12 must-see things to do in West Flanders

Bruges

Succumb to the call of the North with this selection of 12 must-do things to do in West Flanders!

West Flanders is certainly Belgium’s most touristic province. With Bruges leading the way for foreign tourists who never tire of the charm of its waterfront houses. The North Sea coastline also plays a part in this success, with locals understandably flocking to it for its irresistible seaside appeal. And if all this makes you want to visit West Flanders, what about the light of sunset on the waves?

And there’s no end in sight to the number of illustrious people this part of Belgium has seduced in the past.

So it’s your turn to admire the charm of this region with these 12 must-sees in West Flanders.

1. Bruges

Bruges - Flandre Occidentale

Photo credit: Shutterstock – cge2010

Who hasn’t heard of Bruges, known as the Venice of the North? The city is the capital of the province and the first destination to visit in West Flanders. The big question is when, because whatever the season, Bruges always has a fairytale air about it.

The architecture

Bruges is famous for its gabled houses lined with canals. In fact, they make you want to photograph them one by one. Be careful not to fall into the trap, however: few of them are 100% medieval in origin. Many were completely refurbished in the 19th century in neo-Gothic and Arts & Craft styles.

A stroll along the canals is the best way to appreciate the charm of the historic heart. Finally, take a stroll to the Béguinage, a haven of peace away from the hustle and bustle of the Grand Place.

The museums

In addition to its strolling streets, Bruges boasts a number of museums. These can nourish the mind with exhibits of masterpieces of Belgian art, but also the taste buds of gourmands. Sugar-lovers can visit the Choco-Story museum, while hop-lovers can discover the De Halve Mann brewery.

Lovers of brilliance will want to visit the Diamond Museum. Alternatively, for something a little more unusual, the concert hall’s roof terrace is the place to be. Here, you can create your own music with the recorded sounds of 150 Bruges bells.

Finally, take a shopping trip to one of the many small boutiques in the center.

2. Ypres

Ypres, Belgique

Photo credit: Shutterstock – streetflash

A change of atmosphere in Ypres. This town in West Flanders is particularly recommended if you want to learn more about the First World War. In fact, it’s a popular place for the British to pay tribute to their soldiers. Much of the town has been razed to the ground, but rebuilt to its former glory, including the superb Cloth Hall on the Grand Place, which has been converted into a museum of the fighting in Flanders.

If you’d like to continue your tour of commemorative monuments, take a look at the Church of St. George and the Menin Gate. Otherwise, despite the destruction, the city center is not short of nuggets such as Saint-Martin’s Cathedral, the Biebuyck House and many other small architectural treasures. And to enjoy the greenery, nothing beats a stroll along the ancient ramparts.

3. Kortrijk

Courtrai - Flandre Occidentale

Photo credit: Shutterstock – Kiev.Victor

With just thirty kilometers separating it from Lille, it would be a shame not to plan a getaway to discover this charming Flemish town. For a long time, Kortrijk remained a secret, little known behind the likes of Bruges or Brussels. The city has therefore relied on a major asset to develop its appeal: shopping!

This makes sense, as the city had Belgium’s first pedestrian shopping street and its K shopping center is a serial shopper’s paradise. But of course, there’s more to Kortrijk than that: it’s also a charming historic center. One of the must-sees is the UNESCO-listed beguinage, with its small white houses. However, its twin, the Baggaertshof, is sometimes preferred to the former thanks to the charm of its gardens.

Another highlight are the Broel Towers, which once controlled the river crossing. Finally, for a superb overview of Kortrijk’s contemporary transformations, take a stroll along the panoramic footbridges along the banks of the Lys.

4. Le Zwin Nature Park

Parc naturel Le Zwin

Photo credit: Shutterstock – Susy Baels

The Zwin used to be the sea inlet that enabled boats to reach the ports of Bruges and Damme. Today, it has silted up and is certainly the most beautiful natural area to visit in West Flanders. It’s nicknamed the « bird airport » because of the richness of its flora and fauna. Over 300 species of birds have been identified here.

This exceptional number of visitors can be explained by the great diversity of environments, from dunes to mudflats and salt meadows. Depending on the season, the vegetation takes on splendid colors such as the purple of the heather or the red of the samphire. The Zwin also offers a wide range of activities to raise awareness of the importance of these natural environments. The exhibition center provides an interactive introduction to the world of migratory birds.

Outside, a trail of themed huts lets you hear birdsong, listen to stories or observe insects through a microscope.

5. Damme

Damme, Belgique - Flandre Occidentale

Photo credit: Shutterstock – 7Horses

For the record, Damme, just a few kilometers from Bruges, served as a transshipment port for the latter in its heyday. Goods arrived on large ships from the North Sea and passed through the Zwin. But after Damme, the draught was too shallow, so goods had to be loaded onto other flat-bottomed boats.

Today, the Hanseatic trade no longer exists, but a canal still links Bruges to Damme. Sailing along it, or taking the paddle-steamer that shuttles you back and forth, is a very pleasant experience. While Bruges is very busy, Damme is quiet and surrounded by bucolic landscapes, as you can see on a stroll along the old fortifications.

The narrow streets have retained their characterful houses, and the town center is home to some fine monuments. Among the most beautiful are the Town Hall, the 13th-century church and the Saint-Jean hospital from the same period. All in all, Damme is a wonderful discovery not to be missed.

6. Furnes

Furnes, Belgique

Photo credit: Shutterstock – Bennekom

Here’s another little-known town to see in West Flanders! As cute as a button, Furnes is well worth a stop. Its 17th-century Grand Place has lost none of its splendor, so pause to admire the many details adorning the Renaissance facade of its Town Hall. From the top of the church, you can gaze out over the town and surrounding countryside.

Once you’ve made your way back down, take a stroll to discover other picturesque buildings, such as the old covered market or the « Die Nobele Rose » house, where Marie Curie and Victor Hugo once stayed. Speaking of monuments, before you leave, take a look at the neighboring village of Wulveringem, where a superb romantic castle awaits you.

7. Coastal tramway

Kusttram, Belgique - Flandre Occidentale

Photo credit: Shutterstock – SankyPix

It would be unthinkable to visit West Flanders without taking a trip to the North Sea coast. This is the realm of charming seaside resorts and sand dunes. And whether you’re planning a trip lasting several days or just a day, the best way to get around and enjoy the scenery is to take the coastal streetcar. The line runs along the entire coast from De Panne to Knokke-Heist.

In other words, from the French border to the Dutch border. The line is modern, but its origins date back to the 19th century, so it offers a fine overview of coastal towns and landscapes. In all, there are 68 stops, so you’ve got plenty of time to plan some great sightseeing.

8. Ostend

Ostende, Belgique - Flandre Occidentale

Photo credit: Shutterstock – Sergey Dzyuba

It’s certainly one of the best-known seaside resorts on the coast, thanks in particular to its immense beach. The seafront is a delight for walkers and children alike, with its pedal carts. Ostend’s architecture may not be the most beautiful, but there are a few buildings worth a look here and there.

So it would be a shame to let the concrete discourage you from exploring the city. The center is lively, with terraces and friendly stores. And behind the walls, you’ll discover some very special stories. The most mythical is that of Marvin Gaye, who took refuge here for 18 months, composing his album Midnight Love with the famous Sexual Healing.

A fascinating tour with documentary extracts takes you on a journey in the singer’s footsteps. Another interesting house to discover is that of the surrealist painter James Ensor. If you’d like to learn more about Belgian art, we recommend Mu. ZEE.

9. Nieuport

Nieuport, Belgique

Photo credit: Shutterstock – J.M’ studio Johan

Nieuport has become the trendiest resort to visit in West Flanders. Perhaps because it boasts Northern Europe’s largest marina. With its location between the Yser and the sea, riders can practice their favorite sport to their heart’s content, whether surfing, kayaking, kitesurfing or water skiing. For walking enthusiasts, there’s the « De Ijzermonding » nature reserve, home to a rich diversity of flora and fauna between salt and fresh water.

As the area is open to the public, it’s particularly recommended to go and admire the sunrise or sunset. On the land side, the city center has little to envy others in terms of historic buildings. In fact, once you’ve passed the waterfront, you’ll find a cultural heritage that’s well worth a stroll.

In short, Nieuport has that little something extra that makes it an absolute must-see.

10. Blankenberge

Belgium Pier, Blankenberge - Flandre Occidentale

Photo credit: Shutterstock – Joris Photography

If there’s one photo of Blankenberge you’re bound to have seen, it’s the Pier promenade. It’s the town’s landmark, and for good reason: it’s the only one of its kind in Belgium. First built in 1894, it was destroyed during the First World War and rebuilt in 1933. In all, the 350-metre-long structure juts out into the sea, ending in a brasserie with an exceptional view.

In the town center, you can also admire some superb buildings. The tourist office has set up itineraries to discover the most beautiful Art Nouveau villas. For an even more picturesque visit, check out the Maisonnette de Majutte museum-café, housed in a former fisherman’s cottage dating from the late 18th century.

11. Knokke-Heist

Knokke-Heist, Belgique

Photo credit: Shutterstock – Oliver Hoffmann

If Knokke-Heist doesn’t ring a bell, you’ve probably heard of Knokke-Le-Zoute. It’s undoubtedly the most popular and photographed district on this seafront, with its sublime villas. It alone is worth a stop in the town, which is the last seaside resort you can visit in West Flanders, just before the border.

It’s also the largest of the coastal towns, and can accommodate several thousand people in summer. The seafront is 9 kilometers long, and there’s no shortage of water-based activities. In autumn, the town hosts a renowned event, the Zoute Grand Prix, which brings together legendary car models.

But if you prefer peace and quiet to motors, you can always go for a breath of fresh air in the nearby Le Zwin nature park.

12. Shrimp fishing at Oostduinkerke

Oostduinkerke - Flandre Occidentale

Photo credit: Shutterstock – Huysman Geert

Finally, why not take advantage of a unique sight to be seen in West Flanders. Oostduinkerke is home to an activity that has almost disappeared and is therefore listed on the Unesco World Heritage List. It’s shrimp fishing on horseback. Normally, you can’t miss the fishermen in their yellow oilskins and their powerful draught horses, the Brabançons.

The fishing takes place at low tide, when the shrimp are harvested. Horses pull the trawl through the water, while the fishermen hope that it will fill up with crustaceans, of which, alas, there are fewer and fewer.

While a fishing session normally lasts several hours, shorter demonstrations are organized for the public to discover. So make the most of it, and finish with a good tasting.

How do I get to West Flanders?

By plane

While Bruges does have an airport, it only serves the southern regions of Europe, and has no connections with France. The same goes for Antwerp. The simplest solution is to turn to Brussels airport and then take a rail link to your final destination. For further details, a flight comparator like Skyscanner may be useful.

There is also a low-cost airport near Ostend.

By train

The provincial capital, Bruges, can be reached by Thalys in 2h30 from Paris Gare du Nord. As for Ostend on the coast, it can be reached via a connection at Courtrai in less than 2 hours from Lille. Otherwise, there are numerous connections from Belgium, due to the influx of tourists.

By car

It’s impossible not to find your way from the French border, thanks to the many freeways that criss-cross Belgium. TheA10 andA17 are the main expressways serving Bruges and the coast.

Where to stay in West Flanders?

Needless to say, there’s no shortage of tourist accommodation in Bruges and along the North Sea coast. From luxury hotels to guesthouses, Airbnbs, campsites and even gites, you’ll find absolutely everything. Historic city centers with their traditional architecture are particularly suitable if you’re looking for charming rooms or romantic hotels.

For camping enthusiasts, there’s plenty to do on the coast, with establishments all along the coast. There’s also a wide range of hotels and self-catering accommodation. Just remember to book in advance during busy periods. We recommend you take a look at a hotel comparator for availability.

Map of hotels and accommodation – West Flanders