Greenland vs. Iceland Travel

Greenland vs. Iceland, these are two of the most fascinating places to visit. While Iceland has been a hugely popular destination for international travelers, especially over the last fifteen years, people are increasingly discovering that Greenland is by far the more unexplored, unique Arctic destination on the planet. Because both island nations are located in the far north and are “neighbors,” many travelers visit both Greenland and Iceland on the same polar trip.

Greenland is home to the second-largest ice mass on the planet, the Greenland Ice Sheet, which Quark Expeditions' guests can visit by helicopter.

Greenland is home to the second-largest ice mass on the planet, the Greenland Ice Sheet, which Quark Expeditions' guests
can visit by helicopter. Photo: Hugo Perrin

Interesting facts about Greenland and Iceland

Country names can occasionally be a tad misleading. Just the mention of “Iceland” and “Greenland” could logically lead you to assume that Iceland is full of ice and that Greenland is the greener of the two. In reality, it’s Greenland that has the abundant ice (which covers about 79% of the country). The largest island in the world is home to the second-largest ice mass on the planet, the Greenland Ice Sheet, which is about the same size as the state of Alaska. In contrast, only 11% of Iceland is under ice. If you’ve ever been to Iceland, you know there’s a seemingly endless expanse of verdant greenspaces to explore throughout the country.

Consider population for a moment: Iceland has a population of about 380,000. And one of the most interesting facts about Greenland is that its much smaller population of 56,387 is spread over 2.166 million kilometers. And one of the most interesting facts about Iceland is that its much larger population is spread over a much, much smaller area (103,000 square kilometers) compared to Greenland.
 Aerial views of South Greenland from a helicopter.

Aerial views of South Greenland from a helicopter. Photo: Mads Pihl/Visit Greenland

So, clearly, you’re going to be running into a lot more people in your travels throughout Iceland vs. Greenland. Another interesting fact about Greenland: it has very few internal roads. Most visitors to Greenland explore along the coast by boat. Conversely, one of the most interesting facts about Iceland is that once tourists leave the capital of Reykjavik, road trips are among the most popular ways to explore Iceland.
 
Now let’s take a look at the respective capitals of both “islands in the north.” One of the most interesting facts about Nuuk, the capital city of Greenland, is that it has a population of 17,635 (almost one-third of the country’s citizens). And, you guessed it, one of the most interesting facts about Iceland is that 216,940 people live in Greater Reykjavik, a city with high-rises, hotels, universities, clubs, shops, museums, etc. (A note for photographers: one of the most interesting facts about Nuuk are the multi-colored painted houses dotted throughout the city. For a sneak peek, check out our blog Discover the Capital of Greenland. Many of the buildings in Nuuk are constructed of wood, in contrast to a significant number of glass-and-steel buildings you’ll find in Reykjavik.

More interesting facts about Greenland

Visiting remote Greenlandic communities and learning about their traditional way of life is one of the many experiences available to  guests on a Quark Expeditions voyage in Greeland

Visiting remote Greenlandic communities and learning about their traditional way of life is one of the many experiences available to
 guests on a Quark Expeditions voyage in Greeland. Photo: Sam Crimmin

Did you know that:

  • Greenland is an autonomous Danish territory with its own parliament
  • The official language is Kalaallisut (West Greenlandic)), but you’ll meet many people who also speak Danish and English
  • A really interesting fact about Greenland for kayakers and those who love watersports: Greenland is considered the birthplace of kayaking
  • Greenland’s capital of Nuuk, with a population of 17,000, is definitely one of the smallest world capitals.
  • Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, is unique in that it’s one of those rare cities where the views—from within city limits—include waterfalls and icebergs. 
  • Featured in a moving exhibit within the national museum are the remains of  four Qilakitsoq mummies, presumed to be the remains of three women and a baby. These mummified remains were discovered in 1972 and are believed to date back to 1475 AD.
  • It’s believed that Greenland National Park has more muskoxen than any other northern region.

Highlights to see when you’re visiting Greenland

Muskoxen are one of the largest land-roaming creatures in the Arctic. Large herds are found throughout Greenland.

Muskoxen are one of the largest land-roaming creatures in the Arctic. Large herds are found throughout Greenland.
Photo: Courtesy Quark Expeditions

So, what are the not-to-be-missed highlights when you’re visiting Greenland? Our Ultimate Greenland Travel Guide will give you an excellent rundown of the main attractions and sites, many of which are best experienced on a polar voyage. Why do you ask? Simply put, it’s due to the terrain and geography of Greenland, which makes it difficult (some would say almost impossible) to travel other than by a small polar vessel along the coast due to the lack of roads and isolated settlements. And since you’re in the Arctic, you want to choose a polar operator, such as Quark Expeditions, that maintains a fleet of small polar vessels that can navigate the fjords and rugged coastlines of Greenland. Huge ships can’t navigate where Quark Expeditions’ smaller polar vessels can reach.

Another highlight when visiting Greenland is Ilulissat Icefjord, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. It runs west 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Greenland Ice Sheet to Disko Bay, just south of the town of Ilulissat on the west coast of Greenland. This beautiful spot is one of the best places to observe glacier calving—when large chunks of ice crash into the Arctic waters. It’s one of the prime destinations for photographers when visiting Greenland. It’s included in the Essential Greenland: Southern Coasts and Disko Bay itinerary. 

Of course, you’ll also want to explore the largest fjord in the world when visiting Greenland. Scoresby Sund, on the eastern coast of Greenland, is approximately 110 kilometers long and reaches a depth of 1,450 meters (4,700 feet) in places. The fjord is the domain of seals, elusive narwhals, majestic polar bears, muskoxen, geese, and many species of seabirds. And of special interest to culture buffs and historians, you can visit ruins that date back to the time of the ancient Thule people, ancestors of modern-day Inuit, who lived in Scoresby Sund until about 1800. 
 
Other highlights to consider when visiting Greenland include the tiny island of Uummannaq, and then there’s also the vast  Greenland National Park located in the northeastern part of the country which is spread over 972,000 square kilometers. Only a few meteorologists and military personnel actually live there. It’s estimated that 40% of the world’s muskoxen live in this park—which is the largest national park in the world. They share the immense preserved space with polar bears, walruses and whales. Depending on the season, visitors can also observe  Arctic foxes, stoats (a type of  weasel), lemmings and Arctic hare.
 
And, of course, you don’t want to miss the Northern Lights in Kangerlussuaq. Plus, there’s the area long the 70-km long Tasermiut Fjord, which is often called “Arctic Patagonia.” 
For Norse history and ruins, there’s the Kujataa historical site, which focuses on the agricultural roots of Norse and Inuit farmers who thrived at the edge of the ice cap. You can see remnants of Inuit farmhouses and archeological sites associated with the Norse settlements.

If ice formations are at the top of your list when visiting Greenland, perhaps it’s helpful to know that past travelers have raved about the icebergs and glaciers they observed on Essential Greenland: Southern Coasts and Disko Bay. And if you want to explore Greenland from the skies above South Greenland, consider Greenland Adventure: Explore By Sea, Land, and Air. 
 
Read 10 Reasons to Visit Greenland for more must-see highlights when visiting Greenland.

Highlights you don’t want to miss when visiting Iceland

Visitors to Iceland enjoy soaking in the Blue Lagoon geothermal hot springs.

Visitors to Iceland enjoy soaking in the Blue Lagoon geothermal hot springs. Photo: Courtesy AdobeStock

There are many highlights to explore when visiting Iceland. The Blue Lagoon geothermal baths just outside Reykjavik, a short distance from Keflavik International Airport, tend to be among the most talked-about highlights when visiting Iceland. While the capital of Reykjavik offers visitors the usual array of urban highlights (museums, hotels, high-rises, clubs, bars, restaurants, and music venues) many visitors to Iceland come here for the outdoorsy activities, such as glacier walking, bird-watching, kayaking, hiking, wildlife viewing (Arctic foxes), visiting the Gulfoss and Skogafoss waterfalls, whale-watching tours, horseback riding on Icelandic ponies, natural hot pools in the middle of open fields, and, of course, iconic road trips like the Golden Circle tour, ice carving, and taking in the rugged cliffs of little-visited Vestfjords (Westfjords).

Overall, Iceland is more crowded, relatively speaking, than Greenland. Iceland has been on the tourist trail for decades, so it gets busier. Greenland is the newer, less well-known, and consequently more unexplored pristine polar destination.

And in terms of wildlife, as you guessed, Greenland is where you want to visit. Its size, diverse terrain, and large protected areas (such as the Greenland National Park—the largest national park in the world), enable wildlife to thrive. Just so you know, there are no large land-dwelling wildlife species in Iceland. Arctic foxes and reindeer are probably the largest on land. There are very few polar bears. Those polar bears that do appear in Iceland are often considered “vagrants,” as Iceland is not their natural habitat. Marine life includes whales, seals, and dolphins. You will definitely see puffins if you take a boat tour from Reykjavik. It’s been reported that Iceland is home to more than 60% of the world's population of Atlantic puffins.

Greenland vs. Iceland travel: What is the difference?
 
Now that you’ve read about the main differences between Greenland vs. Iceland travel, you should be primed to make your decision for your Arctic adventure. And if you can’t decide—why not choose both? That’s very easy to do on voyages such as Under the Northern Lights: Exploring Iceland and East Greenland.

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