You may have heard the saying that Iceland is green, and Greenland is ice, but how much of that is actual truth? More importantly, what questions do you need answering to help you choose which island to visit, Iceland vs Greenland? What are the similarities and differences between these two Arctic island neighbors? Get all your answers with this guide to Iceland vs Greenland, from someone who has visited both! Spoiler alert – they are both incredible islands with very unique characteristics, and by the end of this article, you won’t be asking yourself WHICH country to visit, you will be trying to figure out how to visit both!
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Table of Contents
Iceland vs Greenland
This guide to Iceland vs Greenland will cover everything you need to know for visiting either (or both) of these magical Arctic countries! So get ready to experience a different kind of island life!
Here’s a Quick Glimpse of a Few Basics to Start:
Now Let’s Take a Deeper Dive into Iceland vs Greenland!!!
What is the Size and Populations of Iceland vs Greenland?
The population of Iceland at the beginning of 2023 was just shy of 400,000, which may not sound like much, but that was a 3% increase from 2022, which is the largest one year jump in population in a couple hundred years. In comparison, the population of Greenland at the beginning of 2023 was 57,000.
Greenland is much larger than Iceland, close to 20 times the size, as you can see by the map below. In fact, it is the largest island in the world, even larger than Australia! However, because of the Greenland ice sheet, the majority of the island is not inhabitable. Which is why Iceland ironically has a much larger population than Greenland, though it is so much smaller! That being said, both islands are relatively sparsely populated.
The Land and Geography of Iceland and Greenland
Ironically, the names of these islands would be more accurately reflective if they were switched. Simply put, Iceland is the green island, due to its milder climate, and Greenland is the ice island! Iceland is much more vegetated and “greener” than Greenland, while Greenland has very little green in truth, with the exception of some portions of southern Greenland. Consider that Greenland has a layer of permafrost – meaning a permanent layer of cold topsoil that prevents any significant vegetated growth (hence the lack of tall trees in Greenland), and the second largest ice sheet after Antarctica! This Greenland ice sheet makes up about 3/4th of the country.
So, where does the name Greenland come from then? History states that the Viking Eric the Red was the one who named Greenland, after he was exiled there. In an attempt to lure over more settlers, he falsified the name to make it sound more appealing (and livable) than it really is! One of the first instances of really creative false advertising!
So how does the land and geography shape what there is to do and see in Iceland and Greenland? In Iceland, you can see volcanoes, waterfalls, mountain ranges, black sand beaches, lava tubes, glaciers and ice caves, natural hot springs, and icebergs. Much of the island has been shaped by geothermal and seismic activity, when compared to Greenland.
In Greenland, there is much less geothermal activity, and the land has been more shaped by the ice and cold. You can expect to also see glaciers and icebergs, as well as the Greenland ice sheet, fjords, mountains, and lakes.
What is the Currency of Iceland and Greenland?
The official currency of Iceland is the krona , and the official currency of Greenland is the Danish krone .
What is the Temperature and Climate in Iceland and Greenland?
In general, Iceland is slightly warmer than Greenland. This is because Greenland is further north, and Iceland has the benefit of receiving warmth from the Gulf stream. In summer, both Iceland and Greenland can have their milder, warmer days, though it should be stated that Greenland’s mildest climate is found in the southern portion and not the northern icy regions. Iceland’s summers average around 50 – 60 degrees Fahrenheit, with Greenland’s summertime temperatures in the south averaging around 40 – 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Aside from summer, both islands should be expected to be simply cold. Another ironic note to make is that Iceland actually has a wetter climate than Greenland. Portions of Greenland are actually considered Arctic “deserts” due to the limited amount of rainfall.
Both islands can be visited year round (in fact, I visited Greenland in late October myself), though your outdoor opportunities and activities may be different depending on the season. Summer is still the best time to visit either Iceland or Greenland. Just keep in mind that in these twin countries of the Midnight Sun, there is hardly any darkness at night, which will affect your chances of seeing the Northern Lights. If that is at the top of your list, then you may need to adjust your season.
How does Accessibility, Infrastructure, and Cost compare between Iceland vs Greenland?
The biggest difference in the price point for visiting both Iceland and Greenland is currently the airfare. Flying to Greenland is more expensive than flying to Iceland. Flights to Iceland have become much more available, with multiple airlines, departure points from major U.S. and European cities, and competitive airfare. To fly into Greenland however, requires departing from either Reykjavik, Iceland or Copenhagen, Denmark. The only airport in Greenland that receives these international flights is in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, on the southwestern coast of the country. You can totally spend a few days in Kangerlussuaq seeing the sights, or use the town as your jumping off point to other Greenland towns. Air Greenland runs regular domestic flights between Kangerlussuaq and other major towns in Greenland, like Nuuk.
As far as lodging, food, and other travel accommodations go, Iceland is still slightly cheaper, but those costs are starting to align more as tourism in Greenland garners more attention.
There are no roads between towns in Greenland. There are roads in towns, but not connecting towns, though plans have started on constructing the first connecting road in Greenland! Travel between towns is done by boat, plane, snowmobile, or dog sled. Because Greenland is not really “driveable”, there is not much in the way of rental car and gas costs, versus Iceland which is extremely self drivable and road trip friendly.
Due to Greenland’s more isolated location, food items like fresh fruit, dairy, etc. have to be shipped in and are therefore more expensive. So, for example, supermarket costs in Iceland are generally cheaper. But, if you dine out in a restaurant in either Iceland or Greenland, the costs are relatively comparable.
There are much more lodging options available in Iceland, so you can find a variance in the kind and cost of lodging, but costs in either island are comparable. There are some remote parts of Greenland where you can’t find lodging, whereas even in the more remote parts of Iceland, accommodations are continuing to grow and you can likely still find something available. And no matter whether you are visiting Iceland or Greenland, there are plenty of outdoor opportunities and tour options available.
Other accessible items, such as cell phone coverage and Wifi, are more readily available in Iceland, but Greenland is starting to catch up.
What is the Culture like in Iceland and Greenland?
Both islands can trace their early roots to Norse backgrounds, and in more present times, to the country of Denmark. While both countries used to be part of Denmark in modern times, Iceland is now independent, while Greenland is still a territory of Denmark, but is autonomous.
There are early Viking connections to both countries, but Iceland has stronger ties, and a folklore that continues to celebrate that Viking connection to this day. Viking and Norse culture really took hold in Iceland, and remained over the generations. On the other hand, Greenland culture focuses more on the significance of the Inuit people and indigenous groups. While Vikings were in Greenland for a time, the culture did not take root the way it did in Iceland, and the cultural roots remained the strongest tied to the Inuit and indigenous culture, then and today.
What is the Food Like in Iceland and Greenland?
It is not easy to grow crops on either island, so food has long been sourced from hunting and fishing. Fish, seals, sharks, and whales have all been part of the traditional cuisine of both Iceland and Greenland. Iceland has some unique foods to try, one of the most famous being fermented shark! Greenland on the other hand is strongly connected to its natural roots when it comes to food, with specialties including reindeer and musk oxen!
What are the Languages Spoken in Iceland and Greenland?
Icelandic is the official language of Iceland, and Greenlandic, Inuit, and indigenous languages are official in Greenland. That being said, most people in Iceland speak English, both in the tourism realm, and locals alike. In Greenland, on the other hand, there are plenty of individuals in the tourism infrastructure, like hotels and restaurants, that speak English, but not many locals do. Local languages spoken are mostly Greenlandic and Inuit dialects.
What is Tourism like in Iceland and Greenland?
Both of these islands have a lot still to be discovered, but the truth is that Greenland has more secrets, due to the recent tourism boom in Iceland. In recent years, Iceland has clocked around 2 million annual visitors, while Greenland only brings in about 100,000. This means in peak season (summer) in Iceland, you may have a lot of competition to enjoy some of the best sights, whereas in Greenland, you are much more likely to have the experience to yourself! In truth, no matter which season you visit Greenland, you will have far less crowds to compete with than in Iceland. This is one of the major draws in the competition between Iceland vs Greenland!
What Tours and Activities are there in Iceland and Greenland?
When it comes to what to do in both islands, there are a lot of similarities, and much of it centers around the largely wild and rugged outdoors! As mentioned, Northern Lights viewing is a huge draw for both Iceland and Greenland. Hiking opportunities abound in both countries, and you can take kayaking tours to see glaciers and icebergs, in both. Iceland wins out with more waterfalls and unique beaches, whereas Greenland wins out with the breathtaking Greenland ice sheet, which you can tour up close in person. Because Iceland’s towns are larger and more developed than Greenland’s, there is more to do there in the cities, as far as dining, cultural exhibits, and nightlife, but Greenland does have a smaller sampling as well. Because there is more infrastructure in Iceland, there is more accessibility to things to do, but overall, both Iceland and Greenland are comparable in what activities they can offer to their visitors. Both islands are going to appeal to the adventurous, outdoor lover in particular!
Pingvallakirkja church in Pingvellir National Park in Iceland
Are There Hot Springs in Iceland AND Greenland?
If you’ve ever done a simple image search of Iceland, or followed anyone’s Instagram who has visited Iceland, it is probably no big surprise that Iceland has plentiful, and beautiful, hot springs. One of Iceland’s biggest claims to fame and largest tourism draws is its hot springs, like the Blue Lagoon outside Reykjavik. Greenland, though a nearby neighbor, can’t really compete on this end. There are a few small spatterings of local springs in Greenland, but when it comes to the hot springs experience, Iceland wins.
Iceland vs Greenland: Which is Better for the Northern Lights?
It’s no surprise that seeing the Northern Lights is a must for visitors to both Iceland and Greenland. There are few places in the world that are better for seeing the Northern lights, whether you are visiting Iceland or Greenland. While Iceland may win in the hot springs division, the one slight advantage that Greenland has over Iceland is that you don’t even need to book a tour to see the northern lights on this island. Due to the extremely low amount of light pollution, you basically can just watch the Northern Lights from your window. I personally witnessed the Northern Lights on 2 out of 3 October nights spent visiting the Greenland coast in Kangerlussuaq, simply by walking outside of my hotel room! But truth be told, you have a good shot at seeing the Northern Lights in either island, as long as you time it right (remember the Midnight Sun). Iceland will offer a plethora of tours, and while Greenland may have less readily available tours to see the Northern Lights, you won’t need one necessarily!
What is the “Midnight Sun”?
Both of these Arctic islands are affected by the midnight sun, meaning that there are long nights of darkness in the winter, and long days of daylight in the summer, with very little night. This can be an advantage for planning, but it also can affect what your days look like and what activities you want to plan. Remember also, the Northern Lights will be hard to spot in the dead of summer during the Midnight Sun.
Are Iceland and Greenland Road Trip Friendly?
Since Greenland’s towns aren’t really connected by drivable roads (inter country transportation in Greenland is conducted by plane, boats, snowmobiles, hiking, or dog sled), Iceland is way more road trip friendly, especially if you are wanting to self drive. Iceland is extremely self drivable (I easily navigated Iceland straight away on my first visit) thanks to the easy to navigate Ring Road! A Ring Road road trip is hands down the best way to see the highlights of Iceland. I even have a southern Iceland road trip itinerary that follows the Ring Road!
As has been mentioned, Greenland is not connected by roads, so road tripping is pretty much non existent in Greenland. You can visit multiple towns, however, by taking domestic flights on Air Greenland, or by boat.
What Kind of Wildlife Will You See in Iceland and Greenland?
You have the chance to see amazing and unique wildlife in both Iceland and Greenland! In Iceland, you can see whales, seals, Arctic foxes, reindeer, horses, and marine fowl like puffins. In Greenland, you can see Arctic foxes, whales, reindeer, and seals too, plus there are musk ox and polar bears in Greenland! If you get really lucky, you may even see a mythical narwhal in Greenland!
Which is More Rugged, Iceland or Greenland?
Iceland has developed a reputation in recent years for being a wildly untouched and rugged island destination. And while that may be true, if you think Iceland is untouched and rugged, then Greenland will really blow you away! Greenland simply is more remote, and has more inherent wildness to it. However, compared to most visitors’ home countries, both of these islands are going to feel like a world away!
What Do You Need to Bring to Iceland and Greenland?
While that answer largely depends on the season of your visit, a safe rule is to think layers and waterproof!
- Waterproof Boots – I loved these Columbia hiking boots because you can hike in them, but also pair them with casual outfits. They are practical, versatile, warm, and waterproof!
- Wool Socks – wool is the best fabric for cold weather, because it is moisture wicking, breathable, insulating, quick drying, and odor resistant. So grab a couple pairs for Iceland and Greenland!
- Wool Base Layers – again with the wool, but that is because it is the best fabric to layer with in cold weather. I was comfortably warm during my entire time in both Iceland and Greenland, thanks to merino wool base layers.
- Wool Mid Layers – pair your base layers with a superb wool mid layer, for even more efficient layering and warmth.
- Fleece Leggings – these fleece leggings are not only warm, but they are water resistant as well. You can hike in them, and also go out to dinner in them!
- Head covering – you are definitely going to want a head covering for Iceland and Greenland. I love these versatile BUFFS, because you can use them as a head covering, a neck warmer, and a balaclava. Plus they come in a lot of fun colors!
- Insulated Outer Shell – make sure that you have an insulated outer shell that is weather resistant to precipitation and wind.
- Insulated Gloves – make sure that your gloves are waterproof and insulated for the cold
How to Choose: Iceland vs Greenland?
And now it comes down to it! How to choose between Iceland vs Greenland. It’s an almost impossible choice, but here are a few things to consider.
- If you are looking to spend a little less money on your trip, and do a little less research and planning, then Iceland may be the one for you.
- If you are looking to travel somewhere unique that not many people have visited, then Greenland may be the one for you.
- If you are looking for a country with more accessibility and infrastructure, then Iceland may be for you.
- If you are looking for a country to really get away from it all and feel like a true explorer, then Greenland may be for you.
- If you appreciate waterfalls, beaches, and volcanoes, then Iceland may be for you.
- If you appreciate the vast expanses of ice sheets, glaciers, and icebergs, then Greenland may be for you.
Better yet, don’t force yourself to make an impossible choice, just visit both of them! You can fly direct from Reykjavik, Iceland, to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, so it is very doable to combine a trip to both islands. There are also cruises now that stop in both Iceland and Greenland!
As someone who has been to both Iceland and Greenland, what is my own unabashed opinion on Iceland vs Greenland?
I’m deeply grateful to have visited both islands. I visited Iceland first, because I found an insanely good deal on a flight and spontaneously booked the trip! I visited Greenland the following year, primarily to run the annual Polar Circle Marathon!
*(I can’t close out this article without mentioning that “runcations” are one of my favorite ways of exploring new places, and the Polar Circle Marathon in Greenland is actually ranked as one of the 21 most extreme adventure races in the world! And bonus – there’s also a race in Iceland on the same list! Just another awesome reason to visit both Iceland AND Greenland!)
BUT, if I could only go back to one, I would choose Greenland, but just by a hair. My main reason has to be the remoteness, lack of crowds, and just the sheer unfiltered awesomeness of this island. The culture has remained largely unaffected by the outside world, and things feel simpler and more in touch with the natural world in Greenland. Greenland feels more like a secret, and there’s just something thrilling about the lure of witnessing a secret! If you have the chance to visit Greenland, go to Kangerlussuaq and witness the Greenland ice sheet. In all my travels and things I’ve seen, that remains the most awe-inspiring and beautiful location I’ve ever stepped foot on. While you are there, you can check out a full itinerary of Kangerlussuaq activities.
That being said, which one is easier to visit? Iceland hands down! It’s not necessarily easy to plan a trip to Greenland, and it costs more. Whereas Iceland has an abundance of flights now, a bunch of lodging options to choose from, and the convenient option to self drive. You can literally just hop on the Ring Road, and there will be a stellar, and very obvious, sight to see literally every couple of miles. An Iceland road trip literally plans itself. Check out my own Southern Iceland Ring Road Itinerary as inspiration. There are no bad sights to see in Iceland.
So while I would maybe choose Greenland over Iceland in a hypothetical situation, I would probably visit Iceland sooner than Greenland simply because I could throw together a trip much quicker and more spontaneously. Again, it’s an impossible choice to have to make, and I hope anyone reading this has the chance to experience both these islands someday!
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