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Greenland

Photo © katebum

Travel Guide North America Greenland

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Introduction

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Over half of Greenland is above the Arctic Circle and an even higher proportion is covered year-round with ice. It's a cold place. But for travellers who can handle the cold, the island is an absolutely stunning destination. Breathtaking rugged mountains provide a spectacular backdrop to traditional Inuit villages. At Ilulissat, a 5-kilometre wide glacier gives birth to hundreds of ice formations, creating an overwhelming sea of icebergs and ice flows. The views are extraordinary, but in Greenland the most amazing sights may be illusions, thanks to the bizarre concept of Fata Morgana, through which cities in the distance turn out to be nothing more than rocks in the snow. The beautiful lights of Aurora Borealis are another such quirk unique to Greenland, where dazzling colored curtains are set against the northern skies.

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Brief History

In prehistoric times Greenland was home to several successive Paleo-Eskimo cultures known primarily through archaeological findings. From around 2500 BC to 800 BC, southern and western Greenland was inhabited by the Saqqaq culture. Most findings of Saqqaq period archaeological remains have been around Disko Bay. From 2400 BC to 1300 BC the Independence I culture existed in northern Greenland. It was a part of the Arctic small tool tradition.

To Europeans, Greenland was unknown until the 10th century, when Icelandic Vikings settled on the southwestern coast. This part of Greenland was apparently unpopulated at the time when the Vikings arrived; the direct ancestors of the modern Inuit Greenlanders are not thought to have arrived until around AD 1200 from the northwest. The settlements, such as Brattahlið, thrived for centuries but disappeared some time in the 15th century, perhaps at the onset of the Little Ice Age. The Inuit thrived in the icy world of the Little Ice Age and were the only inhabitants of the island for several centuries.

When contact with Greenland was re-established in the early 18th century, Denmark asserted its sovereignty over the island. In 1721 a joint mercantile and clerical expedition led by Danish-Norwegian missionary Hans Egede was sent to Greenland, not knowing whether a Norse civilization remained there. The expedition can be seen as part of the Danish colonization of the Americas. Greenland was opened up to Danish merchants, and closed to those from other countries.
Eventually, when the union between Denmark and Norway was dissolved in 1814 (Treaty of Kiel), the dependencies of Greenland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands became part of the reorganised "Kingdom of Denmark".

Greenland's connection to Denmark was severed on 9 April 1940, early in World War II, when Denmark was occupied by Germany. Greenland had been a protected and very isolated society until 1940. The Danish government, which governed Greenland as its colony, had been convinced that this society would face exploitation from the outside world or even extinction if the country was opened up. But wartime Greenland developed a sense of self-reliance through self-government and independent communication with the outside world. Only in 1953, Greenland was made an equal part of the Danish Kingdom. Home rule was granted by the Parliament of Denmark in 1979.

A referendum on greater autonomy was approved on 25 November 2008. Internationally, on 21 June 2009, Greenland assumed self-determination with responsibility for self-government of judicial affairs, policing, and natural resources. Also, Greenlanders were recognized as a separate people under unofficial international law. Denmark maintains control of finances, foreign affairs, and defense. It is a step towards full independence from Danish rule. Greenlandic became the sole official language of Greenland at the historic ceremony.

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Geography

Greenland lies between latitudes 59° and 84°N, and longitudes 11° and 74°W and is the third largest country in North America. The Atlantic Ocean borders Greenland's southeast, the Greenland Sea is to the east, the Arctic Ocean is to the north and Baffin Bay is to the west. The nearest countries are Canada, to the west across Baffin Bay, and Iceland, east of Greenland. Greenland also contains the world's largest national park, the Northeast Greenland National Park, which is not part of any municipality. It is the world's largest island (not counting Australia)!) and the largest dependent territory by area in the world. at 2,166,086 km2 of which the Greenland ice sheet 81%. The highest point on Greenland is Gunnbjørn Fjeld at 3,700 metres above sea level. The majority of Greenland, however, is less than 1,500 metres in elevation. All towns and settlements of Greenland are situated along the coast, with most of the population being concentrated along the west coast. The extreme north of Greenland, Peary Land, is not covered by an ice sheet, because the air there is too dry to produce snow, which is essential in the production and maintenance of an ice sheet.

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Regions/Counties

  • Southern Greenland - Nicknamed "Sineriak Bananeqarfik" (Banana Coast) by the locals, this is the most easily accessed part of Greenland and the one subject to the least extreme temperatures
  • Western Greenland - Location of the capital Nuuk (Godthåb).
  • Eastern Greenland - Sparsely populated, the gateway to the national park
  • Northern Greenland - Northern Greenland is the northernmost inhabited region, much of it occupied by the Northeast Greenland National Park

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Cities and towns

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Sights and Activities

Aurora Borealis

The Aurora Borealis is one of nature's most spectacular phenomena. It can be witnessed throughout Greenland on clear nights from the months of September to April.

Dog sledding

Dog sledding is a unique activity that visitors can experience in Greenland. It is even possible to get your dog sledding license in the town of Tasiilaq on the east coast of Greenland. The area in the central west of Greenland, from Kangerlussuaq to the Disko Bay is also a good option for dogsledding trips. Expect to pay around €250 for a full day.

Hiking

There are many opportunities to go hiking in Greenland, where vast open spaces are in abundance. Several hiking routes exist between towns for those interested in longer trips. There are even possibilities to walk on the ice cap but this requires some skills and good physical condition. Especially the south of Greenland is a good place to hiking as there is a choice of simple walks ranging from several hours to a day but also overnight trips and mulitple-day trips are possible. Distances between towns are relatively short here, so you can combine a stay in several of those places, travel between them by boat or helicopter and do hikes from those villages. There is also a good mix of history, culture and fantastic nature.

Ilulissat Icefjord

Ilullisat Icefjord

Ilullisat Icefjord

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The Ilulissat Icefjord is on the UNESCO World Heritage List and is one of a few glaciers through which the Greenland ice cap reaches the sea. It has assumed great importance, due to increasing concerns around climate change. The ice fjord is located on the west coast of Greenland about 250 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. The Sermeq Kujalleq is one of the fastest (19 metres per day!) and most active glaciers in the world. The glacier has been studied for more than 250 years and this has helped to develop the understanding of climate change and icecap glaciology. This natural phenomenon is an absolute highlight of Greenland.

Kayaking

Kayaking in Greenland is an exciting possibility for experienced kayakers. The kayak (or qajaq) is an Inuit invention, adding a sense of history to paddling the Arctic waters.

Midnight Sun

Most of Greenland lies above the Arctic Circle so there is 24 hours of daylight for days or even weeks in much of the country. Even the more visited southern part of Greenland experience just a few hours of dark-ish conditions. It's a magnificent feeling and if you want to go hiking at night: no problem!

Northeast Greenland National Park

The Northeast Greenland National Park is by far the largest national park in the world. It cover 972,000 square kilometres and covers about 45% (!) of Greenland, itself the largest island in the world (not counting Australia). The park is bigger than 163 countries are and it stretches the furthest north than any other park. It stretches over 1,400 kilometres from north to south, ranging from the permanently inhabited towns of Thule in the north of Greenland to the Scoresby Sound in the east of Greenland. The latter can be reached by direct summer flights from Reykjavik, while the first has to be reached by plane from other east coast settlements. The park was established in 1974 and expanded to its current size in 1988. There is no permanent habitation but a few dozen of researchers and their dogs usually inhabited some military and weather stations. Although estimates range widely, there are about 5,000 to 15,000 musk oxen, approximately 40% of the world population of musk ox. Many polar bears and walruses can be found here as well, mainly along the coastal areas. Other mammals include arctic fox, stoat, collared lemming and arctic hare. Other marine mammals include ringed seal, bearded seal, harp seal and hooded seal as well as narwhal and Beluga whale. Species of birds which breed in the park include great northern diver, barnacle goose, pink-footed goose, common eider, king eider, gyrfalcon, snowy owl, sanderling, ptarmigan and raven.

Wildlife

Although it's not Africa, Greenland has its fair share of wildlife which you won't encounter anywhere else, except a few other Nordic countries. Muskox, Caribou, Whales, Polar Foxes, Seals, Walruses, Reindeer and the occassional Polar Bear are all present in the country, some of them even visible in the far south.

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Events and Festivals

  • The National Day of Greenland is held on the 21st of June each year - the lightest day of the year - as a celebration of Greenland's traditions and cultural heritage. People often dress in national costumes to mark the occasion.
  • The Arctic Circle Race is one of the world’s toughest cross-country skiing races, held in Sisimiut every year.
  • The Nuuk Snow Festival allows sculptors four days to create fantastic constructions from snow. Teams from Greenland and the around the world take part in this festival held in February, when snow is plentiful.
  • The World Ice Golf Championship is a unique golf tournament held in March near the town of Uummannaq in Northern Greenland. Surrounded by glaciers and enormous icebergs, golfers pit their skills against each other on the 9-hole course. Red golf balls are used in order to be able to see them.
  • The Arctic Palerfik is a 3-day dog sledding trip in Ilulissat. Over 100 sleds, 200 participants and 1,000 sled dogs take part in this annual event held in April.

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Weather

Well, it is no surprise that Greenland is a destination with cold and unpredictable weather conditions. Although temperatures of 20 °C or more have been recorded during the warmer May to August season, you will face much lower temperatures on most days. During winter, temperatures are generally below 0 °C, although the coastal areas might get well above zero on some days. The inland icecap is much much colder and frosts occur at any time of year, with temperatures below -50 °C possible in the central north.

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Getting There

Getting to Greenland with regular transport is limited to taking a flight and these can be expensive.

By Plane

Most international flights arrive in the capital Nuuk. International connections with the national airline Air Greenland are still rather limited though and only include Reykjavik (Keflavik) in Iceland. Other connections to and from Iceland are with Air Iceland and apart from the capital include Narsarsuaq in the south, Ilullisat in the west, and Constable Point and Kulusuk in the east of Greenland. From Copenhagen there are flights to Kangerlussuaq in the west of Greenland with Air Greenland and Narsarsuaq in the south. The airlines also offers some charters all the way up north to Thule Airbase.

By Boat

Although totally surrounded by water (or ice!), there are no regular passenger services to and from Greenland. Only expensive cruise tours from Canada and Iceland come here.

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Getting Around

By Plane

Getting around Greenland fast is only possible (that is the longer distances) by plane or helicopter and flights with helicopters are surprisingly affordable. Services reach from Nanortalik in the south to Thule/Qaanaq in the north and Air Greenland and Air Alpha are the main carriers for both plane and helicopter.

By Land

Unless you are on some kind of expedition crossing (parts of) the Greenland Icecap, your options are limited regarding travelling by land. The longest stretch of tarred roads in only 5 kilometres long!

Dogsleds are the common way to get around and these are used along the entire east coast and along the west coast north of the Arctic Circle. It's a great way to do a tour of one or several days which can take you to more inland places to the icecap.

By Boat

Arctic Umiaq Line offers connections along the west coast between Nanortalik in the south and Upernavik in the north. Services go as far north as Uummannaq in summer. Many villages are connected by local boats and they usually have limited space for foreign travellers. In the south of Greenland, Blue Ice offers regular transfers, which are especially good value if you are travelling in a group or can hook up with a group. Here is an overview of destinations and prices.

Of course, you can also hop aboard one of the expensive tour boats to ply the waters around Greenland in the summer months. There's a lot of choice on these expeditions but expect to pay at least €300-400 per day, which includes transport, accommodation on board, usually full board and most excursions and other costs.

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Red Tape

Many nationalities do not need a visa for Greenland, but your passport needs to be valid for at least three months after your visit. Although technically Greenland is part of Denmark, visas for entering the Schengen-area (including Denmark) do not automatically apply for Greenland.
If you do not need a visa for Denmark, you can generally visit Greenland for up to 90 days in a half year without a visa, although your passport must be valid for at least three months after your visit.

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Money

See also: Money Matters

The official currency of Greenland is the Danish krone (DKK). One krone (plural kroner) is divided into 100 øre.

Banknotes are in denominations of 50 kroner, 100 kroner, 200 kroner, 500 kroner, 1,000 kroner.
Coins come in 25 øre, 50 øre, 1 krone, 2 kroner, 5 kroner, 10 kroner, 20 kroner.

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Work

Skilled workers (K-12 teachers and doctors in particular) are always needed, knowledge of Danish or Greenlandic (preferably both) are necessary, although the University of Greenland in Nuuk does offer some programs in English. Foreigners, including most EU/EEA nationals (Greenland is not part of the EU/EEA) require a work permit in advance, which needs to be vetted and approved both by the Danish immigration authorities and the Government of Greenland. Danish citizens and other nationals of the Nordic Passport Area (Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland) are exempt. Certain types of short-term work (teaching, performing, installation technicians, construction, among others) for less than 90 days does not require a work permit, nor does short-term research.

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Study

University of Greenland in Nuuk.

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Language

The official language - Greenlandic (Kalaallisut) - is actually that of the more populated western coast. The eastern dialect is slightly different. Both are highly challenging languages to learn, as words are very long and often feature "swallowed" consonants. Try uteqqipugut or Ittoqqortoormiit on for size.

The good news is that almost all Greenlanders are bilingual Danish speakers, and many will even have a functional command of English. Greenlandic words may come in handy for travellers wanting to experience the "real Greenland", though.

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Eat

Most towns usually have a supermarket, so you can cater for yourself. Chains include Spar, Brugsen, Pisiffik and Pilersuisoq. Prices for basic products are high, as almost everything has to be imported. There are some (simple) restaurants in the main tourist towns as well and some of the better hotels offer eating options as well. Food in Greenland is generally not that different from American or continental European tastes. Restaurants carry typical European fare. Local food can be purchased at local markets in each town. Many Greenlandic restaurants combine traditional foods (locally-caught fish, shrimp and whales; also muskox and reindeer) with more familiar dishes.
Nuuk also has several burger bars and a couple of very high-end restaurants. One famous restaurant is the Nipisa restaurant. Expect to see some more unusual stuff on the menu as well, like muskox, reindeer, whale and caribou!

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Sleep

Compared to the number of people living in Greenland, the country acutally has one of the highest densities of accommodation options in the world. There are even some camping grounds, although it's not advised outside the June to early September period to camp. Other accommodation options range from beds in hotels dorms to luxurious rooms in expensive hotels in the main cities of Nuuk, Narsarsuaq, Kangerlussuaq, Ilullisat, Sisimiut and Qaqortog, to name just a few. Smaller towns usually have at least one or two options which are mostly smaller pensions, hostel-like accommodation or bed & breakfasts. Some of the owners of these places don't speak English and haven't got a website. It is best to contact the local tourism organisation in those cases. Note that for the summer months it is best to pre-arrange your accommodation as demand usually is higher than supply.

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Drink

A local specialty is Greenlandic coffee. Its creation in some places is pure performance and it hits hard: its coffee laced with liberal amounts of kahlua, whisky and Grand Marnier.

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Health

See also: Travel Health

There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Greenland. Vaccination against tuberculosis is sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.

During the northern summer, the days in Greenland are very long. Always make sure that you get as much sleep as you're used to, as sleep deprivation can lead to all manner of health problems. During the summer, also watch out for the Nordic mosquitoes. Although they are not dangerous as they do not transmit any diseases, they can be irritating.

Visitors are urged to bring their own prescription drugs for the duration of their stay as certain drugs may not be readily available at healthcare centres or hospitals in Greenland. However, non-prescription medications like antihistamines or pain relievers can be purchased over the counter at grocery stores.

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Safety

See also: Travel Safety

Dangers in Greenland are mostly of the natural kind, so be prepared for the circumstances. Crimes towards visitors are almost unheard of and your best chance of getting into trouble is in the local bar, as the locals can not handle alcohol to well.

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Keep Connected

Internet

Thanks to undersea fiber optic cable links to Europe and broadband satellite, Greenland is well connected with 93% of the population having internet access. Your hotel or hosts (if staying in a guesthouse or private home) will likely have wifi or an internet connected PC, and all settlements have an internet cafe or some location with public wifi. Ask around if you need help finding it.

Phone

See also: International Telephone Calls

The international telephone code for Greenland is 299.

Tele Greenland is the only telephone and internet provider. Mobile phones have coverage in all larger villages, including 3G internet access. The mobile phone system in Greenland is GSM 900/1800, and with the exception of one or two settlements the system covers all the inhabited areas of Greenland. Note that roaming charges are international (as Greenland is outside the EU), and much higher than someone from EU would pay inside EU.

Post

Post Greenland is the company responsible for postal service in Greenland. It has reliable services, but as you might imagine, it takes a while for your letter or postcard to arrive. Post offices can be found in all major communities in Greenland. Business hours are typically Monday-Friday 9:00am-3:00pm. Mail from Greenland takes about four to five days to reach Europe.

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Quick Facts

Greenland flag

Map of Greenland

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Local name
Kalaallit Nunaat
Capital
Nuuk (Danish: Godthåb)
Government
Parliamentary Democracy - part of Denmark
Nationality
Greenlander, Greenlandic
Population
56 000
Religions
Christianity (Protestant)
Languages
Greenlandic, Danish, English
Currency
Danish Krone (DKK)
Calling Code
+299
Time Zone
UTC 0 to -4

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