Situated on the Flemish Coast, the North Sea gem of Ostend effortlessly combines rustic charm with palatial splendour, as well as first-rate seafood and impressive art galleries
Over recent years, Belgium’s ‘city by the sea’ has blossomed into a cultural enclave boasting striking architecture, destination restaurants, stylish boutiques and impressive art galleries. It was once the Belgian royal family’s favourite holiday retreat, and their regal influence is still palpable as you stroll past seafront colonnades.
What to do
The coastal city is a seafood-lovers’ fantasy. Start your day at Visserskaai (the bustling fish market), where fishermen sell their early morning’s catch to restaurants and bargain-hungry locals. For the freshest fish of the day, aim to arrive as the boats are docking (around 6am). Enjoy a breakfast of grey shrimp while at the harbour and take time to explore the Amandine (www.museum-amandine.be), the last Icelandic fishing vessel to dock in Ostend. It is now home to an impressive interactive museum charting the long history of the area’s fishing industry.
At the heart of Ostend is the Casino-Kursaal (www.cko.be; Oostehling 12), dominating the seafront; it forms the cultural and social epicentre of the city, hosting international performers, events and exhibitions. Stroll along the beachfront lined with chic bathing huts and, to get a sense of the city’s regal history, walk down the Royal Galleries to Thermae Palace. This authentic art deco hotel maintains a sense of the majesty and luxury of previous eras.
Ostend’s artistic legacy is proudly on show at every turn – alongside the, often surprising, glimpses of modernist architecture there are gilded statues and ornate gardens scattered across the city. Ostend was once home to James Ensor, one of Belgium’s most celebrated 19th-century artists. His former studio is now a museum exhibiting reproductions of his most famous works. The café that he visited daily for inspiration, Taverne James (James Ensor Gallerie 34), still serves his favourite snack of shrimp croquettes, a speciality of the region.
Where to stay
The Thermae Palace at the western end of the city’s promenade is an architectural gem. Its whitewashed form dominates the city’s coastline and cuts an imposing figure on the Koningin Astridlaan. Most of the hotel’s 159 spacious rooms and suites have sea views and it is perfectly placed for the racecourse and nine-hole golf course. Another design-led treasure is the Hotel du Parc, in the city centre. The rooms provide a fresh, modern retreat and are full of charming period touches – in keeping with the building’s impressive exterior. A little way out of the city, but worth the journey, spend a peaceful night in a converted barn among a sea of swaying cornfields at Polderhof B&B, and enjoy a hearty breakfast with other guests at the rustic refectory table.
Where to eat and drink
It is hard to have a bad meal in Ostend and there is a selection of restaurants and bistros to suit all budgets and appetites, whether you dine at Michelin-recommended restaurant Ostend Queen (00 32 59 29 50 55; www.ostendqueen.be) or pull up a chair at one of the local fishermen’s haunts in charming Visserskaai. Dine at the Périgord restaurant (00 32 59 806 644) in the Thermae Palace for panoramic views and a decadent 1930s atmosphere. Feast on local specialities including eels in green herb sauce and fresh oysters at Le Grillon (00 32 59 70 60 63; www.legrillon.be) in Visserskaai. Petit Nice (00 32 59 80 39 28; www.petitnice.be) serves beautifully executed dishes in its seafront dining room.
For supplies to take home, a visit to Haspeslagh Kaas (00 32 59 70 17 82) on Witte Nonnenstraat is a must – the city’s finest cheese shop is packed with a huge selection of delicacies from around the world.
Time running out?
East of the city the imposing citadel of Fort Napoleon (00 32 59 32 00 48; www.fortnapoleon.be) crouches in the dunes. Built by the Emperor in 1811 to defend the coastline from attacks by the British, today it is a unique gallery space, restaurant and bistro. Visitors can wander through narrow chambers and revel in the history of the building before enjoying drinks on a beachside terrace sheltered by the towering dunes.
The tourist office on Monacoplein has all manner of maps and guides as well as City Passes that grant visitors half-price access to Ostend’s major attractions, which are valid for one year.
Did you know?
American singer Marvin Gaye wrote 'Sexual Healing' during a prolonged stay in Ostend.
Currency is the euro. Ostend is one hour ahead of GMT and a three-hour 45-minute train journey from London. Alternatively, fly to Brussels and take a train to Ostend (one-hour 15-minutes).
Eurostar (0870 518 6186; www.eurostar.com). Change at Brussels for one of the regular intercity train connections with Ostend.
Transeuropa Ferries (01843 595522; www.transeuropaferries.com). Ramsgate to Ostend crossing takes four hours.
Tourism Ostend: 00 32 59 70 11 99; www.toerisme-oostende.be.
This guide first appeared in Food and Travel magazine.