Arctic Adventure—and Polar Bears—Await in Greenland

Get good and chilly in the land of icebergs, fjords, and the northern lights.

By now you’re probably well aware of the scenic appeal of Iceland, a destination as majestic as it is rugged. The country’s decade-long tourism boom has benefited from playing up these attributes. Now neighboring Greenland is taking a page from that same playbook, and the strategy is working. The world’s biggest island is beginning to draw more visitors than ever before.

Sure, it’s not the easiest place to get to, but that’s kind of a feature rather than a flaw; those that brave the journey are rewarded with an incomparable breadth of beauty, minus Iceland’s crowds. In fact, everything a typical tourist to Iceland is hoping for can be found in grander form in Greenland. Wildlife lovers can spot humpbacks and narwhals in the seas and polar bears and musk ox on land. Is it icebergs and glaciers, you seek? This place is home to the world’s largest ice sheet outside of Antarctica. It covers roughly 80% of the landmass, an area around three times the size of Texas. And yes, you can see the Aurora Borealis there, too.

And no disrespect to Iceland, but it does sort of feel like everyone on your social media feed has already been there, done that, and collected the Instagram likes to prove it. Greenland is where the really rugged adventurers collect their clout. And besides, most visitors here end up arriving by way of Iceland. So why not collect the two-for-one special?

Here’s how to cross Greenland off your travel bucket list—and what to expect when you do.

Nuuk, Greenland
KimKimsenphot/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Best places for first-timers to visit in Greenland

Greenland is sort of the Midwest of the planet, in that everyone flies over it but few consider visiting. It’s more than 20 times the size of Iceland but has just one sixth of the population; despite being the world’s largest island, it’s home to only around 56,000 people. New York City, by comparison, concentrates its population—roughly 150 times greater—into an area just over 300 square miles.

Flying into the small airport at eastern Greenland’s Constable Point will drop you near the mouth of Kangertittivaq, or Scoresby Sund, the largest fjord in the world. Nearby is Ittoqqortoormiit, the northernmost community in East Greenland, and one of the most remote towns on the planet.

In comparison to eastern Greenland, western Greenland might as well be one giant metropolis. The country’s capital of Nuuk is located along its southwestern shores, boasting a population of nearly 18,000 year-round residents. Head there to enjoy (relatively) urban spoils like the Greenland National Museum and Nuuk Art Museum, take in public installations along the Nuuk Art Walk, shop for music, books, and handicrafts in local boutiques, dine in lauded restaurants and cafes, and even live it up at late-night clubs, pubs, and bars around the city.

In recent years there has also been a tourism uptick to Ilulissat, a western community of 5,000 people. Throughout the summer months, visitors flock here to see the icefjord, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site back in 2004. The local glacier system is the most productive in the Northern Hemisphere. It frequently calves off icebergs the size of small cities. In fact a total of 20 billion tons of the floating mega-chunks will flow through this area each year. In July of 2021, the community opened its doors to the Ilulissat Icefjord Centre, a modern, outsized structure from which to peer into the heart of the world’s second largest ice sheet.

Quark Expeditions ship
Quark Expeditions

Cruises and tours around Greenland

Not everyone is into the whole cruise scene. And that’s understandable; the traditional offerings can feel boring at best, and restrictive at worst. But a new era has opened up for adventure cruising, a sub-sector entirely devoted to getting you off the ship and onto some of the most far-flung destinations on earth. In fact, it’s the fastest growing category in the industry these days, and it’s the easiest way to explore this part of the world.

As for providers, you’ve got options, but there’s no going wrong with Adventure Canada, Hurtigruten Expeditions, or Quark Expeditions. Adventure Canada specializes in cultural immersion, employing local Inuit guides to help interpret the folkways and traditions of Indigenous peoples from this part of the world. Hurtigruten is unequivocally the best-equipped at getting you to the remote reaches of eastern Greenland, while providing ample excursions along the way (kayaking alongside icebergs, anyone?). And Quark offers small adventure cruises (maybe 100 people, including crew) that specialize in polar expeditions, both Arctic and Antarctic.

With Adventure Canada you actually start your journey in Kugluktuk, a small Inuit community in the Canadian Arctic. You progress eastward across the highest reaches of Nunavut for one week before crossing Baffin Bay on to the western shores of Greenland. The seven days of the voyage are spent surveying the coastline and making daily excursions to points of interest on land, including day trips to Ilulissat and Sisimiut, before disembarking at Kangerlussuaq. This 17-day adventure will set you back $13,995 per person, but you’ll want to budget a few hundred dollars more for add-ons like kayaking, drinking, and—of course—tipping.

Quark Expeditions Greenland tour
Quark Expeditions

A cruise on Hurtigruten, by comparison, is a slightly less rugged affair. Guests can savor chef-prepared Scandinavian cuisine from one of two restaurants on board. Rooms are well-appointed, with the higher end offerings including wood-trimmed balconies. There is a workout room, along with a sauna and two hot tubs on the top deck. The outfitter currently offers a total of three Greenland excursions. I recommend the Ultimate Fjord Expedition (starting at $8,637 per person), which embarks from Reykjavik every August and spends a total of 13 days at sea. The majority of that time is spent exploring Scoresby Sund. But if weather permits, the ship heads further north into Northeast Greenland National Park. At 375,3000 square miles, it is the world’s largest dedicated preserve, welcoming fewer visitors annually than the number of trekkers who summit Everest each year.

As for Quark Expeditions, packages vary—the popular Under the Northern Lights: Exploring Iceland & East Greenland, for example, runs $6,695 per person plus the aforementioned cost of add-ons. Quark’s expedition crew members are all knowledgeable in different areas—history, marine biology, glaciology, and photography—so the cruise feels very deliberate and you’re not just getting mindlessly steered around. An average cruise day would include breakfast followed by a morning activity like a hike, kayak expedition or Zodiac cruise, an up-close tour of icebergs and glaciers upon inflatable boats. After lunch, afternoon activities continue in the same vein. The itinerary is pretty flexible, contingent on weather and unexpected experiences like bear sightings.

polar bear in Greenland
Hurtigruten Expeditions

Nature and outdoor attractions in Greenland

Polar bears only evolved around 150,000 years ago, but are predicted to go extinct within the next couple of decades, a sad, tiny blip in this planet’s history. And sure you can see them in zoos, but seeing them in the wild is something else entirely. On any given day at sea with Hurtigruten, Quark, or Adventure Canada, you can see dozens of the alabaster bears: females with cubs making their way down to the water and disappearing into slow-moving wakes as they start to swim, or even lone males moving steadily across stark, high plateaus. Pro-tip: Polar bears are generally best viewed during the brief summer season.

One of the things the Arctic has over the Antarctic is that it’s an incredible wildlife destination, a region where you can see not just polar bears, but muskox, arctic foxes, arctic hares, seals,

whales, and maybe even narwhals. Narwhals aren’t likely, to be honest, as they’re an exceedingly rare sighting, but perhaps you’ll be one of the lucky ones. If you’re mostly interested in wildlife, Hurtigruten Expeditions offers focused packages that get you tracking down your favorite critters.

icebergs and northern lights in Greenland
posteriori/E+/Getty Images

If your bucket list includes seeing the eerie, magical northern lights, you’re in luck. The best time of year to see them in Greenland is around September and October, when the sky begins to darken as winter takes hold—and then again around March and April. Far from any major light pollution, visitors are treated to ridiculously dark skies on cloudy nights, but have a good chance of viewing awe-inspiring bands of color when the skies clear.

You might assume that the lights are essentially either active or inactive according to the strength and direction of solar winds and whether the day’s solar eruptions have been sufficiently… big or something. But FYI, this is not quite how it works. The lights are brighter right after increased sunspot activity, and at certain points in the solar cycle (which operates in years, not months, so don’t overthink that one too much). But they are “on,” so to speak, pretty much all the time. Whether or not the human eye can see them depends on location and how clear and dark it is at night. You can see the utility, then, of viewing the lights onboard a ship in a remote, unpopulated fjord.

Women wearing traditional Greenlandic Inuit clothing
Quark Expeditions

Cultural experiences in Greenland

The vast majority of Greenland’s population—around 88%—are Greenlandic Inuit. The community of Ittoqqortoormiit has a population of around 450, and if you’re visiting Greenland via cruise, like many first-timers, a morning spent hanging out with the locals here tends to be the only human interaction you’ll get with anyone who isn’t part of your cruise. You can look through the museum (which houses a hunter’s settlement, paintings and costumes), interact with a sled dog or two, meet locals, and ideally purchase some artisanal goods. One issue facing the Greenlandic Inuit is the European Union’s trade ban on sealskin products, but an Inuit exemption allows them to sell sealskin wares. Still, the industry has suffered a crash because this information is little known.

The “encounters with locals” portion of organized tours are frequently bungled and misguided, at best cringey and at worst exploitative or even racist. It is with a colossal amount of relief that I report that Adventure Canada, Quark, and Hurtigruten Expeditions take great steps to avoid these unacceptable outcomes. Traveling with these outfitters never includes anything potentially invasive like looking inside people’s homes, and the crews are emphatically conscientious about briefing passengers beforehand about proper etiquette, having often lived and/or spent time in the communities themselves, and being friendly with its residents. It’s the ideal way to see Greenland, in smallish groups led by people with a connection to the places you visit, with most of your time spent on the water.

sailboat and icebergs in Greenland
kertu_ee/iStock/Getty Images

What to know before you go to Greenland

How to get in and around Greenland

Thanks to the Iceland tourism boom, you can get to Greenland via cheap flights from Reykjavik all the time; the flight from Reykjavik to the small airport at eastern Greenland’s Constable Point is only about an hour and a half. The airport sits near the mouth of Kangertittivaq, or Scoresby Sund, the largest fjord in the world. You can also fly direct from Reykjavik to Greenland’s capital city, Nuuk, in western Greenland. But there’s an even bigger international airport further north in Kangerlussuaq. Flights arrive here daily during the summer from Denmark and Norway.

You can also get to the area by sea if you wish—and truly, this is one of the best ways to experience Greenland. Hurtigruten Expeditions is one of the top cruise liners floating people to this remote region, and passengers can make landfall here during the months of August and September, when the expedition line offers two-week-long adventures through the Scoresby Sund Fjord System. Other choice cruise liners include Adventure Canada and Quark Expeditions.

Greenland’s time zone

Greenland is broken up into three different time zones, but the bulk of the country, including the capital city, Nuuk, fall into Western Greenland Time (GMT -2). The eastern village of Ittoqqortoormiit, however, falls into Eastern Greenland Summer Time (GMT +0).

Hiking path in Greenland near Ilulissat icefjord
Maridav/iStock/Getty Images Plus

The weather and climate

Greenland’s climate is classified as Arctic tundra. In the winter, average temperatures up north can drop to 4 degrees Fahrenheit, while the southern part of the island can see a high of 68 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer months. However, due to the low humidity, it often feels warmer than you’d think looking at the numbers.

Languages spoken in Greenland

Greenland’s official language is West Greenlandic, while Danish and English are also taught in schools.

The currency

Greenland uses the Danish Krone (DKK) and each Krone is worth 100 øre (comparable to cents). As of October, 2023, $1 USD exchanges for 7.08 kr.

International adapters you’ll need

Greenland uses plug types C, F, E, and K. Type C, also used in all European countries except the UK, Ireland, Malta, and Cyprus, is marked by two round pins, while F, E, and K are slight variations of C.

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Kastalia Medrano was formerly Thrillist's Travel Writer. You can send her travel tips at @kastaliamedrano.

Brad Japhe is a contributor for Thrillist.