Only 15 minutes away from Bruges by train and just an hour from Brussels, the port city of Ostend (Oostende) – rejoicing in the titles, “the Queen of Beaches” or “The City by the Sea” – is, with around 70,000 inhabitants, Belgium’s biggest and best known coastal resort.
And it’s a vibrant, historically rich place to visit. Ostend’s spirit is egalitarian and welcoming; everyone goes to the seaside to enjoy themselves and everyone is welcome here, from royalty to the man on the Brussels omnibus.
From Lord Byron to Caruso and Albert Einstein everyone who’s anyone has spent time – and money – in Ostend. Marvin Gaye made his home here for a while in his turbulent 1980s, recuperating from a severe drug addiction and writing “Sexual Healing” the video to which was shot in the local casino.
To Belgians the most famous Ostendais of them all remains painter James Ensor who spent most of his life here.
Today Ostend has a modern look and feel and is geared to hosting major conferences and welcoming hordes of tourists.
With centuries of weary travellers and pleasure-seeking trippers passing through the city, they know how to do hospitality. Luckily nearly all the locals speak English as even their fellow Belgians struggle to get their ears around the thick local Flemish dialect.
Ostend may have lost some of its Belle Époque grandeur but it’s still very much alive and kicking and it’s a great little city to visit all year round.
Besides its several renowned beaches Ostend is packed with an enormous and diverse variety of accommodation and there’s plenty to do when the rain comes down.
There’s a lively nightlife scene with plenty of good restaurants and the city is a major shopping centre.
Ostend’s inhabitants are fiercely proud to be 'Ostendais' and are known in Belgium for their joie de vivre. The city has a well-equipped Tourism Office located right in front of the Casino. For opening hours, tips, advice, tours and much more check Visit Ostend.
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Back in the 9th century, Ostend was an unassuming fishing village marking the two extremes of the ancient island of Testerep. It eventually became a city in the Middle Ages. The name literally means “the end of the East” and further down the Flemish coast you’ll find the corresponding Westende.
Testerep finally vanished beneath the waves in the 14th century and the people of Ostend decided enough was enough, rebuilding their town further inland behind some serious flood protection.
Like any major port Ostend has seen its share of trouble down the ages. The Vikings paid a few visits. The Spanish held territory here and used Ostend as a base in their fight to maintain sovereignty over the Dutch during their 80 year war for independence.
The Spanish siege during the Dutch wars from 1601 to 1604 is described even by the most hard-bitten contemporaries as a ‘long carnival of death’. General Ambrosio Spinola’s invaders eventually triumphed in one of the bloodiest engagements of the entire 80 Years War. When the huge Dutch fleet blocked Antwerp’s essential access to the sea, Ostend’s importance increased.
As Europe passed from an age of exploration to one of severe exploitation, Belgium’s main port was an early beneficiary with its trading company and overseas colonies dating back to as far as 1727.
There is (sadly) nearly nothing left from this period to see or visit around the city. The official City Museum will get you up to speed on the rich history of your immediate surroundings.
Fit for Royalty
Looking at Ostend today, it’s easy to forget its cosmopolitan history; through Belgium’s first king Leopold I even the Imperial Russian Army has its Ostend links. It was Leopold who first set up a British-style seaside resort here after taking his new nation’s throne in 1831.
It was his son, the infamous Leopold II, however, who really put the royal stamp on Ostend, building several suitably grand houses and monuments fit for a king here.
King Leopold II, who ruled Belgium from 1865 to 1909, spent almost as much time in Ostend as he did at his capital in Brussels. In his wake came the good and the great who turned Ostend into a resort to rival Brighton or Deauville.
Ostend was rich, busy and dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure. To this day Monaco’s consulate in Belgium is based in the city, a legacy of the travelling habits of the super rich who once played there.
World War I signalled an apocalyptic end to the carefree elegance of the Belle Époque and ended Ostend’s days as an international resort, but the city retained its attraction for European travellers.
An airport and marina soon made the city accessible from many more places than the traditional English ferry ports and improved rail links from Brussels and the Belgian interior opened Ostend back up once more.
The city soon started to show signs of becoming a Riviera-style playground on the North Sea again and flourished once more.
Getting There & Getting About
The easiest ways to get to Ostend are to take the Eurostar to Brussels followed by a direct train to the city. Or you can drive through the Chunnel or jump on a car ferry to Calais, Dunkirk or Zeebrugge.
Train schedules, tickets and itineraries from any station in Belgium to the terminus at Ostend are available via the Belgian Rail travel tool. The city is also on many coach routes.
Sadly Ryanair has quit Ostend airport and efforts to re-establish a regular air connection are 'ongoing'.
Once there, a bicycle or rented car is the simplest way to get around. A coastal tram route is an easy and scenic way to explore further afield, with more than 70 stops along its route.
It’s the world’s longest single tramline and from Ostend you can get anywhere along the coast. In summer there's one in each direction every 15 minutes.
Schedules can be consulted via the Flemish public transport operator De Lijn. Ostend is a pleasure to stroll and cycle around but if you’re in a hurry there are taxi ranks around the city.
Ostend has a wide range of accommodation. Whatever your budget, you can find something to suit in the city’s many hotels, guesthouses and B&B’s. Like most coastal resorts, Ostend has a vast selection of seasonal and holiday rental properties.
During the summer season and on public holidays accommodation can become scarce in the city. A positive weather forecast predicting sun and warm temperatures can cause a mass exodus from the cities inland to Ostend’s beautiful beaches.
If a day in the city is enough for you (although you can easily spend a week here), there’s a large rural hinterland where you can lay your head in quieter surroundings just a couple of miles from Ostend’s hustle and bustle.
Belgium is a small country, so everything is relatively near at hand and all Ostend lacks at the moment is a five star hotel.
Camping enthusiasts don't yet have a wide choice of sites in the city and pitching in the open countryside isn’t encouraged. Luckily there are plenty of sites to be found in the neighbouring towns of Bredene and Middelkerke.
For The Love of Beer
Sadly, there are no longer any brewers operating in Ostend but you will find a couple of great beers with strong links to the city. Keyte Tripel commemorates the Spanish siege at the beginning of the 17th century.
First brewed on the 400th anniversary of the siege’s end, Keyte is a sturdy blond, high-fermentation beer with an ABV of 7.7 %. There is also a dark variation called Keyte Dobbel - Tripel which boasts a hefty 9.2 % ABV.
Dikke Mathile has rather happier local connections, being named for the local nickname for the sculpture, The Sea – a famously voluptuous lady. It’s described as a ‘typical Ostend beer’ – it was commissioned by a couple of local beer lovers - and uses Munich and amber malts to give it its deep colour with Poperinge and Hallertau hops providing great flavour. Both Dikke Mathile and Keyte are brewed by the Strubbe brewery located in Ichtegem about 20 minutes from Ostend.
Last, but certainly not least, is Den Ostensche Baron or the Ostend Baron. This blond was first brewed in 1999 to mark the 150th anniversary of the death of the great Ostend artist James Ensor. It has a 6.5 % ABV but isn't easy to find, as it was a very special occasion beer we don't even know for sure that it is still being brewed.
There are a couple of cafes in the city which specialise in Belgian beer and a few shops and supermarkets where you can buy beer from too.
The Ostend Beer Combers is the local beer enthusiasts’ club and they organise a tasting festival during the first weekend in July. It’s held in the open air and you should find around 50 beers from 10 breweries.
According to Ratebeer.com’s 2011 awards, the world’s best restaurant for beer lovers was 'De Bistronoom' (which closed in 2013) on the Ostend sea front. Be sure to check our own lovingly researched Beer Tourism Destinations.
Food & Gastronomy
Ostend can’t boast a Michelin star yet but there’s plenty of good cuisine on offer. Van Iseghemlaan and Langestraat are just two of the busy central streets where you’ll find some fine food.
Mexican, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Greek, and French-Belgian gastronomy are all well represented on the local restaurant scene.
Seafood is of course a great strength of Ostend’s menus and you should find the freshest of fish here, straight from the North Sea.
Follow the locals’ lead and buy some crab claws, shrimp or other freshly caught seafood from the harbour’s shops and stalls to enjoy on a terrace with a refreshing beer of choice.
Even if they don't sell food themselves most proprietors don't mind you bringing your own snacks, it's all part of the "couleur locale".
You’ll find most of Belgium’s major chocolate brands on offer in Ostend and some great places serving fantastic pies, pancakes, waffles and other sweet specialties.
Shopping & Markets
You can shop till you drop in the pedestrianised streets and shopping centres of Adolf Buylstraat, Kapellestraat and Vlaanderenstraat. Most of Ostend stays open on Sundays too and there’s a wide range of stores from boutiques and clothes stores to shops selling the local delicacies with plenty of quirky independent traders.
See our handy shopping listings for more information.
The main market day is Thursday when you should head to the open air city centre markets at Wapenplein, Mijnplein and Groentemarkt which are open between 7am and 1pm.
On Saturday mornings you’ll find smaller markets at the Wapenplein and Groentemarkt and on Sunday there is a flower market on the Wapenplein that also runs from 7am until 1pm.
From the beginning of December until the end of January there is a daily Christmas market on the Wapenplein en Groentemarkt.
Finally, you also have the fish market on the 'Visserskaai', where you can snag the day’s catch directly from the men and women who caught it.
It is open every single day of the year except Christmas and New Year’s Day - or when that North Sea weather keeps the ships in port.
Be sure to check Visit Ostend for more information on shopping and markets in Ostend.
Sightseeing & Culture
There’s plenty to see and do in Ostend. The city is home to a museum of modern art, Mu.Zee, and the Ensor House celebrates the life of the city’s most famous resident. More information about both the museum and The Ensor House are available on the official Mu.Zee site. Art fans will also find a variety of exhibitions and shows across the city.
The Old Post Office has been converted to a major, centrally-located arts centre where you’ll find concerts, theatre, opera and more.
The Casino Kursaal also hosts a range of concerts, musicals and exhibitions and is just as easy to find. Take a look at the what’s on guide and buy tickets from Kursaal Oostende.
The city’s maritime history doesn’t get neglected either. The Amandine, last of the trawlers which set out from Ostend to harvest the seas around Iceland, is a museum and monument to the city’s recent sea-going past.
The majestic three-masted Mercator was a Belgian naval training and scientific vessel which had its harbour in Antwerp during the first half of the 20th Century. For opening hours and more information see Zeilschip Mercator.
The city’s sometimes violent past has also left its marks on Ostend. You can see a surviving section of the Atlantic wall the Nazis built to try and defend their continental Reich from British and American attack and a polygonal fort remains from the European wars of the Napoleonic era.
The Belgian royal family are memorialised around the city, with King Albert I the most fondly remembered. His courageous refusal to give in to German demands at the outset of the First World War has given him a particular place in the nation’s affections.
The city’s main church, the 19th Century neo-Gothic St Peter and St Paul, celebrates Albert and his queen Elisabeth.
A special “tasteful heritage” walk takes you round the city’s main sites with some gastronomic stops for refreshment along the way.
If you are up to date with the latest in digital technology you can log onto a James Ensor city walk and a “walku-mentary” on Marvin Gaye’s Ostend period.
Activities & Entertainment
You’ll find all the usual delights of a traditional seaside resort and water sports centre in Ostend. If you tire of the fresh air, sailing, fishing and so-on then you can chance your arm at the city’s famous casino or the racecourse, one of only two in Belgium which hosts both flat racing and harness races. Dates and details of meetings are available from Oostende Koerse.
The city is a delight for walkers: the beach and pier are obvious attractions but there’s also a plethora of parks and green spaces.
As you will at most British resorts you’ll find (miniature) golf, tennis, go-carting and horse-drawn carriages to enjoy when the weather allows.
If the rain falls, and this is central Europe, there’s an indoor swimming pool and a fantastic newly-built cinema complex near the Wellington race track. Check our Things to Do listings for more information.
Or you can simply enjoy some of Belgium’s world famous beers and play some pool, billiards or snooker in some of the city’s many bars and cafes. If you’re into health and beauty, remember this is one of the world’s first Spa-resorts and this tradition is very much kept alive. See our Health and Beauty listings for beauty treatments, hair salons and much more.
The winter brings the added attraction of ice skating on a rink in the Wapenplein, the city’s main square, from the first week of December until the beginning of January. For details on all the winter holiday season’s special events check Eindejaar In Oostende.
MICE, B2B & Conferencing
Ostend promotes itself as a great location for MICE tourism: meaning meetings, incentives, conferencing and exhibitions. The Tourism authorities and city government have thrown themselves into this niche market and have established Ostend as a very popular destination for business visitors to Belgium.
As an historic tourist destination they have a strong case too. The Casino Kursaal and Wellington race course are just two of the excellent conference venues in the city.
There are more than enough hotels to house delegates with plenty to occupy and entertain them when their work is done.
The city government has a department dedicated to organising such events and they will do everything they can to get your business and to ensure you come back. Check the Ostend Convention Bureau for details or see our own MICE and B2B travel guide category.
Festivals & Events
With a tourist economy to support, Ostend puts on festivals throughout the year including a weekly firework display to keep visitors entertained during the main summer season.
The port is home to the North Sea’s largest annual maritime festival, "Oostende voor Anker", which attracts 200 historic vessels and 250,000 visitors each May making it one of Belgium’s biggest tourist events.
The city was the first in Belgium to start organizing events for Halloween and October is a real festival month with a huge fair and more than 70 attractions spread through the city’s markets.
The Theatre by the Sea festival, 'Theater Aan Zee' or 'TAZ', brings drama to the fore in late July and early August.
The Paulusfeesten in August is a major music festival as are July’s Woosha! and Ostend Beach. Ostend also hosts an international film festival each September. Don’t forget the notorious carnival at the beginning of March, culminating in the hedonistic and infamous Bal du Rat Mort masked ball – literally, the Dead Rat Ball.
As Ostend is a pocket-sized city the nightlife is conveniently concentrated in a small area of the city’s centre. The Langestraat, the Van Iseghemlaan and Vissersplein are the places to go after dark.
You will find everything from cosy brown cafés (the closest thing Belgium has to a British pub, only with more beer), to nightclubs, lounge and cocktail bars as well as adult establishments and a healthy gay scene.
Ostend isn’t yet a well known destination for British holiday makers, but you will find a few Irish pubs at the top of the Langestraat.
While recent laws mean most bars have to turn the music off at 5am, that doesn’t mean they shut up shop, some clubs stay open longer and the law isn't enforced on most public holidays. Visit our Nightlife page for more information.
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