Why you should care
Because you can hear the roar of an iceberg calving 30 miles away.
In Ilulissat, Greenland, the ice tells a story.
The sharp crack of splitting icebergs sets the scene of a remote town built beside a glacier. Breaching whales and the gulls that chase them remind me we’re not alone as we zip through the icefjord in a Zodiac boat. In this remote town — Greenland’s third-largest — distant howls confirm the rumors: Ilulissat’s sled dogs outnumber the 4,500 people.
But few sounds paint the picture of the town’s past, present and future like the thunderous roar of a calving Jakobshavn Glacier 30 miles away. This glacier, known as Sermeq Kujalleq in Greenlandic, is the fastest moving in the world. It’s one of few glaciers where Greenland’s 660,200-square-mile ice sheet (which covers about 80 percent of the country) reaches the sea. And there’s nothing like experiencing it in person.
A trip to Ilulissat is an eye-opening look at a culture built around ice — a culture that Denmark’s Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen reminded the world is Greenlandic, not Danish (cough, President Donald Trump, cough). It’s also not for sale.
Tourism in this northwest Greenland village is built around the 34-mile-long Ilulissat Icefjord. Experts believe the iceberg that sank the Titanic originated in this iceberg-filled fjord. It’s also one of the best places to comprehend climate change, but not in the way most would expect.
While the Greenland ice cap is rapidly melting — it lost a net mass of 197 billion metric tons in July 2019 — the Jakobshavn Glacier responds differently. “The ice front feeding icebergs to the fjord is changing yearly, sometimes growing, sometimes receding,” says Charlotte Mougeot, an environmental geoscientist with expedition company Adventure Canada. The glacier responds to changes in water temperature, whereas the ice cap responds to air temperature increases and changes in albedo (reflective power), she explains. “That glacier has not been melting as much as the surface of the ice cap itself.”
You feel so tiny in this grand scenery that’s still untouched by humans. It’s slow travel and nature at its best.
Kasper Trojlsgaard, local guide
Mougeot teaches about the calving Jakobshavn Glacier and its correlated icebergs on Zodiac tours. These excursions are part of a multiweek voyage above the Arctic Circle (trips start at $6,500), but they’re not the only way to witness the ever-changing icefjord. Independent travelers can experience this UNESCO World Heritage Site on a hike or boat ride with local outfitter Ilulissat Adventure. Owner Kasper Trojlsgaard, who has been guiding in Greenland for two decades, says few experiences are as humbling or awe-inspiring as seeing Ilulissat’s ice firsthand. “You feel so tiny in this grand scenery that’s still untouched by humans,” he says. “It’s slow travel and nature at its best.”
Some travel experts predict Greenland will be the next Iceland, but they are hardly on the same playing field. With mountainous roads and Jökulsárlón Lagoon’s icebergs that can reach 100 feet, Iceland’s definitely an adventure. But Greenland has no roads connecting its remote towns, and its massive icebergs can reach up to 300 feet, with some large enough that NASA saw them from space. If anything, Greenland is next-level Iceland.
Given its location and an economy increasingly reliant on tourism, Ilulissat makes its ice easily accessible with a fjord-view wooden pathway that connects to town. Sermermiut, a former Inuit settlement-turned-icefjord vantage point, is a scenic 15-minute walk from the Ilulissat port. This trail shows the best of Ilulissat — colorful houses, Arctic tundra and skyscraper-high icebergs that extend to the horizon.
While the icebergs are best appreciated at ground level, one of the coziest vantage points comes with a side of crowberries (edible fruit that grows across Greenland). Restaurant Mamartut uses fresh local ingredients like musk ox, reindeer, halibut and crowberries to concoct a variety of home-cooked, upscale dishes. The best part? A massive, window-with-an-iceberg-view helps guests literally digest just how magical and illuminating a trip here can be.
“When you realize that scale of what you’re looking at, it connects you because you have a better understanding of the whole,” Mougeot says. “Ilulissat gives you a very direct sense of the humongous scale of the ice cap and what’s happening on a larger level.”
Plus, that view.
Go There: Ilulissat
- Location: The Ilulissat Airport is accessible by plane from Reykjavík (via Air Iceland) and Kangerlussuaq (via Air Greenland). Map.
- Grab a bite: Ilulissat’s only brewery, Brewery Immiaq, has a taproom in Café Iluliaq. Beers like Ullorissat are brewed with local ingredients like crowberries. Enjoy one with the café’s popular musk-ox burger.
- Best time to visit: Ilulissat is open year-round to visitors. In the summer months, there is 24 hours of sunlight (not to mention warmer weather), while winter brings the magic of icebergs under the northern lights.
- Pro tip: Sled dogs, which used to be the main form of transportation between towns, have been replaced by snowmobiles. To support a local establishment that’s caring for the forgotten sled dogs, take a tour with Arctic Living Ilulissat, where you can view the glacier with a team of furry friends.