Heligoland (German spelling Helgoland) is a German island in the North Sea, which is a major tourist attraction, a valuable habitat and an interesting historical item at the same time. The entire island covers only 0.7 square miles, yet it receives tens of thousands of overnight guests every year, in addition to more than 300,000 daytrip guests who arrive on ferries from the mainland.

The term Heligoland refers to the archipelago consisting of two islands, but when people use the term they usually speak about the larger of the islands. The lesser one, Düne, is only a mile away and is home to a handful of vacation homes and a campground but has no facilities apart from a restaurant at the beach. The island is mostly known as a habitat for waterbirds, grey seals and harbor seals. To get to Düne, a small ferry boat operates from the main island. The two islands used to be conjoined but a storm flood on New Year’s Eve 1720 separated them.

The entire archipelago is some 50 kilometers away from the coast of the German mainland. From there, most notably from Hamburg and Cuxhaven, ferries bring visitors to the islands and back. Guests looking to stay on Heligoland should make advance reservations at one of the accommodation options, as there are only few of them available. Once arrived, visitors will find themselves in a shopping area with many shops offering souvenirs and duty-free shopping, as the islands are not part of the German or EU sales tax area.

Heligoland port area

Tax-exempt shopping is a major draw for daytrip visitors. Those who stay longer often come for the good birding opportunities and to take in the attractions of the island. First among these is Lange Anna, a towering sea stack made of reddish sandstone, standing 47 meters tall. The rock can be found at the far northwestern tip of the islands. Although visitors cannot get to Lange Anna, it can be viewed from a nearby cliff. A path leads from the harbor area all the way across the island to the viewpoint. As neither cars (with the exception of an ambulance and a fire truck) nor bikes are allowed on the island, visitors have to walk to this point. Further attractions on the island include the beach at the Eastern side of Heligoland, the colorful wooden cabins at the harbor and a lighthouse near the northern tip.

As fascinating as nature and sights of Heligoland are, as interesting is the archipelago’s history. The islands originally belonged to Frisia and was captured by Denmark in 1714, before they were ceded to the British king George III in 1814. The British intended to use Heligoland for military purposes, but it became a vacation spot and spa town instead. It became popular with German and Austrian writers and artists, including Hoffmann von Fallersleben, who wrote the German national anthem here. In 1890, Germany acquired the island off its coast by swapping it with the African Zanzibar island, which was more valuable to the British Empire. Heligoland once again gained strategic importance then, resulting in it becoming a target for massive Allied bombing in World War II, resulting in the island becoming almost inhabitable. After the war, the British once again took possession of the now empty islands, using them as bombing ranges. Soon however, natives from Heligoland began to petition the international community for permission to return to their home and in 1952, Great Britain handed Heligoland back to Germany.