Ilulissat is one of Greenland’s most picturesque towns. It’s a place surrounded by snow-capped mountains, fields of snow, glaciers and vast ice fjords that have turned this remote settlement into a growing tourist destination.
Found north of the capital Nuuk, on the isolated western shores within the Arctic Circle, Ilulissat is the third largest ‘city’ in Greenland. That makes it a unique center for culture, tourism, and food, but with a population of just over 4,000 inhabitants, it’s by no means a huge place.
This peace and charm though make it an appealing destination, especially when combined with the stunning natural setting.
It’s this natural setting that is the real attraction for most visitors. The name ‘Ilulissat’ is derived from the local Inuit word for Iceberg, and you will soon notice that just off the coast, can be found the unbelievable sight of thousands, upon thousands of icebergs that form one of the largest icefields in the world.
It’s a beautiful, remote and icy place to visit, and to help you to plan your trip, here’s our guide to Ilulissat, including our top tips on the best things to do in Ilulissat.
Things to do in Ilulissat
There are many things to do in Ilulissat, whichever season you choose to travel to the town in. It’s the perfect place for outdoor lovers to immerse themselves in the wild scenery of Greenland, and there are many activities to enjoy from hiking to kayaking.
Ilulissat is also an interesting place to experience and learn more about local culture and local ways of life in this isolated and extreme part of the world.
Our trip of 4 days was just long enough to see the major highlights of Ilulissat but with the effort of traveling to Greenland, we would advise you spend at least a week to really experience all that the area has to offer.
The Ilulissat Ice Fjord
Ilulissat’s biggest and best-known tourist attraction is the Ilulissat Ice Fjord. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the world’s natural wonders and it’s right on the doorstep of the town itself.
Icebergs are formed from the Greenland Ice Cap to the north of Ilulissat, and once they break off, they float along the fjord before entering Disko Bay, which is found by the town itself.
The icebergs can be enormous, sometimes measuring a kilometer in diameter, and it’s one of the most unusual and spectacular sights to behold as the huge blocks of ice float along the water, on their way out into the open ocean.
Visiting the Ice Fjord is, of course, one of the best things to do in Ilulissat, and there are a few different ways to experience this natural spectacle. Boat and sailing trips regularly head out to navigate the mass of ice, while those that enjoy the cold can explore by kayak.
During summer, you can also hike along parts of the fjords, to be greeted by exceptional vistas, and ice as far as the eye can see.
We explored the Ilulissat Ice Fjord 3 different ways during our visit on foot, kayak and cruise, mainly because we wanted to look at the ice with different lighting.
Visiting during the Midnight Sun gives you the perfect opportunity to view and photography the ice with that amazing yellow and pink glow that you’ve seen in photos. This is best done on a Midnight Sun Ice Fjord cruise, like the one we did with Ilulissat Adventure.
Due to the currents and water temperatures during the summer, many whales make their way above the Arctic Circle to feed and they love the icy waters that surround Ilulissat.
We were able to pair our ice fjord cruise with some whale watching because during our visit two humpback whales took up residence within the entry of the ice fjord. It was truly a sight to behold, watching them diving near the icebergs in search if krill.
We were also told that the whale watching is particularly good around Disko Island, off the coast of Greenland adjacent to Ilulissat. There is a deep channel between the island and mainland Greenland that invites several species of whales during the summer.
Sightings are almost guaranteed and it is possible to book a day trip or several hour boat trip to take you to that area.
Invented in Greenland by the Inuit people, kayaking is can’t miss thing to do in Greenland. It gives you a chance to get on the water level and up close and personal to the massive icebergs near Ilulissat.
It is a life changing experience to be able to experience nature’s power in such an intimate way. The guided trips with PGI Greenland are run both during the day and in the evening during Midnight Sun.
The entire tour is led by experienced local guides who provide all the proper equipment for kayaking, dry suit, thorough briefing and instructions throughout the tour. There really is nothing quite like being at water level as you approach big ice.
Read about our Greenland kayaking experience: Greenland Kayaking: An Adventure Like No Other
Hiking in Ilulissat
Greenland is a coveted hiking destination and exploring by foot can lead you on countless adventures from Ilulissat. Most popular are the three marked routes just outside of town, the red, yellow and blue hiking routes.
Each one offers hiking with spectacular views of both Ilulissat and the ice fjord. The route vary in distance and difficulty.
- Yellow Route – this trail is 2.7 kilometers long and takes around 1.5-2 hours to complete. This is the most popular route as it gives you fantastic views of the Ilulissat Ice Fjord without being a long nor difficult hike. The first part of the trail is completely covered with an elevated board walk to avoid the surrounding marshes. It’s a great path for you if you’re looking for a shorter hike or do not have the fitness to complete the longer trails.
- Blue Route – this trail is 7 kilometers long and takes around 4 hours to complete. We would recommend that you have average fitness and be comfortable walking up steep rock areas and navigating rocky ground. That said, this trail offers amazing views of the ice and surrounding area. Many people head to this area to watch the sun set, yes ever during Midnight Sun. It is possible to make the blue route a shorter hike by taking the red route back instead of making the whole blue route loop.
- Red Route – this trail is 1 kilometer long and is the only trail that does not loop, meaning you hike in for the view and that back out the same way. If you are short on time this route will take you directly to a viewpoint where you can see the ice fjord. There is not much to see and you will miss the best part of the area by using such a direct path but it’s better than nothing if it’s all you have time for.
Visit Old Town
While the center of town is a lively, more modern place, it is still possible to experience some of the charm from the original settlement of Ilulissat. Here you can visit the old Knox church, original kayak club, hospital and the Ilulissat Museum.
This museum is also the birthplace and former house of famous arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen.
The museum tells the story not only of Rasmussen’s exploits, but of Ilulissat itself, and it’s an intriguing look at the many local cultures that have either thrived or perished in this extreme part of the world.
Sermermiut is an old Inuit settlement that is found just a kilometer or so from the modern town of Ilulissat. In summer, it’s possible to make this short hike from the center of town, and there are a few stone ruins that mark an area that has been settled on and off for almost 4000 years by locals.
The entire area has been designated as part of the Ilulissat Ice Fjord UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The hiking routes in the area lead you through the grounds on elevated walk ways to ponder the simple existence of the people that once lived there. It also offers an incomparable vantage point of the massive ice at the entrance to the Ilulissat Ice Fjord.
Learn About the Sled Dogs
Located just outside of Ilulissat are two large dog fields. These are designated areas for the Greenlandic mushers to house their sled dogs during the summer season and an opportunity for you to get a good look at these amazing animals.
Beloved for their hardiness, strength and work ethic, the Greenlandic Husky is the prize of any man that spends a long winter in Greenland.
Crossed between a domestic husky and Arctic wolf, the Greenlandic Husky has the purest bloodline of any domesticated canine on earth. This is due to the strict laws in place about importing canine from other parts of the world, simply put, it’s not allowed.
They do not want to introduce anything that could weaken the lines of the dogs. Having a chance to see them up close is a gift, especially when there are puppies in late summer.
As the dogs are very loyal to their masters, nobody is allowed to enter a dog yard in Greenland without a musher. In Ilulissat, you’ll pass by one of yards as you walk towards Sermermiut and the start of the hiking trails.
This gives you a chance to observe the dogs and if you’re lucky some puppies will come over for a visit. You can also book tours that will allow you to meet a musher and meet his team of dogs. Do not ever approach an adult Greenlandic husky.
Found in Disko Bay, close to Ilulissat, Oqaatsut is one of the smallest continually inhabited settlements in the region.
During summer, there’s an excellent hiking route that leads from Ilulissat to Oqaatsut, while during winter, the best way to get here is as the locals do, by cross-country skiing, dog sled or snowmobile.
The route simply follows the coast and runs for around 20 kilometers, and although it’s a very small place, there are accommodation options available in Oqaatsut, allowing you to stay overnight before returning to Ilulissat the following day.
Popular ways to visit this settlement in the summer include boat trips to and from, boat trips to and kayak back and of course by hiking as I mentioned above.
Hiking options include hiking there and taking a water taxi back or hiking there and back with an overnight. A trip here is a visit to rural Greenland, and it’s a brilliant look at small-town life at the edge of the world.
The Eqi Glacier is one of Greenland’s most incredible glaciers, and it’s located not too far from Ilulissat. It still requires a boat trip to reach this icy behemoth, but it’s well worth enduring the cold and rolling waves of the fjords to see.
This is an active glacier, and you can hear and see the ice being carved off to float on the water. There’s even a lodge which accommodates overnight visitors and is found looking directly out to the glacier. If you fancy, you can even camp out on the ice cap.
Taking a trip out to the Eqi Glacier is an incredible experience but you should know that unless you choose to stay overnight near the glacier, it is a very long day trip with unstable water conditions.
The average day trip takes 12 hours, leaving early and arriving back to Ilulissat late, of course all dependent on weather and water conditions.
Where to Stay in Ilulissat
Compared to other towns in Greenland, Ilulissat has a surprising range of accommodation options available to travelers. However, it’s always wise to ensure that you book in advance.
Being a very small town, these options are still, of course, limited in number and in rooms, and even more so in peak season.
We stayed in two different places during our visit and found them each great for their own reasons.
Ilulissat Guesthouse – this charming guesthouse is known as the ‘blue house’ and is located right on the water offering insane views of the ice and coast line. While you have great views, this guesthouse is located quite a distance from the city center. This means when you want to dine or shop you have to walk a long distance or call a taxi. You compromise easy access for quiet sanctuary. The house is small but comfortable offering 3 bedrooms with 2 shared baths, a shared kitchen, dining room and living area. The guesthouse is owned by the same people that operate Ilulissat Adventure, so you can stay there and also book all your tours with them.
Check prices and book your stay: Ilulissat Guesthouse
Hotel Ilulissat Bed & Breakfast – this place was newly opened before our visit and is located right in the center area of town. You have easy access to all the dining options, shopping and departure points for tours. The rooms are cozy and fitted with cable TV. The entry system is totally keyless so arriving at any time of day or night can be accommodated. Breakfast and WIFI are included in your stay, which is a fantastic perk in Greenland. We liked staying here because of it’s location and would recommend to anyone visiting Ilulissat.
Check prices and book your stay: Hotel Ilulissat Bed & Breakfast
Other popular places to stay in Ilulissat include the Hotel Arctic, one of the best rated – and most expensive – hotels in town but offers all the comforts and amenities to make sure your stay is perfect.
Hotel Icefiord is another favorite, offering great rooms at a reasonable price – for Greenland anyway!
There are a few hostels emerging in Ilulissat for budget-minded travelers and during summer there are plenty of camping options in the surrounding area, while many tours offer overnight excursions that allow you to stay out on the ice.
There are also options in nearby settlements too, with lodges available at Ilimanaq and at Oqaatsut too, if you are looking for a more rural stay amongst the locals who live in these remote parts all year round.
How to Travel to Ilulissat
Ilulissat is located on the western coast of Greenland, and in terms of transport infrastructure, it’s well connected for a Greenlandic town. With an ever-expanding tourism industry, Ilulissat is becoming easier and easier to travel to.
However, there are still only limited flight options here, at least internationally, as the small airport has only recently begun to accommodate flights from Reykjavik in Iceland.
Most travelers will need to change at the Kangerlussuaq international airport – a former US military base that handles most larger aircraft flying into Greenland.
To Kangerlussuaq, there are regular international flights to Copenhagen in Denmark, and then from Kangerlussuaq, there are regular domestic connections to Ilulissat on smaller aircraft.
There are also domestic flights to Nuuk, Greenland’s capital and largest city, as well as to other major Greenlandic towns such as Sisimiut with Air Greenland, the local air carrier.
We flew directly from Reykjavik, Iceland to Ilulissat and there were 20 people on our flight. The flight was delayed, which is something to be expected when flying to Greenland but we had the most amazing views of East Greenland from the plane thanks to the Midnight Sun season.
Greenland has few roads, and so overland travel between towns, through what is essentially one vast wilderness, is almost impossible, so if not flying into Ilulissat, the only other option to travel here is by ship.
There are regular connections during summer from towns all along the coast, while another popular method of transport is via the increasing number of arctic cruise liners that call in at Ilulissat.
Ilulissat itself is small enough to wander around on foot, and to get further afield and out into the surrounding landscapes is best done as the locals do, either on dog sled or snowmobile when winter has arrived, or by hiking or 4×4 during the summer.
The ice fjords, the highlight of any trip to Ilulissat, are best experienced by boat or kayak.
The Best Time to Visit Ilulissat
Ilulissat lies very far north and experiences extreme arctic weather conditions. The most popular time to visit is during summer, which runs from June to September.
During this short summer season, the small town can be booked full with tourists, so it’s necessary to book well in advance to secure spots on tours and to secure hotel rooms.
The summer season is when the weather is at its warmest, although it’s still very cold, and it’s when the days are longest. You can experience the midnight sun and enjoy pleasant hiking and outdoor conditions at all hours of the day and night.
We visited Ilulissat at the end of July and experienced a wide spread of weather, with average highs of 45˚F. During our 4 day stay we experienced 2 days straight of rain and sleet. The other 2 days were sunny and very pleasant but still not warm.
You will be well above the Arctic Circle so even in summer, you should plan for a cold weather visit.
Spring and autumn can be both be great times to visit too when Ilulissat is much less busy, however, this is when the weather is still very cold and conditions can be unpredictable. In spring, life in this remote part of the world really begins to bloom.
Winter, for those willing to experience extreme cold and almost no daylight hours, can be a really interesting time to travel to Ilulissat, particularly if you are interested in dog sledding or snowmobiling, while during this dark period of the year, the Northern Lights can be seen almost every night.
Planning A Visit to Ilulissat
Greenland is not a cheap destination. There, I said it. However, with proper planning it is possible to do it without breaking the bank. We’ve compiled a list of useful information to help take the guess work out of planning a trip to Ilulissat:
- Flights to Ilulissat can be booked from Reykjavik, Iceland or Copenhagen, Denmark. They typically run in excess of $1,000USD and it is advised to book them well in advance of your travel plans. The longer you wait the more expensive they will be. All flights to/from Greenland are operated by Air Greenland and they can be booked directly on their website.
- Air Greenland operates a very strict checked baggage policy. Do not bring bags that weigh more than 20kg or you will be charged and excess baggage fee. They also weigh your carry on luggage, the limit is 8kg and excess baggage fees apply here too. I know it is easy to assume they will not weigh your bags but they do. Every single one and they do charge for overweight luggage, checked or otherwise. Save yourself some money by planning ahead and streamlining your packing.
- There are no ATM’s at the airport, so if you arrive without Danish Kroner currency you will not be able to get cash until you get into town.
- All taxis, stores, hotels and restaurants take major credit cards.
- ATM’s in Ilulissat are located in the main bank, just down the street from the main square.
- Hotels in Ilulissat book out almost a year in advance. Accommodation options are very limited and with the increase in independent travelers to Ilulissat, find themselves struggling to have space during the summer months. Popular places like the Hotel Arctic and Hotel Icefjord book up first but there are plenty of smaller guesthouse options to look at. Our decision to include Ilulissat in our Greenland travel plans was last minute and we struggled to find a place to stay (literally ended up at a brand new guesthouse that hadn’t started advertising yet with luck).
- Surprisingly, the WIFI is decent in Ilulissat but never free. The prices are typically charged by time and are very expensive.
- Booking tours is easy once you arrive and doesn’t really need to be done in advance. We were able to book everything we wanted to do in person after we arrived in town and didn’t run into any issues.
- There are several grocery stores in Ilulissat and when we were there, construction on a new mega supermarket was underway. They carry a good variety of normal staples if you’re staying at a guesthouse with a kitchen and want to save some money by cooking a few of your own meals.
- There are several restaurants in town and one bar featuring Western, European and Greenlandic options. It is expensive to eat out and you should plan for $30-$50USD per person, per meal while in Greenland.
- Remember that Ilulissat is well above the Arctic Circle and even in summer it is cold. It is essential that you pack appropriately for your visit.
Visiting Ilulissat is incredibly rewarding, a destination that is worth the extra planning and money required to make the trip happen.
More on Greenland:
- Essential Guide to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland
- Traveler’s Guide to Sisimiut, Greenland
- Travel Guide to Nuuk Greenland
- Greenland Kayaking – An Adventure Like No Other
- Best Sleeping Bag for Cold Weather
- Best Travel Rain Jacket to Stay Dry on the Go
- Best Hiking Backpack for your Next Adventure
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