Many people get confused about the difference between Greenland and Iceland.
The two places do indeed share some traits. Both are known for their natural hot springs and dense Ice Sheets. They are sparsely populated, home to spectacular wildlife and they are both a wonderful place to look for the Northern Lights. The locals are kind and friendly, and they are also both touched by the arctic circle.
But the similarities pretty much stop right there!
Although they share some key characteristics, Greenland and Iceland are completely different places. They have different climates, cultures, languages, histories, and societies.
To make sure you know which country you really want to visit, you should read this article about the major differences between Iceland and Greenland.
Although both Greenland and Iceland are sparsely populated, Greenland has much fewer inhabitants and visitors than Iceland.
Greenland is huge, by the way. But despite being 21 times bigger than Iceland, it has a small fraction of the residents.
With just over 50,000 citizens, the average population density in Greenland is an unbelievable 0 people per square kilometer!
Iceland, on the other hand, has over 350,000 people living there permanently. Of course, this is still very few compared to most countries.
In both Iceland and Greenland, most people are concentrated in larger settlements.
In Iceland, an amazing 50% of residents live in the capital city of Reykjavik, whereas in Greenland 30% of residents like in the main city called Nuuk.
Traveling in Iceland is much easier than traveling in Greenland.
It’s no surprise.
Iceland welcomes over 2 million tourists every year, whereas Greenland has an average of just 60,000 visitors. Being more experienced with visiting guests, Iceland has a lot more hotels, restaurants, and infrastructure for tourists to enjoy.
For example, it is easy to take a self-drive tour around the entire country via the Icelandic Ring Road. In Greenland, however, there are only 150km of paved roads, so traveling by car is a lot more limited.
That being said, Greenland also has a lot to offer its visitors. With a rich and interesting history and beautiful arctic wilderness, Greenland is slowly becoming more popular as a tourist destination.
Despite what the names suggest, Greenland is much colder than Iceland.
11% of Iceland’s landmass is covered by a permanent Ice Sheet. As amazing as this is, it’s nothing compared to Greenland’s unbelievable 80% Ice Sheet Cover.
As cold as an Icelandic winter might seem to visitors, it is nowhere near as extreme as a Greenlandic winter. Iceland is normally around 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit) in the coldest months. Greenland can easily get down to a nail-biting – 17 degrees Celsius (1.4 degrees Fahrenheit).
So why is Greenland not called Iceland?!
Well, it’s partly due to changing climates. At the time that Iceland and Greenland were settled by the Norse People (Vikings), Greenland was much warmer than it is today. Over a thousand years later, Greenland is now colder whereas Iceland is milder.
It is also because of an ancient marketing ploy!
Erik the Red fled from Iceland after his family got involved in a terrible feud that ended in bloodshed. Having killed a couple of people from another family, he came to Greenland for safety. He named his new homeland ‘Greenland’ in the hope that it would attract more settlers.
A few hundred years later, different Inuit people’s also settled in Greenland. Greenland’s modern culture and society is still deeply linked to these Inuit settlers.
Greenland and Iceland have completely different cultures, languages, and histories.
Whereas most Icelandic people are descended from the Norse Men (Vikings), almost 90% of Greenlandic people are descended from Inuit people. Three major groups of Inuit peoples live in Greenland, each with their own languages and histories.
One of these languages, Kalaallisut, is the official language of Greenland.
Most Greenlandic people also speak Danish. This is because Greenland is technically a part of the Kingdom of Denmark, though it has been self-governing internal affairs since 2009.
Iceland, on the other hand, is a sovereign country. The official language here is Icelandic, but most people also speak English from a young age.
Christianity is the main religion in both Iceland and Greenland, but Iceland is a much more secular country and the church-going population is now very small.
Both Iceland and Greenland are home to gorgeous wildlife and outstanding natural beauty.
The skies are filled with arctic birds and the nearby waters are teeming with whales, sharks, and seals. They both have huge National Parks, vast ice caps, and breathtaking scenery to enjoy.
But they have some major differences.
Sitting on the edge of two tectonic plates, Iceland is home to hundreds of volcanoes. This has had an enormous influence on the landscape, creating countless ancient caves and forming the extraordinary Silfra fissure.
Greenland doesn’t have any volcanoes, but it does have the largest National Park in the world. The National Park situated in the North East of Greenland is nearly 10 times bigger than the whole of Iceland!
Completely free from cars or residents, this pristine wilderness is home to walruses and polar bears!
You certainly won’t see any polar bears in Iceland, but you may well see the occasional Walrus. They used to be abundant on the Icelandic coastline, but the Vikings hunted the Icelandic walruses to extinction.
(There are indeed a few walruses that hang out in Iceland today, but they are not the original Icelandic breed.)
The Midnight Sun
Due to the proximity to the Arctic Circle, both Iceland and Greenland experience long hours of darkness in the winter and a sun that hardly sets in the summer.
This makes seeing the Northern Lights possible in both places, but only during the darker months.
As Greenland is closer to the Arctic circle than Iceland, the Midnight Sun is even more prevalent here. In May, June, and July, the sun shines for a solid 24 hours. In Winter, on the other hand, the Northern Lights can be particularly intense in Greenland.
Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland is also spectacular! You can find out more about this here.
Seabirds, fish, seals, sharks, and whales all feature in the traditional cuisine of Greenland and Iceland.
It isn’t easy to grow crops in either climate, so the early settlers had to rely heavily on hunting and fishing.
But farming is present in both places. The most southwestern tip of Greenland is home to some lush farms, and many farms can be found in the South of Iceland.
However, most Icelandic farmers now supplement their income with tourism. Historically, volcanic eruptions wiped out many farming communities and continuously destroyed the crops and farmland. The Greenlandic people didn’t have this problem, but many were forced out of their farmland by rapidly cooling climates.
Health and Wellbeing
Icelandic people generally enjoy better health than their Greenlandic counterparts.
Although they both have a universal health care system, the life expectancy in Iceland is around 10 years longer than that of Greenland.
That being said, the health of Greenlandic people has improved significantly in recent years. In the late 1990s, Greenlandic children were between 5 and 7 centimeters shorter than the children in Denmark.
(We mention this because Greenlandic politics were completely controlled by Denmark at that time).
Thanks to improved health and nutrition, this is no longer the case.
Unfortunately, suicide is still a serious problem in Greenland. An estimated 1 in 5 people have attempted to take their own life. Although Iceland does indeed have a high rate of people taking antidepressants, it is consistently rated as one of the happiest countries in the world.
To find out why Icelanders are so happy, you can check out this article.
Iceland and Greenland are completely different places.
As beautiful as they both are, the tourist industry and infrastructure in Iceland is much more developed.
This can make a visit to Iceland more comfortable and easy to plan, but it also means that you will be sharing the country with a lot more visitors.