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Nuuk: Why Greenland’s capital is becoming the new Nordic city of culture

Poetry slams, street art, contemporary theatre, micro-breweries and experimental cuisine – not what you’d expect in Greenland, yet the creative impulse within the tiny capital of Nuuk is flourishing


Kari Herbert
Wednesday 30 August 2017 10:46 BST
Cool place to chill: Nuuk is a mix of “the traditional, the new, the edgy and the beautiful”
Cool place to chill: Nuuk is a mix of “the traditional, the new, the edgy and the beautiful” (Kari Herbert)

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With its vast ice-sheet and tremendous calving glaciers, its tundra and its fjords, Greenland is a must-see adventure-travel destination. The lure of the wilds is strong and tourists don’t linger for long in the city; most bypass it completely and head directly into nature. But there is a growing community of artists, chefs and artisans keen to prove that there is more to Greenland than icebergs and huskies. Nuuk, they enthuse, is the new Nordic city of culture.

Nuuk is one of the smallest capital cities in the world, with just 17,000 inhabitants – a mixture of Greenlanders and Danes. In 2009 Denmark granted Greenlanders the right to self-rule and the sense of newly found freedom is still tangible, with Greenland playing an increasingly significant role in the global Arctic community. Last year the Arctic Winter Games – for athletes from the circumpolar north – was hosted here. In October 200 artists from Scandinavia, Iceland and the Faroe Islands gathered in the city for the Nuuk Nordic Culture Festival, drawing an audience of around 10 per cent of Greenland’s entire population.

“The interest in the Nordic culture scene is developing rapidly,” says Mats Bjerde, director of the Nordic Institute of Greenland (Napa), which promotes Greenlandic and Nordic cultural cooperation. “We want to create a cultural Nordic playground in Nuuk where new skills can be born and avant-garde productions can be created across all creative genres.”

Historic artworks in Nuuk Art Museum
Historic artworks in Nuuk Art Museum (Kari Herbert)

Nivi Christensen, curator of the Nuuk Art Museum, is equally passionate about supporting up-and-coming artists and engaging a new audience. Christensen says: “When I first became curator here, I wondered whether Nuuk was ready to have a cultural institution which had not only old paintings and sculptures but also new, exciting and challenging artworks. The response has been overwhelmingly positive.”

The single greatest cultural change in Nuuk came with the creation of the Katuaq Culture Centre, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in February. The undulating, timber-clad building, designed by architects Schmidt Hammer Lassen, echoes the form and movement of the nearby fjord, icebergs and the northern lights.

“Katuaq was built at a time when there was growing focus on the country’s own culture,” says the director, Julia Pars. “And so the centre became a symbol for nationalism, imagination and the possibility of a new Greenland. Today, we aim to be a window both to our own culture and to the outside world.” Katuaq – which means “drumstick” in Greenlandic – has become the beating heart of the city, hosting film screenings, theatre performances, gigs and exhibitions that attract 100,000 people a year. “Katuaq is like a musical instrument that can begin to play at any moment,” says Pars. “During the day it’s full of dreams – at night it acts like a magnetic field, drawing people into the light.”

Creative expression in modern-day Nuuk takes many forms, from exceptional “new-Nordic” cuisine or artisan craft beer made with glacial ice, to video installations and street art. With the exception of the Katuaq centre, Nuuk’s architecture is, on the whole, rather grey and unimaginative (some would say ugly). Yet this was an ideal canvas for artists Stefan Baldursson from Iceland and Guido van Helten from Australia, who created the huge artworks that bookmark Nuuk’s Soviet-style apartment blocks.

Stefan Baldursson and Guido van Helten created these murals on Nuuk’s apartment blocks
Stefan Baldursson and Guido van Helten created these murals on Nuuk’s apartment blocks (Kari Herbert)

“I’ve always been attracted to extreme places. That’s why I really wanted to paint in Greenland,” says van Helten. “It’s been a privilege to work on the [apartment] block, especially as it symbolised another time and migration.” His artwork was inspired by a photograph taken in 1906 of a hunter who was relocated from a smaller community to Nuuk as part of a Danish objective to “modernise” Greenland.

The artworks, says Sarah Thode Andersen from Sermersooq Business Council, symbolise “Colourful Nuuk” – the branding initiative recently launched to promote the capital. “We want to show the outside world that the city has many different layers – the traditional, the new, the edgy and the beautiful,” says Andersen. “Nuuk is a melting pot of different individuals. These artworks reflect how diverse Nuuk is.”

It is a Saturday morning, the temperature is around 2C. A few makeshift stalls have been set up on the main street. Weathered fishermen are sitting beside a tarpaulin spread over drifts of snow, displaying their haul of fresh fish. There is no seal meat on offer today. Opposite, a carver is sanding down a reindeer antler that will eventually become a “tupilak” – a carving of a spirit animal. Nuuk may be evolving into a modern Arctic city, but traditional culture is still very much alive. So, could Nuuk become the new Reykjavik? “Immaqqa,” as they say in Greenland – “Maybe.”

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Nuuk is a three-hour flight from Reykjavik. Air Iceland ( flies from Reykjavik to Nuuk from around £572 return. WOW Air (, Icelandair ( and easyJet ( fly to Reykjavik (Keflavik) from London and Bristol from £70 return.

Staying there

Hotel Hans Egede ( is ideally placed in the centre of town and is home to Sarfalik, the best restaurant in Nuuk, which boasts unbeatable views of the surrounding city, mountains and fjord. Doubles from £195, B&B.

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