Greenland is the largest island in the world and the most sparsely populated region in the world too. There are just 56,081 residents in Greenland, most of which are Inuit who first came from Canada to Greenland as early as the 13th century.
Greenland is an autonomous region that belongs to Denmark, even though it sits outside of Europe and in North America. But, it’s historically connected to both Denmark and Norway far more than it is to North America.
Greenland is a huge place and planning a visit to it can be a little daunting. There are so many different regions to visit, that all offer a little something different. It’s also a land covered in ice, 80% of it is an ice sheet and it’s the only permanent ice sheet outside of Antarctica.
A visit to Greenland will be an adventure, both in nature and culture, and here is everything you need to know about Greenland to get your journey started.
The best way to get to Greenland is by flying and there are only two countries that fly to Greenland – Denmark and Iceland.
You can get to Greenland from Reykjavik, Iceland with either Air Greenland (summer only) or Air Iceland. Going via Iceland is by far the quickest and most convenient way to get to Greenland from North America.
The other option is to fly from Copenhagen, Denmark, to Greenland with Air Greenland and they operate this route all year round. Air Greenland also runs pretty much all the internal flights in Greenland too.
There are 5 major airports in Greenland and choosing which one to arrive at depends on what you want to see in Greenland and also what time of year you choose to visit. The main hubs are Nuuk, Kangerlussuaq, Narsarsuaq, Ilulissat or Kulusuk.
Again, because Greenland is so large, you can only really visit two regions in one trip. The only way to get from one region to another is by plane, or you can go the long way which is by dogsled.
A lot of the activities in each region are very similar, thus the main decision is whether you want to see lush Greenland in the south during summer or Fjords covered with ice and floating icebergs in them in the north.
You kind of have two choices when it comes to when to visit Greenland – winter or summer. But, because Greenland is so vast, the temperatures across the region are very different depending on where you end up going.
Temperatures in the northwest of Greenland range between -25 – 4°C during October – May (winter) and 3-10°C from June to September (summer). The southwest hits -11 – 4°C in winter and 1-6 °C in the summer, the southeast -11 – 8°C in winter 1-17 °C in summer.
The activities on offer are also very different depending on whether you visit in summer or winter and this should be your main consideration when deciding – what do you want to see & do while you’re there? If the northern lights are key is has to be winter. If you want to hike every day into the wilderness, summer it is.
When winter begins in Greenland, it slowly becomes more and more snow-covered. The Fjords and bays freeze which makes it easier to travel, especially if you’re in the north. Polar nights (24 hr darkness) start in late November and peak around the end of December. Winter in Greenland is all about the northern lights, skiing, looking at the beautiful stars, dog sledding, and seeing the northern lights.
You can see the northern lights from every part of Greenland during the winter, so no matter what part you choose to visit, seeing them will be on the cards. You can see the northern lights in Greenland for free. No matter where you’re staying, the staff will be checking the forecast and making sure you never miss an opportunity to see them.
All you will need is a good set of warm clothes, serious hiking boots, a thermos of tea/coffee and to take a walk away from any light pollution. Then it’s just a matter of waiting for the northern lights to show up and dance across the night sky.
You can also book activities that include the northern lights such as a photography tour that teaches you how to photograph them properly and you can even go dog sledding with them in the night sky.
Winter is a fantastic time in Greenland go to skiing and it’s far less busy than all the slopes you’re likely to find in both Europe and North America. Imagine fresh powder, towering mountains, and no one on the slopes as you fly down past glaciers carving it up.
Cross-country skiing is used as a mode of transport for getting from A to B in Greenland during the winter and the country is home to the Arctic Circle Race. This race is the toughest cross-country skiing race in the world. It’s a 160 km race that challenges the toughest skiers out there,
If you love cross-country skiing then you’ll find routes carved out for multi-day adventures that take you way into hidden valleys where you can get in touch with nature.
Heli-Skiing is also very popular in Greenland and if you’re good enough to do it, then there isn’t a better place to try it out.
Going dog sledding in Greenland is an absolute must while you’re there. There is no better way to explore the amazing snow-covered landscapes of winter than by dog sled. It’s far more all-encompassing than skiing or being on a snowmobile. The pace is a lot slower, giving you time to take it all in, and it’s almost silent. All you can hear is the dogs panting and pawing through the snow.
The Greenland dog is also quite special. They are an ancient breed that and look like a husky but a little larger and are built for hunting and pulling sleds. You’ll get to know them along with your Inuit guides who’ll teach you how to dog sled – it’s a cultural experience as much as a physical or nature experience.
The local Inuits choose dog sledding over all other forms of transportation such as snowmobiles as being connected to nature and living naturally off the land is very important to their history and chosen way of life.
When winter comes, the fjords of Greenland freeze over making it the best time to go ice fishing. Ice fishing involves taking a dog sled or snowmobiling across the fjord and then drilling a hole into the ice. Then it’s time to drop your line with bait down into the fjord and waiting for a bite and then fighting the fish and eventually pulling them out of the ice hole.
It’s a pretty chilly activity but it’s a lot of fun. You can catch fish like cod and then bring them home to cook for dinner.
The landscapes of Greenland are out of this world. Snow-covered mountains with amazing fjords lining the coastline are the menu and the best way to spend time exploring it during winter is by snowshoeing.
You can rent snowshoes and go on a guided tour around the surrounding mountains while your guide explains everything about the local area and answers all your questions. On your journey, you might bump into some of the local wildlife including polar bears and more.
Summer in Greenland sees the Midnight Sun swap in for the northern lights of winter. 24-hour daylight gives you the opportunity to explore both the land, ocean, lakes, and rivers. During the summer, whales migrate along the shores of Greenland, you can access hiking trails into the mountains, there are glaciers and ice burgs, flowers are blossoming, and the boat networks open up, connecting towns along the shores.
Greenland is home to 15 different species of whales during the summer and you’re pretty much guaranteed to see at least one of them during a whale watching trip. Humpback and minke whales are the most commonly sighted species but you’ll also have a chance to see beluga whales and narwhals.
Seeing whales playing and breaching the water’s surface is something I can’t quite describe. It’s beautiful, powerful, and breathtaking all in one weird emotion that wraps you up for days to come.
You might be lucky enough to see whales from the shore but the best way is on a boat trip. You might even see polar bears walking the shorelines too. The best parts of Greenland to see whales is are in Sisimiut, Nuuk, and further north in Disko Bay.
As I already mentioned, 80% of Greenland is covered by the Greenland Ice Sheet which totals an amazing 700,000 square miles which gives light to a land of glaciers, something Greenland is most famous for.
There are glaciers everywhere, so no matter where you’re staying, you’re not going to be far from one. You can go on a glacier tour by foot or by boat and seeing a river of ice moving over the landscapes and into the sea is something you’ll struggle to find everywhere else in the world.
The most famous glacier in Greenland is probably Sermeq Kujalleq which is the fastest moving glacier in the world. It’s located near the town of Ilulissat and when you see it all you can notice is how loud it is as it erodes the land beneath it. It moves at 130 feet per 24 hours and its endless stream of ice drops up to 11 cubic miles of icebergs into the Ilulissat Icefjord every year.
Between the months of May and July, most of Greenland goes into 24-hour daylight meaning the sun never actually sets below the horizon, giving rise to the Midnight Sun.
The Midnight Sun can be experienced every day if you want to. It happens late at night when the sun attempts to set but instead of dropping below the horizon, only rises again. This means you get to see all the colors and magical light of sunset and sunrise in one sitting.
Watching the ice-covered mountains, icebergs, and the ocean light up with the colors of the sky and the gentle hues of dawn and dusk light are something you have to witness to be able to imagine.
Watching the midnight sun is free and it doesn’t take much effort. Find a spot that looks west with a nice view behind it and watch as the sun sets and rises all in one. A great thing to do is time an activity like dog sledding, hiking, or kayaking, with the midnight sun.
Kayaking is probably the best way to see and feel connected to the amazing landscapes of Greenland and see all the amazing wildlife it holds.
Paddling up a fjord or glacial lagoon in crystal clear water, free to explore under your own steam, past icebergs, watching glaciers fall into the sea, seeing polar bears, walruses, and seals on the shoreline, and maybe even a whale or dolphin or two is something you can’t beat.
The journey is so silent, so personal, and you’re undertaking a tradition of Greelanders too. The first Inuit people arrived in Greenland in kayaks and still use them every day for hunting, fishing, and getting from A to B.
In most parts of Greenland, you can hire a kayak along with all the gear needed to stay warm and safe on the water. You can also book a tour with a guide if you’re worried about going out on your own. Either way, it’ll be a trip that you’ll never ever forget.
There are very few roads in Greenland and once the ice melts in the Fjords, boats and ferries are the main mode of transport connecting all the different communities along the coast.
There is no better way of taking in Greenland than staring at it from the sea. Planning a day trip to a nearby village or town via ferry is not only very affordable but you get to see the incredible views of Greenland from the sea and explore a new area. Along the way, you might even see some whales and other wildlife if you’re lucky.
In summer, when the snow melts, all the hundreds of kilometers of hiking trails begin to open up around Greenland. There’s no better way to really connect with the natural surroundings than walking over the mountains, through valleys, past rivers, and along the shores of the fjords.
Hiking is free, you don’t need a guide, but it’s worth getting some advice on which routes to take and buying a map so you don’t get lost.
The rivers in Greenland are packed full of trout and Arctic char which are delicious to eat and due to their numbers, quite easy to catch. If you have always wanted to try fly fishing, why not start in Greenland?
If you’re a seasoned fly fisher, you’ll be amazed to know that Greenland is one of the only places in the world with sea-run Arctic char. This means they behave like salmon and head to sea to feed and return to spawn in the rivers during summer.
Sea-run Arctic char are huge and you’ll have the chance to catch one on a fly rod in Greenland, and the opportunity is worth taking.
Greenland is home to some of the most unique species on the planet and it’s one of the few and best places to see them all. Having done a sea safari to see the whales, seals, and walruses why not try and find the amazing animals on the land.
Greenland is home to polar bears, Arctic wolves, reindeer, muskoxen, Arctic fox, stoats, plus some insane birdlife. There are Atlantic puffins, snowy owls, ravens, cormorants, gyrfalcons, white-tailed eagles, Fulmars black guillemots that call Greenland home as well as up to 227 other bird species too.
You can book a tour with a guide that specializes in showing you all these amazing creatures and you’re likely to see a lot of the birds when sailing around the Fjords looking for whales.
While there is a decision to make when it comes to when to go to Greenland, winter or summer, there are great things you can do and enjoy all year round.
Delving into the amazing history of Greenland is a must while you’re there and there are some fantastic museums that will give you all the information you’ll need to soak it all up.
The capital of Greenland, Nuuk, is home to the National Museum. The National Museum is home to 4500 years of Greenland’s history that’s all documented and exhibited for you to discover. It includes everything from the ancient Inuit civilizations and the explorations by the Vikings from as early as the 900s.
If you’re not staying in Nuuk, don’t worry, there are great museums in every part of Greenland that you might visit and they all give you an insight into the history and life of the Inuits and Greelanders that call it home.
Close to 90% of the residents of Greeland are of Inuit descent and their culture runs deep and is very much alive in Greenland. Something you have to do while you’re in Greenland is to get to know the Inuit culture.
This can be anything from trying out local Greenland cuisine, exploring the numerous Inuit art museums, check out the Qilakitsoq mummies at the National Museum, or learn how Inuit hunters survive and capture their prey in the wild.
There are a few areas in Greenland with hot springs and they stay hot all year round. Imagine swimming in a hot spring with the northern lights or midnight sun taking over the colors of the sky? Pretty awesome right?!
The geothermal spring on the island of Uunartoq in southern Greenland stays at 38°C all year round. In summer, you can book a tour that includes a 2 hr boat ride to the island where you can bathe in the hot springs overlooking icebergs, the southern mountains, and if you’re lucky, you’ll even see whales playing at the same time.
Other parts of Greenland also have hot springs such as Qeqertarsuaq, a volcanic island near Disco Bay and there are some others in East Grenland too. You can arrange similar tours as mentioned above to these too.
Greenlandic cuisine is quite different from any other cuisines you’re likely to try. The huge ice sheet and weather means that rearing animals or growing fruit and vegetables is not easy and it only really happens in the south of Greenland. Therefore, most Greenlandic cuisine is based on the sea, which is rich in diverse offerings that taste delicious.
Traditional meals include different dishes featuring trout, Arctic char, rockfish, redfish, cod, and halibut. While these are common in a lot of northern countries, you’ll also find huge crabs, Greenlandic prawns, and shrimps with their own distinct flavor.
If you’re adventurous, you can try some of the dishes featuring sea mammals that Greenlanders have counted on for their survival. Seals and whales are commonly eaten and if you’re brave try some mattak (whale skin & blubber) or suaasat (boiled seal soup).
There isn’t much more you need to know about visiting Greenland. As you can see it’s a land full of culture and adventure with so much to do, in both winter and summer. The hardest decision to make when visiting Greenland is whether to go in winter or summer and to what part of Greenland as it’s so big.
Personally, I would go twice, once in each season, and spread the trips out with a few years between them. But, if you’re only going once, make sure you do your research so you go during the best time for you, and to the places that suit you best.
Roger is a little obsessed with travel. He has been to over 40 countries, broken 3 suitcases and owned over 10 backpacks in 12 months. What he doesn't know about travel, ain't worth knowing!