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The yacht harbor of Oostende (Ostend) with train station at sunset, Belgium.
Photograph: Shutterstock.comThe yacht harbor of Oostende (Ostend) with train station at sunset, Belgium.

The 10 best things to do in Ostend, Belgium

This is your guide to Belgium's underrated harbour city, with history, culture and beer aplenty

John Bills
Stephen Emms
Edited by
John Bills
Written by
Stephen Emms

Let’s face it, the Belgian coast’s only city is probably not somewhere you’ve dreamed of visiting. But like, say, Antwerp (equally underrated, though much, much smaller), Ostend is a very real, authentic port with a fascinating and chequered history.

Take the seafront: bombed to bits in World War II, it’s now a mishmash of juxtaposing styles. Don’t miss the gabled Belle Époque-era townhouses, curved-glass 1950s Casino and King Leopold II’s former villa, with its ’gram-worthy marble-tiled porticoed arcade. Oh, and if you reckon the beach will be rubbish, think again: the widest of promenades is fringed by a line of seasonal bars – all palm trees and Ibizan loungers – curling around an epic sandy bay. How to commute all of this? Do as the Belgians do and take your pick from electric bikes and quirky tandems to pedal-driven go-carts for two. 

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What to do in Ostend

1. Soak up the harbourside vibes

Fact: a human-size whelk (by sculptor Stief Desmet) lurks at the end of the harbour arm. Make the pilgrimage to pose for a selfie, not forgetting to gaze back at the seaport city afterwards. Then slope around the bay to the Visserskaai, the fisherman’s harbour, where locals pick up glistening just-landed plaice and prawns. Here you can watch buckets of the teeny crustaceans being hand-peeled methodically by women in the market, which is open daily. 

2. Sample some famous local brews

For live Flemish music with your Belgian beer, make a beeline for ancient watering hole the Spanish Inn, rebuilt in 1729 but which dates back even further. Or curl up in wood-panelled Café Botteltje to explore its 16 different beers and IPAs on tap, as well as Dutch firewater jenever. In summer (June to Sept), hit the beach bars along the promenade: Bondi Beach is your best shout, with tropical plants, sunny terraces and uber-potent cocktails.


3. Board the fabulously arty Crystal Ship

Check out Belgium’s best open-air art gallery, the Crystal Ship, a permanent street art trail featuring dozens of international artists. Download a map online or grab one from the Tourism Ostend office to guide you around the eye-popping ace murals, sculptures and installations. 

4. Take in the city from above, then gorge on local art

Gulp down views over bucolic Leopold Park by whizzing six floors up the austere old post office building, now an ad-hoc Cultural Centre. Nearby contemporary art gallery Mu.ZEE, housed in a former department store, displays atmospheric work by bigwig local artists James Ensor and Léon Spilliaert.


5. Dine in true Ostend style

People-watch right on the promenade at Histoires d’O, a standout tapas bar with sunset views, or cosy up in the Groentemarkt at candlelit Wijnbistro diVino for seasonal specials like halibut curry. Over on the harbourside, order the piping hot signature shrimp croquettes at Restaurant Bassin, or satisfy your mussel fix at La Moulinière, whose menu offers 40 variants of the dish. You’re in Belgium, after all, silly.

6. Follow in the footsteps of a music legend

Most famous rezzie? None other than Marvin Gaye. In 1981, the soul ledge arrived by boat to stay a few weeks – and ended up lingering for 18 months, even penning his uber-hit Sexual Healing here. Download the tourist board’s Midnight Love Tour for a two-hour walkumentary of his haunts before a beer at soul bar Lafayette, where his black-and-white photo adorns the wall. Forget the grapevine: you heard it here first.


7. Dive into Langestraat’s fabulous late night culture

It’s all about party street Langestraat for a proper night out, whether that’s a whisky sour or two at the dimly lit Hemingway, live bands at The Manuscript or studenty shenanigans at ‘music café’ The Twilight. There’s a super-friendly LGBTQ scene in the city, too, including the best-named bar in Ostend: Taverne Ding Dong, anyone?

8. Tuck into some cheap eats

Wind your way down the narrow backstreets behind Visserskaai, and you’ll find burger joint Frituur Franky, with a whopping list of patties Belgian-style, including tasty plant-based options. To up the hipster factor, try street food snacks like kibbeling (fried battered fish with garlic mayo) at slogan-loving industrial corner joint Mommy’s Bastards


9. Pop into the grand Hotel Upstairs

It’s a totally walkable city, so stick to the seafront area for your stay. One street behind is Hotel Upstairs, whose imposing black façade conceals an industrial interior, with a warehouse-style bar, living wall and even a yellow tunnel slide in the lobby, which kids love. Bedrooms have little balconies and twisty-head sea views: best of all, it’s a 5-minute stumble from the heart of the action, Langestraat. 

10. Take a historic day trip

Well-heeled and tranquil De Haan is just a fifteen-minute drive away. Hire a bike and cycle around the posh residential area The Concession, gawping at the Belle Epoque villas built by the mega-wealthy. Then stroll the relaxed promenade, where couples cycle on tandems, organ grinders delight kids, and restaurants do a brisk trade in – yep – moules.

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