21 Basic Facts about Greenland – An Essential Guide

By Verified Expert

It is fairly common that most people don’t know much about Greenland. It is a land that lives in the imagination with images of ice, polar bears and … well … most of the world is not exactly sure what else.  Here are 21 essential facts about Greenland to get you started.

1. Where is Greenland?

Greenland is an Arctic nation located between Iceland and the eastern part of Canada. Although geopolitically part of Europe, geographically it is part of the North American continent. 

Spanning from 59 46’ N to 83 37’N, its southernmost point (Cape Farewell) lies further south than Iceland, and its northernmost point (Cape Morris Jessup) is only 712 km from the North Pole.  It straddles the Arctic Circle (located at 66 33’N), which means that locations north of this experience the phenomenon where the sun never sets during Summer (the Midnight Sun) and the sun never rises during the Winter. 

2. How big is Greenland?

Greenland is the largest island in the world that is not a continent (Australia is much larger, but is also a continent). It has an area of 2,175,600km2, which to put it into perspective, is the size of Western Europe, about 1/3 the size of the United States, or equivalent to the size of Eastern Australia.

The actual size of Greenland compared with Europe (thetruesize.com)
The actual size of Greenland compared with Europe (thetruesize.com)
Size of Greenland versus the US from thetruesize.com
The true size of Greenland compared with the United States of America (thetruesize.com)
size of greenland compared to australia from thetruesize.com
The true size of Greenland compared with Australia (thetruesize.com)

2,670 km from North to South and 1,050 km from East to West – it is BIG!

That being said, only 341,700km2 (an area still larger than Norway) of this enormous landmass is free of ice. The great Greenland Icesheet covers more than 80% of the country.

3. Where is the highest point in Greenland?

The summit of Mount Gunnbjørn in East Greenland (3,733 m above sea level) is the highest point in Greenland. It is also the highest peak located north of the Arctic Circle and can be summited by adventurous climbers.

NASA/Joe MacGregor. Mt. Gunnbjørn, The tallest mountain in Greenland , from the center flowline of the Kong Christian IV Glacier.
Photo: NASA/Joe MacGregor. Mt. Gunnbjørn, the tallest mountain in Greenland, from the center flowline of the Kong Christian IV Glacier.

The Greenland ice cap itself is actually at quite a high altitude. It averages about 2,000m above sea level with the highest point around 3,300m. 

4. What is the population of Greenland?

Greenland has a population of 56,000 people (2019). Even if you only consider the parts of the island that can be inhabited (ie are ice free), it is still the most sparsely populated country on Earth.

David Trood. The diverse faces of Greenlanders in collage.
Photo: David Trood. The diverse faces of Greenlanders

5. What is the capital of Greenland?

The city of Nuuk is the capital of Greenland. The name means “cape” in the Greenlandic language due to its location at the end of the Nuup Kangerlua fjord – the second-largest fjord system in the world. 

Downtown Nuuk at sunset with pink skies and the mountain - Store Malene - in the background

It is a small but modern city set amongst stunning scenery, and the cultural hub of Greenland. You can read much more about it in our Ultimate Guide to Nuuk.

6. Where do people live in Greenland?

Given the great Greenland Icesheet covers more than 80% of the island, the entire population of Greenland lives in the ice free coastal regions. Around 90% live in only 16 towns (50% in the largest 5 towns), and the rest in small settlements.

Map of Greenland showing the major towns. All are on the coast, except for Kangerlussuaq
Map of Greenland showing the major towns. All are on the coast, except for Kangerlussuaq

Fun fact: there are no roads connecting any of the towns or settlements in Greenland. Given the rugged nature of a landscape that is filled with natural barriers, you must fly, sail, dogsled or go by snowmobile to get from one place to the next.  

7. What language do people speak in Greenland?

The official language of Greenland is Kalaallisut (West Greenlandic). This is an Eskimo–Aleut language and bears no resemblance to the languages spoken in Iceland, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. It does, however, have similarities with the indigenous languages of Canada and Alaska.

It is a polysynthetic language, which means that it is formed by adding suffixes and prefixes to a root word. Often an entire sentence is contained within one, very long word. For a great example, check out the longest word in the Greenlandic language

Longest word in the greenlandic language - cultural activity - Guide to Greenland
The longest word in the Greenlandic language

That being said, many Greenlanders are multi-lingual. Danish and English are taught in schools and if a person comes from the East or North of Greenland, they will also speak their dialect.

8. Is Greenland a country?

Sort of. Greenland is not an independent country, but rather a self-governing region within the Kingdom of Denmark.  From 1721 to 1953 Greenland was a Danish colony. In 1953 Greenland received a county-like status. In 1979, home rule was established, and in 2009 self-governance status was achieved. It remains an open question whether or when Greenland will achieve complete independence.

Flying over the Nuuk Fjord in Spring - Guide to Greenland
Flying over the Nuuk Fjord

9. What currency is used in Greenland?

As part of the Kingdom of Denmark, Greenland’s currency is the Danish Krone (DKK). One krone is divided into 100 øre.

Danish krone- currency in Greenland

Although there was talk of having a Greenlandic Krone (a variant of the Danish Krone), these plans were abandoned in 2009.

10. What is the main export industry in Greenland?

Fishing (particularly for prawns and Greenlandic halibut) is Greenland’s most important industry. It constitutes most of the export dollars earned, and is also essential for the way of life in Greenland.

Fishing on a boat tour in the Nuuk Fjord - winter - Guide to Greenland
Fishing on a boat tour in the Nuuk Fjord

Future possibilities include tourism and mining, though these are currently extremely small industries in comparison. 

11. What does the Greenlandic Flag look like?

The Greenlandic Flag is called Erfalasorput (literally “our flag”) in the Greenlandic language. It was designed by Greenlander, Thue Christiansen, and officially adopted 21 June 1985.

Flag of Greenland

It signifies the sun setting over the horizon and the Greenland Icecap, and the various elements are commonly attributed to:

  • White stripe = Greenland Icefield, glaciers and snow
  • Red stripe = the ocean and fjords
  • Red part of the disk = the setting sun
  • White part of the disk = icebergs

It is colored red and white in deference to the colors of the Danish flag and is the only Nordic flag without a Nordic cross. 

12. What does the Greenland Coat of Arms look like?

The Greenlandic Coat of Arms depicts an upright polar bear upon a blue shield. The polar bear symbolizes the fauna of Greenland and raises his left paw in accordance with the traditional Inuit belief that polar bears are left-handed. The blue of the shield represents the Arctic and Atlantic oceans that surround the island.  The version currently used by the Greenlandic government was designed by Greenlandic artist Jens Rosing, and adopted in 1989

The Greenlandic Coat of Arms- polar bear

13. When is Greenland National Day?

Greenland National Day is held 21 June each year. Established in 1983 as a Home Rule tradition, this date was chosen as it is the longest day of the year. No matter where you are in Greenland, it never gets completely dark (North of the Arctic Circle, the Midnight Sun never sets) meaning the celebration can continue throughout the “night”.

Toke Brødsgaard. Greenland National Day parade in the Colonial Harbour in Nuuk
Photo: Toke Brødsgaard. Greenland National Day parade in the Colonial Harbour in Nuuk

If you are in Greenland on this date, you can expect lots of flags, food, entertainment, and people dressed in National Costume. Some places also hold a competition, where hunters roar off in their boats to be the first to return with a seal.

14. What is the traditional dress of Greenland

Prior to contact with the outside world, the Inuit would wear practical and warm clothing made out of the various parts of the animals they would hunt. Skins of seals, polar bears, reindeer, foxes, rabbits and dogs were all used to create the clothing, which was sewn together with animal sinew.

Brightly colored pearls of the West Greenlandic National costume for women adorn the shoulders of several women
Detail of the West Greenlandic National costume. The “pearl” collar is actually made of colourful plastic beads

These days, the National Costume retains some elements from this ancient heritage, but also incorporates items that were bought to the island from other places.  

The men’s costume is largely the same throughout Greenland and consists of a white shirt, black pants and kamiks (traditional sealskin boots). However, the women’s costume varies widely depending on whether it is from North, East or West Greenland.

The variety in the Greenlandic national dress on display at the Greenland National Museum and Archives in Nuuk - Guide to Greenland
Display of the different types of Greenlandic National Costume at the National Museum in Nuuk

The National Costume is an important part of the Greenlandic cultural identity and is worn at most major celebrations (baptisms, first day of school, confirmation, wedding, funeral, etc) as well as for key festivals such as Greenland National Day, Christmas and Easter. 

15. What is the National Anthem of Greenland? 

Nunarput Utoqqarsuanngoravit (You Our Ancient Land) has been the National Anthem of Greenland since its official adoption in 1916. 

However, since 1979, a second anthem – Nuna Asiilasooq (The Land of Great Length) – has also been recognised by the government. This is an indigenous anthem used by the Kalaallit Inuit people in Greenland

16. What is the National flower of Greenland?

Niviarsiaq is the national flower of Greenland. It means “young girl” in the Greenlandic language, and is more commonly known as the Dwarf Fireweed (scientific name: Chamerion latifolium).

Greenland national flower Niviarsiaq - flora - Guide to Greenland
Niviarsiaq – the national flower of Greenland

It blooms between June and September and is commonly found in sandy river environments.

17. What is the National animal of Greenland? 

The polar bear is the national animal of Greenland. Called nanoq in the Greenlandic language, this apex predator also adorns the National Coat of Arms for Greenland.

Martin Munck - Visit Greenland. Polar bear mother with 2 curious cubs in North-east Greenland
Photo: Martin Munck – Visit Greenland. Polar bear mother with 2 curious cubs in North-east Greenland

18. What animals live in Greenland?

Despite being almost completely covered in ice, Greenland is home to a wide range of animals.  The most common are:

  • Birds: white-tailed eagles, fulmars, auks, ducks, ptarmigan, and the ever-present black raven
  • Land-based mammals: musk ox, Greenlandic reindeer, arctic fox, arctic hare
  • Fish/seafood: arctic char, halibut, cod, capelin, prawns, snow crab
  • Seals: ring seal, harp seal, hooded seal
  • Whales:  humpback, minke, fin (during summer), beluga, narwhal, bowhead (all year)
  • Other ocean-based mammals: walrus  
Half submerged humback whale on a Whale watching tour out of Tasiilaq - summer - Guide to Greenland
Whales are very common in Greenland and whale watching is one of the top tourist attractions during Summer

In addition, the polar bear can be found in many parts of Greenland – particularly in the North and East.

19. What are the traditional foods of Greenland?

The traditional diet in Greenland is dominated by whatever can be hunted or fished. For this reason, reindeer, musk ox, seal, whale and fish form the basis of traditional foods. Suaasat (soup typically made from seal meat and spiced with pepper, onions and bay leaves) is the national dish of Greenland, while Mattak (whale skin) is a popular delicacy.

Traditional Greenlandic food of mattak suasaat and whale blubber - Guide to Greenland
Some of the traditional foods of Greenland from L – R: mattak, suaasat, raw whale blubber

20. Why is Greenland called Greenland?

Well, actually – it is called Kalaallit Nunaat. This means “land of the people [Greenlanders]” in the Greenlandic language. 

Early Norse explorers, specifically Eric the Red, gave Greenland the name by which most of us know it. It is thought he did this to entice others to follow him to settle the land back in the 10th century.

Hvalsey Church viking norse ruin near Qaqortoq in South Greenland - UNESCO site - summer - Guide to Greenland
Hvalsey Church is a UNESCO Site and Viking ruin near Qaqortoq in South Greenland

That being said, there are green areas in Greenland. In particular, South Greenland (where the Vikings established their settlements) can be quite lush during the Summer months and is even able to sustain a certain amount of agriculture.

21. Can I go on vacation to Greenland?

Absolutely! Although Greenland is still emerging as a tourist destination, there are many good reasons to get in early. 

Guide to Greenland brings together most of the tours available in the country onto the one online platform allowing you to easily plan and book your excursions in advance. 

People dogsledding across the sea ice with Uummannaq mountain in the background - Guide to Greenland

You can choose the degree of flexibility of your holiday by selecting either an all-inclusive vacation package tour, or building your own itinerary by booking your own flights from Iceland or Denmark and selecting specific excursions.

You can also read more about country and its culture through our articles, or by reading stories from our bloggers who have experienced the island. 

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