Is your expedition or classic cruise ship calling on Ilulissat on a Western Greenland cruise? While there are several active things to do here, an Ilulissat Icefjord cruise excursion is one of the best choices for seeing the giant icebergs that fill the Icefjord after calving from Jakobshavn Glacier.
On our Seabourn expedition cruise through the Northwest Passage, Ilulissat was one of the ports before heading from Greenland across the Labrador Sea to Arctic Canada. The third largest city in Greenland (population 4,670 and almost as many sled dogs), Ilulissat is situated 220 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
The Saqqaq people (a Palaeo-Eskimo group that traveled from the Canadian high Arctic) originally settled in the region over 4,000 years ago. After the Saqqaq disappeared, the Thule people (ancestors of the modern Inuits) inhabited the area. But modern Ilulissat was founded by Danish merchant, Jacob Severin, in 1741.
When visiting Ilulissat, cruise ships anchor in Disko Bay sending guests to shore on tenders or zodiacs, depending on the type of cruise, expedition (zodiacs) or classic (tenders). It’s a colorful ride as you pass by buildings painted red, blue, green, and yellow on the way to the small, crowded harbor filled with boats of every kind.
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How to see Ilulissat Icefjord
Seabourn Venture treated all guests to an up close look at the huge icebergs on tours with local boats and guides. If you are cruising on a classic ship, you will probably have to pay for this excursion. By the way, Ilulissat means iceberg in the Greenlandic language.
Another option for viewing the fjord is to visit the Icefjord Centre by taking a shuttle bus from the harbor or walking the city’s hilly streets. Besides boardwalks with iceberg views, the center hosts local and national artwork displays, a cafe, and coffee shop. Visitors can also climb on the roof of the building for a 360 degree view.
Boomer Travel Tip
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Ilulissat Icefjord cruise excursion by boat
Alan and I had reserved our complimentary Ilulissat Icefjord cruise excursion on the Seabourn website before leaving home. Since we had booked this cruise at the last minute, there weren’t a lot of time slots left. Once on the cruise, I accessed the Seabourn app on my smartphone to retrieve the electronic tickets for our guided boat ride that included a heated area on the boat and a restroom.
Since beggars can’t be choosers our only choice was a late morning slot. This turned out to be in our favor as increasing clouds created wonderful light while we were in the Icefjord.
Riding the zodiac to the tour
A 25-minute zodiac ride motored by the colorful houses of Ilulissat before dropping us off at a pier in the harbor. From there, we boarded a van to motor to the other side of the harbor where our group boarded a small boat owned by William. He and his Sri Lankan wife also own Ilulissat’s most popular restaurant, Inuit Cafe (you’ll need a reservation).
A rear deck proved to be the best spot for taking photos or admiring the beautiful icebergs. We would pop into the heated cabin every so often to warm up and listen to William’s dialogue about the icebergs.
Admiring Ilulissat icebergs in Disko Bay
All you have to do is look at the gigantic icebergs in Disko Bay to understand why Ilulissat is the most popular tourist destination in Greenland. Nearby Jakobshavn Glacier (Sermeq Kujalleq Glacier in Greenlandic) calves a large number of massive icebergs that populate Ilulissat Icefjord. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004, it certainly deserves that designation.
As William’s boat cruises beside one sculpted iceberg after another, we marvel at nature’s creativity. It rivals the work of any human sculptor.
The Ilulissat Icefjord, nature’s artistic playground, stretches 25 miles from the Greenland Ice Sheet to Disko Bay. Located in the fjord, Jakobshavn Glacier (Sermeq Kujalleq Glacier) sends massive icebergs into Disko Bay. In the winter, the fjord and bay freezes over until another round of calving begins in the coming summer.
The most productive glacier in the Northern Hemisphere, fast-moving Jakobshavn Glacier drains 6.5% of Greenland’s ice sheet, producing about 10% of all icebergs. These giant pieces of ice can move up to 130’ (depending on your reference source) per day, eventually entering Disko Bay.
Of course our boat tour goes nowhere near the glacier as the face is only viewable via scenic air flight.
We take a break from oohing and ahhing at icebergs to watch a whale’s tail slip below the water’s surface. Due to the bay’s nutrient-rich waters, Disko Bay is one of the best whale watching areas of Greenland. Seals like it here, too.
So just how big are the icebergs that Alan and I are so busy photographing? They can be as large as 3,300 ft in height. That’s a small mountain, folks. And it can take several years for them to reach the open sea, especially if the taller ones become stuck in shallow areas of the fjord.
Where does all that ice go? At first it travels on northerly ocean currents before heading south into the Atlantic Ocean along the Labrador Current. That iceberg you saw on your trip to Newfoundland? It probably floated over from Greenland, maybe even Ilulissat.
As William returns the boat to the harbor, he tells us that if we visited in the winter, the bay and fjord will be frozen solid waiting for another round of summer’s icebergs to arrive.
What an amazing day. And we got so lucky with the light! Unfortunately, the timing didn’t work out for us to visit Icefjord Center. But there’s always next time.
Gearing up for a summer shore excursion in Ilulissat
On our September visit to Ilulissat, we didn’t need a mosquito head net. But If you visit earlier in summer, you will definitely need one when walking around Ilulissat, although it won’t be necessary on the boat tour.
Wear warm clothes on the boat tour. Alan and I wore waterproof pants over hiking pants and a base layer plus a fleece shirt plus Seabourn parka, hat, and gloves. Bring sunglasses, especially on a sunny day.
Visiting Ilulissat independently
While most visitors to Ilulissat arrive by ship, It is possible to explore independently. Because the prime travel season is short, you’ll want to book ahead to make sure you have a place to stay. This is not a destination for spontaneous travel.
While it’s possible to explore the Icefjord Centre on your own, most outdoor activities in Ilulissat require joining a tour or hiring a guide. Visit Greenland has a good page on their website to get your plans started.
How to get to Ilulissat
You can fly to Ilulissat from Iceland or Denmark or on a Greenland domestic flight (start your search here). During our visit (September 2023), they were enlarging the Ilulissat airport, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. William says it’s the crowded harbor that needs to be enlarged.
Where to stay in Ilulissat
Ilulissat offers several lodging choices. One of the newest options, Best Western Plus Ilulissat Hotel, is located conveniently in the center of town
Book your hotel early as rooms book quickly, especially during the high season of June to September. Also make sure that your lodging is located near restaurants and activities as taxis are expensive and limited. Some hotels, like the luxurious Hotel Arctic, offer shuttles to town.