The capital of Greenland is Nuuk (sometimes spelled as Nûk). It is one of the smallest capitals in the world, and also one of the most unique. Its tallest building is just 10 floors tall, it has few roads connecting it to other cities, and there is almost no air pollution or traffic.
Compared to some cities in the world, Nuuk actually looks and feels like a town. Nevertheless, it is Greenland’s center of government, business and trade, and home to about 30% of the total population. As of 2021, it had 18,800 inhabitants.
Notably, Nuuk has been called “one of the most indigenous cities in the world” because of its high aboriginal population. Almost 90% of its citizens are Inuit, and their culture and history are well celebrated in all aspects of everyday life—even more than countries with larger ethnic groups.
Where is the capital of Greenland located?
Nuuk is on the southwest coast of Greenland. It sits right at the mouth of the Nuup Kangerlua Fjords. Which is considered one of the world’s largest and most complex fjord systems. Its location actually inspired its name: the word “Nuuk” means “cape” in Danish. A cape is any high point of land or promontory that extends into a river, lake, or ocean.
Nuuk’s geographical coordinates are 64.1743° N, 51.7373° W. It is 150 miles south of the Arctic circle, and 6.2 miles from the Labrador Sea. Greenland is also a few miles north of Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland; thus, it can be considered the world’s northernmost capital.
What is the history of Nuuk, and when did it become the capital?
As early as 2200 BC, the area around Nuuk was home to ancient pure-Inuit, Paleo-Eskimo tribes. Eventually, the area was inhabited by Vikings, and then Norsemen.
Greenland became a colony under the Dano-Norwegian crown in 1261, but remained outside of the government’s radar for three centuries. Then in 1728, royal governor Claus Paris established the city as part of the fort of Godt-Haab (also known as Godthåb, which means Good Hope.)
Godt-Haab became the recognized seat of government of South Greenland, while the city of Godhavn (now known as modern Qeqertarsuaq) became the seat of government of North Greenland. Later, when the two regions were unified, Godt-Haab was retained as the recognized government center.
In 1814, Denmark ceded from Norway, and then gained full control of Greenland in the Treaty of Kiel. It had no independent rule and no voice in its affairs. Then in 1953, it was officially recognized as a separate province with representation in the Parliament; in 1979, it was granted Greenland Home Rule.
Finally, in 2008, after a national referendum, Greenland was granted self-government as a constituent state of the kingdom of Denmark. As the government center for over three centuries, it was natural to name Godt-Haab as the capital. However, in recognition of Greenland’s native culture and history, it reverted to its original aboriginal name of Nuuk.
Why is Nuuk the capital of Greenland?
Even in Greenland’s early years as a colony, Nuuk played a critical role in its history, economy, and culture. The city-fort was the point of communications between Greenland and the rest of the world.
The other settlements, scattered across Greenland’s harsh and barren environment, were difficult to reach and mobilize. So, Denmark-Norway (and even other countries) continued to concentrate their dealings with the government offices in Nuuk.
Because of this, Nuuk developed faster than other parts of the country. In fact, Greenland’s oldest building was built here, and is standing to this day. It was also the location of the biggest ports—and since fishing was the driving force of its economy, it became de facto the center of trade.
Even if the other areas of Greenland have become more developed, due to advances in technology and investments from other countries, Nuuk is still the heart of Greenland life. It is home to the country’s only university, its first shopping mall, and 1 out 3 Greenland citizens.
Best Places to visit in Nuuk
Greenland has recently stepped up its efforts to increase tourism to drive economic growth. Here are some of the best things to see and do in the area.
Greenland National Museum
The museum captures the history and culture of Greenland, with a fantastic collection of art, handicrafts, archaeological finds, and exhibits on its history, architecture, and the life of the different peoples who have inhabited the area from prehistoric to modern times.
Two of the most famous exhibits are the Qilakitsoq mummies that date back to the middle of the 15th century, displays of bubble vats and presses, and an ancient copper’s workshop.
Nuuk Art Museum
This museum has a fantastic collection of Greenland art and culture. Visitors will see paintings, watercolors, and sketches from the best local artists; ancient carvings made from wood, ivory and soapstone; textiles from different tribes; and other special exhibits.
Hans Egede House
This is the oldest structure in Greenland, aside from the ruins of Viking settlements. It was built in 1728 by one of its first Danish settlers and Lutheran minister Hans Egede, who began a series of missions to spread the Catholic faith among the aboriginal tribes.
Later, the house was renovated to become the home of the Greenland prime minister. Today, aside from being a tourist attraction, it is sometimes used for important government receptions.
Nuup Kangerlua Fjords
Nuuk sits at the foot of the Nuup Kangerlua Fjords, the world’s largest fjord system. Visitors can rent a boat to explore the web of waterways, surrounded on all sides by icebergs, snow-kissed mountains, and piercing blue sky.
Nuuk’s location makes it one of the best places to watch the Northern Lights during winter. While visitors can see it from the city, it is recommended to go to the outskirts or into the wilderness to escape the light pollution and get a clearer view of the colors.
Nuuk: Small but spectacular city
While Nuuk is the world’s smallest capital, it has an interesting history, a thriving ethnic culture, and breathtakingly beautiful scenic spots.