The dark and cold months of winter are here and while you might be tempted to stay at home under a thick blanket with your favourite Netflix series, the world outside still has something to offer. The Belgian coast is probably not your first idea of a thrilling winter-time escape, but give it a chance and it could help you beat those winter blues faster than a mug of Glühwein.
1.Go dune walking
Belgian dunes are actually much more user friendly when the sun is not beating down on them. Most of them are protected from the sea breeze, which often makes them unbearably hot in summer – but a great place in winter. Head out to De Panne to explore the Westhoek (Western corner) nature reserve, the oldest one in Flanders.
The 10.6km long walk will take you through the largest continuous dune system of Flanders. The walk changes from a forest walk to a completely sandy dune walk to a beach walk, so it is nicely diverse. You can see how the dunes shape the landscape, walk along the French-Belgian border and maybe even meet one of the dune inhabitants (mostly cattle and donkeys). Part of the route runs along the beach, so you can even dip a toe into the North Sea if you feel like it.
The dune walk begins at Duinpanne visitors centre. There is a large car park available, while the centre is only a few tram stops away from De Panne train station. There are regular trains from Gent-Sint-Pieters to De Panne. At the weekends, the train tickets are half-price.
Get off the tram at De Panne Kerk and walk back up the main route until you see the sign for Duinpanne. You won’t need a special ticket for the coastal tram if you have a De Lijn ticket from Ghent as it is the same company serving the whole Flanders.
The route is part of the coastal hiking network and you can download the map here (description in Dutch). To walk the route just follow the numbered signs.
Note that you will have to keep your dog on a leash while walking in the dunes, to avoid scaring the animals. The good news is that dogs are allowed on the Belgian beaches between October and June, so take advantage of this and let Fido do some frolicking in the chilly water.
2. Spend a day at Blankenberge
Blankenberge looks like Brighton’s slightly shabby, continental cousin, with its pier jutting out into the North Sea and crowds milling about. It has a history of being the holiday destination for the working classes, but what makes it a nice day trip in winter are its many attractions.
Sea Life Blankenberge is a marine entertainment centre that has a huge indoor aquarium and several outdoor pools with local sea animals. Seals are the main attraction of the centre which also hosts the seal rescue centre. If you decide to support the seal rescue centre by adopting a seal, they will invite you to witness your adoptive animal being released back into the wild. This place is really popular with families, so expect crowds during weekends and school holidays.
If sea creatures are not your thing, how about reptiles? Serpentarium has many exotic species of snakes, lizards and frogs – an offer guaranteed to keep small and large kids happy and excited. What makes it especially interesting in winter is that its inhabitants like it toasty warm, so you can imagine that you are on a tropical holiday.
Not really a fan of animals? Go for a round of blacklight miniature golf (minigolf), Goolfy, at the gaming arcade, misleadingly called Sportland. You can also do bowling there and in general spend time having fun while keeping warm and dry.
For sea views from warm indoors head out to the pier and grab a table at Belgium Pier Brasserie, right at the end of the 350m long pier. This daytime eatery serves only 100% Flemish-sourced food based on ‘granny recipes’ (according to the chef), so it is definitely a place to try.
All the attractions are conveniently located in the centre of Blankenberge, close to Zeedijk. The town itself is easily reachable by train from Gent-Sint-Pieters. At weekend the return train tickets are half-price. A good tip is to take the Belgian railways B-Dagtrip combo which combines entry tickets with train tickets for a good price. Another tip is to always buy your tickets online, as they are much cheaper that way and you will avoid the crowds.
If you are feeling adventurous, Serpentarium and Sea Life also offer combi tickets.
3. Go shopping on a Sunday!
The coast was one of the first places in Belgium which was granted a special status as a place of touristic importance – meaning the shops are allowed to be open on Sundays. Yes, every Sunday and not just the once-a-month Sundays like in Ghent. So if you’ve had a busy month and couldn’t get that winter wardrobe fix you’ve been planning to indulge in, the coast is your perfect destination.
One advantage of going shopping at the coast is that the places are not too big, so you won’t have to search long for a shopping street. Among the most popular shopping destinations are Knokke and Ostend. Knokke likes to think of itself as posh, but sadly its long rows of grey blocks of holiday flats really rob it of all charm. However, there is no denying that it is the largest shopping destination on the Belgian coast with shops conveniently located all along the walk from the train station to the seafront.
For authentic old-style grandeur head to Ostend, which also happens to be the main administrative centre of the Belgian coast. You should save some time after shopping to explore its charming streets and turn-of-the-century houses. There’s always at least one exhibition on too.
Both Knokke and Ostend are easily reachable by train from Gent-Sint-Pieters. At weekends the return train tickets are half-price.
You could do both in a single day, by taking the coastal tram between the two. You won’t need a special ticket for the coastal tram if you have a De Lijn ticket from Ghent as it is the same company serving the whole of Flanders. The coastal tram is an attraction in itself, as it is the longest in the world, running from the northern tip of the Belgian coast at the Dutch border, all the way down to the French border. Another advantage of taking the tram is that it keeps you warm and dry, as you hop between coastal towns.
Have we missed something interesting to do at the coast in winter? What’s your favourite way of beating the grey winter days in Belgium? Let us know in the comments below!