At the mouth of the IJzer (Yser), Nieuwpoort mixes a historic port with a booming beach resort.
Fishing is still a way of life here, as you’ll discover at the Vismijn auction hall, and the nearby National Fisheries Museum.
On the resort side, Nieuwpoort-Bad is growing at high speed, and has a grid of multi-storey apartment blocks footed by boutiques, cafes and restaurants.
Nieuwpoort is on the Belgian coast’s Kusttram system, so you can use public transport to shoot between the old city and the resort in a matter of minutes.
Before it flows into the North Sea, the IJzer River passes through an ingenious set of spillways and locks in Nieuwpoort.
Known as the Ganzepoot, this 19th-century system was used to flood Nieuwpoort’s backcountry for the entirety of the First World War.
1. Strand van Nieuwpoort
The beach in front of Nieuwpoort Bad is an endless ribbon of pale sand that merges with Groenindijk Strand a few hundred metres to the west.
The beach is up to 50 metres wide, and when the tide goes out the North Sea retreats for what seems like miles.
Behind the beach is that giant wall of new apartment blocks, fronted by a broad promenade where people whizz by on bikes, electric scooters and Segways.
East of the beach is the last reach of the IJzer River, and you can walk or ride along the left bank to travel between Nieuwpoort proper and the resort.
The promenade here has a boardwalk with benches and jetties, so you can look out at the estuary to see if you can spot some oystercatchers, curlews, little egrets and little grebes that make their habitat in the IJZermonding nature reserve on the opposite bank.
First off, if you want to know why Nieuwpoort’s fish auction hall is called the Vismijn, it’s because before the days of electronic bidding bidders would yell “mine” (mijn). Right on the IJzer in the centre of Nieuwpoort proper, the Vismijn was built in 1952 and expanded in the 70s.
The trawlers in Nieuwpoort’s fleet are never out to sea for more than five days, and unload their catch for daily wholesale auctions beginning at 07:00 or 08:00. You can watch these in person on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, or you could sign up for a guided tour for the inside track.
This fish and seafood is sold to local fishmongers and restaurants, many of which are based right in front along the Kaai.
Two long wooden piers built in 1865 flank the IJzer River on its way out to the North Sea.
Both the Westerstaketsel (west) and the Oosterstaketsel (east) have a foghorn and beacon at their tip designed like a little lighthouse.
The east pier is a bit longer than the west one, at 543 metres, compared to 490. Both will be lined with people casting fishing rods and are great if you want a fresh blast of sea air, to watch the seaborne traffic going past and gaze back at Nieuwpoort’s beachfront and dunes.
The scenery is gorgeous at sunset, and you can hang around a while to see Nieuwpoort-Bad lighting up.
Right by Westfront near the centre of Nieuwpoort is a sophisticated lock complex where six waterways converge.
The Ganzepoot (goose foot) gets its name from how it looks from above, and is part of a 19th-century land management project to drain the polders around Nieuwpoort and channel that water out to the North Sea via the IJzer.
The spillways at the Ganzepoot help remove surplus water from the polders, while the locks maintain the water level for boats.
At high water the spillways are blocked and then open again when the tide goes out.
In 1914 these were left open on purpose, totally flooding the polder and halting the German advance.
The polder would stay underwater for the next four years.
5. Westfront Nieuwpoort
The Koning Albert I-Monument was unveiled in 1938, paying tribute to the recently departed Albert I of Belgium (1875-1934), as well as the Belgian troops in the First World War.
Built from the pale bricks of the IJzer plain, this circular monument is 25 metre tall and 30 metres in diameter.
At the very top is a kind of circular lintel, 100 metres in circumference, which has walkway and orientation tables.
Below, on a brick plinth, in the centre of the circle is an equestrian statue of Albert I by sculptor Karel Aubroeck (1894-1986). In 2014, at the centenary of the beginning of the First World War the monument was rechristened Westfront Nieuwpoort and a new visitor centre was unveiled.
Among other things, this recalls the flooding of the Ijzer Plain in 1914.
6. Stadshal met Belfort
The 35-metre belfry on Nieuwpoort’s market square belongs to a cross-border UNESCO World Heritage Site, made up of 56 historic belfries around Belgium and Northern France.
After the original town hall and belfry were dynamited in the First World War, the city took the chance to recreate the original Gothic monument built in 1280. This is a beautiful building, with crocketed pinnacles, corner turrets and little arched recesses along the facade.
The belfry, rising from the east facade, has five floors with pairs of narrow lancet windows in a an Early Gothic style.
7. NAVIGO-Nationaal Visserijmuseum
Oostduinkerke, just a stone’s throw from Nieuwpoort, has been home to Belgium’s National Fisheries Museum since the 1970s.
This was reworked in the 2000s, and is a multifaceted and interactive attraction, bringing together art, social history, craftsmanship and natural history.
You can find out about the daring IJslaandvaarders who for centuries made intrepid fishing expeditions up to Icelandic waters and discover a local tradition that persists in Oostduinkerke, where shrimp fishermen drag their nets on horseback.
The exhibition lets you step inside a traditional fishing cottage, inspect the OD.1 “Martha” inland fishing vessel and view aquarium tanks presenting the marine life of the North Sea.
From Nieuwpoort-Bad east to the resort of Westende-Bad you can walk or ride through a coastal dunescape where nature has been allowed to take over.
Until not long ago this 45-hectare reserve was the site of two campgrounds, and also still has relics from both world wars, including bunkers from the German Atlantikwall from WWII.
The campgrounds were cleared in the 2000s and typical dune vegetation, like prickly saltwort, sea spurge and seaside centaury has started to appear.
Orchids are also expected before long.
The reserve is beginning to draw birdlife like the rare crested lark, grasshopper warbler and garden warbler, as well as a variety of butterflies.
If you’re heading to the Sint-Laureinsduinen by bike, the entrance is at junction (knooppunt) 75.
Possibly the prettiest spot in Nieuwpoort proper is the market square where you can appreciate the town hall and Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk from an outdoor table at one of the bars and restaurants.
The Marktplein has been restored to its historic appearance: Every building is constructed from pale IJzer bricks and most have crow-stepped gables or dormers.
A weekly market trades on the cobblestones every Friday morning, selling fruit and vegetables, cut flowers, herbs, clothes, confectionery, dairy, meat and a great deal more.
In a story repeated throughout Nieuwpoort, this three-aisled Gothic hall church was toppled and reconstructed a couple of times in the 20th century.
The first mention of a church here is from the 12th century, and the building standing here up to the First World War was 15th-century, with a tower completed in 1735. That was sadly obliterated, and the same fate was in store for the next church in 1940. The neo-Gothic reconstruction took place in 1946, and the separate bell tower was ready in 1952. Take the chance to go in to see the painting Slag bij Nieuwpoort in 1600 (Battle of Nieuwpoort), on the south aisle and attributed to Northern Dutch academic painter Louis Moritz (1773-1850). This used to hang in the town hall’s council chamber but was moved to the church after the First World War.
11. Nieuwpoort Lighthouse
Out in the dunes on the right bank of the IJzer at Lombardzijde is Nieuwport’s lighthouse, painted in red and white bands and emitting two flashes every 14 seconds, with a range of 16 nautical miles.
Strictly speaking, this is more a landmark than a tourist attraction, but you might be interested in its story.
This tower is one of a long line of beacons for Nieuwpoort, going back at least as far as the 13th century.
The first lighthouse on this exact site was built in 1881 but razed during the Battle of the Yser.
Its replacement was erected in 1922 but that was brought down by the retreating Germans in 1944. The present lighthouse has been here since 1949 and had a lighthouse keeper until it was automated in 1963.
Laid down in 1868, Spoorlijn 74 was a 15.8-kilometre railway between Nieuwpoort-Bad and the village of Kaaskerke to the south.
In the First World War the line got the name Frontzate (roughly, Front Lane) as its embankment was a first line of defence in the Battle of the Yser, poking above a flooded landscape.
Passenger traffic ended in the50s, and the line was eventually broken up in the 70s, to be later turned into a greenway for walkers and cyclists.
The route trails through a green polder landscape, and on its edges there are still lots of holdovers from the First World War like observations posts, gun positions and bunkers.
The last survivor of Nieuwpoort’s city fortifications from the beginning of the 19th century is an artillery magazine raised between 1818 and 1822. The Bommenvrij was protected as a monument in 1994, as a rare piece of Dutch military architecture from the period, and forms an interesting pair with ruined Duvetorre (more below). This is the only building that survived the bombardment in 1914 intact, and you can get a good look from Schoolstraat.
The Bommenvrij’s brick vaults have been turned into a dramatic space for art studios and exhibitions, although opening times can be a little irregular.
To the back of the Bommenvrij, off Willem de Roolaan are the decaying ruins of a tower that has witnessed every phase of Nieuwpoort’s history since the 13th century.
It was originally the tower for the Church of St Lawrence (1281), destroyed in the 14th century and then turned into a castle around 1400 by Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy.
In the 16th century this was a billet for Spanish forces, and then in the Dutch period in the early 19th century it was turned into a watchtower for their fortifications.
In 1916 the building was hit by German shells and now stands in ruins as a monument.
The name, Duvetorre (Devil Tower) is supposedly a connection to Jeanne Panne (1593-1650), an unfortunate Nieuwpoort baker’s wife, executed at the stake for witchcraft.
15. Sunparks Oostduinkerke aan Zee
If you catch some inclement weather or want to bathe somewhere out of the breeze, this holiday resort five minutes from the centre of Nieuwpoort has a pool complex under a giant glass roof.
You can buy a day pass, which will give you access to the pool building, called Aquafun.
This houses a subtropical pool, a wave pool, a lazy river and a variety of slides like the Black Hole.
Grownups will have their eyes on the relaxation area, West Coast Wellness, which offers a peaceful outdoor pool, a sauna, baths and choice of massages.