Greenland is the world’s largest island, and also among its least populated places. It’s closer to Canada than Europe and has a mixed history of indigenous people, Vikings, and Danish influence. It’s got a crazy amount of ice, more fjords than could possibly be navigated, colorful towns, and a culture not found anywhere else. While people continue to flock to Iceland for plenty of good reasons, we think it’s time to shift the focus to Greenland. Here’s proof it’s a worthy contender for your next northern adventure.
Don’t misunderstand: Iceland is an incredible place. Both trips would be an adventure. But Greenland has substantially less infrastructure so the tours you take will be much more like a scientific expedition to the ends of the earth. Iceland has a thriving capital city, hipsters, and roads. Greenland has a few roads, a few towns, and a whole lot of unchartered territory.
1,000 years ago, Icelandic murderer Erik the Red was exiled, so he sailed west. Eventually, he returned to Iceland (after his exile) and described the “Green land” he had found in hopes of sweet-talking people into returning with him. He convinced about 500 people to do just that. He failed to inform them about the winter conditions. Regardless, the misleading name stuck. Two to three million years ago, it probably was green, but since then, it is mostly ice, icebergs, and glaciers. So if it’s ice and snow you’re after, hands down Greenland trumps Iceland any day. (Fun fact: as the legend goes, Erik the Red’s father was a Norwegian murder who got sent to Iceland. Like father, like son, I suppose).
But it’s got some pretty excellent non-ice options, too.
For a small mid-Atlantic island, Iceland has a growing number of visitors every year. And that’s fantastic for the country’s income, and it’s well-deserved, of course. But what if you don’t want to share the landscapes? If you go to Greenland, you’ll have it practically to yourself. Not only are there fewer visitors here (but it is growing every year as word spreads) but there’s more space to spread out.
Iceland has 4x4s and off-road SUVs. Greenland barely has roads.
Nuuk (also called Godthaab) is a tiny capital city, it’s true. It doesn’t have all the cafes, vintage shops, and youthful appeal as downtown Reykjavikvik – yet. But it’s coming. In recent years, cafes are cropping up with modern appeal, like cool fonts and specialty espresso, along with traditional and fusion foods, and local designers, too. For being a very small capital, what it does have is unique and you can’t find it anywhere else: such as Qiviut, turning musk ox wool into some serious fashion, Restaurant Charoen Porn fusing Thai food with traditional fares like whale, halibut, and musk, or Godthaab Bryghus, the local brewery.
There’s a handful of places to see the sun that never sets – northern Norway and Russia, northern Canada, and Alaska to name a few. A true midnight sun doesn’t fully set – some of the disc of the sun is at least partially visible. The northernmost towns see the midnight sun arrive first and the 24-hour days last longest – from about late April to late August the sun never sets. If you’re right in the Arctic Circle it’s more like mid-June to late July. But even the southernmost towns (below the Arctic Circle) will see 20 hours of daylight. The sun technically sets but rises again mere hours later and the light is never fully faded from the sky (some refer to this as White Nights).
Be honest, you want to say you’ve been to Ittoqqortoormiit.
That is, if you know how to say it at all. But really, what a wonderful looking word. Ittoqqortoormiit is an isolated fishing town, so getting there is half the adventure (most people arriving by small cruise vessels). It’s one of the most isolated places in Greenland, which is saying a lot. There is a town of 450 people, complete with little hotels and tour companies to help you out because, aside from people, the place is rich in excursions: kayaking, whale watching, snowmobiling, camping, fishing, and hot springs. Oh – and dog sledding.
Greenlanders absolutely take advantage of the long summer days. These are also, of course, the warmest days, with daytime highs reaching a tolerable 10C. If you are an adventurer, you can be outside biking, hiking, sailing, fishing, camping, or sightseeing literally until you can no longer keep your eyes open.
You can cruise to the Arctic on the coastal ferry.
They know how to survive endless dark, endless sun, brutally cold weather, and desolate locations. And they’re actually pretty cheerful about the whole thing, not to mention pretty smart about adapting modern conveniences to work in the Arctic – like this cargo bike in Nanortalik. It can hold your kids, your camping gear, your bags, you name it. And off you go!
Aasiaat has more than 3000 people AND a town square. It’s essentially metropolitan. But when the sun is out and the days are long, and you feel that mild warmth, you just might forget about stretches of beaches and instead be thrilled with stretches of fjords. It has a few roads and is a great launching point for the rest of southern Greenland, though the town itself has plenty to do, including great year-round whale watching. If you want to go beyond just outdoor recreation, Honest Tours will also help you understand the culture and visit places respectfully (both of the culture, and of the environment). They offer walking tours of Aasiaat, song and dance workshops, and Greenlandic dinners in addition to the activities you’d expect (midnight sun, northern lights, glacier and iceberg tours, whales, kayaking, you name it).
Let’s be honest. Everyone’s doing Iceland right now. What was once an off-beat destination is now becoming a regular stop to or from Europe or an easy add-on. We have Iceland Air to thank for that (and we mean it). Greenland, who’s been there? Scientists? You’ll be barraged with questions: Does anyone live there? Was it an empty tundra? Did it take 75 hours and a submarine to get there? And you’ll answer them all with a smile on your face, guaranteed.