Passport stamps mean something different to every traveler. For many, they are transactional: slide your passport across a border control counter for a quick inspection, then continue to baggage claim once it slides back to you. For many others, they are souvenirs connected to distinct memories, a colorful scrapbook that collectively tells our unique travel stories. They might mark the official beginning of a bucket list trip or the ending to an uncomfortably long silence while waiting for an agent to finally send you on your way. They might also remind you of where you were when you received it, such as standing on the airport runway in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland while an agent stamps you in as he kneels on the tarmac.Less than a month passed between the moment Adam and I found out our dream of traveling to Greenland was about to come true and the moment our feet touched Greenlandic soil for the first time. While most of our trips are the result of careful planning and months of research, Greenland was just the opposite. An opportunity to go on a Lindblad Expeditions voyage meant we could fast-track our plans, and after a few whirlwind weeks we arrived in Reykjavik, Iceland along with my parents, our good friends Shelly and Tony, and their young son Brogan. On our first full day of the trip, it took just two hours of flight time to reach Kangerlussuaq, located on Greenland’s west coast. As we disembarked our charter flight, we were greeted by a customs agent who offered to stamp our passports for us. Glancing around, it was clear there wasn’t an official desk or checkpoint for us to approach. Instead, as each of us handed our passports to the agent, he placed the document on the ground, positioned his stamp over a blank spot, and pushed down. Each satisfying clunk of the stamp’s gears pressing ink onto a page led to a broad smile from the passport’s owner. The stamp made it official: one by one, each of us arrived in Greenland.
Despite the fact Greenland is the largest island in the world, it welcomes just over 100,000 travelers each year. Our trip with Lindblad Expeditions aboard the National Geographic Endurance connected us to a curated experience that combined adventure with a floating resort that made exploration easy. As the week passed, we saw quite a few incredible places in a short amount of time. If you have ever wondered if Greenland is worth the vacation time it takes to visit, here are a few of the highlights that made our time there unforgettable.
KangerlussuaqIt only took an afternoon for us to become enchanted by Kangerlussuaq, a settlement just above the Arctic Circle that only 500 people call home. The town offers a great starting point for a Greenland tour for two reasons; logistically, the airport is the only one big enough to welcome large aircraft like the Airbus A321 that carried our group, and its location quickly connects visitors the Greenland’s natural beauty. A small caravan of buses escorted us to the outskirts of town, where we walked on land sandwiched between a fjord and the Greenland Ice Sheet to get our first real look at the land. It was easy to be overwhelmed. Around us, the land extended as far as we could see. Mountains towered over us, the sky stretched above us, and the wind blew harder than I was prepared for on that first afternoon. In the distance, a handful of dark specks meandered through a field. We quickly realized they were muskox, some of the biggest mammals who live on the island. Only the enormity of Greenland’s terrain could make such massive creatures look so small.
Kangerlussuaq taught us our first history lessons of the trip when we visited the airport’s museum, which was part of the United States Air Force base that operated from 1941 until 1992. Although much of the museum is dedicated to local stories and the region’s Inuit culture, I was especially delighted to find room after room packed with aviation memorabilia. Shelly and I have hosted an air disaster podcast for years, and we were both transfixed on the framed map of the island identifying spots where planes had crashed and, more often than not, lives were saved and lessons were learned. Elsewhere, colorful posters, flight attendant uniforms, and even a few rows of plane seats documented the birth and growth of Greenland’s aviation industry. I also enjoyed seeing the Base Commander’s former office, which is so well preserved it looks as if the staff might have stepped away just a few moments ago rather than 30 years ago.
QassiarsukAlthough many people have lived in Greenland over the last 5,000 years, one of the island’s most famous residents arrived in 986 AD. Our visit to Qassiarsuk included time at Erik the Red’s Brattahlíð, the ruins of which still stand along the jagged coastline. Brattahlíð was the first Norse farm in Greenland, and it was from there that Erik’s son Leif the Lucky set forth on his own expeditions to North America in 1000 AD. While many of the original buildings have fallen over the years, both original ruins and reconstructions provide context for what life would have been like for Erik the Red, his wife Thjodhild, and their family. Although Erik the Red was not religious, Thjodhild built what is believed to be Greenland’s first Christian church, which is now nothing more than a collection of stones that represent the building’s perimeter. Away from that site, we walked to a reconstruction that made it easier to visualize what the church might have looked like when it was still standing. Equally impressive was a reconstructed longhouse, where as many as 30 people might have lived and slept. It was quaint and comfortable, and while it would have been warm and cozy the mere presence of other people would have been unavoidable and unescapable during long winter months.
We took a walk along the village’s main street to visit a statue dedicated to Leif Erikson and his exploration. The street might have been better described as a dirt path that we occasionally shared with ATVs and farm equipment as well as a handful of sheep that seemed mildly amused by our presence. Standing by the statue, looking out over the rolling green hills that spilled into the cold water where our ship was anchored, it was surprising to see that our small group had tripled the number of people in the town for the few hours we were there. Later that afternoon, we visited a working farm that employed family members from several generations and marveled at the solitude they had in their quiet corner of the world. We appreciated how gracious they were as they shared their lives with us. Our voices brought a lot of conversation and laughter to fill the air; once we were gone, the silence and stillness must have been almost meditative as the fifty or so permanent residents watched our boat disappear into the mist.
Greenland’s capital is as close to a major city as you’ll find. Close to 20,000 people live in and around the city with more Greenlanders moving there all the time, and its skyline reflects modernization, industry, and its history. In some directions, tall buildings and new apartments dotted the horizon. In other directions, evidence of Greenland’s robust fishing industry was evident as boats lined up at the docks. It was interesting to see where and how so many people live, but we were there for the history.Our visit landed us in Nuuk on a Sunday, a quiet day in most cities and a noticeably quiet day in a city with mere thousands of residents. The streets were all but abandoned when we reached its historic center, where only the Greenland National Museum was open. Small but packed with exhibits about everything from clothing to food to geology, we had plenty of time to immerse ourselves in each connecting room. The museum seemed to grow darker and darker as I made my way closer to the back, and the last room was presented in almost total darkness. When I saw why, I audibly gasped—a sound masked by the sound of several other people gasping in unison. The exhibit presented four bodies known as the Qilakitsoq mummies, three women and an infant whose remains have been dated to the 1400s. Seeing mummified remains was shocking, although they provide an incredible glimpse into the past. The bodies were discovered by hunters who stumbled upon the gravesites, and while the bodies were not intended to be so well-preserved Greenland’s climate protected the remains and prevented them from further deterioration. Scientists were able to identify the cause of death for several people and even understand their diets based on undigested food found within their intestines. To come face-to-face with the mummies took most of us by surprise, but they unquestionably left the most lasting impression on us. There’s something beautiful in knowing that they had so much to teach us centuries after their deaths.
One of Greenland’s most well-known architectural features is color, and the Nuuk Cathedral’s red exterior was even more noticeable against the gray, cloudy skies that followed us as we walked through the city. The cathedral is not quite 200 years old, but it stands as a landmark within the city. Above it, we saw the statue of Hans Egede who is both credited with founding Nuuk when he arrived as a Danish missionary in 1728 and disliked for how he treated the native people he met there. As a traveler simply passing through, I spent some time reflecting on the statue’s presence and considered how I wouldn’t have known the good or the bad parts of the history it represents without it. Like so many of the places I have visited, Nuuk’s history is complex, and its bright spots and controversies combine to make it the city it is today.
IgalikuPerhaps the most remote destination we visited was Igaliku, home to only 20 people on Greenland’s southern coast. The town serves as the backdrop for the Garðar cathedral ruins, which dates to the early 12th century and was dedicated to Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors. The small cathedral was constructed in the shape of a cross and flanked by barns that housed an estimated 150 cows. Although the community enjoyed a thriving farming culture for the better part of two decades, Igaliku was no match for the Little Ice Age or the black plague, both of which contributed to a dwindling population that never rebounded. In fact, although it was the first Catholic diocese in the Americas and had a series of bishops assigned to it, after 1377 no appointed bishop lived or even visited Igaliku.
When Norway stopped sending ships to Igaliku, the settlement and the cathedral were abandoned. Igaliku has been fully excavated, and today, visiting offers a pleasant walk past the ruins and alongside a few more modern houses.
— Road Unraveled – Stephanie & Adam (@RoadUnraveled) August 30, 2023
Not far from Igaliku, Qaqortoq felt the most representative of the balance between Greenland’s cultural past and its more modern future. As our zodiacs approached the dock, I watched as rows of brightly colored houses came into view, dotting the hillsides with splashes of cheer. We were quickly greeted by a guide for a walking tour of the city that at times felt like a family reunion; periodically she would wave to someone walking by and shrug as she mentioned the passerby was a cousin. In a town with just 3,000 residents who descend from a culture more than 4,000 years old, it makes sense that running into relatives is part of a typical Wednesday afternoon.In a way, one of Qaqortoq’s more recent additions is most representative of its history. 18 artists joined together in the early 1990s to create an open-air art installation called Stone & Man, which features dozens of stone carvings and sculptures. We walked by whales that looked like they could have been ancient carvings and animal sculptures with incredible detail. Just beyond the majority of the artwork, we paused for a few moments at Mindebrønden, which was Greenland’s only fountain when it was built in 1932. Logically, it makes sense that water features aren’t a high priority for people who live in such a cold climate, but Qaqortoq is proud of the fountain and how it represents their connection to the sea.
Although we loved our walk through Qaqortoq, the biggest highlight was learning about their local food. We visited both a butcher shop and a grocery store, both of which provided great insight into how Greenlanders eat. The butcher shop was stocked with both fish and meat; numerous types of fish on ice lined the tables, and cuts of reindeer and musk ox sat on platters in a glass case. Similar options were available up the road at the grocery store, which also sold packaged goods from brands I knew yet were products I had never seen before. Before leaving, we had the chance to enjoy some Greenlandic recipes prepared by a local chef during our visit. From fish stew to halibut to fresh bread, all of us—even those who were still full from lunch on our boat—filled our plates. I appreciated how the food focused on fresh, clean flavors. Nothing was especially spiced, which meant we could taste every ingredient.
Visiting Greenland on an Expedition
Despite our deep desire to visit Greenland, there was one big reason we waited for years before an opportunity to visit arrived. Greenland’s tourism industry is still quite young, and visiting requires careful planning and presents more logistical challenges than you might expect. Greenland’s towns are not connected by roads; most people fly when they need to travel, so renting a car and setting off on a road trip is impractical and, in many ways, impossible. Exploring as the guest of a seasoned expedition crew on a boat designed to take you to remote spots with ease is a much more efficient way to make the most of vacation days.
Our home for our 10-day visit was the National Geographic Endurance, a state-of-the-art ship specifically designed to navigate polar waterways with unparalleled attention to detail. The Endurance was a great launching point for us as we prepared for each excursion. From a beautiful base camp space with lockers to store parkas and muck boots to well-placed spots to fill up water bottles, it was easy to stay organized and saved us a lot of time. At the end of each day, after challenging hikes and immersive cultural experiences, we would gather in the Ice Bar for our favorite daily ritual: Recap. Expeditions like our trip to Greenland can overwhelming in the moment; processing the enormity of what we saw and did was hard to do without a little help. During Recap, our team of naturalists and experts walked us through the day’s activities by explaining the significance of the geography and geology we saw, and they shared their own photos and experiences to help us put our own into context. The Ice Bar played the perfect host to these 30-minute reviews; every chair and sofa was positioned close to a monitor to make it easy to see slides, images, and other visuals. Coupled with drinks that never stopped flowing and delicious appetizers that should have spoiled our dinners, Recap was a favorite part of the day for all of us.
Our time on the Endurance was nothing short of flawless, and there could be no more comfortable way to travel between Greenland’s towns. Meals were exceptional; the culinary team served dishes that would have been at home in Michelin star restaurants. We ended many of our days outside, curled up under blankets in front of a fire pit as the sky turned from light blue to inky black. Amenities like saunas, infinity hot tubs, and a beautiful library welcomed us to relax in any way we wanted. Without needing to worry about how we would get to the places we wanted to visit, hours on the Endurance felt like a floating resort that recharged our minds and bodies.
Before our ship turned toward the open waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, we spent one final morning sailing through Prince Christian Sound. The narrow waterway is surrounded by mountains, and as we drifted past glaciers and icebergs we paused to really appreciate Greenland’s magnificence. Greenland should be inhospitable; it’s cold, remote, and lacking in so many of the attractions that bring tourists to international destinations. Instead, we found it to be warm, welcoming, and more picturesque than just about anywhere else we have been.
Our late summer visit to Greenland connected us to beautiful rolling green hills and steep mountains as well as the ocean’s many faces. As we sailed through many inlets, we enjoyed calm conditions that felt like gliding. I visited the Endurance’s bridge as we left Prince Christian Sound, hoping to catch one last glimpse of Greenland before a few days at sea. I watched an iceberg bob in the water and thought about how quiet it was there, with no evidence of human life anywhere to be seen. A few hours later, as the Endurance started its voyage through an intense weather system that would drive us forward through 60-foot swells and relentlessly rock our vessel for three full days, I thought about how quickly the calm turned into the storm. Greenland had given us a little bit of everything, including a taste of the brutal conditions the Vikings might have experienced as they set forth on their own explorations.
A few days later, as I finished unpacking at home, I flipped my passport open to the page with my Greenland stamp. I had come a long way since receiving it from the immigration officer on the runway just feet away from our plane. The stamp itself is small, but the story it represents is the adventure of a lifetime. If you have the opportunity to visit Greenland, the experiences you have and the people you meet can broaden your perspectives—and your passport stamp will be a reminder of yet another incredible chapter in your own story of exploration.
More Information: Expeditions.com
Note: This article shares our experience as part of a Lindblad Expeditions trip, and Adam is a Lindblad employee. The content reflects our views and experiences and is not representative or influenced by Adam’s affiliation with the company.
Looking for more interesting places around the world? Check out these posts from our archives!