The Surprise Caribbean-Like Island in Germany’s North

Why you should care

Nude beaches, wine and wattwanderung await on a North Sea island. 

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“I’ve traveled the world and never seen a better sunset than we have on Sylt,” says Nils Lackner. He’s lived on this small island for almost 20 years, and although his work in wine communications takes him all over the world, it’s the beach that’s made this place home. “We have that clean, fine sand like you see in the Caribbean,” he says. “You get a real maritime feel here.”  

But Lackner lives a long way from the Caribbean. This is Sylt, a 22-mile-long island — that Germany has a coastline is in itself a bit of a surprise — in the country’s northernmost state of Schleswig-Holstein. Often referred to as the “Hamptons of Germany” for its moneyed denizens and northern-latitudes beach ambiance, it’s nestled in the North Sea off the country’s windblown northwest coast, just south of Denmark. But you’ve likely never heard of this sunny, sandy isle.  

The mostly flat island is ideal for cycling and draws vacationing families in far greater numbers than celebrity types.

Long a favorite vacation destination for wealthy people from Hamburg and Berlin, Sylt is free of primarily Bavarian cliches (no Oktoberfest dirndls or huge beer steins here). The island, accessible by rail, boat and air, became known as a hot spot for German celebrities in the 1980s and ’90s and continues to attract vacationing German sports stars, TV hosts and the like. Today’s celebrities, though, are “more of the low-key variety,” Lackner explains. But vacationing on the nation’s largest island in the North Sea was popular even before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It became known for its free-spirit vibes in 1920, when Germany’s first nude beach was established at Buhne 16, near the village of Kampen. 

Town of Husum, Nordfriesland, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany

A beautiful view of the old town of Husum, the capital of Nordfriesland and birthplace of German writer Theodor Storm.

These days, you’ll find many FKK (Free Body Culture) beaches on Sylt, so if nude sunbathing is your jam, look for the sign and feel free to strip down. However, keep in mind that summer temperatures average around 18 degrees Celsius (64 degrees Fahrenheit) in the summer months. The Caribbean it is not. 

But if you love sandy, wind-swept coastlines — “the west side of the island is a continuous stretch of fine white sand,” says Lackner — and don’t mind wearing a sweater, Sylt is still a highly beach-worthy vacation spot. The mostly flat island is ideal for cycling and draws vacationing families in far greater numbers than celebrity types. Over 100 miles of bike-friendly pathways take you past the traditional thatched-roof houses of Keitum, iconic island lighthouses and the Red Cliff (Rotes Cliff), where a high ledge lining the beach gets its color from deposits of rust-colored glacial sediment. On the east side of the island, mudflats are the place for low-tide wattwanderung: pulling on gumboots and searching for tiny snails, crabs and worms that call the nutrient-rich muck home.  

Sylt even has its own cuisine. The Sylter Royal oyster is a meaty variety grown here on Germany’s only oyster farm, Dittmeyer’s Austern-Compagnie, which has a restaurant where you can enjoy them freshly shucked. And Sylt cuisine has something for landlubbers too. “Grazing fields that get soaked in seawater at high tide means the grass is full of sea salt, so the cattle and sheep that feed on it have a special quality to their meat,” says Lackner.   

There’s also a tiny local wine scene: Two vineyards produce small-batch wines from the Solaris grape, which has only been growing on the island since 2009 (when Schleswig-Holstein gained commercial rights to wine growing). Sylter Weinbau, the northernmost vineyard in Germany, produces Sölviin wine, a “perfect beach wine that goes well with white fish like cod, oysters and mussels from the island,” says Lackner. For a beach bar with more of a Champagne party scene during the summer months, hit Sansibar, set behind the dunes along the island’s southwest stretch. 

Worried about island prices? Sylt is slightly more expensive than mainland Germany when it comes to accommodations and groceries, but nothing exorbitant. Your bigger worry may be the weather. Snow, while rare, is possible during the winter months, when temperatures get down to 1 degree Celsius (just under 34 degrees Fahrenheit). But it’s the wind you’ll notice most.  

When mainlanders “say it’s stormy, it’s usually nothing compared to what we see on Sylt,” says Lackner. “It’s beautiful here in a rough nature sense. You’ve got to like nature and like to feel nature.” 

Go There: Sylt

  • How to get there: Take the ferry from the Danish town of Havneby (an island to the north) or by rail — Sylt is directly linked to Germany by railroad causeway only (that means you can bring your car on the train, but you can’t drive a car onto the island from mainland Germany). There are also flights into Sylt’s small airport from cities in Germany and from Zurich.
  • Accommodation: The island offers everything from campsites and vacation rental homes to luxury wellness hotels. Expect to pay around $120 for an average night’s stay. 
  • Best time to go: May is a great time to visit. The week after Christmas and early January, as well as the summer months, see the most crowds. 
  • Pro tip: Rent a strandkörbe — a wicker and wood cabana designed to block the wind — on the beach. Then Instagram it.

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