Travis and I have explored a fair amount of Germany in the last five years, yet we hadn’t been to the North Sea coast until this summer. When my birthday rolled around, we debated going to Malta or Cyprus, but despite the newly opened borders, we decided to focus on domestic travel for at least a few months. We did want to go to the beach though, so we booked an Airbnb apartment last minute, loaded up the car with kayaks, dog, and beach gear, and headed north.
Our destination for the long weekend? The seaside resort town of Cuxhaven, which came highly recommended by friends. After soaking up three days of sun, sand, and sea, we put together this quick travel guide with 12 of the best things to do in Cuxhaven. Hopefully it will help you plan your own beach vacation!
Language Tip: Impress the locals when you say the name of their town correctly; Cuxhaven is pronounced Cooks-haff’n.
12 Of The Best Things To Do In Cuxhaven
For those who want a beachy experience in Germany, Cuxhaven is a good option. It’s important to know a few things before you visit though.
The town sprawls across a small, pointy peninsula bordered by the Elbe River to the northeast and the Wadden Sea to the northwest. With a population of just over 50,000, Cuxhaven has a long history as an important port city. By car, it’s only 2.5 hours north of Hanover and 2.5 hours west of Hamburg. Many come for its luxury spas or to explore the three Wadden Sea National Park regions nearby.
While the town offers a few stretches of powdery yellow sand beaches, the North Sea coastline is very different from that along the Baltic Sea and the island of Rugen to the east. Cuxhaven is a region beloved for its proud maritime history, historic red brick architecture, and extensive mudflats which are more prevalent than sandy beaches. The beaches that they do have though – and the entire town – offer lots of opportunities for relaxation and recreation.
Language Tip: These are some useful German words to know for your trip.
Strand – beach
Strandkorb – beach basket
Hundestrand – dog beach
Wattenmeer – Wadden Sea
Besucherzentrum – visitor center
1. Get cozy in an adorable beach basket along the Wadden Sea.
One of the first things you’ll see in Cuxhaven are these cute little beach chairs, which are a common sight on Germany’s northern coast. They’re not free, but you can pay to rent them at little kiosks right on the beach.
Once you unlock them, they open up to allow seating for two. Most have little foot rests that can be pulled out, as well as a place for your drinks and a shade to block the sun.
If you’re like us and you can’t wait to go to the beach as soon as you arrive in town, you’ll want to head to a western neighborhood in Cuxhaven called Duhnen. Two beaches there – Nordseeheilbad Duhnen and Nordseestrand Dose – stretch from the very northernmost tip of the peninsula for about 4 km down the western edge of town along the Wadden Sea. Together they’re typically referred to as Duhnen Strand.
Just a bit further south down the coast is Nordseestrand Sahlenburg, which is a smaller sandy beach in the Sahlenburg neighborhood of Cuxhaven.
A fourth area in town with lots of these chairs isn’t on a beach, but rather a long stretch of green lawn curving along Grimmershorn Bay. This is a good option if you want to go swimming, since the entire coastline along the inner bay is fairly protected. The east end of the bay offers a designated swimming area that’s roped off with a lifeguard on duty.
Though we did not partake, in true German style there’s also a nudist beach at the southwest end of Duhnen Strand. The 125-meter stretch is marked by a flag with the letters “FKK” and is surrounded by reed fences to allow for some privacy. Keep in mind that when the tide is out, you might have to walk naked in plain sight quite a ways out to reach the water. Of course, that’s probably not the kind of thing you worry about if you’re at a nude beach.
2. Stroll along the beach promenade at Duhnen Strand.
If you prefer a more active beach visit, you can walk for kilometers along the wide, paved path that follows the Duhnen beaches. The promenade is dotted with seaside eateries where you can stop for lunch or grab a beer and enjoy it on a terrace overlooking the sea.
A second trail just above the paved promenade is popular with cyclists and people with dogs.
We were especially grateful for the promenade because we were traveling with our dog, who ADORES the beach, and we didn’t find out until we arrived that most of the beaches don’t allow dogs. Luckily we followed the promenade all the way to the northern tip of the peninsula, where we discovered a small dog beach.
You’re allowed to romp with your dog on the mudflats there, though signs still indicate they must remain on leash. The hard packed mudflats have lots of small, sharp rocks and broken shells, not at all like the beautiful soft sand along the rest of the beach.
We were pretty underwhelmed with the dog beach, but it was better than nothing. During our second day in town, we left our dog at our Airbnb and returned to the beaches to better enjoy them.
Travel Tip: If you’re traveling with a dog, look for signs on the map or along the water that say “Hundestrand,” indicating that it’s a dog-friendly beach.
3. Photograph the iconic Kugelbake, the most famous landmark in Cuxhaven.
The Kugelbake – or “Ball Beacon” – is definitely one of the most popular things to do in Cuxhaven. It’s impossible to miss!
Mini replicas of it stand in yards all over town, and tourist shops sell trinkets with the image. We liked it so much, we bought a couple of stickers of it to put on our kayaks. It’s such an important symbol for the locals that it was added to Cuxhaven’s coat of arms in 1913.
Though the current tower isn’t terribly old, a maritime beacon of some type has stood on the same spot since the 1700s.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Cuxhaven is known for its fresh seafood, and we made sure to sample some during our trip.
I ordered crab – or so I thought – but somehow ended up with a shrimp dish. It didn’t matter because it was delicious! Served with a fresh green salad drizzled in some sort of sweet vinaigrette and the biggest baked potato I’ve seen in Europe, it was enough for dinner and lunch the next day.
We actually had planned to eat at one of the fancier seafood restaurants in town, like Restaurant Fischer Treff or Fischrestaurant Alt Dose, but we really didn’t want to leave the beach. We found a cute little place just one street over from where we were lounging in the sand, ordered dinner to go, and minutes later were savoring fresh seafood as the sun set on the horizon.
For those keen on trying local seafood specialties, make sure to try Matjes, or pickled herring. It’s typically served with a mild yoghurt sauce to balance the intense flavor of the herring. We don’t personally care for it, but you should definitely try it. You might love it!
5. Watch the ships going out to sea from the Alte Liebe.
Once you’ve explored the beaches, another part of town you won’t want to miss is the waterfront on the eastern side of Cuxhaven. This area has a large marina and a number of attractions clustered together. The most famous of these is the Alte Liebe, or “Old Love.”
The Alte Liebe is a distinctive white, two-story viewing platform that faces the Elbe River. It was originally built in 1733 as a breakwater but was converted in recent years into a viewing platform. It’s a popular place for photographers, particularly at sunset, and for tourists to watch the ships coming and going in the river.
6. Learn about the area’s maritime history on board the Elbe 1.
The biggest surprise during our trip and a highlight for me was stumbling across the Elbe 1 vessel. This bright red vessel is a lightship – basically a floating lighthouse – that is now permanently docked near the Alte Liebe.
These lightships were common in the 1800s, particularly on the Elbe River where they navigated one of the most dangerous stretches of river in the world. With their bright light towers, they lit the way for other ships in the channel at night and in bad weather.
The Elbe 1, formally known as the Burgermeister Oswald II, was put into service in 1948. It replaced its ill-fated predecessor, the Oswald I, which was destroyed in a hurricane in 1936. For forty years, the vessel faithfully performed its duties with sailors spending up to two weeks at sea. She was officially retired in 1988, bringing to a close 172 years of maritime history.
Still maintained in excellent sailing condition, the Elbe 1 is now a landmark and museum, open to visitors. For fans of ships and maritime history, she’s a must-see.
For us, we didn’t find out until after our trip that it’s possible to actually book sailing tours out on the boat. It’s one of the reasons we most want to go back and visit Cuxhaven again!
7. Witness a lost art at the Windsemaphor Cuxhaven.
Before the use of radio technology, mariners had to rely on optical and acoustic transmissions to indicate wind speed and direction. To that end, a device called a wind semaphore was built in Cuxhaven in the late 1800s.
The massive structure was used to communicate the current wind direction and speed in the North Sea to ships sailing from the Elbe River directly out into the sea. Twice a day, weather conditions on the neighboring islands of Borkum and Helgoland were sent to Cuxhaven, where they were then relayed to sailors via the semaphore.
What’s especially impressive about this is that the device was manually operated. Someone actually had to go out to the semaphore and crank a number of wheels and levers to change the arrows high up on the semaphore. Ships would then see the direction of the arrows and adjust their course accordingly.
The semaphore was decommissioned in 1982, and a radio tower now exists within sight of it.
Luckily, locals fought to maintain it as a monument, and it’s now the last semaphore in Europe that’s still in its original condition.
8. Head into town to admire Cuxhaven’s classic red brick architecture.
Germany has fabulous architecture, from its massive Gothic churches and opulent Renaissance castles to the charming half-timber buildings we love so much in Lower Saxony. Germany’s North Sea coast is known for its red brick architecture.
The best way to see it is to simply wander around town. You’ll find everything from churches and old schoolhouses to entire blocks of homes made of bright red brick.
9. Explore Ritzebuttel Castle and its gorgeous castle grounds.
While no match for the likes of Neuschwanstein and Eltz Castle, Ritzebuttel Castle in Cuxhaven is worth a visit. Once an aristocrat’s home, the building dates all the way back to the late 13th/early 14th century.
While it seems more like a small palace than a true castle, it’s notable for several reasons. The ground-floor restaurant serves apple pastries and lovely lattes. It’s quite photogenic with its bright red brick, gold accents, and circular lawn ringed with red flowers.
But it’s really the beautiful natural expansive castle grounds that won us over. Botanists will love the variety of trees labeled with their species. Pretty trails crisscross the woods surrounding the castle, which is right in town. A sizable U-shaped moat with a walking trail along it offers benches to sit and enjoy the absolute beauty of the place.
The highlight, which caught us completely by surprise, is the Schweizerhaus, or Swiss House, at the southwestern corner of the pond. Folks can get married there, and at Christmas, it’s opened to the public along with the local Christmas market.
10. Drive or take a bike ride along the dyke south of Cuxhaven.
Those looking to get out and see a bit of the countryside immediately surrounding the Cuxhaven city limits have lots of opportunities. We recommend heading south of town. Here you can pedal or drive for miles along extensive one-lane roads that double as bike trails paralleling the Wadden Sea.
The trails aren’t directly on the sea though. Interestingly, they follow a sizable dyke that was built to protect the homes and farmland from the destructive forces and flooding of the North Sea.
We actually followed the dyke on the eastern side for miles before taking a side path up over the top. Expecting to see the sea or at least mudflats right on the other side, we were surprised to see brilliant green fields and herds of cattle as far as the eye could see.
11. Climb the Obereversand Lighthouse Monument in nearby Dormer-Neufeld.
Technically this attraction isn’t in the city of Cuxhaven itself, but it is in the region. Located less than 30 minutes by car down the Wadden Sea coast west of Cuxhaven, the lighthouse is unlike anything you’ve seen!
Known in German as Leuchtturmdenkmal Obereversand – Obereversand Lighthouse Monument, this foreboding black tower stands on stilts in the Wadden Sea. Built in 1887, it served as a functional lighthouse until 1923. Now, it’s a monument open to the public. Visitors can easily access it at the end of a causeway, a set of concrete steps, and then a final spiral staircase.
The top offers fabulous views of the Wadden Sea, the mudflats, and the green grassy shoreline. One of the neatest things is being able to see the small channels and rivers that remain in the mudflats even when the tide is out.
12. Don’t miss sunset on the beach!
This one doesn’t need any explanation. Whichever beach you choose, make sure that you catch at least one sunset from the beach during your visit.
It’s the perfect way to end your vacation in Cuxhaven!
Something we wanted to do but weren’t able to (canceled due to the pandemic) during our visit was to take a horse-drawn carriage ride for 10 km across the mudflats to the island of Neuwerk. We didn’t include it on this list since we didn’t do it, but you might want to look into it during your visit. We think it looks like a blast!
The weather is changeable year-round, so be prepared for everything from hot days to thunder showers, all in the same day.
For more information or to book guided tours, you can contact the UNESCO World Natural Heritage Visitor Center in either Cuxhaven or Wilhelmshaven.
Those with mobility issues can hire a “wattmobile” from the visitor center in Cuxhaven. The three-wheel buggy can go out on the mudflats and is FREE to borrow. Kudos to the local tourism office for making the outdoors more accessible for everyone!
Horse lovers should consider scheduling their visit for the fall. Every year in August, 20-30,000 spectators descend on Cuxhaven for their annual horse race. This unique local race has been held across the mud flats since 1902. You can find more information on the Nordseeheilbad Duhnen tourism site.