Iceland and Greenland - What's the Difference Between the Countries?

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Iceland vs Greenland - The black sand beaches of Iceland and the white icecaps of GreenlandThe Nordic nations of Iceland and Greenland are fascinating islands in the North Atlantic. With intertwined histories and spectacular nature, there are plenty of similarities between the two. But what is the difference between Iceland and Greenland?

Located in the North Atlantic, Iceland and Greenland are neighboring countries that often draw attention on the world map due to their somewhat similar sounding names. At a glance, these names might seem a bit strange, suggesting landscapes opposite to their realities. The truth, however, is rooted in an interesting bit of shared history. 

Iceland, situated on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, is famous for its geothermal activity and volcanic landscapes. Booking a hotel in Iceland and exploring the country's wondrous landscapes on some of the many nature tours available is an unbelievable experience.

The northern lights in Greenland

The northern lights in Greenland.

Greenland, primarily covered by an expansive ice sheet, holds the distinction of being the world's largest island. With colossal icebergs and a rich Inuit heritage, Greenland is a harsh but beautiful Arctic wonderland.

But what are the similarities and differences between the two countries? Renting a car in Iceland and driving the Ring Road is a great way to explore everything the country has to offer, but why is the same not possible in Greenland? Do the inhabitants of Iceland and Greenland have a shared ancestry or intertwined histories?

The northern lights dancing in the sky above Greenland.

The northern lights in Iceland.

In this article, we'll explore the nature, culture, and history of Iceland and Greenland. We'll go into the things they have in common and the things that separate them, as well as the reasoning behind the names of the countries that still manage to confuse some. Whether you're thinking about exploring Iceland on a fascinating self-drive tour or visiting the ruins of the vanished Norse settlement in Greenland, here's everything you need to know before visiting.

If you're visiting Iceland, you can book a full vacation with a short stop at Greenland included, such as this spectacular 8-day summer vacation in Iceland with a guided day tour to Greenland. There are many more amazing Iceland and Greenland vacation packages to explore that will allow you to visit both countries in one trip if you just can't choose between them, so let's dig in!

The Settlement of Iceland and Greenland

Ingolfur settles in Iceland. An 1850 painting by Danish artist 	 Johan Peter Raadsig.

Ingolfur Arnarson settling in Reykjavik.

The settlement histories of Iceland and Greenland are intertwined. While Greenland had previously been inhabited by the Inuit people, both Iceland and Greenland were unknown to mainland Europeans for a long time. Classical and medieval manuscripts spoke of a mystical island far in the north called Thule, but it wasn't until the late 9th century that Iceland was first discovered by Norse explorers. 

One of the first men to discover Iceland was Floki Vilgerdarson, often called "Raven Floki," as he employed the use of ravens to aid him in the search for the island. Floki experienced a harsh winter in Iceland which made him decide against settling there, but before leaving, he did have the honor of naming it Iceland after observing ice drifting in the fjords.

The Norwegian-born explorer Ingolfur Arnarson is most often credited as Iceland's first permanent settler. In 874 AD, he made his home in the place now known as Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland.

A reconstructed turfhouse in Eiriksstadir, the likely site of Erik the Red's upbringing in Iceland.

A replica of the Erik's homestead in Iceland.

Many of the people who would settle in Iceland in the next century hailed from Norway, one of which was Erik the Red. His father, Thorvald Asvaldsson, was exiled from Norway after violent disputes, and as a result, the family moved to Iceland. As Erik grew up, he followed in his father's violent footsteps and also became involved in some bloody disputes, which led to his exile from Iceland circa 982 AD. Eiriksstadir, the likely site of Erik's homestead, today features a replica of a Viking longhouse.  

During his exile, Erik sailed westward to a land that was known but unexplored by Norsemen. He spent three years surveying this land and gave it the name Greenland. This may seem odd, as Greenland is largely covered with ice, but there are areas of green along the island's coasts, including the area where Erik settled down. 

After his period of exile ended, Erik returned to Iceland around 985 or 986 AD. He brought tales of "Greenland" and encouraged people to join him in settling the new land. Many were convinced, and they embarked on a journey to Greenland with Erik leading them. One of the people who accompanied Erik to Greenland was his son, Leif Erikson, who would later become the first European to set foot on continental North America.

What Happened to the Norse Settlement in Greenland?

The ruins of the Catholic Hvalsey Church are the best preserved Norse ruins in Greenland.

Ruins from the Norse settlement in Greenland. Image from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Number 57.

The Norse settlement established by Erik the Red remained in Greenland for a few centuries before vanishing in the 15th century. The reasons behind the decline and eventual disappearance of the colony remain a mystery to this day, but several factors have likely contributed. 

The Norse established their settlement in Greenland during what is called the Medieval Warm Period (circa 950-1250 AD), a time when temperatures were relatively mild. At this time, Greenland's climate supported agriculture and livestock farming. Around the mid-14th century, however, the climate began to cool during the Little Ice Age. This change led to shorter growing seasons and harsher winters, which would have made farming and livestock management increasingly challenging.

Some experts believe the Norse people abandoned the settlement, while others believe they simply perished. Another theory suggests that the population was abducted by raiders. No matter the cause, it is unlikely that a single factor was responsible for the disappearance of the settlement.

A modern day seal hunter kayaking in Greenland.

A traditional Greenlandic kayak. Image from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by wili hybrid.

The current Greenlandic population is descended from the Thule people, an Inuit culture that migrated from what is now known as Alaska around 1000 AD, reaching Greenland around 1300 AD. The Thule were highly adaptable to the Arctic environment, with technological innovations such as dog sleds, toggling harpoons, and kayaks for hunting and whaling. 

While the Thule did move into Greenland after the Norse had established settlements, there was limited evidence of significant direct contact between the two groups. It's believed that any interactions would have been primarily in the form of trade.

The Names of Iceland and Greenland

A picture taken in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland.

Nuuk, Greenland. Image from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Thomas Leth-Olsen.

Ever heard the phrase "Iceland is green and Greenland is ice?" A common myth surrounding the naming of Greenland and Iceland is that the Vikings gave Iceland its name to keep people from wanting to settle there and gave Greenland its name to lure people there instead. The legend says that the names should, in fact, have been reversed, as Iceland is greener than Greenland, and Greenland has more ice than Iceland. While it's a cute little conspiracy theory, the truth is simpler.

Why is Iceland called Iceland?

Before Iceland got its name, Gardar Svavarsson, an explorer who stopped there briefly but didn't settle down, gave it the name Gardarsholmi (Gardar's Island). Thankfully, the name didn't stick. When Raven-Floki gave Iceland its current name, he was disgruntled after a rough winter on the new island he had found. He gave Iceland its name due to drifting ice drifting in the fjords, which

Why is Greenland called Greenland?

The site where Erik the Red settled down was likely green at the time, as Greenland's coasts are in the summer. There might, however, be some truth in that he gave it such an inviting name in order to lure more settlers in.

The modern inhabitants of Greenland do not refer to the country by that name, but they rather call it "Kalaallit Nunaat," which in the Greenlandic language (Kalaallisut) means "Land of the Kalaallit." Kalaallit is the term for the Greenlandic Inuit, the indigenous people of Greenland. 

Iceland, Greenland, and Denmark

Summer in the Greenland coast circa year 1000. An 1875 painting by Danish artist Carl Rasmussen. After Iceland was settled, it initially remained an independent state without a central authority or government.  Instead, chieftains governed regions, and a national assembly called the Althing was established in Thingvellir around 930 AD, making it one of the world's oldest parliaments.

By the mid-13th century, internal strife and external pressures weakened Iceland's independent commonwealth system. The last quarter of the 13th century saw the signing of the Old Covenant in 1262-1264, which brought Iceland under the Norwegian crown. This was partly in exchange for benefits such as protection and trade rights. The Norse settlement in Greenland, likewise, also became a part of the Kingdom of Norway in the 13th century.

In 1397, the kingdoms of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden all unified under a single monarch. Though the union had periods of disruption, Iceland and Greenland, territories originally associated with Norway, came under this joint crown and became a part of Denmark. When the union would later dissolve, Iceland and Greenland remained Danish territories.

A good overlook of Reykjavik's downtown area.

Reykjavik, Iceland.

In the 19th century, Icelandic nationalism was on the rise, with increasing demands for self-governance. In 1874, Denmark granted Iceland a constitution, and in 1904, Iceland acquired its first minister resident in Iceland. Iceland became a sovereign state in 1918 under a common monarch with Denmark and would later become fully independent in 1944.

Greenland, conversely, remains a Danish territory to this day. In the 20th century, especially after World War II, there was increased emphasis on modernizing Greenland and integrating it more closely with Denmark. In 1979, Greenland was granted Home Rule, giving it control over most internal matters while defense and foreign policy remained under Danish jurisdiction. In 2009, this arrangement was expanded with the Self-Rule Act, granting Greenland even more powers.

Iceland vs. Greenland - Comparing the Two Countries

Iceland vs Greenland - Comparison of Reykjavik and NuukAs Nordic countries with a shared history of Danish rule, Iceland and Greenland have plenty in common. Many of the traditions and much of the culture stem from the same Nordic roots, as can, for example, be seen in the similar architecture in many old buildings in both countries. However, the countries also have a very distinct culture from one another.

Relations between Iceland and Greenland, both political and economic, have strengthened a lot in recent years. as can be seen in the decision of the Icelandic government to open an embassy in Greenland in 2013 and of the Greenlandic government to open an embassy in Iceland in 2018.

Here are some comparisons between the two countries:

Language and Population - Iceland vs. Greenland

Iceland vs Greenland - Comparison of the population of the two countriesIceland has a population of about 395,000 people. The official language in Iceland is Icelandic, a Nordic language with strong roots in Old Norse, the language spoken by the early Norse settlers. In fact, the Icelandic language has changed so little from the settlement days that modern Icelanders can read Old Norse literature to a decent degree.

Conversely, the population of Greenland is significantly lower than Iceland's, at around 57,000. The official language of Greenland is Kalaallisut, an Eskealeut language, often called Greenlandic. It is closely related to Inuit languages in Canada, such as Inuktitut. Before 2009, the official language in Greenland used to be Danish, before the government decided to change it to strengthen the position of the Greenlandic heritage. 

Political Status - Iceland vs. Greenland

Iceland vs Greenland - The flags of the two countriesIceland is a sovereign republic with its own parliamentary system and government. While Iceland is not a member of the European Union, it is a member of various international organizations, including the United Nations, NATO, the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), and the Schengen Area, among others.

Conversely, Greenland is an autonomous territory within the Kingdom of Denmark. Greenland has a significant degree of self-rule, but certain areas, especially foreign affairs, and defense, are handled by Denmark. There have been discussions and debates about full independence for Greenland. The 2009 self-rule act includes provisions that could pave the way for Greenland's eventual independence from Denmark if the Greenlandic people choose that path in the future.

Weather & Climate - Iceland vs. Greenland

Iceland vs Greenland - The difference between the climate and weatherWhile both Iceland and Greenland have cold climates typical of northern latitudes, Iceland is generally milder and more temperate, especially in its coastal regions. Winters in Reykjavik, the capital, are relatively mild, and the summers are cool. The weather can change rapidly, leading to the local saying: "If you don't like the weather, wait five minutes." 

Greenland's vast size means it encompasses several climate zones. During summer, the coastal areas of Greenland can have summer temperatures ranging from 41°F to 50°F (5°C to 10°C), but in the winter, they drop significantly, often plunging well below freezing. The interior areas remain extremely cold year-round.

Nature & Wildlife - Iceland vs. Greenland

Iceland vs Greenland - Polar bears are native to Greenland, while the Arctic fox is native to IcelandIceland's vegetation primarily consists of grasslands. There are very few native trees in Iceland, primarily downy birch and rowan, but afforestation efforts are underway. Mosses and lichens are also quite common, especially in lava fields. Given its colder and harsher climate, Greenland's vegetation is primarily Arctic tundra with dwarf shrubs, grasses, mosses, and lichens. The southernmost parts have patches of boreal forest with trees like willow and birch.

Iceland's only native mammal is the Arctic fox, with newcomers such as reindeer and minks having been introduced in recent centuries. Greenland, on the other hand, is home to magnificent animals such as musk oxen and polar bears. Both countries have rich birdlife, especially during the summer when many birds migrate to the islands for mating and nesting.

Iceland vs. Greenland - Which Country to Visit?

Iceland vs Greenland - Both countries are worth a visit

A common question when Iceland and Greenland comes up, is which country is better to visit. Choosing between the two countries largely depends on what kind of experience you are seeking because while both countries offer stunning landscapes and unique cultural experiences, they are quite different in many respects. 

Costs and Accessibility - Iceland vs. Greenland

Iceland vs Greenland - Both countries give great opportunity for hiking and excursions

Traveling in both countries can be relatively expensive, but Greenland often has higher costs due to its remote location. Iceland has a well-developed tourism infrastructure when it comes to accommodations, tours, restaurants, and roads. The infrastructure in Greenland is more limited, and the country does not have a national road system connecting its towns and settlements.

Iceland is also more accessible, offering multiple international flights daily from Europe and North America. In contrast, flights to Greenland are less frequent, harder to come by, and generally quite a bit pricier.

English is widely spoken in Iceland. You can expect most locals, especially the younger generations, to have a near-native proficiency. While some Greenlanders speak good English, their proficiency might not be as high as in Iceland. In the larger towns and especially around the tourism industry, you can expect a good level of English understanding in Greenland.

Natural Wonders - Iceland vs. Greenland

Iceland vs Greenland - Natural wonders of these great Arctic countriesIt's easy to see why Iceland is a popular tourist destination, with such spectacular sights as the enchanting Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon and the winding shapes of Fjadrargljufur Canyon. Going on one of many fantastic volcano tours on offer is a great way to see the impact of volcanic eruptions on the environment, and taking a relaxing dip in the Blue Lagoon is nothing short of magical.

When visiting Iceland, there are many fantastic guided tours of Icelandic nature you can embark on to see some of the wonders the country has to offer. If you really want the full experience of what Iceland has to offer, you might want to consider a 10-day self-drive tour of the complete Ring Road of Iceland, which will take you around the entire island.

A whale near Illulisat, Greenland

A whale swimming in a fjord near Illulisat, Greenland.

Greenland also has plentiful natural wonders. Taking a boat trip to the mouth of the Ilulissat Icefjord and witnessing the enormous icebergs is a stunning experience, as is soaking in the Uunartoq Hot Springs. Going dog sledding over the frozen landscape or kayaking in the Arctic waters is a great way of getting to know Greenland's Inuit heritage while taking in the breathtaking scenery.

If you want to create unforgettable memories while visiting Greenland, you can book a Greenland photography tour with Iceland Photo Tours is an excellent way of doing just that. Founded by the renowned landscape photographer Iurie Belegurschi, Iceland Photo Tours puts you in the hands of expert photographers who ensure you will have a truly immersive experience while exploring stunning landscapes.

Iceland and Greenland - What's the Difference Between the Countries?

Mount Kirkjufell in Iceland.

If you want to see the northern lights, both Iceland and Greenland are great locations for visitors who want to see this amazing natural phenomenon. No matter which country you choose, make sure you go during the winter months if you're hunting for the aurora borealis, as the northern lights are not visible in the summer due to the midnight sun.

In conclusion, Iceland and Greenland are both fantastic travel destinations in their own right, with charming atmospheres, strong cultural heritage, and majestic landscapes. Visiting Iceland will be more accessible and less costly, but the experience of visiting Greenland might offer a rugged experience, with fewer tourists, that might appeal to some.

That concludes our comparison between Iceland and Greenland. Would you like to visit Iceland, Greenland, or possibly both? If you have, what was your experience? Let us know in the comments below!

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