Exploring Germany’s northernmost island

Tiny Sylt presents a different side to Germany, driven by laid-back attitudes and old fashioned traditions that cannot be found anywhere else in the country.

Unlike most German clichés of traditional lederhosen, loud football fans and great beer, Germany’s northernmost island of Sylt presents a different side to the country, driven by laid-back attitudes, a relaxed beach culture and old-fashioned traditions that cannot be found anywhere else in the nation.

Located just south of the Danish border and stretching little more than 30km from north to south, quaint Sylt is under the radar for most international tourists. And the best time to visit starts when the weather warms up in May, as the island’s main attraction is the almost 40km-long, white sand coastline.

Begin your trip in the island’s biggest town, Westerland, home to a population of approximately 9,000 and the only train station (if you are travelling overland, the Hindenburgdamm causeway has connected Sylt with the mainland since 1927).

Besides the Sylt Aquarium – home to a mesmerising collection of North Sea and tropical fish – and the Syltness Center – an ideal place for a hot seawater bath, an island tradition that dates back hundreds of years – Westerland is famous for hosting the annual autumn Windsurf World Cup (held this year from 27 September to 6 October). Here on Brandenburg Beach, the combination of rough North Sea waters and strong winds draws windsurfers from more than 30 nations for the biggest event of its kind. If you are interested in trying the stunts and jumps for yourself, Sunset Beach, Westerland’s surf school, offers daily lessons – in kite surfing, wave surfing and windsurfing – starting at 75 euros for three hours.

The best way to explore the rest of the island is on two wheels, but since it is a popular way to get around, arrive early at one of the many renting facilities in town. Sylt Fahrrad, located right by the train station, offers online bookings (if you are not a cyclist, public buses operate on a regular basis).  

From Westerland, head 16km north to List, a small town known for having two picture-perfect, red-and-white lighthouses – the northernmost lighthouses in Germany. Located just 3km apart, both were built in the 1850s; the western one by the Danish and the other by the Germans. While they are not open to the public, they light up each night to guide approaching ships, many of which are ferries that run between List and the Danish island of Rømø, a hugely popular holiday destination for Germans and Danes.  Rømø also became Denmark’s southernmost island in 1999 following the sinking of uninhabited Jordsand due to storm tides and floods.

But the highlight to a visit to List is the Wattenmeer (Wadden Sea), a Unesco World Heritage Site since 2009. Formed by storm tides as early as the 10th Century, the Wadden Sea is responsible for the distinctive formations of its many islands, characterised by high sand dunes and lush, wide beaches on the open sea side and a shallow coast towards the mainland. Although not ideal for swimming, this unique inter-tidal zone spread over 10,000sqkm from the Netherlands to Denmark – sometimes covered by shallow water, other times an area of mudflats – is where some of Germany’s most outstanding nature can be found, with thousands of species including mussels, snails, ducks and geese living on the rich, fertile soil. Low tide makes for excellent guided mudflat hiking, and incoming tides can be dangerous for those unprepared.

A relaxing 10km cycle south from List leads to the town of Kampen, renowned for celebrity holiday homes, luxurious shopping and dining, and some of Germany’s most expensive real estate. Stop at the Dorfkrug, a cosy, locally run restaurant established in 1876 that draws both visitors and locals with its authentic German cuisine; try the local smoked salmon with traditional potato pancakes.

If you do not want to stray far from the beach, La Grande Plage has outstanding views overlooking Kampen’s Weststrand (West Beach) and is the go-to place for a quick meal throughout the day, offering anything from spaghetti to fried herring.

About 8km south of Kampen lies the idyllic town of Keitum, offering some of the island’s most beautiful thatched-roof houses, a Nordfriesland region tradition. This style, found almost nowhere else in Germany, uses dry straw and water reed to build the roofs, resulting in a home that is cool in the summer and warm in winter. The white and blue two-storey Friesenhaus in the centre of town is the most iconic, resembling a fairytale-like dollhouse tucked in between two tall chestnut trees. While it is a private residence, it is worth just a look from the outside.

Thatched-roof houses are also the way to go when it comes to finding accommodation, as they offer an authentic Sylt experience in a traditional home, often owned by local families who can offer great advice. The island’s tourist board, Sylt Marketing, has an online list of all available properties.

From Keitum, Westerland is just an 8km bike ride west along Keitumer Landstrasse (Keitum Street), where you can spend the rest of the day cocooned in a Strandkorb – literally translated as “beach basket” – a sofa-like wooden seat on the beach that offers protection from sun, wind and any occasional rain.

Around 12,000 of these beach sofas are distributed throughout the island’s beaches and can be rented for 8 euros a day. Iconic to the region, the blue and white painted two-seater has a footrest that can be pulled out and a locakable drawer to keep towels, valuables and other beach attire. The furniture has become so famous that almost 3,000 are exported as souvenirs each year.  If you want to buy one for yourself, the Strandkorb factory, where the beach chairs are still made by hand, is located just 12km south of Westerland in the village of Rantum.

For an end to your relaxing holiday, snuggle up in your Strandkorb to watch one of Sylt’s colourful sunsets spread across the west side of the island, covering the ocean in vibrant reds and yellows. It is the perfect way to conclude a not-so-typical day in Germany.