The largest city on Belgium’s coast is imbued with a royal flair that goes back to the middle of the 19th century when it became Leopold I’s resort of choice.
Belgium’s aristocracy followed suit, and Ostend’s lofty status is confirmed by its genteel parks and regal monuments like the Sint-Petrus-en-Pauluskerk and the seafront colonnade, the Royal Galleries.
The resort’s appeal is universal, and comes from its many kilometres of broad sandy beaches, served by a promenade loaded with cafes and seafood restaurants.
And to go with all this there’s enough military, maritime and cultural heritage to keep everyone under Ostend’s spell.
1. Atlantic Wall Museum
Ostend’s Raversyde neighbourhood has been left with one of the best preserved remnants of the immense German Second World War coastal defence, the Atlantikwall.
This piece is made up of two kilometres of tunnels and trenches, 60 bunkers, as well as observation posts and gun positions.
The site has become a superlative open-air museum that you can explore under your own steam, while an audioguide sheds new light on these 80-year-old structures.
These are all restored to their wartime appearance and fitted with authentic weapons (one with a real PAK 40 anti-tank gun), along with furniture and equipment.
Within the same museum there’s a rare example of a surviving WWI coastal defence, the Aachen Battery, set up by the German Army.
2. Beach of Ostend
In the warmer months the appeal of Ostend’s beach is self-explanatory.
There’s around seven kilometres of irresistible fine sand, more than 100 metres wide in places.
Well over half of the beach is edged by a promenade, the longest and liveliest portion of which is the Albert I Promenade, packed with cafes and seafood restaurants for moules-frites.
The beach is divided in to six different sections, and the largest of these is the Groot Strand at two kilometres long.
This widens the further west you go, and has ample facilities with beach clubs, showers, a first aid station and the like.
Keep going west, past the grand Royal Galleries and you’ll be on the Sportstrand, set aside for young people to have fun kite-surfing, climbing or playing beach volleyball.
If you tire of the beach you can rent anything from pedal carts to Segways, for a ride along the promenade.
3. Zeilschip Mercator
This handsome 78.5-meter, three-master sailboat is permanently moored in front of Ostend’s city hall, serving as a floating museum and landmark.
The Mercator, named after the Flemish cartographer, was built in Scotland and launched in 1932, put to use as a training ship, but also a research vessel and ambassador for Belgium at world fairs.
After a long and eventful career, during which only two captains were at the helm, the Mercator became a museum ship in 1964 and gained National Heritage status in 1996. Perhaps its most important voyage was in 1936 when it brought home the remains of missionary and saint Father Damien who perished from leprosy on Molokai.
The Mercator is a cherished piece of Ostend’s heritage, restored down to the smallest detail and frozen in its mid-20th-century heyday.
On board, and crouching under some low ceilings, you’ll learn about the Mercator’s crew via information boards and a accompanying leaflet.
4. Kusttram (Coast Tram)
Almost all of the Belgian coast is served by a tramline that first opened between Ostend and Nieuwpoort in 1885. The Kusttram is now almost 70 kilometres long and as well as being one of the few interurban tramways still running, is also the longest tramline in the world.
There are 67 stops along the line, and in the peak summer period there will be a service every 10 minutes.
This makes attractions like the museums at Raversyde a breeze to get to and, as of 2020, a day pass is just €7 letting you hop on and off at your leisure.
Ostend is on one of the most scenic stretches of the line, with constant sea views between this city and Middelkerke.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that this magnificent neo-Gothic church on the namesake square is much older than it actually is.
King Leopold II (1835-1909) had ambitious plans for Ostend and had been itching to build a grander place of worship than the Sint-Pieterskerk that stood at this site.
His chance came when that church burnt down in 1896, leaving only the tower, Sint-Pieterstoren behind.
Leopold’s new church, built from Meuse limestone, was ready by 1907 and makes an impact, at 70 metres high and 70 metres long.
There’s profuse decoration, in the flying buttresses, pinnacles, crockets, blind arches, spectacular east rose window and the carvings of St Peter (l), Mary (c) and St Paul (r) around the main portal.
Inside, the nave has rib vaults in the French High Gothic style, with stained glass produced by artist Michiel Martens depicting the Belgian kings and queens and the church’s patron saints, Peter and Paul.
Leopold II’s mother Louise of Orléans had died in Ostend in 1850, and her tomb is in a purpose-built hexagonal chapel purposely ordered by her son.
6. Koninklijke Gaanderijen (Royal Galleries)
West of the Albert I-Promenade the seafront walkway becomes the Koning Boudewijnpromenade when it reaches the Royal Villa.
From here, for almost 400 metres up to the Hippodrome Wellington racecourse there’s a stately Doric colonnade dating from the beginning of the 20th century.
This was built to protect bourgeois and aristocratic visitors from the elements on their way to and from the waterfront’s amenities, and is paved with geometric mosaics.
The Royal Galleries were designed by French architect Charles Girault and intended to evoke Roman architecture from the 2nd-century reign of Emperor Hadrian.
Over the central section is the luxury Thermae Palace Hotel, built in 1932-33.
7. Fort Napoleon
In the dunes East of the harbour is a polygonal Napoleonic-era fort completed in 1811. This is a holdover from the War of the Fifth Coalition of 1809, when Napoleon was expecting a seaborne attack from the United Kingdom to help the Austrian Empire reclaim territory that had previously been theirs.
This never actually occurred and Fort Napoleon was soon obsolete until becoming a German headquarters in the First World War and an artillery base in the Second World War.
There’s a thrilling remnant from the First World War in the form of murals painted by the German soldier Heinrich Otto Pieper.
The facility, still completely intact, has been given a new interpretive trail, which has also been adapted for children.
8. ANNO 1465 Raversyde
Keeping you in Raversyde a little longer is a museum and archaeological site at the former Medieval fishing village of Walraversijde.
The roots of this settlement, on what was once an island, go back as far as the Neolithic period.
But Walraversijde’s apogee came in the middle of the 15th century when there was a prospering fishing industry, while the layout of the dwellings excavated, and some of the artefacts recovered, point to a high degree of sophistication.
This had all been forgotten just over a century later, when the village was caught up and then lost in the Eighty Years’ War.
Three houses and a bakery have been painstakingly reconstructed at ANNO 1465, using bricks unearthed in digs and accurate replicas of furniture from the period.
You can pore over the many items recovered in the excavations, and Walraversijde’s villagers tell their stories on the audioguide.
A couple of streets in from the waterfront there’s a rambling English park landscaped during the 1860s on the site of the old city fortifications.
Set around a pond, Leopoldpark is a peaceful place to get out of the breeze for an hour or two, and has a few monuments of its own to track down.
The Flower Clock, measuring nine metres in diameter, was first planted in 1933 and moved to its current spot in 1963. The hands are covered in gold leaf and behind it is a bell cast in 1748 and brought here from the Sint-Pieterskerk, which burnt down in 1896. There’s a very pretty bandstand, put up in 1885, with delicate wrought iron balustrades and holding regular music performances in summer.
Leopoldpark is the venue for a food truck festival, Barrio Cantina, in June, and a cosy Christmas market with an ice rink.
Ostend has produced lots of important artists, not least James Ensor, Léon Spilliaert and Constant Permeke.
The city acquired an art collection with a gift in 1885 and eventually found a permanent home in 1986 at a Modernist former department store dating to 1947. Mu.ZEE focuses on Belgian art from the middle of the 19th century to the present, and, as well as the artists already named, has works by luminaries like Luc Tuymans, Jan Fabre, René Magritte, Paul Delvaux, Karel Appel and Panamarenko.
A whole wing, opened in 2018 is permanently devoted to the oeuvre of filmmaker and animator Raoul Servais.
The museum is constantly expanding its collection, and offers new ways of approaching Belgian modern and contemporary art thanks to a cutting-edge “transhistorical” and “transcultural” exhibition programme.
11. Maria Hendrikapark
Leopold II ordered this 45-hectare park on a plot that of land outside the old city walls.
First opened in 1892, the park was named after his wife, Maria Hendrika of Austria.
The Maria Hendrikapark was conceived as a place to walk or ride in greenery, and has plenty of water beside meandering paths now beloved by joggers.
There’s a little island on the main pond, where the Koninginnehof (Queen’s Court) has a cafeteria and restaurant with lots of outdoor seating.
There’s also a miniature golf course, two playgrounds and you can rent equipment like pedal carts, as well as pedal boats and rowboats for the water.
12. Museumschip Amandine
A chapter in Ostend’s history was closed in April 1995 when this trawler returned to port for the last time.
The Amandine (launched 1961) is the last “IJslandvaarder”, from a fleet of trawlers that made long-distance expeditions to the waters around Iceland.
The restored vessel is in dry dock at the Visserskai, a few short steps from the train station.
Go aboard for a sense of what the crew went through on those long voyages.
The Amandine has been left as if it’s just returned to port, and you can browse models, fishing gear, some hands-on exhibits and an informative short movie.
13. Western Breakwater (Westelijke Strekdam)
One of the simple pleasures of visiting Ostend’s waterfront is braving the wind and walking out along the recently opened breakwater that arcs around the west side of the harbour entrance.
This is one portion of a mammoth construction project at the port, given the go-ahead as long ago as 1999 but only completed in 2010. From that time to 2016 the 700-metre breakwater was an unofficial attraction, popular with walkers but actually unsafe.
This changed with an extra layer of concrete on top, as well as lighting, benches and public art.
At sunset the view from the Westelijke Strekdam, also known as De Nieuwe Oostende Pier, is beautiful as it gets.
14. Street Art
Ostend’s 20th-century cityscape has been transformed by breathtaking, large-scale murals since 2016 through an annual contemporary street art festival called The Crystal Ship.
With each new year this curated event leaves behind yet more giant works of art and installations that have to be seen to be believed.
The Crystal Ship is the largest event of its kind in Europe, involving scores of world-renowned artists (Phlegm, Guido van Helten, Sebas Velasco, Pastel…) and taking place in the first week of the city’s Easter holidays.
In the meantime, Ostend’s tourist office has created an itinerary that comes with a free map (as well as a kids’ guide) so you see the transformative murals that have been painted since 2016.
Every summer from late-June to the end of September The Groote Strand hosts a one-of-a-kind sand sculpture event.
During this time some 40 artists from 12 different nations contribute sand sculptures to an extraordinary outdoor gallery on the beach.
These creations, rising to 12 metres high, are made with sand shipped in from the Ardennes by some 240 trucks.
The sculptures can be admired on a one-kilometre, fully accessible trail and are built to resist anything the Belgian summer can throw at them.
the Sand Sculpture Festival is officially the largest event of its kind in the world, spread out over 10,000 square metres.