9 Things That Surprised Me About Traveling to Greenland

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When you hear “Greenland,” what immediately comes to mind? For me, it used to be a remote, ice-covered place that seemed slightly mysterious and even a little intimidating. Before starting to plan a trip to Greenland of my own, I assumed that it was the sort of country that was only really enjoyed by the most intrepid of travelers.

But, as I've learned recently, Greenland isn't “just” for travelers who love hiking off-grid and roughing it in the wilderness. On the contrary: most of Greenland's towns are well equipped to handle tourists, and there's a lot to do and see for many different types of travelers.

Icebergs near Eqi Glacier

In August, my dad and I traveled to Ilulissat, the third-largest town in Greenland with a population of just under 5,000. The town sits on Disko Bay, near the UNESCO-recognized Ilulissat Icefjord on the western side of Greenland, above the Arctic Circle.

I hadn't really heard of Ilulissat before, but it was the easiest Arctic city to get a flight to from Iceland, and was equipped with several hotels and quite a few tour companies. In short, it was the perfect place to be introduced to traveling in Greenland.

RELATED: Greenland Travel Guide: How to Plan a Trip to Ilulissat

View of Ilulissat from Hotel Arctic
Ilulissat Icefjord

While I can't say I've really “seen” Greenland after just 5 days in one very small part of it, I still managed to learn a lot about the country while I was there.

Here are some fun facts and observations about Greenland, some of which might surprise you just as much as they surprised me!

Fun facts you might not know about Greenland

1. What's in a name

The name “Greenland” is one people are always curious about. Why, if it's all covered in ice, is it called “Greenland?” The answer is that it was given its current name by Erik the Red, an Icelandic convict who was exiled to Greenland and hoped that if it had a “nice” name, more settlers might come there.

Interestingly enough, science has proven that the climate in Greenland was much warmer thousands of years ago, and that much of the country (especially in the south) actually WOULD have been quite green.

The Inuit name for the country, however, is Kalaallit Nunaat, which is translated to “Land of the People.”

Settlement of Oqaatsut, Greenland
In the summer, there IS green here.

2. Greenland is HUGE

Looking at Greenland on a world map gives you an idea of just how big it is. It's the world's largest island that isn't a continent, covering 836,330 square miles.

But you really can't fully comprehend the size of Greenland until you're flying across the vast country and traveling around it by boat, where it can take hours to traverse a very short distance. Greenland is IMMENSE, and you really don't grasp its true size until you're there, feeling very small next to its mountains and glaciers.

Boat at Eqi Glacier in Greenland
The mighty Eqi Glacier – and we were still about a mile away!

3. So much ice

Speaking of Greenland's size… nearly 80% of the country is covered by a giant ice cap, with ice reaching up to more than 9000 feet in some places. The ice-free area (mostly around Greenland's south, east, and west coasts) is only about the size of Sweden.

You get a feel for just how icy this place is by staying in a coastal town like Ilulissat. Ilulissat sits at the mouth of the Ilulissat Icefjord, which stretches from the Greenland ice sheet roughly 25 miles to Disko Bay. The Sermeq Kujalleq glacier at the top of the fjord is an extremely active glacier, producing more ice than any other glacier outside of Antarctica.

No wonder this spot was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.

Ilulissat Icefjord from above
The Icefjord from above
Icebergs on the Ilulissat Icefjord in Greenland
And there are BIG icebergs here!

4. It wasn't settled by Vikings

Even though the Vikings spread all across Europe, and even though some of them DID eventually settle in southern Greenland, it was actually the Inuit people that first settled the land.

Between 4000 and 5000 years ago, people from Inuit cultures in Canada made their way over to Greenland, settling in what would eventually be called the Thule Region in the far northwest of the country. Various groups of Inuits made their way over to Greenland over the centuries, and most of the current population (more than 80%) are Inuit, or mixed Danish-Inuit.

Traditional Greenland costume
Greenlandic traditional outfit

5. Complicated relationship with Denmark

Greenland was a Danish colony all the way up until 1953. After that, it became less of a colony and eventually worked its way towards “home rule” in 1979, and is now fully self-governed. Greenland still has a very complicated relationship with Denmark, though.

I'm no political science expert, but the story of Greenland's native people is much the same as the story of the native people in my own country. The Danish came in, took over, and enforced a lot of change on the Inuit communities, just like the US did to our Native American groups.

The Danes forced many to move out of traditional huts and settlements and into more “normal” apartment blocks in established towns. They shipped children off to Denmark to educate them as “real Danes.” They enforced a Christian religion. And in many ways the Danish have been the ones to pioneer the tourism industry in Greenland, whether the locals like it or not.

Apartments in Ilulissat, Greenland
Apartment blocks in Ilulissat

There's talk of Greenland becoming fully independent, but it's not going to be an easy or quick road. Greenland still depends on Denmark for more than half of its annual budget, and still uses the Danish krone as its currency.

6. It's more developed than you think

It's nowhere near as popular to travel to Greenland as it is to travel to nearby Iceland, but that doesn't mean that Greenland has no tourism industry. In fact, the larger cities in Greenland are well-equipped to handle tourists, with nice hotels, restaurants, and plenty of tour companies available.

A lot of people assume that going to Greenland means you're going to have to go off-grid for a while, but that's only true if you travel to the more remote towns and settlements. In Ilulissat, for example, wifi and cell signal are easily found – my international T-Mobile plan even worked there!

Hotel Arctic in Ilulissat, Greenland
The view from Hotel Arctic in Ilulissat

7. Very few roads

Having said that, though, Greenland is mostly a maritime nation. There are only about 150 kilometers of roads in the entire country, and none of the towns are connected by them. To get around, you have to either go by foot, boat, or plane.

8. You CAN travel here independently

Because Greenland is so remote and its towns are rather disconnected from one another, most people assume that it's a difficult place to travel. This may have been true a few decades ago, but it's actually pretty easy to travel to the major towns in Greenland today.

Regular flights go to places like Nuuk, Kulusuk, Ilulissat, and Kangerlussuaq from Iceland and Denmark, and you can easily book boat trips and day tours to see all the main sights.

Sunset on the Ilulissat Icefjord
Midnight Sun and sunset cruises are really popular

My dad and I spent 4 nights in Ilulissat at the only 4-star hotel in the Arctic, gorging on fresh seafood and being very well taken care of by a local tour company called Arctic Adventure. We took boat trips out to see icebergs and glaciers, went on a flightseeing tour, took a short hike, and explored the town of Ilulissat on foot.

You do NOT have to go on an organized tour to Greenland unless you're wanting to go *really* off-the-beaten path. You can absolutely book flights, hotels, and some tours on your own and still have a really good time.

Amanda and Dad hiking in Ilulissat
Me and my dad going on an easy hike near Ilulissat

9. No dogs as pets

This is a very random fact, but one that I found fascinating and wanted to share. In Greenland, dog sledges are still used for hunting and as a winter form of transport up above the Arctic Circle. Greenlanders have raised and used Greenlandic dogs as working animals for centuries, and the relationship continues much as it has throughout history.

Above the Arctic Circle, no other breeds of dogs are allowed – with the exception of a couple breeds that are used exclusively by police. The locals don't want to dilute the purebred Greenlandic dog line (which is actually much closer to wolf than most other domestic dog breeds).

Because of this, it means no one in the top half of Greenland keeps dogs as pets.

Sled dog at sunset in Ilulissat
Definitely looks more wolf-ish than your average dog!
Sled dog puppy in Ilulissat
The puppies are SO cute though.

This also means that Greenlandic dogs aren't treated as pets. They are working animals and live outside year-round. The adults are not allowed to roam free because of their unpredictable wolf genes.

This can be a tough thing for non-northerners to grasp, just like it's hard for us to fathom a culture that still relies on things like hunting seals and whales for their livelihood and survival.

Sledges in Ilulissat
Dog sledges in Greenland

So there you have it: the main things I learned and observed on my first trip to Greenland.

In short, Greenland is more fascinating and beautiful than I ever thought it would be. And while it's still much more “wild” and remote than some of the more popular destinations I've traveled to, Greenland is still quite tourist-friendly and easier to travel to than you probably think.

If you've ever considered planning a trip to Greenland, now is the time to do it!

Who's ready to travel to Greenland now?

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Fun facts about Greenland

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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29 Comments on “9 Things That Surprised Me About Traveling to Greenland

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  1. Hii,
    I am thinking about going to Greenland this summer and I have a few questions
    1) What is the most beautiful place you have seen in Greenland?
    2) I am mainly interested in sightseeing tours, especially tours that visit ice glaciers and landscapes as well as whale spotting . You said you booked them there instead of booking them online, how much did they cost per tour?

    Beautiful read, very informative. I actually want to go to Greenland all the way from South Africa. I know it’s gonna be a lot of flying but I’m very determined.

      It’s about as far away from South Africa as you could go, but I think it’s definitely worth it! Maybe pair it up with a visit to Iceland if you’re able to afford both destinations in one trip.

    Sounds beautiful, is there flights from the uk

      I don’t believe there are any direct flights from the UK. Direct flights are usually from Iceland and Denmark!

    Thanks for share your experience! I would like to know if it’s possible how much do you spend for two people for four days being there (no flights include) thanks again!

    I see you still have not been to India.. if you anytime come or plan to visit India please feel free to get in touch. Your blog on Greenland inspired me to get it on my bucket list.

    Good article. Very informative.

    Hey Amanda,
    Very interesting 🙂
    Any chance you read something about their flag?
    Other Scandinavian countries have the northern cross, while Greenland I start the only one that doesn’t!
    Just curious what’s behind it…

      You’re right that it’s curious their flag doesn’t have a northern cross on it! You can Google the Greenland flag and read the whole story, but basically it was designed by a Greenlander, and was the only flag design that DIDN’T have the cross on it. It barely won to be selected as the flag.

    Great photos! It looks like a wonderful destination and I’d like to visit but I’m concerned about mosquitoes! Could you tell us what days in August you went? Were there mosquitoes?

      We went in mid-August in 2018 pretty far north (Ilulissat) and I only noticed bugs (I’m not 10% sure if they were mosquitos, though!) in one little fishing village we visited. I think they are more of a problem further south!

    Who’s ready to travel to Greenland now?
    Me! Me!
    Seriously though ‘lovely photography Amanda.
    I knew about the natives of Greenland, but how interesting about dog breeding. Or not. As the case may be!

      Greenland was amazing, both for photography and just for experiencing somewhere entirely new!

    It looks like you have enjoyed quite a great amounts of time there in Greenland. Have to say your blog looks terrific.

      Thanks very much! I was only in Greenland for about 5 days, but I definitely saw and learned a lot!

    I would love to visit Greenland someday. Those dogs look adorable (although I would be sad not to be able to have a pet dog if I lived there!).

      If you want a pet dog in Greenland, you just need to live south of the Arctic Circle! 🙂

    Fun! I didn’t know it was a country worth exploring by yourself, it’s good to know that it can be visited indepedently as well. I’m definitely considering this for a future trip!

      Yes! I really had no idea either, but it’s totally possible to plan a trip independently, especially when visiting the larger towns.

    Maybe it’s the Canadian in me, but I have always dreamed of exploring Greenland. I love the Arctic climate.
    Those pups are adorable and beautiful, and I love the traditional outfit you photographed.

      If you love the Arctic climate, you’d definitely love Greenland! I’m definitely drawn to places like this, too – cold weather has never scared me away!

        We are leaving on 3 weeks for 4 days in
        Ilulissat. I’ve been reading various posts and haven’t seen anything about paying for things. Are ctedi cards widely accepted or do you recommend cash? Where do exchange currency? Kevlar or in Greenland?

          We used credit cards for most things (but also we paid for most of our excursions through our hotel, and they had no problem accepting cards). We did also take some cash out (I used an ATM; my dad exchanged money at the hotel in Greenland) for shopping in town. If you decide to exchange money before you leave in Iceland, just be sure you exchange for Danish krone and not Icelandic!

    Your pictures are absolutely stunning! I never thought about adding Greenland to my must travel list, but now I’m considering adding it to the itinerary! I’d love a chance to immerse myself in all that Arctic beauty {or at least maybe it feels that way looking at all that ice during the heat wave we’re having in D.C. right now!!}

      It was amazing – I already want to go back and would highly recommend visiting! It wasn’t super warm even in the summer, but I’ll gladly take the cold for landscapes like this!

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