For many, the appeal of Ilulissat is the surrounding landscape – specifically, the jaw-droppingly beautiful icebergs that sail by on the daily. But the city itself is definitely worth exploring and you can do that with my self-guided Ilulissat city tour
Follow this walking route to see the key landmarks and sights in Ilulissat, and to learn about the history of the city.
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Table of Contents
Ilulissat City Facts
Ilulissat is a fascinating place: it feels like a small town in an epic landscape. Here are some facts about Ilulissat:
- Ilulissat is the third-largest city in Greenland, with around 4700 inhabitants (as of 2020)
- It lies at 69°13′N, which is 350km within the Arctic Circle
- Ilulissat was founded as a trading post in 1741 by Danish colonist Jacob Severin and was originally named Jakobshavn
- There was previously an Inuit settlement at Sermermiut, near Ilulissat, until 1850, when the last inhabitants moved to Ilulissat
- The name Ilulissat means icebergs in the Greenlandic language Kalaallisut. And that’s because there are a lot of icebergs around Ilulissat!
- Ilulissat is next to the Ilulissat Icefjord: a channel of water between Disko Bay and the calving front of the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier. This is one of the fastest and most productive glaciers in the world, releasing 35 billion tonnes of ice every year, all of which float out of the Icefjord and into the bay next to Ilulissat. The Icefjord has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2004.
- 91% of the population of Ilulissat are Greenlandic Inuit people, with the rest mainly white Europeans and some people from Asian countries, including the Philippines and Thailand.
- The main languages spoken in Ilulissat are Greenlandic (Kalaallisut) and Danish, but most of those that work in the tourist industry (ie hotels and tour companies) also speak English.
- Ilulissat is not connected by road to any other settlement. Boats are used to get around, as are dog sleds (in winter) and planes for longer distances.
- There are almost as many sled dogs as people. Well, not quite, but there are an estimated 3200 sled dogs in Ilulissat!
About This Ilulissat City Tour
I have written this Ilulissat city tour as a self-guided walking tour, which means you can use it to find your way around the city and to learn about the various landmarks and sights without needing to pay a guide. To help you do this, I have included a map at the end, showing the stops and the route.
However, you don’t have to follow the route strictly. You could also use this to simply learn more about what is in Ilulissat and to decide what you want to see when you go there. It works just as well as a city guide.
If you follow this walking Ilulissat city tour route, you’ll walk 4.5km in total. and it would take you approximately 1 hour without stopping. However, you will of course stop many times along the way, and there are several museums or exhibitions along the way. I suggest you allow around 3-4 hours for this Ilulissat city tour.
Heads up: there are some hills on this route, and an optional rock to climb over – so you will definitely want comfortable shoes for this, ideally walking boots. And it’s always a good idea to bring water with you.
Ilulissat City Tour: A Self-Guided Walking Tour – Step By Step
Start: Ilulissat Art Museum
This is a great place to start the Ilulissat City Tour not only because of where it is in relation to the other places on the route but also because the Art Museum is housed in what was once the house of the manager of the colony, dating back to 1923.
Back then, the colour of buildings was used to signify function: red was used for colonial buildings. Yellow was used to signify healthcare: ie that a doctor or nurse lived there. Blue was used for technical resources: eg a place to pump water; electrical units etc.
The Art Museum is one of two museums in Ilulissat (the other being the History Museum, which we’ll come to later). If you want to see the art collection, which includes works by Emanuel A. Petersen, your ticket will also give you entry to the History Museum.
If you need any refreshments before commencing the tour, there is a café nearby which is one of the best places to eat in Ilulissat: Cafennguaq.
Inuit Artist Workshop
Carrying on with the art theme, your next stop is the Inuit Artist workshop.
Head right along the road called Mittarfimmut Aqqutaa and then turn right down Kussangajaannguaq (or Fredericiap Aqqutaa), which is the main road in Ilulissat.
You’ll pass the offices of some of the companies that offer tours in Ilulissat, including:
- Disko Line Explorer: this is the branch of the Disko Line company that offers boat tours around Ilulissat. I did an Icefjord tour with them, which was great!
- Whale Tours, who offer, well, whale tours.
- Ilulissat Adventure.
You’ll also pass Akiki supermarket on the left, which could be useful to come back to if you’re doing any self-catering in Ilulissat.
If you follow the road round, past the bank, it will turn into a gravel footpath and you’ll see a red building down the slope to the right. On the ceiling is the faded remains of a large ‘H7’ painted on the tiles.
This is the Inuit Artist Workshop and inside you’ll find artists with work for sale. Much of the art is carved figures and jewellery made from bones: from whales, seals or reindeer. I was told you would need a permit to take them out of the country, so bear that in mind if you are tempted to buy.
The H7 on the roof of this building dates from WW2, when the US established control of Greenland while Denmark was occupied by Nazi Germany. To help US pilots navigate around the unfamiliar territory, they numbered the settlements, painting the numbers of rooftops. H7 was the number of Ilulissat. You can also see ‘H8’ on a building in the nearby settlement of Oqaatsut (now a restaurant named H8).
Head further down the footpath towards the harbour: the commercial and industrial heart of the city.
There are so many boats in Ilulissat Harbour! If you do a boat tour in Ilulissat (and I highly recommend it!), you might be coming back here to set off.
The harbour has long been dominated by the fishing industry. The main catch in this area is Halibut, but there’s also shrimp caught here, and you won’t be able to miss the big industrial buildings and chimneys to the left.
However, there are some smaller old buildings worth noting here. First, a small red building with a bell out front, which used to be used to call workers to the docks when a big catch came in. And there’s a small building clad in blackened wood which is the ‘the black warehouse’, which I think might be the oldest building in Ilulissat.
Ilulissat Town Hall
Head back up the hill away from the harbour on the road and you’ll pass a Spar supermarket on the right and the building on the left is Ilulissat Town Hall. Notice the coat of arms, which features halibut, sled dogs and a polar star.
I didn’t go in that Spar, but I heard they sell guns there (and that they don’t like photos being taken in there)!
Knud Rasmussen Monument
At the top of the hill, there’s a junction of a few roads and to the right, you’ll see a big rock with a monument on top of it.
This is the monument to Knud Rasmussen, who was a Greenlandic–Danish polar explorer and anthropologist who was born in Ilulissat to a Danish father and an Inuit-Danish mother. He studied and wrote about the ways of the Inuit people, spoke Greenlandic and was the first European to cross the Northwest Passage via dog sled.
If you want to get up close to the monument, there’s no path! You have to go up the rocks, which can be slippery. So only attempt it if you’re confident and have grippy boots on.
Once you’ve clambered back down from the Knud Rasmussen sculpture, head west along Nuisariannguaq Street, past some derelict houses on the left and the Hotel Hvide Falk on the right. Ahead you’ll see the Hospital, and if you follow the road to the left, you’ll see Zion’s Church.
This is my favourite landmark in Ilulissat. It’s a black wooden Lutheran church, and it holds quite a presence on the shore, looking out to sea.
It bears two dates because it was built in 1779 close to the shore and was then relocated to a slightly higher spot in 1931. This was to protect the church from the sea. When icebergs calve, they can cause tsunami waves.
I like the building itself, but I also like the location: it has a great view over the bay and all its icebergs. There’s a bench and some picnic tables on the granite, so it’s a nice spot to sit and enjoy the view. In fact, sitting here is one of the best things to do in Ilulissat.
There’s also a memorial stone in front and you might see some kayaking from there, as there’s a kayak club next door.
Ilulissat History Museum
Heading back onto Nuisariannguaq road, you’ll need to turn down a pedestrian pathway to Ilulissat History Museum, also known as Knud Rassmussen’s House, because this is where he lived.
However, the house was originally constructed in Norway and was dismantled and shipped here to be reconstructed. You can still see the numbers on the planks of wood on the walls that were used to aid reconstruction.
The museum itself has a collection that covers the earliest known civilisations to live in the area, some documentation about Inuit traditional culture, and also information about Knud himself. Remember: if you bought a ticket for the Art Museum, you can use it here too.
Outside, you can see some other traditional equipment: old sleds and a press for squeezing oil out of whale meat (moved from its original position near the harbour). There’s also the jawbone of a fin whale and a peat house that was used until the 1950s.
Sled Dog Stations
Now, the next part of this Ilulissat city tour has more walking than sights – this leg is approximately 1.4km and involved an uphill section.
Walk uphill along Nuisariannguaq and you’ll pass a school. At the top of the hill, there’s a turning to the left with a Spar on it, and slightly further on, a turning to the right which, if you took it, would take you past the main shops in the city and also many of the places to eat in Ilulissat.
However, if you’re up for more walking, to finish off this walking tour, we’re heading straight on Sermermiut Aqq out of town to the Icefjord Centre. And along the way, you’ll pass sled dog stations on both sides of the road.
In summer, the dogs will be stationed here for months. Puppies are allowed to roam free, but adult dogs are required to be chained up (separately from each other) all summer long. This is because they’re dangerous – so do not approach them!
You shouldn’t approach or attempt to pet any sled dogs. They aren’t raised as pets and can react aggressively.
If you do want to meet sled dogs in a safe way, your options vary by season: in winter, you could do a sledding experience across the snow. And in summer, you could do a ‘Meet The Sled Dogs’ experience, where you learn about dog-sledding (without doing it) and meet some sled dogs. World Of Greenland offers such a tour.
Now…. If you don’t fancy walking out to the Icefjord centre, you could end the Ilulissat city tour early by turning left onto Alanngukasik Street and heading towards Pifissk supermarket and back down the hill to the Disko Line Explorer office.
Ilulissat Icefjord Centre
At the end of Sermermiut Aqq road (literally, this is as far out of town as the road goes), you’ll find first a toilet block and then the modern Icefjord Centre
The building, which opened in 2021, is unlike anything else in Ilulissat: it’s large, angular and sweeping. And it’s not a bright colour!
From the rooftop, you have views out to the Icefjord (although it was foggy the day I visited, so there was nothing to be seen).
Inside, where you have to swap your outdoor shoes for the woolly slippers they provide, there’s a multi-media exhibition (complete with VR headsets) called The Tale Of Ice, a gift shop and a café.
I timed my visit too late to catch the exhibition, but I did enjoy a coffee, snug in my slippers, looking out at the snowy hillside.
You’ve done a lot of walking already, but if you have the energy, carry on and do the final 1.3km walk to Sermermiut
Sermermiut is an area of the shore next to the Icefjord where there are the remains of an old Inuit settlement. It’s also known for its views of the Icefjord from a raised rocky area to the side.
A boardwalk and stairs at the viewpoint make it easier to access Sermermiut. That said, it was snowed over when I went!
If you don’t fancy doing this the same day as the Ilulissat City tour, you could come back and do this another day. And you can also do it independently or as a guided tour if you prefer.
Map: Ilulissat City Tour
Here’s an Illulissat Map with the key sights in Ilulissat marked, plus this walking route.
NB. Googlemaps doesn’t understand some of the pedestrian pathways in Ilulissat! I haven’t been able to plot a continuous walking route, so I’ve used a combination of walking routes and static lines I’ve added to the map. Hopefully, it still makes sense!
How To Use This Map: Click the tab in the top left-hand corner of the map to view the layers. If you click the icons on the map, you can get more information about each one. If you click the star next to the map’s title, it will be added to your Google Maps account. To view it on your phone or computer, open Google Maps, click the menu, go to ‘Your Places’ or ‘Saved’, then click Maps and you will see this map in your list.
Where To Stay In Ilulissat
Greenland is expensive, so when I visited Ilulissat, I was looking for a budget hotel – and I found it in the Hotel SØMA Ilulissat.
I wrote a full review of Hotel SØMA Ilulissat, but in short, it was a clean, well-equipped budget hotel with a good breakfast and great service.
If I was to go back to Ilulissat, I might see whether I could afford the Hotel Icefiord, because it has amazing views of icebergs in the bay. But if I couldn’t stretch to that, I’d be perfectly happy at Hotel SØMA Ilulissat.
The Last Word
I hope this walking tour of Ilulissat city is useful and that you have an amazing time when you’re there.