Germany’s first naval port is tucked into the western lip of the Jade Bight, a natural harbour on the North Sea. Wilhelmshaven was founded by Kaiser Wilhelm I in 1869 and still claim’s the title of the nation’s largest navy base.
German military history will always hold a certain fascination, and you could pay a visit to the German Navy Museum or take a guided harbour tour. Wilhelmshaven is also a tourist resort in summer as the proud owner of Germany’s only south-facing beach.
And if you want wide open skies and nature-spotting Wilhelmshaven is the main jumping-off point for the UNESCO-listed Wadden Sea National Park.
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Wilhelmshaven:
1. Maritime Meile
Starting on the Bontekai on the waterfront of the city proper, the Maritime Meile is a 1.8-kilometre tourist route bringing you into contact with all of Wilhelmshaven’s maritime-themed attractions.
All of the museums and landmarks on the way are listed below, and as an ensemble they help you cut to the core of Wilhelmshaven’s seafaring culture and traditions.
One experience that we haven’t included below is the MS Harle Kurier cruise boat, which is berthed close to the German Navy Museum and sets off on tours of the Grosser Hafen (Great Harbour) and up to the new JadeWeserPort.
You could also set sail on a seal-spotting expedition in the Wadden Sea National Park from this quay.
2. Deutsches Marine Museum
The German Naval Museum is a military museum charting the 170-year history of the German Navy.
The museum has an appropriate location, in a listed building in the old imperial shipyard.
Inside you can follow the story of the German Navy from a political, social and cultural standpoint: There are black and white photographs, maps, flags, paintings, ships’ bells, uniforms, bridge equipment and all manner of other militaria.
By the entrance is a restored miniature Seehund U-Boat in which a two-man crew worked in almost impossible conditions.
The outdoor exhibition has a lot of hardware like a Libelle torpedo boat from the GDR, an F-104 Starfighter, a Type 205 submarine and the Mölders German destroyer launched in 1965.
3. Küstenmuseum Wilhelmshaven
The coastal museum is at an old navy parade ground close to the Großer Hafen and has contemporary exhibits to tackle the North German coast from all sorts of angles.
One of the most interesting subjects is Wilhelmshaven’s new deepwater JadeWeserPort, and all the planning and statistics involved in this massive project (46 million cubic metres of sand was dredged). Using a touch screen you can also see the changing shape of the North German coastline since the last Ice Age and how Wilhelmshaven’s Jade Bight was formed.
There’s also insight into the lives of early settlers on the coast, and a comprehensive history of Wilhelmshaven’s birth as a navy base more than 150 years ago.
Something you won’t find anywhere else in Germany is a south-facing beach like the Südstrand.
The unusual geography of the Jade Bight bathes the beach in day-long sun, and there’s an almost Mediterranean promenade behind that fills up in the summer.
In this season the beach and promenade are speckled with colourful striped Strandkörbe, which are hooded beach chairs to keep the wind at bay.
These can be rented for a day, week or an entire season if you’re here long-term.
Also on the promenade you can hire a bicycle and from May to September and pause at ice cream shops, cafes and restaurants.
Wilhelmshaven’s undisputed landmark is the metal-framed Kaiser Wilhelm Bridge traversing the Großer Hafen.
At 159 metres it was the Europe’s longest swing bridge when it opened in 1907. This structure ties the city proper to the Südstrand and you can watch it opening when ships with tall masts pass through.
This is a memorable spectacle, even 110 years after the bridge’s inauguration and you won’t mind waiting a couple of minutes to watch.
During a recent renovation up to 2013 the bridge was given a fresh paint job, 50,000 new steel rivets and LED lighting.
6. UNESCO-Weltnaturerbe Wattenmeer Besucherzentrum Wilhelmshaven
The Wadden Sea, off Wilhelmshaven is an intertidal zone making up the southeastern corner of the North Sea.
This environment has been heavily shaped by humans due to systems of dikes and causeways, and is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Next door to the Marinemuseum there’s a visitor centre for the UNESCO Site, laying out all the information you could need about this habitat.
You can track the routes of migratory birds and see the technology used to assess storms on the North Sea.
The highlight is the 14-metre skeleton of a sperm whale hanging from the ceiling.
This creature died off the island of Baltrum in 1994, and its organs were “plastinated” by Gunther von Hagens of the Body Worlds exhibitions.
You’ll see how whales grew fins 50 million years ago, find out what they eat and listen to their songs.
7. Rosarium Wilhelmshaven
On the eastern nook of the Stadtpark is a glorious rose garden that opens between Mother’s Day (mid-May in Germany) and October.
The Rosarium is a delight, with more than 5,000 rosebushes from 500 varieties growing in a variety of habitats: There’s an English rose garden, a wild rose “canyon”, a Rococo garden, a historical “Gloria Dei” monastic garden, and much more.
You’ll come by ponds, arbours, pergolas and a cute pavilion where functions are held.
The Rosenbühne (rose stage) at the garden is used for concerts and plays, and is at the centre of the Rosenfest, held in the Rosarium every June.
8. Aquarium Wilhelmshaven
At the eastern end of the Südstrand promenade is an aquarium with more than 250 species of marine animals.
Over 60 of these are local, coming from the North Sea and Wadden Sea.
Some of the region’s inhabitants are seals, gurnards, flatfish, shore crabs, brown crabs and hooknose fish.
But the aquarium also has more exotic creatures, like 15 species of Antarctic fish that live in icy waters at 0°C and have antifreeze in their blood.
Beyond this there are penguins, which can be observed underwater, as well as sharks, caimans and a tropical forest habitat with colourful birdlife.
9. Informationszentrum JadeWeserPort
A few kilometres up at the mouth of the Jade Bight you can get the inside track on one of German’s largest investment projects in recent years.
This deepwater container port was begun in 2008 and was sufficiently complete to open to traffic in 2012. After a slow start due to the global recession the port kicked into gear in 2015 when it processed 426,700 twenty-foot equivalent units.
The JadeWeserPort is the only one in Germany to have a depth of 18 metres and can handle ships regardless of the tide.
The information centre recounts the mind-boggling statistics of the project, but also goes into the day-to-day of port operations.
Interactive displays show how containers are unloaded and searched for contraband, and you can chart each stop a container would make on a journey from Shanghai to Wilhelmshaven.
10. Rathaus Wilhelmshaven
Completed in 1929, Wilhelmshaven’s powerful-looking town hall is a classic piece of Brick Expressionist architecture.
The man behind the design was Johann Friedrich Höger, who also built the iconic Chilehaus in Hamburg.
Because of its uncompromising appearance, with stiff lines and a hardy rectangular tower, the building was quickly dubbed the “Burg am Meer” (Castle on the Sea). The 50-metre tower had a hidden purpose, as it also functioned as a water tower, although 90 years after its completion the concrete container is in need of renovation, and for that reason the observation deck is closed to visitors in 2017. But it’s still worth coming up to the entrance for the Expressionist brick sculptures of lions flanking the portal.
11. Kulturzentrum Pumpwerk
This dynamic cultural centre stages around 160 live music and comedy performances every year.
Some of these will be well-known bands and artists touring Germany, and others might be local and up-and-coming talent.
The centre was born in 1976 when an old industrial sewage pumping station from the early 1900s was saved and restored.
It is the oldest centre of its kind in Lower Saxony, and in its early days some famous jazz artists like Chet Baker, Charles Mingus and Dexter Gordon performed at the Kulturzentrum Pumpwerk.
Consult the centre’s website for upcoming shows.
12. Freibad Klein Wangerooge
Carry on west from the Südstrand, and on the landward side is a recreation area welcoming visitors from May to September.
Sheltered from the sea, people come to this beach and its calm brackish water to swim, regardless of what the tides are doing on the south side of this strip of land.
The tranquil waters are also handy for water sports like kayaking, windsurfing and sailing, and there’s a cafe and barbecue are for when you get peckish.
Something worth remembering while you paddle through these waters is that U-boats were once berthed here.
13. Kopperhörner Mühle
In Wilhelmshaven’s Heppens district is an authentic windmill built to produce flour back in 1839. Kopperhörner Mühle is actually a replacement for a mill from 1547 that was wrecked in a storm in 1689. By 1922 the mill was obsolete, but had become a much-loved landmark and was bought by the city.
Inside there’s a museum with limited opening times, so it’s a good idea to check Wilhelmshaven’s website before you come.
The grain grinding mechanism is in perfect working order, as is the suction gas engine, which was installed in 1908 to supplement the mill’s wind sails.
Families with younger children could bring them to this leisure park for a couple of hours of fun and exercise.
The Störtebeker-Park is the result of an employment project for out of work young people in the 1980s.
Here and there are scale replicas of Wilhelmshaven’s monuments like the town hall and Kopperhörner windmill, as well as vegetable and flower gardens, a cable car, adventure playgrounds and a cafe.
A favourite with kids is the Sibetsburg, a reconstruction of the 14th-century castle built by the local pirate chieftain Edo Wiemken the Elder.
To fit in at a restaurant in Wilhelmshaven you could order a plate of the North German signature, Labskaus.
This is cured beef stewed in broth and then blended with onions, potatoes, beetroot and herring, and afterwards fried in lard like a German-style hash.
It will usually come with fried eggs on top, as well as rollmops (pickled herring fillets with a gherkin or olive filling). What the dish lacks in elegance, it makes up for in flavour, and has always been a rich source of protein for seafarers.
And for the past 18 years Wilhelmshaven has staged the world’s largest Labskaus eating event (Labskausessen). On this day in mid-July restaurants set up stalls at Marktstraße and Bahnhofstraße and sell as many as 7,000 portions in a matter of hours.