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While Sylt is considered the ritzy island of Germany and Helgoland is Germany’s deep-sea island, Peter and I wanted a new experience and decided to opt for the island of Rügen one Easter weekend. Located in northeast Germany on the Baltic Sea, the island used to be part of East Germany. Rügen is both the largest German island by landmass and the number of yearly visitors. Between the resort architecture, charming seaside towns, sandy beaches, chalk cliffs, lighthouses, and the infamous Prora structure, there are so many historical things to do on Rügen! While Peter and I only had 24 hours on the island, we were able to tackle all the highlights (with plans on returning soon!).
Looking to explore other islands in Germany? Check out this guide to taking a day trip to Helogland!
Table of Contents
- History of Rügen
- Historical Places to Visit on Rügen
- How to Get to Rügen
- Where to Stay on Rügen
- Where to Eat in Binz
- What to Pack for Rügen
- Final Thoughts on Visiting Rügen
History of Rügen
With a diverse background, the island of Rügen has been under Danish, Slavic, Swedish, Prussian, and French rule before finally returning to Germany in the 1800s. In 1816, the first bathing resort was established on the island and Rügen remained one of the most famous and beloved islands of Germany until the start of World War II.
Interestingly, it was actually through the work of Hitler that Rügen became such an important and modernized holiday resort. As noted below under Prora, Hitler started building a resort complex on the island to house up to 20,000 people at a time. He really promoted the idea of vacations for the middle/working class and encouraged a culture that advocated for vacations throughout the year (something that has stuck in Germany – I have 6 weeks of paid vacation every year!). Additionally, he built the bridge that now connects Rügen to the mainland, making the island much more accessible. Before the bridge was built, the island could only be reached by ferries.
After the end of World War II, tourism came to a screeching halt due to Rügen being zoned into East Germany. Because the East German government attempted to nationalize all hotels, taxis, and service companies, almost all tourism completely stopped in the 1950s. While the island did regain its role as a tourist destination in the subsequent decades, it wasn’t until Germany’s reunification that tourism really exploded on Rügen.
- Fun fact: Angela Merkel, the current Chancellor of Germany, actually represents the constituency that encompasses the island of Rügen!
Historical Places to Visit on Rügen
The island of Rügen is dripping in historical locations and places to visit. The best part about the island is it is virtually unknown to tourists outside of Germany. Thus, I heard no other English speakers the entire time I was on the island. While it was absolutely freezing while we were there (0 C/32 F – and we got caught in a terrible snowstorm getting back to Hamburg), the island is just as gorgeous in the wintertime as it is in the summertime.
Admire the Seaside Resort Towns
The number one thing you MUST do on Rügen is visit as many seaside resort towns as possible! The island is known for its gorgeous resort architecture and it definitely doesn’t disappoint. While Peter and I only managed to visit a few (and there was some weird, off-season road construction happening), we especially liked the towns of Binz and Sellin.
Peter and I chose Binz as our base. It is quite centrally located which made getting to the other towns, Jasmund National Park, Prora, and Cape Arkona lighthouse quite easy. However, it still seems remote and quaint.
The town was first mentioned in 1318 but really rose in prominence after the introduction of bathing complexes in the 1800s. However, the population of the town is still only 5,000. My favorite parts of the town were walking the main road to the pier (and make sure to walk along the pier) as well as admiring all the gorgeous architecture! After the reunification of Germany, most of the old hotels and summer houses were returned to the prior owners (opposed to being nationalized) and the town has steadily grown its tourism sector.
After a full day of driving, I was exhausted and just wanted to stay holed up in the hotel room for the rest of the night. Peter convinced me that we should go for an evening walk and happened to stumble upon this sunset!!! Seriously, the colors were incredible.
Sellin + Sellin Pier
Even older than Binz, Sellin was first mentioned in the late 1200s and became one of the most important spa towns on the Baltic Sea in the 1800s. Much like Binz, the town has undergone a huge transformation since the reunification of Germany. However, it still has its old-time charm and resort architecture. In terms of important residents, Albert Einstein spent a summer living in Sellin!
I made Peter take a detour to Sellin just so I could visit the famous Sellin Pier. As the longest pier on Rügen, it is absolutely stunning – especially when viewed from high above (there are 100 stairs leading to the pier or else you can take the elevator). Unfortunately, this is not the original pier. The first pier with a restaurant was built in 1906 but subjected to both ice damage and fire damage. It was rebuilt in 1925 but, once again, was badly damaged by ice in the winter of 1941/1942. While the pier wasn’t fully destroyed, over time it was neglected and ignored, causing it to be completely demolished in 1978. In 1991, after German reunified, efforts began to rebuild the pier. It officially opened again in 1998 and was based on the original designs of the 1906 and 1925 pier. Definitely don’t miss this impressive structure when visiting Rügen.
Stroll the Sandy Beaches
Due to the freezing/below-freezing temperatures for much of the weekend, Peter and I didn’t have the opportunity to fully enjoy the beautiful sandy beaches of Rügen. In the summertime, Strandkorb (the striped covered beach chairs) line the beaches of Rügen, and the sandy beaches invite people to lounge and hang out on them all day. Unfortunately, my experience was much different, and instead of Strandkorb lining the beaches, little huts were open offering hot wine and hot chocolate to any that dared to actually venture out to the beach! Don’t worry, a trip in the summertime is high on my list.
Explore Jasmund National Park and Königsstuhl
The real reason I wanted to visit Rügen? To explore Jasmund National Park and the famous chalk cliffs! This is actually how I initially heard of Rügen 12 years ago. My high school German teacher made us read an article about this island and specifically, the chalk cliffs. Ever since then, it’s been a bucket list item for me.
The famous chalk cliffs are almost identical to the White Cliffs of Dover in England. As one of the last acts by the East German government, they declared these cliffs and the surrounding area as a national park. Königsstuhl (King’s Chair) is the largest chalk cliff in Germany. At this location is a visitor’s center which explains the rare animals and plants that inhabit the area as well as the history behind the cliffs. There is also a viewpoint over Königsstuhl and many hiking trails. These cliffs have been forever immortalized in the famous paintings of Caspar David Friedrich.
A few important notes – you can’t go directly to the cliffs via car. Instead, you park your car in a parking lot a few kilometers away and can either walk or take a bus to the visitor’s center. The bus is about 6 Euros round trip and entrance into the visitor’s center is 8 Euros. There was a bit of confusion by me and Peter in regards to the opening hours but everything worked out fine (they changed their schedule to the summer hours a few weeks early due to the Easter weekend). Many of the hiking trails are outside of the visitor’s center and don’t require a fee (in case you’re just interested in hiking!).
Learn About the Prora
As mentioned above, Prora was envisioned by Hitler as a vacation resort for over 20,000 German families. Due to the start of World War II, the structure was never completed and never used as a vacation resort. The complexes that were built now extend over 4.5 kilometers (2.8 miles) along the coastline. While one building houses a museum, the other buildings are now being renovated as apartments, offices, and vacation rentals. As a structure, Prora is one of the longest in the entire world.
During World War II, the existing buildings were used as a refuge from Allied bombings. In particular, the buildings housed many residents of Hamburg who were escaping the city (the bombing of Hamburg and its almost complete destruction during World War II deserves its own post!). In 1945, the buildings were taken over by the Soviet Union and they established the buildings and surrounding area as a military base. Many of the buildings were stripped bare by the troops and the usable material recycled. Additionally, they demolished two of the buildings for materials.
After the formation of East Germany, the buildings housed East German troops and became a restricted area. Many East German conscientious objectors served as “construction soldiers” at Prora in order to fulfil their military duty.
After reunification, the newly formed German government tried to sell all the buildings as one. However, after getting no buyers, the buildings have now been sold off one-by-one. Renovation efforts are ongoing and quite evident when visiting!
Ride the Rügen Narrow-Gauge Railway
While Peter and I didn’t have time to visit the Rügen narrow-gauge railway, it is high on our list of places to visit the next time we’re on Rügen. With a route of only 24 kilometers (15 miles), this steam-engine train has been operating since 1895 and reaches a maximum speed of 30 kilometers/hour (19 miles/hour). The railway connects the popular bathing resort towns including Binz and Sellin as well as Göhren, Baabe, and Putbus.
Visit Cape Arkona Lighthouse and Putgarten
Cape Arkona Lighthouse isn’t one lighthouse but a combination of two lighthouses plus a radio navigation tower. The old lighthouse is now a museum about lighthouses and maritime rescue while the radio navigation tower is an art museum and studio. All three towers have viewing platforms at the top.
This was my last stop on Rügen before Peter and I left for the mainland. Because we were trying to get ahead of the snowstorm (#fail), I didn’t end up climbing to the top of any of the towers. It’s important to note that the lighthouses can’t (or shouldn’t) be reached directly by car – most people walk there or take the shuttle bus. Because Peter and I weren’t actually stopping, we took our car directly to the lighthouses – and subsequently felt guilty the entire time!
If you have time, definitely explore the adorable area of Putgarten (right before Cape Arkona Lighthouse). It is charming and I’m kicking myself for not having enough time to explore it!
Other Things To Do on Rügen
Besides the island of Rügen, make sure to check out the island Hiddensee right next to Rügen. Much like the island of Helgoland in the North Sea, Hiddensee is a totally car-free island and a popular tourist destination as well!
Also, before heading to the island of Rügen, make sure to stop by the medieval, gorgeous towns of Greifswald and Stralsund. They are both great stopover destinations for a half-day or day trip.
How to Get to Rügen
The easiest way to reach Rügen is via car. Especially with the bridge connecting the island to the mainland, it’s really easy to get between the two. Additionally, due to the sheer size of the island, many places aren’t necessarily near each other and a bit out of the way. A car makes reaching and seeing these places (including most of the above locations) much easier!
There is an airport on the island of Rügen as well as the nearby town of Rostock on the mainland. Rostock does handle commercial flights to destinations within Germany as well as abroad. Unfortunately, the airport on the island of Rügen only caters to charter flights from Hamburg, Berlin, and Bornholm (Denmark).
Surprisingly, Rügen has great train connections – especially high-speed trains. The island can be reached by high-speed trains from Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Hamburg, Hannover, Kassel, Frankfurt, Karlsruhe, Halle, Erfurt, Fulda, Rostock, Münster, Duisburg, Köln, and Mainz.
Flixbus, the most extensive bus service in Germany (and most of Europe), serves several locations on Rügen including Bergen auf Rügen, Binz, Sellin, Baabe, and Göhren. The buses from these towns on Rügen connect to a large network of cities in Germany!
Long-haul ferries from Trelleborg, Sweden; Rønne, Bornholm (island of Denmark); and Klaipeda, Lithuania service the island of Rügen. There are also a ferry from mainland Germany (Stahlbrode near Greifswald) to Glewitz, Rügen.
Where to Stay on Rügen
The best part about Rügen is that you have so many accommodation options! If possible, try to stay in one of the seaside resort towns. Based on recommendations and the central location, we stayed in Binz and absolutely loved it! I’d definitely return to Binz again as there are many hotel options, great beaches, and yummy restaurants.
Hotel CERÊS am Meer is a gorgeous 5-star hotel. With stunning views and right next to the beach, everything about the hotel screams luxury. While it doesn’t have the traditional resort architecture that’s common on Rügen, it does have a really modern and sophisticated charm.
Hotel am Meer & Spa is not only a 4-star accommodation, but it has the classic resort architecture so beloved by the tourists of Rügen. Besides having a spa, the views and interior are top-notch. Definitely book yourself a room overlooking the water – with the high ceilings and huge windows, you won’t be disappointed with the view!
Centralhotel Binz is an affordable but still luxurious 3-star option. Peter and I stayed here and absolutely loved our visit! Although it isn’t on the water, the beach is one street away and the hotel itself is located on a hopping main street. Additionally, the restaurant on the first floor is absolutely fantastic (for both breakfast and dinner) and it was the perfect way to end an exhausting day. Just one tip – if coming by car, make sure to let the hotel know ahead of time. There is limited parking on site that fills up quickly!
Where to Eat in Binz
Peter and I were both really impressed by the sheer number of amazing restaurants in Binz! While we only got to sample of a few, here is a collection of some of the best restaurants in the town – from super affordable to ultra ritzy.
Fischraucherei Kuse: A fourth-generation fishing company, the fish at Fischraucherei Kuse are caught daily and can be brought home for cooking or enjoyed on site. This affordable option is located directly on the beach, just right of the pier. Best to visit this restaurant for lunch or an afternoon snack as it closes at 7 pm.
- Fischraucherei Kuse: Strandpromenade 3, 18609 Binz
Dolden Madel: Peter and I tried to make reservations at Dolden Madel during the Easter weekend and they were fully booked for almost a week. Rightly so! This restaurant is known for serving a wide selection of craft beer as well as hearty foods. My biggest regret is that we didn’t think to make a reservation ahead of time because the restaurant looked super cool and the beer looked even more delicious!
- Dolden Madel: Schillerstraße 6, 18609 Binz
Wirtshaus Alte Brennerei: In a super location with a charming feel, Wirtshaus Alte Brennerei is known for having reasonable prices and yummy, hearty meals. If you’re looking for a traditional German meal with a quaint, cozy atmosphere, look no further than Wirtshaus Alte Brennerei. Do note that this restaurant closes at 6 pm so put it on your list for lunchtime!
- Wirtshaus Alte Brennerei: Jagdschloß Granitz 1, 18609 Binz
Bootshaus: I wish I liked seafood because this restaurant looks like the holy grail of fish! The portions are huge and the building is a traditional northern German island house (all the brick!). Make sure to book a table beforehand because this restaurant is constantly packed and finding a seat might be difficult.
- Bootshaus: Strandpromenade 49, 18609 Binz
What to Pack for Rügen
I headed to Rügen in April and it was still absolutely freezing. While the summer months bring gorgeous beach weather, it’s also important to be prepared in the winter months for cold weather and potentially even snow!
- Camera: As much as I love my iPhone, I carry my Sony a6000 camera everywhere with me! With gorgeous sunsets and wintery light, I was able to capture colorful and sharp photos of the architecture and nature sites.
- Chunky Sweater: As the weather is unpredictable on the island, 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 Rügen during the summer months, a bathing suit is a must-bring item! There are beaches in almost every single resort town on the island 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.
- Sturdy Shoe: I’m not a huge fan of sneakers but definitely recommend a sturdy shoe for walking around Rügen. 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!
- Winter Coat: If you happen to visit in a month that’s not June, July, or August, definitely make sure to bring your parka with you. After living in Michigan for several years as well as now in Hamburg and Kiel, it’s important to get a parka that goes below your butt and comes with a hood to help block out the wind!
- Boots: On extra cold days or days with snow, it’s always great to have a sturdy, warm boot. I particularly love mine by Sperry.
- Winter Items: Other must-have winter items include fleece gloves, a warm hat, a wool or cable-knit scarf, and cozy socks!
Final Thoughts on Visiting Rügen
My only regret when visiting Rügen was not having enough time to fully explore the island. There’s so much history, culture, and politics tied to this one island. I’d definitely recommend spending at least a weekend, if not more, exploring the entire island. Peter and I absolutely loved our time in Binz and can’t wait to return when it’s a bit warmer!
Looking to explore other islands in Germany? Check out this guide to taking a day trip to Helogland!