Ice fjords to dancefloors: a weekend in Ilulissat, Greenland

With its rumbling ice fjord and a harbour bobbing with bergs, Ilulissat’s glorious setting is a huge enticer for travellers to Greenland.

But there’s no need to wrap up and hop onto a sled for this Arctic adventure (unless you want to). Ilulissat is Greenland’s third-largest town, with enough history and culture to keep you entertained between outdoor excursions.

Perhaps surprisingly for a country best known for yawning wilderness and plummeting temperatures, Ilulissat has fine dining and a lively nightlife. By Arctic standards, it’s a rather cosmopolitan experience. Here’s how to spend a weekend in Ilulissat, from hiking the ice fjord to hitting the dance floor.

Ilulissat's cluttered harbour. Image by Anita Isalska / Lonely Planet

Friday

Afternoon

Spend a while situating yourself in this town of 4500 humans and 3500 sled dogs. Ilulissat is a striking place, with colourful corrugated metal houses scattered along sparsely populated streets. Founded as trading post Jakobshavn in 1741, the icebergs crowding the harbour in their hundreds gave the town its current name: Ilulissat translates to ‘icebergs’ in the Kalaallisut (Western Greenlandic) language. Unesco gilded the ice fjord with World Heritage status in 2004, luring visitors to this rainbow-coloured town at the end of the world.

Stroll from the harbour up Quikasik to the centre of this little town. Grab a snack at Cafe Iluliaq or central Hong Kong Cafe, which serves surprisingly authentic pan-Asian dishes. While you’re in the centre, browse for Greenlandic souvenirs. Traditional sculptures and jewellery take inspiration from Inuit designs; plus you can pick up woolly clothing to take the chill off the rest of your weekend.

A rainbow of differently coloured houses in Ilulissat. Image by Anita Isalska / Lonely Planet

Evening

During Greenland’s summer (mid-June to mid-September), the sun hardly kisses the horizon before rising again. Capitalise on that sun-fuelled energy by joining a midnight boat tour to the ice fjord, Ilulissat Kangerlua, which produces 20 billion tonnes of ice each year. From the deck of a rocking boat, you’ll watch icebergs the size of four-by-fours list in the waves. The barely-setting sun will tint them gleaming blue, pink and orange under a sky that slowly darkens to bronze.

The 1100m-thick Sermeq Kujalleq glacier feeds the ice fjord, which moves at a magnificent 25m per day. Immense pressure from swathes of ice and packed snow produces rippling patterns and icy turrets across the glacier face. From the boat you’ll see a wall of ice glowing powder-blue in the faint sunlight. Several Greenland-based outfits can arrange boat tours, including World of Greenland (worldofgreenland.con/en) in central Ilulissat.

Boat trips around Disko Bay are by far the best way to admire Ilulissat's ice fjord. Image by Anita Isalska / Lonely Planet

Saturday

Morning

Start with some culture at the Ilulissat Museum (ilumus.gl/en). This small gallery is tucked within a building that was formerly North Greenland’s first teaching college (dating to 1848). Its exhibitions contextualise the town’s history and pay tribute to Ilulissat’s most famous son, Knud Rasmussen, the first European to survive crossing the Northwest Passage by dogsled, a daredevil odyssey of 16 months. Rasmussen’s polar expeditions and study of Inuit cultures were cut short when he died aged 54; the cause is still quibbled, with some blaming a rogue serving of kiviak, an Inuit dish of auk birds fermented within sealskin.

Enormous iceberg bobbing off the shore from Ilulissat. Image by Anita Isalska / Lonely Planet

Afternoon

If the thought of Rasmussen’s final kiviak hasn’t diminished your appetite, grab a hot dog from Center Grillen before embarking on your own (somewhat tamer) expedition.

If you still have your sea legs, book onto a whale watching tour. During summer, humpback, minke, and fin whales all glide through the waters of Disko Bay; find excursions on the Ilulissat Tourist Nature website (touristnature.com).

Alternatively, lace up your hiking boots: the ice fjord isn’t only visible from the high seas, you can also take a walk along the shore to see the phenomenon in bright daylight. Follow signs from central Ilulissat to wooden boardwalks which lead to the ice fjord. Stick to the blue hiking trail markings: calvings from the 55km-long ice fjord can create a freezing-cold tidal wave that sweeps along the shore.

Boardwalks lead from Ilulissat town to the remarkable ice fjord. Image by Anita Isalska / Lonely Planet

Evening

Reward your exertions with a Greenlandic coffee at Hotel Icefiord. This wickedly warming cocktail combines whisky, kahlua, hot coffee, a dash of Grand Marnier and whirl of cream. For dinner, move on to Mamartut (mamartut.dk), a restaurant of 10 years’ pedigree with fresh prawn and halibut mains, fish soups and generously sized burgers. Finish at Naleraq, Ilulissat’s premier live music venue, which hosts local acts from jazz to rock. Check ahead at the noticeboard outside Pissifik supermarket to see what’s going on, or simply rock up. Dancing until dawn takes on a new meaning in the land of endless sunshine.

Sunday

After a leisurely start, take a harbour stroll to watch fishermen at work or hit Penalhuset for some last-minute souvenir books and pictures to take home. Finish with a Greenlandic feast of crab souffles and local lamb at Ulo, part of Hotel Arctic. The deck of this high-end restaurant overlooks the town’s berg-strewn bay, ending your trip with flavours and views certain to linger in memory.

Deck with a view – overlooking Ilulissat from Hotel Arctic. Image by Anita Isalska / Lonely Planet

Make it happen

Whether you’re coming from Greenland capital Nuuk or from Copenhagen in Denmark (the main flight hub into the country), your plane will transfer via Kangerlussuaq. Book flights via Air Greenland (airgreenland.com). With bare public transport on the roads, flights are the key way to hop between Greenlandic destinations.  

Ilulissat has several decent places to stay, though the sound of howling sled dogs can be a nuisance in the middle of town. Top spots to sleep include central Hotel Hvide Falk and Hotel Arctic, perched on a rocky promontory overlooking Ilulissat.