South Greenland | What to do & where to go
South Greenland has a lot of wonders to offer the adventurous traveller. It boasts beautiful blue icebergs, rolling Green landscapes, mountainous areas and exceptional hiking paths, taking you to the secluded B&B’s of the sheep farmers.
The blue ice and green, rolling fields
It’s become such a cliché to say that Eric the Red was the first marketing executive who had a great idea when he named Greenland, well, Greenland. American kids are even taught this in school: Greenland is all ice and Iceland is all green.
As a Southern Greenlander myself, I have to be honest: We just couldn’t care less what people say. We know what our part of the world looks like – and it looks truly, truly amazing! The blue ice of South Greenland is legendary, having traveled tens of thousands of years to reach our little slice of heaven (and we do also have white icebergs, just for the record). The ice in the fjords, floating in front of lush, green hills is something we treasure.
Whatever the Internet says, we southerners know that Eric was a truth seeker and just named the country from what he saw when he got here. Now that we have that out the way, let’s look a little closer at South Greenland.
Today, South Greenland is the southernmost municipality in Greenland and only the third largest of the current four. However, third largest is still quite a lot. With its 53,000 square kilometres, it’s still bigger than Switzerland, Netherlands, or Denmark respectively.
The area boasts three towns, 11 settlements and 37 farms. With only just 7,000 people, that gives each person a lot of room to frolic on.
Join us on a little trip around the great places of this magnificent place on earth.
Narsarsuaq and the Ice Cap
Narsarsuaq is the hub for travelling to South Greenland. This is where the international flights from Denmark and Iceland land as well as the domestic Dash 8’s from Nuuk. From here, you travel on to the other parts of South Greenland by boat or by helicopter. There is also the option of hiking to some of the nearby smaller settlements or even to hike to Narsaq, 50 kilometres from Narsarsuaq.
To many Greenlanders, Narsarsuaq is a hub and this is one of those instances where the visitors seem to have a better clue than the locals. The Narsarsuaq area is very beautiful if you take the time to explore it. Just walking from the airport to the hotel is actually quite amazing. At the side of the road, you will see towering trees that nobody would expect to find in Greenland. Some of them are easily 8-10 meter tall fir trees. Many of those were planted by one of Greenland’s foremost botanists, Kenneth Høegh who grew up in Narsaq and now resides in Qaqortoq. If you meet him, see if he will tell you about the trees of Greenland.
Narsarsuaq was originally an American base, built during World War II and especially full of activity during the Korean War. After the Americans left, the area with its well-built landing strip became an international, civilian airport. There’s a big hotel in Narsarsuaq as well as a hostel. If you have a day’s time in Narsarsuaq, you should consider a walk to the ice cap. Getting there is not for everyone, though. You walk from Narsarsuaq to the Flower Valley and from there you will find a rather steep trek for a few hundred meters before you can continue to one of the beautiful ice tongues of the inland ice (if you don’t see the Ice Cap here, don’t despair! You can see it up close near Narsaq!).
The local tour operator Blue Ice Explorer has 30 years of experience in making tours in Greenland and they offer all kinds of tours to many wonderful places in South Greenland.
Qassiarsuk / Bratthalid – the very first Church in North America
Just across the fjord from Narsarsuaq you will find Qassiarsuk. It’s a thriving settlement of sheep farmers who decided to settle in the same spot that Eric the Red did more than 1,000 years ago. Today, you will find a lot of modern sheep farming stations here, as well as a little shop and several hostels. One of them is located at Tasiusaq in the next fjord and that area is really worth a visit. It’s located very close to a glacier and will give you a true South Greenlandic experience of ice and green sloping hills.
Qassiarsuk’s original name was Brattahlid and this is the site of the first Norse dwellings in Greenland. Eric the Red and his friends arrived here in the year 982 and built a small farming society. In the year 1000, Eric’s son Leif (Leif Ericsson or Leif the Lucky) came home from a trip to Iceland and, with him, he brought the Christian faith. The story goes that Eric wasn’t into that kind of foolishness but his wife Tjodhildur made him adapt to the new religion (and guess how).
Tjodhildur built her church and therefore you will find the very first Christian Church on the American continents in this beautiful small settlement in South Greenland. You can see the outline of the old church and you can visit a replica that was built in the year 2000, commemorating the original church. A replica of Eric the Read’s farmhouse was built at the same time and nearby you will also find a replica of an original Inuit house.
Igaliku / Gardar
A little further out the fjord you will find Igaliku. It is yet another beautiful settlement. There is still farming here but the settlement has not as many inhabitants as it used to. That is, until summer comes when it becomes pretty busy. There is a hotel, quite a few lodges and a hostel located there and there is a good reason for all this activity: Igaliku is situated in an exceptionally beautiful area with lush fields, tall surrounding mountains and a blue fjord. This is where Heidi would move if she ever decided to leave Austria*.
Like Qassiarsuk, Igaliku was an important place for the Norse settlers. It became the diocese of Greenland and you will still find the foundation of the bishop’s farm and church right at the centre of the settlement. It is amazing to sit there and think that people crossed oceans in wooden ships to create a society here a millennium ago.
*(Heidi is a work of children’s fiction published in 1881 by Swiss author Johanna Spyri. It is a best-selling novel about the events in the life of a young girl in the Swiss Alps, later immortalized as movie and TV series ).
The farms of South Greenland
The 37 farms of South Greenland are sheep stations, reindeer stations and a few of them also raise cattle. The sheep stations are a very central part to the self-perception in South Greenland. They are scattered along the lush fjords and it is possible for visitors to visit some of them.
The Norse who came here with and after Eric the Red were shepherds and 1,000 years ago they prepared many of the fields that are now used for farming. They removed stones and build stonewalls around the fields, that now makes it easier to plough the earth and produce crops for the winter but also to grow potatoes and turnips, e.g. In a strange coincidence, the greenhouse effect has had a good effect on South Greenland. While it has made life a lot more difficult and riskier for the hunters of the north, it has made the growth season longer in South Greenland.
Riding in South Greenland
There are several places where you can visit a sheep station in South Greenland. Close to the international airport Narsarsuaq, you will find the farm Inneruulalik.
Inneruulalik was a sheep farm created in the 1940’s by farmer Dolfi Lund and his wife Maria-Kathrine. Over the years they upheld their farm through hard work and with the help of the eight children.
Now, 75 years later, the farm is run by grandson Piitaq and his wife Naasu. They offer accommodation and riding tours in the beautiful area. The two riding tours are each eight days long, one called the Iceberg Tour and another called the Glacier Tour.
Narsaq and the hinterland
Narsaq is the first town you will meet when sailing out the fjord from Narsarsuaq. The Pearl of Greenland is the nickname it got somewhere along the line. It is actually the second youngest town in Greenland, getting its status as a town as late as in 1959. However, it has been inhabited since the 1830’s.
Narsaq means ‘the Plain’ and considering that only about 1,600 people live here, it’s amazingly big when it comes to the geographical area. The plain lies below towering mountains and a large backcountry, which includes the famous mountain Kvanefjeldet, home to more rare minerals than any other known mountain in Greenland.
Narsaq has a cosy hotel and several hostels and it is a perfect stop for hiking. Due to the size of the plain, you can take all kinds of hikes along roads and paths and experience the South Greenlandic nature at its best. Narsaq is only one of two towns in Greenland from which you can see the Greenland Ice Cap (the other one being Qaanaaq) and there are excellent boating trips to the ice cap.
Outside of Narsaq, you will find another gem: The Big Rock. In Greenland, it’s customary that things are named after what they look like – hence the name. The big rock is huge and split into three pieces, which means that you can walk into the crevices and come out on the other side. It’s quite unique and a wonderful playground for the local kids and others.
Qaqortoq – the main city
Qaqortoq is the main town in South Greenland and the fourth largest in all of Greenland. It is the home to many educational institutions, which makes it quite a lively place despite the fact, that there are only 3,400 people who live here.
Qaqortoq offers a lot of historic old colonial buildings at the town square. The square is also home to Greenland’s only fountain. Hotel Qaqortoq towers over the square on a hill nearby and offers 4-star accommodation as well as good eating. You will also find another one of Greenland’s best restaurants on the square in Qaqortoq – The Ban Thai Restaurant. They serve a great Thai-Greenland fusion food as well as regular Thai dishes.
Great Greenland is one of the main workplaces in Qaqortoq. They produce coats and all kinds of other things made by locally caught sealskin. In the 70’s, Greenland was caught in what we today would call a PR-shitstorm when Greenpeace and actress Brigitte Bardot claimed that Greenland would club baby seals to death. This never happened in Greenland but in neighbouring Canada. Greenpeace later officially apologized to Greenland as opposed to Brigitte Bardot. However, the damage was done and many hunters, doing what their ancestors had done for a thousand years, were left without a livelihood.
Upernaviarsuk is situated very close to Qaqortoq and is the leading agricultural station of Greenland. It hosts an agricultural school and produces all kinds of crops, both on an experimental level and also to be sold. Among the crops are potatoes, turnips, lettuce, tomatoes, herbs, and even cucumbers.
Hvalsey – the church ruin
Hvalsey is the finest remains of the Norse in South Greenland. The beautiful church ruin lies between Qaqortoq and Igaliku and is a very fine example of how masterly the Norse were able to build a building.
The church has a very special place in the story of the Norse as this location is the setting for the very last time anyone heard of the Norse in Greenland while they were still here. The Icelandic Sagas mention a wedding here in September 1408. It is possible to go on a tour to the Hvalsey Church Ruin from Qaqortoq.
Uunnartoq – the hot springs
Another great day trip from Qaqortoq (or Nanortalik) is a tour to the hot springs at Uunnartoq. These hot springs are 38 degrees warm and accessible all year although there are times of the year that it’s difficult to get there because of all the ice flooding into South Greenland from the east in the early summertime.
There is nothing like laying in the hot springs and watch the big icebergs float by in the fjords close by. It’s something only a few people get to experience in their lifetime.
Nanortalik and the amazing mountain walls
Nanortalik is the southernmost town in South Greenland and the smallest of the three towns in Greenland. Its location is very beautiful with tall peaks rising in the background.
The town has a remarkable white church and some historical colonial houses scattered around. In the nearby fjords, you will find both old and new settlements, some of which were established by the German Herrnhut brotherhood around the year 1900.
Many world-famous mountain climbers have gone to Nanortalik to climb some of the majestic peaks that are close to this cosy little town. The most famous mountains are Ketil’s Moutain, Nalumasortoq and Ulamertorsuaq. These granite mountains in the Tasermiut Fjord boast some extremely challenging mountainsides to climbers, including more than 1,000-meter tall vertical mountainsides.
How to get there
You can get to South Greenland from either Iceland, Denmark or West Greenland (Nuuk). Air Greenland flies to Narsarsuaq in the summer months and Air Iceland also flies there in the summertime.
- Find flights to Greenland
In winter, you can travel via Kangerlussuaq in Western Greenland arriving from Denmark, or via Nuuk arriving from Iceland and then head down to South Greenland.