St. Marien and St. Petri cathedral towers with the Hansahafen River in the foreground, Lubeck, Germany

Germany //

Hamburg and Schleswig-Holstein

Schleswig-Holstein is all about location, a product of the forces around it: west and east, the North and Baltic seas; north, Denmark. The former is realized as fine beaches and marram-grass dunes, candy-striped lighthouses, commercial ports on deep fjords, and changeable weather. The latter reveals itself as a region that feels distinctly Nordic. Don’t come looking for national stereotypes here. If anything, Schleswig-Holstein, and neighbouring city-state Hamburg, have a Scandinavian liberalism to make land-locked southerners appear prudish. The air of a separate country is compounded by a predominantly fish diet and a local dialect akin to Dutch, Plattdeutsch, that is almost as impenetrable to most Germans as it is to foreigners.

As ever, this distinct character was shaped by history. The peninsula was under Danish rule from the fifteenth century until the mid-1800s, when nationalist fervour inspired calls for independence among its German-speaking population. This posed the Schleswig-Holstein Question, which vexed some of the finest diplomatic minds in Europe. As British prime minister Lord Palmerston is said to have despaired: “The Schleswig-Holstein Question is so complicated only three men in Europe have ever understood it. The first was Prince Albert, and he is dead; the second is a German professor, and he is in an asylum; and the third was myself, and I have forgotten it.”

Nowadays, Schleswig-Holstein is less political poser than bucolic backwater. Notwithstanding the Land capital Kiel, a brusque, working port, it is free of urban development, its gentle Baltic coast notched by fjords, its west coast wind-blown and wild, and everywhere canopied by colour-wash skyscapes that have long captivated artists such as Emil Nolde. Even Lübeck wears its history lightly. Sure, the one-time city-state has a tale as rich and complex as any plotline by local son, Thomas Mann. Yet at the core of its appeal is nothing more complicated than one of the most enigmatic old towns in Germany, with a heritage and sense of cultural worth handed down from over four hundred years at the head of the first pan-European superpower in the region, medieval trading-cartel the Hanseatic League.

Once you’ve ticked off the cultural heavyweights of Hamburg and Lübeck, then (and leaving aside the industrial port of Kiel), Schleswig-Holstein is pure holiday country. With your own transport, you could lose a happy week on a circuit from Lübeck, bowling through a series of small towns where coast meets country; places like cultured backwater Eutin among the lumpy moraine hills of Holsteinische Schweiz (Holstein’s Switzerland), or erstwhile Viking stronghold Schleswig, relaxed, charming and home to a blockbuster art museum that ticks all boxes. Powder beaches have raised the North Frisian islands off the west coast to the status of celebrated holiday playground, even though they are largely overlooked by foreigners in the stampede south. People-watching in Sylt, a sort of German Hamptons, or simply loafing around in Strandkörbe wicker seats in Föhr and Amrum – sleepy sister islands that are all about walks, cycle rides and sand castles on the beach – are a defining part of the German coastal experience.

Even boomtime metropolis Hamburg, a state in its own right, finds space for beach bars from April to September, complementing a year-round nightlife that is as much a reason to visit as some of the finest galleries and museums in the country. Without a car, it is your best transport hub, although rail links from Lübeck serve east-coast destinations as far as Kiel. Remember, too, that ferry services off the west coast permit island-hopping down the trio of North Frisian islands – the intrepid, free-wheeling beach holiday in a nutshell.