When I told people I was traveling to Greenland, I got one of two reactions.
In the first reaction, their eyes would light up and they'd say something like “Oooo I've always wanted to go there!” In the second reaction, they'd scrunch up their face in mild confusion and say something along the lines of “I didn't realize you could travel there.”
I got the second reaction far more than the first.
Even though tourism to the country is growing, Greenland certainly isn't what I would call an “it” destination. People have heard of it and generally know where it is, but not many people have traveled there or, in some cases, even *thought* about traveling there.
So naturally I was inundated with questions when I got back from spending a few days in Greenland. What was the weather like? Did I go on a tour? What did I eat? How much did it cost?
I realized that there's a great dearth of information out there about actually traveling to Greenland. Sure, you can find all sorts of amazing iceberg photos, but those won't exactly help you plan a trip of your own.
So this post was for you, curious traveler. It covers everything I learned about how to plan a trip to Greenland.
Traveling to Ilulissat, Greenland
My dad and I traveled to Greenland in August 2018. After doing some research and having some plans not pan out because of flight availability, I eventually settled on us traveling to Ilulissat for 5 days.
Ilulissat is Greenland's third-largest city with a population of just 5,000 people. It's located above the Arctic Circle on Greenland's west coast, on the edge of Disko Bay near the UNESCO-recognized Ilulissat Icefjord.
I'll admit that I didn't know a whole lot about Ilulissat before we went just that there were lots of icebergs there but it turned out to be an excellent choice in terms of a first trip to Greenland.
Some reasons that make Ilulissat perfect for a first trip to Greenland include:
- The town is large enough to have hotels, tour operators, and wifi/cell signal, but small enough to still feel authentically “Greenlandic.”
- There are direct flights on 2 different airlines from Iceland.
- Ilulissat is close to some epic nature, including Big Ice and glaciers.
- It's above the Arctic Circle (Greenland's other large cities are not), meaning you also get a unique taste of life in Greenland's polar region.
I can't speak to what it's like to visit other cities in Greenland like Nuuk or Kangerlussuaq or Sisimiut or Kulusuk, but I can definitely recommend Ilulissat for an excellent introduction to Greenland.
Do you have to take a tour to Greenland?
The question I got the most frequently about my trip to Greenland centered around whether you had to take a tour/go on a cruise, or whether you could travel there independently. While I'm sure it differs depending on where you want to go, my experience traveling to Ilulissat was that you absolutely do NOT need to go on a tour.
You can absolutely travel independently to Ilulissat without much trouble.
Ilulissat already has a healthy tourism industry going, with a few hotels and several tour companies competing and offering excellent service. Ilulissat is a popular cruise port for Arctic cruises during the summer months, but I definitely recommend going and staying for at least a few days.
Planning a trip to Ilulissat, Greenland
If you're thinking of planning a trip to Ilulissat, here are my tips for how to go about planning it on your own.
1. Choose your dates
High season for travel in Greenland is July and August. These are some of the longest months of the year in the Northern Heimsphere, and generally have some of the best weather (though it will still be cold!). You CAN go to Greenland in the winter, though your flight options will be far fewer.
Get a rough idea of when you want to go first, as your dates will influence everything else about your trip.
For Ilulissat, I recommend at least 4 or 5 days.
2. Search for flights
There are two airlines that service the small airport in Ilulissat: Air Iceland Connect and Air Greenland. Both airlines offer near-daily flights to Ilulissat during the summer months, but far less outside of July and August so you MUST check on flight availability before you lock in your dates and book anything else.
The runway in Ilulissat can only accommodate small planes (the Bombardier Dash 8 is the preferred plane to fly in/out), meaning that flights DO often sell out during the busy months since each plane can only carry a couple dozen passengers (there were only about 30 people on my flight). So definitely book your flights first.
My dad and I flew direct to Ilulissat from Reykjavik on Air Iceland Connect. The flight leaves out of Reykjavik's city airport, and lasts just over 3 hours since you have to fly over all of Greenland to get to Ilulissat.
3. Book your hotel
Once you have your flight locked in, it's time to look for a hotel. There are a few different accommodation options in Ilulissat, with Hotel Arctic being the most well-known.
Hotel Arctic is the only 4-star hotel in the Arctic, and offers up fantastic views over Ilulissat town and the Ilulissat Icefjord. They also have two tour companies with booking desks inside the hotel lobby, free wifi, and offer a free shuttle to/from the airport, as well as a free shuttle into town.
My dad and I spent all 4 nights at Hotel Arctic, and also enjoyed a couple of their delicious buffet dinners (including their famous Greenlandic buffet, which had things like seal soup, musk ox, and dried whale on offer) at Restaurant Ulo.
I can personally recommend staying at Hotel Arctic, but if you want to check out the other options in the city, look at:
- Hotel Icefiord Located in downtown Ilulissat.
- Hotel Avannaa Slightly cheaper option up on the hill near Hotel Arctic.
3. Decide on your must-dos
In case you're like me and don't know much about Ilulissat, let me tell you that there are a LOT of things to do there. I'll cover all the things you can do in Ilulissat in-depth in another post, but here's a taste of what you can get up to in each season.
In the summer, popular things to do in Ilulissat include:
- Exploring the town (including its two museums)
- Hiking to the Ilulissat Icefjord via the ancient settlement of Sermermiut
- Sunset boat tours to see icebergs
- Whale watching
- Taking a day trip to see Eqi Glacier
- Visiting smaller settlements along the coast by boat
- Flightseeing tours over the Icefjord
- Meeting Greenlandic sled dogs
- And more check out more summer tours here.
In the winter, there's still plenty to do in Ilulissat, like:
- Dog sledding
- Snow shoeing hiking tours to the Icefjord
- Northern Lights tours
- And more check out more winter tours here.
I recommend making a list of all your must-dos to help you decide how many tours you might need to book. There are a few things you can do on your own in Ilulissat (like hiking and exploring the town/museums), while most other excursions will require a guide.
You can definitely book tours in advance, but note that almost all of them can be dependent on things like weather and availability of guides/hosts, so these tours can (and likely will) be changed/rescheduled.
My dad and I pre-booked a couple tours before we went to Greenland, but also booked additional things when we arrived in Ilulissat. (And everything we pre-booked had been rescheduled by the time we got there!)
If you're going to stay at Hotel Arctic, I recommend booking tours with Arctic Adventure; they're one of the better tour operators in Ilulissat, and we had a fantastic experience with all of their guides.
4. Pack appropriately
Greenland does have a summer season when wildflowers bloom and temperatures rise but they don't rise THAT much. You'll want to pack plenty of warm and waterproof layers, along with a good pair of hiking boots.
Some things that I took with me included:
- Thermal base layers (like this turtleneck and these soft bottoms)
- A down vest
- A down jacket with hood
- A waterproof raincoat (my Columbia Arcadia was perfect)
- Waterproof over-pants
- Waterproof hiking boots (I took my Lowa mid-height boots, and my Kodiak Surrey II boots)
- Hat, scarf, and gloves
- A daypack with rain cover (or a dry bag backpack would have worked, too)
We lucked out with only 1 rainy day while we were in Ilulissat, but you want to make sure to pack for anything!
How much does a trip to Greenland cost?
The second-most-asked question after the one about tours is about how much it costs to travel to Greenland. Well, here's the bad news guys: Greenland is an expensive destination, and there's not really any way around that fact.
Greenland is a remote, sparsely-populated nation that still has ties to Denmark. When you add the need to import pretty much everything to the fact that Greenland has been made quite “Scandinavian” thanks to Denmark, you get a pricey place to travel.
Here are some sample prices from my Greenland trip:
- Flights to Ilulissat: At least $1000 roundtrip from Reykjavik in the summer
- Staying at Hotel Arctic: $300+ per night in the summer
- Sunset iceberg cruise: $110 per person
- Day trip to Eqi Glacier (including lunch): $400 per person
- Meeting sled dogs: $45
- Greenlandic buffet at Restaurant Ulo: $67 per person
- Musk ox burger at Cafe Ferdinand (also at Hotel Arctic): $25
It's quite easy to spend upwards of $3000 per person for a 5-day trip in Greenland. (But, I think it's 100% worth it!)
A sample Ilulissat itinerary
To give you an idea of everything you can do with 4-5 days in Ilulissat, here's a sample itinerary for you:
- Morning: Fly to Greenland
- Afternoon: Explore Ilulissat
- Evening: Sunset iceberg cruise
- Morning: Hike out to Sermermiut
- Afternoon: Flightseeing tour over Ilulissat Icefjord
- Evening: Kayaking among icebergs
- All day: Day trip to Eqi Glacier
- Morning: Local home visit in Ilulissat
- Afternoon: Visit to nearby settlement by boat
- Morning: Visit with sled dogs
- Afternoon: Fly back to Iceland
Again, you need to allow some flexibility for bad weather and/or flight delays (and prepare for any tours you book to change), but you can absolutely fit all of this in to just 5 days in Ilulissat!
If you're interested in a similar itinerary but want to book everything together to make it easier, this 5-day Ilulissat tour package is almost exactly what my dad and I did.
Go to Greenland!
Many of the stories I've read about Greenland in the past have been written by people who have gone long-distance hiking there, or camped on the Ice Cap, or done far more adventurous things than what I would feel comfortable doing. So it was great to learn that there are other ways to experience Greenland and its landscapes, too.
I hope this post has answered a lot of your questions about traveling to Greenland, and about traveling to Ilulissat in particular. I absolutely fell in love with Greenland on this trip, and am already plotting where I might go next time!
Who's ready to go to Greenland now? Do you have any other questions about traveling there?
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