Oostende is smack dab in the middle of the Belgian coast and is a popular beach destination for locals. But there’s plenty to do besides work on your tan. In fact, we have 10 reasons you should visit Oostende and none of them involve getting sandy.
But before I offer up my list, I have a confession to make. In the past, I may have been a bit hard on the Belgian coast in general. Growing up on the Atlantic coast of Canada, it was hard for me to get excited by a tiny coastline lined with concrete buildings and packed with people. But after a wonderful weekend in Oostende, (Ostend in English), at the behest of the tourist office, I owe the city an apology, so here it is:
Oostende, I humbly apologise for judging you, without spending any time getting to know you first. My bad. You rock. No hard feelings.
Now, on to the list:
1. Eat Fresh Seafood
Oostende is home to a small but bustling fish market where you can pick up the catch of the day, fresh from the fishing boats. If you don’t eat anything else in Oostende, make sure you try the deliciously sweet North Sea grey shrimps. They’re a Belgian favourite and further along the coast you can still see them fished the old-school way, by the Shrimp Fishermen on Horseback.
If, like us, you’d prefer to leave the seafood cooking to the professionals, there are a whole host of fantastic restaurants to choose from. In fact, we enjoyed dining in Oostende so much; we wrote a whole post about it.
2. Economise with the City Pass
Over our weekend in Oostende, we had big plans to see everything the city had to offer. Luckily, Visit Oostende provided us with their new City Pass. It was a convenient way for us to visit all of the museums and attractions we wanted to, without pulling out our wallets each time. The City Pass is available for 24, 48, or 72 hours, or there is a handy 1 year pass for only €25, so you can return whenever you like.
3. Admire Art at Mu.ZEE
Several people had recommended Oostende’s art museum, Mu.ZEE, to us, over the years. Still, I expected a small gallery we could visit in an hour or so. How wrong I was. We had over two hours to explore the collections, before our lunch reservation, and we barely scratched the surface. The museum is deceptively large, with corridors snaking off in all directions.
The permanent collection focuses on Belgian art from 1850 to the present. Highlights include works by James Ensor, Léon Spilliaert and Constant Permeke.
If you visit Mu.Zee before November 17, 2013, you can enjoy the excellent DADA and Surrealism exhibition, focusing on the artist and collector E.L.T. Mesens. Mesens put Belgian surrealism on the map and launched René Magritte’s career. It’s a fascinating exhibition and well worth the trip to Oostende in and of itself.
4. Explore the Quirky James Ensor Museum
Before James Ensor was an internationally recognized artist, he was an Oostende resident. In fact, he spent most of his life and career working in the house he inherited from his uncle. He maintained the bizarre souvenir shop downstairs and created many of his famous works in the Blue Drawing Room. The house is now a museum, lovingly restored to how it was in Ensor’s day.
For even more insights into the artist’s life in Oostend, you can take the Perfume of Ostend digital walk (available from the Visit Oostende office or as part of the City Pass). The walk also includes a guide to the permanent collection of Mu.ZEE.
5. Enjoy Oostende’s Public Art
If you prefer to admire art in the open air, Oostende has plenty for you to enjoy outdoors. Start at the Royal Gallery where you can enjoy a free exhibition of portrait photography.
Walk towards the casino along the promenade and admire the ‘Dansende Golven’ (Dancing Waves) sculpture by Patrick Steenon.
Continue along the promenade until you reach the bright red shapes that make up ‘Rock Strangers’ by Arne Quinze. Watching people move through and interact with the shapes can be almost as interesting as the art itself.
6. Walk in the Footsteps of Marvin Gaye
The brand new, interactive, Midnight Love Tour takes you back to 1981, when singer, Marvin Gaye, first arrived in Oostende. This two hour walk takes you through Gaye’s troubled past and includes video clips of the singer and interviews with the people who gave him a home in Oostende.
You’ll learn how ‘Sexual Healing’ was born in an Oostende apartment and you’ll be singing along through the streets of the city. Rent your tour iPods, for €5, from the Visit Oostende office, in front of the casino.
7. Find your Moment of Zen in the Japanese Garden
You’ll be hard pressed to find it in any of the tourism literature, but just off Oostende’s bustling beach promenade is a tiny oasis of tranquillity. In the middle of the Konings Park is a beautiful Japanese Garden, called Shin Kai Tei (Deep Sea Garden). The garden was created in the ‘Kaiyusschiki’ style and includes water features, bamboo, statues and a rock garden. Wander the winding paths or simply relax and enjoy the peace and quiet with your own personal moment of zen. The garden is free to the public but is only open on weekends. It’s well worth tearing yourself away from the beach to enjoy.
8. Ride the World’s Longest Tram Route
Belgium may have one of the shortest coastlines in the world, but it’s home to the world’s longest tram line. The Belgian Coast Tram (De Kusttram, in Dutch) runs the entire length of the coast, from De Panne, near France, to Knokke-Heist, near the Netherlands. You can ride the entire 68km, or hop on and off at the 70 stops along the way. There are 1, 3, 5 and 7 day passes available for you to enjoy throughout your holiday on the coast.
9. Lose Yourself in the Atlantic Wall
Just outside of Oostende’s city centre is one of the best preserved sections of the infamous German Atlantikwall. This defensive series of bunkers ran all the way from Norway to the Pyrenees. You can wander through the subterranean fortifications and see what life was like for the soldiers stationed inside. Allow several hours to visit the entire museum and be sure to visit during the warmer months as the museum is closed from 11 November to 23 March. (Read our full article on The Atlantic Wall for more details.)
The Atlantic Wall Museum is part of the larger Raversyde complex, which also includes the Prince Charles Memorial and the Anno 1465 (Walraversijde) Fishing Village Museum.
10. Get a Good Night’s Sleep in the Leopold Hotel
To see everything there is to see in Oostende, we highly recommend spending an entire weekend (or longer) in the city. For a good night’s sleep, try the Leopold Hotel, located minutes from the Promenade, in a quiet corner of the city centre. Our hotel room included a mini-kitchen (although minus a fridge which we found a bit odd) and a vast bathroom with a tub and shower.
We enjoyed the champagne breakfast buffet, complete with Belgian waffles, in the artsy dining room. There are 28 ‘Cosy Rooms,’ 18 ‘Superior Rooms,’ 2 suites and 14 ‘Family Rooms,’ with extra bedrooms for the kids.
Oostende is so much more than a ‘beach town.’ In fact, we didn’t have nearly enough time to do all the things we wanted to during our weekend stay. We’ll definitely be returning to uncover even more reasons to visit Oostende, beyond the beach.
We’d like to offer our thanks to Visit Oostende for sponsoring part of our visit to the city and for allowing us to write (as we always do) our open and honest review.