Facts about Greenland – Land of the People
The Greenlanders call their own country Inuit Nunaat or Kalaallit Nunaat, meaning Land of the People or Land of the Greenlanders, respectively.
Greenland is a vast country with big contrasts. Greenland is the world's largest island but it also has one of the smallest populations. Greenland is full of surprises, impressive facts and strange contradictions. Why is it called Greenland for example, when 80% of the country is covered by a white ice sheet?
The church in the colonial harbor in Nuuk, capital of Greenland. Foto: Daniel Gurrola - Visit Greenland
Worth knowing about Greenland
If you are considering a trip to Greenland, it is good to have some basic knowledge about Greenland. Greenland differs a lot from other countries and places in the world. Actually, it is hard to compare Greenland with anything else in the world.
Five important themes about Greenland
- 1. Greenland’s geography
- 2. Greenland’s population
- 3. The Greenlandic Society
- 4. Transportation in Greenland
- 5. Tourism in Greenland
Greenland has the lowest population density in the world. Foto: Erwin Reinthaler
1. Facts about Greenland’s geography
How big is Greenland?
Greenland is the world's largest island. The area is 2,175,600 square kilometers. That area is larger than the following countries combined: France, Germany, Spain, United Kingdom, Italy, Greece, Switzerland, and Belgium.
Facts about Greenland’s geography
If you’re doing a quiz and get a question about Greenland, here are a few good facts to memorize.
- From north to south Greenland is 2,670 kilometers
- From east to west, Greenland is 1,050 kilometers
- The closest country is Canada only 26 kilometers away
- Greenland’s highest point is Gunnbjorn’s Mountain, 3,733 meters
- Greenland’s southernmost point is Cape Farewell
- Greenland’s northernmost point on the mainland is Cape Morris Jessup
- Greenland’s westernmost point is Cape Alexander
- Greenland’s easternmost point is called Nordostrundingen
- Greenland is actually situated east, west, south and north of Greenland.
See also map of Greenland.
It is an interesting thought that Greenland's southernmost point lies on the same latitude as Oslo in Norway, while the westernmost point lies on the same latitude as New York. Greenland's northernmost point is Cape Morris Jessup, located only 740 km from the North Pole. There are also two small islands north of this, the Coffee Club and Oodaaq Island. However, they are very small so usually the distance to the North Pole is measured by the distance from the mainland.
Read more about Greenland’s geography.
The Ice Sheet in Greenland, here close to Kangerlussuaq. Foto: Mads Pihl - Visit Greenland
How big is the Greenland Ice Sheet?
Approximately 80% of Greenland is permanently under ice. The Greenland Ice Sheet is covering the middle of the huge island and it is the world's largest glacier. The Greenland Ice Sheet is several kilometers thick and, in some places, it is so heavy that it has pushed part of Greenland below sea level.
Crazy facts about the Greenland Ice Sheet
- The Greenland Ice Sheet covers 1.8 million square kilometers
- The Greenland Ice Sheet has a volume of 2.85 million cubic kilometers
- The Greenland Ice Sheet holds approximately 7% of all the fresh water reserves on Earth
- At its thickest point, The Greenland Ice Sheet is 3,500 meters.
Read more about the Greenland Ice Sheet .
Northern lights above Nuuk in Greenland. Foto: Mads Pihl - Visit Greenland
What’s Greenland’s time zone?
Greenland spans three time zones when you include the Thule Air Base. As travelers in Greenland, most of the time you only need to relate to one time zone as central Greenland is using GMT-3 (Greenwich Mean Time minus 3 hours). Thereby, Greenland is four hours behind CET (Central European Time) and two hours ahead of EST (Eastern Standard Time, e.g. New York City).
In the town of Ittoqqortoormiit on the far east coast, they use GMT -2 and at Thule Air Base they use GMT-4).
Children playing on the beach in Qeqertarsuaq
2. Facts about the population of Greenland
If we were to give you one single fact about Greenland's population it would be this: The Greenlandic people is a warm people. When travelers who have been to Greenland are asked to name their greatest experiences in Greenland, meeting the warm and welcoming locals often rank very high.
How many people live in Greenland?
You will find one of the world’s smallest populations in Greenland. Only about 56,500 people live in Greenland. Most residents were born in Greenland. About 11% of the population comes from Denmark and other countries. The population growth is stagnant.
Sisimiut in Western Greenland has approx. 5,500 inhabitants. Foto: Visit Greenland
Where do the Greenlanders live?
Seeing that 80% of Greenland is covered by the Greenland Ice Sheet, where do the Greenlanders live then? The answer is, obviously, that they live along the coasts. The ice-free areas in Greenland is about 410,500 square kilometers. This corresponds to the size of Norway and it is 10 times the size of ??The Netherlands.
Almost all of Greenland’s population live in South Greenland and West Greenland, while only about 10 % live in East Greenland and North Greenland. Living conditions and supply options are simply easier in the south and west than in the east and north. In turn, many live a more aboriginal hunting life in the north and east.
The majority of Greenland’s population lives in towns. There are about 48,000 inhabitants in the 16 towns of Greenland and the other 8,500 people live in the country's 60 settlements.
Greenland's capital, Nuuk, is located in West Greenland and is by far the largest town in Greenland with its 16,500 residents. The other major towns in Greenland are Sisimiut, Ilulissat and Qaqortoq. The second largest town is Sisimiut with about 5,500 inhabitants. The rest of the towns have from 1,000 to 4,500 inhabitants.
Read more about Nuuk.
Café life in the capital of Greenland, Nuuk. Foto: Daniel Gurrola - Visit Greenland
The Greenlandic language
Greenland is called Kalaallit Nunaat in Greenlandic, which translates to the ‘Land of the Greenlanders’. It also sometimes go by the name Inuit Nunaat, which means ‘Land of the People’.
The mother tongue and official language in Greenland is Greenlandic with Danish functioning as a second language. Danish is a relatively new language in a Greenlandic context. It came to the country when Greenland was Christianized in the early 18th century. It has become widely used, especially in an administrative context and in some of the larger cities.
Many Greenlanders speak Danish and English, particularly in the tourism industry. You cannot assume that everyone does, but then you can get far with gestures and smiles and maybe get some help from people around you.
Greenlandic, Kalaallisut, is closely related to the language spoken by Inuit in Canada and in Alaska. In Greenland, there are three main dialects - one in the north, one in the east and finally the West Greenland dialect which forms the basis for the Greenlandic orthography.
The older generation in Greenland speaks Greenlandic and not necessarily a second language
The most important words to tourists
Greenlandic is a language often based on idioms and it is also a difficult language. Greenlanders like it if you try to speak their language and if they laugh at you then it is only meant affectionately. Greenlanders like to have fun.
- ”Qujanaq” means “thank you”
- ”Ajunngilaq” means “it’s ok”
- ”Immaqa” means “maybe”
- ”Aluu” means “hello”
- ”Baj” means “bye”
As a visitor, you should especially notice the word "immaqa". In Greenland, many things depend on the weather. Greenlanders have learned that planning is always subject to "immaqa". When this happens, take a deep breath and accept the fact that you cannot take control of everything in Greenland.
The Norse arrived in the lush South Greenland and thus the country was names Greenland. Foto: Mads Pihl - Visit Greenland
Immigration to Greenland
Immigration to Greenland has occurred in waves. Overall, we speak of four waves, namely three waves of Inuit descent from the west and then the European immigration from the east.
This place is called Sermermiut and here you will find traces of former Inuit settlements. Foto: Visit Greenland
Saqqaq, Dorset and the Thule Cultures
Approximately 4,500 years ago, the first Inuit came to the country, the so-called Saqqaq Culture. The Dorset Culture also came from the west approximately 2,000 years later. Large parts of the current Greenlandic population are descendants of the Thule Culture, who came to the country about 1,000 years ago.
The first two immigrations of Inuit were paleo-Eskimos who had their primary life on the tundra, hunting for caribou, musk oxen, etc. The people of the Thule Culture were neo-Eskimos who based their lives on catching marine animals.
Almost simultaneously with the arrival of the Thule people, the Norse came to Greenland from Iceland and settled in the fertile South Greenland. Through their 500 years in Greenland, the Norse were making farms all the way from South Greenland and up to the Nuuk Fjord. The Norse were the first non-Inuit who came to Greenland.
Sermermiut in the Disco Bay on the shore of Ilulissat Icefjord is one of the most visited places in Greenland. The view of Ilulissat Icefjord and the proximity to the town makes it a popular destination. Sermermiut has been a settlement for many Inuit cultures through more than 4,000 years. With an expert at your side, you can still see the remains of some of the settlements.
Ilulissat is one of the places with remnants of the early Inuit cultures and buildings from the later Danish colonization. Foto: Thomas Nørby Mogensen - Visit Greenland
Greenland as a Danish Colony
In 1721, the Danish-Norwegian priest Hans Egede came to Greenland and made Greenland a Danish colony. He christened the Greenlandic population and today the country is a Lutheran-based society. Greenland is no longer a Danish colony, but ties with Denmark remains tight, both formal and informal.
Nuuk is the center of Greenland’s administration and government. Foto: Daniel Gurrola - Visit Greenland
3. The Greenlandic society
Throughout the past 80-100 years, Greenland has gone through big changes in relation to governance, but luckily all the changes have happened peacefully.
Greenland governance in recent times
- 1721-1953: Danish Colony
- 1953-1979: County-like status
- 1979: Home Rule
- 2009: Self Governance
Governance in Greenland today
Greenland is now a parliamentary democracy within the Kingdom of Denmark (along with the Faroe Islands). Greenland achieved Home Rule in 1979 which gave its population more influence on their own lives. In 2009, Home Rule extended to Self Governance, ensuring Greenland an even greater degree of autonomy - also in relation to international affairs.
Greenland is not part of Denmark's membership of the EU but through the commonwealth with Denmark it has a close cooperation with the EU.
Self Governance in Greenland is represented by an elected parliament of 31 members. The Parliament is called Inatsisartut in Greenlandic.
The members of Inatsisartut chose The Cabinet which corresponds to a government. The cabinet consists of 7-10 Ministers. The Cabinet is called Naalakkersuisut in Greenlandic.
The small settlement of Ilimanaq in the Disco Bay has approx. 50 inhabitants. Foto: Gustav Thuesen - World of Greenland
The National Day of Greenland
The National Day in Greenland is June 21, and the national anthem is called Nunarput, which translates to "Our Country". The National Day in Greenland is celebrated across the country with coffee, cake and, in many places, a big buffet. Many Greenlanders put on their national costume and attend a flag parade through town. If you happen to be there, go. It's a great experience to celebrate the National Day of Greenland.
Currency in Greenland
The currency in Greenland is Danish kroner. There have been Greenlandic banknotes and coins with the same value as the Danish kroner but production of these stopped in the late 1960s.
In most towns, you can use credit cards. In the settlements, it is a good idea to bring Danish cash. Foreign credit cards can be used in most stores in major towns but not in all shops. Especially the smaller ones are reluctant to take foreign cards due to high handling fees.
Fishing is still the biggest trade in Greenland although tourism is growing. Foto: Gustav Thuesen - World of Greenland
Industry in Greenland
Fishing remains the largest industry in Greenland and, with approximately 85% of total exports, the country's biggest source of income. Mainly shrimp and halibut are exported.
Besides fishing, a major source of income in Greenland is the so-called block grant from Denmark. Tourism, mining, crafts, handicrafts, small shipyards and service industries are other sectors that complement the country’s revenue. Much emphasis is on increasing revenue from tourism and mining.
In 2012, the gross domestic product was estimated to be 13.8 billion DKK. Living standards are generally high in Greenland but, to outsiders, the living standards in some settlements would appear – and is - low by modern standards. The settlements are often located far away from everything and are difficult to provide – and it can be difficult to get a job there. In return, the settlements can often provide a stress-free life you will not find elsewhere.
Most travelers to Greenland arrive with plane from Denmark
4. Transportation in Greenland
Imagine a country where there are no roads between towns. You can’t just take a bus or your car to the nearest town. This is what living in Greenland is like. There just aren’t any roads between towns in Greenland. Therefore, the infrastructure in Greenland is based on air and sea traffic.
How do I get to Greenland?
There are two ways to get to Greenland: You go by plane from Iceland or Denmark or arrive on one of the many cruise ships. There are not any passenger ferries going to Greenland.
Read more about flights to Greenland.
There aren’t any roads between the towns in Greenland. Foto: Mads Pihl - Visit Greenland
How do I travel domestically in Greenland?
When you are traveling around in Greenland, you do so either by plane, helicopter or with a coastal ship. To and from small settlements you can usually go with smaller tourist boats. However, they do not sail very often so make sure to plan ahead.
To many people, understanding the infrastructure of Greenland is difficult. A lot of people also question the high costs of transportation to and in Greenland. However, domestically in Greenland, it is only possible to fly by small planes or helicopters as the airports are not large enough to the bigger planes that operate elsewhere in the world.
Domestic flights take up to 40 passengers at the most and some places can only be reached by helicopter. This can give a maximum of down to 5 passengers in the small helicopters. This is the conditions people live under in Greenland. On top of this, add the Arctic climate and its implications on flying.
Read more about the 5 most used means of transportation in Greenland.
The coastal ship sails between some of the towns on the West Coast of Greenland. Foto: Mads Pihl - Visit Greenland
Sailing in Greenland
The Greenlandic shipping company Arctic Umiaq Line ensures passenger traffic between the towns of Qaqortoq in South Greenland to Ilulissat in North Greenland. Smaller ships take care of local transportation in the different regions.
Arctic Umiaq Line sails along the west coast with the coastal ship Sarfaq Ittuk. Sarfaq means current and, in this case, ocean current. Ittuk (pronounced Edook) refers to the sound of the old ships of yore.
Umiaq means ‘women’s boat’ in Greenlandic and, in former times, the women’s boat was used to transport family, wives and children from place to place.
Among visitors to Greenland, traveling with the coastal ship is very popular.
Read more about the coastal ship in Greenland.
The dog sled is used for hunting and recreation in the winter time. Foto: Mads Pihl - Visit Greenland
5.Tourism in Greenland
People travel as never seen before. Global tourism is growing and interest in Arctic destinations is increasing. We experience that very much at Greenland Travel.
The number of tourists is also increasing in Greenland and, in 2015, there were more tourists visiting Greenland than there were inhabitants in Greenland. Approx. 68,000 people from around the world visited Greenland.
Excursion to Eqi Glacier in Greenland. Foto: Visit Greenland
This is why Greenland is a popular destination
Although tourism in Greenland is growing, we are not talking about mass tourism. When traveling to Greenland, you quickly get the feeling of experiencing something unique and unspoiled. You can stand somewhere looking at giant icebergs and not see another person for miles around. The nature in Greenland is so huge that even though tourism is growing, mass tourism is not found.
As a destination, Greenland has received many accolades in recent years. Greenland is on Lonely Planet's Top 10 List of Best Travel in 2016 and on National Geographic Traveler's Top 20 "Best Trips 2016".
We at Greenland Travel who have traveled to and lived in Greenland for many years this is not exactly news. However, we are rejoicing because it shows that Greenland is becoming better known and recognized internationally as a unique travel destination.
Whale safaris are very popular in Greenland
The five most popular things to do in Greenland
Greenland offers many beautiful places to see and things you can experience. You have probably seen photos of the Greenland Ice Sheet, dog sledding, giant icebergs and the magical northern lights. When we ask our visitors, five experiences go again as the most popular.
These five experiences are sometimes referred to as The Big Arctic Five.
Read more about popular things to do in Greenland.
If you want to travel to Greenland, we recommend that you visit the page where we list all of our tours to Greenland.
Guide to Greenland holidays
In guide to Greenland holidays you find an overall introduction of Greenland as travel destination, when, where and how to find your dream Greenland holiday.
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