Heligoland (Helgoland in German) is one of the coolest places that Germany has to offer – even though, strictly speaking, it isn't actually in Germany
: it's a rocky island in the North Sea, Germany's only non-coastal island. Because of its location in between Germany, Denmark
, the Netherlands
and Great Britain
, it has played a particular role in the history of naval warfare – this is the main legacy that makes it a dark destination too (in addition to its general touristic merits).
More background info: Heligoland is geologically unique for its location and nature: it's basically a huge red rock poking out of the middle of the North Sea with vertical cliffs dropping nearly 200 feet / 60m into the waters below. It's the only such formation in the North Sea – and its isolated location out at sea made it a strategic point for seafarers and naval bases early on.
Pirates are said to have used the island in the 17th century, but it wasn't really until the advent of modern naval warfare that Heligoland became a contested fortress and base for warships. Possession of the island changed hands several times between Germany
and Great Britain
. Up to 1890, it was in British possession ... basically snatched away "pre-emptively" from Denmark during the Napoleonic wars and its sea blockade of Britain.
Then the German emperor "swapped" colonial possessions in Africa for Heligoland. The deal was at the time heavily criticized for having been far too unfavourable to Germany – though it did not actually include Zanzibar, as the informal term "Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty" suggests ... although Germany agreed not to interfere with the British ambitions of bringing that spice island under their control.
During the British period and the early years after it had been handed back to Germany, the island enjoyed a growing popularity as a sea resort and spa – being out at sea and nearly devoid of any vegetation, its clean air is particularly healthy for those suffering from allergies. It played host to many famous guests, including the rebel author Heinrich Heine, the quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg and Hoffmann von Fallersleben, the latter famous as the author of the poem that provided the words to Germany's national anthem. By the way: note that these days only the third verse is sung as the words to the anthem, whereas the infamous first verse has been made illegal in German law, primarily for its "über alles" bit. Back when it was written this only expressed a comparatively innocent wish for German unity, at a time of fragmentation and national disunity, but was of course later misused by the Nazis
as an expression of alleged racial superiority and grounds for aggression.
Under German rule a modern naval base and further massive fortifications were installed. In World War One
, the island's indigenous Frisian population were evacuated from their home rock. But only a couple of naval battles raged in the seas around Heligoland. The islanders were allowed back after 1918, when the military installations were destroyed as part of the Treaty of Versailles. With the Nazis
seizing power in Germany
, however, the military was soon back on Heligoland, and how: gun batteries, bunkers, tunnels and harbour enlargements were built, along with a submarine base with a huge U-boat shelter.
The plans for Heligoland were even grander than what was ultimately achieved: the "Projekt Hummerschere" ('project lobster claw') was to rival Britain
's Scapa Flow as a strategic naval base and enormous enlargements of the harbour and artificial land reclamation projects were started. Only a fraction of all this was finished, though, as strategically, the U-boat bases in France
had become much more important. With the beginning of Germany's attack on Russia
in 1941, work on the 'lobster claw' project was suspended.
Despite the fact that Heligoland's strategic role turned out to be so much less significant in WWII
, the island was heavily bombed shortly before the end of the war by the British RAF
, esp. in a raid with nearly 1000 planes on 18 April 1945. Unlike in World War One, the island's population was allowed to stay during WWII. The bunkers driven deep into the island's rock provided sufficient shelter for the people on the island, and thanks to these tunnels, there were only a few civilian casualties.
After WWII, however, the islanders were forcibly evacuated and deprived of their home once again, this time by the British occupying powers. The British then set about razing the island even more completely than they had done in the aerial bombing campaigns. In the largest ever deliberate conventional explosion, using nearly 7000 tons of TNT, large parts of the island were pulverized in what was code-named "Big Bang" on 18 April 1947 (see also Halifax, Canada
The bang may not have been quite as big as expected, but it still left much of the island's surface a moonscape. The island's topography was changed dramatically too: in addition to the "upper land" (on the cliff tops) and the "lower land" of the harbour area and the recent land reclamation to the north-east, an entirely new sloping "middle land" was created on the southern part of the island. There were even claims that the British had intended to wipe the entire island off the map in the "Big Bang" explosion, but those claims are quite probably exaggerations (which are not reflected in the British documentation of the operation).
Adding even more to the scale of destruction of Heligoland, the British then used the island as a live bombing target for air force training. Given its isolated location and prominent visibility, it was surely suited for this purpose. However, the displaced former islanders' were anything but happy with seeing their old home being pummelled by bombs like this even after the war.
After years of campaigning (some protesters even tried to "occupy" the island illegally on several occasions), the island was finally given back to Germany in 1952 and the former population was allowed to resettle in their old home. All housing had to be rebuilt from scratch, of course, which partly explains today's rather bland architecture of the town of Heligoland.
However, business began to thrive again, with day-trippers and holidaymakers returning to the island too. Its status as a duty-free zone attracted even more visitors who primarily come here to stock up on cheap cigarettes, alcohol and perfume … on day return trips merely embellished by a quick stroll around the island (if at all).
So much did the island's economy depend on this clientele that when the EU abolished duty-free sales on all inner-European routes, Heligoland was granted an exemption, remaining outside the EU VAT area, and thus still retains its tax-exempt status. This probably secured its economy's viability.
Heligoland is thus primarily not a dark destination but a mainstream seaside resort and climatic spa (and source of cheap booze & cigarettes), but its dark history has left a few remarkable visible relics, esp. on the upper land – bomb craters, bunker ruins – and in the form of remaining fortification piers from the war years. Parts of the air-raid shelter bunker tunnels deep in the rock also remain and can be visited on guided tours. Thus the island is a worthy dark tourism destination after all, even though a pretty exotic one, not just for its location, but for the stark contrast this dark element provides to the rest of the island's contemporary relaxed way of life and holidaying style.
What there is to see: On arrival, the settlements and harbour installations you'll see first may not have much appeal, but once you venture inland and, especially, upland, things change. Walking the cliff top trails and through the centre of the Upper Land ("Oberland") is a must. Dotted around the plain on top of the rock and in the huge crater landscape that is the so called Middle Land ("Mittelland"), you'll see various bunker ruins, as well as the overgrown remains of further bomb craters where the gun batteries used to be, which give you at least an indication of the island's violent past.
Impossible to overlook are also the long concrete piers jutting out into the sea from the north-western tip of the island – beyond Heligoland's main sight and landmark, the 150 feet / 45m high sea stack endearingly called "Lange Anna" ('long/tall Anna'). The pier is the only large-scale relic of the fortifications that could eventually have formed the "Lobster Claw" sea fortress envisioned by the Nazis
. You can also spot the entrances to tunnels connecting the rest of the piers along the western flank of the island at the bottom of the cliffs. These are not accessible, though.
The long north pier, on the other hand, can theoretically be reached on foot at low tide, when you can walk to the pier from the beach on the island's north-eastern lower land around the northern tip of the island. But before attempting this, make absolutely sure you know the times for the returning tide and start the walk back to safety well in time. Otherwise you'd risk being cut off and, at best, may have to spend a cold night out in the open … swimming in the waters on this side of the island is impossible because of strong currents – so do not attempt it! It can easily be deadly.
The main attraction relating to Heligoland's WWII
history, however, has to be the bunker tours. You can visit parts of Heligoland's once extensive underground shelters, where the island's population held out during the bombing campaigns – but only on guided tours. Tickets must be obtained from the Tourist Information Centre (Helgoland-Touristik) at the Town Hall (Rathaus) – for information and possibly reserving tickets ahead of time call 01805-643737.
Inside Heligoland's main lighthouse, originally built as part of the anti-aircraft gun batteries, there are more bunker rooms: the lower two storeys were reinforced as a nuclear shelter during the Cold War
. The windows on these two storeys on the outer façade are fake. Underneath the lighthouse are still more bunker rooms. All of these are not normally accessible to the public, though.
Finally, there's also a 'cemetery of the nameless'/"Friedhof der Namenlosen" for the
dead pulled out of the sea whose identities could not be clarified – located on the sandy sister island, the Düne ('dune'), it's a sobering place for quiet contemplation (cf. also its equivalent
between 30 and 40 miles (50-60 km) off the North German
coast, and about 100 miles (150 km) north-west of Hamburg
Access and costs: fairly remote, but various sea and air connections exist, esp. during the summer season; costs vary widely.
: The most convenient connection for most dark tourists interested in this remote location has to be the speed-boat connection from Hamburg
(Helgoline.de), which usually operates between early April and late October (fares are between 45 and 75 EUR per leg, depending on ticket class and time). Closer to Heligoland are the harbours of Büsum and Cuxhaven (both ca. 40 miles / 60 km away), from where further regular passenger boats/ships operate. Cuxhaven also has a convenient direct train link with Hamburg (called Metronome), which is good for off-season connections when only the boats from Cuxhaven provide a regular shuttle to Heligoland by sea (2.5 hours, ca. 40-50 EUR return, exclusive of train fare).
There is also a seasonal boat connection from Willhelmshaven, which in turn has good train links in the north-west of Germany
. Normally, though Hamburg should be the best departure point.
You can also get to Heligoland by small plane, but the relevant airports aren't the most conveniently located: the local airline OLT operates flights from/to Bremerhaven
and Heide/Büsum. Air Hamburg operates small plane flights from a regional airport outside Hamburg
(Uetersen) for ca. 120-150EUR one-way (cheaper offers for day return trips!). The option of flying direct from Hamburg's main airport Fuhlsbüttel is the most convenient but also costs disproportionally more (a whopping 250EUR one way!).
If you're the sailing type, you can also cruise to Heligoland in your own boat. Mooring spaces and facilities are provided for private yachts in the harbour. The seas around Heligoland can get rough, though, so this should only be attempted by skilled sailors and only in suitable weather.
For getting around on the island itself you'll have to use your own two feet – no vehicles are allowed (except two taxis in the lower land … and a police car). But the island is small enough to be perfectly walkable anyway. Access to the "upper land" is made comfortable by a lift (for a fee); otherwise it's between 184 and 260 steps on one of the three stairways connecting the lower land with the upper land.
Accommodation on the island is provided by a couple of hotels and several holiday apartments (esp. for longer stays), good bargains can be found outside the height of the summer season. There's also a youth hostel – and camping options on the "Düne" ('dune').
Time required: The largest proportion of visitors to Heligoland are day-trippers, who mainly come for the duty-free shopping and a quick stroll along the cliffs. If you want to explore (rather that just take a hasty look at) the dark sides of the island, the ca. four hours "shore leave" you get on those trips may not be enough, so staying overnight is recommended.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see Germany
– by the very nature of the island's location, nothing at all is near it. However, if you make your way to the island from Hamburg
, there's plenty on offer for the dark tourist in that great city – so working the day-trip or (better) two-day/overnight excursion to Heligoland into a longer Hamburg trip makes the best combination.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
in general see Germany
– Heligoland is primarily a non-dark destination anyway, so why not enjoy the other sides of the island too: mainly its fantastic cliff walks.
The spot most people flock to is the north-western tip of the island for a glimpse of its principal landmark, the sea stack called "Lange Anna" ('long/tall Anna'), but the rest of the walking trails on the upper land with its dramatic vertical cliffs is well worth it too. Nature lovers will find rare seabirds and marine life, also covered scientifically at the island's research station and aquarium.
Those in search of beaches can take a ferry across to the "Düne" ('dune'), the sandy sister island of Heligoland – which is also where the island's airstrip is located. The shopping district (for cheap duty-free booze, cigarettes and perfume) is on the main island, though – as is virtually all accommodation.
Heligoland is also a Mecca for those keen on dining
on seafood, esp. local crab claws (called "Knieper" – 'pinchers') are a celebrated speciality – as used to be the pinnacle of local delights: fresh Heligoland lobster: But the latter are now so endangered that they rarely find their way onto restaurant menus (and if they do it's rather ethically debatable whether that's a good thing).