The Essential Guide to Nanortalik (Ilivileq), Greenland

Nanortalik, which means “the place with polar bears,” is the southernmost town in Greenland, located on an island of the same name. Founded in 1797 as a trading depot at the mouth of Tasermiut Fjord, the town is currently home to approximately 1,000 people. Although the island is named for polar bears, the chance of seeing these furry giants is fairly slim. What you will find, however, is a place of majestic beauty and friendly, welcoming residents. From the nearby Tasermiut Fjord, where rocky summits rise above a narrow glacial inlet, to the Qinngua Valley—the only forest in all of Greenland—Nanortalik is surrounded by natural wonders. Culturally there is just as much to experience. For history buffs, the Nanortalik Museum explores native, Old Norse and European colonial history as it shaped Greenland, with nine historic buildings and the world’s oldest umiak (sealskin boat). To appreciate the richness of Greenland’s traditions, be sure to attend a local choral concert where you’ll hear a unique blend of musical disciplines unlike any you’ve heard before.

Whether you’re an accomplished mountain climber or someone who simply appreciates dramatic nature views, be sure to visit nearby Tasermiut Fjord, a 70-kilometer (43-mile) glacial inlet surrounded by majestic peaks. Accessible from Nanortalik via a short boat ride, the fjord has beckoned climbers from around the world to its challenging heights and sheer rock faces that plunge into icy arctic waters. In recent years the glacier at Tasermiut Fjord has receded noticeably due to the effects of global warming.
In a country that has almost no trees, the Qinngua Valley is a rare exception. The only natural forest in Greenland—located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Nanortalik—the Qinngua Valley boasts willows and birches that tower above the rest of the island’s vegetation, where trees rarely exceed half a meter in height. Though it may have few native trees, Greenland has no shortage of other plant species, ranging from over 300 types of plants to delicately beautiful mosses and lichens.
B-590 Tuapammiut
One of the unique joys of a visit to the Arctic is to witness the spectacular light show in the sky known as the northern lights. Also referred to as the aurora borealis, this natural phenomenon occurs when the solar winds energize the magnetosphere and charge electrons to give off dramatic hues. The aurora can sometimes be seen directly overhead; at other times the bands of color illuminate the horizon, or even make it appear as if the sun is rising from a new direction.
As a crossroads of Inuit and European cultures, Greenland is a place where different traditions meld to create something truly unique. Historically, music on the island was played on drums made from polar-bear bladders. With the arrival of missionaries, however, the musical traditions evolved to encompass choral music, including psalms with a uniquely Greenlandic sound. You can still witness drum dancing on festive occasions, as well as hear local choirs perform at the community’s church throughout the year.
Kiffat Aqqutaa
For a glimpse into Greenland’s colonial past, be sure to visit the Nanortalik Museum. Comprised of nine separate historic buildings, this is the largest outdoor museum in the country. A tour of the site’s wooden, rock and half-timbered structures will provide insight into the people who settled Greenland—from Old Norse and later-day Danish colonists to the native Inuits. Be sure to check out the world’s oldest umiak: an open sealskin boat (of a type long in use by the residents of this part of Greenland) that dates back 500 years.
More from AFAR
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
AFAR Journeys
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: United States
Journeys: Sports + Adventure