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The German island of Helgoland has been a bucket list item for me since I moved to Hamburg back in 2016. It’s Germany’s only island not in the vicinity of the mainland and requires a high-speed ferry ride from Hamburg to reach the island. With 2020 filled with very little travel, I made a list of places I wanted to visit in and around Hamburg. The number one trip? A day trip to Helgoland!
As reaching Helgoland requires an almost 3-hour ferry ride, including 1 hour and 15 minutes in open water (the North Sea), I knew I had to be strategic about when I visited due to my extreme motion sickness and the constantly changing weather. Fortunately, I got really lucky and visited on a warm (almost too warm!) day with glass-like water extending from the mainland to the island. As the island isn’t that large, Helgoland is the perfect day trip from Hamburg.
Table of Contents
- Helgoland vs. Heligoland
- Geography of Helgoland
- History of Helgoland
- Duty-Free Status on Helgoland
- What to See on Helgoland
- How to Get to Helgoland
- How to Get Around Helgoland
- Where to Stay on Helgoland
- What and Where to Eat on Helgoland
- What to Pack for Helgoland
- Final Thoughts on a Day Trip to Helgoland
Helgoland vs. Heligoland
For clarity and consistency, I will be referring to the island by its German name of Helgoland. This name and spelling are used in both German and English articles. However, you might also see Helgoland referred to by its English name and spelling of Heligoland.
Geography of Helgoland
Located 44 miles (70 kilometers) from mainland Germany, Helgoland is actually composed of two islands – the main island (German: Hauptinsel) and the smaller island (German: Düne). At one point, these two islands were connected. However, a bad storm flood in 1720 separated the two islands. Currently, only the main island is inhabited (when people say Helgoland, they are referring to this island). Düne has vacation homes and an airport but is not permanently inhabited.
The main island of Helgoland is divided into three parts – Unterland, Mittelland, and Oberland (English: Lower, Middle, and Upper). Mittelland actually didn’t exist until the bombing of the island by the British in 1947. Unterland is the main city area of Helgoland while Oberland is home to a lot of the walking/hiking trails!
The main island of Helgoland is roughly 0.4 mi2 (or 1 km2) while Düne is 0.27 mi2 (or 0.7 km2). Thus, it is quite easy to walk around both of the islands in a few hours.
History of Helgoland
Like most of Northern Germany, Helgoland has had a unique, complicated, and diverse history which culminated after World War II. Due to artifacts and burial mounds found on the island, it is assumed that Helgoland has been occupied since prehistoric times. The Frisians, an ethnic group from the west coast of Germany, were present on the island in the 600s. Remnants from the Frisians are still seen in daily life – many residents of the island speak an island-specific dialect of the North Frisian language (quite similar to German). It is still considered one of the official languages of the island.
Up until the early 1800s, Helgoland’s ownership routinely switched between Denmark, Hamburg (which was independent at the time), and the Ducky of Schleswig. In 1814, Denmark (aligning with France during the Napoleonic Wars) ceded Helgoland to the British, although the makeup of the island remained primarily German. During the 1800s, Helgoland became known as an island for artists, writers, leisure and tourism, upper-class civilians, and spas.
- Fun fact: the current German national anthem was written by August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben on Helgoland. Before World War II, all the stanzas were sung. Now, due to its nationalistic undertones, only the third stanza is sung.
Under the Heligoland–Zanzibar Treaty of 1890, the British gave Helgoland to Germany in return for Germany recognizing British authority in Zanzibar. Before and during World War I, Helgoland was home to a big naval base with all civilians moved back to mainland Germany. During World War II, the island didn’t hold a big naval significance. However, it suffered from bombing and mining in 1944 and 1945. In April 1945, 1,000 RAF planes dropped over 7,000 bombs in just a few days. The civilians sought shelter in the bunkers and were evacuated to the mainland the next day.
- Interesting fact: Before World War II and the rise of Hitler, the island was a huge vacation spot for Jewish civilians. Unfortunately, they were banned from the island in the mid-1930s.
After World War II, the British retained control of the island and used it for bombing practice. In April 1947, the British attempted to sink the island through bombing. They dropped 6,700 tons of explosives, creating the largest single explosive detonation (according to the Guinness Book of World Records). It was the biggest non-atomic explosion ever generated by humans. While this “British Bang” – as it was called – failed to sink the island, it did drastically reshape the island.
In 1952, after a student-led movement, Helgoland was returned to Germany and officially became part of the state of Schleswig-Holstein. It currently has a population of 1,200 residents although it is a popular vacation destination in the summer months.
Duty-Free Status on Helgoland
While Helgoland is part of Germany and the European Union, it is not part of the European Union VAT area and customs union. Thus, it has a duty-free status that attracts a lot of tourists wanting to stock up on cigarettes, alcohol, and perfume.
What to See on Helgoland
Besides the historical aspects and importance of the island, Helgoland is known for a few defining characteristics – the red chalk-like cliffs lining the coastline of the main island and the seals of Düne. Here is a more complete list of what to see on Helgoland:
Trail Around Oberland
This circular trail around the perimeter of Oberland takes you along several historical and geographic sites on the island including the crater of a 5,000 kg bomb dropped during April 1945 by the Allied forces and the island’s lighthouse, a former anti-aircraft control center that was the only building to survive World War II unscathed. It now plays an important role in monitoring ship activity in the region.
The trail goes along most of the west side of the island, giving you gorgeous views of the red cliffs. The most famous cliff is Lange Anna. This 154-ft (47-m) sea stack is on the northwest tip of Helgoland. Although a protective wall was built around it, it’s expected that Lange Anna will eventually fall into the North Sea due to the crashing water and unpredictable weather.
If you head south from Lange Anna along the west coast, you’ll come across 10+ other cliffs that impressive as well. Be prepared to be met with literally 1,000s of birds! As a colony of seabirds breed here every year, it can get quite crowded (and smelly) from all the birds. Also, keep an eye out for the cows just roaming the fields of Oberland!
Lobster Stalls (German: Hummerbuden)
These former fishermen’s tool sheds line the walkway from the ferries to the main city area. The sheds are now painted bright colors including red, blue, and yellow. Some of them still serve traditional seafood so make sure to stop and take in some of the local cuisines!
Ornithological Station (Institute for Bird Research)
With the mass migration of 15,000+ birds each year to/from the island, this Institute for Bird Research is quite active. If you’re interested in this subject, the institute offers visitor tours to part of this research facility.
Museum Helgoland is not only a museum but also an event and cultural center. This museum gives an overview of Helgoland’s culture and history spanning thousands of years. Be sure to check out the museum courtyard with its colorful buildings, lighthouse, and anchor! There are very limited hours so make sure you plan ahead if you want to visit the museum (I learned the hard way!).
- Museum Helgoland: Kurpromenade 8, 27498 Helgoland.
- Hours: Monday – Saturday from 10:00 – 14:30.
- Ticket Prices: 5.00 Euros for adults and 3.00 Euros for kids
Bunker and Bunker Tour
Under the main island of Helgoland is an extensive bunker system that was used during World War II. There are over 8 km of tunnels beneath the main island of Helgland that span 5 floors. This was the number one thing Peter and I wanted to do on the island. Unfortunately, the tour times can not be booked if you’re just coming on a day trip. The tours must be booked in advance directly with the tourist office!
- Tourist Office: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Times: Monday – Sunday at 10:00 and Monday – Saturday at 16:30
- Cost: 12.50 Euros
- Important to Note: the tour is not available to children under the age of 10
Visit the Seals
One of the highlights of Helgoland is the island’s seal population! Located on Düne, Helgoland is host to two types of seal species. Although there is not an exact count for the total of seals, about 500 new seals are born each year. The best month to view the seals are from November to January – this is mating and birthing season.
It is important to note that you can not touch or feed the seals! You must stay at least 100 feet (30 meters) away from the seals at all times. This is strictly monitored by Verein Jordsand. Please be respectful of the local seal population!
- You can find out more about the seals here (in German).
The Tourist Office of Helgoland offers a wide variety of group and private tours. It’s worth booking a tour through them if there’s a topic of interest! The tours are all reasonably priced and go in-depth on a multitude of subjects related to the island’s history and culture.
How to Get to Helgoland
There are two ways to get to Helgoland – flying or with a high-speed ferry. The most common option is the high-speed ferry as it offers more locations and flexibility.
Helgoland’s airport is on the island of Düne – a 5-minute boat ride away from Helgoland’s main island. According to Helgoland’s tourist website, there are daily flights from:
- Heide / Büsum
- Cuxhaven / Spieka
During the summer months, there are up to 4 daily flights to/from Helgoland while during the winter months, it goes down to 1 flight to/from Helgoland a day.
Flights can be booked through the private airline Ostfriesischer Flugdienst GmbH (OFD).
Multiple ferries going from many different locations. However, your best option is the high-speed ferries from Hamburg and Cuxhaven.
- Hamburg High-Speed Ferry: It’s a 3-hour and 45-minute ride from Hamburg to Helgoland. The first 2 hours and 30 minutes are along the Elbe River – so the water is much calmer. It then stops in Cuxhaven, picks up more passengers, and continues in open water for the last 1-hour and 15-minutes from Cuxhaven to Helgoland.
- There is one ferry a day from Hamburg to Helgoland and it leaves at 9:00 am with an arrival time of 12:45 pm. The ferry back to Hamburg leaves Helgoland at 4:30 pm and arrivals at 8:15 pm. Ticket prices are on a sliding scale depending on how far in advance you purchase the tickets and which class you choose. Most round-trip tickets start around 76 Euros. You can purchase your tickets for FRS Helgoline here.
- Cuxhaven High-Speed Ferry: It’s a 1-hour and 15-minute ride from Cuxhaven to Helgoland. While the ferry ride is much shorter from Cuxhaven to Helgoland, it’s all open water.
- In the high season, there are two ferries a day from Cuxhaven to Helgoland. The first ferry to Helgoland leaves at 10:00 am and arrives at 11:15 am. The second ferry to Helgoland leaves at 11:30 am and arrives at 12:45 pm. The ferries back to Cuxhaven leave Helgoland at 4:30 pm and 5:30 pm and arrive at 5:45 pm and 6:45 pm, respectively. Once again, ticket prices are on a sliding scale depending on how far in advance you purchase the tickets and which class you choose. Most round-trip tickets start around 55 Euros. You can purchase your tickets for FRS Helgoline here.
- Other Ferry Options: There are slower ferries from the company Reederei Cassen Eils running from Bremerhaven, Hooksiel, and Cuxhaven. There are also slower ferries from the company Adler & Eils running from Büsum and the island of Amrum.
Traveling Tip: Initially, Peter and I wanted to take the high-speed ferry from Hamburg to Helgoland for a day trip on a Saturday in July. However, tickets sold out more than a week in advance (take note!) so we decided to drive to Cuxhaven by car and take the ferry from there. This also worked out better for me because I get extreme motion sickness and 1 hour and 15 minutes on a ferry sounded much better than almost 4 hours! From Hamburg to Cuxhaven by ferry is 2 hours and 30 minutes while driving is around 2 hours. So no only did driving to Cuxhaven save us time and money, but we had an extra almost 3 hours on Helgoland because we opted to take the early ferry there and the late ferry back! There is a parking lot right across from the ferry terminal and parking costs under 10 Euros.
How to Get Around Helgoland
Helgoland reminds me of my favorite island in Michigan – Mackinac Island. Much like Mackinac Island, the island of Helgoland does not allow motorized vehicles! Besides a few police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances, the only other motorized cars allowed on the island are electric vehicles used mainly for moving materials. Even bicycles are banned from the island! The easiest (and pretty much only) way to get around the island is by foot.
To make it easier to go between Unterland and Oberland (because the walk up involves lots of stairs and is quite steep), you can take an elevator for less than a Euro.
Going Between the Mainland and Düne
There are small dingy boats (German: Börteboots) going between the mainland and Düne and back every 5-15 minutes. It costs around 5 Euros for a round-trip ticket and is well worth the experience of going on one of these traditional boats. The ride between the mainland and Düne is around 10 minutes. You can also hire a Börteboot for a tour around the island!
Where to Stay on Helgoland
Because Helgoland is quite small, there isn’t a huge list of options. The hotels and guesthouses on Helgoland are simple but get the job done! There aren’t any five-star hotels or over-the-top spa options. However, the hotels are nice, clean, and perfect for a weekend stay if you’re wanting to prolong from just a day trip to Helgoland!
Hotel Rickmers Insulaner is associated with the below Rickmers Galerie Restaurant. It’s right along one of the main streets on Helgoland and easy to reach. As one of the highest-rated hotels on the island, it’s super charming and has a bit of a nautical feel. Depending on the room you select, you might have a gorgeous view of the water!
Hotel Mocca-Stuben is a simple but well-priced and well-rated hotel on Helgoland. Located in Oberland, it’s less than a 500 m walk to the harbor and perfectly situated for a weekend trip to the island.
Aqua Marina is located directly in the center of the island and offers spa facilities to make your trip even more special and luxurious. It was recently refurbished and is the perfect spot for a romantic couple getaway.
DJH Jungendherberge is the only hostel on the island. However, for being a hostel, it is quite nice and offers plenty of amenities! It’s a great option if you’re looking for something low budget and/or needing to accommodate a larger group!
Other great hotel options include:
- Haus Nickels: check rates, reviews, and availability here.
- Hanseat: check rates, reviews, and availability here.
- Rungholt: check rates, reviews, and availability here.
Coming with a larger group? Check out one of the many vacation homes on the main island of Helgoland. This is a great option if you plan on staying on the island longer or want a bit more space for your family/friends!
- Miin Hüs iip Lun (6 people): check rates, reviews, and availability here.
- Meermomente (4 people): check rates, reviews, and availability here.
- Tor zum Meer (2, 4, or 6 people): check rates, reviews, and availability here.
- Apartmenthaus Hohenfels (2, 3, or 4 people): check rates, reviews, and availability here.
- atoll apartments (2, 4, or 6 people): check rates, reviews, and availability here.
If you’re looking for a unique accommodation experience, look no further than the adorable bungalows on Düne. The Dünenendorf Bungalows can accommodate 4 or 6 people and provide a “camping” experience with all the modern amenities. The bungalows are also painted bright and vibrant colors to give you the holiday feel!
What and Where to Eat on Helgoland
You can’t go to Helgoland and not have some sort of seafood. In particular, you must get the Northern Germany specialty Fischbrötchen (pretty much a fish sandwich). You can get them with all different types of fish as well as various sauces. Unfortunately, I don’t eat seafood (I know – so bad!) but there are a few locations on Helgoland that are well known for their seafood options and Fischbrötchen.
Below are some of the most highly recommended restaurants on Helgoland as well as a few personal favorites!
Rickmers Galerie Restaurant: If you’re looking for a fancier restaurant, look no further than Rickmers Galerie Restaurant. They specialize in classic seaside cuisine. If you plan on visiting in the summer months, definitely make sure you have a reservation!
- Rickmers Galer Restaurant: Am Südstrand 2, 27498 Helgoland
Rickmers Seafood: This to-go location is perfect for a quick lunch sandwich or fries. They specialize in Fischbrötchen and were hopping when we visited. They’re near the ferry docking location so it’s a great snack after disembarking the ferry or right before heading back to the mainland! They’re located in one of the old lobster stalls.
- Rickmerts Seafood: Hafenstraße 1052, 27498 Helgoland
Weddigs Fischerstube: This is another place to indulge in seafood! The fish is fresh, well prepared, and reasonably priced. You can also enjoy lobster and other Helgoland specialties. The ambiance reflects the history and charm of the restaurant. Don’t miss this location for dinner!
- Weddigs Fischerstube: Friesenstraße 61, 27498 Helgoland
Bunte Kuh: Peter and I passed this restaurant and wish we could have stopped as it was hoppin’! Located in one of the old lobster stalls, this restaurant spans 2 floors and also provides outdoor seating. Once again, the menu revolves around seafood and local beers! Make sure to have a reservation beforehand, especially during the summer months and after 18:00.
- Bunte Kuh: Hafenstraße 1013-1018, 27498 Helgoland
Das Emma James: This restaurant is a must-visit for breakfast and Kaffe & Kuchen. Due to not wanting to get motion sick, I barely ate anything before arriving on Helgoland. By noon, I was absolutely starving and this hit the spot! The food was delicious, the service was great, and the location was right in the center of everything. It’s also a chocolate shop so make sure to try some there or take some to go!
- Das Emma James: J.-A.-Siemens-Terrasse 146, 27498 Helgoland
What to Pack for Helgoland
Even for a day trip to Helgoland, there are a few things that you should definitely pack and bring along! Like much of Northern Germany, the weather can be unpredictable on the way to Helgoland and once you’re on the island. We went dressed in sweaters and ended up wishing we had brought our bathing suits!
- Sea Bands: If you get seasick AT ALL, you must bring sea bands with you for the boat ride over. While cruising along the Elbe River is quite smooth, once you hit the open water of the North Sea, it’s every man for himself! While we had quite a flat day, the weather can change in an instant. Wear these bands before you ever board the boat for maximum effectiveness!
- Ginger Gum/Chews: In addition to the sea bands, I was snacking on ginger chews and ginger gum the entire boat ride. Ginger is naturally known to help with nausea and upset stomachs (usually used by pregnant women!). I went crazy and made sure that I was eating something with ginger the entire ferry ride.
- Camera: As an extremely photogenic island, my camera was with me the entire time. You not only want to photograph the amazing natural scenery of the island but also want to make sure you have a good enough camera to photograph all the adorable seals!
- Chunky Sweater: As the weather is unpredictable on the island and the ferry ride can be quite cold, you want to make sure you’re wearing layers – specifically a sweater that you can easily throw on and take off. If you’re wanting to stick with a nautical theme to match the island vibe, I especially love these two sweaters: option 1 and option 2.
- Rain Jacket: It’s not unusual at all to have intermittent rain showers in Northern Germany. Makes sure you’re covered (no pun intended) and stay dry with a bright and cheerful rain jacket!
- Bathing Suit: If you’re lucky and end up visiting Helgoland on one of its rare warm days, a bathing suit is a must-bring item! The best beaches can be found on Düne and it’s well worth taking a dip in the sea. I especially love J.Crew bathing suits as they’re flattering and work for all shapes and sizes.
- Beach Towel: If you plan on going swimming, you’re also going to need a towel to dry off quickly! These small, packable microfiber towels are perfect for throwing in a backpack or tote bag and carrying around with you. Plus, they’re formulated to help your dry off quickly!
- Sturdy Shoe: I’m not a huge fan of sneakers but definitely recommend a sturdy shoe for walking around the island (especially going to/from Oberland to Unterland). My personal favorite shoes for walking a bit more are anything by Sperry, especially their boat shoes (I own quite a few pairs), or classic Keds. Both are a bit chicer than normal sneakers while providing ample support to your feet.
- Small Backpack: If you’re not wanting to lug around a purse all day, I suggest getting a small backpack (with a zipper – no straps!). I have a similar backpack and love how it still looks “cool” while holding my wallet, camera, and anything else I might need for a day trip!
Final Thoughts on a Day Trip to Helgoland
A day trip to Helgoland is easily doable from Hamburg and other cities in Northern Germany. As a unique piece of Germany’s (and the UK’s) history, I loved exploring this island and taking in the cultural, historical, and nature sites. Definitely check the weather beforehand as you wouldn’t want to visit the island when it’s freezing or raining – you’ll be outside most of the time. Make sure to enjoy your time visiting this unique, deep-sea island!