Ilulissat, the Paris of ice 

Would you like to experience something completely unique and unforgettably beautiful? Then Ilulissat, with its many incredible experiences, is the destination for you.

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.

Ilulissat was founded in 1741 as a TradeStation and was named Jakobshavn from the founder Jakob Severin, in 1782 it became a Danish colony.

Today we know it by its Greenlandic name ‘Ilulissat’, meaning ‘Icebergs’. And this name couldn’t be more appropriate as enormous icebergs can be seen from most homes.

In this article, we will go through what you can experience, not just in Ilulissat but in the Disko Bay, including tips and tricks for tours, hiking routes, dining spots, seasons and much more!

Table of contents:

Ilulissat has about 4.600 inhabitants(2018), making it the third largest city in Greenland. The town hall for the Avannaata municipality sith in Ilulissat, but the municipality covers an area of 522.700 km², with a meagre 10.600 people living in that area. Space is of no shortage here, and nature is grand! Which is why several nationalities have settled down here among the locals. There are French, Thai, Philippino, Spanish, Italians as well as Danes living here.

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.

The Greenlanders are very welcoming and easy to be around. They spend a lot of time with their families and friends, and definitely, do not need a special occasion to get together for lots of food and laughter. Getting from place to place doesn’t take very long, meaning people are very flexible and spontaneous. People will often make more food than needed, as you never know who might knock on your door. The leftovers you save for the next day anyway, or to the dogs. The smiling and welcoming locals, therefore, make it easy for foreigners to become part of their day to day lives. But it’s not like just anyone moves to Greenland, it’s a very different and isolated place, so usually, its people who are good at adapting to new cultures and friendly to their neighbours.

Kangia, Ilulissat Icefjord

The icefjord is literally just around the corner from Ilulissat, it’s about 70 km long, and at the bottom of the fjord lies the most productive glacier in the northern hemisphere, Sermeq Kujalleq. It calves on average every 3 weeks, breaking off huge chunks of ice, filling up the fjord with the beautiful white creatures in all shapes and sizes.

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.

Photo by: GEUS

The glacier calves about 46 km3 yearly, and the largest piece recorded was 1,5 km3 large! The same as about 30 football fields! This is what makes it the most productive glacier in the northern hemisphere, but it also moves with incredible speed towards the ocean, moving up to more than 40 meters per day, it’s the fastest glacier ever recorded.

The fjord has a depth of about a 1000 meters, so the icebergs flow along the fjord until they reach a point where the glacier front was during the ice age, here it left a big moraine, an accumulation of rocks, sand and dirt, suddenly changing the depth from a 1000 meters to around 250-350 meters where today, many of the larger icebergs run aground. There they stay, just next to the city, until they melt or break into smaller pieces, and then get swept north of the Disko island with the current before they eventually go south.

The ice coming out of the icefjord is somewhere between 100.000-200.000 years old, it’s created by the accumulation of snow over many years in Greenland. The snow is eventually buried under so much that the pressure turns it to ice. The weight of the ice and snow is so enormous that its actually pushing the ground itself down, meaning that even though the ice is 3,5 kilometres at its thickest, it’s only 3,2 km above sea level.

UNESCO, World Heritage Sites

The Ilulissat icefjord, became part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2004, covering an area of 4024 km2. This area is now a protected site to conserve the natural and cultural heritage, covering both the old settlement known as Sermermiut, where for the past 4500 years, 3 different Inuit cultures decided to settle.

Sermermiut, a former Inuit settlement

Down by the edge of the water, about 2 kilometres outside Ilulissat, lies ruins from different cultures. Down here, people have lived at different times in the past 4500 years. Not just because of the beautiful surroundings, with pretty mountains and enormous icebergs, but because these waters were rich in prey.

These cultures, wandered from the eastern part of Canada, most likely following reindeer across the sea ice. The Independence I and Independence II cultures, went further north and down the east coast, never getting to Sermermiut. The first culture to settle here, was the Saqqaq culture(2500/1000 B.C), they were named after the village Saqqaq north of Ilulissat, where the first discovery of artefacts from these people were made.

Because of the permafrost, things left in the ground are very well preserved, enabling scientists and archaeologists to study the different layers by the Sermermiut settlement. Meaning that today we can tell when this place was inhabited and when it wasn’t.

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.

The Saqqaq culture disappeared mysteriously, and 500 years later the Dorset people arrived (500-200 B.C.), and it wasn’t until around the year 1000 the Thule culture showed its presence. They lived in turf huts during the winter and removed the roofs during the summer, opting to stay in tents near what today is the Ilulissat harbour. With time, outsiders started showing up, whalers and northerners. They came during the summer when the sea ice melted away, sailing into the harbour and traded skins and blubber for coffee, tobacco, pearls, needles and sugar. More and more Inuit started sticking around the area, eventually completely abandoning the Sermermiut settlement in the 1850s.

Appropriate behaviour among locals

When you’re a guest in Ilulissat, or Greenland for that matter, you should behave as you would like a tourist to behave in your own country, to your own family. For example, you should always ask if you can take a photo of the locals, especially of children and if you get a no, respect it. This also means you can’t just look inside the windows of houses, these are private areas.

The Big Arctic Five 

  • Ice & snow
  • Dogsledding
  • Northern Lights
  • Whales
  • Pioneering people

Greenland has often been branded with the BAF, and with good reason, the great thing about Ilulissat is, and although you can experience several of these in a lot of places in Greenland, Ilulissat manages to offer all of them with a pretty decent guarantee, albeit in different seasons. Even though it isn’t covered by snow all year round, the Icefjord is always filled with icebergs just outside the city.

Summer tours and experiences in Ilulissat area

Ilulissat iceberg cruise

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.

This tour is a must when you visit the Iceberg Capital of the world, Ilulissat. It’s around 2 hours of sailing, and can be done during the day or the evening. The most popular one, and one which is often completely sold out is the midnight cruise. It starts around 10 pm and ends around 00:30, so you get to experience the midnight sun among the icebergs. It’s an incredibly beautiful tour, where most often, a guide will tell you about the glacier, the icefjord and the different types of ice you’re sailing amongst. The experienced captains will at one point turn off the engine so you can listen to the near complete silence, and even hear the ice release bubbles of air in the water.

Coffee and tea are served aboard, but it’s important to dress properly as it gets a lot colder on the ocean next to the ice. The operators are usually good at getting guests back to the hotels when you return so late at night.

Whale watching, Disko Bay

Every summer, several species of whales come to the Disko Bay, it is, however, most often the Humpback you can follow as they aren’t easily scared, show curiosity and is also the acrobatic one of the larger whales, sometimes (rarely) jumping completely out of the water. The humpback grows up to 18 meters and is easily recognised by it’s humped back fin, but even more so by the white spots on their tail, which they often show when they dive. These spots are unique, just as our fingerprints are unique, and can be used by researchers to identify individuals.

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.

The fin whale is also a common guest in the Disko Bay. It is the second largest species in the world and can grow up to 27 meters long. It’s recognizable by its sharp dorsal fin, and will often show it’s huge back before you see the well-defined fin. They rarely show their tail but they’re still an impressive sight.

You can never guarantee to see whales, but between June and September, your chances are pretty good.c

The calving glacier and the Eqi Glacier Lodges

The name of the glacier is Eqip sermia, and it is visited by many every summer. A hidden pearl, about 90 kilometres north of Ilulissat. It takes between 3-5 hours to sail there, where you’ll get to sit by the glacier front and enjoy a Greenlandic lunch buffet(depending on which operator you go with). After lunch, the boat will drop off and pick up a few people by the Glacier lodges, and then head back to towards Ilulissat.

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.

There are 15 Glacier lodges and are situated just a short walk away on a steep slope. It can be hard if you have difficulty walking, but as soon as you get there it is all worth it. As most only stay for a night or two, it is recommended to leave most of your baggage in Ilulissat, and only pack the most necessary things in a small backpack. There are standard cabins as well as comfort cabins. The standard is more primitive, and you have to go to the café to shower and use the bathroom, whereas the comfort cabins have running water, toilet, shower and floor heating. A chef will take care of all meals, which is part of the package, including guides who will take you on hikes if you wish to do so. There are several hiking opportunities, going to a delta, a moraine close to the glacier and even a hike to the ice sheet itself. If you’d like to hike to the ice sheet we recommend staying in the lodges for 2 nights, the first in the hut and the second in a tent by the ice sheet, as it takes 4 hours to get to the ice and 4 hours to get back.

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.

The Eqi lodges are truly something special! Getting far away from everything and being one with the wilderness, whilst enjoying delicious meals with a giant wall of ice as your view. A memory for life. Imagine sitting by the terrasse with a bottle of great wine or Greenlandic coffee, made while telling a story, or just a cold beer as you listen to the silence in the beautiful evening colours and then suddenly, you hear thunder in the distance, the ice calves and falls down to the ocean like the sound of old cannons firing, it’s an impressive roar.

Fishing tours

There are plenty of tours in Ilulissat, one of which is to go fishing. There are lots of halibut fishermen in the Disko bay, but you can also go to Bredebugt to catch Arctic Char if you come in the right season. However, most fishing tours will go fish for cod, as it is easy to catch all year round and doesn’t live very deep like the halibut. If you find a good spot you’ll catch lots of fish within minutes.

Dog Feeding

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.

Ilulissat has lots of sled dogs, and it’s possible to go on a 1-2 hour tour to visit a local feeding his dogs and tell stories about dogsledding. If you’re lucky they’ll have puppies you can pet. This is an inexpensive tour which will give you great insight into the life of the locals and the amazing sled dogs.

Turf Hut BBQ

Before wooden housing became a thing in Greenland, the Inuit lived in turf huts during the winter and skin tents during the summer. There is a turf hut just next to the Knud Rasmussen museum, and by paying entry to the museum you also get to go inside and see how people used to live all the way up until the 1950s, where the last family moved out of a turf hut. A slightly more modern version has also been built close to the icefjord, here you get away from the city, surrounded by icebergs and nature instead. This cabin is sometimes used for kaffemik, which is like inviting people for coffee, cake and local specialities. Which you can buy as an excursion.

Ilimanaq settlement and Lodge

Ilimanaq is a tiny settlement 15 kilometres south of Ilulissat. During the summer there are several daily departures to this cosy place. It takes around 45 minutes to a little over an hour to get there, depending on the amount of ice by the icefjord. You’ll find 15 gorgeous cabins, adapted to the environment, heated and powered by solar panels on the roof, with the excess power sold cheaply to the community. The interior of the huts is luxurious, and you’ll easily disconnect from the rest of the world to just enjoy the view to the sea, ice and whales.

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.

These huts are the product of a collaboration between the municipality, Realdania Byg and World of Greenland. The huts were ready for their first visitors in the summer of 2017, along with the restoration of two of the oldest buildings with a wonderful view and atmosphere. To get to Ilimanaq, you get to sail right past the amazing icefjord twice, going there and coming back.

Oqaatsut also known as Rodebay

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.

Oqaatsut means ‘the cormorants’ as there used to be lots of them, whereas the name Rodebay most likely was the Dutch name for a former whaling station and meant ‘the red bay’. Today it’s a charming little settlement with about 25 inhabitants, situated 20 kilometres north of Ilulissat. To get to the settlement you either sail or hike by following the orange markers from the airport(more on that later on). The terrain is fairly flat and the hike usually takes around 5 hours to reach this lovely place. There is 1 grocery shop, a hotel, guesthouse, hostel and restaurant. The inhabitants live primarily off of fishing but tourism has opened new doors as well.

Kaffemik / Home visit

Anytime there’s something to celebrate, like public holidays, birthdays, baptism, weddings, confirmations and when a young kid get their first catch we hold a Kaffemik. Kaffemik is basically like an open house invitation to coffee, cakes and lots of delicious local specialities. It’s a huge thing in Greenland, there isn’t a set start or end and everyone is welcome. You’ll often see friends and family members stay either the entire day or at least a few hours. Others even bring more provisions or cakes to this celebration.

Sometimes in Ilulissat and especially in smaller cities, you’ll find an invitation to anyone in town by a bulletin board, typically by the grocery stores, that usually means anyone and everyone is welcome to drop by.
It can also be bought as an experience, where you get to visit locals, who will serve home-baked goods and probably other local specialities such as dried fish. Here you’ll get some interesting stories about their lives in Greenland and can ask all the questions you want.

The midnight sun

Greenland is so far north that you can experience constant sunshine during the summer(midnight sun) and polar darkness during the winter. All cities and settlements north of the Arctic Circle, (which is at latitude 66° 33'39") experience this phenomenon. The Arctic Circle is defined by the point at which there are minimum 24 hours where the sun is above or below the horizon.

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.

In Ilulissat, the sun stays above the horizon from the 21st of May to the 23rd of July. This, in turn, means that people sleep less and you’ll find kids playing outside to far beyond midnight during the summer holidays. It can be difficult to fall asleep when it’s so bright and lively, so it’s a good idea to bring a sleep mask from home.

Flying over the Icefjord and the Ice sheet

Truly the only way to see how massive the ice flows and glaciers leading up to the inner icecap are is by taking a small prop plane.

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.

Simply put, the scenery from above is just spectacular. Massive calving glaciers collapsed into the sea while the looming white desert of the inner ice cap shows off its blue lakes and impossibly deep ridges. As you fly over the Ilulissat Ice Fjord, the skyscraper-tall icebergs glimmered and their massive size could be appreciated as the blue ice beneath was visible from above, and if you're lucky you can even spot whales from the air, a truly unforgettable experience.

The whales in the Disko Bay

From July, the bay starts getting visitors, whales migrate from the south to these nutrient-rich waters and although several species arrive you’ll most likely be seeing Fin whales and Humpbacks near Ilulissat.

The fin whale can grow up to 27 metres and is easy to recognize by its sharp dorsal fin and enormous size, they rarely show their tail but they might suddenly appear near the boat which is an incredible sight.

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.

The humpback whale is the most common whale to see, it has a humped dorsal fin, and as you can see on the photo above they have long white pectoral fins, although they can rarely be seen from the boat. But! They like to show their tail when they dive and have unique patterns of white spots on them as well. Scientists use these patterns to identify particular individuals. The humpback is probably the most beautiful one to see as they are playful and calm around boats, they can even jump completely out of the water with their 18 meter long bodies. 

Other species include minke whale, porpoises and then bowhead whales in the spring.

Some whales are protected species, whereas others can be hunted, but quotas ensure the hunt is sustainable. It’s part of the Greenlandic culture to hunt and eat them. The meat can be cooked in all sorts of ways, but the skin and blubber is a delicacy and is eaten raw.

Hiking trails around Ilulissat

There are several good hiking trails in Ilulissat, all well marked and these maps can also be found at the World of Greenland office for free, as well as some of the accommodation places, or just a quick search on google. Or just click here.

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.

The beginning (or the end) of the trails is by the old heliport, which is about a 15 min. walk from the city centre. The yellow, the blue, and the red are all fairly easy as long as you follow the painted markers. The markers are situated so that you once you reach one you can pretty much always see the next.

The yellow route

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.

The yellow is nearly 3 kilometres. It starts or ends by the power plant or the old heliport. You’ll get an amazing view to the front of the icefjord, from which you can also spot whales. You will also pass by the old graveyard.

The blue route

The blue route starts by the old heliport or by the quarry, we would recommend starting by the quarry as you’ll start off with a hard ascend and then the rest is fairly easy, following along the icefjord. It’s about 7 kilometres and you’ll pass by the ruins of a former settlement known as Sermermiut. Sermermiut was inhabited by several different Inuit cultures but was abandoned in the 1850s. There is not much left but with a keen eye, you can spot the wooden markers for where the old turf huts used to be. Notice that in this area you’re not allowed to walk outside the wooden path. If it’s too long you can skip the Sermermiut area and follow the red route back to the city.

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.

If you would like to learn about the flora, fauna and history of the place you should book a guided tour.

The unknown waterfall

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.

If you’re an experienced hiker, you can leave the blue trail and follow the icefjord a bit further in and you’ll eventually reach a small waterfall. It’s a good idea to buy proper hiking maps and to bring a GPS as this trail doesn’t really have cairns or coloured markers, you won’t find other people out there making it a wonderful little escape with a different view.

The orange trail / Cecilia trail 

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.

The orange route is a completely different route from the other mentioned so far, it starts near Hotel Avannaa or by the airport and goes along the coastline all the way to Oqaatsut. It’s approximately 23 kilometres and can take anywhere between 5 and 8 hours. A popular way to do the trail is to sail to Oqaatsut and hike back to Ilulissat. By doing so you get to sail, experience a settlement and do a wonderful hike on the same day.

Winter tours and experiences

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.
Ilulissat has polar darkness for about a month until the 13th of January, a period where the sun doesn’t show itself at all, however, the snow reflects the tiny amount of light that comes for 2-3 hours and in that period you can go on a tour. However, most tour operators wait until the 1st of February to really open up. It can get very, very cold, so if you’re planning to visit Ilulissat over the winter, make sure you bring all of your warm clothing. When you buy tours, there is often an option to rent proper polar gear or sealskin clothing, to ensure you don’t freeze too much.

Dog sledding

The best time for dog sledding is in March and April where the sun has returned and it isn’t nearly as cold as the previous months. There are plenty of options for dogsledding, anything from a 1-hour tour to an expedition type tour, spending nights in a hunters cabin, al food and equipment included, although it’s not guaranteed the guide can speak Danish or English. Yet the musher and the guest understand each other and will make some unforgettable memories without ever using the same language.

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.

A few tips:

  1. If you want to bring a bag, it will be hung behind the sled, for it not to take space from the seating and possibly fall off. Therefore if you want to take pictures you should have your camera at your body.
  2. Bring gloves that you can still handle the camera with, a lot of people take off their big gloves trying to take pictures and almost end up with frostbites in the minus 20 degrees Celsius.
  3. Never hold the side of the sledge, hold the strings in the middle. The sled moves quickly through narrow and sloped passages, sometimes hitting rocks so you risk seriously hurting your fingers if you hold onto the side.
  4. The 5-hour dog sledding tour climbs a steep mountain, be prepared to step off and hike part of it to help the dogs.

One last thing to remember is that having 10 dogs pulling you most like means one or more will fart and probably poop along the way. This looks pretty funny as the rest of the pack will keep running and just drag a sitting shitting dog, which very clearly has tried this before. Even though it might smell a bit, this shouldn’t scare you off as it is an unforgettable experience like nothing else in Greenland, and you can’t help but smile when you see this cooperation between man and dog.

Behaviour around dogs

You cannot just walk up to these dogs and expect to pet them, they are working dogs. They’re not used to being pet, especially not by strangers. So keep your distance from the big dogs that are chained up.

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.

A lot of old houses have tall fences, these used to be for keeping the dogs out and the children inside. Since the end of the 70s a new law was passed saying that all dogs over 6 months are to be chained. Which means puppies are the only ones roaming around free, they won’t harm you and are often very curious. You can pet those if they come to you.

Northern lights

Actually, there is almost always the northern lights over Greenland, but it must be dark to experience it, and for about two months during the summer it doesn’t really get dark at all. If you come at the end of August, you could get lucky enough to experience them. We would, however, recommend coming in March or April where it gets really dark, and the winter weather is more stable. Your best chances are when you can see lots of stars, and preferably without a full moon. It’s a good idea to spend at least a week if you want to be sure to see the northern lights, you can read more about it here.

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.

In Greenland, we still tell a legend to our children about the origin of Northern lights. The legend varies slightly depending on where in Greenland you go, but most often the green lights are our ancestors playing a type of football with a skull. The story goes, that if you whistle after the lights they will come down and take your skull and play football with that instead. So pretty much every child in Greenland has, once they were brave enough, tried whistling at the northern lights and then hurried back home just in case. The morale was probably to keep the young children quiet at nightfall.

Snowmobile tours

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.

Most snowmobile tours are available from the 1st of February, you go with them to the settlement Oqaatsut, riding part of the way across sea ice, and frozen lakes which you can look deep into if they aren’t covered by snow. There are also evening tours, to get far away from the light pollution of the city, increasing your chances of seeing northern lights. You can control your own snowmobile if you dare, as long as you already have a drivers license.

Snowshoe Tours

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.

You can go on several smaller hikes, both during the day and the evening in the hopes of Northern Lights. The snowshoes are very useful, ensuring you don't sink as much in the snow.

Ski tours

Ilulissat doesn’t have a lot of opportunities for alpine skiing, but more expedition style tours with tour skiis and pulks, sleeping in tents and crossing long distances every day, through the amazing backcountry of Ilulissat. Another option is to do cross-country skiing, every winter as soon as there’s enough snow, a track is made which also has a great view of the icefjord.

Christmas & New Years

Coming to Greenland around Christmas is very special. There are snow and darkness, which only makes the candles and traditional stars by the windows even more cosy-looking. It’s still possible to go sailing, hiking and driving dogsleds, and not to mention, the northern lights! Pass by the church and listen to the Greenlandic choirs sing church hymns, the Christmas spirit is everywhere! 

New years is also unique here in Greenland, as lots of fireworks are fired, the first major amount of explosives going off at 8 pm to celebrate midnight in Denmark and then for the big finalé at our own midnight, but there are fireworks pretty much every hour to celebrate different countries such as Iceland and the Faroe Islands. It’s one hell of a beautiful evening and highly recommended to come to see.

Photostops and viewpoints

There are plenty of beautiful photostops in Ilulissat.

There is, of course, the icefjord which you can capture from several places such as along the hiking routes, you can find a free map over the city by the hotels, the airport and at World of Greenland.

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.

This picture was taken down by the Old Maids Gorge, which is at the end of the boardwalk in the Sermermiut area.

Knud Rasmussens museum is situated by a lovely area with the turf hut, an old blubber boiler as well as kayaks and an umiaq. As you venture a bit closer to the water you’ll find the beautiful Zions church with the Disko Bay in the background.

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.

Then there’s the harbour, where you’ll clearly see the biggest business in town, a fish factory and lots of small boats. A good viewpoint is the bridge which connects the airport, Hotel Arctic and more with the city.

After the harbour and past the Hotel Arctic, towards the airport lies the current graveyard with lots of plastic flowers making a wonderfully colourful scene with a backdrop of the icefjord with its big icebergs. 

A good view of the city can be found from the cairn at the top of a hill near the centre of the city and the football field. There’s also a bench up there from which you can enjoy the view over Ilulissat.

Hotels and Hostels in Ilulissat

There are plenty of accommodation options in Ilulissat, everything from hostels, Airbnb to a 4-star hotel, and pretty much every season there’s a new one popping up as the city attracts more and more tourists. Here we have a list with a short description of your opportunities.

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.

Hotel Arctic

This is the most glamorous of the hotels, with its 4 stars and 5-star conference rooms. You’ll also find 5 igloos as part of the hotel, they’re a bit more primitive, but they have the best view being closest to the water, and how many people can actually say they’ve stayed in an igloo in Greenland?

The Hotel has massage options, free wifi and gym. There is a restaurant as well as a café, and the reception is open 24/7. It's about a 20-minute walk to the city centre, but free shuttles go every hour between 06 am and 6 pm.

Hotel Icefiord

Another fine hotel. Situated at the opposite end of town to Hotel Arctic, right down by the water and close to the yellow hiking trail. If you’re not staying here we can still recommend dropping by the hotel restaurant and bar as they have an outdoor terrasse with excellent view.

Hotel Hvide Falk

This hotel is situated very centrally. It’s a slightly older building which recently got new owners and has begun renovating and innovating the hotel. They’re known for their delicious Greenlandic buffet which is on the menu over the summer. Here you can try a bit of everything from the Greenlandic kitchen, also with a view of the ocean and icebergs, as well as the harbour, so you can follow up on the fishermen and tourist boats.

The other 2 hotels mentioned above also have Greenlandic buffet in the summer season.

Hotel Avannaa

Situated very close to Hotel Arctic, with a 15-minute walk to the city centre. Transport to and from the airport is included and breakfast is served on the 1st floor with a view to the ocean. Cosy atmosphere and the owner is often nearby making sure the service is at its best.

Vandrehjemmet / The hostel

Vandrehjemmet is placed very centrally. The building is very old, but it's a good option if you have a tight budget and would rather spend your money on excursions. There are shared facilities (kitchen and bath) in the two main buildings, with benches outside if you want to enjoy your food in the good weather.

Nuka Hostel

This is the newest accommodation in town (at the time of writing this article). You can book a room online, and will receive a code instead of a key, there is no reception, but it seems to be pretty fancy and well taken care off.

Paa & Janniks B & B

A very popular place for people who want to live a little more privately. All meals are served on the 1st floor in Paa and Janniks kitchen. It’s clean and there’s always time to chat with the owners who live in the same building. Today they have more than 1 house but you still receive great service. 10-minute walk from the city centre.

Blue Trail Guesthouse

A bit further up the hill than all the other accommodation options but Ilulissat is small and you can quickly get around, the nearest grocery store is just 5 minutes away. As the name suggests it’s right by the start of the Blue Trail. Shared showers and kitchen with a great view of the backcountry.

Airbnb

It’s still a fairly new phenomenon in Greenland but Ilulissat is catching up quick. The rooms and apartments vary a lot, so it’s recommended to really study close what you’re booking.

Camping

You can camp almost everywhere in Greenland and Ilulissat is no exception. However there are rules for staying inside the UNESCO area, a lot of people like to stay near the old heliport just outside the UNESCO area. There are no public facilities but you can grab a shower at the local gym which is in the middle of the city.

Huts

There are quite a few private huts around Ilulissat, which at the time were built as fishing cabins. Today, they’re more modern and built for weekend tours with friends and family. There are especially many in ‘Bredebugt’ a bay situated between Oqaatsut and Ilulissat. There are a few huts for rent both summer and winter, such as the one in Nalluarsuk, which you can hike to during the summer or go dogsledding to, during the winter. 

It’s also possible to stay in lodges in both Ilimanaq and by the calving glacier Eqi.

Cafés and Restaurants in Ilulissat

There are several options for where to get dinner or lunch, such as the hotels that are capable of serving any meal of the day and then there are the summer Greenlandic buffets, but what else is there beside the hotels?

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.

Here’s more info about dining places in Ilulissat:

Hotel Hvide Falk

Placed the most centrally of all the hotels, it is famous for its Greenlandic buffet in the summer months but also has á la carte.

Hotel Arctic

Here they have the Restaurant Ulo and Café Ferdinand. Ulo has a Greenlandic buffet as well as an amazing barbeque buffet every Saturday during the summer. You have to be early out to get a table for the restaurant, but the café also has a variety of delicious dishes such as ‘The Arctic Burger’ made with reindeer meat, and mini tapas with peel-yourself snow crab.

Hotel Icefiord

Having a big terrasse right by the water is a huge plus. They also have blankets and heaters for colder evenings. The bar is excellent with a few options of local beers that are brewed in town.

Restaurant Mamartut

The name actually means ‘That which tastes good’, and it fits perfectly as the food is delicious. The chef uses a lot of local ingredients and cooks them with a modern twist. They are especially known for their Greenlandic Tapas and we can strongly recommend this if you’d like to try a lot of delicacies in one sitting.

Bryggeriet ‘The Brewery’

A completely new restaurant, on the slightly more expensive side, but well worth the money! Situated in the same building as Café Iluliaq (Café Iceberg), where you can go grab lunch or buy some wifi. The two places have the same owner and are placed right across from World of Greenland. The small terrace is often packed during the summer.

Naleraq

A decent place owned by a local elderly couple and run by their daughter. It’s the only discotheque in town but works as a diner through lunchtime and dinner. The menu is more like a typical grill house with pizzas, burgers and so on. They also get a decent ‘course of the day’ such as the Danish classic ‘Flæskesteg med brun sovs’ and Lasagne. People come here to get a beer and watch football on the large TV-screen or sit by the terrace having bought wifi. It’s by the main road close to the big grocery stores of Pisiffik and the Brugsen under construction.

Inuit Café

A perfectly cosy place for coffee, soda or beer. A lot of people come here for lunch. You can sit outside by their small terrace and enjoy the fresh air. It’s a small red rounded building on the right side following the main road from World of Greenland.

Cafénnguaq

The name means ‘The sweet café’, the perfect name for a place that started out small and became a whole family business due to its simple but delicious concept and great service. It was started by a true entrepreneur that is also environmentally minded. Here you can get bagels and sandwiches and choose your own fillings, whether it’s salmon, chicken or pork, that’s up to you. You can also get a smoothie with a reusable metal straw or just a great cup of coffee or chai latte. If the sun is baking they also have cold beers. It’s situated close to the Art Museum and share building with Blue Water Shipping.

Ilimanaq Restaurant

Since 2017, a new restaurant came to be in the settlement of Ilimanaq. Restaurant Egede is in a renovated house from the 1700s. Ilimanaq is 15 km south of Ilulissat and only accessible by boat, during the summer there are shuttles both day and night, so you can come for lunch or dinner and experience the atmosphere of a tiny village.

Restaurant H8   

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.

Run by a local family, they serve an excellent fish platter and is one of the few places where you can actually buy the national dish of the traditional seal soup, a simple dish cooked with rice, onions and different vegetables.

How do I get to and around from Ilulissat?

Flights to Ilulissat

Air Greenland and Air Iceland both fly directly to Ilulissat. Either from Reykjavik, Iceland or via Kangerlussuaq if you’re coming from Denmark. Learn more on our flight page.

Arctic Umiaq Line

The coastal ferry, Sarfaq Ittuk, sails to and from Ilulissat once a week. During winter it stays for less than 2 hours by the harbour, whilst during summer it’ll stay for about 4 hours. The ship sails from the 10th of May to the 9th of January. No sailing between 9th of January and the 10th of May.

Diskoline

This company has a variety of smaller boats, capable of taking 5, 9 or 12 passengers and even 36-60 passengers. They sail year-round, connecting the larger cities and settlements in the Disko Bay.

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.

Notice they don’t have routine tours to the Eqi Glacier, as this is only a tourist spot. You can book it right here.

Cruises

Summer is high season for tourists in Ilulissat, and they arrive by plane, boats and cruise ships. Now and then you might find 2-3 cruise ships anchored just outside the city, bringing in guests with zodiacs. These large ships only stay for a day or two, and will then continue their journey north or south. The cruise guests are easily recognized by their jackets as a bunch of people will suddenly walk around town in the same brightly coloured jacket. Check out our cruises here.

The Harbour

Ilulissat has two harbours, the Atlantic harbour and tourist pontoon. The coastal ferry, trawlers as well as container ships all dock by the Atlantic harbour, whereas the smaller boats, for example, tour operators or the Disko Line departure to Disko island, all leave from the tourist pontoon which is on the opposite side of the Atlantic harbour.

Practical information

Wifi, telecommunication and internet in general

Most hotels, hostels and b&bs have accessible internet, but as the internet is still very expensive in Greenland, it is so far only Hotel Arctic and Hotel Icefiord where its free for their guests. All other places you have to pay a small fee.

It’s also really expensive to do any form of telecommunication, be sure to check with your provider what roaming cost is in Greenland. We suggest setting your phone to only use wifi. Greenland is also a place to immerse yourself in nature and soul, so we dare you to stay offline while you’re here in the Arctic, far from your usual lives.

Should I worry about polar bears?

Ilulissat is quite far north, and we understand people can get worried by this, but it is incredibly rare to see a polar bear in the Ilulissat area. There have been a few encounters on the Disko Island and the next big city south of Ilulissat, most likely because the current brings icebergs down past these places, but as Ilulissat is far inside the Disko Bay, there are very, very little chances of seeing a polar bear. In 2007 a young cub was found near the dump, but that’s the only encounter in newer history.

Mosquitoes

There are a lot of mosquitoes during June and July, and August flies in August. It’s a good idea to get a mosquito head-net or a spray. They can be bought in pretty much every shop. As Ilulissat is by the sea there’s often a breeze that helps keep the mosquitoes at bay.

Hiking maps and city map

You can find a city map under the Hiking segment in this article, or if you’re already in Ilulissat you can find some for free at World of Greenland, the airport and most accommodations. Hiking maps can be bought at most tour operators and cost around 120 dkk a piece.

Souvenirs and local handicrafts

There are lots of places to get souvenirs, we recommend stopping by the local handicraft workshop, a red building you’ll find walking towards the harbour from World of Greenland. It has a big sign saying ‘art workshop’, here you can buy directly from the artists which also makes it a bit cheaper. They only accept cash, but there is a bank with an ATM 2 minutes away, you pass it on the way to the art workshop.

Apparel shops

For sporty things go to Pilu Sport, Sarah or Butik 56 all situated by the main road. To get boots, outdoor gear and such, check out Sarah and Butik 56 as well as Torrak Fashion which is inside the Pisiffik store. For Greenlandic design go to the souvenir shops such as Glacier shop or to Butik 56. For wool and skins, check out Systuen.

Museums

There are 2 museums in Ilulissat, one is the Knud Rasmussen museum, the building is actually where the famous polar explorer grew up, the 1st floor has been painted to mark the routes he took on his expeditions. Admission is 60 KR, and allows you to go inside the turf hut just next to the museum building, which will give you an idea of what life was like before the European influence. This admission also gives you access to the second museum, the Art Museum, a place filled with gorgeous paintings, both modern and classical. They have a rich collection of Emanuel A. Petersens’ creations and is well worth a visit.

Churches and religion

The Zions church is the black iconic church placed beautifully by the sea next to the hospital, it’s only open on Sundays, unless there is a public holiday on other weekdays. The opening hours are listed on the door.

The second church is the Qullissat church. The name stems from a coalmine village which was closed down in 1972. About 1200 inhabitants were forced to move away, and many moved to Ilulissat, where several apartment buildings were made to house them.

There’s also a Baptist church in Ilulissat, however, 95% of the locals are baptized as Lutherans. The last 5% is a broad mix of religions.

Grocery shops

There are several grocery shops in town. Pisiffik is in the centre of town along with Elgiganten (tech shop), here you can find everything from food to make-up to a freezer for that matter. It’s all right next to the football field, and a new show is being built on the opposite side of the road from it. Pisiffik is open from 7 am to 21 pm, whereas the Spar grocery shops are open until 23 pm. Super 1 which is part of the Spar chain is just by World of Greenland and the bank - they’re open from 9 am to 9 pm.

Brættet / The local meat market

This is where local fishermen and hunter come to sell their goods directly to the local citizens, here you’ll find all kinds of fresh fish but also reindeer, musk ox and seal depending on the season. Taking photos here is prohibited.

Icefjord centre and northern lights centre

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.

Photo by: Dorte Mandrup Arkitekter

Ilulissat has so much to tell about their phenomenal icefjord that they’ve chosen to build a large visitor centre for people to learn more about the area and the research being done on it. The picture above shows the winning project by Dorte Mandrup Architects. It’s going to extend the existing boardwalk and the shape is inspired by the snowy owl landing.

Besides the icefjord centre, a northern lights centre is now also in the works, a cooperation between the municipality and Denmarks Technological University, to attract both scientists and tourists.

The cultural house and cinema

The cultural house is connected to the local stadium/gym, which is used for football, handball, badminton and much more. The cultural house is only used for special occasions and the cinema rarely shows movies, as it is run by volunteers, but you can keep an eye out by the different bulletin boards in town if you want to catch a movie while you’re here.

Sports

The stadium or sports hall also houses a gym, which you can pay a one-time fee to enter or buy a membership card too. They have a sauna which is enjoyed by many during winter. A new fitness centre named fitness.gl is also available. Besides the gym, a lot of people like to go cross-country skiing, especially when the sun has started showing itself again in January.

As soon as the sun is back, you’ll start to see runners. There are quite a few arranged runs in the Ilulissat area. Every Monday there’s an orienteering run, where everyone is welcome to join.

Kangia race is a 3-day run, held in June every year, where you have to be a team of 2-3 to participate, where you’ll run with your gear in a backpack.

In July there is both the AMO and Cecilia run. AMO is 3 different distances and levels of difficulty held over a weekend. The second is a run from Oqaatsut/Rodebay to Ilulissat, with varying degrees of difficulty as well. A lot of local runners also go to Aasiaat to run a 10, 21 and full marathon under the midnight sun. The run starts at 9 pm.

The hospital

This hospital probably has the best view in the world, it’s the large red building right by the ocean, next to the Zions church.

Pharmacy

There are no pharmacies in town, but over-the-counter-meds can be bought in the grocery stores. Otherwise, you go to the hospital.

Dentist

If you for some reason need to go to the dentist, it’s by the new Mathias Storch school. You have to call in the morning or meet up before 8 am to get an appointment

Traditions in Greenland

There are lots of unique traditions in Greenland, and especially during public holidays. Christmas and New Years are wonderful as most windows in both homes and workplaces are lit up by a star, and you’ll hear Christmas music everywhere. The long dark days if winter makes it an unforgettable experience. Greenlanders cherish Christmas and go all out on decorating their homes, baking cookies and getting together with friends and family. On Christmas and New Years, a lot of people go to church bearing the National Costume.

The National Costume of Greenland

The National Costume came to be around the 1600s when Europeans started trading with fabrics and pearls. These pearls were used as part of the women's celebratory attire, at first, it was simple things like earrings and necklaces, but it was also a way to show status, the more pearls you had the better off you were, and it eventually grew to what we see today.

The National Costume is used at all Public Holidays, some babies will already have one when they are baptized, and then have one for every upcoming celebration such as your first day at school, confirmation, graduation, weddings, Christmas and of course on the National Day on the 21st of June.

When you visit Greenland you might find people wearing it in church on a Sunday sermon. Summer is also filled with confirmations so you’ll find a lot of people wearing them on a day like that.

The main profession in Ilulissat

Fishing and hunting is the biggest source of income in Greenland. In Ilulissat about a third of the city's inhabitants either works as a fisherman or has a role in the factories. Royal Greenland is the largest business and the world’s biggest producer of cold water shrimps. There are plenty of factories around Greenland, Ilulissat has their main focus on shrimps and halibut.

Most fishermen work in small open boats with several fishing lines. They’ll spend 2-4 hours preparing bait on up to 800 hooks. Then they go out in the Disko Bay fix the lines and 10-12 hours later collect the delicious fish.

Being a fisherman is hard work and the price often changes. A few years ago several fishermen had to make their own private factory “Halibut” to create some competition for the government-owned businesses, thereby increasing the price of fish making it more profitable for fishermen.

Here in Greenland, you grow up fishing and hunting, and it’s not uncommon to see 10-year-old kids learning to steer a boat and shoot a rifle. When you walk along the harbour you can clearly see the fishermen boats all over the place, including the larger ones for fishing and whaling. 

The Disko Bay

The Disko Bay is named after the Disko island in the middle of the bay. There are 2 villages on the Island, Qeqertarsuaq and the settlement of Kangerluk. In the rest of the bay, you’ll find several villages/cities and settlements. From south to north it’s; Attu, Ikerasaarsuk, Niaqornaarsuk, Kangaatsiaq, Aasiaat, Akunnaaq, Ikamiut, Qasigiannguit, Ilimanaq, Ilulissat, Oqaatsut, Qeqertaq of Saqqaq. 

The Disko Island

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.

Disko Island is big enough to be on the top 100 largest islands of the world. The island is about 100 km from the mainland and can be seen from Ilulissat. It is 160 km at its longest, and the highest point is 1919 meters above sea level. There is a dead glacier called Lyngmarksbræen, where you can go dogsledding most of the year, a phenomenal experience and you’re high in the mountains with views all around the Disko Bay. The Island is very different from the mainland, being a younger volcanic island it’s a lot more like Iceland with basaltic rock formations and black sand beaches.

Qeqertarsuaq -  A hidden pearl

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.

The city of Qeqertarsuaq is about 2-3 hours of sailing from Ilulissat. It has about 846 inhabitants, a cosy museum, a hotel, a few hostels, a restaurant, café, one large grocery shop and one of the most beautifully situated football fields in the world.

The houses are sitting right by the coastline down by a beautiful black sand beach which can hold its own against the ‘Diamond beach’ in Iceland.

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.

In the Blue Café, you can buy an Angelica smoothie, as maybe the only place in Greenland.

The Disko island has lots of basaltic rock formations, and several gorgeous waterfalls, such as the one by the ‘red river’ only about half an hour hike from the city.

Tourism is growing in Greenland

Tourism is the second largest source of income in Greenland and it’s growing. People want to experience something unique and different and Greenland can offer just that.

The Complete Guide to holidays and tours in Ilulissat, Greenland.

Over 80% of the tourists who visit Greenland, go to Ilulissat. Here, naturelovers, globetrotters, and families and many others come to experience something special, as you’ll find most things you think of when you think of Greenland which are icebergs, glaciers, whales, gorgeous landscapes and cultural experiences.

Go back to top