Last Updated on February 3, 2021 by Natasha Amar
The rotating blades of the propeller outside my window are moving so fast that I can barely see them; they become flickering ribbons between the sky and the snow-laden landscape, its whiteness now taking on a pale pink blush in the warmth of the morning sun. It is only my second time on a propeller plane, and I am looking out the window of the crimson Air Greenland Dash-8-200 on my way from the capital Nuuk to Ilulissat, Greenland’s third-largest city, with the same kind of fascination that children sometimes have while looking at things that have become perfectly ordinary to adults.
But soon- it’s impossible to say when, because I am too enthralled by the hues of white, blue, and gray below to keep track of the minutes, it is the extraordinary that reveals itself outside my window.
Soft, wispy clouds reveal massive chunks of ice in a sapphire sea, some close enough to have their hardened contours studied, no, devoured by my gaze, others that are smooth with creamy peaks and shiny, slippery curves, stopped in time by waters frozen like steel, and fragile, flattened crystals of ice that float on the surface. I spot a slow-drifting iceberg that is shaped like a polar bear.
The imaginary sensations of all of their myriad textures tingle on my longing fingertips. I stare, not looking away for a second, but sometimes I cannot tell what is ice and what is snow-covered rock and what is sea, I cannot tell what is moving and what is frozen still.
Oh what joy there is in all this not knowing.
This wintertime view of the Ilulissat Icefjord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, then, is my introduction to Ilulissat, a town 350km above the Arctic Circle on the country’s west coast, whose name translates to “iceberg” in Kalaallisut, the Greenlandic language.
Home to just under 4,500 people (4,413 residents in 2020), “and about 3,500 sled dogs,” as I am told a few days later, Ilulissat is the center of adventure tourism in Greenland. Beyond city limits, the glorious backcountry offers outdoor experiences that invite visitors to take a peek at a way of life where traditions, culture, and livelihood are deeply rooted in respect for nature in what is one of the world’s remotest environments, challenging but also singularly pristine. If you find yourself in the world’s iceberg capital, here are the best things to do in Ilulissat, Greenland.
Best Things to do in Ilulissat Greenland
Get around by snowmobile
Not long after, I clumsily wriggle my body into a warm suit at the World of Greenland office in town, push my feet into massive boots that are much warmer than my own, pull on a balaclava (“it’s very cold today,” I’m advised, it feels like -36°C), and strap on a helmet to make my way into the backcountry on snowmobile, the modern alternative that has, to a large extent, replaced dogsledding, the traditional means of transportation.
With my safety in the skilled hands of an expert rider, my only job now is to sit back, relax, and take in the views that now unfurl before me, one by one. Our journey is only 15kms long, but not a minute of it is drab; we pass frozen streams and rocky mountains and snowy valleys and icy lakes that have God knows what stories hidden below their rock-hard teal surfaces.
Inuit fishermen wave from wooden sleds and then return their attentive gaze back to the route hungrily navigated by their strong Greenland huskies. We lean forward to go uphill and we lean back to descend the steep slopes of snowdrifts, thrilled each time by the scene that awaits on the other side.
See fishermen’s huts in Aattartoq
In Aattartoq, the air fills with the fierce howls of sled dogs outside a fishermen’s hut. This results in a palpable sense of excitement within my group; this is our first chance at getting close to the ferocious Greenland sled dogs.
“You should not pet them,” says World of Greenland guide Chris, “they’re wild, and not pets, and you shouldn’t get too close to them, and never without permission.” Chained, the dogs howl relentlessly while the frozen sea ice lies behind them, an infinite vastness.
Fishing is a major industry in the country and accounts for 90% of Greenland’s exports. Later that day, I hear the term, “Halibut money,” used to describe the fortunes of fishermen who go ice-fishing in the icefjord, and make a hole in the ice using a tooq, a tool traditionally used by hunters, to catch Greenlandic Halibut. Bigger than the ones found along the coast, they sell at a much higher price.
With snowshoes strapped on to our boots, we slowly make our way past a fisherman feeding his dogs. He takes big chunks of fish from a bag in his sled, and throws it at the dogs. They move swiftly to scarf down the pieces, then line up again with expectant eyes, howling for second and third helpings.
Walk among giant icebergs in a frozen fjord
Clumsy in my snowshoes, I imagine this is what toddlers must feel like as I wobble in the deep snow, quickly and frequently forgetting the only common-sense rule there is to walk in them correctly- to walk with your feet further apart from each other than you normally would. I don’t pay attention, rightfully mesmerized by the landscape, and so I get my snowshoes stuck in each other a few times and fall on my bum before my legs get used to the technique.
None of that matters as I look around me, then nod my head and take slow, deep breaths to remind myself that all of this is real; we’re traversing Sikuiuitsoq, a deep-frozen fjord (a fjord is a long, narrow strip of sea between cliffs or steep slopes), each step on the meter-thick sea ice brings us closer to massive icebergs that rise out of the frozen sea, broken off from glaciers along the coastline.
Little crystals from afar, their scale, up close, is remarkable. While I know this, it is hard to believe that what I see is just the tip- the part that remains unseen below the surface- 85 to 90% of the iceberg, is colossal to a degree that is beyond my imagination.
Standing before them, I am acutely aware that I am not special; I am just as insignificant as I’d always suspected, but I am privileged to be here looking at the story of the planet as told through these icebergs, some with snow that fell on the Greenlandic ice cap, possibly over 15,000 years ago. In winter, getting this close to the icebergs is undoubtedly, one of the best things to do in Ilulissat, Greenland.
My eyes begin to well up, but the tears quickly freeze and become baubles of ice that stick onto my frozen eyelashes. Amused, I touch my hair only to realize that my braid is frozen stiff too.
These sculptures of ice, calved (broken off) from glaciers, flaunt varying shapes, sizes, and textures- some have deep blue streaks from frozen meltwater in glacial crevasses, narrow secret passages, and beautiful icicles hanging from the edges of rough ice walls while others have smooth, shiny surfaces, or look like the façade of an ancient castle, complete with watchtowers.
Chris chips at the ice, breaking away a sizeable piece of it from an iceberg and places it before us, so we can take a closer look. He draws our attention to a part of it that is clearer, “Some of it has melted, but some of it can be 15,000 years old from the last Ice Age, coming from the glacier,” he says now pointing at a bluer, more hardened bit.
I reach out to touch the walls of these blue and white temples of ice that is thousands of years old, purer perhaps than anything I will touch in my lifetime. Next winter, their shapes will differ, their lines will evolve, their textures will change; they will never be exactly the same again as they are now, in this moment.
And neither will I.
As a faint half-moon appears in the sky, it is time to make our way back to the snowmobiles, trudging through the snow again. My fingers burn, and feel like they’ve turned into ice, but I am now relieved that my camera battery has died in the extreme cold- I no longer have to take off my mittens.
The exhaustion of the day finally catches up with me, and my lungs huff and puff, and beg for mercy as I ascend the last hundred meters to the snowmobiles. Just when I feel like I’m ready to surrender and lie down in the snow, I hear a gentle tap-tap-tap. I look up to see a face in the window of the red hut I’m passing by; an Inuit fisherman gives me a thumbs-up, then flashes me a smile while nodding encouragingly. “You can do it,” he seems to be telling me, so I believe him.
On our snowmobile ride back to Igloo Lodge, the white landscape turns to a rosy pink in the glow of a setting sun. It’s the most sublime thing I’ve seen, and all I am left with is my memory of it.
Stay overnight in the heart of nature at Igloo Lodge
We arrive at Igloo Lodge, our home for the night, where six igloos and a log hut stand on the shores of Lake Nalluarsup, now hidden under a soft, smooth blanket of snow.
The lodge sits in the heart of nature, yet is far-flung enough to grant whatever it is that one might need; whether that is to be able to hear one’s inner voice or quieten down the noise that clouds one’s mind.
Free of the distractions of Wi-Fi and technology, the warm, comforting living area that embodies hygge, is made for conversing with fellow guests, snuggling up with a book, or simply settling into a chair to look at the view outside. In the evenings, the romance of this setting is only heightened by candlelight- a necessity as the lodge does not have electricity (but is heated in winter).
Sustainability and minimum environmental impact are important here, and we’re requested to hold on to each of our cups and reuse them for the duration of our stay, to conserve the limited water in the lodge.
Three meals are served daily, along with coffee and tea (and cake and pastries in the late afternoon). Made from locally available ingredients, they’re simple, delicious, and just what is needed after a day of adventure. Think reindeer sausage, steamed halibut, bread, butter, and cheese, reindeer stew, and rice.
Outside, six igloos (each that can sleep two or three guests) offer the opportunity to rest one’s head in one of the world’s most unique lodgings, and come furnished with sheepskin, warm sleeping bags, and hot water bags to keep cozy.
For guests that might find sleeping in the igloos unagreeable on particularly cold winter nights, five rooms with bunkbeds offer a warmer alternative to spend the night. The two dry toilets in the house are shared between guests.
- Pack light for your trip to Igloo Lodge- bring everything you’ll need for an overnight stay in a single backpack.
- Pack a headlight, power bank, and extra batteries for any devices, as there are no electrical charging points.
- Bring a water bottle, wipes, and a book if you might want to read.
See the Northern Lights
Back at the lodge, I enjoy a dinner of rice and a rich, flavorsome reindeer stew that is comforting after a day spent outdoors in the cold.
Less than an hour later, we slip into our warm suits and boots to head back outside with our cameras and tripods. The Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis makes an appearance here most winter nights, and soon enough, we’re rewarded with faint green waves in the moonlit sky.
After I’ve taken some photos, I sit on the porch in the glow of the candlelight emanating from the windows of the house to admire Lady Aurora, gently swaying over the igloos, mountains, and the expanse of snow between them, her presence getting stronger within minutes only to then fade away.
Go dog sledding in Ilulissat, Greenland
Bundled up in an oh-so-warm sealskin suit, kindly provided by World of Greenland back at their office in Ilulissat, I find myself on a wooden sled, my legs sprawled out in what I imagine is an ungraceful manner. But that isn’t important right now- what is important is that I’m slightly terrified that the howling dogs right in front of me, secured to the sled by ropes, have now begun to run, picking up their pace before the musher (sled driver) has got on. If they were to run off with me and Peter, who sits behind me, what a story we’d have to tell someday.
But of course, my fears are unfounded-nothing but a product of my overactive imagination. A moment later, our musher, an Inuit fisherman in a green jacket, has jumped onto the sled, positioning himself in front of me, after having run alongside us for a few seconds.
He turns around to look at us, gives us a friendly smile- the kind that reaches his eyes, and flashes a thumbs-up to ask if we’re okay. Then he turns back around, skillfully raises his whip, and directs the dogs over the snowy terrain, cracking it left and right as the dogs move away from the sound. They run fierce and wild, carrying us into the spectacular hinterland at a comfortable but thrilling enough pace.
How will I remember this moment? To the soundtrack of their eager paws on the ice and the song-like commands of the musher, Ili-ili-ili-ili.
In Greenland, the tradition of dogsledding is thousands of years old and one the locals are proud of. While it may have been born out of the need for survival, as a means of transportation and for hunting polar bears in the Arctic, it evolved into an integral part of Inuit culture.
In fact, Inuit culture is built on co-existing with all the elements of nature- the extreme climate, the harsh terrain, the sea and snow and ice, and the indigenous species found here. The skill of mushing is handed down through the generations and children begin to learn when they are young.
In modern times, snowmobiles have replaced dogsleds to a large extent- they’re more efficient and don’t need to be fed like the sled dogs. But there are still parts of the backcountry that are only accessible by dogsled, for the sake of minimizing environmental impact. Dogsledding is also on the bucket list for most tourists visiting the country, and rightly so- it’s one of the most thrilling things to do in Ilulissat, Greenland, and the income from tourism can help mushers maintain their dogs and keep the tradition alive.
We stop somewhere surrounded by hills. The dogs howl, then stretch out and relax to make the most of this break. The mushers hand us warm coffee in brightly colored cups while we admire the wolf-like dogs. Soon enough, they’re ready to run again- it’s what they were bred for. They howl impatiently; it’s time for us to get on.
The Greenland sled dog is a pure breed of husky that isn’t allowed to crossbreed with other dogs, who simply aren’t let into sled dog territory that lies north of the Arctic Circle and on the east coast of Greenland. These dogs have a deep connection to the environment- they can sense if the sea ice is suitable to cross or if it’s too thin below the snow, and will act accordingly.
Wander around Ilulissat
In the late afternoon, wandering around Ilulissat, I realize that I am now getting used to Arctic winter temperatures, as long as I’m not constantly being slapped in the face by a strong wind. I’ve been outside all day, yet not even the promise of warmth can lure me indoors. There is no time to be wasted in the town that seems like it’s right out of a postcard.
Timber cottages and fishermen’s huts, painted red, yellow, green, and blue, dot the white winter landscape of Ilulissat. I walk towards the coastline, passing by the 18th-century church Zions Kirke, its dark wood exterior in stark contrast to the all-encompassing blanket of snow around it.
Behind the church, a path leads to the edge of the water in Disko Bay- but of course, now, all of it is frozen. Icebergs, calved from Sermeq Kujalleq, the world’s fastest moving glacier, rise out of the frozen sea like big and small diamonds peeking out from nature’s treasure chest.
When the weather permits, it’s possible to go on a sightseeing boat trip in the nearby Ilulissat Icefjord to get closer to the icebergs, which can be over 100 meters long with a height of 100 meters above the surface. A marked hiking trail that begins close to town also offers surreal views of the icefjord and a chance to hear the sounds of icebergs crashing into each other and tumbling into the sea.
I notice warning signs cautioning visitors not to venture out on the frozen sea. The textures close to shore are incredible; there are blocks of ice, calved from the icebergs, that almost made it to land, waves that turned to ice crashing onto the shore, and seawater now frozen solid on the surface, creating beautiful swirling patterns.
I take a few steps forward, and two huskies appear, scampering around me for a bit, as if to warn me that this is far enough. I listen, and watch them leave me behind to venture further on the ice. An orange-pink light spreads along the horizon, leaving a soft, warm glow on the ice.
Experience an Arctic Sauna
“The Inuit have great respect for the snow, ice, and sea,” says Philip, guide at Ilulissat Guesthouse, that offers dramatic views of Disko Bay at the edge of Ilulissat Icefjord. We are standing outside the hilltop guesthouse’s Arctic Sauna, and I am finding it impossible to tear my eyes away from the panorama that lies before us- the sky, sea, ice, and snow have now turned a deep blue in the Arctic evening light.
Philip tells me that it’s unusual for the sea to be frozen this time of year, as late as the beginning of March. “I wouldn’t go down there right now,” he admits, pointing to the icy bay, “the local fishermen don’t recommend it- yet we sometimes see tourists walking there trying to get close to the icebergs.” A lone sled stands, stuck in the ice.
In the sauna, I deeply breathe in the scents of bergamot, anise, lemon, and peppermint, then close my eyes to reflect on the past few days. Their memories seem like vivid scenes from a dream that I’m afraid I’ll soon forget. I open my eyes, relish the last light on the view of Disko Bay through the glass window, and feel grateful that all of this is real.
Between sessions, when it gets too hot, we head outside. This being my first ever winter sauna experience, I’m surprised at how comfortable -28°C feels in just my bikini. “I recommend lying in the snow,” says Philip, but my mind counters, “One step at a time.”
“Actually, this is it,” he replies when I ask him about his favorite place. Philip, who is Danish, has traveled the world as a teacher, tour leader, and outdoor guide, and splits his time between Ilulissat and Copenhagen. He is not the first person living in Greenland who is telling me that it is the most incredible place in the world.
My eyes trace the tapered shape of an iceberg that stands in the bay, like a shrine. The warm lights of hilltop houses glow along the coast. A strange yearning fills me up, and I realize that he might just be right.
Where To Eat in Ilulissat, Greenland
Restaurant Icefiord in Hotel Icefiord offers gourmet cuisine prepared from local ingredients such as local fish, reindeer, and muskox, as well as a decent selection of wines. There are great views of Disko Bay to be enjoyed here alongside delicious food and friendly service.
Where To Stay in Ilulissat, Greenland
Hotel Hvide Falk offers centrally located accommodation in rooms, apartments, and a family lodge, as well as a restaurant and a bar, and is a good choice in Ilulissat. Rooms are modern and spacious and many come with balconies to enjoy the fresh air. Half of the rooms offer spectacular views over Disko Bay, while some offer views of the town, ask before you book.
How to Get to Ilulissat, Greenland
Fly to Ilulissat on Air Greenland that offers connections to Copenhagen, Denmark via Kangerlussuaq and direct to Reykjavik, Iceland. Domestic flights on Air Greenland connect the capital Nuuk to Ilulissat.
How to Get Around Ilulissat, Greenland
It’s easy to walk around town but taxis are also available. Water taxis can take you around Disko Bay and to neighboring islands.
I visited Greenland as a guest of Visit Greenland. All opinions, as always, are honest and independent.