1 attraction in Pisa!)
2. Chianti Half-Day Wine Tour (top-rated wine tour)
3. Pisa Food Tour (tastings from 5 eateries on a lunch tour)

🛏️ Best Pisa Hotels
1. Grand Hotel Duomo (best Leaning Tower views!)
2. The Rif (art hotel in a renovated 1900s villa)
3. Palazzo Feroci (luxury converted palazzo with designer interiors)

✈️ Flying into Pisa? Book your airport taxi in advance with Welcome Pickups for a stress-free arrival.

🚘 Planning to travel around Tuscany independently? Look into car rentals in Pisa.

Here, we’ll go into the history of why the Tower of Pisa (Torre di Pisa, in Italian) leans and how you can visit this unique attraction in Pisa on your upcoming trip to Italy.

Why Does the Pisa Tower Lean?​

Allison Green pretending the hold up the leaning tower of pisa in the typical tourist photo
No, the Leaning Tower doesn’t lean on purpose — even though that’s now the big tourist draw!

Just three stories into building the tower, they noticed something was off when it had already begun leaning. In typical Italian fashion, they waited about a century to continue building, trying to counterbalance the shifted weight by building off-balance floors.

After a pause due to wars, they finally added the bell chamber, completing the tower… nearly two centuries later.

But herein is the problem: the tower is made of gray and white marble, a nod to the marble-rich region of Carrera not far away. However, marble is extremely heavy, and that’s a large part of why the issue with the tower leaning began.

The lean of the tower at a 4 degree angle with the pisa cathedral behind it
Leaning at a cool 4 degrees in 2024

But the marble’s not the only thing to blame — the foundation was poorly planned, only three meters deep atop an unstable mix of clay, sand, and shells. Look, I’m no engineer, but that doesn’t sound like a solid start for a huge marble tower weighing nearly 15,000 metric tons.

Interventions were attempted, giving the tower some of its characteristic columns and arches, but never entirely solving the problem. Finally, in 1990, the tower’s lean grew untenable — leaning by a whopping 5.5 degrees.

They started stabilizing the foundation using soil extraction, straightening the tower significantly, and reducing the lean to a more comfortable angle, just under 4 degrees.

As of now, the Leaning Tower of Pisa is considered stable for the next 200 years, when it will undoubtedly need to be worked on again—assuming we still have a planet in 200 years.

​Getting to the Leaning Tower of Pisa​

The area of the leaning tower of pisa with the duomo of pisa
The Piazza dei Miracoli in Pisa

Most people visit the Leaning Tower of Pisa in one of two ways: on a day trip from Florence or spending a few days in Pisa, dedicating some proper time to this Tuscan city.

Personally, I recently visited Pisa on a day trip from Florence, and I didn’t think it was nearly enough time—I was left wanting a lot more! 

Whether you visit on a self-guided day trip or visit Pisa for a few days independently, you will arrive at the Pisa train station, Pisa Centrale. You can leave your luggage here if it’s convenient, or you may want to check into a hotel first if you are staying in Pisa overnight.

Either way, from Pisa Centrale train station in the city center, you can make an easy 20-minute walk straight to the Piazza dei Miracoli (formerly the Piazza del Duomo).

You’ll quickly be greeted by Pisa’s most endearing and iconic attraction…. and thousands of less endearing tourists taking cheesy photos with it. 

The leaning tower and the cathedral and lots of crowds
The crowds in Piazza dei Miracoli are intense – watch for pickpockets!

For a cool side trip before visiting the Leaning Tower, just around the corner from the Pisa, you can make a little detour to see the famous ‘Tuttomondo’ Keith Haring mural.

It’s one of the last murals created by Haring before he died from complications of AIDS. It’s located on the wall of the Sant’Antonio Abate church.

Some people may arrive at the Pisa airport, which is extremely close to the town center… You could even walk if you choose as it’s only 2 kilometers away from the town center!

That said, since most people have luggage, they take the Pisa Mover for five Euros to the train station and then walk to the Leaning Tower of Pisa from there.

Getting Tickets to Climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Allison Green's hand holding a mobile ticket
My online ticket to enter the Leaning Tower of Pisa

To climb to the top of the tower, you need specific Leaning Tower of Pisa tickets with a dedicated time slot. You must carefully observe the time of your visit. It’s for a 30-minute window, and you must arrive on time within that window to be able to use your ticket.

The best way to ensure you have a reserved time slot to climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa is by booking online in advance well ahead of time.

You can also try to go to the ticket office on the same day, but don’t count on it, because in peak season, it’s pretty common for all the tickets for the day to be sold out. 

Your timed ticket to visit the Leaning Tower of Pisa will also get you fast-track access to the Pisa Cathedral anytime that same day.

The interior of the pisa cathedral
The Pisa Cathedral may just be more impressive than the Leaning Tower

While visiting the Pisa Cathedral is technically free, those who do not have a bundled ticket for other sites in the Piazza dei Miracoli will have to wait in a longer line. You, on the other hand, get to skip it!

If the individual tickets to climb the Leaning Tower are sold out, don’t fret — you can take a guided tour that includes the city of Pisa as one of the stops and choose an add-on that includes tickets to the Leaning Tower. 

These Pisa Tower tickets are often booked in advance from a separate supply of tickets, so you can usually get tickets this way, even when they are sold out on the official website and GetYourGuide.

What’s It Like Climbing the Leaning Tower?​

Climbing the Leaning Tower of Pisa is a pretty stress-free and easy experience, especially compared to other climbs I’ve done in Italy, like Brunelleschi’s Dome in Florence and the Terraces of the Milan Duomo. In comparison, I found those really crowded and disorganized.

The line to climb the Leaning Tower is well-managed and runs quickly, so you don’t have to wait too long. However, they only allow people in the next time slot to be in line, so observe your timed-entry ticket carefully. 

Sign showing the rules for getting in line like no bags, next time slot, etc.
Three rules for waiting in line for a smooth process

The security is also speedy and efficient for easy access to the tower. Note that security does not allow any bags for security reasons — not even small backpacks! — but there is a free cloakroom that you can use. 

They carefully stagger the group times so that the narrow spiral staircases to ascend and descend the tower are manageable and not too crowded.

Before climbing the tower, they have everyone sit in a rounded bench area at the bottom while listening to a brief informational overview of its history. This also helps ensure the tower staircase is manageable, as people from the previous time slot need to descend.

People waiting and listening to a presentation while sitting inside the hollow part of the leaning tower of pisa
Eagerly awaiting our turn to climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa!

Once you’ve heard the presentation, you can start going up the (very narrow) spiral staircases.

Prepare for some serious cardio: you’ve got 5 staircases ahead of you with 269 steps (according to this article, which went and counted every single step themselves — now that’s the kind of petty level of pedantry I can truly respect).

Allison Green with her camera walking down some very steep narrow steps in the round tower of Pisa
So many narrow steps!

You’ll reach the seventh floor first, opening to beautiful views of the Duomo of Pisa.

If you go at the right time, around 10 AM, you’ll see a cool sight: the shadow of the Leaning Tower casting a cool shadow over the Duomo! 

The leaning tower of pisa casting a shadow over the duomo
I loved seeing the shadow of the Leaning Tower on the cathedral!

But the climb’s not over!

You can go up one more staircase to the eighth floor, where you can see the bell chamber and the tallest views over the Campo dei Miracoli, as well as 360-degree views around the rest of Pisa. Now that’s a view!

The belltower area of the tallest part of the leaning tower of pisa
At the bell chamber, the tallest part of the tower

View from the top overlooking Miracle Square and other parts of Pisa
Admiring the 360 views over Pisa’s city center

Leaning Tower of Pisa Admission Hours ​and Tickets

The Leaning Tower of Pisa has straightforward admission hours that don’t change much from day to day.

From April through September, the opening hours are from 9 AM to 8 PM. From October through March, they’re just one hour shorter, from 9 AM to 7 PM. 

Allison Green smiling at the top of the leaning tower of pisa having reached the top
Worth the climb!

Throughout the year, the last admission is 30 minutes before closing, as it takes a minimum of 30 minutes to climb to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and enjoy the views.

To ensure you snag a time slot, be sure to book your tickets ahead of time. Skip-the-line tickets can be booked in advance here.

Other Attractions in the Square of Miracles​

The baptistry building in the suqare of miracles in pisa italy
The Baptistry, one of the many interesting buildings in the complex

In addition to the must-see monument, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, don’t miss a few other highlights in the Piazza dei Miracoli if you have time. Together, they constitute a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

In the interest of saving your time, I won’t go into too much detail, but the places you can visit in the Piazza dei Miracoli are:

  • Duomo di Pisa (Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta): A gorgeous cathedral built in 1063, a hallmark of the Romanesque style that Pisa developed. The interior is particularly ornate and unique, with its gorgeous dramatic stripes of marble and several beautiful mosaics.
People standing in the middle of the Duomo of pisa interior
The beautiful interior of Pisa’s Cathedral
  • Battistero di San Giovanni (Baptistry of St. John): A small, rounded building with a large dome constructed in 1152, shaped so to encourage beautiful acoustics. Like the Duomo, it’s notable for its beautiful marblework that is emblematic of the Pisan style. 
  • Camposanto Monumentale (Monumental Cemetery): This beautiful cemetery is set amidst a cloister filled with frescoes, surrounded by sarcophagi and tombs of prominent locals. It is a somber but beautiful place to visit away from the hordes of tourists elsewhere in the area.
  • Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (Cathedral Museum): Just as Florence has its own museum dedicated to its cathedral, so too does Pisa. This museum houses works that were once part of the cathedral and baptistry, providing more focus and curated context on these beautiful works.
  • Sinopie Museum: Here, you can find some drawings made for the frescoes inside the Camposanto, which show a beautiful insight into the artistic process for creating these larger-than-life works.

10 Mistakes to Avoid When Visiting the Colosseum [2024 Update]

lots of tourists outside the colosseum in rome

While Rome is filled with wonderful squares, fountains, and awe-inspiring ancient ruins, nothing will capture your interest like the Colosseum!

The nearly 2,000-year-old amphitheater is the symbol of the Eternal City and a must-see on any Rome itinerary — whether you have one day, 3 days, or a full week!

But visiting the Colosseum comes with tips and tricks. You may think it’s as easy as showing up, getting a ticket, and visiting the place… but you’d be wrong!

Cloudy day at the Colosseum with view of the arena floor and people visible in the distance.
View of the ground level of the Colosseum

In my opinion, you’d be missing out if you skip a proper Colosseum tour, and you even risking having a bad experience without knowing a few key pieces of advice beforehand.

Tourists often make quite a few mistakes when visiting the Colosseum — I’m here to help you avoid them.

In fact, I recently visited the Colosseum and made a few mistakes of my own, just to ensure you won’t make those mistakes on your trip. (I’d like to see an AI with that level of dedication /j).

Read on to find out how to make the most of your visit and avoid falling into some easily avoidable errors.

But first — let’s quickly go over some history for context, to get you excited for visiting the Colosseum!

📝 This post was completely re-written after Allison visited the Colosseum in March 2024. She's since updated this post to reflect her experience, ensure its accuracy, and add recent photographs.

Want a Colosseum Tour? My 3 Top Picks

This post goes heavily into detail into everything you can expect about visiting the Colosseum.

But maybe you just want to skip all that and have a tour guide figure that all out for you?

Here are my top Colosseum tour recommendations in case you want to outsource all the planning!


detail of the arena floor area of the colosseum

Colosseum Underground, Arena Floor and Ancient Rome Tour
✔️ 3 hour walking tour with guide & skip-the-line entry
✔️ Includes Colosseum dungeons & tunnels, Roman Forum & Palatine Hill

↳ Book it


colosseum interior on a sunny day

Colosseum Guided Tour

✔️ Budget-friendly tour with live guide that includes Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and Roman Forum
X Does not include Arena Floor or Underground

↳ Book it


ceiling of the sistine chapel in rome

Colosseum and Vatican Museums Full-Day Tour
✔️ Skip long lines at the two most iconic sights in Rome
✔️ No need to plan meals, timing, or transport – it’s all handled for you

↳ Book it

Why Visit the Colosseum?

Side view of the arena of the colosseum in Rome on a sunny day
Colosseum on a March day in 2024

The two mains reason to visit the Colosseum is its record-setting size as well as its history: even to this day, it’s the largest standing amphitheater in the world. Standing since 80 CE, the world has had nearly two millennia to beat this record… but no other structure has unseated it.

Taking about a decade to build, during the period from 70 and 80 CE, it was built by Emperor Vespasian, the successor to Nero. And, in typical Roman petty one-upping fashion, Vespasian decided to built it right alongside Nero’s old villa, the Domus Aurea, in a drained lake in the former gardens of the house.

Everyone who’s seen Gladiator has some idea of the macabre spectacles that took place in the Roman Colosseum: dark, violent ‘games’ of gladiators fighting each other (or animals) to death, as well as public executions. 

These executions were particularly gruesome: crucifixions, burning alive, and being fed to beasts. It’s hard to believe that these were the Eras and Renaissance Tours of Ancient Rome, drawing up to 50,000 spectators at a time… but times certainly were different back then.

Luckily, visiting the Colosseum in Rome today is a much more peaceful affair — the only fighting you’ll be doing is for good angles amidst the crowds.

How to Get to the Roman Colosseum

sign for the colosseo metro stop (line b) in rome italy
The Colosseum metro stop — pretty straightforward, no?

It’s quite easy to get to the Roman Colosseum either on foot or by public transport within Rome.

You can get to the Colosseum via the Metro from many places in Rome. Simply take Line B to the Colosseo stop.

Insider Tip: Have a little time before you need to pick up your tickets or meet your group? Put “Giardinetto del Monte Oppio” into your Maps app and walk there from the Colosseo stop before visiting the Colosseum — you’ll be able to get a great angle for a perfect photo!

Exiting the metro, you’ll be right on Piazza del Colosseo, where most small group tours meet up. You can also go to the security point to enter if you are doing a fast-track entry and you already have your ticket printed and ready to go.

The arch of constantine outside the colosseum with green trees in March
The Arch of Constantine (pictured here) was my tour’s meeting point. My guide was holding a white flag to help me find him.

If you pre-booked some sort of ticket through a tour company like Get Your Guide and you need to pick up your ticket in person, like I did, be sure to check the meeting point.

For my self-guided fast-track entry with audioguide, we had to meet at the Arch of Constantine, about 15 minutes before our entry time. We met the guide, got our printed tickets, and audioguide access information — but more on this part later.

Mistakes to Avoid When Visiting the Colosseum in Rome

Mistake 1: Not booking your ticket online in advance

The interior of the Colosseum as seen from one side of the ancient amphitheater
Exploring the interior of the Colosseum

The biggest mistake to avoid when visiting the Colosseum is showing up without a ticket — seriously, if there’s one thing you glean from this article, let it be this!

To avoid long lines (and potentially not even getting in!), especially in peak season, buy your tickets for the Colosseum online.

When planning my trips, I tend to use GetYourGuide since they have more ticket availability than official websites, which sell out quickly. But more importantly, I always buy skip-the-line tickets to popular attractions because my time while I’m traveling is one of my most precious resources!

The few extra dollars I spend pre-booking a skip-the-line ticket is well-worth it when I consider the opportunity cost of waiting in line on a trip I’ve invested time, money, and planning into.

Lines at the Colosseum in rome
I will always pay a little extra to avoid the lines!

The first time I visited the Roman Colosseum many years ago, I took a guided tour because I wanted to know all the history of this fascinating place.

Unless you really hate guided tours, I would recommend this. The history of the Colosseum is incredibly fascinating, and the tour guides usually do a good job of relaying this information in an engaging way. 

This guided tour has great reviews and a reasonable cost!

Allison's hand holding a paper ticket for visiting the Colosseum plus her audio guide log in which did not work
Printed ticket from my self-guided visit to the Colosseum in March

On my most recent visit, I chose to just book this skip-the-line ticket with an audioguide, since I had done a tour in the past and I wanted the freedom to wander and take photos at my leisure. However, I was pretty disappointed with the audioguide portion of the experience.

I hadn’t read the fine print (which is my mistake) and it was a phone app audioguide, not a physical audioguide. That would be just mildly annoying, except for the small fact that… the audioguide app wouldn’t work, and I spent much of my time at the Colosseum attempting to contact the tour company to get it fixed.

They were never able to fix the issue, claiming they sent me an SMS with a new link to access the audioguide, but I never received it. GetYourGuide did refund a portion of my tour, which I appreciated. That’s another reason why I book with them — the (very) few times I’ve had a bad tour, they’ve always issued a full or partial refund.

I didn’t love this experience, but for some, it may still be the right choice. If that’s you, you can still book this skip-the-line ticket and audioguide here. Be sure to read the email carefully and download the audioguide app a few days before so you can troubleshoot if it doesn’t work.

No matter what kind of ticket you get, you need to show up 15 minutes before at the dedicated meeting point.

If you already have the exact ticket you need for entry, you can just go straight to the dedicated entrance to show your ticket and go through the security checkpoint.

Mistake 2: Not knowing all the ticket options

people standing in line waiting for a guided tour departure inside the interior of the colosseum
One of the guided tour meeting points

There are actually a ton of different options for visiting the Colosseum, including certain parts of the Colosseum that are only accessible with a ticket add-on… and these can be a little confusing.

Your standard ticket gives you access to the Colosseum’s first two floors and the museum exhibits within it. It also gives you access to another site just a few minutes’ walk away: the combined site of the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. 

But there is also a few other parts of the Colosseum that you can access! One is the arena floor, where you can wander the base of the amphitheater and see the entirety of the Colosseum towering above you.

This guided tour includes the arena floor

sign that lets you know the different places and directions you can go on the tour, including to the underground and arena area
Bifurcation point for two different areas (and ticket types) of the Colosseum

Different from the arena floor, there’s also the underground area where you can explore the cells where animals and prisoners sat in purgatory before their executions were put on display to tens of thousands of spectators.

You’ll see the tunnels and hidden entrances and understand how the underbelly of the Colosseum really operated, which is fascinating for those with the stomach for a little dark history.

This guided tour includes the arena underground as well as the arena floor

Finally, there’s another option that might be interesting if you are visiting during the high season in Rome: the night tour. Availability for this is extremely limited — there are only a few dates remaining for the 2024 summer season — but you can try to get one of the last remaining dates. 

I know these options can be a little intimidating so here’s a quick summary:

Mistake 3: Forgetting your ID

Sign in italian and english showing you that you must display your ID card to enter the colosseum
ID cards with a photo are now mandatory for entry

I’m not sure exactly why, but it is mandatory to show a photo ID to enter the Colosseum nowadays, at least it was true for my March 2024 visit. This wasn’t the case for visiting the Vatican, which I had done the day before, but it is part of the Colosseum’s security process.

I don’t always carry all my important documents on me when I’m traveling around Italy due to the high risk of pickpockets. Luckily, I did notice the part of the booking details where it told me to bring my ID and I wasn’t caught off-guard by this. 

I’m not sure how strict they are on this and if they would accept a photograph or printed copy of your ID if you didn’t have your actual ID with you. I wouldn’t risk it though.

Presumably if you are reading this article, you’re not yet at the Colosseum, so you can just bring your ID and avoid any issues!

Mistake 4: Visiting at the wrong time of day

Peaceful vibe of one woman, in shadow, looking at a display in the colosseum without any crowds around her
Peaceful opportunities to enjoy the Colosseum at 9:30 AM

Another big mistake people make when visiting the Colosseum is picking a time right smack-dab in the middle of the day — avoid this if at all possible. 

I highly recommend booking one of the first openings of the day — on my March 2024 visit, I booked a 9:30 AM opening and it was perfect. The Colosseum was busy but not crowded.

no one in line at the roman forum and palatine hill line
Virtually no lines to enter the Palatine Hill area at 10:30 AM

By the time I made it over to Palatine Hill, there was virtually no one there and I could enjoy that area in peace.

However, by the time I reached the Roman Forum around 11:30 AM (having already visited the Colosseum and Palatine Hill)… it was extremely crowded.

That gave me a taste for what seeing the Colosseum is like later in the day (and I didn’t like it). 

busy crowds at the roman forum at 11:30
The crowds gathering later in the day at the Roman Forum (around 11:30 AM)

If you really can’t handle getting up early the morning, late afternoon isn’t a terrible second choice… but keep in mind that the Colosseum and its related sites close roughly an hour before sunset. 

In winter, that means it closes as early as 4:30 PM (with the last entry at 3:30 PM) — but in the peak of summer, it costs around 7:15 PM (last entry at 6:15 PM). 

You need at least 3 hours to properly see the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and Roman Forum.

However, also keep in mind that your standard entry ticket is valid for 24 hours. If you are doing a self-guided tour experience, you can break up your time between the two sights, even on different days if you like!

If you don’t mind returning to the same place twice in order to minimize crowds (and summer heat), you could always see the Colosseum in the late afternoon before it closes.

Then you can visit the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill the following morning. This would be a nice way to break up the sightseeing and avoid the crowds.

Mistake 5: Skipping the Palatine Hill & the Roman Forum

The area of Palatine Hill in the spring with beautiful ruins and very few people
Don’t ignore the excellent Palatine Hill complex area!

One of the biggest mistakes you can make? Not realizing that even the most basic entrance ticket for the Colosseum also includes two other world class sites: the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. This alone makes it the best money you can spend in all of Rome, in my estimation.

Don’t be tempted to skip the Roman Forum just because you can see it while you walk down Via dei Fort Imperiali… trust me, there’s a world of difference between walking past the ruins of ancient Rome and being completely immersed in it, imaging the agora that used to stand where you’re standing. 

Plus, Palatine Hill is an incredibly rich and diverse site that’s absolutely worth dedicating at least an hour of your time to. Between its gardens, viewpoints, and interesting ruins — as well as its smaller-than-average crowds — it was actually one of the highlights of my self-guided visit to the Colosseum and its related sites. 

View of the Roman Forum area from a vantage point above the area
The Roman Forum is definitely a highlight for many!

Personally, I loved Palatine Hill the most of all simply because it was so peaceful; after that, I enjoyed the Colosseum, and at the bottom of my list was the Roman Forum simply because it was so crowded at that point. But that’s just my personal two cents!

If you are self-guided your own visit to the Colosseum and not going with a group, you can structure your Colosseum itinerary any way you like — even doing it on separate days, like I mentioned above. 

There is no order in which you need to access the Colosseum or Roman Forum and Palatine Hill complex (which are together in the same area, so you only present your ticket once).

With your entry ticket, you can decide the order of your visit so long as everything takes place within 24 hours of your designated entry time.

Mistake 6: Bringing a big backpack or a rolling bag

Map of the roman colosseum
Unsurprisingly… no cloakrooms in an ancient amphitheater!

This is a big mistake some people make when visiting the Colosseum — one that unfortunately is quite a hassle to deal with if you are caught unawares.

There is a strict policy in place that doesn’t allow visitors to enter with big luggage, and there is no cloakroom available on-site at the Roman Colosseum. 

Put simply, if you show up with a large backpack or rolling bag at the entrance to the Colosseum, you won’t be allowed entry at all until you have found a place to store your bag.

That means you may lose out on your entry slot, and there’s no obligation for the staff to accept your ticket if you arrive outside of your designated time slot. 

If you plan on visiting the Colosseum before check-in or after an early check-out, prepare in advance. Leave your luggage at your hotel, or use a luggage storage company like Bounce.

Aside from not being able to enter the Colosseum, carrying a roller bag on Roman roads is no one’s idea of fun!

Mistake 7: Not wearing the right shoes

Allison Green wearing white sneakers as an example of appropriate footwear for the Colosseum
Trendy? No. Comfy? Yes!

Listen. I get that you want to look cute during your Roman holiday and take some banger Instagram pictures. 

But wearing the wrong shoes during a trip to the Colosseum and (to a larger extent) the Roman Forum is a big mistake. A big, uneven cobblestone, ankle-twist-waiting to happen mistake. 

You’ll definitely want to hedge your bets and wear a comfortable, sporty shoe — sneakers would be ideal here, or a pair of hiking sandals that will ensure you can walk on this uneven ground without injuring yourself.

the bumpy cobblestone roads of roman forum and palatine hill area
These cobblestones are begging you have some sense!

These roads are nearly two millennia old and haven’t been maintained in any traditional sense of the word, so trust me, you’re going to be uncomfortable if you don’t have the right footwear.

And heeled boots or flip flops? Forget about it. You’ll be miserable. Cute, but miserable.

Mistake 8: Not preparing for the weather

Allison Green at the Roman Colosseum smiling and wearing glasses taking a selfie
At first I was happy for my hat and vest… and later regretted it!

The Roman Colosseum is an all-season attraction, but depending on what time of year you’ll be visiting, you’ll still want to keep an eye on the weather forecast to avoid any unpleasantness on your outing. 

Put simply, the weather in Rome is really unpredictable… on my March visit, I found it actually extremely warm — about 20° C / 68° F but very sunny — and I definitely found myself wishing I had slathered on some sunscreen before my visit (and left my heavier jacket at home).

And visiting in the summer? May the odds be ever in your favorite. Roman summer days are not to be messed with — they can get unbearably hot.

Wear light colors like white, taupe, and beige and pick quick-drying natural materials like linen. Avoid cotton, which doesn’t dry well when it gets sweaty, and for god’s sake, stay away from anything with polyester in it if you value not feeling like a baked potato. 

You also should definitely bring a hat because there’s very little shade in any portion of this visit — and you’ll also want sunscreen no matter the season. 

Layers are going to be your friend if you visit Rome in any season outside of summer, as the mornings and evenings are often rather cold before the mercury soars up in the middle of the day.

Wear a lightweight layer underneath, and don’t carry too heavy of a jacket as it heats up during the day. 

And of course, rain is always a reality in Rome, so be sure to bring a rain jacket or umbrella if there’s even the slightest inkling of rain in the forecast.

Mistake 9: Bringing any prohibited items

airport style security at the colosseum
Make sure you don’t have any prohibited items!

When entering the Colosseum, you’ll have to go through a security checkpoint like at the airport (only with much friendlier workers), and your bag will also be checked during that process.

It is forbidden to bring any sharp objects (including Swiss army knives), glass bottles, tripods, selfie sticks, weapons, or any sort of aerosol. Yes, that includes spray-on deodorant and even aerosol sunscreens!

Given that there is no cloakroom to store any of your items in, any prohibited items found on you will simply be confiscated, so avoid bringing them altogether if you don’t want to risk losing them.

Mistake 10: Not carrying a water bottle

roman water fountain with face and public drinking fountain
One of Rome’s many public fountains

As long as you bring a plastic, non-glass reusable water bottle, you can bring it into the Colosseum and refill as much as needed.

Rome is pretty warm for much of the year, and you’ll walk more than you ever thought possible when visiting sites like the Colosseum. Don’t make the mistake of underestimating the duration of your visit and thinking you won’t need water!

Luckily, there are so many great free-to-use public foundations available all over Rome, including plenty of ones in the area of the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and Roman Forum.

Avoid the touts selling water around the Colosseum and Roman Forum for overpriced water — you will certainly overpay for it. Just bring your own bottle and fill up!

Just head to the closest fountain (fun fact: they are called nasoni in Italian, which means big noses). You’ll get as much fresh water as you need, all for free!

Colosseum Ticket Options

I briefly went into this above, but here, I’ll explain the different Colosseum ticket types with more detail about what’s included and how they differ.

Guided Tour Including Colosseum Arena Floor & Colosseum Underground

Low down angle of the colosseum showing the arena floor area

If you want to see as much of the Colosseum as possible, this is the best, most all-inclusive Colosseum tour for you.

In addition to your regular Colosseum and Roman Forum ticket, it also includes a multi-hour guided tour to help bring all of these unique facets of Roman history to life, adding color and detail to your sightseeing.

This tour in particular offers special access to the arena floor and the Colosseum underground, which many other Roman Colosseum tours do not include.

The underground area (called the hypogeum) is a really interesting piece to add to a Colosseum tour. It includes tunnels and passageways that connect a series of cages and dungeons underneath the arena floor of the colosseum.

This part of the Colosseum was a purgatory of sorts, where enslaved people and prisoners were kept before being publicly executed, as well as the wild animals who were fought and slaughtered by the gladiators for entertainment.

If you’re interested in dark history — or just getting the full story of the historical places you visit — adding the Colosseum underground is a must-do.

This is one of the best tours if you want the full Colosseum experience and are curious to get a bit off the beaten path and learn some of the Colosseum’s more macabre history by adding the underground access!

Book your guided underground tour with special access here!

Fast Track Rome Colosseum Ticket

View of the beautiful constantine arch through the windows of the colosseum

This is the most affordable and flexible way to visit the Colosseum — great if your budget is short on time or money. This is what I personally did in March 2024.

Pre-booking your Colosseum ticket (you can do so online here) allows you to skip the long line at the ticket booth. Instead, you just find the guide at the designated meeting point, mine was at the Arch of Constantine and was very easy to find.

This ticket includes an audioguide which you access on your phone. Mine didn’t work, unfortunately, but I was still able to enjoy the Roman Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and Roman Forum independently.

You will be on your own to explore the site, but you won’t have to deal with any queues besides the normal security line (which is unavoidable and moves really fast — I was in within minutes).

Note that this ticket does not include the arena floor or the Colosseum underground or an in-person tour guide: it’s the bare bones option.

Book your skip-the-line Colosseum ticket here!

Guided Tour and Colosseum Tickets

faraway view of the colosseum with trees and other views

If you have a little more room in your budget, I definitely suggest booking this guided tour, which includes a guided walking tour and admission tickets.

There is simply so much to learn about the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill that you won’t really be able to appreciate without the expertise of a licensed guide who is an expert in Roman history.

This tour is rather affordable with not much of an up-charge for the tour guide, especially when you consider the initial price of the ticket.

You’re paying roughly another $30 USD for a 3 hours of a tour guide’s time!

You can book in a small group of up to 10, 20, or 30 people, at different price tiers based on how many people are in the group.

Book your guided tour of the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and Roman Forum here

Colosseum by Night After Hours Tour

the exterior of the colosseum as seen at night - yes you can visit at night!

Did you know you can visit the Colosseum after the doors have officially closed? There are a number of tours which offer exclusive access to the Colosseum after dark!

This is a really fun way to beat the crowds (or the summer heat) if you are planning to visit the Colosseum in the peak season, June through August.

It is more expensive than other ticket options, but not by a drastic margin… which may be a nice price to pay, given the peace you’ll enjoy!

However, if you want those classic daytime photos of the Colosseum, you won’t be able to get those, so if photography is a big aspect of why you are visiting the Colosseum, that is something to consider.

But if all you want is a unique way to see the Colosseum and learn its history without the crowds or heat of peak summer travel, a night tour is an epic way to do it!

Note that night tours sell out extremely fast and nearly all of the 2024 tour offerings are gone, totally sold out — the only remaining tours I could find are linked below.

Book your night tour of the Colosseum here!

Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel & Colosseum Full Day Tour

an ornately painted ceiling in the vatican museums in rome

If you want to see all of Rome’s most essential (and crowded) sights under the expert eye of a tour guide, I strongly suggest this tour option.

Visiting the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel with a guide is really helpful because these sights can be quite stressful to navigate on your own.

It’s very crowded, tickets must be booked well in advance (same-day ticket waits often exceed 2 hours), and there is so much to see that it is helpful to go with a guide w ho will ensure you see the most essential parts and skip the rest.

This tour also includes transportation between Colosseum and the Vatican so you can simply sit back and sightsee and enjoy your day, without having to worry about anything other than taking in the sights and history and making memories.

This tour includes all entry tickets, skip-the-line access, lunch, guides, and transportation.

It’s a little pricy, but it plans you the perfect day in Rome seeing its two most iconic attractions without a second thought.

Book your tour of the Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel & Colosseum here!

Svalbard Northern Lights: 5 Things People Get Wrong About Seeing the Aurora in Svalbard

Svalbard is home to the world’s northernmost settlements, endless nights that stretch on for months, and enough polar bears that residents can’t leave the main town without a firearm.

So perhaps you’d assume that the Svalbard archipelago, located far north of the Arctic Circle at 78°N, would have some of the best chances for Northern lights viewing in the world. Well, not exactly so!

The Northern lights phenomenon is a lot more complex than just North + Dark = Lights, but many people don’t quite get that. And many people who haven’t actually experienced Svalbard in winter themselves erroneously think it’s one of the best places in the Arctic region to see the aurora borealis.

Two green bands of the Northern lights appearing over the mountainous landscape of Svalbard
Note: While I did visit Svalbard in February 2024 and tried to see the Northern lights multiple times, I was unlucky and didn’t see them once in my four nights there! As a result, I’m using stock photos of the aurora in Svalbard until I can return, see them with my own eyes, and take my own pictures. Thanks for understanding!

While there are a few unique perks of Svalbard for seeing the Northern lights (yes, it is true that you can sometimes see the aurora in the middle of the day!), there are also some downsides. 

Those cons usually aren’t conveyed very well by bloggers who don’t know much about the science of auroras or the unique location and geography of Svalbard and how that impacts its ability to see the lights.

But me? I’m nothing if not pedantic. As a self-professed neurodivergent nerd who loves science (and particularly astronomy or any sort of study of space), I’m here to clear up some misconceptions about seeing the Northern lights in Svalbard. 

This is not to say that you can’t see them in Svalbard — you absolutely can! — nor that you shouldn’t go to Svalbard in winter. There are many great reasons to go, like visiting ice caves, dog sledding, snowmobiling, and more!

But if you are going to Svalbard specifically to see the Northern lights, there are better places in Northern Norway to do just that, in my opinion, such as Alta or Tromso… or better yet, see the lights in Abisko in Sweden or Rovaniemi in Finland.

Person raising hands triumphantly under the northern lights in Svalbard

​But if you’ve planned a trip to Svalbard in winter in hopes of seeing the lights, don’t fear — you absolutely have a good chance of seeing the Northern lights, and I’m sure you’ll have a perfect trip!

However, you’ll want to read this important information in order to have reasonable expectations. 

Here’s what people don’t know about seeing the Northern lights in Svalbard, so you can be more informed before your trip.

The Svalbard aurora season is actually shorter than most places in the Arctic

Brilliant spiral of green light emanating from the sky during winter in Svalbard showing beautiful Northern ligths display in the sky with snow covered mountain in the background

This surprises many people because they think that since Svalbard is located so far north, their winter season (and thus Northern lights) go on for nearly all the year. In reality, there are many places further south of Svalbard that get the Northern lights both earlier in the season as well as later.

For example, in places like Rovaniemi and Tromsø, you can see the aurora starting in late August. It’s not particularly common as there is still a lot of daylight, but it is possible. 

Well, in Svalbard, the midnight sun ends on August 23rd… meaning there is absolutely no nighttime during the first few weeks of August, and the final week of August still has skies too bright to properly go aurora hunting.

The aurora season in Svalbard doesn’t start until late September, a full month later than places further south (but still north of the Arctic Circle). Similarly, the Northern lights season ends in Svalbard far earlier than in other Arctic destinations.

Person on a tour of the Northern lights in Svalbard, standing on top of a car holding their hands up to celebrate, as the Northern lights streak across the sky in bright green colors

Aurora tours typically stop running Svalbard in the first week of March, when the sunlight hours start to stretch too long to have much chance of seeing the aurora. Meanwhile, aurora tours are still running strong in other Arctic destinations until around the first week of April.

So as you can see, the overall aurora season in Svalbard is nearly two months shorter than you’d find in other Arctic destinations, running only from late September to early March.

This is because while the dark season and polar night are quite long, midnight sun is never far behind. This makes picking the right time to visit Svalbard for the aurora quite crucial!

As soon as Svalbard leaves its dark period, it takes a running leap towards never-ending sunny days. The change happens much quicker than you’d think, ending the aurora season abruptly in March, while the summer months are still quite far away.

There is one very cool caveat to this, though: due to the extreme darkness of polar night at this latitude, the archipelago of Svalbard is the only permanently inhabited place on earth where you can see daytime auroras.

View of the town of Longyearbyen with a few bursts of the aurora in small polka-dot like shapes in the sky

Yes, you can see the Northern lights in the middle of the day if you visit during Polar Night (November 11 to January 30). The daytime lights are typically fainter, but it’s certainly still possible to see them.

Visiting during the true polar night will undoubtedly increase your chances of seeing the Northern lights, since you don’t need to wait for darkness to happen… it’s literally dark all day long!

But this comes at a cost of not being able to properly see the beauty of Svalbard, since you have zero hours of daylight… and not even any twilight conditions. 

View of the mountains in blue hour with a slight bit of pink in the clouds
Meanwhile, in February, you can see both Northern lights (possibly) at night and plenty of blue hour light like this during the day!

If you really want to see the aurora and experience a polar night, this could be a really cool experience.

Personally, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’ve been to Svalbard before, especially since the extreme light conditions can be a huge shock to your body and circadian rhythms. Honestly, I’ve never been more tired in my life than when I visited Svalbard in February during the period when the sun doesn’t rise!

Even though we still had about six hours of twilight “blue light” hours that simulated daylight and signaled the passage of time, I was so thrown off! I can’t even imagine if I had visited during the true polar night.

It’s harder to chase Northern lights on Svalbard than elsewhere in the Arctic

Male photographer leaning down in the snow and taking pictures of the Northern lights

I’ve taken aurora tours in many different places, and I’ve seen the aurora in Norway, Sweden, and Finland many times each — over a dozen times in total — so I know a little something about seeing the aurora at this point!

A good aurora tour is willing to do whatever it takes, within reason, to find a clear patch of sky. To paraphrase a friend of a friend who runs Northern lights tours: you’re not aurora chasing, you’re clear sky chasing.

But here’s the problem about doing that in Svalbard: there are only 45 kilometers of road on the entirety of the island of Spitsbergen, mostly all around the town of Longyearbyen.

Snowmobiles out in the middle of Svalbard, an easy way to get out off the main roads of Svalbard
Snowmobiles are a great way to have a better shot at seeing the lights!

That means if the immediate area around Longyearbyen is completely clouded over, you pretty much have no chance of finding clear skies. There’s just literally nowhere to go.

Oh, and also, due to the persistent threat of polar bears, you can’t leave Longyearbyen without a firearm, and you need a permit for that… which is not exactly easy to get as a tourist. So even if you were to rent a car in Svalbard, it’s not permitted to leave the village unless you have access to a firearm.

If you want to get out of Longyearbyen and have a better chance to see the Northern lights, you need to go via guided tour if you’re a tourist.

There are fun options such as a snowmobile tour or even a dog sledding tour, where you traverse the snow-covered Svalbard tundra in the pitch black in search of clear patches of the night sky. But even that’s a gamble! 

Dog sledding silhouette against the sky with bright green aurora happening overhead

Personally, I did a Northern lights snowmobile tour during my February trip to Svalbard. While it was definitely fun to zip around in the pitch black night, we didn’t see a single glimpse of the aurora, despite a prediction of high activity levels.

In fact, in my four nights in Svalbard, I didn’t see the Northern lights even one time due to persistent cloud cover. Oh no… I guess I just have to go back!

If you want to see the aurora at its best, I suggest getting outside of Longyearbyen town.

Aurora over the town of Longyearbyen's famous colorful houses

While you can definitely see the Northern lights in the village, as it’s not that bright, you’ll have a much more impressive impression of the aurora if you get away from light pollution.

There are a variety of Northern lights trips in Svalbard you can book that bring you outside of Longyearbyen, which you can’t do on your own due to polar bears and the regulations about needing firearms outside the village.

Here are my suggestions for Northern lights outings you can add to your Svalbard winter itinerary!

Being as close to the North Pole as Svalbard is means you’re out of the aurora zone

Person with a headlamp on, sitting down in the snow, looking up at the Northern lights as they shoot around overhead

Here’s another counterintuitive thing about seeing the aurora in Svalbard: it’s not actually in what many scientists call the “aurora zone,” the latitude band in which seeing the Northern lights occurs the most frequently.

This isn’t a particularly well-defined term, so I can’t give a perfectly-agreed upon definition, but the rough range scientists give is between 65-72°N — leaving Svalbard, at a staggeringly high 78°N, out of the club.

It’s kind of confusing why this happens, but basically, it’s because when there are particular strong amounts of solar activity, the aurora band actually moves to lower latitudes.

One small band of the Northern lights appearing over the town lights during the winter in Svalbard

Solar activity is measured by the Kp index — the higher the number, the further distance the aurora extends away from the polar regions (in the case of the Northern lights, the further south it goes). 

When the Kp index rises above a certain amount, the aurora oval (the area in which you can presently see the aurora) shifts south — and due to Svalbard’s high latitude, when this happens, the Northern lights are no longer visible.

Contrary to what some people think, a lower Kp index in Svalbard is actually generally a good thing!

The middle of winter may not actually be best time to spot the aurora in Svalbard

Bright colorful northern lights in the sky in Svalbard with some light pollution

So, we’ve already established that Svalbard’s aurora season lasts from late September through early March. But what’s the best month in that period?

You might think that picking a time smack-dab in the middle of the winter season might be your best chances. Well, not so — I think that the “fall” months in Svalbard are actually probably a better bet.

OK, so technically Svalbard doesn’t have a proper fall — they divide the seasons into “Northern lights winter”, “sunny winter”, and “polar summer”. But when I say fall, I’m talking about what really feels like fall in other parts of the Northern hemisphere: namely, the months of October and November. 

However, one thing that note that in October and November, there’s not enough snow to do certain activities like snowmobiling, so you’re somewhat limited in terms of ways you can see the lights.

Northern lights appearing in drastic light formations over a snowy landscape with interesting random technology things in the foreground

That said, the Northern lights are a natural phenomenon that are reliant on a bunch of different factors. There’s solar activity, which itself can be broken down into the presence of the solar wind particles, the speed at which they’re moving, the density of these particles, and the direction that they’re moving (towards the earth’s magnetic field or not). 

There’s also the need for enough hours of darkness for your eye to be able to perceive the lights. And, the most fickle factor of all, you need clear nights (read: no cloud cover) to see the lights.

You also need a lot of time and patience for all those factors to collide, so be sure to pack warm clothes (and maybe some hand warmers).

So, why is “fall” better in my estimation? Simply because usually, the majority of the winter storms haven’t moved into Svalbard yet by this time of year, meaning there is a higher likelihood of clear enough skies for aurora viewing. 

My friend who lives in Finnish Lapland swears by the fact that the fall is generally the best time for the aurora, with the spring months close behind, and the middle of winter actually being the worst due to frequent snow storms, which bring in dense, low-lying clouds.

The aurora is not nearly as brightly colored as you might think it would be

Brilliant green aurora with some streaky purplish clouds in the distant background

This is the number one thing I always try to convey to my readers about the Northern lights: no, it’s not really that bright in real life.

Once, when photographing the Northern lights in Alta, a girl came out and asked if I was photographing the lights. I said yes, and she scrunched up her face before asking, “so when do they go neon?” I had to hold back a little chuckle.

I don’t want to bring down your excitement about seeing the magical lights of the aurora.

Having seen them at least a dozen times, I can attest that they are spectacular and jaw-dropping, and I’m in awe of the universe and my small role in it every time I see it. As a person without any particular faith, they’re one of the closest things I have to a spiritual experience.

Northern lights appearing in the sky with green and purple tones

However, you have to understand how light works differently in a camera versus to your naked eye. The pictures you see of the aurora generally are taken with a shutter speed of about one to three seconds. Meanwhile, your eye takes in a lot less light, so you don’t see the color at the same saturation level.

When the Northern lights are quite faint, they look almost indistinguishable from clouds, and you can really only tell that they are Northern lights by the time you aim your camera at them and wait to see if some green color appears.

That said, in a few instances, I’ve seen the Northern lights during particularly explosive shows. On those instances, I’ve seen pretty vivid greens and once even some beautiful bursts of red with my naked eye. It was pretty spectacular, but this is the exception rather than the rule.

It’s better to have low expectations and have them blown out of the water than to have absurdly high expectations and leave disappointed. I want you to have the best trip possible, so hopefully this doesn’t discourage you, but instead just helps you have the right perspective.