“So, by which ferry did you get here?” asks the chubby little lady and her accent gives her away as Southern German. “Well, I came here walking”, I beam at her, still thrilled by my hike from the mainland to the island of Neuwerk.
The lady looks over the rough sea where the huge waves are rolling towards the shores of Cuxhaven. She frowns and shakes her head and is, obviously, thinking I’m trying to tell her a cock and bull story.
Little does she know: Visiting the island of Neuwerk, the way is the goal; definitely.
Neuwerk is one of the many small islands scattered in World’s largest Wadden Sea that stretches in the North-West of Europe from the Netherlands along Germany all the way up to Denmark.
With a size of 3,3 square kilometers respectively 1.2 square miles, it is by far not the smallest of Germany’s almost 90 islands; and a population of 39 isn’t outrageous, either.
What makes Neuwerk really outstanding and a bit quirky is the fact that it is an exclave of the city of Hamburg; basically, her Gibraltar: Although it’s about 120 km apart from the northern metropolis and geographically located in the middle of the federal country of Lower Saxony, Neuwerk is politically part of one of Hamburg’s boroughs.
The reason for this special status lies in historic events when Hamburg and Prussia where trading territories and Hamburg finally ended up with i. a. Neuwerk.
Governing an exclave 120 kilometers down the river Elbe can be a bit tricky at times: The 39 Neuwerkers have the same rights and duties as the other 1.8 million citizens.
For instance, in Germany, there is compulsory school attendance and homeschooling is illegal. Therefore, Hamburg had to send a teacher to instruct both the two pupils that are currently living on the island.
Every preschooler in Hamburg is entitled to a place in daycare. Therefore, they had to send a kindergartner for the younger sibling of the two pupils.
It probably won’t surprise you that the teacher lives at the school and the kindergartner at the kindergarten?!
The parents of these three Neuwerkers – along with the rest of the islanders – make their living from tourism: Many houses have guest rooms, many homes run cafés and restaurants; and the pupils’ father has a cute little souvenir shop where he sells really cool stuff like fun T-shirts – mostly designed by himself.
Neuwerk, by the way, has two small exclaves herself: The islands of Nigehörn and Scharhörn are not inhabited – at least not by humans.
They are an important breeding and nesting place for birds: Every year, 10 to 12 millions birds are taking a refreshing break at the Wadden Sea National Park – which, by the way, has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2009.
On their long trip between the breeding habitats of Siberia, Scandinavia, and Canada and their wintering grounds in South West Europe and Africa, they feast here on worms, fishes, clams, and snails. Since the National Park is home to about 10,000 species from flora and fauna such as mussels, fishes, and mammals like seals, there is enough for everyone.
So Neuwerk is an ideal nursery for numerous bird species and thus a paradise for nature lovers and ornithologists. Beginning of May, waterfowls begin to breeding on the grassland and in the salt marshes. The nests and even the chicks are often hard to spot in the green grass of the meadows, therefore, all visitors coming to Neuwerk during the breeding season are asked to move around very carefully.
Apart from Neuwerk’s three farms, there are not too many buildings: One of the most interesting ones for visitors is the information center Nationalpark-Haus where you get information on the fascinating phenomenon that is the Wadden Sea. They are housing the Jordsand association that I’ve already introduced on my post on Heligoland.
The Jordsand association organizes events and guided tours.
At the Nationalpark-Haus, you’ll find also clean bathrooms as well as lockers for free at your disposal which is a great service if you visit the island only for a couple of hours.
Their opening times, like life itself on the island, are based on the tides.
Walking east of the Nationalpark-Haus, you get to the Friedhof der Namenlosen, the Cemetery of the Nameless. This is very common on the islands and along the coasts. People buried here could not be identified and were flushed ashore mainly as victims of shipwrecks or pirate raids.
Neuwerk’s Cemetery of the Nameless was consecrated by the bishop Konrad of Megara and three other clergymen as early as June 1319 .
However, today, found dead are transferred to the mainland and buried there.
Not far from the Nationalpark-Haus and the Cemetery is Neuwerk’s most prominent landmark, the old lighthouse; actually, everything is not far from…. on Neuwerk….
Funny enough, the lighthouse on Neuwerk is one of Hamburg’s oldest buildings. It was completed in 1310 and served as a navigational mark as well as a stronghold against hostile pirates. In addition, the islanders sought shelter here during heavy storms. Also, the tower gave Neuwerk its name: Neues Bauwerk, new building, became Neuwerk over time.
The beacon was installed around 1800 and originally operated with oil lamps. It was not until 1942 that the company switched to electricity. Today, there is a guest house in the tower.
It can be climbed and from the viewing platform, you have a wonderful panoramic view.
Another landmark of Neuwerk is the Ostbake, the eastern beacon, an important orientation point and also a technical cultural monument. It was built in 1925, but forerunners can be traced back to 1635.
Over the centuries, there were always fires or storms that damaged the eastern beacon – the last one being hurricane Kyrill in 2007. Thanks to successful fundraising, the reconstruction was completed in 2009.
So yes, there is this quirky political status, there are fields and marshes and it’s definitely not overcrowded – fine, but what exactly is it that makes Neuwerk worth a visit?
Well, let me put it this way: The way is the goal.
Take a Hike
Neuwerk is located about 15 kilometers northwest off the coastline of the city of Cuxhaven – a coastal town which, by the way, used to belong to Hamburg politically till 1961, too.
Since at Cuxhaven, the river Elbe empties into the north sea, the town is in a very attractive spot and was therefore of strategic significance for the commercial city of Hamburg.
Today, Cuxhaven is not only an important port, but it is also an attractive tourist destination with beautiful beaches along the North Sea – which every couple of hours becomes a muddy tideland.
World’s largest Wadden Sea stretches in the North-West of Europe from the Netherlands along Germany’s Westcoast all the way up to Denmark and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2009. The Lower Saxon Wadden Sea National Park is a major part of this area and spreads over 1,335 square miles. It was established in 1986 and consists of the East Frisian Islands, mudflats, and salt marshes.
In my series on German islands, you’ll also find a post on the westernmost of the East Frisian Islands called Borkum.
Mudflats – that means basically that about every four hours, influenced by moon phases, the water disappears, leaving a huge muddy area with a fascinating, almost invisible wildlife that’s more important for our planet than the rainforest.
Not only a fascinating phenomenon, but also great fun: As soon as the water is gone, the vacationers rush out on the tideland, observing the ground for shells, worms, crabs & co. Or they just stroll around enjoying the squishy mud between their toes.
While goofing on the tideland along the shore is great fun, longer walks should be led by a certified, responsible tour guide.
Not only will you get tons of information on all the incredible phenomenons you cannot see just looking around. More importantly, it’s dangerous to venture on the mudflats by yourself since the water might come back faster than expected.
Also, the term ‘mudflat’ is misleading since the ground hardly ever is really flat: There are tidal creeks whose courses are not always clear and might change pretty fast. As the water comes back, these creeks fill up really quick and entrap lost wanderers. Faster than you think the vast, empty mudflat turns back into an ocean with high waves.
Here, you don’t have only the chance to meander along the shore, here you can actually cross the mudflat and walk all the way to the island of Neuwerk.
The tours start in the districts of Duhnen or Sahlenburg on the outskirts of Cuxhaven and they take between 2.5 and 4 hours depending on how many stops your guide makes to explain things and, of course, on the walking speed of your group.
But don’t worry, these experienced and prudent guides get you across the ocean on time before the water comes back.
Just so you know, the distance is 12 kilometers or 7.5 miles from Duhnen and 10 km or 6.2 miles from Sahlenburg.
Obviously, the schedule depends on the tides and trips are canceled if the weather gets really bad; some drizzle is considered liquid sunshine….
Clearly, the tour guides cannot wait for guests who run late: It’s the water and the water alone that determines the program.
I took the guided tour with the company Wunderwelt Watt, I give you their details in this post’s tourist info section below.
They offer different tours, just walking or combined with a boat trip. The guides are very experienced, knowledgeable, highly passionate and make the trip a wonderful experience.
Nonetheless, they don’t do either horseback riding or carriage trips, these you have to book with other companies, but there are many to choose from.
Basically, there are three means of transportation to cross the tideland: By carriage, on horses, or using your own feet.
Going by carriage or riding allows you to make it to the island and back within one low tide.
If you choose to walk – and if you are not lame or footsore, you should definitely do the walking, it’s amazing – you have to go back by ferry. And this is what determines the number of participants: The ferry, obviously, can go only during high tide, spaces are limited to one trip per tide, so when the boat is full, the boat is full.
Before you start, you should pack sun protection and a hat, a change of clothes since you do not want to spend the rest of the day soaked in mud and slush in case you slip and fall. A pair of shoes for your stay on the island: Mind you, on the tideland, you will be walking in mud, but also through more or less deep tidal creeks – your shoes will be soaked.
Once you reach Neuwerk, there are facilities to wash your feet and your wet and dirty shoes can be left in front of the information center Nationalpark-Haus; seriously, who do you think might want to steal them?!
Obviously, for walking around on the island, you should bring an extra pair of shoes – usually, sandals or flip flops should do.
You might also want to take a bottle of water – and, on the other hand, make sure to go to the bathroom before you leave, the hike takes up to four hours and there are no bushes or trees on the tideland to squat behind.
However, sometimes the good people of Neuwerk came to the tideland with their Watt Oase, their mudflat oasis, consisting of a beer stall and a mobile toilet.
There is accommodation for about 150 people on Neuwerk, often it’s guestrooms in private houses. Here are some suggestions on where to lay your head.*
Since you are on this quirky island, why not add a bit of unusual and spend the night at a rustic hay hotel? At this time, four guesthouses are offering beds of straw, you’ll find them on the map below.
Quite frankly, there is not much to do on the island. You can sit on the dike and watch the grass grow. Although there is not a designated beach, you’ll get a huge beach every four hours when the tide is low. Then, you can take a refreshing dip in the deeper tidal creek.
There are a couple of small cafés and restaurants – other than that, nothing but nature and serenity.
However, if you are visiting only on a day trip, the length of your stay depends on the tides – it can be from one to about three hours. The ferry leaves always at the same time, but the schedule when you get to Neuwerk depends, obviously, on the tides.
So anyway, whether it’s on the same day or a couple of days later, there comes the moment to hop on the ferry and head back.
After a 90 minutes ride, you’ll reach the mainland at the port of Cuxhaven.
To hike to Neuwerk, you first have to make it to Cuxhaven. If you’re not driving, you can get there easily by train. The Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s national train company, offers the so-called Ländertickets, the country tickets that are valid for one day in a specific federal country. Every federal country has its own and the cost varies from about 24 to 29 €uro.
Cuxhaven is located in the federal country of Lower Saxony, and the Niedersachsen-Ticket costs 24 €uro for one and you have to add another 5 €uro per person travelling with you. So if you are two adults, it will set you back 29 €uro for both of you, if you travel with four other people, you’ll pay 44 €uro for your party of five; not bad, right?!
A child under 15 travels for free with two adults.
While you can actually travel the entire day within the respective federal country, you are only allowed to take the regional trains – train numbers beginning with RE, MET, etc., but not the interregional trains such as the Intercity (IC) or Intercity Express (ICE).
However, keep in mind that if you are travelling by yourself, just a oneway trip to Cuxhaven from e.g. Hamburg or Bremen might be cheaper than the Niedersachsen-Ticket. Therefore and for other connections and rates, please visit the Deutsche Bahn’s website, it’s available in seven languages.
I presume that you come to Cuxhaven to hike across the mudflat to Neuwerk. Therefore, you should check the tidal calendar and plan your trip accordingly.
If the walk is taking place in the morning, you might want the spend the night before at Cuxhaven, here are some suggestions for accommodation.*
If you want to spend more time in Cuxhaven, you might want to check out the guide I wrote.
There is a bus stop right next to the train station from where you can get easily to Sahlenburg or Duhnen in about 20 minutes.
Like I’ve explained, you can cross walking, riding, or on a carriage.
Since 2001, 19 European countries paying with €uros, and Germany is one of them. The exchange rate is 1 US$ = 0,90 EUR (March 2020), but you can check the conversion on this page.
Mind you, there is no ATM on the island of Neuwerk so you have to bring cash from the mainland.
Besides the fact that the Neuwerkers, like many islanders especially in the North, are not a very chatty bunch, and they don’t get enough visitors from foreign to practice their English.
I assume that you won’t have to discuss very complicated and complex topics on the island, so pointing and smiling should get you as far as you’ll need.
However, for some useful words and phrases, you might want to practice a little with help from e. g. Babbel (the first lesson is for free and already supplies you with useful basic vocabulary).
Note In this article, I’m writing out some of the German names of brands and places and you will notice that there are letters that might not exist in other languages:
First of all there is the letter ß that exists only in the German alphabet and it’s by no means a B – it’s a ‘sharp’, double S as in kiss. When writing, you can actually replace it by a double S.
Then there are three more vowel, ä being the easiest one since it’s pronounced like an open e as in head.
Ö and ü are tougher, ö being pronounced more or less like the e in her and ü as the u in huge.
After having read this post down to here, do you still need further information or have specific questions? Of course, I’m here for you, but more importantly, so are the people at the Tourist Information.
You can check their website or get your info in person at
The shipping company serving Neuwerk will be happy to inform you of ways to get to the island and back
If you book a hiking tour, the ferry ticket should already be included. I went with the company
Here is a map – although Neuwerk is very….overseeable:
This is the fourth post of a series on five absolutely fascinating islands in North Germany. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. Did it make you curious for more? Then make sure to check out these posts on the other great isles:
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Disclaimer: I appreciate that the Nordseeheilbad Cuxhaven GmbH generously supported my blogger trip by booking the hike to Neuwerk and a hotel room for me. However, all opinions on these services are mine and weren’t by any means influenced by my cooperation partner.
* This is an affiliate link. If you book through this page, not only do you get the best deal, I also get a small commission that helps me run this blog. Thank you so much for supporting me!
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