RÜGEN, GERMANY'S LARGEST island, lies where the eastern Ostsee opens up into the Baltic. Closer to both Sweden and Denmark than to Hamburg, the island has remained remarkably untouched over centuries of changing rule: first claimed by Denmark, it was successively given to the kingdoms of Pomerania and Swedish Pomerania before being claimed by Prussia in 1815, after which it remained under continental Germanic rule.
In the early 20th century through the Nazi and DDR periods, the island's rustic harbors and rocky promenades emerged as an early source of seaside and spa tourism. The massive, abandoned block housing of Prora on the isthmus just south of Jasmund—intended as a seaside retreat for elite members of the Reich and left incomplete at the end of WWII—remains one of the most striking examples of Nazi architectural folly (though it will soon take on a strange late-capitalist afterlife as the Neues Prora development).
The white chalk cliffs of eastern Rügen, first made famous by Caspar David Friedrich, face the Baltic from the island's northeastern shore. They are part of Nationalpark Jasmund, Germany's smallest and newest national park, created in 1990 during the final days of the DDR prior to reunification. While the Doveresque cliffs are certainly striking, the primeval beech forests that sit atop them provide an equally otherworldly sight.
Coastal access points are few and far between, particularly since a landslide in 2016 wiped out the cliffside descent from the Königstuhl, and those that remain often have steep, ladder-like wooden staircases. The beaches themselves are starkly beautiful, with rounded stones that are either partially or entirely chalk-white.
The port town of Sassnitz, at the southern border of Jasmund, offers bus and hiking access to the park and plenty of options for overnight stays. Its architecture varies wildly, from centuries-old stone buildings to elegant wooden seaside villas to DDR brutalism (including the imposing Hotel Rügen), along with an appropriate smattering of post-reunification blight.
Access: Unless you're arriving by ferry from Denmark or Sweden, access to Rügen is via Stralsund, the last city on the mainland. From Stralsund, the train ride to Sassnitz lasts approximately 45 minutes. Buses run hourly from Sassnitz Station to Königstuhl at the northern edge of Jasmund; admission to the latter is optional and is not required to hike the Hochuferweg, the main trail running north-south along the coastline.