Summer is a great time to visit Greenland and there are plenty of things to do in Ilulissat, including spectacular Icefjord experiences, wildlife encounters and adventures in the untamed landscape. The town itself also has a lot to offer, including its iconic Zions Church and museum exhibitions.
I spent one magnificent week in Ilulissat in June 2023 – so read on for all I learned about what to do in Ilulissat, Greenland in summer.
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Table of Contents
Is Ilulissat Worth Visiting?
Ilulissat is definitely worth visiting in my opinion. If you love dramatic landscapes, glaciers and wildlife, you will be blown away by Ilulissat. It’s one of the most spectacular places I have been to in the world. In particular, the beauty of the ice took my breath away.
My mind keeps drifting back to the stunning icebergs I saw and I have been reliving the wonder of them over and over…
What Is Ilulissat Known For?
Ilulissat’s name is a hidden clue of what it is known for. The word ‘Ilulissat’ means icebergs in Greenlandic (Kalaallisut) – and that is what Ilulissat is known for.
Ilulissat is next to a very productive glacier, Sermeq Kujalleq, from which calve huge icebergs. These drift down a fjord (Ilulissat’s Icefjord is a UNESCO World Heritage site) and out into Disko Bay, past the town of Ilulissat.
The Sermeq Kujalleq glacier is one of the fastest moving glaciers in the world (around 40m per day!), due to the geography that sort of drains the ice sheet through a narrow channel in the mountains. It produces the most ice of any glacier in the northern hemisphere – second only to Antarctica. It is responsible for 10% of all Greenland calf ice. And Greenland has 44,000km of coastline, with many calving glaciers that flow from the huge ice sheet, so that’s really saying something!
And the icebergs are known for being BIG. In fact, based on the size, location and number of other icebergs from Ilulissat, some suspect the iceberg that hit the Titanic came from here.
Beyond the glaciers, Ilulissat is known for its teeming wildlife, including seals, birds and musk ox. If you come to Ilulissat in summer, you also have a great chance of seeing whales, especially humpback whales, which feed on plankton that thrive in the meltwater of the icebergs.
And culturally, it’s a really interesting place. For millennia, people survived here by hunting and fishing, getting around by sea and dog sled. Kayaks were used by Inuit people to hunt in the arctic waters for thousands of years. In fact, the English word kayak comes from the Greenlandic word for it: qajaq.
And the town of Ilulissat continues to depend on fishing, with Greenlandic Halibut being the main catch.
Summer In Ilulissat: Weather
They say Greenland only has two seasons: winter and summer. Winter is characterised by sub-zero temperatures, snow and darkness. And summer is known for relatively mild temperatures and 24-hour daylight (Greenland is partially within the Arctic Circle, so it gets those real extremes of seasonal light).
According to Weatherspark, the average temperatures in Ilulissat in summer are:
|Av. Highs (°C / °F)
|Av. Lows (°C / °F)
|Days of rain / snow
|8 / 46
|3 / 37
|11 / 52
|6 / 43
|9 / 48
|4 / 39
I visited Ilulissat in early June, which was the start of the summer season. I would say I had slightly worse weather than I was expecting (and worse than the table above suggests) – and this was validated by some local people who complained about how unseasonably cold it was.
During my seven days in Ilulissat, I had two snowy days, with temperatures close to 0°C, two rainy days and three dry days. But don’t worry, I didn’t let a little precipitation stop me from making the most of my time there! I did a bunch of tours in Ilulissat, as well as some independent exploring and even a little hiking.
On the upside, due to the particularly cold start to the summer that I experienced, I did manage to miss one negative of being in Greenland in summer: mosquitoes and midges. Like Scotland, Scandinavia and Iceland, in summer, around wet areas, these annoying biting insects come out to play. If you come in the peak of summer (mid-June to the end of August), you’re likely to see these guys buzzing around and you will probably want to have some strategies to repel them.
Seeing as I went so early in the summer, and the weather was still snowy, I didn’t see any midges or mosquitoes.
11 Things To Do In Ilulissat In Summer
1. Icefjord Boat Tour
I’ll start with one of my favourite things to do in Ilulissat: a boat tour of the Icefjord. If there’s one thing you do in Ilulissat in summer, make it this one.
Taking a boat out among the icebergs of Ilulissat is really astounding. They’re so big! And beautiful! And there are also sorts of shapes and textures in the ice: irregular, lumpy icebergs; smooth, glistening icebergs that were once underwater and then flipped; craggy, crevassed icebergs; ice arches and tunnels and even icebergs with black marks scarred through them.
The biggest icebergs congregate near the entrance to the Icefjord, where the sea is shallow. They get grounded on the bottom and stay there for a while until they melt enough to drift freely into the bay.
Many tours operate in the evening, during the midnight sun. While the sun doesn’t set in June and most of July, it does get lower in the sky and the light turns a gorgeous yellowy shade. I was expecting the icebergs to be white and blue, but I wasn’t expecting golden hues – that was such a treat!
I did two of these Icefjord boat tours and I wrote about the differences between the two tours in my post on tours in Ilulissat – so if you’re thinking of booking, check that out first.
If you go to Ilulissat in summer, you have a good chance of seeing whales, which appear in the waters around Greenland from late May – although some local people told me the best chance to see whales is in July.
The appearance of whales is tied to the ice: as the freshwater in the ice melts, it creates the conditions for plankton to thrive. And the whales come to feed on the plankton.
There are different kinds of whales that visit Greenland, including Greenland Whales, which are the largest, Fin Whales, Minke Whales and Humpback Whales, which I was told are most common.
There are a number of tour companies that offer whale-watching tours in Ilulissat, and these differ from Icefjord tours because they aim for clearer water. This is because even though the icy water creates their food, they don’t tend to swim around an area of densely packed icebergs. I guess this is because they’re big and need room to manoeuvre.
The boat captains talk to each other to keep track of whale sightings to give you the best chance of seeing them.
I was lucky enough to see a humpback whale twice while I was in Ilulissat – and one of them flipped its tail while diving, which was just absolutely wonderful to witness. It’s something I’ll never forget and I think whale-watching is one of the unmissable things to do in Ilulissat.
3. Eqi Glacier
While the Sermeq Kujalleq Glacier is the star at producing big icebergs, it’s hard to get to: boats won’t take you into the fjord; there are no roads there and I don’t think you can hike there, because the route is crossed by other fjords. The only way I know is to fly over it, which, clearly, isn’t cheap.
However, it is possible to get much closer to another glacier, the Eqi Glacier, which is north of Ilulissat. This glacier is reachable by boat in about 2 hours and it’s one of the exciting things to do in Ilulissat due to the dramatic landscape you’ll pass on the boat.
It’s a smaller glacier, and its icebergs are smaller, but, in the right conditions, you can get pretty close to the blue snout of the glacier. And if you’re lucky, you might even see it calve.
I took a boat tour to the Eqi glacier when I was in Ilulissat and I was, unfortunately, not so lucky. The sea ice around Eqi was packed and the captain of the boat couldn’t get us in very close. And added to that, the weather was foggy so we couldn’t see it, even from a distance.
But you might have better conditions than me – especially later in the summer (as I said earlier, I was there in early June, and the weather was still a little wintery).
And in any case, I did enjoy the arctic scenery and we saw a humpback whale on the way out, which was amazing.
4. Zions Church
The best landmark in the town itself is, for me, Zions Church. It’s an old Lutheran church, down near a rare shallow part of the shore
The striking black wooden church has a steeple, and, like all the buildings in Ilulissat, white trim. It appears to be insulated with wool (I saw a few bits sticking out when I was there).
It was built in 1779 and then in 1931, it was relocated further up the shore to protect it from the sea (there can be tsunamis from iceberg falls). This is why it bears both dates on the front of the building.
It also has a couple of places to sit: a bench and some picnic tables on the sloping granite. It’s a great spot to look out onto the icy bay, and you might see some ice chunks washed up on the shore.
And it faces west, so while you won’t get a proper sunset, sitting here and enjoying the strange light of the midnight sun is one of the best things to do in Ilulissat in summer.
5. Hiking Around Ilulissat
Greenland is a real outdoorsy place, so obviously one of the things to do in Ilulissat is hiking.
There are various hiking trails in the area. Not necessarily paths, I stress – but trails. I did the easiest one, the Yellow Trail, which starts just beyond the power plant at the southern end of town and gives you great views of the big icebergs at the mouth of the Icefjord.
It was still a bit snowy up on the rocks, so there was occasionally a visible path: footsteps in the snow left by the hikers who came before me. But most of the time, you have to look for the daubs of yellow paint on the rocks to help you find the right route through the rocky & marshy terrain.
I’m not really a hiker… For me, even though they say it’s an easy trail, it was a bit ‘clambery’ and steep at times. And I had to pick my way over some very boggy ground quite carefully. When I saw some other hikers with hiking poles, I realised that would have been a good idea!
The Yellow Trail is only 2.7 km, but there are longer routes for those of you looking for a challenge, including the Blue Route.
There are also hiking routes around Ilimanaq and Oqaatsut, but you’ll need to take a boat from Ilulissat first. You can also do guided hikes, including the Blue Trail and hiking from the Oqaatsut settlement.
Whichever way you hike, do be careful and follow the safety guidance for hiking in the Icefjord region.
6. Ilulissat City Tour
Ilulissat is the 3rd largest city in Greenland, but by the standards of many places, it feels like a town. It’s easy enough to explore the city on your own, but you will likely learn more from a guided tour.
I did a guided Ilulissat City Tour, which covered the harbour, the Inuit Artists’ Workshop, the Knud Rasmussen monument, Zions Church and Ilulissat Museum. My guide also shared some info on the history of the city and some of the local customs.
As I said in my post on Ilulissat tours, I didn’t think this was brilliant value-for-money in terms of the price, the time and the depth of information, but I definitely came away knowing more than I started with.
As an alternative to a paid-for guided tour, you could follow my free self-guided Ilulissat City Tour instead!
7. Ilulissat Museum
Ilulissat Museum is actually two museums: the History Museum (also known as Knud Rasmussen’s House) and the Art Museum. When you buy a ticket for one, which costs DKK100 (£12 or US$15) and can only be paid via card, you can also get an entry for the other.
I explored the History Museum on my first full day. It has a small collection, spread over two floors. There are exhibits about Knud Rasmussen, who was a Greenlandic–Danish polar explorer and anthropologist and whose house the building was. And there are also historical exhibits about the ancient civilisations who came to Greenland millennia ago. There was also a video exhibition documenting the traditional way to make a kayak – from wood and skins.
Outside, there are some old dog sleds and a press for squeezing oil out of whale meat (moved from its original position near the harbour).
A note on opening hours: when I was in Ilulissat, the History Museum was open 12-4 pm on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. And the Art Museum, which features some works by Emanuel A. Petersen, a landscape painter, and is in the house of the old manager of the colony, was only open two days a week.
8. Ilulissat Icefjord Centre
At the end of the south-bound road in Ilulissat (literally, it goes no further; you can’t drive to any other settlement from Ilulissat), and at the confluence of the yellow, red and blue hiking trails, there’s a large modern visitor centre. Its sloping roof reminds me of skiing, and it has a wooden alpine feel.
This is the Icefjord Centre, which contains an exhibition about glaciers, a café and a shop. Visiting here is one of the most interesting things to do in Ilulissat.
It was a rough snowy day when I went, so the warm interior was a welcome relief. You must remove your boots and swap them for woollen slippers (which they provide) before going in. It made the whole experience more homey and chill, somehow.
I wasn’t able to do the multi-media exhibition, The Tale of Ice, on the day I went. I turned up late in the afternoon, and they said I didn’t have time, I think, so they suggested I come back tomorrow (but I didn’t).
Instead, I enjoyed a coffee, snug in my slippers, looking out at the snowy hillside and I browsed the gift shop, which has some nice high-end gifts including books on glaciers.
You can in theory get a view of the Icefjord from the roof of the centre – but on the day I went, it was overcast and there was nothing to be seen.
Just beyond the Icefjord Centre is Sermermiut, which is an area of the shore next to the Icefjord where there was an old Inuit settlement. It’s believed the settlement was used for thousands of years but was abandoned in 1850 when the last occupant moved to the colony of Ilulissat (then called Jacobshaven, after the Danish founder, Jacob Severin).
There are some archaeological remains here and the site is part of the Icefjord’s UNESCO listing.
As well as the historical significance, it’s a good spot for iceberg viewing, from the shore, but also up on the hill to the side of the shore, which is made easy to access with a wooden stairway.
To get to Sermermiut, follow the boardwalk from the Icefjord Centre for 1.3km down to the shore. You can go independently or there are also a few companies in town who offer guided tours.
Now… They promote this walk as inclusive of those with pushchairs and wheelchairs. However, when I went in early June when we had what people called ‘unseasonable’ snow, the boardwalk was snowed over. I can’t imagine you could get anything with wheels through that very easily. So if you do need wheel access, best to check it’s clear first (or go in peak summer, when it is most likely to be clear).
10. Dinner With A View
One of the absolute best things to do in Ilulissat (though not one of the cheapest) is to have dinner with a view of Disko Bay.
None of the cafes in Ilulissat has views, but there are two hotel restaurants that both have dining rooms with panoramic views of the icebergs floating past
You have a couple of options. First up, is Restaurant Icefiord, in the Hotel Icefiord. It’s in the southern part of town, on the shore. Its restaurant, like its rooms, faces the bay giving you endless views of the bergs floating past. The menu is pretty good, too: strong on seasonal products and exquisite presentation.
The other option is Rooftop, the restaurant at the Best Western Plus Hotel Ilulissat. Located in the centre of town, this 6th-floor rooftop restaurant and terrace has views across Ilulissat and out to the bay. So it’s not as close to the ice as Restaurant Icefiord, but it does have a nice view of the town including Zions Church.
For more ideas on food, check out my article on where to eat in Ilulissat.
11. See Sled Dogs
Dog sledding is traditional in Greenland, but in summer, there is no dog sledding, because the snow melts. Through the summer months, the sled dogs are kept in ‘stations’ around the outskirts of the town. It’s law that the adult dogs must be chained, but the puppies will roam free.
There is a sled dog station near the hotel I stayed in, Hotel SØMA Ilulissat, and more all around the outskirts of town, including on both sides of the road out to the Icefjord Centre.
So, chances are you will see some sled dogs. But it’s important you don’t touch them. Or even approach them. They’re working dogs, not bred as pets, and they can be aggressive. Tragically, a little boy died in 2023 after being bitten by sled dogs.
I quite liked observing the sled dogs stationed behind my hotel from a distance. They’re hard as nails: even though they had kennels, they were out in the open through rain and snow. And when their food came, their howls were pretty cool to hear.
If you do want to meet them in a safe way, you could do a ‘Meet The Sled Dogs’ experience, where a dog musher tells you about dog sledding, the sled dogs and you see them get fed. World Of Greenland offers such a tour.
Other Things To Do In Ilulissat
The last few ideas of things to do in Ilulissat are ones I have not tried myself. I looked into them, but I didn’t do them. So, I can’t review them, but I can let you know they exist and why I didn’t do them – and then you can make up your own mind.
12. Kayaking / SUP
I didn’t go kayaking or stand-up pedal boarding (SUP) because I didn’t have the guts!
I have never SUP-ed before, and I didn’t fancy learning in the Arctic Circle. And, while I have kayaked before (including Croatia, Greece, Montenegro and Norway), I still didn’t want to take the risk of doing it on such icy water.
I wasn’t worried about being out on the kayak: I have never gone under once afloat. It was the getting into the kayak part that made me feel nervous because you either launch from rocks or a boat. And while you put on a thermal, waterproof suit to do it, I still didn’t feel confident. I have stumbled getting into kayaks plenty of times launching from a beach (let along a boat or rocks) and I figured it would still be unpleasant to go face-first in the icy water of Disko Bay!
But it definitely appealed to me, and you’re possibly much braver than me! I’m sure it’s wonderful to be gliding between the icebergs in the morning light or in the midnight sun.
13. Settlement Visits
There are two much smaller settlements near Ilulissat: Oqaatsut to the north and Ilimanaq to the south. They’re reachable by boat and you could go over to hike or to have a tour of the town. Both have restaurants linked to tour companies that arrange visits.
The reason I didn’t go to either during my week in Ilulissat was because my main interest was the icebergs and the natural environment of Greenland – so I put that first in how I spent my time and money. Maybe if I go back, I’ll do one of these visits.
14. Helicopter Tour
Money was the barrier to my doing a helicopter tour! I saw an advert for one that goes over the Icefjord and to the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier for DKK3995 (£460, US$588) – but that was out of my budget for this trip.
A Kaffemik is a Greenlandic tradition of celebrating milestones or special occasions by gathering together for coffee and cake. I had read that there are some kaffemiks put on for tourists and I looked into attending one.
I wouldn’t expect a tourist version to be especially authentic (and it might even be a bit artificial and cringey) but I thought it would still be interesting to learn about local customs and taste some local cakes.
However, in the end, I just couldn’t find any happening in the Ilulissat area while I was there.
I did get one lead on these on my last day, though: I saw them mentioned in some advertising for Ilulissat Adventure, a local tour company – so you could try them if you’re interested in attending a Kaffemik.
Map: Things To Do In Ilulissat In Summer
Here’s a map with the key things I have recommended in this list of things to do in Ilulissat in summer, plus some other places of interest.
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.
Ilulissat, Greenland FAQs
Where Is Ilulissat, Greenland Located?
Ilulissat is in the West of Greenland, on the coast of Disko Bay. It is 350km north of the boundary of the Arctic Circle.
How Many Days Do You Need In Ilulissat?
There’s no one answer… I think it depends on what you want to do there, how much you have to spend (because everything is pricey there) and how long it takes you to get there.
I chose to spend one full week in Ilulissat because whilst my interests were very zoned in on icebergs, I knew the weather could be fickle and I could easily have rainy days, which would stop me going out on boats (which I did – and snow, too!). Also, my journey from London was long: door to door, about 16 hours.
Although it is a small place, I would recommend at least four days, to give you time to see the town, do a couple of boat tours and to allow an extra day, just in case of bad weather.
What Is The Best Time Of Year To Visit Ilulissat?
This also depends on what you would prefer to experience.
For dogsledding over snow, snowmobiling on the icecap and the wonderful northern lights, you’ll need to come in winter. And some locals suggested to me that April is the best month for these winter activities.
However, summer is best for milder weather, boat trips (there is a greater choice of tour providers in summer), whale-watching and the midnight sun.
How To Get To Ilulissat, Greenland
You can get there two ways: by boat or plane. There are no roads!
There are ferries that run between settlements along Greenland’s coast, so you could catch one of those to get to Ilulissat from elsewhere in Greenland. Disko Line runs ferries to and from many places in Greenland.
It’s also quite common for tourists to explore Greenland on cruise ships or expedition boats, moving along the coast, from place to place. I looked into doing one of these, but it was more expensive than my trip direct to Ilulissat, even including all the day tours I did.
Currently, Ilulissat’s airport is small, with a short runway. Based on what I saw, only small propeller planes fly there – big airliners don’t go there right now.
For me, coming from Europe, I had two main options: fly to Reykjavik in Iceland and then catch a smaller flight from Reykjavik to Ilulissat with IcelandAir. Or, I could go via Copenhagen in Denmark, where you can get flights to Kangerlussuaq, the main international airport in Greenland, followed by a connecting plane from there to Ilulissat.
However, they’re currently building a bigger airport in Ilulissat slightly further north, which will enable bigger planes to land in Ilulissat. Inevitably, this will bring in more tourists in the future!
What To Pack For Ilulissat In Summer
Even in summer in Greenland, it can be cold, especially if you take any of the boat tours. And Ilulissat is inherently an outdoorsy place – even walking around the town, you’ll come across uneven paths and the occasional granite rock you have to walk over.
So here are some packing essentials for visiting Ilulissat in summer:
- A good pair of walking boots. You’ll be walking, possibly hiking, climbing in and out of small boats etc, so you need supportive, grippy footwear. I used the same pair of Salomons hiking boots with Goretex that I bought for the Inca Trail, and they were great for Greenland because they’re very waterproof, which came in handy when it rained.
- I also took walking socks plus liner socks. I have Bridgedale walking socks with Merino wool and Bridgedale liner socks.
- Thermal under layers: when I was going out on boat trips, knowing how much colder it can be on open water, especially around icebergs, I wore thermal leggings under my hiking trousers and a thermal vest under my t-shirt and hoodie
- Non-absorbant hiking trousers – I just used the standard weight ones I already had; I didn’t buy any special heavy duty Arctic trousers (if you go in the winter, I imagine this might be necessary, though).
- A thick, waterproof coat. I have a 3-in-1 jacket that has both a fleece and waterproof layer. I can separate them or wear them together, which I did in Greenland.
- A woolly hat. I only needed this out on the water. I chose one that has a fleece lining for extra warmth, and then I put my hoodie and coat hood up over it during boat trips – even on sunny days!
- Warm gloves. I brought the gloves I use in winter in the UK: they’re leather with a cashmere lining, and they did OK. However, out on the boats, I did feel like I wanted even more insulation!
- A scarf. I wore a cashmere one I’ve had for ages – it’s nice and soft!
- An eye mask for sleeping – with the midnight sun in June and July, you’ll be grateful of the extra help to block out the light at night.
And in addition to this, you might want to check my post on the travel gadgets and gear I recommend.
The Last Word
I hope I’ve inspired you with plenty of ideas about what to do in Ilulissat – it really is a special place. The icebergs left such a strong impression on me and I’m already dreaming of going back…
If you haven’t already, read my review of Hotel SØMA, the budget hotel I stayed at, plus my impressions of the other hotels in Ilulissat that I visited. I’ve also written about the best places to eat in Ilulissat and wrote an Ilulissat city guide.