The North Sea region brings together parts of France Belgium, Holland, Germany, Denmark, Norway and the British Isles around a body of water famous for fierce storms, fierce history, and fiercely beautiful coastal areas.
The North Sea in brief
The northern coastline of the North Sea in Scotland and Norway tends to be quite rugged and steep, where the fjords begin, whereas in the south the beaches are flat, sandy and marshy. This is great for long beach walks but has required clever engineering to protect the land from flooding during storms. The sea is fed by the Baltic Sea to the east and the Elbe, Rhine and Meuse rivers flowing from the continent.
Historically the North Sea has seen a lot of action. The Romans crossed from the south and the Vikings from the north to extend their holdings; later on the merchant Hanseatic League, Holland in its Golden Age, and Britain used it for the same reasons. During both World Wars the sea was the scene of a great deal of naval activity. Fishing and shipping in the North Sea are still big industries, but in modern times oil extraction and harnessing wind and wave power have become important.
Enjoy the coastline
Two wonderful ways to see the North Sea coastal areas are to bike it or hike it. The North Sea Cycle Route and the North Sea Trail are part of the same initiative, each with about 6,000 km of well-marked trails to lead you through all kinds of terrain to see the coastal towns and villages, abundant wildlife, and seaside heritage sites of the North Sea region.
A voyage of discovery
The Belgian coast continues in long, wide beaches and dunes to seaside towns such as Ostend and Knokke-Heist, favorite destinations on sunny Belgian days. Slightly inland are Ieper (Ypres) and its excellent In Flanders Fields Museum and moving World War I monuments and trenches. You’re too close to miss picturesque Bruges and its well-preserved churches and museums. In its heyday Bruges was a busy seaport, before the land closed in and changed its destiny.
Once in Holland, you’ll come to Rotterdam and The Hague, seat of the Dutch government and home of the royal family and The Peace Palace. Tucked beneath the modern skyscrapers, the old center of The Hague is a wonderful place for museums and shopping, unless you’re more in the mood to hit the beaches. Cross from northern Holland to the Frisian island area on the amazing Afsluitdijk, a 30km stretch of highway across a sea dam!
The preservation of the natural beauty of the Frisian Islands, also known as the Wadden Islands, is a shared effort among Holland, Germany, and Denmark; the islands stretch for miles along this part of the North Sea coast. They are popular vacation spots thanks to their pristine condition, worthy of the UNESCO World Heritage distinction. The atmosphere on the German islands of Sylt and Rügen or Usedom is utterly seductive. On these islands you’ll find national parks, plentiful bird colonies to observe, and interesting villages to explore.
On German North Sea coast, walk the mudflats with a guide (always) to see the unique hellig islands, where banks of seals hang out, and flocks upon flocks of birds enjoying their natural “luxury hotel”. Afterwards, perhaps a snack of the delicious yet minuscule local shrimp? The role Europe has played in populating the New World is beautifully expressed at the German Emigration Center. It’s located in the port city of Bremerhaven, the point of departure for roughly 7 million emigrants between the mid-19th and 20th centuries.
The West Jutland region of Denmark, wide open with high skies, perfect for birdwatching, kite flying and enjoying nature, is next on our itinerary. Stop in at one of several charming towns: At the museum in Struer you can hear the story - and the products – of Bang and Olufsen’s famously sleek audio equipment, or enjoy the well-stocked shops in Herning. While you’re in the neighborhood, take a tour of Denmark's best-preserved medieval fortress, Spøttrup Castle.
Hugging the southern coast of Norway are the wonderfully preserved fortress town of Frederikstad and the dazzling, fjord-side capital, Oslo, with its wealth of museums. The Stavanger region has something for everyone: fjords, food festivals, fine shopping opportunities, and a beautiful cathedral. Bergen lies on the coast where the North and Norwegian Seas meet; it is a former Hanseatic town, and you can still see the merchant buildings at the UNESCO-listed Bryggen Wharf, which is just one of many attractions.