Greenland is a place unlike anywhere else. The world’s largest island is bigger than Alaska. Yet 80% of it is covered in an ice sheet and uninhabitable. Only 56,583 people live here, giving it a population density of 0.1/sq mi. Towering mountains rise straight out of the sea among uncountable rocky islands. Some of the deepest fjords in the world stretch inland. And the purest water on Earth flows straight out of the glaciers. Icebergs are a constant presence on the coast. Stretching from a latitude of 60° all the way up to 83°, Greenland lies completely within the auroral oval. Virtually anywhere is a great place to see the celestial phenomenon. Compared with its neighbor Iceland, clear skies are much easier to come by. Well off the beaten path, Greenland should be on every adventure traveler’s list. As a territory of Denmark, Greenland uses the Danish Krone and speaks Danish in addition to Greenlandic.
When to Visit
As with anywhere else in the far north, you will want to avoid the summer if your goal is to see the northern lights. Aurora season is slightly longer in the south. Darkness returns at the end of August. Nights get too bright starting at the end of April. Farther north the midnight sun has even more of an impact. Nights will be too bright between the end of March and mid-September.
Fall – Despite the lack of trees, Greenland does have fall colors on the tundra, especially in September. Snow is possible, but it generally doesn’t stick around until mid-October. Nights are cool but not nearly as cold as the rest of the dark season. This is the best choice if you want to be able to hike or go on boat tours.
Winter – While the sun does not rise above the Arctic Circle, southern Greenland receives up to 4 hours of sunlight on the solstice. Longer nights mean more opportunities to see the aurora. But the tradeoff is cloudier skies and snowstorms may keep you inside. The lack of daylight during the darkest part of the year may limit what you can do.
Spring – Early spring is great for experiencing a winter wonderland both day and night. Skiing, snowmobiling, and dogsledding are popular activities.
As of 2024 Greenland is not the easiest place to get to. But this will soon change. Several of Greenland’s airports are being expanded which will allow for more flights directly from North America. Currently there are only 2 ways to fly to Greenland.
The first way is to fly from Reykjavik, Iceland. This way makes sense if you are able to snag a cheap flight to Iceland. Or you may want to visit both countries in one trip. Both Air Greenland and IcelandAir fly these routes. But the plane flown is a small Bombardier Dash-8. This means that even though it is a shorter flight, it is still quite expensive. It rarely costs less than $700. But if you want to visit East Greenland, then flying from Iceland is the best option. Flying from Reykjavik to Kulusuk costs around $600.
The 2nd way is to fly from Copenhagen. This flight is on a much larger plane, an Airbus A330. The only runway long enough to accommodate that jet is in the small town of Kangerlussuaq. From there you transfer to whatever town you’re visiting on a smaller plane. Layovers in Kangerlussuaq are sometimes overnight. For me this was a plus because I wanted to visit this area anyway. Air Greenland routes from Copenhagen sometimes go on sale for as little as $500. The tricky part is finding a good deal on a flight to Copenhagen at the same time. But it is possible. When you are booking 2 different itineraries with 2 different airlines, it’s a good idea to allow extra time in between. Weather in Greenland sometimes delays flights.
Cruising to Greenland is also an option. If you do, be sure to book a trip at the tail end of sailing season in September.
Getting Around Greenland
Virtually none of the towns in Greenland are connected by road. As a result transportation within the country is unfortunately very expensive. Domestic flights sometimes cost as much as international. If you want to visit more than one town without spending a fortune, there are a couple options. The first is to book a route with a built-in layover. This adds no additional cost and it’s how I was able to visit Kangerlussuaq for a couple of nights. Another option is to take the ferry. The Arctic Umiaq Line runs up and down the west coast. This of course takes much longer than a plane, but that’s part of the experience. In some cases it may be cheaper than a flight, and many of the smaller villages can only be accessed by boat. It’s easy to get around most towns by walking since the distances are short. Car rentals are only an option in Nuuk. All the larger towns also have bus systems and taxis.
For some, booking a tour package may be the best option. This avoids the hassle of having to plan everything yourself. Tour packages include a variety of activities like kayaking, glacier-walks, and visiting some of the more remote settlements. Options exist that leave from Copenhagen or Reykjavik, including flights. TourRadar shows at least 9 highly-rated tour packages in Greenland.
Regions of Greenland
Choosing where to visit in Greenland is difficult, but you can’t go wrong with any town.
East Greenland is the most remote part of the country. It is best accessed from Reykjavik, Iceland. The main airport is in Kulusuk, which has a population of 241. But a short helicopter ride or boat transfer will take you to the larger town of Tasiilaq. Further north is Ittoqqortoormiit, which is on many lists of the most remote settlements on Earth. It can be accessed via a flight from Akureyri, Iceland. The region is known for clear skies, but also very strong winds which descend from the ice cap. The area is a base camp for many adventures including treks across the ice cap. There are not very many lodging options so you will want to book well in advance. Though Tasiilaq does have a less expensive hostel and even a campground.
Compared to the rest of the country, the climate in South Greenland is a lot milder. Temperatures are not as cold in the winter and permafrost is absent. It is the part of Greenland most likely to live up to its name. Some areas even have trees. The main town in the area is Qaqortoq, with a population of 3,050. The only airport is in the small village of Narsarsuaq. Transfers via boat or helicopter are required to reach every other town and settlement. A closer airport is currently being built. Because of its southerly location, aurora sightings are slightly less frequent here. The geomagnetic latitude is equal to that of Iceland.
Hundreds of miles north of the Arctic Circle, the hub of northern Greenland and the 3rd largest city is Ilulissat. It is the most popular tourist destination in the country. At the legendary Ilulissat Ice Fjord, more icebergs are calved from this glacier than any other in the world outside Antarctica. The area is one of the driest parts of Greenland, which means clear skies are abundant for seeing the aurora. There are plenty of tour guides that will take you out on to Disko Bay. There are also many hotels to choose from, but they tend to be pricey. Other towns in the area worth visiting are Qeqertarsuaq on Disko Island, Uummannaq, and Upernavik. At a latitude of 77°, Qaanaaq is one of the northernmost towns on the planet.
Western Greenland is where you will find the capital and largest city, Nuuk. I traveled there in October of 2022. With a population close to 20,000 people, there are plenty of lodging options to choose from. My favorite was Inuk Hostels, located right on the coast with an incredible view of the fjord. Nuuk has some great hiking trails including a couple mountains to climb. A bus system takes you most places you want to go, along with plenty of taxis. Nuuk is currently in a time of growth and transition. Many Greenlanders are choosing to move to the capital from smaller settlements. Dozens of cranes throughout the city are building new high rises. Round-the-clock construction to expand the airport is expected to finish at the end of 2024. Nuuk will replace Kangerlussuaq as the transportation hub of Greenland. Beside the Labrador Sea, Nuuk does tend to have more clouds than elsewhere. But I was still able to see the aurora 3 out of the 6 nights I was there. The one thing I was disappointed with was the amount of light pollution. Part of this was from the constant construction, which may calm down eventually. The best way to get away from it is to head to the coast. Hiking up some of the trails such as Cirkus Lake or Ukkusissat will also take you to darker skies for aurora viewing. But I would recommend exploring during the day first so you don’t become lost at night. Be sure to book a boat tour through the beautiful Nuuk Fjord. Some tours will even take you out at night.
If you are new to chasing the northern lights, or want a local to show you around, then booking a tour for at least one night is a good idea.
Kangerlussuaq – As mentioned above, there is a good chance you will have a layover here, and it is definitely a place worth staying and exploring. Located on the Arctic Circle, Kangerlussuaq is Greenland’s only inland town, though it is still connected to the sea. If you want to walk on the ice cap or see muskox, this is the place. Tour operators will drive you on the longest road in Greenland. Several lodging options exist including low-cost hostels. But the future of this town is very uncertain as the airport may close once most flights change to Nuuk’s expanded airport. So it’s best to visit soon.
Other towns in the area worth visiting are Sisimuit (Greenland’s 2nd largest) and Maniitsoq. Both Sisiumuit and Nuuk have small ski hills if you visit during the snowy season.