day trip, Europe, family, Germany, hike, island

Helgoland, Germany

An archipelago in the North Sea

Heligoland (Helgoland in German) is a small archipelago in the North Sea and is the only high sea island of Germany. It is actually composed of two islands – the Hauptinsel, which is the main island and the Duene, which is the smaller island.

Helgoland is famous for its dramatic red chalk-like sandstone cliffs, colorful wooden shacks, the seals on the Duene and duty free shopping. The main island measures only one square kilometer in size (0.39 square miles) and the Duene is even smaller measuring only 0.7 square kilometers (0.27 sq miles).

The island is about 60 kilometers from mainland Germany. The island can be reached by plane or boat. There are different daily ferries arriving from Büsum, Hamburg, Cuxhaven, Bremerhaven and Wilhelmshaven from the beginning of April until the end of October.

We took the high speed ferry “Halunder Jet“ from FRS from Hamburg with a stop in Cuxhaven to Helgoland. The ferry took about 4 hours to get to Helgoland. We first cruised along the river Elbe until Cuxhaven, which was the first part of our adventure and essentially feels like a river cruise. The last 1 hour and 30 minutes was on high sea which can be quite rough and choppy depending on the weather. Our ride was very smooth and the kids even got to visit the bridge and talk with the captain

Helgoland is the perfect day trip from Cuxhaven or Hamburg. We had 4 hours time on the island before our ferry returned back to Hamburg. Since the island is pretty small, it can be explored in that time frame, but I would have loved to stay longer. There are several hotels, but they do fill up quickly during the summer months and need to be booked in advance.

My favorite part of the island were the colorful and vibrant “Hummerbuden” which mean lobster shacks and used to be work sheds for the lobster fisherman. The Hummerbuden greet the tourists upon arrival and line the walkway from the ferry terminal to the main city area. Some of them are regular houses, some are small galleries and others are small shops or sell snacks. They are very charming and a great picture opportunity.

Helgoland is divided into Unterland (lower part of the island), Mittelland and Oberland (upper part of the island). Unterland is the main city area of Helgoland with shopping and restaurants while Oberland has mostly walking/hiking trails! An elevator and stairs connect the different levels.

We took the elevator which was only 60 cents per person and were rewarded with the most amazing views of Unterland, the port and the neighboring Duene. With an elevation of about 40 meters above sea level, the views of the cliffs and ocean are one of a kind.

The most famous geologic feature of Helgoland is the Lange Anna, a 47-meter high sea stack of red sandstone on the northern end of the island. It is so much fun to hike the upper part of Helgoland which is called “Oberland”. The “Klippenrandweg” is a 3 km (2 miles) circular trail along the top of the cliffs with gorgeous views all around.

About 1.5 kilometer next to the main island lies the “Duene”. It is only about 1000 meters long and about 700 meters wide and can be reached with a small ferry or a Boerteboot, that is a traditional boat that has been used in Helgoland since 1826.

The main island and the Duene were once connected when a huge storm surge separated them on New Years Eve in 1772. The main attraction here are the wild grey seal and harbor seal colonies on the beach.

It is such a special moment to see the grey seals laying and playing in the sand for the first time. We couldn’t get enough watching them in their natural habitat right on the beach next to us. Although there is not an exact count for the total of seals, about 500 new seals are born each year.

There are rules and it is not allowed to approach or interact with the animals. Even though they are really cute and we all had the urge to touch and love them, they are wild animals and could be dangerous. You have to keep a distance of at least 30 meters. I recommend to bring a good camera to get great shots of the seals.

As I mentioned before, the seals are wild and free. Most of them were laying in the sand, but some where swimming in the water. They just melt your heart with their beautiful big eyes and cute faces. We could have stayed all day watching them.

Even without the seals, the beach is a spectacular beach with soft white sand and crystal clear shallow water. Nobody lives on the island, but there are several colorful vacation cottages just steps away from the beach.

We learned lots of fun facts about the seals from a local guide that made sure all the rules were enforced. My kids were mostly interested about baby seals and we learned that the cubing season of grey seals lasts from November to January. Every year in winter, female grey seals come to the beach of the Düne to give birth to a young with a white fur which will change after two to four weeks. It must be wonderful to experience this but I don’t think this Florida family could handle it.

We like to taste regional cuisine and try different food on our travel adventures, therefore we had to stop for a snack. There was nothing that we did not try before, but we love fresh seafood and the “Fischbroetchen” a fish sandwich looked and tasted amazing.

Before taking the ferry back to Hamburg, we wanted to take advantage of the duty free shopping. While Helgoland is part of Germany and the European Union, it is not part of the European Union VAT area and customs union. Therefore, it has a duty-free status that attracts a lot of tourists wanting to buy chocolate and other sweets, perfumes, tobacco goods and, of course, alcohol. 

Time went by too fast and we had to hurry. The ferry was waiting. Hopefully we will be back one day…

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