The small seaside city of Ostend (Oostende in Flemish) was once notable as the summer residence of Leopold II, King of the Belgians, and held on to the epithet ‘La Reine des Plages (The Queen of the Coast)’ as the glamour started to fade away. Though this part of the coast of the West Flanders region of Belgium has always been popular with European families for bucket and spade-type seaside camping holidays, the city itself was reduced to not much more than a portal, one end of a ferry link between the British Isles and continental Europe, passed through on the way elsewhere. When that link was lost, Ostend had to find a new purpose.
And it did. Ambitious urban regeneration projects in the early 2000s have given the city a modern and stylish outlook, celebrating the art and design heritage of Ostend and making the most of the Belle Époque architecture, while championing the quirky surrealism we expect of Belgium.
So to help you uncover the charms of the Queen of the Coast, this is my vagabond guide to spending a weekend in Ostend.
Adventures in Art
In recent years, a number of European cities have explored the idea of becoming open-air art galleries, adding colour and conversation to the canvas of wall, plazas, and parks, and hosting events and activities. Ostend is one of the most successful to have done so, with more than 50 works of street art around the city, from giant murals almost 40 metres high on the sides of buildings to tiny, hidden works on the side of street furniture just a few centimetres in span. The Crystal Ship, an annual festival of street art held in Ostend, is the largest of its kind in Europe, adding new works by internationally renowned artists to be discovered and temporary installations each year since its inception in 2015. Download a map from the website or pick up a free map of The Crystal Ship from the tourist office.
The most visible of the artworks around Ostend is the enormous sculptures called Rock Strangers by controversial Belgian conceptual artist Arne Quinz on the seafront. I really liked this installation. The red structures look like they could be shipping containers from the nearby port, twisted and malformed after being lost at sea and washing ashore, or some of the great granite boulders that form part of the sea defences, more natural shapes, but yet not natural in their presence, and jarringly orange-red against the blue-grey backdrop of the sea, sand, and sky.
One of the first steps in the artistic reinvention of Ostend was the opening of Mu.Zee, playing on the words museum and sea, a museum exhibiting contemporary and modern Belgian artworks. The collection holds more than 8000 pieces, with notable works by local artists such as surrealist and expressionist James Ensor and symbolist Léon Spilliaert displayed in creative and interactive galleries. Entry is €12 for an adult, though various discounts are available.
A Note on Leopold II, King of the Belgians
Ostend was the place to be seen in the Belle Époque, as the rich and famous from across Europe and further afield were drawn to the fashionable coastal resort by the presence of Leopold II, King of the Belgians, and his entourage. Funnelling the wealth derived from resources stripped from the Congo Free State, a colony under his personal ownership and absolute rule, he employed the leading architects of the day to design and construct a royal villa, several parks and gardens, and grand buildings across the city in the period style.
Leopold is commemorated by a number of monuments, including an equestrian statue outside the Royal Galleries in Ostend titled The Grateful Congolese. Also depicted are two groups of people in veneration of the king: local Flemish fishing folk, and enslaved Africans who worked the rubber plantations of the Congo.
Looking closely, you’ll notice one of the Africans is missing his hand. It was removed by a local action group to provoke awareness of the atrocities carried out in the Congo Free State in Leopold’s name, including mutilations, amputations, and executions. I fell it’s an interesting way to challenge our perceptions and understanding of threads that connect people, places, and events across history.
What’s Going On in Ostend?
On a cold and grey February day in 1981, Marvin Gaye disembarked from the North Sea ferry in Ostend. The soul singer was escaping from his past; a failed marriage, struggles with drug addiction, money troubles, and an acrimonious split from the Motown record label where he’d cemented his reputation as a music legend. A local club owner offered him a sanctuary, a small apartment by the seafront, and encouraged Gaye to take long walks on the windswept beach.
The sea cure worked, and Gaye recovered enough to write what would tragically be his final album, Midnight Love, while living in Ostend. The album features the song Sexual Healing, considered to be one of the greatest love songs of all times.
Ostend Tourist Office has created an inspired audiovisual documentary walk in the footsteps of Marvin Gaye. The Midnight Love Tour is a touching tribute to the legendary soul singer, taking around two hours and guides you to the notable places from Gaye’s time in Ostend. Pick up an iPod with the tour from the Tourist Office for €5.
Old Ships in the Old Harbour
Views of the harbour basin are dominated by the three masts of the sailing ship Mercator, a permanent fixture and floating museum since 1961. The Leith-built barquentine was designed by polar explorer Adrien de Gerlache, leader of the first expedition to overwinter in Antarctica, and has a colourful history. Serving as a sail training vessel towards the end of its working life, the ship had taken scientific expeditions around the world, been an international ambassador for Belgium, and had a short career in the British Royal Navy, as HMS Mercator, a submarine support vessel based in Freetown, Sierra Leone, during WWII. A guided ship tour is €5.
By the Visserkai is a second museum ship, the trawler Amandine. Launched in 1962, she fished the Channel and the North Sea, and northwards into the waters along the southern coast of Iceland in the hunt for cod, haddock, plaice, and sea bream. Work on board was physically and mentally exhausting for the crew, and during events known as the Second and Third Cod Wars, precariously close to the collapse of the fishing industry, fraught with uncertainty. Amandine’s dry dock cleverly conceals a display that re-creates a local street from the 1960s, and a number of interactive exhibits. Entry to the museum is €5.
Oostend Voor Anker Maritime Festival
The old port of Ostend hosts the largest annual maritime festival on the North Sea, Oostende voor Anker, held each May. More than 200 historic sailing vessels, from traditional Dutch schuyt and Frisian skûtsje to replicas of notable ships, like Shtandart of St. Petersburg, and their crews cram into the harbour, and hold a packed programme of cultural events, open ship days, and sailing trips, welcoming more than 250,000 visitors over the festival weekend.
This was the draw for my visit to the city, and though I spent much of my time working on Atyla during the event, I was able to use my shore time to explore, and pleasantly surprised at what Ostend had to offer visitors for a short break by the sea.
Read more: Oostend Voor Anker Photo Journal
The Atlantic Wall and Raversyde Anno 1465
South of Ostend along the seafront promenade, in the suburb of Raversyde / Raversijde, are two attractions that will appeal to any history buffs, and have plenty of interesting features and interactive exhibits to appeal to families. The Atlantikwall, the Atlantic Wall, part of the coastal defences that stretched along the Western Front from Northern Norway to the Basque Country, is an open-air museum in the old coastal defences, exploring the impact of WWI and WWII on the area. The walk through the trenches and tunnels is particularly atmospheric.
Rayverside Anno 1465 is a living history museum recreating a medieval fishing village typical of the Flanders coast. The original settlement was destroyed in a winter storm, and after the floods receded, the remains of the once-thriving village were buried by the wind-blown dunes. A combination ticket is available to visit both locations, though careful planning is needed due to restricted opening times at Rayverside Anno 1465.
Cycling is the ideal way to explore further afield from Ostend, with affordable bike hire, excellent cycling infrastructure in the area, including family-friendly off-road routes, and gentle gradients for beginners. The cycle route to the Atlantikwall follows the coastal promenade for around 9km (5.5 miles). An alternative is to take the Coastal Tram to a stop in Raversyde. The tram has accessible cars, suitable for wheelchair or pushchair access, and can also carry a limited number of bikes if you just want to make a one way cycle trip.
Coastal Cycling Tour to De Haan
A free ferry ships people and bikes across the harbour from the Visserkaai to Oosteroever, where you can visit Fort Napoleon, or continue along the promenade and coastal route through the dunes to the charming little town of De Haan. Several sculptures and art installations are located on the route, part of the Beaufort Contemporary Art triennial.
Much of the character of De Haan comes from the distinctive Belle Époque / Arts and Crafts style architecture of the Concessie quartier, whitewashed villas with red-clay pantile roofs set in leafy streets, that were home to impressionist and surrealist painter James Ensor, and to Albert Einstein for a short while before his emigration to the United States. Returning to Ostend via inland cycleways makes a circuit of around 25km (15 miles).
For those less inclined to such physical endeavours, the coastal tram connects Ostend train station to several stops in De Haan with good access to the beach, though you may want to double check whether you really do mean to get off at Naaktstrand Bredene, the nudist beach.
Know before you go
An Ostend City Pass can be bought from the Tourist Office; €15 for 48 hours of discounted entry to various attractions, including the Atlantikwall, the ships Amandine and Mercator, and a number of galleries and museums around the city.
As a small city, Ostend is easily explored on foot. The gentle gradients of the coast also make it easy to walk or cycle further afield and explore more, which can also be combined with travel on the coastal tram. The tram connects 67 kilometres of the coast from De Panne near the French border in the southwest to Knokke-Heist near the Dutch border in the northwest.
Ostend hosts a number of festivals through the year. The Crystal Ship festival of contemporary art takes place between mid June and the end of August. Follow the free street art trails across the city, and look out for new additions being created. Zandsculpturen Oostende, the Ostend Sand Sculpture Festival takes place on the beach during the same period.
Eating and Drinking
If there’s just one thing in Belgian cuisine you must try, it has to be moules-frites (mosselen-friet in Flemish), a big bowl of mussels served with a side of chips (fries), so popular it’s practically considered the national dish of Belgium. Or perhaps gaufres, waffles, served either dusted with sugar or topped with whipped cream and cherry compote. But don’t forget carbonnade à la flamande (stoverij), a rich beef stew usually served with chips or mashed potato; gerookte haring, smoked herring, and maatjesharing, soused herring, straight from seafood stalls along the Visserskaai; or the chocolate, or the beers…
Ostend has a wide selection of places to eat and drink for all tastes and budgets. I tried:
- CultuurCafé, inside De Grote Post, near Leopoldpark. The former Ostend central post office building was converted into a centre for arts and culture in 2012, preserving the stunning mid-century modern architecture and interior. Stop by for a coffee and to gaze at the design on display in the lobby, and imagine yourself as some kind of Mad Men-esque marketing executive.
- Hotel du Parc, which has the look of a grand art deco dining room as you enter from the street, but houses a relaxed café with an extensive menu of waffles. Perfect for exhausted sailors to relax, stuff their faces with tasty treats, and watch the world pass by.
- La Siesta, a Spanish-Mexican tapas cocktail bar just off Kapellestraat, for mojitos and tasty little bits of munchy food on sharing platters. It had a great selection of seafood dishes and plenty of vegetarian and vegan choices.
- Mommy’s Bastards, just back from the Vissersplein, a knowingly hipster gastropub with a great beer selection and plenty of cocktails, a menu of sharing plates, and bigger meals, including a big selection of burgers. The shrimp croquettes are a house speciality, and highly recommended. Live DJs play at the weekend.
- t’Kroegske is exactly the kind of surreal experience you’d hope for in Belgium. Two narrow town houses with a giant devil-fish’s head topping the tiled roof, and a façade painted in swirling cartoon colours. The interior is cramped, though often fits a live band in a corner, and filled with tatty bric-a-brac that spills out into the beer garden on the street. The bar is usually packed with interesting characters sampling the large beer menu.