On the Scheldt Estuary, Breskens is a fishing town that for hundreds of years made its livelihood on the water.
Since the 20th century the fishing industry has declined, but its memory lives on in a fishery museum in the harbour and a fishery festival every summer when you can soak up old-time Zeeland maritime culture.
Tourism has taken over from fishing in Breskens, which is helped by an ever-growing marina, an epic sandy beach right next to the town and a pastoral polder interior for walks and bike rides.
The town is also well-connected with a ferry that whisks you across the Scheldt to the storied port city of Vlissingen.
1. Breskens Beach
Beside the ferry harbour, the main beach in Breskens is four kilometres long and tracked by a tall dike.
On the town side you can see the black and white Breskens Lighthouse in the distance, and watch the comings and goings on the Scheldt from the shore.
The beach has a generous spread of golden sand, and clean waters that earn it a regular Blue Flag.
Children can build sandcastles and splash in the surf, which is normally gentle in the estuary.
Breskens Beach has a secluded bathing area for naturists, while there’s a pair of beach pavilions, Loods Tien and ‘t Halve Maentje, which are a signature of the Dutch seaside.
Get a table on one of the sheltered terraces and try a regional speciality like Zeeland-style mussels, in season from July to April.
2. Breskens Lighthouse
The scenic path atop the dike behind Breskens Beach is the appropriately named Panoramaweg.
The black and white Nieuwe Sluis lighthouse two thirds of the way along the beach can be seen from far and wide, and officially marks the entrance to the Western Scheldt.
Built in 1866-67, this octagonal 28.4-metre tower is the oldest surviving cast iron lighthouse in the Netherlands.
In the past the Nieuwe Sluis used to be atop the dyke but was moved down when the dike was raised during the construction of the Delta Works in the mid-20th century.
The lighthouse was finally decommissioned in 2011, but a foundation was set up to restore this national monument and it reopened to visitors in 2015 with a working beacon.
You can climb the stairs and admire the view across to Vlissingen and the coastline of Walcheren.
3. Visserijmuseum Breskens
Open from the start of April to the end of October, the fishery museum above the fish market tackles all kinds of maritime topics.
Above all else you’ll get in touch with the lives of the hardy Bressiaander fishermen, learning about what they fished, how they fished it, as well as their beliefs and superstitions.
There are displays of fishing gear, navigational instruments, clothing, models and more.
But the museum also dives into natural history.
There’s a collection of Pleistocene fossils exposed in the Scheldt estuary by the Delta Works, including an almost complete skeleton of a woolly mammoth and a dolphin skull.
The Zeeaquarium presents the species of the North Sea, like anemones, crabs, lobsters, blennies, sea bass and sticklebacks, while there’s an ornithological collection comprising scores of birds native to the Zeeland coast.
4. Groede Podium
A short way west in Groede is a WWII military site that has been turned into a woodland recreation area.
This complex of bunkers was built in 1942 on former farmland for the German Atlantikwall.
Following the war the bunkers were mostly covered with earth and a herd of deer was introduced, donated by Queen Wilhelmina.
In 2006 the terrain was re-landscaped and those bunkers were brought to light, many still daubed with their original camouflage.
You can check out these buildings and call in at the visitor centre, while there’s a hands-on playground and a farm park for children, home to deer and regional domestic breeds.
There’s a cafe with a sunny terrace, and paved walking and cycling paths beckoning you into the woods and fields.
5. Groese Polders
Between the Groede Podium and a cinematic stretch of beach, Groese Polders is a peaceful place to go for a walk or bike ride.
In this polder landscape reclaimed in the 17th century there’s dunes, scrub and pasture, where you’ll see sheep and cows like the regional cattle species “Zeeuwse Witrik”. Cletemspolder has a channel and creeks to cross on wooden boardwalks or via a neat cable ferry.
Tracing the paths are sweetbriar roses, wild gooseberries and sea buckthorns, and if you take your time you may spot birds like oystercatchers or grey plovers in migration season, or resident ringed plovers and redshanks.
Set a course for the beach and you can finish your walk with a beer and tapas at the swish Beachhouse 25, one of the best-loved beach pavilions on the West Zeeuws-Vlaanderen coast.
At the start of August you can find out what traditional life in a Zeeland fishing town is all about at the Visserijfeesten (Fishery Festival). This has been going since 1953, and over three days has fairground rides, live music, street performers, market stalls and lots of things for children to get up to.
And if you have an adventurous palate, there’s no excuse not to try a proper Dutch fish preparation, be it eel in a roll (broodje paling), soused herring or battered fish with a kind of aioli (kibbeling). There’s a swimming competition in the harbour, three nights of folk music until the early hours at the fish market hall, as well as boat rides in the Scheldt estuary on the lifeboat Carlot.
In the 2000s when the centre of Breskens was being regenerated the town set out this walking trail that shows you around everything you need to see on the waterside.
Heading east to west, the route includes the 850-berth marina (almost always full), the fishing harbour, the centre of the village where there’s a cluster of seafood restaurants and then out behind the beach.
At the end of the trail you can savour a sweeping view of the Scheldt estuary from the top of the dike.
8. Westerschelde Ferry
Throughout the day, 365 days a year there’s a ferry service zipping over the estuary from Breskens to the port city of Vlissingen.
The ferry is for pedestrians and cyclists only, and sails once an hour at quarter past on the way to Vlissingen and then at quarter to on the way to Breskens, with additional services in summer.
The crossing takes 23 minutes, and deposits you outside the train station so you can continue your journey into the Walcheren countryside or the picturesque city of Middelburg.
Historically known in English as Flushing, the port city across the estuary was a departure point for ships sailing to all corners of the empire in the Dutch Golden Age, and remains an important shipyard for the Royal Netherlands Navy.
The first thing to do when you dock in Vlissingen is amble along the Boulevard, which is the Netherlands’ longest seafront promenade.
On your walk you can take a seat to watch the ships passing along the Scheldt, and pick out Breskens in the distance.
Look for the 15th-century prison tower, the Beursgebouwe (Stock Exchange, 1635) and statue of the most famous admiral of the Golden Age, Michiel de Ruyter, a Vlissingen native.
As you’d guess for a town with Vlissingen’s pedigree, the Maritime “muZEEum” here is not to be missed.
The Catholic parish church is an intriguing relic from the post-war period.
Sint-Barbarakerk is a Noodkerk (emergency church), built from brick in 1950 and looking more like a school building than a place of worship.
Breskens only has a small Catholic congregation so there has never been a need to build a permanent church in the town.
The church opens to visitors in summer from Tuesday to Saturday, and a good reason to visit is to view the work of the priest/sculptor Omer Gielliet (1925-2017). He was posted at Breskens from 1970, and also had his studio here, producing whimsical organic forms from wood.
You can see another of his pieces, Wachters van de Schelde (Guardians of the Scheldt), at the harbour by the Visserijmuseum.