A Trip to Nuuk, Greenland

Just below the Arctic Circle and out of sight of the central icepack, Greenland’s capital city sits atop a barren grey rock and moss landscape. In the winter it is buried in snow. Yet the houses are red, green, blue, yellow, and purple, inspiring the new tourism motto “Colorful Nuuk”.

Data copyright OpenStreetMap and contributors

To understand the isolation of Nuuk, consider this map. Although this is the capital and largest city, within a few miles you can reach the airport, city limits, and the end of all maintained roads. Even during summer, all long-distance travel is by boat, plane, or helicopter. From the peninsula you look in all directions and see bare rock mountains. Yet somehow the Greenlanders are there, and Nuuk is growing and expanding its tourism options.

explorer Peter Freuchen and his third wife

When you arrive in Greenland, other travelers and residents will ask, what are you doing here? I had been debating a visit to the Faroe Islands, Svalbard, or Iceland. But I’ve wanted to visit Greenland for the past two years! After seeing a photo of Danish explorer and World War 2 resistance fighter Peter Freuchen (left), I ordered his book Vagrant Viking: My Life and Adventures and was blown away by the description of Thule, a village in the far north. In those days, Freuchen would keep meat frozen through the winter by piling it outside his cabin, then covering it with rocks to keep away polar bears. When people traveled overland to other towns, they would go by dogsled and danger was at every turn. Many times they would run out of supplies and eat sled dogs to keep going. Freuchen lost his leg to frostbite, married a local Greenlander, and struggled to adapt to a nomadic, polygamous culture.

Today’s Nuuk is much more modern, and has many Danish residents or expats. It is not the little fishing village labeled as Nuuk in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, either. Here you can see one of the shopping centers downtown:

And a row of apartment blocks above the old buildings and museums:

But you can see the old Nuuk in plenty of ways, including statues, a museum, and a practice of marking each residence with two numbers: an address and a number showing the order it was built (the one below being the 699th — my Airbnb house was in the 900s and newer apartment blocks were in the 3700s (can this be added as a tag on OpenStreetMap??).

My main tourist activity was a five-hour whale-watching trip with four other tourists (cost: about $80). We got zipped into cold-water-survival gear and automatic life vests, and started our trip beyond the harbor.

Our guide found a humpback whale, and we spent some time chasing after it and taking photos. Earlier in the season, there are many more whales.

Then our guide took us over to a fishing village which had been abandoned in the 1970s.

Our guide also runs a dogsled adventure in March… you can read more at Qasigiannguit Tourism & Charter.

Other highlights were the art museum (free Thursdays) and “Greenlandic tapas” which are offered at two different cafés.

Art: Some recurring themes in Greenlandic art were isolation, snow, whales, polar bears, and demons. The museum has a multilingual audio tour which also helps explain the experiences of native Greenlandic artists, some self-taught. There are a few buildings with graffiti-style art. This article gives you a sense of how Nuuk would like to be seen in the art world, but to me it seems overstated:

art at the museum frequently

Food: The tapas were the highlight (snow crab, shrimp, halibut prepared two ways, local lamb, and bread). A musk ox hot dog was OK. I tried to order tutti panang (Thai reindeer curry) but that restaurant had none available. Another restaurant had a plate of whale and other sashimi, which I didn’t try. Popular dishes include burgers, fish and chips, beef hearts and potatoes, fried salmon, and other foods targeted at Danish visitors.

Languages: Most people who I met would understand English or find someone who could. Almost everything is written in Danish, which the Google Translate app can cover offline (even in the Word Lens feature). Menus and signs use a handful of Greenlandic words (such as tutti for reindeer) which befuddle the app. With 100–200 Greenlandic words, Google would be a lot more useful!

Clothing: The weather was in the 40s (around 7 C). I wore a zip-up sweatshirt as I would in autumn in New York, and was usually warm. Sometimes it rained and people brought out the heavy-duty snowsuits. I was surprised to see people wearing The North Face and Canada Goose… I guess I can say that they are Greenland-approved? There was even a Canada Goose store outside the Kangerlussuaq airport.

Airbnb-ing: My ‘host parents’ were both from Denmark and had moved for work in customer service and industry. They have two young kids and a house but also time to host me and someone else! As I was leaving, I noticed that they had started work on a binder for other visitors… cute!

Kangerlussuaq: after Nuuk, I thought I would visit another Greenland town and catch a cheaper flight through Keflavik Airport. This was a bad idea… there is nothing to do here and the only hotel that I found online was expensive. If you have to spend time above the Arctic Circle, your best option would be to find a hostel, and book a full meal and roundtrip drive to the Roklubben restaurant. There might be other Greenland towns but very few have international airports and accommodations.

Flying to Greenland / the ice pack: The only flights to Greenland are from Iceland and Denmark. Your US-Iceland flight must land in Keflavik, and your Iceland-Greenland flight might leave from Reykjavik, so make sure that you have enough time to transfer. The positive side of this is that you will have two opportunities to fly over the Greenland ice and hopefully get good photos. Here is one I got as we were leaving Greenland and seeing the end of the glacier, and little icebergs along the coast.