The Big Arctic Five
Five of the most popular experiences in Greenland, also known as the Big Arctic Five. Find out which experiences have become a part of the Big Arctic Five and where you can experience them.
Greenland is an incredibly versatile country. Here you can find everything from the flickering Northern Lights, golden midnight sun and impressive glaciers to lush meadows, deep fjords and wonderful wildlife. The Big Arctic Five is the term given to five of the most popular experiences in Greenland. These are the experiences that make Greenland as unique as it is. This is also why they often have a high priority with people visiting. Don’t miss out on the Big Arctic Five when you travel to Greenland.
It doesn’t matter whether you choose to travel there in summer, winter, spring or autumn. No matter the season you choose there is always great experiences waiting and you are promised an adventure only few get to try.
This guide is an introduction to The Big Arctic Five in Greenland.
The Northern Lights
Ice and snow
The pioneering people
“Give me snow, give me dogs, and you can keep the rest!”
Knud Rasmussen, polar explorer
The dog sled – the epitome of winter in Greenland
For many people, Greenland is synonymous with dog sledding, which is a big reason why it is one of the Big Arctic Five. And there is no better way to experience Greenland than to go dog sledding through the white landscape, with only the sound of the dogs and the crackling snow to break the silence. Dog sledding is for everyone; with short trips just 2 hours long and expeditions lasting several days.
The Dog sledding districts
There are around 25,000 sled dogs in Greenland. The dog sled is solely used in the area north of the Arctic Circle and in East Greenland – the areas colloquially known as the “Dog sledding districts”. Sisimiut and Kangerlussuaq are the two southernmost towns on the west coast where it is possible to go dog sledding in winter and spring – however, February, March and April are the best months for dog sledding. You can actually go on a long weekend with Greenland Travel to Kangerlussuaq and experience both dog sledding and the Northern Lights.
The dogs quickly catch on to the fact that it’s time for work. They shake off the freshly fallen snow and jump up and down in pure glee. With a sure hand, the sled driver picks the dogs he wants, and you’re off! You jolt forwards on the sled, and it takes you a moment to get your balance. The silence, the vast plains, the bond between the driver and the dogs, and the cold transport you swiftly into a different world…
Family trips and racing
The people of Greenland enjoy dog sledding, too, so they also go on trips for the fun of it with the family on Sundays, for example. Every spring, races are held in many categories: professional (fishermen/hunters), amateurs (recreational drivers), women, children, etc., much to the enjoyment of all those watching.
Want to try dog sledding?
A trip to Greenland in winter offers every opportunity to go dog sledding. You sit on the sled, either alone or with another, while the sled driver sits at the front of the sled. If you have a bad back, choose a shorter trip over flat terrain, but otherwise most people can cope with longer dog sled trips. Warm clothing is a must. We recommend that you rent sealskin clothing and warm boots when you get there, even for short trips. Bring your own warm mittens, socks, inner layers and a warm hat.
The Northern Lights (AURORA BOREALIS)
The Northern Lights are one of the great surprises of the polar darkness, and part of Greenland’s identity. The phenomenon causes even Greenlanders to pause and head outside on a clear night to enjoy the night sky.
Spirits playing football
The play of colours of the Northern Lights has always fed people’s imagination, including the Inuit. Legend has it that when the Northern Lights are dancing around in the sky, it is the spirits playing football with a walrus skull. Other people believe that those born during the Northern Lights will be blessed with particular intelligence.
However, the scientific explanation is somewhat less dramatic. It was the Italian scientist Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), who came up with the term “Aurora Borealis”, which is best translated as the “northern dawn”.
The Northern lights – an amazing show of light
The Northern Lights can be experienced in most parts of Greenland. It is best viewed on a clear, dark nights sky. You can experience it from September until early April. The undulating, mythical and magical Northern Lights will surprise and amaze you, and Greenland is the perfect place to experience the phenomenon. Out in the middle of nature, where the mountains and the snow are lit up by the green and red light show. Greenland is one of the best places in the world to experience the Northern Lights. There is very little artificial light and the skies are often clear, creating the best conditions for seeing the Northern Lights.
Greenland welcomes you with the Northern Lights
You do not have to travel to the northernmost, remote areas of Greenland to see the magical Northern Lights. Arriving at Kangerlussuaq, the “gateway” to Greenland, you stand a good chance of being welcomed by the “flickering green curtains” on a winter evening.
In just one long weekend, you can travel to Kangerlussuaq, see the Northern Lights and experience all the other fascinating attractions in and around the town.
Ice and snow
It all starts with the Ice Sheet. You cannot fail to be fascinated by the sheer scale and the power and beauty of the Ice Sheet. The icebergs are calved from the glaciers before heading off on their long ocean voyages. They are unique, magnificent works of nature.
Ice is everywhere in Greenland
If the Greenlandic Ice Sheet were to melt, all the oceans of the world would rise between 6 and 7 metres. It contains almost half of all the fresh water in the northern hemisphere. The Ice Sheet stretches some 2,400 km from north to south. It is around 1,100 km wide, covering an area around 40 times larger than Denmark. The highest point is approximately 3,238 metres above sea level. In the thickest area it is about 3,500 metres thick, as the ice has pushed the underlying landscape far below sea level. The bottom of the Ice Sheet could be up to two million years old.
Experience the Ice Sheet in several places in Greenland
There are several places in Greenland where you can experience the Ice Sheet up close. In Southern Greenland, the Ice Sheet winds its way through the landscape, and the actual edge of the ice can be reached on a day’s hike. It is also possible to sail into one of the many ice tongues that run down into the fjords and fill them with ice.
In Kangerlussuaq, the Ice Sheet is a mere 30 km from the settlement. You can reach it on one of the organised trips by bus/jeep in around two hours. This is a very popular tour, you can try all year round. In the summer, you can get right up to the edge and walk on the actual ice. It is also possible to hike to the edge. Or if you are up for it, you can bike there along a bumpy dirt road.
If you travel to the east coast, you will find deep fjords where the inland ice calves, filling the fjords with giant icebergs. According to one of our most well-travelled consultants, East Greenland is the most beautiful place he has ever been.
Icebergs and calving glaciers
When pieces of Ice Sheet breaks off and become floating icebergs, one of the best places to see them is the UNESCO protected ice fjord at Ilulissat. It is not without reason that one of the main attractions in Greenland is the Icefjord. Here icebergs break directly off the Ice Sheet before being pushed out into Disko Bay. This results in rich fishing grounds arising, feeding the local towns and villages. The Icefjord gives visitors a unique access to a truly phenomenal area of natural beauty.
In the case of the Icefjord, there is one place that is totally unique, the Eqi Glacier. There are few places in Greenland as beautiful as the Eqi glacier, which flows into the fjord, 70 km north of Ilulissat. By boat, you can get right up close to the edge of the glacier and watch it calve massive pieces of ice. The noise is immense and the sight of icebergs falling into the water is breathtaking.
However, the best experience of the calving glacier is to be had from staying the night at Glacier Lodge Eqi – a unique and intense experience where you stay at the little cabin village directly overlooking the glacier. From here, you also have the option of hiking to the edge of the glacier, which is, of course, part of the Ice Sheet.
Capital of the icebergs
The Icefjord is located at Ilulissat, which is Greenlandic for icebergs. The town is scenically situated at the mouth of the 60-km long fjord. Here more than 40 million tonnes of ice flow from the Ilulissat glacier into the Icefjord every day. The icebergs break off at the edge of the Ice Sheet and are sent out through the long fjord where they become stranded on a sand moraine close to town. This makes the Icefjord quite unique – not only is it incredibly beautiful, but it is also easily accessible on foot, by boat or by helicopter.
The massive icebergs extend more than 100 metres above sea level. Occasionally, there is so much pressure on the stranded icebergs that some of them break free and are carried by the current up through Disko Bay. The Icefjord and the glacier are the most productive glacier – not just in Greenland, but in the northern hemisphere. The glacier is 7 km wide and more than a kilometre thick. The endless amounts of ice can be observed from quite close quarters.
Regardless of how you experience the ubiquitous ice, it makes you feel very small, surrounded by impressive and all-encompassing nature.
Sailing in Greenland is a wonderful experience in itself, but even more so, when a whale emerges from the depths right near the boat. Some 15 species of whale are regularly spotted in Greenlandic waters, and you stand a good chance of catching a glimpse of them. In the summer, it is generally the humpback whale, the minke whale and the fin whale that you will see. Where in the winter, there are three species of whales that you are most likely to see, namely the beluga whale, the narwhal and the Greenland right whale.
The Greenland right whale – longest, heaviest and oldest
Weighing up to 100 tonnes, the Greenland right whale ranks among the heaviest whales and is one of the heaviest animals ever to have existed. Greenland right whales sometimes live to more than 250, making them the longest-living mammals in the world! But it’s not just their age that makes them so impressive: The Greenland right whale grows to a length of up to 18 metres, weighs up to 100 tonnes and inhabits what is undoubtedly in the planet’s most beautiful region around Canada and Greenland. The Greenland right whale is an Arctic species.
The humpback whale – the acrobat of the sea
The humpback whale is almost as long as the Greenland right whale. It can grow to be 18 metres, but it “only” weights 30 tonnes and is therefore one of the ocean’s acrobats among the great whales. Its highly distinctive beat of the tail takes your breath away. It is easily recognizable from the distinctive black and white patterns on the underside of its tail. Also special for this species is the fact that it often beats its tail when it dives.
The minke whale – the little “herring whip”
The minke whale is a relatively small whale that grows to a length of up to 10 metres and weighs up to 10 tonnes. The whale is seen in fjords and along the coasts of South and West Greenland and at Disko Bay – typically from May to October. However, it is also seen in many other places in Greenland and at other times of the year.
Narwhal – with its twisted tusk
The narwhal is a medium-sized toothed whale that typically weighs 800–1,600 kg. It is best known for its distinctive spiralling tusk, which in some males can reach a length of up to 3 metres. In Greenland, narwhals are most frequently spotted in Melville Bay, in the area around Qaanaaq and in Northeast Greenland.
The beluga whale – a medium-sized toothed whale
Like the narwhal, the beluga whale is a medium-sized toothed whale. The beluga whale is often seen in small groups of 5 to 10 animals, but it has been spotted in pods of several thousand animals. In Greenland, beluga whales are seen between Maniitsoq and Disko Bay as well as at Qaanaaq and Upernavik.
Read more about whales in Greenland.
The pioneering people
Greenland has always attracted adventurers from all corners of the globe. They are welcomed by a nation of pioneers that show them the way, building bridges from tradition to modern life. Meet the people of Greenland, in a country steeped in the pioneering spirit of the past and present.
A hospitable people in a very large country
Greenlanders are a hospitable, dynamic people. For generations they have lived from nature and in the heart of it. The scale and grandeur of the nature instils the local people with a sense of calm and an admirable respect for the elements.
Spread out along a coast as long as most of Europe, fewer people live in Greenland than can fit into a medium-sized football stadium. The population of Greenland is a widely distributed society which is interwoven with the whims of nature. They are interwoven to such an extent that the Greenlanders merely shrug their shoulders if the weather forces them to change their plans or wait for days.
The conditions are not inconceivably harsh, and Greenlanders live in neither turf huts nor igloos. Greenland is a modern society. It may sound dull, but it really isn’t. The climate, cultural history, flora, fauna, the light, the sounds, the landscapes, the language, and not least the Greenlanders themselves, create a society that gives life in Greenland a unique edge. The traditions and the original hunting culture live on relatively unchanged in the small settlements, which are easy to visit.
It is not unusual for everyday life in Greenland to consist of sitting in an office landscape one moment, only to find yourself in an open boat in pursuit of adventure in a nearby fjord a few hours later.
A changing Greenlandic identity
Greenland has always been in the midst of unrest and upheaval. From the first waves of immigration to todays cultural diversity, and movement toward independence, the country has been marked by people who have taken control of their destinies. There is a lot of discussion today about what the Greenlandic identity really is. Especially when it has to accommodate different realities over large geographical and social distances. Greenlanders are trying to come together in a common project about where they are headed, and this affects them in their everyday lives. This is something you can clearly feel when you visit the country.
The tours, that we here at Greenland Travel put together, are made to give you the very best experience. This also means that The Big Arctic Five are a big part of it, as they are a key factor for arctic travel and to give you the most popular experiences in Greenland.
Now you know what the Big Arctic Five are, but you can also read more about other things to experience in Greenland.