The idea of holidaying in Germany is more likely to conjure up images of romantic hilltop castles and quaint villages with pretty timber-framed houses than sweeping, sandy beaches and rugged, handsome coastlines. But the country’s northern coastline, which extends some 1,400 miles along the Baltic and North Seas, offers precisely that – swathes of pristine coastline and sandy beaches, not to mention dozens of coastal islands barely known to outsiders, and some impressive lakeside beaches dotted around the country to boot.
Granted, there are pine trees rather than palm trees lining the promenades, and it’s not bikini weather all year around – but it’s certainly warm enough in summer to enjoy a nice dip, with water temperatures rising to a balmy 18 degrees. Plus, what Germany’s beaches might lack in Mediterranean exoticism they make up for in diversity: choose from low-key spa retreats ideal for relaxation; classic beaches for sun-worshippers with dedicated sections for free-spirited naked bathers (FKK or Freikörperkultur – ‘free body culture’); islands devoid of residents as well as cars; wild and windy coastlines perfect for surfers and water-sport aficionados; and nature reserves filled with marine and bird life and scenic hiking trails.
While some of these spots are well known to Germans and can therefore get busy during peak season, they’re not as busy as the classic Med beaches on the whole, and there are plenty of options for avoiding the crowds. Prices are often cheaper than the famed resorts of southern Europe too, whether for restaurants, hotels or train travel. Below are some of the best beach experiences the country has to offer…
For sun, sand, surf and solitude (in other words a bit of everything)
Nicknamed the Königin der Nordsee (Queen of the North Sea), Sylt (sylt.de) is Germany’s northernmost island, located just to the west of the Germany-Denmark border. One of the North Frisian islands, it also overlaps with the Unesco World Heritage Wadden Sea – a coastal system of intertidal sand and mudflats that stretches all the way west to the Netherlands. The island’s popularity with (mostly) Germans lies in the diversity of its impressive 25 miles or so of beaches, ranging from family-friendly spots like Wenningstedt-Braderup, with its calm, shallow waters; Rantum in the south with striking sand dunes and wide tidelands; and more remote areas like Ellenbogen, part of a nature reserve. There are also wilder, windier delights for surfers and watersport enthusiasts, including Hörnum and Brandenburg Beach in Westerland, which hosts the annual Windsurf World Cup. Don’t know how to surf? No problem: there are schools dotted around the island that rent equipment and offer courses. Around a third of the beaches are designated nudist areas too, and local scenery includes stripy lighthouses, rugged cliffs, golf courses and pretty villages with health resorts, all accessible via cycling and hiking trails.
Strandhotel Sylt (00 49 4651 98980; wyn-sylt.de) offers double rooms from £180 per night
For stately architecture and sweeping golden beaches
The island of Rügen (ruegen.de), Germany’s largest, is located just off the Baltic coast. Connected by bridge to the town of Stralsund in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, it has 38 miles of beautiful sandy beaches and is blessed by an average of 1,000 hours of sun each year, making it one of the sunniest places in Germany. Like Sylt, it’s something of an all rounder, but it’s mostly known for hosting the country’s most popular and upscale beach resorts, Binz and Sellin. Both situated on the island’s east coast, they date back to the 1800s and offer particularly elegant Bäderarchitektur (‘resort architecture’) in the shape of attractive hotels, restaurants, piers and promenades. Dotted with classic Strandkörbe (wicker beach chairs), both of these broad, golden beaches get busy in summer, but they’re large enough to offer quieter areas at the peripheries. Alternatively, head to Schaabe and the Wittow Peninsula in the north, or the family-friendly Baabe and Göhren in the south, which have impressive dunes and a breezier selection of restaurants, cafes and shops (they can also be reached via the ‘Raging Roland’ steam train (ruegenbinz.de/en/rasender-roland) – a fun treat for the kids). You can also take a break from the crowds by hiking the stunning white chalk cliffs of the UNESCO-heritage Jasmund National Park, made famous by Romantic painter David Caspar Friedrich, visiting Cape Arkona with its charming pair of lighthouses, or by catching the ferry from Schaprode to the car-free island of Hiddensee.
Travel Charme Kurhaus Binz (00 49 38393 6650; travelcharme.com) offers double rooms from £240 per night
For families and culture vultures
Like its northern neighbour, Rügen, the Baltic island of Usedom (visitusedom.com) gets above-average levels of sunshine and also has its own nickname: the Sonneninsel (Sunny Island). Divided between Germany and Poland, it also boasts generous amounts of sandy coastline – in fact the entire northern coast is more or less one long beach, stretching for around 30 miles from Peenemünde in the northwest down to Swinemünde (Świnoujście in Polish), in the eastern part. Lined with upscale and traditional resort hotels, attractive promenades and historic piers, the main highlights are the picturesque seaside towns of Ahlbeck, Heringsdorf and Bansin; with beaches up to 70 metres wide in place, shallow waters and plenty of lifeguards, the island is ideal for a holiday with children. Visitors can also enjoy a swathe of relaxed leisure activities, from cycling and horse riding to thermal spas and cultural sights like the Peenemünde Historical Technical Museum, which has WWII missiles, or the Museum of Sea Fishery and a 19th-century lighthouse at Świnoujście. The resort of Koserow has special access for wheelchair users as well as barrier-free beach chairs.
Das Ahlbeck Hotel and Spa (00 49 38378 4994800; das-ahlbeck.de) offers double rooms from £220 per night
For nature lovers and thrill seekers
The four gloriously golden sandy miles of Timmendorfer Strand, set in the Bay of Lübeck (Schleswig-Holstein) are extremely popular with locals but practically unknown to tourists. The beach offers a slew of attractions including a chic marina, volleyball area and sports club, outdoor concerts at the Strand Arena, a Sea Life aquarium, plus an attractively long pier with panoramic views. Thrill seekers can get stuck into the wealth of activities on offer, including paddle boarding, surfing and windsurfing, with local rentals and lessons available. The Niendorf end to the south is usually quieter, with a pretty marina, a bird park with around 1,300 exotic species, plus some spa hotels for parents who might want to pamper themselves.
Romantik Hotel Fuchsbau (00 49 4503 8020; fuchsbau-timmendorf.de) offers double rooms from £90 per night
For lovers of rural isolation
The East Frisians are a chain of islands located above the North Sea coast between the Netherlands and Germany. Given their size and relative remoteness, they’re almost all notable for their low-key tranquillity, but Langeoog (langeoog.de) – technically part of Lower Saxony – is particularly scenic with a stunning coastline featuring imposing sand dunes that reach up to 20 metres high. The island not only has no inhabitants but cars are banned too, making it the ideal spot for some serious R&R with very little to distract from the peaceful wash of the waves, soft sands, mudflats and salt marshes. The main (10 mile) beach makes for an ideal hike but there are also dedicated nature trails where visitors can learn about the flora and fauna of the island, including the 30,000 herring gulls, and the seals that can be found in the east of the island. To get to Langeoog, take a ferry from Bensersiel port; a train will then carry you from the port to the picturesque main town; you can make your way around the rest of the island by foot, horse-drawn carriage or bike.
Logierhus Langeoog (00 49 4972 91190; logierhus-langeoog.de) offers double rooms from £220 per night
For culture lovers and urban beach bums
Despite being a cruise ship destination, the Baltic port town of Warnemünde (rostock.de) offers oodles of maritime charm. A former fishing village, it’s historic town centre – which dates back to 1200 – has winding cobbled lanes lined with cutesy half-timbered houses, seafood restaurants and fish-and-chip shacks, plus the usual souvenir shops. The wonderfully long (two miles) and exceptionally broad (150 metres) white-sand beach extends from the buzzy marina and distinctive 19th-century lighthouse and is backed by a pleasant promenade; climb the wrought-iron spiral staircase for tremendous views. For those who don’t want to be too far from urban conveniences, the Hanseatic city of Rostock is a quick (30 minute) train ride away, and makes for a great base if you can’t bag one of the limited accommodation options in Warnemünde.
Hotel Am Leuchtturm (00 49 381 54370; hotel-am-leuchtturm.de) offers doubles from £170 per night
For thermal spa pampering and watersports fans
The municipality of St Peter-Ording (st-peter-ording.de) – SPO for short – is a well-known spa resort up on the North Sea, just below Sylt. Part of Schleswig-Holstein, it’s famous for its rejuvenating, curative sulphur spring complex (Dünen-Therme) and Thalassotherapy: the therapeutic use of seawater, marine mud and algae. It also has a fantastic eight-mile-long beach with rolling sand dunes and mudflats that’s popular with watersports enthusiasts and families alike, thanks to long stretches of sandy beachfront and windy conditions that draw kite surfers and windsurfers. Kids and parents alike will love the Dünen-Therme, which has a wave pool, slides, a sauna area, and sea views, and you can explore the local area via cycling and hiking trails; the Viking-Friesen-Weg cycle path leads along the former trade routes of the Vikings and Frisians to Maasholm. There are also decent gastro and cultural offerings in the main town, that include a zoo and the National Park House, which has eleven seawater aquariums and an exhibition about the UNESCO-heritage Wadden Sea.
Hotel Zweite Heimat (00 49 4863 474890; hotel-zweiteheimat.de) offers doubles from £230 per night
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