Many destinations promise wilderness seclusion and the excitement of the undiscovered, but only a few deliver. Greenland is one of those places.
Officially a territory of Denmark, this independent-spirited island is the world’s largest, and one with an ice sheet covering 80% of its surface. Greenland has the world’s lowest population density, though six distinct Inuit peoples have called it home over the last 5,000 years. To visit Greenland is to get to know a corner of the world to which few venture – but the rewards are great.
Greenland’s people and culture
With fewer than 60,000 full-time residents, 88% of whom are of Greenlandic Inuit heritage, visitors will find plenty of ways to learn about the culture. In the northwest, known as the Thule region, you can find the northernmost year-round inhabited destinations on Earth. Traditional hunting is common here, focused on seal, walrus, narwhal and caribou. Practiced carefully, this is a sustainable way to support these Arctic communities.
If you venture into Greenland’s smaller towns and villages, it’s possible that only Greenlandic (derived from the Eskimo language family) may be spoken – therefore, learning a few words such as hello (‘Aluu’), thank you (‘Qujanaq’) and that’s good (‘Nuanni’) is a good idea.
Colourful houses and icebergs – a typical Greenlandic scene, where every settlement is located on the sea
Greenland’s cities make good bases for exploration. Nuuk is Greenland’s capital, with nearly 17,000 residents. It’s also the world’s most northern capital, located at 64°10' N, and home to the country’s only university, the University of Greenland. Ilulissat, with a population of approximately 4,500, is on the shore of the UNESCO-protected Ilulissat Icefjord, where Greenland’s tourism industry is mainly based. It is a great starting point for iceberg-viewing excursions and hiking, as well as taking in some culture at Inuit craft galleries and local restaurants.
Nature holidays in the Greenlandic wilderness
The Greenland Ice Sheet is the dominant natural landmark, and in some places it is three kilometres thick. It serves not only as one of the Arctic’s key ice formations, but ice cores also serve as a priceless record of the ecology and climate of the region. Visiting the Ice Sheet is easier nowadays than ever – at the international airport Kangerlussuaq there is a road leading to the Ice Sheet, and tours that take you up onto the vast white expanse of ice. Helicopter tours will give you an aerial view of the mesmerising cracks and fissures that form as this huge body of ice moves slowly. Expedition boats can bring you right up to glaciers tumbling into the sea from the inland ice sheet.
Icebergs can be seen from almost every town in Greenland. From land and by boat trips, you’ll be able to discern the often subtle – and sometimes dramatic – colour variations in the ice. The low angle of the midnight sun in summer, the bright moonlight or wavering northern lights in winter, paint the icebergs to all shades of the rainbow. It’s unlike anything you will have seen.
Witness the multicoloured ice formations in Greenland's iconic Ice Sheet
A few minutes out of any town in Greenland you will find yourself right in the middle of magnificent natural landscapes. When venturing into the wilderness, always seek local information, or travel with an experienced guide, as the weather is not forgiving of inexperienced hikers.
In southern Greenland, visitors can enjoy splashing around in their swimsuits, enjoying the balmy local waters. No, we aren’t recommending you go to the beach – rather, the hot springs of Uunartoq make for an almost surreal treat in the middle of your Greenland holiday.
The National Park in Greenland is a dream for any traveller. The largest national park in the world is uninhabited and only accessible by expedition cruise. Make the trip, however, and you’re likely to be rewarded with sightings of walruses and polar bears.
Getting around Greenland
Travel throughout Greenland is fundamentally different from that in many other destinations. There is no railway, no roads between towns, and no waterways except for coastal routes. That means that the best ways to travel will often be by air, perhaps even by helicopter, as well as by expedition cruise. While cruises will allow you to get close to wildlife, the perspective from the air can help illuminate the vastness of the landscape.
Flights to Greenland are usually operated by Air Greenland, arriving into more than 30 local airports and with daily departures from Copenhagen in the summer. Greenland holidays from the UK can go via Reykjavik, landing in the cities of Nuuk or Ilulissat, which are both excellent places to begin a trip.