The popular saying goes that Iceland is green and Greenland is ice, but is this true? And what are the differences or similarities between these two countries? Or which one should you travel to and why? This article should give you a better idea of how Greenland compares to Iceland and, hopefully, inspire you to visit both.
Because…. Spoiler alert… They are both very different, but equally stunning!
Good to know: In this article, we compare Iceland vs. Greenland from a travelers’ perspective. We focus on things such as accessibility, tourism infrastructure, what there is to see and do in both countries, wildlife, crowds, and also costs. So that if you’re wondering where to travel and why, you can make an informed decision.
So here we go – Iceland vs Greenland! But before we get to more practical info, let’s first take a look at the most commonly asked question – what’s in the name.
Why Iceland is Called Iceland
There are many theories as to why Iceland is called Iceland. According to Icelandic Sagas, it was first named ‘Snowland‘ by one of the first Norwegians who arrived here when it was snowing. Later, a Swede called Garðar Svavarsson named the island ‘Garðarshólmi’ (Garðar’s Isle) after his own name.
Iceland’s current name is believed to come from yet another Norwegian Viking Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerðarson (9th century). He was nicknamed Hrafna-Flóki (Raven-Flóki) because he took ravens to help him find his way to the island we currently know as Iceland.
The colonists settled in the current Westfjords and had an amazing first summer, but weren’t at all prepared for the winter. Their livestock died in winter and settlers decided to leave when spring came. Before leaving, Hrafna-Flóki is said to have climbed the mountain from which he had a view over the current Ísafjörður, filled with drift ice. That’s why he called this place ‘Iceland‘: Ísland = ísur (ice) + land (land, country).
Hrafna-Flóki later returned to Iceland and lived here for the rest of his life.
Why Greenland is Called Greenland
Greenland got its name from the first settlers who arrived in the southern part of the country that is actually very green. That’s where those people lived, not in the north of Greenland or inland where the huge glaciers are.
It’s believed that Norwegian Viking Erik the Red (who lived at the end of the 10th century) has founded the first settlement in Greenland. He was exiled from Iceland for murder, set to look for a new place to live, and ended up on the nearby island. Of course, he looked for a place that was ice-free and had the potential for farming and favorable living conditions.
Upon his return to Iceland three years later, he talked about a place that he called ‘Greenland‘, hoping to make it more attractive to the new settlers. His marketing campaign was quite successful and he went back to Greenland with a big group of colonists. They established settlements close to locations where Qaqortoq (the largest town in southern Greenland) and Nuuk (the capital of Greenland) are today.
Iceland vs. Greenland – Some Facts
Iceland is a sovereign state with its own parliament, a president, currency, language, and laws.
Greenland is an autonomous territory within the kingdom of Denmark. They do have some autonomy and, in addition to Danish, also speak Greenlandic, which is Eskimo – Aleut language spoken in Greenland, Alaska, and several other Arctic regions. Greenland uses the Danish krone as its currency.
With a total surface of over 2,166,000 km2, Greenland is more than 20 times bigger than Iceland (103,000 km2). However, the population of Greenland is just about 56,000 people, while Iceland has around 360,000 inhabitants. As you can imagine, both countries are very scarcely populated.
Location and Accessibility
Both Iceland and Greenland are located in the Atlantic Ocean, about half-way between Europe and North America. However, Iceland lies just under the Arctic circle, while a big part of Greenland stretches several thousand kilometers further north.
With direct flights to many European as well as North American destinations, Iceland is very easy to get to. For example, it takes just about 3hrs to fly to Reykjavik from Amsterdam or Brussels and about 6 hours from New York. Some cruise ships also stop in Iceland and you can also get to Iceland by car ferry from Denmark via the Faroe Islands.
At the moment, there are just two countries with direct flights to Greenland – Denmark and Iceland. While most people think that the only way to get to Greenland is flying from Copenhagen, there are also direct flights from Reykjavik.
There are also cruise ships visiting Greenland in summer, but those are usually Arctic cruises that cost a whole lot more than ‘regular’ cruises.
You can easily visit Iceland by car. Infrastructure is good and while public transportation outside of Reykjavik is still limited, there are plenty of options ranging from self-drive trips to 1-day excursions or organized multi-day group tours. You can drive the entire Ring Road of Iceland on your own and you’ll find excellent facilities everywhere you go.
Traveling around Greenland is a very different story. There are no roads between settlements in Greenland, so you have to visit each place separately and then either fly or take a boat between different towns.
Just to be clear – there are roads in Greenland, but only in towns and not between them. In winter, it’s also sometimes possible to travel between different places by snowmobile, but only for rather short distances. There are now plans to open a new road between Kangerlussuaq and Kangerluarsuk Tulleq, a fjord in the vicinity of Sisimiut, the second-largest settlement in Greenland. This road will be about 80 miles (130 km) – the longest in Greenland.
Both Iceland and Greenland are not your usual summer destinations. That being said, in summer temperatures in Southern Greenland are quite comparable to those in Iceland. You can have some really nice summer days with temperatures of 15-20°C (60-68°F) in both places, but it can also be just 5°C (41°F)…
Northern Greenland is obviously not as warm as southern Greenland or Iceland, but still, it’s not unusual to have really nice warm days.
In winter, it gets much colder in Greenland than in Iceland, especially up North.
There is one big difference between the two places though – it’s not as wet in Greenland as it is in Iceland.
Good to know: Both destinations can be visited the whole year-round. The choice of activities will, of course, be very different, depending on the season.
Do They Speak English?
Pretty much everyone speaks English in Iceland, so it’s really easy to get around and communicate with the locals.
It’s not the case in Greenland. People who work in the tourism sector (many of them come from Denmark), do speak English. But very few locals speak English, which makes it a bit more challenging to communicate with them.
That being said, it’s not something you’ll notice much in hotels or when doing tours. And in the other cases, you’ll always find someone who speaks English if absolutely need be. And in the worst case, a smile and some gestures will get you a long way too, just as it did for us when we accidentally crashed a local wedding in Qeqertarsuaq in Greenland…
Food and Drinks
Since Greenland is much more remote than Iceland, there is usually less choice when it comes to food. Because almost everything has to be imported from far away, prices of fresh fruit or dairy products are really high.
This is especially notable in the supermarkets. Food offer and prices at Iceland’s bigger supermarkets such as Bonus are very comparable to those in Western Europe. Whereas Greenland’s supermarkets have much less choice and much higher prices.
However, food and beverage prices at the restaurants are very comparable in Iceland and Greenland. You can expect to pay 25-50 euro for a nice fish or meat dish. I found that prices at the restaurants in Greenland were actually more reasonable than those in Iceland. We never paid more than 35 EUR for the main course at dinner, whereas in Iceland, there are quite a few restaurants charging more.
In both countries, alcohol is very expensive.
While both – Iceland and Greenland – are expensive destinations, traveling to Iceland is actually quite a lot more affordable than traveling to Greenland. This is mainly because of the more expensive flights to Greenland and transportation within Greenland.
Accommodation prices and other expenses are somewhat comparable in Iceland and in Greenland. But in Iceland, you have more choice and thus more possibilities to find accommodation on a lower budget.
Organized tours and activities are really expensive in both countries, but some activities are even more pricey in Greenland. Just think of a 600 EUR scenic helicopter flight of 1-2 hrs in Ilulissat… Iceland helicopter tours are also expensive, but somewhat more reasonable. The cheapest boat tours cost about 70-100 EUR in Greenland and about the same in Iceland.
LEARN MORE: How Expensive is Iceland
Facilities & Connectivity
Both destinations have all the modern facilities – from really nice hotels to good restaurants and good phone coverage.
However, in Greenland, most of the tourism infrastructure is concentrated in just a few biggest settlements, with the rest of the country just starting to catch up.
Iceland has come a long way in this regard and has a lot more infrastructure than ever before. There are many accommodation options in Reykjavik and even the most remote parts of Iceland have quite some lodging options. In high season, you can also find cafés and small food shops even at the most remote destinations.
Using your cell phone in Greenland is also very expensive and many hotels still charge a lot of money for WiFi. That being said, WiFi in most quality hotels in Ilulissat is free of charge.
In Iceland, most hotels and even restaurants offer free wi-fi. European roaming rules apply in Iceland as well. If you are traveling from outside of the EU, you can also hire a portable wi-fi device and use it pretty much all over the country. Even in some parts of the highlands, mobile phones work just as well as in Reykjavik.
READ ALSO: Where to Stay in Iceland
Scenery, Glaciers & Icebergs
If you look up some pictures of Greenland and Iceland, it’s likely that you’ll see icebergs in Greenland and green mountains, lava fields, and waterfalls in Iceland. That’s probably where the saying that Iceland is green and Greenland is ice comes from…
However, this is just the first impression. If you look deeper, you’ll see that there are just as many amazing green landscapes in Greenland as there are in Iceland. And there are quite some glaciers and even (small) icebergs to be found in Iceland.
One thing that Greenland has that you won’t find in Iceland are huge icebergs. They come from the calving glaciers of the immense ice cape and can be huge. The visible part of some icebergs is bigger than the biggest apartment buildings or cruise ships. Not even to mention that there’s 9 times as much ice underneath the surface… It’s hard to imagine this until you see some of these immense icebergs. Absolutely impressive. Magical. Surreal.
TIP! The best place to see icebergs in Greenland is the Ilulissat Icefjord and the surrounding area.
In the south of Greenland, you can also find high mountains, green valleys, and even sheep farms. Also in the North of Greenland, on Disko Island, the scenery is incredibly green. In fact, volcanic Disko Island looks like a miniature version of Iceland – with black sand beaches, green pastures, waterfalls, fjords, and glaciers. With one added bonus – floating icebergs dotting the horizon, as far as an eye can see.
Iceland is extremely diverse too. It’s a country of waterfalls, endless lava fields, and moonlike scenery that you won’t find anywhere else on the planet.
Just as Greenland, Iceland also has many glaciers, but of course they can’t be compared; neither in size or in volume. Compared to the surface of about 80% of Greenland covered with ice, Iceland’s glaciers are just a tiny snowflake on the map.
Both countries have some amazing wildlife, mostly marine animals.
In Greenland, you can see many whales, seals, reindeer, Arctic fox, but also polar bears. However, since hunting and sealing is one of the ways locals get their food, you won’t see many animals anywhere close to the settlements.
Since whaling is practically forbidden, there are many whales around and it’s easy to see them from the shore. We saw so many whales in Greenland, always from the shore, and a few times even from our hotel room window.
In Iceland, you can also see whales, but you’ll have to take a boat tour for that. There are also seals, reindeer, Arctic fox, and in summer also puffins.
There are no polar bears in Iceland, but there have been occasional sightings when bears got trapped on the floating ice and couldn’t get back to Greenland in time.
Iceland is world-famous for its hot springs and geothermal pools. You’ll find many natural hot pools all over the country and also big popular geothermal pools such as the Blue Lagoon or Myvatn Nature Baths. Also, pretty much every town and every village in Iceland has a swimming pool with numerous hot tubs.
There aren’t many swimming possibilities in Greenland unless you’re prepared to dive into the ice-cold water of the Arctic Ocean (not a good idea, btw).
While Qeqertarsuaq on Disko Island also has several hot springs, they are just ‘hot’ enough not to freeze in winter (2°C). You can’t compare this to the geothermal pools of Iceland.
Both – Iceland and Greenland – are a real paradise for outdoor-lovers. Summer or winter, there is always so much to be experienced! From hiking, mountain biking, or kayaking in summer to dog sledding, snowmobiling, ice-caving, or aurora hunting in winter…
There is more infrastructure and therefore more possibilities when it comes to all kinds of organized activities in Iceland. But in terms of diversity of activities on offer, both places are quite comparable.
Both – Iceland and Greenland – are great for seeing the Northern Lights in winter.
Due to their latitude and the position of the Aurora Oval, some parts of Greenland are better located for auroras than Iceland, but seeing them still remains a gamble.
You need clear skies, darkness, and higher aurora activity in order to see the Northern Lights. For that, your chances in Iceland and in Greenland are quite comparable.
READ ALSO: Northern Lights in Iceland
As you can imagine, the number of tourists is much higher in Iceland than it is in Greenland. Over 2 million tourists visit Iceland each year, whereas that number is not even close to 100,000 in Greenland…
This means that the most popular places in Iceland (like the Golden Circle and the SouthCoast of Iceland) are really busy throughout the year, whereas in Greenland you’re very likely to have some of the world’s most incredible locations all to yourself even in high season.
While it’s still possible to get off the beaten path in Iceland (mostly in the Icelandic highlands), the whole of Greenland is still very much off the beaten path.
However, it won’t stay like this for long. Greenland has so much to offer and is so beautiful that it’s just a matter of time before infrastructure catches up and the whole world finds out how amazing it is…
Greenland vs. Iceland – Conclusion
As you can see from the above, despite the fact that Iceland and Greenland are so close to each other, they are also very different…
Visit Iceland: If you are on a lower budget, are looking for a place that’s easy to get to and simple to visit on your own, then Iceland is a better choice.
Visit Greenland: If you are looking for a unique destination that not many people have visited yet and you don’t mind doing a bit more research, planning, and preparation for your trip (and have a higher budget), then Greenland is absolutely worth the trip.
Visit both: I wouldn’t say that Iceland is a better destination than Greenland or that Greenland is better than Iceland. They are just so different that they both deserve a place on your bucket list. And if you can’t choose, why not just visit both. With direct flights of just a few hours, Greenland is easy to get to from Iceland. So you can get a taste of both destinations in one trip and decide for yourselves…
As for me, I’ve been to Iceland many times and to Greenland just once and I would go back to both places in a heartbeat. There’s so much to be discovered!
Planning a Trip
Because of more infrastructure and a bigger choice, it’s much easier to plan your own trip to Iceland than to Greenland.
For Greenland, you can book your flights and accommodations online, and also some tours, but a lot has to be arranged either via tour agents or when you’re already there. This, obviously, makes it more difficult to compare prices and find better deals.
Most of the tourists we met in Greenland, booked their trip via a travel agent (here you can find a great selection of organized Greenland tours). Whereas in Iceland, many people just book their own trips.
TIP: On our blog, you can find lots of information, practical tips, itineraries, and destination guides for Iceland. Please check our Iceland travel guide for the complete selection.
We also have an article with travel tips and an easy Greenland itinerary, as well as a very comprehensive guide to visiting Qeqertarsuaq on Disko Island and a Greenland packing list.
If you are looking for travel inspiration or have any general questions for traveling to Iceland or Greenland, I encourage you to read those articles. If you don’t find an answer to a more specific question, feel free to leave a reply under one of the related articles and we’ll try to help. Alternatively, you can also join our Facebook group for traveling to Iceland and the Nordic Countries, and ask your questions there.
READ ALSO: Best Places to Visit in Iceland
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