North Sea or Baltic Sea? How to decide between Germany’s two coasts

For years, decades, and sometimes for generations, people in Germany have been going on holiday to a particular coast. What sets them apart?

North Sea or Baltic Sea? How to decide between Germany's two coasts
Tourists on the island of Usedom on June 27th. Photo: DPA

We take a look at what each sea has to offer to help you better decide where you want to get your feet wet this summer.

The sea

Roughly every six hours and twelve minutes, a special feature of the North Sea is clearly visible: high tide follows low tide – or vice versa. The sea appears or disappears.

“This incredible dynamic, that you can look at the same place hours later, and it looks totally different – I find that totally fascinating,” explains Göran Sell, who heads the tourism organisation on the East Frisian island of Borkum. 

READ ALSO: Holiday homes at North and Baltic Sea full as 90 percent of Germans chose staycations

“You can feel the natural phenomena here much more fundamentally and much more intensely.”

For the North Sea holidaymaker, this also means that it is not always possible to jump into the tide.

A view of the Wadden Sea on the North Sea Coast. Photo: obs/ATLANTIC Hotel Wilhelmshaven/Stephan Giesers

“To have seen the tides at the North Sea once, that was really interesting,” said Christine Braun. But she prefers to spend her holidays at the Baltic Sea with the whole family. 

For more than 20 years, Braun’s caravan has been parked in Ückeritz on Usedom every summer. The woman in her late fifties from near Altentreptow loves the fine white sandy beach adjoined by the forest. “And you don't have to wait for the water,” added her husband Sylvio. 

The landscape

The tides have created a unique natural environment on the North Sea coast: The Wadden Sea (Wattenmeer). The UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site stretches from Denmark via Schleswig-Holstein, Hamburg and Lower Saxony to the Netherlands.

One of the most impressive landscapes on the Baltic Sea is the chalk coast on the island of Rügen with the 118-metre high Königsstuhl. From the white cliffs covered with beech forests, the hiker has a wide view of the sea. 

The landscape captured the imagination of artist Caspar David Friedrich when he painted the view in oil on canvas in 1818. The old beech forests in the Jasmund National Park have been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2011.

The history

Whether the North Sea or the Baltic Sea, tourism on the coasts has a centuries-old tradition. The first German seaside resort opened in Heiligendamm on the Baltic Sea in 1793. Four years later the first North Sea resort followed on Norderney, as the island tourist expert Wolfgang Lübben explained.

“And that grew bigger with the royal family of Hanover, who then spent their summer holidays here in the first half of the 19th century.” 

In Heiligendamm the Duke of Mecklenburg Friedrich Franz I. bathed in the Baltic Sea on the advice of his doctor.

The Berliners went to the island of Usedom, which was also jokingly called the “Berliners' bathtub”. Emperor Wilhelm II often resided in Heringsdorf, Ahlbeck and Bansin, which still bear the name “imperial baths” today. 

The wealth of the summer guests was reflected in extravagant, often snow-white villas, which today are considered “spa architecture”. The first seaside resort in Usedom was Swinemünde in 1824, which is now Polish Swinoujscie. 

The beach chairs

The German North Sea and Baltic Sea have one thing in common. Sometimes blue, sometimes yellow, mostly striped: beach chairs are indispensable in the seaside resorts. 

Beach stands set up in Norddeich, Lower Saxony at the North Sea coast in May. Photo: DPA

Germany's oldest beach chair manufacturer produces in Heringsdorf in Usedom. Company representative Dirk Mund estimated that there are about 110,000 beach chairs between Norderney and Usedom. 

The models for the Baltic and North Sea, however, are different. “You can tell them apart by their sides,” explained Mund. “In the Baltic Sea model they are curved like a Baltic wave, in the North Sea model they are straight and flat as the tide.”

Health and wellness

Sun, wind, salt water – the bracing climate by the sea is known for its health-promoting effects. Some turn to the North Sea for its higher salt content. Yet, on the other hand, doctors draw attention to the oxygen-rich air of the coastal forests of the Baltic Sea. 

READ ALSO: Booming and bursting: How is tourism impacting Germany's Baltic Coast

In the seaside resort of Heringsdorf on the island of Usedom, for example, Europe's first spa and medicinal forest was designated. It is said to help heal the soul and alleviate physical complaints. There are also treatments with Rügen healing chalk, moor or warm iodine brine.

Which sea has more tourists?

At least according to the Schleswig-Holstein Tourism Agency, the Baltic Sea coast leads the way in terms of the number of holidaymakers: in 2019, 1.96 million guests ventured to the North Sea and, at 3.76 million, almost twice as many went to the Baltic Sea. 

However, the die-hard North or Baltic Sea type is not the majority, as Astrid Koch from the Research Association for Holidays and Travel explained. 

A full 73 percent of the North Sea holidaymakers surveyed for the travel analysis are also interested in a holiday on the German Baltic Sea coast – the other way round, the figure is 63 percent. The distance to the holiday destination seems to be more of a decisive factor.


The tide – (die) Gezeit

Beach chair – (der) Strandkorb

alleviate/ease – lindern 

Chalk coast – (die) Kreideküste

We're aiming to help our readers improve their German by translating vocabulary from some of our news stories. Did you find this article useful? Let us know.



Member comments

  1. Living on the North coast the locals joke, the sotherners are coming to eat our fish. Even in the winter with bleak weather they still come.

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Travel: Six reasons why the Spreewald near Berlin is worth visiting

Situated only a 45 Minute train ride from Berlin, this lush UNESCO Biosphere reserve and cultural gem transports visitors to another world.

Travel: Six reasons why the Spreewald near Berlin is worth visiting
Tourists canoeing through the scenic Spreewald. Photo: DPA

Around Germany, the colloquial verb herumgurken (pickle around) has the meaning of traveling around and around when lost.

While I was equipped with a map, the word still seemed the most fitting way to sum up my time in the Spreewald, known not only for its vast pickle production, but also stunning nature and culture to discover by bike, foot or – especially – canoe.

READ ALSO: Travel in Germany: 10 must-see places within reach of Berlin

Here are six reasons it’s worth a visit, whether as a Tagesausflug (day-trip) from Berlin or a week-long adventure.

1. Pickle paradise 

The pickle harvest in Kasel-Golzig in the Spreewald on July 17th. Photo: DPA

Known for some 50 percent of the production across Germany, Spreewalders take pride in their pickles. In the three days I was there, it felt like I sampled every sort of gourmet Gurken delicacy there is, from creamy Gurkensuppe (served both chilled and warm in the summer), Gurkenaustrich (spread) and a surprisingly good Gurken and raspberry Radler

Tucked into the forest, the town of Burg even offers Gurkeneis if you fancy the summer sweet with a green tint. 

2. The Sorbian language 

People going for a Gondola ride in Lehde. Photo: DPA

You might mistake the text under German signs around the area for Polish or Czech. Yet it’s actually Sorbian, an official minority language of Germany spoken by over 60,000 people. 

Many of them live in the Spreewald, and the little village of Lehne – a two kilometre walk or cycle from the old town in Lübbenau  – pays tribute to their way of life and language, including an open-air museum that gives a glimpse of how the Wends (as they are known locally) lived in the 19th century. 

3. Bunte Biodiversity 

Otters are often spotted swimming in the Spreewald. Photo: DPA

With its more than 5,000 species of animals, Spreewald is so rich in biodiversity that the 475 square metre area was given the title of an UNESCO Biosphere reserve in 1991.

One particularly striking species are the white storks, which are often spotted perched atop large nests they’ve created on large protected pillars. The species is critically endangered elsewhere in Germany. 

The Spreewald can also at times feel like the tropics with colourful animals and amphibians like the fire-bellied toad and over 900 species of Schmetterlinge (butterflies).

4. Rural charm

It felt like we were much further from Berlin as we hiked past Hütte (cottages) with thatched roofs and cozy country stores with local products that closed at 2 pm each day. From Lübben, we hiked along a 14-kilometre riverside trail to Schlepzig, known for both its Bauermuseum (farm museum) and Brauerei with locally brewed beer.

5. Water Wanderung

A true streaming service: a postal woman delivers mail by water at the start of the Post's canoe delivery season on May 14th. Photo: DPA

With 1,500 kilometers of waterways, one of the best ways to explore the Spreewald is by water. The area is so-well connected by water that even mailmen and women from the Deutsche Post pragmatically paddle from home to home to deliver post.

We had a sporty Sunday, leaving Lübben at 9:30 am and paddling 14 kilometres to Lübbenau, just in time to a devour a hearty lunch of potatoes and Quark cheese with linseed oil, a Spreewald specialty, at a beer garden affixed to the side of the river. We then headed back for another adventure, as small waves formed amid the windy afternoon weather. 

Families of swans, cranes and ducks joined the journey at times, unfazed by their human companions. 

If you're looking for a more leisurely journey, all sorts of canoes, kayaks and other boats can be rented by the hour, or you can sit back in a Venice-style Gondola as a host in tradition garb guides you through the landscapes.

6. Official bike trail

Bike riders in the Spreewald town of Leipe. Photo: DPA

Distinctly marked by yellow signs of a cycling pickle, the Gurkenradweg forms 260 kilometres of scenic trails that lead through the forest, starting in Lübben and leading to Cottbus, the heart of Brandenburg’s Sorbian-speaking community. Bridges break up the journey (and sometimes, this being Germany, construction projects as well.)

If you’re timid about trekking longer distances, most bike rental shops also offer daily e-bike rentals for around €25 a day. Just be advised, especially in the summer months, to reserve bikes at least a week in advance.