I thought I had Belgium figured out before we went to Ostend and De Panne on the Belgian coast. Belgium was a country full of medieval charm, where the modern mixes seamlessly with the old, with beautiful buildings and attractive side streets, and unexpectedly gorgeous views around every other corner.
Then we went to the beach and saw a whole other side to Belgium.
Arriving in Ostend, we could literally have been anywhere. We walked down paved (not cobbled!) pedestrian streets, lined with shops to arrive at the beach front.
Like any major beach destination in Europe, there was a promenade lined with overpriced restaurants and tourist shops, which fronted huge high rise concrete apartment blocks. In appearance, it actually reminded me a lot of resorts in Ibiza.
Ostend is a port town and so I had pretty low expectations of the beach. I was pleasantly surprised to find a very wide, attractive looking sandy beach.
I can’t say that it was my favourite as there were a lot of cigarette butts dropped on the sand and it was full of huge seagulls, one of whom actually dive bombed me to steal my sandwich right out of my hand. Time to move on.
The whole of the Belgian coast is connected by the Kusttram, which has over 70 stops. Ostend is right in the middle. We decided to head west to De Panne beach. We chose this for two reasons. Firstly I am also interested in the Second World War and this was one of the beaches used in the Dunkirk evacuations. Secondly, after failing to cycle into Holland, we thought we might have a go at walking into France and De Panne is close to the French border. Needless to say, we failed at that as well. Despite our efforts, our holiday was spent 100% on Belgian soil!
The town of De Panne was smaller than Ostend and again, it could have been anywhere. It has the same overpriced beach front restaurants, the same concrete apartment blocks. The beach itself was nicer than Ostend.
It stretched for miles – we could not see where it began and ended, although we could see the town of Dunkirk in the distance.
It was much cleaner than Ostend beach and it was so large, it was easy to get away from the crowds.
My mum makes and sells her own jewellery from sea glass and for any beachcombers out there, De Panne beach was absolutely full of sea glass so we were able to gather quite a bit to bring home for her.
Both Ostend and De Panne are very much tourist destinations, but they seem to have passed British tourists by. For the whole day we didn’t hear another English voice. Given how close these resorts are to the UK, how easy they are to get to and the fact that they are very much geared up for package holiday tourism, I’m surprised that the Belgian coast seems to have not yet been discovered by Brits.
We didn’t stray much from the beach in De Panne, but we did see a bit more of Ostend. Although it may have an entirely different feel from the other Belgian towns we visited, there is still a lot to see even for non-beach lovers. Ostend has some striking architecture, with an impressive railway station and attractive cathedral.
For history lovers, you can also visit Hitler’s Atlantikwall and a Napoleonic fort. We also got to see one of the best sunsets I have seen in a long time from the beach.
Ostend and the rest Belgian coast is a really easy day trip to make from Bruges, a nice way to escape the crowds in Bruges during the day, and also a great opportunity to see a different side to Belgium.
Ostend is less than 15 minutes from Bruges by train. The return fare is €8 and trains depart approximately every 15 minutes until around midnight. The beach front is a 10-15 minute walk from the station.
The Kusttram runs the length of the Belgian coast from Knokke-Heist in the east to De Panne in the west. Ostend is right in the middle of these two destinations. It takes about an hour on the tram to De Panne. A day ticket allowing you to hop on and hop off at as many different coastal destinations as you please costs €5.