If you’re hankering for a destination that’s off most travelers’ radar, look no farther than Greenland. Though it’s the world’s largest island, it sees fewer than 100,000 visitors each year — which means you’ll often feel like you’ve got the country’s remarkable landscapes all to yourself.
Come in the summer, and you can sail among hulking icebergs under the midnight sun. Come in the winter, and you can speed across the snow behind a pack of energetic Greenland dogs. No matter which time of year you visit, you’ll discover quiet, colorfully painted villages, dramatic rocky fjords, and friendly locals willing to invite you into their homes for coffee and cake.
Check out our slideshow for a list of eight one-of-a-kind experiences to have in Greenland.
Camp on the Ice Cap
About 80 percent of Greenland is covered by a thick sheet of ice year-round. Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen was the first to successfully cross it back in 1888, leading a small team of men pulling lightweight sleds and camping each night on the ice.
You can get a brief taste of Nansen’s journey with World of Greenland – Arctic Circle, which offers the chance for travelers to camp for a night directly on the ice cap in a tent with a warm sleeping bag. (A toilet tent nearby offers basic facilities.) During the day, you’ll hike along the ice to see glacial rivers, lakes and waterfalls. If you’re not up for camping overnight, day trips from Kangerlussuaq are also available.
Meet Locals at a Kaffemik
In Greenland, where most homes are small, locals tend not to throw big parties for birthdays and other special occasions. Instead, they host a kaffemik, a more intimate gathering in which friends and family come for short visits over coffee, tea and (typically homemade) pastries. If more guests show up than seats are available, etiquette requires that those who’ve been there longest take their leave. (It’s also polite to remove one’s shoes before entering the home.)
For travelers, taking part in a kaffemik is one of the best possible ways to meet locals and see inside their homes. (Note that many Greenlanders don’t speak much English, so communication can involve a fair share of smiling, nodding and hand signaling.) IceCap Tours in Ilulissat and Tupilak Travel in Nuuk are among the tour operators that arrange kaffemik experiences, and cruise lines visiting Greenland often offer them among their shore excursions.
Cruise Under the Midnight Sun
If your vision of Greenland involves ice and lots of it, look no farther than the town of Ilulissat. The name means “iceberg” in Greenlandic, and it’s apt for a community located at the mouth of a fjord fed with ice from the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier, one of the world’s most active.
The most dramatic way to experience Ilulissat’s ice is to take a boat ride into the fjord, where you’ll cruise amid icebergs of all sizes and shapes, some more than 300 feet high. World of Greenland offers trips throughout the day, but our favorite is the evening sailing during the late spring and early summer, when the soft light of the midnight sun casts a glow across the ice.
Learn About Greenlandic Arts
Just across the street from the Greenland National Museum in Nuuk is Kittat, where half a dozen skilled women wash, tan and hand-stitch sealskin for the legs and boots of the national costume. Because the process is so time-intensive, the workshop can only produce a few costumes per year. Visitors are welcome to watch and ask questions during Kittat’s weekday opening hours.
At the art workshop in Sisimiut, located near the harbor, you can watch artists carving jewelry, threading beads and creating other traditional handicrafts in a shared studio. (Of course, you’re welcome to make a few purchases too.) Cruise ships that stop in Qaqortoq typically offer excursions to the Great Greenland Tannery, where seal and polar bear furs are prepared for use in designer clothing.
Ride in a Dog Sled
For thousands of years, the Inuit people of Greenland have traversed the country’s harsh frozen landscape behind teams of sled dogs. Above the Arctic Circle, only one breed exists here: Greenland dogs, powerful animals with thick fur and incredible stamina. In the summertime, you’ll see them chained up on the outskirts of many towns (except for the puppies, who are permitted to run free until they’re about six months old). Once the weather turns frigid and the ice thickens, the dogs are put to work.
Visit in the winter, and you can take a ride behind a dog sled for anywhere from a few hours to a few days. Nanu Travel in Ittoqqortoormiit offers a three-hour run to Kap Tobin, including a stop at a hot spring and a chance to spot polar bears and seals. Six-hour and custom multi-day dog sledding excursions are also available.
In Ilulissat, World of Greenland leads a five-hour trip to the Nalluarsuk fjord, where you can get a view of a glacier and take an exhilarating ride among icebergs. For a more intensive experience, book the four-day Ice Cold Fishing experience, which includes not only dog sledding but also the chance to go fishing and hunting for seals with local fishermen.
Follow in the Footsteps of the Vikings
Ever wondered why an island covered with ice was given the name Greenland? Blame Erik the Red. This Viking outlaw, who came to southwestern Greenland in the 10th century after being exiled from Iceland, coined the name as a marketing device of sorts when he was trying to drum up new settlers for his new community.
He wasn’t entirely wrong. Today you can visit the ruins of his settlement, Brattahlid, in the modern-day town of Qassiarsuk, which is surrounded by green, fertile farmland. Here you can step inside re-creations of Erik’s longhouse and his wife Tjodhilde’s church, and see the stone ruins of farm buildings from the old settlement. Greenland’s best-preserved Norse ruin is Hvalsey Church, near Qaqortoq. Blue Ice Explorer offers day trips to both sites, while Greenland-Travel.com runs a two-week “grand Greenland tour” that includes time at both sites.
Visit the World’s Largest National Park
Covering more than 375,000 square miles, Northeast Greenland National Park is not only the biggest national park on the planet, but it’s also the most remote. Its only year-round inhabitants are animals: polar bears, walruses, reindeer, musk oxen and Arctic foxes, to name a few. Visitors can look for these and other creatures, go hiking on the Arctic tundra, and marvel at the magnificent fjords and glaciers along the coast.
The park is not easily accessible; the nearest community is the small settlement of Ittoqqortoormiit (population: 450), which can be reached by air from Reykjavik, Iceland. Nanu Travel in Ittoqqortoormiit can help arrange customized tours and expeditions in the national park based on your interests. Another option is to come by cruise ship; Hurtigruten, Quark Expeditions and Oceanwide Expeditions are among the lines that offer itineraries to the national park, starting either in Reykjavik or in Spitsbergen, Norway. Keep in mind that ice conditions might limit the number of landings a ship is able to make.
Paddle Along Greenland’s Waterways
Did you know that the word “kayak” is derived from an Inuit word? These narrow boats, originally made of driftwood covered with sealskin, were once used by the Inuits for fishing, whaling and seal hunting. While wooden kayaks have mostly given way to more modern fiberglass ones, traditional techniques are kept alive at kayak competitions across Greenland.
For visitors, kayaking can be a relaxing and memorable way to explore the country’s scenic coastline. Greenland Outdoors in Kangerlussuaq offers a three-night camping, hiking and kayaking adventure to look for musk oxen. Dines Tours leads day trips along eastern Greenland’s serene Tasiilaq Fjord; kayaking experience is not required, but you should have a reasonable level of fitness.
Best Time to Go to Greenland
Most travelers visit Greenland during the summer months, when the weather is pleasant and the midnight sun allows for long days of hiking, kayaking or cruising through icy fjords. In fact, many flights into the country only operate during the summer. But if you can stand the cold, you may wish to travel in the winter to see the northern lights or go on a dog sledding excursion. No matter what time of year you go, ice and weather conditions may affect your itinerary.
Greenland on a Budget
Greenland isn’t a particularly budget-friendly destination; rates are high even at bare-bones hotels, and getting from one remote settlement to another can cost you a pretty penny for ferries or flights. The most affordable option might be to try to find a package deal from Iceland that includes air, accommodations and sightseeing. If you want to plan your trip independently, minimize the hopping from one place to the next, look for hostels and save money on food by shopping at grocery stores.