What to Know About Cruising to Greenland

by  Emily Zemler | Updated on May 20, 2024
Courtesy of Seabourn

The allure of Greenland lies in its sense of mystery. The untouched landscapes, remote villages, and ethereal blue icebergs offer a compelling sense of discovery for travelers, even those who have previously explored Arctic locales like Norway and Iceland. While Greenland’s tourism industry is slowly developing, the country remains an unconventional destination. Because it's so vast, and because its cities and villages are located along the coasts (and aren’t connected by road), the best way to see Greenland is via cruise ship. Better still: on an expedition cruise. 

Several lines feature Greenland in their summer itineraries, including Silversea, Hurtigruten, Ponant, and Seabourn. I traveled with Seabourn on their expedition vessel, Seabourn Venture, which is specifically designed to explore more remote regions, like a glacier at the end of a fjord or the vast ice sheets of East Greenland. Expedition ships, including Venture along with the newly launched Pursuit, transport guests via Zodiac to and from shore and offer adventure-driven excursions such as kayaking, submarine dives, and hiking. It’s a more active way to experience a place like Greenland and enjoy its natural beauty while retaining the luxury accommodation and dining options a cruise line like Seabourn is known for. 

I found Greenland absolutely captivating — a country filled with majestic scenery, compelling history, and welcoming people. It’s an essential addition to any travel bucket list. Here’s everything you need to know about cruising to Greenland. 

Courtesy of Seabourn

Expect Modern Civilization Along With Rugged Wilderness

Unlike Antarctica, Greenland is a combination of cities and towns, stretches of icy terrain, and glacial fjords. A typical cruise combines both. In West Greenland, popular port towns include Nuuk, Sisimiut, and Maniitsoq; some require Zodiac tendering. On the southern edge of Greenland, the former Viking site of Brattahlid regularly welcomes cruise ships, while the village of Aappilattoq is becoming a common stop for those heading into Prins Christian Sound. This picturesque waterway connects West and East Greenland and is dotted with glaciers, waterfalls, and icebergs. In less-populated East Greenland, the focus is typically on exploring the ice sheets in search of polar bears. 

Not every day on a Greenland cruise features an inhabited destination, which is part of the fun. Expedition ships, due to their smaller size, can navigate the iceberg-filled fjords to seek out less accessible areas. These might include the scenic Eternity Fjord or, in our case, Kangerluarsoruseq, an abandoned fishing village that now feels like a ghost town.

Wildlife Is Plentiful, As Is Unexplored Terrain 

Greenland’s unique fauna includes arctic fox, hare, reindeer, musk ox, polar bear, seal, and a variety of whales. Some animals, like humpback and minke whales, are easy to spot from the ship, while you may glimpse others during hikes or Zodiac cruises. Be aware that the expedition team on a cruise may carry rifles in case of a polar bear attack. 

Greenland is rugged, to say the least. Even in the towns, the roads are rocky and uneven or connected with stairs. Accessing a destination often involves scaling a hill or even walking several miles. While cruise lines do their best to accommodate travelers with mobility concerns, Greenland requires an ability and willingness to exert oneself in order to explore the natural landscape. 

A note on the Northern Lights: Despite being a major draw to Arctic regions, the aurora borealis is only visible in Greenland between September and April. Since most cruises sail in June, July, and August, it’s likely you’ll miss them in favor of the midnight sun.   

Read more: How to See the Northern Lights on a Cruise

Courtesy of Seabourn

It’s Not All About the Scenery — There’s Culture, Too

Greenland was once a Danish colony but now has its autonomy as a self-governing nation. While technically located in North America, it feels very Scandinavian, especially in the cities and villages (grocery stores sell primarily Danish products). The friendly Greenlandic community is open to sharing their culture, including aspects that may feel unfamiliar. Many people hunt and eat animals like seals and whales, which you’ll see in the fish markets, and, in the north Greenlandic, dogs are kept outside in separate “dog towns.” 

Several museums in urban areas help interpret the country’s history and traditions. In Nuuk, look for the Greenland National Museum and the Nuuk Art Museum, while Maniitsoq’s eponymous museum showcases an array of artifacts from the Inuit people. Our cruise’s excursions in Nuuk, Sisimiut, and Maniitsoq featured walking tours with free entry to the museums afterward. 

Pack Your Flexibility Along With Your Warm Layers

As in Antarctica, the weather and ice can shift rapidly in Greenland, so your itinerary is subject to change. On our cruise, the expedition leader would gather the guests each evening to discuss the following day’s plans — if there were any since so many activities are weather-dependent. Cruisers accustomed to sailing in Europe or the Caribbean may find this jarring, but embracing the unexpected is what makes a Greenland cruise so engaging. On our cruise, we were surprised with new destinations on the fly, like Eternity Fjord, and with last-minute activities, like a polar plunge in the middle of Prins Christian Sund. If you go in knowing things will change, it’s less stressful when they do. 

You’ll Probably Be Visiting Iceland As Well

Because Greenland’s cruising infrastructure is still being developed, many cruises to the country start and end in Iceland. Our Seabourn cruise began in Reykjavík, where we boarded a charter flight to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. There, we boarded the Venture and set sail for Nuuk, Greenland’s capital. Other cruises, including Seabourn's 15-Day Greenland & The Canadian Arctic, sail directly out of Reykjavík. Meanwhile, the new Canada and Greenland Explorer itinerary from Viking Expeditions will sail directly from Nuuk. 

Courtesy of Seabourn

Pack For Every Possibility

Although parts of Greenland, especially in the south, are actually green. But generally, Greenland consists of Arctic terrain — no trees, lots of ice, and rocky, uneven ground. The location in the polar climate zone means the weather can be cold, wet, and windy, even in the summertime, when most cruises sail. This means one thing: Pack lots and lots of layers and carry extras with you when you go out for the day. Despite that, our cruise was sunny on most days, with temperatures as high as 50 degrees Fahrenheit in late June. 

Seabourn gives guests a yellow Helly Hansen waterproof jacket as a gift and also loans waterproof boots for wet landings or muddy hikes. It’s also recommended to bring waterproof trousers and hiking boots for excursions, as well as outer gear like gloves, hats, and scarves. Most days, I wore three layers on top and bottom and two pairs of thermal socks. On the ship, guests dressed casually during the day and in upscale attire for dinner, although the dress code will vary by the cruise line. Be sure to pack sunglasses, sunscreen, a swimsuit (for the polar plunge), lip balm, and a waterproof pouch for your phone. Many guests brought cameras with long lenses to capture the wildlife, although I mostly used my iPhone. Seabourn loans binoculars to its guests, but it’s a great idea to bring your own. 

A note on credit cards and money: Most of the larger cities and towns in Greenland have credit card machines in their stores, but it’s a good idea to carry Danish kroner to buy snacks and souvenirs. 

Plan Your Shore Excursions in Advance

In the weeks leading up to your cruise, book any shore excursions or activities ahead of time. Most Greenland cruises include one excursion in each port, although expedition cruises tend to be more flexible and have additional options, like hikes. On Seabourn, guests can book a kayaking trip or a submarine dive for an added fee. I highly recommend both — the submarine, in particular, was a captivating experience and allowed us to see the sea creatures living at the bottom of a fjord. While these can be booked or changed on the ship, it’s best to build a tentative itinerary in advance. 

Life Onboard Is Relaxing and Engaging

Although hiking and exploring Greenland will consume much of your time, there’s a lot to do on the ship as well. Like many similar expedition vessels, Seabourn Venture is designed to keep guests continually entertained and relaxed. It features multiple dining options, including a high-end restaurant for upscale dinners, and the gym and spa offer an excellent diversion on sea days (spa appointments fill up on sea days, so book in advance). Each day, the expedition team holds talks and presentations about relevant topics, such as how glaciers are made and Arctic sea life. These talks are informal, with guests asking questions and engaging with the expedition team, who are knowledgeable in all sorts of subjects — even those not related to Greenland. In the evenings, expect live music, documentary film screenings, or even DJ nights. 

Courtesy of Seabourn

Venture’s suites offered plenty of space to unwind, including in the bathtub and on the balcony. The ship’s multiple cabin categories include a two-story Wintergarden Suite, which is ideal for spotting whales from bed. One of the most important room amenities is a heated cupboard to dry wet clothes after a day on land or on a Zodiac. 

No Arctic cruise is complete without the notorious polar plunge, where guests leap off a Zodiac raft into the freezing water (don’t worry, you’re tethered by a safety harness). It’s typically unplanned, so the expedition leader will announce that it’s happening as a surprise. Ours occurred in Prins Christian Sound, and over 30 guests took the plunge alongside crew members and Seabourn’s president. The experience is equally enlivening and shocking, but luckily, they give you a shot of vodka afterward.

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