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Summer city trips in Belgium #5: The coast
With pristine sandy beaches and handsome seaside towns extending from Knokke-Heist in the northeast via the Queen of Resorts Ostend to De Panne in the southwest, the area offers something for everyone – be they water sports fanatics or those who prefer sipping cocktails at the beach after a day of shopping.
Though all the resorts are worth a visit, make sure you take time to revel in the opulence of Knokke, also known as the Saint-Tropez of the North Sea. Here, the elegantly dressed and well-coiffed stroll through streets dotted with high-end boutiques, art galleries and trendy restaurants. Many wealthy Belgians own luxury weekend mansions in Knokke. It’s definitely a place to see, and be seen.
Want to sunbathe undisturbed, challenge the waves on a surfboard or go for a zen-inducing walk? De Panne not only boasts the widest beach on the Belgian coast, it’s also surrounded by four nature reserves. In the sandy dunes of the Westhoek you can peacefully wander for hours, clearing your head and admiring myriad plants and wildlife as you go. Ever tried land yachting? De Panne is where it first evolved.
The coastal tram makes exploring Belgium’s seaside comfortable and affordable. Don’t worry about traffic jams or finding a place to park your car – the 67km tramline, the longest in the world, departs from 70 locations along the coast every 10 minutes during the high season and stops at all the resort towns. A day ticket costs €6.
For the ultimate indulgence, stay at Hotel Manoir du Dragon in Knokke-Heist. Set in a beautifully restored villa dating from 1927, the four-star hotel has 16 rooms, most with private jacuzzi and a view of the Royal Zoute golf course. In the morning, enjoy a sumptuous breakfast. Another popular choice is Esprit de Mer in De Panne, a cosy bed and breakfast with three tastefully decorated rooms just 400m from the beach.
Eat & drink
A visit to the coast is the perfect opportunity to sample the region’s fantastic seafood. At ’t Kantientje in Knokke, chef Dominique Pille will delight you with his culinary expertise. Start your meal with oysters, follow with one of his lobster specialities and end with a mouthwatering dessert. For mussels, visit Resto de Rimini in Sint-Idesbald (Koksijde), where they also serve local favourite shrimp croquettes. Whatever the weather, while away a few hours in the cosy beach bars of Knokke-Heist. Put your feet up, order a sangria and enjoy the view without the full force of the wind.
24 hours in Ostend
The centrally located resort boasts an impressive shoreline, historic city-centre and vibrant shopping and culture. With a fine collection of art from 1830 onwards, MuZee features work by prominent artists including James Ensor, Léon Spilliaert and Constant Permeke. The modern building, designed by Gaston Eysselinck in 1947, has been home to the museum since 2008.
After admiring Ensor’s theatrical masterpieces, take a five-minute walk to his house on Vlaanderenstraat where authentically restored rooms provide a glimpse into his mind, life and career. Not to be missed is the impressive, three-masted Mercator. Built in 1932 and moored between the town hall and station, it is now a nautical museum. Equally remarkable is the Sint-Petrus & Sint-Paulus church, a neo-Gothic building erected between 1899 and 1905.
The Vistrap open-air fish market at Visserskaai has been tempting discerning palates with the freshest catch since the late 19th century. Some stands sell snacks such as shrimp croquettes, garlicky whelks and mixed seafood platters – excellent with a wine or beer on one of the neighbouring terraces. De Mosselbeurs prepares mussels in a dozen ways: think gorgonzola, pancetta and pear, or spicy Thai-style with curry and lime.
Not a fan of seafood? Order a burger or salad at Histoires d’O. In the evening, sit back with tapas and cocktails and watch the sun melt into the sea. A pricier address is Ostend Queen, the upmarket seafood restaurant located on the second floor of the Kursaal.
Minutes from beaches and shops, Hotel Royal Astrid is the perfect way to combine a seaside break with a relaxing wellness retreat. The hotel’s 500m2 zen-inducing spa offers saunas, salt caves, a hammam and private treatments. Alternatively, wake up to the ocean on your doorstep by booking one of the spacious rooms with a sea view at the luxurious Andromeda Hotel. The breakfast buffet (included in the price) can be enjoyed with a glass of bubbly.
Ostend’s car-free shopping streets are home to elegant boutiques, vintage stores and art galleries. The bustling Kapellestraat has more than 100 shops, including many well-known brands. For a more exclusive retail experience, head to Adolf Buylstraat with its stunning Belle Epoque buildings. Shops are generally open on Sundays.