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The World’s Smallest Capital

Nuuk, Greenland

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Greenland isn’t, technically, an independent country – it’s a dependency of Denmark. Despite being many times larger than its parent, it has a population of only fifty thousand or so, most of whom live in small communities scattered around the coastline. The largest of these – Nuuk – is also the capital of this vast and empty country.

Nuuk is not what you would call a very prepossessing place when you first see it. It’s composed mostly of low wood and brick buildings, and sits on a promontory that sticks out into the North Atlantic – which is sometimes glassy calm but often tempestuous. Behind the city-village rise the majestic, icy peaks of Greenland’s arctic mountains.

There’s a surprising amount to see and do in such a small place, and by arriving you will have already enjoyed one of Nuuk’s greatest pleasures – providing it’s a clear day, of course. The descent to the city’s small airport is truly spectacular when the weather is good, and if you’re fortunate enough to have bagged a seat on the plane that’s facing inland, you’ll be able to enjoy views over large portions of Greenland. A few facts to help you enjoy the view: Greenland is the world’s largest island, and, if considered a country in its own right, is the twelfth largest in land mass – though it’s well down in the hundreds when ranked by size of population. Two thirds of the island is covered by the Greenland Ice Sheet, which is pretty much contiguous with the Arctic Ice Sheet. Although Greenland is notionally an island, you could, if you were a determined enough polar bear, walk right across the ice cap and down into Russia or Canada without having to swim once – unless you fell down a crevasse.

When you’ve landed, and recovered from the exhilaration of the flight in, the first thing you’ll probably want to do is visit Santa’s house. Yes, that’s right, you were always told that Greenland was the home of Santa Claus, and indeed it is. His house, conveniently enough, is right next door to the tourist information office. You can go in and meet Santa – if he’s at home – or deliver your Christmas wish list in person! Behind Santa’s house is his special postbox: it’s the largest in the world. It needs to be, as this small house has millions of letters delivered to it every year.

Nuuk might be perched on the edge of a desert of ice, but this town is very far from being a cultural wasteland. The Katuaq is a large arts complex that serves the whole of Greenland (people get around a lot by plane over here). As well as a fully-equipped concert hall and auditorium for live theater, the Katuaq features the only movie theater in the whole of Greenland. There’s a café, too, and the building itself is a rather spectacular structure, designed as it is to seem to grow out of the surrounding rock and heather.

Being on the small side, Nuuk can at times feel a little claustrophobic. There are two great ways to cure cabin fever during your time in Nuuk: take a helicopter ride and go whale watching.

Whales have always been a vital part of Greenlandic culture – but not always because of their tourist value. For many years one of the reasons that settlements existed on Greenland at all was that it was a great place from which to hunt arctic whales. Thankfully, these giant, gentle creatures are much more likely to be hunted with a camera than a harpoon these days. If you’re interested in whale watching, you can take part in an organized trip or even charter your own boat and skipper. You don’t have to sail very far from the town to visit the whale hotspots. If you’re a keen photographer, this could be the trip of a lifetime for you. Just remember not to get so excited that you fall in the water – these are some of the coldest seas in the world, and immersion in them for even a short time is unhealthy: just a few minutes is enough to cause death from hypothermia.

Taking a helicopter ride will give you a sense of the scale of this huge country. Chopper trips lift you high above the town and into the mountains of the interior, where you can look down on the ice sheet and explore some ancient Viking settlements from above. It’s a good idea to organize your helicopter trip while you’re actually in Nuuk – pre-booking is not recommended, as the weather is sometimes not predictable from one hour to the next, let alone weeks in advance!

It may be the smallest capital city in the world, but Nuuk has a great deal to offer. If you like wilderness and you can stand the long journey – all flights into Greenland start in Copenhagen – then you’ll love Nuuk.

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