Known as one of the world’s last frontiers, the jaw-dropping scenery, unpolluted skies and deep-rooted culture of Greenland is beckoning thousands of intrepid travelers to its one-of-a-kind terrain.
With charms that range from 400-person hunting villages, the sprawling Scoresbysund’s complex glacier systems, and the world’s largest National Park, it’s no surprise Greenland is surging with popularity. However, traveling here isn’t easy—the prices are steep, there are relatively few flights and reliable roads, and the desirable seasons are short. Which means every trip needs to come with a well-planned itinerary that allows you to soak up the once-in-a-lifetime adventures that only this country can offer, from kayaking through million-year-old icefields to tasting whale and polar bear meat to taking a bone-chilling dip in the Arctic Ocean. Whatever you do, this country and its offerings won’t be a secret much longer, so quickly book your trip before it becomes the next Iceland.
Kayak Through Icefields
Not a feat for the faint of heart (or those who have watched Titanic a few too many times), kayaking is actually the best way to see Southern Greenland’s icy geography. The primary mode of transportation along Greenland’s weaving waterways, kayaking is arguably one of the biggest cultural symbols of the country. As a result, you can find rental companies in almost all the major cities from Nuuk to Ilulissat. With the ability to maneuver closer to hundred-year-old glaciers and floating chunks of ice, you’ll have the chance to both experience the magnitude of these icebergs and marvel in their iridescent color—a mix of shimmering blue, stark white, and even black.
Narsarsuaq, the main town in the South, serves as a great homebase for kayaking adventures around the iceberg bay. For a chance to explore even more remote icefields around Greenland, Hurtigruten’s 16-day Arctic Cruise gives guests the chance to kayak through untouched splendors around the eastern coast and provides guides and dry suits. Although local residents kayak 365 days a year, the best time to hit the water is from May through September when the wildlife is out in full force and the temperatures aren’t as icy.
Visit Quaint and Quiet Towns
Even the largest city in Greenland, Nuuk, has only 17,000 permanent residents. But despite the small size, it still offers all the charms of a larger capital, with everything from art museums to hiking trails. Outside of Nuuk, the villages are considerably smaller, most home to less than 100 permanent residents. Ilulissat is a must-visit to catch a glimpse of the famous icefjord.
The city sprawls along the coast of western Greenland with cobalt, red, yellow, and green homes quietly dotting the shore. Other villages that deserve a visit (if only for the photography opportunities) are Sisimiut, the second-largest city in the country, and Aasiaat, whose buildings tower and flow down the hills and mountainside. Many of the villages aren’t accessible by road, so the only way to visit is via boat, helicopter, or snowmobile. To see a traditional fishing and hunting village, some expedition cruise lines take guests to Ittoqqortoormiit, a settlement of around 400 people in the Sermersooq municipality, where you’ll have free reign to explore the town, visit local hunters, and take in the rocky and expansive landscape.
See Incredible Wildlife
The wild geography of Greenland isn’t just home to spectacular scenery—it’s home to an impressive array of endemic species as well. That includes polar bears, walruses, musk ox, caribou, arctic foxes, whales, hares, eagles, lemmings, and the rare Arctic wolf. So how do you spot these creatures in their natural habitat? Take a small expedition cruise for the chance to watch the humpback whales breach 40 feet into the air and pods of orcas zip by. On land, a hike will likely bring sightings of polar bears, arctic foxes, and wolves, but be sure to keep your distance. A visit to Greenland National Park will introduce you to the Musk Oxen, or Ummimak. Territorial and nearly 400 pounds, it’s best to hike with a guide so you can tread through their natural habitat carefully, as they’re easily camouflaged in the native brush.
Swim in Arctic Waters
While Greenland is not traditionally known for its swimming culture, many intrepid travelers want to tick this unusual and daring activity off their lifetime bucket list. Although you can technically swim along any of the country’s shorelines, most locals (who don wet and dry suits to avoid the chill) recommend visiting the beaches of Greenland’s Southern Shore, which share the same climate as the Shetland Islands. Many tourists prefer to sunbathe in just their bathing suits here and brave the negative temperatures of the Arctic Ocean for an unrivaled chance to explore the icebergs in the crystal blue waters. Warmer waters are not out of possibility either, since a visit to Uunartoq’s natural hot springs offers the chance to swim in waters that hit up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Taste Local Food with Greenlandic Hunters
Home to an incredibly rich Inuit culture, the people of Greenland are incredibly protective of their heritage. And, like the original founders of the country, many of the residents living in the smaller villages of Greenland still eat and gather the same way their ancestors did. In Ittoqqortoormiit, for example, residents hunt polar bear, seal, whale, and musk oxen. To Western cultures, the thought of eating these endangered species is heartbreaking, but to them, it’s their only source of food in the frigid winter months. A visit to town will give you the chance to both sample these exotic specialties. (Just be wary of bringing home a souvenir, as most countries won’t let you travel home with whale meat.) If sampling polar bear with hunters is a little outside of your comfort zone, you can also try the many types of fish, like capelin, shrimp, and mussels the local fishermen catch daily. It’s often served dried and varies in flavor.
Hike the Coastal Fjords
The size of Western Europe with a little over 50,000 people, the amount of backcountry exploration Greenland offers is unparalleled. With no privately owned land at all, Greenland boasts incredible opportunities for hiking, since nowhere is truly off-limits.
If you don’t want to forge your own path in the beautiful, albeit harsh nature, head to the Arctic Circle Trail, a 99-mile hike that connects Kangerlussuaq and Sisimiut. The full trip takes about 8 or 9 days and requires some challenging terrain and passages. For those along the eastern fjords of Greenland, simply head for the icebergs in the Ammassalik area. Deep gorges, tall peaks, and staggering climbs make this one of the most difficult treks in the country, but with panoramic views of the Inuit villages of Kulusuk and Tasiilaq. For a more populous path, head to Ilulissat to explore the magnificent Icefjord, a recent UNESCO World Heritage Site. Outside of town, you can see the collection of icebergs that change colors from orange to red, depending on the time of day.
With a coast as sprawling and beautiful as Greenland’s, most visitors forget that the country has a rich and varied geographic landscape inland as well. Home to over 24 rivers, the waters of Western Greenland boast some of the best fishing in the country. Located between the towns of Sisimiut, Maniitsoq, and Kangerlussuaq, these rivers provide ample opportunities for fly fishing in July and August. In Southern Greenland, the rivers known as Erics Fjord are swimming with Arctic Char starting in June.
Cruising Along Calving Icebergs
If you’re exploring Greenland aboard a cruise, you’ll have the chance to zoom through iceberg fields on a circle boat. These boats, which are basically large dinghys with seats, life vests and a motor, are small enough to navigate through some of the country’s most unforgiving terrain, giving you a chance to see (and hear) the calving icebergs like never before. Although which icebergs you see will vary depending on the cruise, many will stop at the jaw dropping ice wall, a unique formation of crystal blue ice that’s formed a wall along the Karale Glacier or through the constantly calving Sermiligaaq Fjord.
See the Northern Lights
The Northern Lights in Greenland can be seen from as early as September through April in most parts of the country. You don’t need to venture all the way up north to get the best viewing either. Some of the most dramatic skies can be seen outside of Kangerlussuaq, the town where the largest airport can be found. The vibrant colors illuminate the dark Arctic sky with radiant hues of green, purple, red, and blue. To see them, simply book two to three nights and venture outside around midnight—the prime time to spot their dazzling glow. Conversely, in the warmer months, you’ll be privy to the phenomenon of the Midnight Sun, which gives you almost 22 hours of natural sunlight.
See the Flowers of Kaffeklubben Island
Despite its name, Greenland isn’t known for lush, green landscapes. With most of the country covered in ice, few areas actually offer much greenery at all. Except for Kaffeklubben Island, a desolate and uninhabited island off the very Northern coast of the country. The climate is an Arctic desert and most of the island is a frozen tundra for nearly 330 days of the year. However, during the 30 days of summer, a rare collection of flowers bloom, offering a stunning pink, white, and purple contrast to the normally stark landscape. Known as Arctic poppy and Purple Saxifrage, these beautiful flowers only stay in bloom as long the temperatures stay around 20-degrees F. It’s physically impossible to trek here on your own, however, you can charter a boat or expedition cruise through Longyearbyen, the main city on the island of Svalbard, to explore it.
Explore the World’s Largest National Park
Boasting over 375,000 square miles, the Northeast Greenland National Park is an unbelievable Arctic wonderland and the largest protected area in the world. The park, which sees more animals than people, is made up of a unique collection of flora, fauna, and wildlife. The scenery, which includes valleys, towering mountains, and icebergs, is just as impressive. The entrance can be found in the remote coastal village of Ittoqqortoormiit, making getting here all the more challenging. To stay in the park and traverse some of the more remote areas, you’ll need to obtain a permit from the Ministry of Nature & Environment.