See the Northern Lights in Greenland

Northern Exposure

The Inuit of Greenland call it sila, the immense natural world experienced with all five senses. It is the whispering wind that shapes the surface of the snow, the crisp inhale of Arctic air, the coarse touch of rocky shores.

"We know we can't control nature; we can only be close to it," says Greenlander Jane Petersen.

Kalaallit Nunaat, as Greenland is called by indigenous Inuit, is the great frontier of the north, a vast, stone-faced giant capped by an ice sheet more than twice the size of Texas. Aquamarine rivers squiggle across its white void, feeding a thousand thundering waterfalls that flow into enormous fjords. The qajaq (kayak) allows close sightings of spouting whales—and, if you're lucky enough to be on a small ship that can access remote habitats, Greenland may be the best place in the world to see polar bears in the wild.

Circumpolar athletes will gather in the capital, Nuuk, for the 2016 Arctic Winter Games, the largest international event ever hosted in the country. Along with skiing and ice hockey, participants will compete in ancient games such as the finger pull and kneel jump.

"We understand that we are only borrowing this land," says Petersen. "That is why we love sharing it with others." —Andrew Evans

Travel Tips

When to Go: June to August for the midnight sun, mild weather, and hiking and boating; September to April for the aurora borealis and snow sports; March 6 to 11 for the Arctic Winter Games

How to Get Around: Kangerlussuaq Airport in western Greenland is the main entry point for international visitors. There are no road or railway systems connecting towns. Longer trips are by air and sea (April to December). Local travel is typically by small boat, car, and, in winter, by snowmobile or dogsled. The capital, Nuuk, does have a city bus system.

Where to Stay: Perched seaside within walking distance of Nuuk city center, Inuk Hostels ticks three big boxes: convenient location, front-row views of Nuuk fjord, and the opportunity to experience traditional Greenlandic culture. There are four wooden cabins (28 beds total) with common rooms and small kitchens. Meals aren't included, but the café does serve local fare such as reindeer and Arctic char. Optional activities include Inuit storytelling sessions.

Where to Eat or Drink: Restaurant Ulo at the Hotel Arctic in Ilulissat specializes in fresh-from-the-fjords-and-fells cuisine. Seawater from adjacent Disko Bay is regularly used to prepare bread, vegetables, and fish. Other local staples include seaweed, musk ox, Greenland halibut, and Greenlandic herbs (like sheep sorrel and knotted pearlwort). June to September, book a bayside table to watch the icebergs float by at the Monday Greenlandic evening buffet.

What to Buy: A tupilak (soul of the ancestor)­ is the Inuit version of a voodoo doll. Before choosing one to take home, learn more about these Greenlandic talismans at the Nuuk Art Museum. Traditional tupilaks were sculpted into tiny creatures inspired by Inuit mythology. Souvenir figurines range from ghoulish to impish and are made of antlers, wood, stone, animal bone, or soapstone.

Cultural Tip: Some of the most common, and useful, Greenlandic expressions are unspoken. Wide eyes, a slight head tilt up, and raised eyebrows means "Good day." "No" involves varying degrees of nose wrinkling, while "yes" requires lifting the eyebrows, puckering the lips, and loudly sucking in air.

What to Read Before You Go: Part travelogue, part ethnological study, part adventure story, Gretel Ehrlich's This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland (Vintage, 2003) details her travels across the high Arctic by dogsled, plane, and small boat.

Fun Fact: Greenland's original wooden buildings (built in the 1700s from prefabricated timber kits shipped from Scandinavia) were painted rainbow-bright hues for function, not fashion. Exterior colors signaled what took place inside, such as yellow for hospitals, black for police stations, and blue for fish-processing houses.

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