Ilulissat is home to the UNESCO listed Ilulissat Icefjord, where whale blows or sled dog paws echo off icebergs larger than your imagination.
Ilulissat has two large supermarkets – Brugseni and Pisiffik – located near the Cultural Center on the way out to the Icefjord. Smaller Spar and Akiki supermarkets can be found closer to the harbour, and there are several convenience stores located in other parts of the town.
Ilulissat is one of the best places in Greenland to shop for souvenirs. You can buy direct from the artisans at the workshop near the harbour, or browse the extensive collections in The Glacier Shop, the Ilulissat Museum, the Ilulissat Art Gallery, Ilulissat Boat Tours, World of Greenland Tours, IceCap souvenirs and the three large hotels.
It is best to bring your own camping and outdoor gear with you to Greenland, but for unexpected or last minute purchases, visit Qalut Vónin, Brugseni, Pisiffik, Pilu Sport, Sportsmaster, Knud Pedersen A/S – depending on exactly what you need.
Even if you have already seen plenty of icebergs in your travels, you have not seen them like in Ilulissat. The dynamic ice sculpture gallery located just outside of this North Greenland town is unique and has been granted the designation of a UNESCO World Heritage Listed area of outstanding value. With millions of icebergs waiting to break free of the fjord in which they calved, small chunks of ice fill every nook and cranny between the gargantuan icy skyscrapers that dwarf even the largest ships. And when a gap opens in the wall of ice blocking the mouth of the fjord, the energetic dance as these frozen artworks spill into Disko Bay is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
But Ilulissat is not only about icebergs.
It is rich in Inuit history, a favourite feeding ground for migrating whales, a paradise for outdoor adventurers both on land and at sea, and a modern and vibrant city with high-quality accommodation and some of the best gastronomy in the country.
Ilulissat is one of the key tourist destinations in Greenland with direct flights from Reykjavik during the summer months. However, if you are coming from Copenhagen or arriving during winter, you will first have to fly to Kangerlussuaq or Nuuk and connect to a domestic flight.
There are also direct flights to Ilulissat on certain days of the week from Aasiaat, Qeqertarsuaq, Qaarsut, Saqqaq, and Upernavik.
If you would prefer to travel by sea, Ilulissat is a major Cruise port during the summer months. It is also the northernmost port for the Sarfaq Ittuk passenger ferry for several months of the year, and is also serviced by local boat transfers to other destinations around Disko Bay.
While the enormous icebergs for which Ilulissat is named are visible all year round, the best times to visit are: January – April (dog sledding, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, skiing, northern lights), June – September (hiking, kayaking, boat tours, fishing), May and October – December for off-season conferences (Ilulissat has 5-star conference facilities). If you are an adventure racer, you may also be interested in the 3-day Kangia Race that is held every June.
Although most visitors make their way around Ilulissat by walking, it is quite spread out. Other options include hiring a bicycle or car, calling a taxi, or taking the bus that runs past each stop every 20 minutes during peak hour, and roughly every 30-40 minutes otherwise. The larger hotels in Ilulissat also offer shuttle services to the airport and to town.
For excursions in the area, the most common way to get around is with a boat or on foot (summer), and by dog sled, snowmobile, ski or snowshoe (winter).
As Greenland's top tourist destination, Ilulissat has a large number of accommodation options, though not all of them are close to the centre of the city. Apartments, 3- and 4-star hotel rooms, B&Bs and guesthouses, and dormitory accommodation with shared facilities are all available to suit your budget.
The enormous icebergs for which the town is named are, justifiably, the focus of any visit to Ilulissat. Looking down on nature’s icy art gallery from one of three well-marked hiking trails, craning your neck up at the towering cliffs of ice from a boat or kayaking tour, gaining a bird’s eye view of their chiseled shapes on a scenic flight, or experiencing multiple perspectives depending on where you dog sled musher takes you, present different opportunities to grasp the full character of Ilulissat’s icebergs.
During summer, watch and listen carefully for whale blows as you hike, sail, or kayak on a day tour or multi-day tour, you can even experience this as you relax at your hotel in Ilulissat or eat your dinner. The giants of the sea are as common as international visitors during the warmer months and announce their location loudly! For the best and closest views (while still maintaining a respectful distance), join a specific whale watching tour that takes you to where they were last seen and where your guide will explain the different types of whales that frequent Disko Bay.
The eternal summer days that culminate in the Midnight Sun are also perfect for fishing (cod and redfish – make sure you purchase a fishing license first) and exploring the Ilulissat backcountry on foot. The most popular hike is to the Ilulissat Icefjord along the boardwalk that passes through the Valley. This location has sheltered countless generations of Inuit over thousands of years, and remnants from those times can be seen on a guided tour. There are also two other well-marked loop trails that allow you to explore different aspects of the Ilulissat Icefjord, and you can even sign up to go hiking with Greenlandic sled dogs.
The Ilulissat Icefjord takes on a different character as the snow falls and the sea freezes. Although the Sun never makes it above the horizon for 6 weeks of the year, the days are characterised by a perpetual twilight that adds an air of mystery to the landscape. Join an expert musher for an unforgettable dog sledding experience as powerful Greenlandic sled dogs pull you across the landscape around Ilulissat in this most ancient of traditions. This mode of transportation is still favoured by hunters and local families and is one of the Big Arctic 5 adventures for visitors.
If you are keen to range further afield and explore other backcountry areas on a day tour around Ilulissat then snowmobiling excursions are also a possibility. While snowmobiles are not allowed near the Icefjord due to its protection by UNESCO, they are a great way to get the adrenaline pumping in the hills around Ilulissat. Other winter adventures include scenic flights, ice fishing and snowshoeing, and excursions out to the darkest sites near Ilulissat for the best views of the magical Northern Lights.
Finally, although it is difficult to tear yourself away from the natural highlights of Ilulissat, don’t forget that the city and its people are interesting in their own right. Sign up for a city walk around Ilulissat as soon as possible after you arrive to get your bearings and learn a little about the area. And join a local Greenlandic family for a Kaffemik – a traditional get-together – where you can enjoy their hospitality over coffee, cake, and stories of life in Greenland.
While exploring many of the key attractions around Ilulissat require you to join a guided tour, there are a few options for those wanting to just do their own thing.
The Ilulissat Icefjord Centre (opening 2021) is a meeting place for both locals and visitors and a not-to-be-missed architectural gem. Explore the visitor’s centre, exhibition space, and entertainment hub before walking over its gently sloping, curved wooden roof which now forms the start of the boardwalk leading Ilulissat Icefjord. The center also includes conference and research facilities in alignment with the area’s key significance in understanding climate change. It is designed to bring together climate scientists from around the world.
An icon of Ilulissat is the beautiful wooden Zion’s Church (more typically thought of as the Ilulissat Church). Although it is not generally open except for mass, its waterfront views of the enormous icebergs floating in Disko Bay make it one of the most photographed buildings in all of Greenland.
Just up from this landmark is the Ilulissat Museum. Housed within the old seminary, it features exhibitions on polar exploration (especially by its favourite son – Knud Rasmussen) and local history, including the importance of the Sermermiut Valley. An extension of this is the Ilulissat Art Museum, which is located just above the harbour in the old colony manager’s residence. Here you will find a permanent collection of works by Emanuel A. Petersen (one of the most prolific painters of Greenland), as well as local and international temporary exhibitions.
Of course, there is always the Icefjord. Visit the Ilulissat Icefjord Centre to learn about the history of ice and the icefjord and how climate change is affecting the locals living off and along the world-famous icefjord. Follow the boardwalk for the quickest and easiest access, hike the yellow trail with its views over Disko Bay, or follow the blue trail that takes you further along the Icefjord and returns to Ilulissat via hilltop lakes and an impressive rock cutting.
With its relatively big population and large number of international guests each year, Ilulissat has a good selection of restaurants and cafes serving a wide range of meals. During summer, it is also one of the best places in Greenland to indulge in one of several Greenlandic buffets – the dates of which are announced on bus shelter posters around town.