Hulst is a historic fortified city (vestingstad) in Zeeland, in the Southern Netherlands, near the border with Belgium. With its entirely intact fortifications, Hulst is often seen as one of the finest and best-preserved national examples of a vintage fortified city. The main church in the middle of town was voted as the nation's most beautiful church.
Being very close to the Belgian border (just 3 km), the town has a lot of influence (and visitors) from Flanders. Hulst promotes itself as the 'most Flemish city' in the Netherlands. Its border location, cosy atmosphere and nearby beaches attract lots of day-trippers. Hulst is still missing from the average guidebook and thus very authentic, with very few foreigners (other than Belgians) having already discovered this hidden gem.
Hulst is the centre of the eponymous municipality, which makes up the entire eastern part of Zeelandic Flanders. The latter is essentially the northern fringe of the medieval County of Flanders which then became part of the Netherlands.
Zeelandic Flanders is the southernmost region of the province of Zeeland, and separated from the rest of the province by the Westerschelde (Western Scheldt), which is an estuary of the Schelde (Scheldt) river towards the open North Sea. The Westerschelde is 5 (at some places even 8) km wide, thus forming a formidable geographic barrier. The only road connection to the rest of the Netherlands is the 6.6-km-long Western Scheldt Tunnel (the longest road tunnel in the whole Benelux). But this tunnel is located near Terneuzen, which is the wrong direction for traffic between Hulst and e.g. Amsterdam. And the ferry crossing the Westerschelde up north from Hulst (at Perkpolder) was discontinued after the opening of the tunnel. Therefore, Hulst actually lies in an isolated, remote corner of the Netherlands. The shortest and fastest connection to other major Dutch cities goes through Belgium.
At the same time, Hulst is adjacent to the so-called Vlaamse Ruit (Flemish Diamond), the densely populated area between the Belgian cities Antwerp, Ghent, Brussels and Leuven. Major Flemish cities like Antwerp and Ghent are very near. This explains the rather 'Flemish' character of Hulst, offering an interesting mix of Dutch and Belgian atmosphere. Flemish flags can be seen at several places around town, including one on the city hall. The local dialect of Hulst is also much closer to the Flemish dialects than to the Dutch as spoken in Holland.
After the 2003 municipal reorganisation, the municipality of Hulst came to include all the surrounding polder villages, from the Belgian border all the way up to the Westerschelde. Since then, Hulst has its own access to the beach.
During the Middle Ages, Hulst was part of the County of Flanders, which was part of the Kingdom of France. During the Eighty Years' War (1568–1648 - essentially the Dutch War of Independence from Spain), Hulst was on the frontline between Spanish and republican Dutch forces. It was repeatedly conquered and reconquered by both sides, until it finally came under control of the Dutch Republic. Its strategic importance was great, because whoever controlled Hulst also controlled access from the sea to the port of Antwerp. All this explains why the city was turned into such an immense fortified military bulwark. The military frontline between Spanish and Dutch troops running immediately south of Hulst eventually solidified into the border between the Southern (Spanish) Netherlands and the independent Dutch Republic. After 1830, when the Southern Netherlands gained their independence as the new country Belgium, the old frontline became the Belgian-Dutch border.
In the 1950s, Hulst became a magnet for Belgians, who came there to park their black money in Dutch banks (NL had bank secrecy at that time) and to buy things which were cheaper in the Netherlands. Butter was a classic example, as it was way cheaper in the Netherlands than in Belgium and a lucrative source of income for many people living near the border. The butter smuggle across the border was legendary, often via small trails through the forest (these trails have proven to be very useful once again during the 2020 Corona lockdown border closure, to cross the border without running into police checkpoints). Now in the EU context, smuggling has disappeared (or simply been renamed 'cross-border shopping'), but the local economy (shops, bars, restaurants) in Hulst continues to thrive on visitors from Belgium.
Hulst is much easier to access from Belgium than from other parts of the Netherlands.
Highways connect Hulst with the North Sea Coast in Western Zeelandic Flanders (Cadzand, Breskens) and, through the Western Scheldt Tunnel (subject to toll), with Middelburg (the provincial capital of Zeeland) and the rest of Zeeland across the Westerschelde. From Amsterdam, Rotterdam or other major Dutch cities, it is faster and cheaper (toll-free) to drive via Belgium (Antwerp). A highway connects Hulst with Sint-Niklaas, crossing the E34 motorway right after the Belgian border (connecting to Antwerp, Brussels and Ghent) and reaching the E17 motorway in Sint-Niklaas.
By public transport
Buses connect Hulst with other towns in Zeelandic Flanders. Flemish transport company De Lijn operates a bus line between Sint-Niklaas and Hulst. Dutch transport company Connexxion operates a line to Breda via Antwerp, with railway connections available in both places.
Parallel to the highways, excellent bicycle lanes connect Hulst to the rest of Zeelandic Flanders. To get there from the rest of Zeeland, use the bicycle and pedestrian ferry between Breskens and Vlissingen. The most scenic route from Hulst to the North Sea runs right along the Westerschelde once past the port of Terneuzen.
The track bed of the former railway line from Sint-Niklaas was transformed into a bicycle path. It cuts 13.5 km through the landscape in a very straight line, leading through the forests around the border and the beautiful Waas countryside before reaching Sint-Niklaas railway station, where it connects to the F4 cycling superhighway Antwerp-Ghent. The starting point of the railway bike trail in Hulst is not indicated (bike signs to Sint-Niklaas will direct you to the busy and ugly main highway), but it starts immediately south of the city moat, at the Van der Maelstedeweg, right next to the police office.
The city centre is small enough to be explored on foot. To reach other places of interest in the area (Perkpolder, Saeftinghe, the Belgian border, etc.), a bicycle or car will be needed. Buses around Hulst don't go to those places so much.
Inside the old town
- 1 De Stadswallen (the city's ramparts) (3.5 km around the city). The ramparts, and their moat, surround the old city centre completely. The old town can only be accessed from outside through one of the three city gates. Some parts of the ramparts have impressive bastions with cannons. On the northern side of town, the city wind mill stands proudly on top of the ramparts. A walking trail runs on top around the whole town. Most of the bastions have little parks on top. When walking on top of the ramparts, you have nice views over the old town on the one side and the city moat and surrounding countryside on the other.
- 2 Gentse Poort (Ghent gate), Stationsweg 6. Open 24/7. The main entrance gate to the city, on the southern side. Gentsestraat (Ghent Street), leading from the Gentse Poort to the Grote Markt, is the city's main shopping street. Both the Gentse Poort and Gentsestraat refer to Ghent, which was the capital of Flanders, to which Hulst once belonged.
- 3 Grote Markt. The main square, home to the city hall and the main church.
- 4 Sint-Willibrordusbasiliek (Saint-Willibrord Basilica), Steenstraat 2, ☏ . The city's main church. Was voted to be the most beautiful church in the Netherlands in 2009. It is a Catholic church with beautiful interior. The church tower spire is very peculiar, because the top was shot off during World War II by Polish liberators, as it was used by the German military as a lookout (apparently, the strategic view over Eastern Zeelandic Flanders was tremendous). They even painted Nazi graffiti texts and a swastika on the walls and the church bell, which supposedly are still visible today. After the war, a new spire was erected on top of the tower, in a very different style: while the church and most of the tower itself are in Gothic style, the top is an interesting concrete construction in a more modern style. The church tower dominates the city's skyline and can be seen from far outside of the old town.
- 5 De Stadsmolen (the city windmill) (on top of the northern part of the ramparts), ☏ . Sundays 12:00-17:00. Old mill built in 1792.
- 6 Museum Hulst, Steenstraat 28, ☏ . Daily, 14:00 - 17:00. Informative exhibition about the local history of Hulst. The tower has beautiful views. Free.
- Bierkaai. The former harbour, which has been restored, bringing water back into the city.
Outside of the old town
- 7 Oud Hulst (the former railway station) (500 m outside the Gentse Poort). It was the city's station on the Sint-Niklaas - Terneuzen rail line. Nowadays, it is a bar and restaurant. On its outer walls, bilingual signs in Dutch and French can still be seen.
- 8 De Klinge (the Belgian border) (4 km south of Hulst). If by bicycle, best (and fastest) to be reached via the former railway bike path. Clinge/De Klinge is basically a village divided by the border into a Dutch (Clinge) and a Belgian (De Klinge) part. The village main street runs from north to south, abruptly changing countries with the border running in between houses. Next to the place where the former railway bike trail crosses the border, there is a replica of the Dodendraad (Wire of Death), a lethal electric fence erected by the German military to seal off the Dutch–Belgian border after the occupation of Belgium during the First World War. A bit further into Belgium (100 m) and next to De Klinge's disused railway station (there is an old steam engine on a stretch of track still remaining), there is a pub called 'De Oude Statie' ('The Old Station') where one can refresh with a delicious draught Bolleke Koninck, Antwerp's most famous beer. 1 km further west, on the main highway from Hulst into Belgium, there is a peculiar historic border marker standing on the roundabout: de Provinciale Grenspaal. It is much taller than the regular border markers and marks the boundaries between the provinces of Oost-Vlaanderen (East Flanders) and Zeeland. It is beautifully ornamented with golden inscriptions on each side stating the names of both provinces.
- 9 Nieuw-Namen (6 km to the east of Clinge). Another village divided by the border. The Dutch part (Nieuw-Namen) is much smaller than the Belgian part (Kieldrecht). The windswept polders around Nieuw-Namen are among the most sparsely populated areas in the Netherlands. In the street leading up to the Koningsdijk (King's Dyke), the houses on one side are in Belgium and on the other side in NL. A tree-lined straight bike path on top of the Koningsdijk connects Nieuw-Namen to De Klinge. It offers nice views over the surrounding polders and runs right on the border (formed by the Koningsdijk here), although the path is actually on the Belgian side.
- Bicycling along the Westerschelde. From Perkpolder Beach, bike paths run along the Westerschelde in both directions: eastwards to the Verdronken Land van Saeftinghe, and westwards to Terneuzen. The vistas over the wide waters of the Westerschelde are great, especially at high tide. The bike path towards Terneuzen passes by several small, secluded beaches which are a lot less crowded than Perkpolder. All along the Westerschelde coast, one can admire the massive ocean-going container ships passing by on their way to and from the Port of Antwerp. Near Ossenise, there is a 30m tall radar tower for maritime navigation which can be climbed any time, free of charge. It offers great panoramic views as well, and is located less than 2 km west of Perkpolder Beach.
- Verdronken Land van Saeftinghe (Drowned Land of Saeftinghe). Nature reserve in the easternmost part of Hulst, on the Belgian border and near the ghost town Doel. Tidal swamp, a bit of a muddy tundra. It is the largest tidal mudflat and salt marsh of its kind in Europe. Except for a small area around Emmadorp and Paal, walking in the nature reserve is only allowed with a guide, as the incoming tide can be sudden and dangerous. The area is very treacherous since large patches of land can be consumed by the tides within seconds. It shouldn't be explored without an experienced guide for that reason. Prepare for lots of mud! On the western end of the nature reserve, in the hamlet Paal, there is a small tidal marina and a restaurant ('t Schor) with great views over the Westerschelde. In Emmadorp, there is another interesting little café (Het Verdronken Land) inside someone's house living room, as well as the national park's Visitor Centre. Some polder land at the far eastern end of the park and across the border in Doel (Belgium) is being 'given back' to the Schelde, thus creating the future 'Grenspark Groot-Saeftinghe' (Great Saeftinghe Border Park).
- Mountain biking in the Clingse Bossen. The forests to the south of Hulst, along the Belgian border, are a unique landscape in Zeeland as they are the only place not consisting of sea clay polders but of sandy soil instead. The forested landscape looks very different from the windswept polders so characteristic of Zeeland. Lots of sandy mountain bike trails run through these forests. If you don't have a mountain bike, the (paved) former railway bike trail also crosses these forests.
- 1 Perkpolder Beach ("Ibiza on the Schelde") (14 km north of Hulst city centre).
Perkpolder used to be the place where the ferry across the Westerschelde departed, but has since been abandoned. However, in the late 2010s, the small sandy beach along the Westerschelde here has been gaining in popularity. A pop-up bar emerged, which was later turned into a permanent beach bar/restaurant: Bar Goed (open every day 10:00-01:00, closed during October). The food is light (e.g. street food, pizza, burgers, wraps, although they also serve the typical Zeelandic mussels and oysters), the emphasis is on drinking (including cocktails) and the atmosphere informal. Sometimes, they have live DJs playing.
On sunny summer days, Perkpolder Beach is packed with (mainly young) locals and visitors alike; the vibe is one of 'Ibiza on the Schelde'. As the bar cannot handle such mass invasions of people, it has an outside counter and lets people take their drinks and sprawl out on the dyke or on the beach. There is a general sense of anarchy on the beach, and enforcement of coronavirus rules is non-existent.
Swimming is possible, although you have to be careful of oyster shells. The beach is best visited around high tide, as the views over the wide waters are better, and the low tide line of the beach is a bit muddy (tide tables for nearby Terneuzen can be found online). Bar Goed provides toilets and showers to wash off the sand and salt afterwards, which anyone can use, also non-customers.
The only way to get to Perkpolder is by car or bicycle (excellent bike lane next to the mostly empty highway leading to the abandoned ferry jetty). During summer, a small bicycle and pedestrian ferry also crosses the Westerschelde to Hansweert on the other side from the former ferry jetty (60 minutes sailing time, very infrequent schedule, not daily, quite expensive as this service is operated by a private company which also organises seal spotting excursions). Hulst municipality is planning to build an entirely new village complete with (holiday) houses, a hotel and a marina in Perkpolder (Project 'Hulst-aan-Zee' - 'Hulst-on-Sea'), so transport connections might improve in the future.
The nearest place to sleep is Camping Perkpolder. The hotels in Kloosterzande are about 4 km away.
Gentsestraat is the main shopping street. A (small) shopping mall can be found outside the old town on 1 Stationsplein. There are several large supermarkets around there such as Jumbo (one inside the shopping mall, and another one outside), Albert Heijn and Aldi. Albert Heijn has the longest opening hours (until 22:00; 20:00 on Sundays - in nearby Axel, Albert Heijn is open until 21:00 on Sundays). In contrast to Belgium, all the shops and supermarkets in Hulst are open on Sundays, attracting lots of cross-border shoppers.
If you need a bike shop (for repair or to buy extra gear), there is one in the city centre, right across from the basilica (Serpenti Cycling, specialised in sports bikes - race bikes, mountain bikes, electric bikes).
There are no night shops in Hulst, but there is one in De Klinge (Belgium) on Sint-Gillisstraat, a few hundred metres after the border from Clinge. It is popular among local youth who go there to buy booze, as alcohol age restrictions in Belgium are more lax than in the Netherlands.
Most of the pubs and restaurants are either inside the old town (Grote Markt, Gentse Poort, Bierkaai) or around the former railway station. For fast food, there are several Frituur (fries shop), including one on Grote Markt.
- 1 De Vest, Stationsweg 3 (near Ghent gate), ☏ . French restaurant.
- 2 Frituur Chevy's, Gentsepoort 1, ☏ . Fries shop.
- 3 Shang Shang Sushi, Cornelis de Vosplein 2 (near the basilica), ☏ . Sushi, Japanese and other Asian food. As of August 2020, delivery only.
- 4 De Korenbeurs, Grote Markt 10 (on Grote Markt), ☏ . Traditional restaurant.
- 5 Restaurant Napoleon, Stationsplein 10 (near the former railway station building), ☏ . Classic cuisine.
- 6 Brasserie Oud Hulst, Stationsplein 7 (inside the former railway station building), ☏ . Brasserie, pub and restaurant.
- 7 Rhodos, Bierkaaistraat 2 (on Bierkaai), ☏ . Greek restaurant.
- 8 Pizzeria Méditerranée, Bierkaaistraat 10 (on Bierkaai), ☏ . Italian and other Mediterranean food.
- 9 Bally's Diner, Overdamstraat 7 (near Bierkaai), ☏ . American-style diner, American and Mexican food.
- 10 Sphinx, Grote Bagijnestraat 1 (behind the basilica), ☏ . Egyptian restaurant.
- 11 Ephese, Houtmarkt 3 (near the basilica), ☏ . Turkish kebab restaurant.
Hulst doesn't have much of a nightlife. Drinking is mainly done on pub terraces during daytime, and (especially) on Perkpolder Beach (on the beach itself and in Bar Goed). The pubs in the city are boring, so definitely head to PP Beach for proper drinking.
Most people come to Hulst for the day, so the sleeping options are limited.
- 1 Hotel Hulst, Van der Maelstedeweg 4 (just south of the city), ☏ . The city's only and the area's largest hotel, with great views over the city moat, the ramparts and the city skyline. Next to single, double and triple rooms, the hotel also offers a spacious and luxurious apartment with balcony, kitchen and washing machine, ideal for longer stays (the apartment cannot be booked online, contact them directly).
There are also some B&Bs in the area, and a few hotels up north in the villages of Kloosterzande (Hotel van Leuven, Hotel De Linde) and Grauw (Hotel De Zandberg), as well as several camping areas in nearby villages like Ossenisse and Perkpolder, near the Westerschelde beaches.
Despite being sparsely populated, the 4G mobile phone signal is very good throughout the entire territory of the Hulst municipality, also on the remote dyke bicycle paths along the Westerschelde. If coming from Belgium, your phone might only connect to a Dutch network once you are far enough from the border (e.g. in Hulst city centre). The Belgian signal does not work past the NL border. In the other direction, when travelling back to Belgium, the Dutch signal will last until the Belgian border.
- The Zeeland North Sea coast (Cadzand, Breskens, Vlissingen, Zoutelande, Westkapelle, Domburg, etc.): great sandy beaches and dunes, historic towns and places of interest.
- Sluis: another - yet much smaller - historic fortified city in Western Zeelandic Flanders, very near the coast (Cadzand) and also right on the Belgian border.
- Terneuzen: the largest city in Zeelandic Flanders, on the Westerschelde coast.
- Doel: nearby ghost town in Belgium, right next to the Doel nuclear power plant (the 170-m-tall cooling towers of which can be seen from all over the territory of Hulst). Only 19 inhabitants remain in this largely abandoned polder village, with most of the houses in a state of decay and spray painted full of interesting graffiti. The 17th-century windmill on the river dyke contrasts nicely with the nuclear cooling towers looming in the background.
- Antwerp, Sint-Niklaas and Ghent: nearby cities in Belgium