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Did you know that there are several offshore islands that belong to Germany? During our visit to the North Sea, I was drawn to this particular island in Northern Germany that piqued my interest. The island of Helgoland (or Heligoland in English) was a huge bucket list check-off, and it was everything and more than I could ever imagine for such a small island; more so, that when we left the island, I felt like we hadn’t even scratched the surface yet, and I didn’t want to leave. Come find out why it’s a destination we’ve placed back on our future return visit list and how to visit the island of Helgoland.
Fun Facts About Helgoland
- Helgoland is a small island located about 70km (44 miles) off the coast of Germany, in the North Sea. The island is just one square kilometer in size, so easily walkable.
- This small island is home to approximately about 1500 local inhabitants and is a tourist get-away location (especially in the warm, summer months).
- Helgoland is supposedly Germany’s only offshore island, not within the vicinity of the mainland, and belongs to the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, the northernmost state in Germany.
- The island consists of two islands, the main island, Hauptinsel (but will be referred to as Helgoland) and the smaller island, called Düne. At a certain time, these two islands were connected as a single island until a storm in 1720 flooded the landscape causing a separation between the two.
- The German island used to belong to Denmark in the 1700s, followed by Great Britain. Germany got the island back from Great Britain in 1890.
- The German National Anthem was written on this island during a visit from August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben.
- There is so much history on this island dating back to the Roman Age with old Norse descent (an interesting fact is that the old name derives from Heyligeland, meaning “holy land.”) It used to be a pirates’ nest, navy, and trading post at one point in time.
- In the early 19th century, Helgoland was popular among tourists as a seaside resort destination and would then lead to tourism on the island.
- Another interesting history, Helgoland was nearly destroyed during WWII due to bombings! The island had to be inhabitable for years. The infrastructure around the island had to be rebuilt and given a facelift in the 1950s when the people of Helgoland returned to the island.
- The island lacks in automobile pollution (cars and bicycles are not allowed on the island with the exception of bicycles and small electric service vehicles for locals and police) and is supposedly a pollen-free island- a good break for you allergy-sufferers… ahem, like me.
How to Get to the Island- Ferry Rides
There’s no true “road” to Helgoland since it is an offshore island in Germany.
To get to the island, your best bet is to catch one of the ferries that dock from Cuxhaven or Hamburg; or take a plane to the island.
For this portion, I will talk about our ferry experience. I’ll discuss the two ferry companies that were available at the time of our visit (May 2021).
We booked the roundtrip family ferry ride option with Reederie Cassen Eils from Cuxhaven to Helgoland; it cost our family of four €123.80 total (the normal cost for an adult was €49,90) (***prices may vary depending on when you book and the season).
I pre-booked our seats online the day before our visit (tip: I would recommend booking online far more in advance in the high season – summertime).
We arrived about 30 minutes before our departure time at 10:15 a.m. (There was only one departure time at the time of our visit for Helgoland from Cuxhaven.) Already, there was a line of people boarding the boat, and a few of the good seats were already taken. (tip: Get there early for good seating)
Parking for our car was €5 for the entire day. Parking is directly in front of the boat departure dock; you pay the parking clerk when you park your car.
For those staying overnight on the island, the crew on the boat will take your luggage and stow it away for you during your trip.
*** May 29, 2021- In order to get on the boat, a Covid test less than 24 hours old is required to enter the boat.
The boat ride was about 2 hours and was pleasant and surprisingly clean, the ferry is almost as nice as a cruise ship! The price to ride the boat was a bit steep for my family of 4, but for the cleanliness of the boat and staff service, it was worth it. More pricing will be posted below.
Eating is allowed and they offer meal options and drinks onboard. We already had food packed in our hiking backpacks and ate those during our trip. The staff didn’t seem to mind as long as we cleaned up after ourselves. The husband ordered a few drinks for our table.
Alten Liebe 12, Fährhafen 4, Cuxhaven, Germany
Phone: +49 4721 667600
The ferry ride will typically take about 120 minutes.
Other docking areas from this company include: Büsum, Cuxhaven, Bremerhaven, Wilmelshaven/Hookseil
Price as of May 2021 from Cuxhaven (may vary by dates or season and how far in advance you book)
Adults: €49,90 (same day roundtrip from Cuxhaven)
Children (4-14 years of age): €24 (same day roundtrip from Cuxhaven)
phone: 0461 864-44
This is a more high-speed ferry and just a tad bit more expensive than the previous company mentioned. From Cuxhaven, it will take about 1 hour and 15 minutes.
Dock locations can be found at Cuxhaven and Hamburg (Hamburg is a longer ride about 3 hours, 45-minute ride since you will be riding along the Elbe River)
Prices (may vary by date booked and season)
Children (4-14 years of age): €39,90
Find the website HERE
Mapping Out Helgoland
About 2 hours later, we finally arrived in Helgoland. First things first, we knew we had less than 3.5 hours to enjoy the island (we arrived around 1240), the ferry leaves at 1615.
We started our island excursion by heading to the Tourist Information Center to pick up a free map; that’s sort of my thing when we visit a new area. Tip: I recommend downloading a map of the island or buying one from the ferry for 4€. We wasted so much time walking all the way to the Tourist Information Center (remember we only have 3 hours or so); otherwise, if you decide to walk around the Tourist Information Center first and circle your way around the island from that direction heading towards back to the ferry, that would work as well.
Helgoland Tourist Information Center
Lung Wai 27 (in the roundabout of the hotel “Atoll”)
Tel .: +49 4725 808 808
Fax: +49 4725 808 99 808
Map of Helgoland
The Unterland, Mittelland, and Oberland
The island is the shape of a Triangle and is divided into three sections, the Unterland, Mittelland, and Oberland (see map above for clarification). It would be best to break up your visit between sections of the island.
The Unterland (Lowland)
As the name depicts (Unter– meaning Under), this is the lower part of the island where it is at sea level. This is the main part of the island where the shops, eateries, ferry docks are located. This is where you will also find the Tourist Information Center.
Heading from Unterland to Oberland, on the way, we found an area on our left that looked to be a vast ary of green pastures and redsand stone, elevation was much lower than Oberland. There was a trail that from here that takes you up to Oberland, but it looked rugged. Instead, we took the stairs (photo from above) to Oberland from Unterland. “The Mittelland came into being in 1947 as a result of explosions detonated by the British Royal Navy (the so-called “Big Bang”).”
Oberland (Upper Land)
Oberland is my favorite part of the island. An area of vast green pastures with cows and sheep and a trail where you can find the famous views of the Lange Anna and the red cliffs of Helgoland. This area is so picturesque and beautiful. We spent most of our time here taking so many photos. I recommend taking photos here but make sure you keep up with time as it will take so much of your time walking through the trails, admiring the view. Most of the shops and a few of the residential areas are also located in this section of the island and the St. Nicolai Church.
What to See and Do on Helgoland
The Lobster Shack/Stalls (Hummerbuden)
Located in the Unterland area, we noticed these colorful stalls by the water immediately on our way to the Tourist Information Center on the main harbor on the street of Hafenstrasse. They used to be Fishermen tool sheds and are now lines of shops, galleries, and small eateries. They’re quite fun to look at and take photos of.
Red SandStone Cliffs, Lange Anna, and the Lummenfelsen
Ok, this is the highlight and reason why I was so drawn to visiting Helgoland. The red rock cliff formations of the island are impressive and I had never seen anything like it here in Germany! It definitely gave me the Cliffs of Moher vibes except with the red rocks (we have it on our bucket list to see in Ireland).
To get to cliffs, we took a road from the Lobster stalls that lead to the beginning of the trails to these red, rocky cliff formations on the Oberland.
As you walk the trails along the cliffs (which most parts are paved-so, ok for strollers), you’ll not only get a wonderful view of the red, sandstone cliffs and the ocean. You’ll also get an amazing view of the Oberland green pastures and sometimes if you’re lucky, the local farm animals grazing in the grass.
As you keep following the trails, you’ll come upon some areas where you’ll find the local birds nesting along the cliffs of the Lummenfelsen, the smallest nature reserve in Germany. The Lummenfelsen is “best known for the fact that it offers a unique and spectacular breeding landscape in Germany for five species of ocean birds,” these birds can be found here between the months of April-September. Perfect for bird lovers! You can easily take photos of them as they rest on the rocks and they won’t be bothered; of course, be respectful of their space.
The Lange (Long/Tall) Anna is a spectacular sight to see on the island’s Northwest side. It is one of the most famous landmarks of Helgoland. Approximately 47 meters high, this rock needle is said to have once had an arch connecting to the main island, until it collapsed in 1860. It is believed the Lange Ana will not be on-site forever due to its ever-changing erosion from the wind and the ocean, so visit soon. It is considered a National Monument since 1969.
Find the Pinneberg
We’re still wandering around Oberland, by the Redstone cliffs, and here along the green pastures, you’ll find the highest point on the island, the Pinneberg. It’s not easy to miss, as you’ll find it by locating a cross-like structure in the middle of the green pastures, up above a hill on Oberland. You can easily reach it from the dirt trail. You can find the perfect view of the island from this summit.
Open the metal box and you’ll find some surprises inside.
Locate the Bomb Craters
While walking along the trail on Oberland, we encountered a not-so-flat green area with a sign indicating it was the site of a bomb crater, aka “Tallboy” 5000 kg explosion. A historical fact of the island, during WWII, the British tried to destroy the military installation of Helgoland in 1947 and caused a massive “Big Bang” that almost destroyed the island. The bombing caused the MittelLand to be formed and bomb craters. For more history information on the “Big Bang” check out this site.
The Helgoland Museum
Wanna learn about the history of the island? The Museum Helgoland is the perfect place to visit. I read it is a pretty neat little museum to check out. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to visit the inside of the museum due to timing, but I was able to take photos outside the museum of some cool replicas of the Lobster Shack, lighthouse, buoys, and a huge book which I learned is a copy of James Krüss book, a famous children’s book writer born and raised in Helgoland.
Telephone +49 (0) 4725 1292
From the website:
Opening times museum
From May 29, 2021 daily 10:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Entrance prices single
adults 5.00 euros
children 3.00 euros
currently no groups
Watch the Video below from Helgoland Museum.
Take a Bunker Tour
Sadly, we just didn’t have time to do this and I do not think it was being offered at the time of our visit due to Covid Restrictions. From my research, the island has an extensive bunker system under the main island that was used during WWII and the museum offers a guided tour of the bunkers. Please note, Children under 10 are not allowed to partake in the tour and there can only be a minimum of 12 people in a group. You can find more information here (German website- use Google Chrome and right click to translate to English) and a video below.
Bunker Tour Tourist Information:
Registration for BUNKER TOURS can only be done at the Tourist Information Center!
04725 / 808-808 or email@example.com
Monday – Sunday 10:00 a.m.
Monday – Saturday 16:30 p.m.
€ 12.50 per person
Duration: approx. 90 minutes
Number of participants per tour: up to a maximum of 25 people
* Additional tours are offered as required
Unfortunately, children under 10 years of age are not allowed to take part in the tour!
FInd more info here and watch the video below for more info (from Helgoland website)
Admire the Church of St. Nicolai
You can’t miss the steeple of this church landmark. This church was actually rebuilt in 1959, as the original church, built in 1685 as a stone church, was bombed in 1945 during WWII. We briefly walked to this site and admired the tall church spire. Today, it sits as a Lutheran Church for the locals and visitors.
Take the Elevator from Unterland to Oberland
You can take an elevator if you don’t feel like walking up or down the 260 or so steps from Unterland to Oberland or vice versa. Side note, there is a fee. We almost bypassed the cashier area after getting off the elevator to Unterland from Oberland and didn’t realize we had to pay. My family of 4 costs 4€ for us to use the elevator, but it was worth it.
Enjoy the Food on the Island
Several eateries offer takeaway food and outdoor sit-down option along the Unterland, specifically in the main Haferstrasse, the main street along the Lobster Shacks. I knew we at least had to have a seafood sandwich before leaving the island. So, before boarding the ferry back to Cuxhaven, we quickly picked a place to try a fish sandwich and enjoy eating by the water. (Tip: look for where all the lines are located, when we got off the ferry, we saw several people in line for this place, so we made a mental note to try this place on the way out)
On the way back to the ferry, the line to 2Blaue Buden was nonexistent, so we made the dash to order our fish sandwich. I wanted a really good fried fish sandwich, so I specifically asked the staff if I could order their fried fish sandwich (and so glad one of their staff was able to speak English and knew what I wanted). The fried fish sandwich was made fresh, on-site, and it was the best fried fish sandwich I had ever had in such a long time. It did not disappoint.
I also ordered a crab sandwich at this place (see photo below), this was also delicious, and the sauce I chose (garlicky sauce) was a wonderful addition. The staff who served me was very nice and spoke English.
Don’t forget the grab a gelato as well on your way out.
If you have the time to have a wonderful Helgoland meal from one of their restaurants, or if you are looking for the best food options, here’s a good link to take a peek at.
Enjoy Tax Free Souvenir Shopping
I think part of the reason tourists flock to this area, is not only because of this charming island but because it is the only island in Germany that is tax/duty-free. Therefore, liquor/alcohol, perfume, clothing, and other goods are so cheap and tax-free!
Helgoland remains a part of the European Union but is not part of the European Union Customs or VAT area, hence the reason for the duty-free status. According to the Helgoland website, the origin of the tax exemption lies in the time of the English rule from 1807 to 1890. When it was handed over to the German Empire, it was decided that the special regulations that the English had set into place should remain under the “German flag.” There are, of course, legal limits for shopping, according to Helgoland’s website, “if you want to buy more than the quantity-restricted goods, please report this to customs BEFORE leaving the island. You can find more details on the customs regulations on the island here (in German).
Therefore, to summarize, since this is an offshore island of Germany, it doesn’t follow the country’s tax system, so your purchases are tax-free and much cheaper on the island. Due to timing, we regrettably, did not have time to go shopping, which was on top of our list. Check out the cheap prices on a few items I quickly snapped photos on the way to catch the ferry back. You can find most of the shopping along Lung Wai and on the main strip of Hafenstrasse, and a few small stores along Oberland where the residential area can be found.
Explore the Island of Düne
Remember I mentioned Helgoland has another island that broke off from the mainland during flooding in 1720? The island of Düne is 1 km far from the main island of Helgoland. The island itself isn’t inhabited by any of the locals but it is a perfect island to have a beach day, searching for the red flint fossils, and/or just taking a break from the crowds of the main island. The island of Düne is also popular for its seals on the beach; tourists flock to the island to check out these cute sea creatures. Since it is a 0.7km sandy beach island, there’s not a lot to do there yourself, but enjoy the island for its beaches. The island is also where the airport is located for those who wish to fly into Helgoland. There are also a few accommodations on the island for visitors to stay overnight.
To get to the island, there is a ferry that docks from Helgoland. You can find more information about the Düne ferry from Helgoland on their website (in German, but use Chrome and right-click to translate to English).
Tel .: +49 4725 7655 Voice
message Landungsbrücke / Dünenfähre: +49 4725 7597
Fax: +49 4725 640293
Mobile: 0171 3693695 (Captain on duty)
Mail: boerte @ helgoland.de
Sadly, we didn’t have time to do this but putting it back on our list of things to do when we return.
Spend the Night on the Island
To really take in all of what the island offers and don’t want to feel rushed getting back on the Ferry, I highly recommend staying overnight on this wonderful island. I regret not doing this and would have liked to have had the opportunity to do more on the island and not feel the rush of time in under 3.5 hours. Under 3.5 hours is not enough time to enjoy all of Helgoland and Düne. I searched Booking.com for accommodations, and though some were out of our price range, I was able to find a few accommodations (including breakfast) at the last minute under $200 for one night. I had a room picked out when I was in the final stages of planning our trip but regrettably backed out at the last minute (afraid the island would not be worth the overnight stay, but boy, I was wrong). Factor in the price for the ferry for the day and the time we would have on the island for a brief day excursion (less than 3.5 hours); it would have been worth the shot the stay one night.
(Tip: I do recommend staying one night on the island, but book in advance for better pricing and options)
Hiking Ideas for the Island
I’ve attached a list of Komoot hiking routes that may be nice to look through to help plan your trip.
Take a Walk Around the Island and Admire Everything
Finally, the best thing to do on the island, in my opinion, is explore. Not only did we love walking around the island (which all of it is walkable), we loved getting lost in different areas and just meandering through the streets in the short amount of time we had on the island.
Where to Get Covid Tests
Prior to boarding our Ferry with Reederie Cassen Eils, a negative Covid test is required for all members of the family boarding the ferry to Helgoland.
Test locations out of Cuxhaven, can be found here
We also brought our passports and a bill with our German address along with our IDs, just in case.
Final Thoughts on Helgoland
Oh, Helgoland, I didn’t expect to be in awe of you, but we didn’t have enough time to truly enjoy every aspect of your island. The ferry ride back was nice for sure to be able to relax from a long day of exploring and being tired from the fast walk we did to get around the island (side note: the ferry ride back was less crowded, so this told me that plenty of tourists stay the night). For that, we have decided to make a return visit in the future when we return to the German North Sea. I highly recommend staying overnight and experiencing all that you can of this charming island. It has so much to offer for such a tiny island. Don’t forget to catch a brief video below from DW Travel of Helgoland so you can plan your visit. Until next time adventurers! Bis zum nächsten Mal!