Life on the islands of the Wadden Sea

For centuries, the shipping industry played a dominant role in the economy and culture of the Wadden Sea islands. Over the past 150 years, tourists eager to experience the beaches and the unique nature in the area have flocked to the islands.

The islands located in the Danish Wadden Sea have been inhabited since the Middle Ages. Life on the islands has been characterised by two opposing trends. Some the islanders wanted to maintain their traditional way of life, while many other islanders were influenced by modern ways of life from their contact with international shipping.

Whaling and shipping

From the 1600s up to the late 19th century, shipping was the islands’ primary source of income. Most well-known are the whale-hunting expeditions to the North Atlantic with Dutch and German whalers. The locals from the island of Rømø became involved in these expeditions in the mid-1600s.  The lucrative shipping trade made its clear mark on the islands. The heyday in the 1700s is reflected in the architecture, with the Friesian-inspired farmhouses on Rømø and the buildings in the sailing town of Sønderho on Fanø.

Arduous agriculture and tourism

In the 1800s, shipping became less important for Rømø and Mandø. Instead, agriculture and livestock farming began to play a more important role. On Fanø, the town of Nordby took over from the town of Sønderho as the island’s leading port. Nordby’s shipping and ship-building industry began to increase from the mid-1800s; the town’s golden age. After having played second fiddle to the shipping industry, agriculture and fishing now took over as the primary source of income for the islands. However, farming on the islands was arduous. There was little arable land, and crops were at risk destruction by the sand drift. From the middle of the century, Fanø and Rømø in particular became popular as tourist destinations, and tourism has been the islands’ primary industry ever since.

Islands ruled by women

Men and women led very different lives on the islands. Due to the strong seafaring traditions in most families, many men were at sea for longer periods. While at sea, the men were part of a global sea-faring culture and this set its mark on them. In contrast, the women remained on the islands with the children and the elders for the most of the year. As a consequence of their separate lives, the women were responsible for everything that had to be done on the islands. They not only kept house, but also made crafts, tilled the land, traded properties, dealt with legal disputes and financed the island’s sailing fleet. As a result, the women became strong and independent individuals, ready to take action when needed. These traits were demonstrated to the surrounding  

communities through the traditional dress worn by the island women. When a young girl from Fanø or Rømø went to Ribe to apply for a domestic job, she would wear her island dress to demonstrate her values.

Dresses for everyday wear and for special occasions

When urban fashion trends reached the Wadden Sea islands in the last half of the 19th century, the women primarily donned the traditional dress for special occasions, or when they wanted to manifest their islander identity, and this is how the costumes became a hallmark of the islands. It was not unusual to see women on the islands wearing the local costume as their everyday wear right up to the mid-1900s.  The costumes were similar from island to island, however there were slight local variations with regard to style, colour or headdress. The women of Fanø had a different costume for all occasions: work, festive occasions and even for mourning. A distinctive feature of the Fanø costume is the “struden” headwear that covers the face and protects the wearer's face against the sand and sun when working in the fields. The local costumes are still very much in use today: on Fanø during the local history festivals, Fannikerdage and Sønderho Dag, on Rømø for special occasions, and on Mandø for the Mandøfest, a celebration of local culture. 

Tourists and property speculators

In the last half of the 19th century, the seeds were sown for the islands’ new source of income. Fresh air and bathing in the sea became extremely popular, and this provided the islands with new opportunities in the form of beach tourism. On Fanø, the first spa resort was established in Nordby in 1851. In the following decades, bathing machines, beach pavilions and hotels mushroomed on the beaches of Vesterstrand and Sønderho. Fanøbadet, a North Sea spa, was established in 1891, with an ambition to attract visitors to Fanø from the rest of Denmark and from abroad. The first golf course to be built in Denmark was established in 1901 in connection with the spa. Following the drop in international tourism industry during the First World War, Denmark’s first air route was established, flying tourists from Copenhagen to Fanø Strand. Spurred by dreams of striking rich, Rømø joined the beach-bathing craze in 1898, when Johannes Jacobsen, a local priest, establish the spa resort Nordseebad Lakolk. Lakolk was founded with a hotel, a food bar and a number of holiday houses that were built between the dunes close to the beach. However, the resort went bankrupt after a few years, among other things, due to the poor accessibility from the mainland.  Several of the 

characteristic Lakolk holiday houses still stand in the dunes by the beach, allowing the visitor a glimpse of the what the area was like in 1900.

Life on the Wadden Sea islands today

The islands still attract many tourists, and tourism is still vital for the islands’ economy. Getting to and from Rømø and Mandø has become easier after the construction of the Rømø dyke and the causeway to Mandø. This has in particular affected tourism on Rømø, which has many more visitors than both Mandø and Fanø. However, in spite of the rise in the number of visitors to the island, Rømø’s population is falling. In contrast, over the past years, Fanø’s population has increased. Many of the islanders work on the mainland in Esbjerg, only a 12-minute ferry-ride away.

Special events on the islands

On Fanø, you can experience the traditional costumes worn by the island women at the local history festivals, Fannikerdagene and Sønderho. The wide sandy beaches of Fanø and Rømø are also home to a kite festival and a number of other events. Finally, Fanø hosts the Free Folk Festival and a knitting festival. Every year in August, Mandø hosts the Mandø Marathon. Pers Awten is a special Wadden Sea tradition held every year on 21 February. The locals light a bonfire on the beach to celebrate that winter is coming to an end. From the 1600s and forward, the bonfires, or biike as they are called in Friesian, served as a farewell to the many sailors who left the island to go whaling or fishing during the summer. Today, bonfires are lit on all three islands as well as at several locations on the mainland.


  • Fanø Shipping and Costume Collection in Nordby.
  • Fanø Museum tells the history of Fanø in a 300-year-old house in Nordby.
  • Sønderho Art Museum exhibits works that are related to the artist colony in Sønderho and the Wadden Sea.
  • Sønderho Mill
  • Mandøhuset, a shipmaster’s dwelling from the 1800s
  • The National Museum of Denmark: The Sea Captain’s House on Rømø
  • Museum Sønderjylland Skærbæk tells the story of the reverend Jacobsen and Nordseebad Lakolk.


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Fiskeri- og Søfartsmuseet

Tarphagevej 2 , 6710 Esbjerg V

  Obfuscated Email  +45 76 12 20 00


Fanø Museum

Skolevej 2, Nordby, 6720 Fanø

  Obfuscated Email  +45 30 70 05 75


Fanø Skibsfart- og dragtsamling

Hovedgaden 28, Nordby, 6720 Fanø

  Obfuscated Email  +45 21 14 00 43



Mandø Byvej 5, Mandø, 6760 Ribe

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  Obfuscated Email  +45 61 31 95 02


Naturcenter Tønnisgård

Havnebyvej 30, 6792 Rømø

  Obfuscated Email  +45 74 75 52 57


Højer Mølle

Møllegade 13, 6280 Højer

  Obfuscated Email  +45 65 37 08 04