If you’re looking for a relaxing island getaway that feels like a cross between Bar Harbor in Maine and Hilton Head in South Carolina, look no further than the quaint, charming and nature-rich island of Terschelling in the Netherlands. Terschelling is less bustling than Bar Harbor and Hilton Head, but has the same laid back energy with a real vacation vibe. We had the opportunity to visit on a long weekend for my 40th birthday, drawn by the famous Friesian horses you can ride on the beaches there, and we ended up falling completely in love with the entire island. It’s no wonder Terschelling is a best kept secret for the Dutch on holiday! It seemed like we were the only people there from outside the Netherlands, and we will definitely be back. We loved watching the long tidal flats emerge as we biked all over the island in forests, over dunes, through little towns (ice cream at a windmill? Yes please!), to the longest beach in Europe (at 32 km long and 1 km deep in places) and finally along coastal sheep pastures that had us swooning at all the little lambs. There is so much to do here for active families looking to getaway from the hustle and bustle – read on to find out how to get there, where to stay, and what to do at Terschelling Island.
Located in the northernmost region of the Netherlands between the Wadden and North Sea, the Frisian Island chain, also known as Friesland, is part of the Wadden Islands that stretch all the way up to Denmark and consists of 14 islands in the archipelago (4 large and 10 small). Named for the Frisian people who originally inhabited the islands and spoke Frisian, today these islands are inhabited by Dutch speakers known for cranberries, Friesian horses, wide expanses of beaches, seals, and protected nature preserves. They even have their own type of gouda cheese made with sheep’s milk! There is only one way to reach Terschelling Island and that is by ferry from Harlingen.
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Harlingen is a great place to spend the afternoon before or after your trip to Terschelling. With many lochs and canals throughout the city, it is reminiscent of Amsterdam and many towns in Northwestern Europe. We enjoyed strolling down the main streets downtown and found a great little restaurant to have lunch at (vegetarian friendly) called De Reus. There were also many shops and bakeries to pop in and out of – this town has character! Definitely build in some time to explore. The kids also loved watching the lochs and drawbridges in action.
THE FERRY Always arrive one hour early to the ferry for the best opportunity to park and always book parking ahead of time. The lots fill up quickly and people don’t always park so the empty spots can fit all cars. To book your ticket on the ferry, click here. Prices* for round trip tickets are as follows, depending on normal or fast ferry:
- Adults: €21-€41 (age 12+)
- Children: €10-€28 (age 4-12)
- Children under 4 free un regular ferry, or €7-€14 on fast ferry.
*Note: our family of five was €119 for 3 adult tickets and 2 child tickets, no dog, no vehicle.
You can board the ferry about 30 minutes before departure and you will want to in order to get a good seat. We were lucky and made it to the ship with about 10 minutes to spare and walked straight to the front of the ferry and found wonderful, comfortable seats for our whole family for the 2 hour ferry to the island. There are several ferries that rotate, and some are nicer than others. We rode a very luxurious ferry on the way and an older one on the return trip. There is also a 1 hour fast ferry that doesn’t permit vehicles and costs a bit more, but I don’t recommend bringing your vehicle anyway as it is costly (€90 minimum both ways) and unnecessary. You can walk, ride the bus, or rent a bike and get everywhere you need to once you arrive in West Terschelling. Good news: the ferries and island are dog friendly (they’re free on board!) – but double check with your lodging, as not all stays are pet friendly. The ferries have food, restrooms, outlets for charging, and free wifi (although the wifi wasn’t great). We opted for the regular 2 hour ferry as we were not in a rush and it was quite comfortable.
When you arrive in West Terschelling you have the option of walking, renting a bike, or taking the bus to your lodging. Bus passes can be purchased right from the bus driver (ask for advice on what is best for your needs). There are several bike shops to rent from, and I recommend ordering in advance if possible. We used Zeelen as it was recommended to us and they have several locations on the island in case you run into issues and need bike support (we didn’t). The first day, though, we walked about 20 minutes (1 mile) along the shore to StayOK Hostel, where we stayed for the weekend. Popular places to stay are in West Terschelling, Midsland, Oosterend, and Formerum.
West Terschelling is a lovely town to explore with tons of eateries and shops. I highly recommend getting reservations for dinner (or at your lodging if they offer it) because restaurants book up quickly! We ate at Het Raadhuis Terschelling and it was just great – loved the laid back atmosphere, design touches, menu and sense of humor of the staff. The price was good, too! Our meal downtown was delicious. Other places we would’ve liked to try are:
- Restaurant de Heksenketel
- Pura Vida Foodbar
- Restaurant El Mundo
- De ZEE
- Restaurant Op West
The walk along the coast was lovely too, as it passed several marinas with many interesting ships. We noticed a boat tour to the seal pod at the end of the island that we didn’t have time for on this trip, but we would love to try it next time. Thousands of seals? We heard it’s super cool!
A great place to watch the sunset is near the Waddenhaven marina, especially on a calm night. Check out those reflections!
We loved the place we chose to stay as there was plenty of room, was very family friendly with game rooms and tons for the kids to do, had a gorgeous location on the coast with beautiful views, and free breakfast. Dinner was also offered for a reasonable price and ended up being very convenient for our stay on one of the nights. The outside terrace was a great place to relax during the day, and the inside bar and dining areas were super cozy with a fireplace and huge panoramic windows. The kids spent all their free time in the rec rooms and made some nice friends there, too! The rooms were not luxurious (we had 3 bunkbeds) but it was sufficient and had everything we needed. Something to note is that in Europe, hostels are not what you might envision. They are often eco-friendly stays with minimum support, but kind of a family-camp feel. They’re always very friendly and trustworthy, and unlike the stereotype, you can have private or family rooms. Photos below are from the walk to and around the hostel.
Random fact: all of the buffets in the Netherlands will have various sprinkles during breakfast. The Dutch love putting sprinkles on their toast! Give it a try!
Although I recommend this place as a great option in a perfect location that fits the budget (it’s not cheap, but very reasonable compared to needing 2 rooms elsewhere for our family of 5), it does not allow pets so if you bring Fido, you may want to look elsewhere. There are loads of campgrounds all over the island and that is a popular option – both tenting and camper-type lodging. There is glamping as well. Here are a few other options for lodging, although they may not fit a family of 5 in one room:
- Hotel Buren
- Oepkes Hotel
- WestCord Hotel Schylge (pool)
- WestCord ApartHotel Boschrijck (pool)
- Paal 8 Hotel aan Zee (pool, spa)
- Sportpension Heartstay (fitness focused)
- Camping ‘t Wan-Tij V.O.F. (luxury camping, near Friesian horses)
BikING around TERSCHELLING
Undoubtedly the most popular thing to do on Terschelling Island is BIKE! Whether out of necessity to get where you need to go, or to joyride around the island, biking on Terschelling is some of the most fun in we have had in Europe. We rented bikes from Zeelen (super easy online) and headed off clockwise around the island. Left is the route we took that would have taken us about 1 hour and 20 minutes if we didn’t stop. We made lots of stops for snacks and water, but also to wander the dunes, check out anything that looked cool, walk along the beach and play in the sand, get ice cream at the iconic “Coffee Mill” in Formerum, and then a terrific ride along the tidal coastline through massive sheep grazing pastures. This was definitely the highlight! We saw lots of animals – especially sheep, horses and birds – but all the little lambs just about melted my heart! Our kids are 7, 10 and 12 and they did great on their own bicycles the entire time. They kept exclaiming, “this is awesome!” and talking about how “free” it felt to bike this way. Although the route isn’t all that long, I recommend setting aside a whole day to do it at a leisurely pace so you can enjoy the beach, wander the dunes on the west side of the island, stop for lunch or a treat at a cafe or beach restaurant, and pause for photos with adorable sheep. Google maps helped us and we never got lost, but routes are pretty well marked. You also get a paper map when you rent a bike, so it’s super easy to find your way. If we had more time it would be really fun to bike all the way from the western point to the eastern point of the island. There are 32km of beaches on the north side of Terschelling, and although you can’t bike on the sand, the trails are terrific!
This Coffee Mill cafe and ice cream shop in an old windmill is too darn cute and not to be missed! We couldn’t resist their ice cream sundaes with homemade syrups like coffee, strawberry and chocolate. There are little areas for kids to play and plenty of space to sit outside.
You’d think we’d have sore legs or hineys after 5 hours of bike riding around the island but it wasn’t the biking that left a mark on my rear, it was the horseback riding! Haha read on to find out how I blistered my bum…but it was totally worth it!
I have loved Friesian horses for many years and always dreamed of riding one. It didn’t need to be in an idyllic location like the BEACH, but when I saw Puur Terschelling offered horseback rides for all skill levels to the beach on their Friesians, I knew that had to be part of my 40th birthday adventure. My daughter’s 10th birthday was just a couple of days later so she joined me as she loves horseback riding, too. We scheduled our ride with the super friendly online team here. There are tons of options – even if you don’t ride! If you’re an experienced rider you can gallop, also ride bareback and swim with the horses when it’s warmer…just imagine! Riders can be age 8 and up and it is recommended to bring your own riding equipment (helmet, boots, etc) but they do have helmets available if you don’t have one. Prices start at about $60 for a 2 hour ride. (Check out that close up of Jauk, my horse – he has an epic stache!)
We set off on our ride along the dunes, past cranberry patches, through the forest and then across the expansive beach and it took about 2 hours out and back. Our guide told us stories about the island including how the cranberry fields came to be on the island and how the beach is the deepest from dunes to the sea in Europe. We were able to trot (so fun!) and for safety, no photography was allowed except for one spot we stopped at on the beach. We got to ride beautiful Friesians, but they also have huge Pinto horses with beautiful furry white feet and massive 1.8m height. Some of their bums barely fit inside the barn (see below).
As mentioned before, I usually have sore crotch muscles after riding as I’m not a regular rider. However this time I ended up with a blistered bum! I guess the movement of the horse plus the shape of the squeaky saddle (and the several times we trotted) really did me in. I was sore for a couple of days and glad I didn’t need to bike after that, but it was totally worth it. Sweet Jauk (my horse with the Salvadore Dali mustache) was awesome and didn’t do a thing wrong. Luckily I was the only one with that problem and everyone else had an awesome experience too! This is one experience I highly recommend. Puur Terschelling folks are wonderful. While waiting for the bus ride back to our hostel, we visited with the new baby Friesian foals and donkeys across the street. We returned just in time for dinner at the hostel and another beautiful sunset.
There is so much to do on Terschelling Island! Here are few other ideas – some of which we want to be sure to do next time we go!
- Go on a boat tour to see thousands of seals between Terschelling and Vlieland Islands at Engelschhoek nature preserve. €9/pp, departs once per day from West Terschelling.
- Hike along the dunes at Noordsvaarder and Groene Strand.
- Take a mudflat walking tour at low tide.
- Visit mid to late June for the Oerol Festival to watch musical and theater performances.
- Visit the Boschplaat nature preserve on the east side of the island.
- Visit a museum like the Wrakkenmuseum (shipwreck museum) or Terschelling Bunker Museum (open April through October).
- Get up close to the Brandaris lighthouse tower – the oldest in the Netherlands! (No visits)
- Find a cranberry tea cake or compote at one of the local restaurants, made with local cranberries from the wild farms.
- Spend an afternoon playing in the sand and water at the beach on the North Sea – the largest beach in Europe at 32km long and up to 1km wide from dunes to sea, and visit Heartbreak Hotel near Oosterend.
- Try renting a unique two person or even 3 person bike!