Sluis is a charming small historic city in Zeelandic Flanders, in the far southwest of Zeeland. Although it was largely destroyed by Allied bombs at the end of WWII, the city ramparts, belfry and windmill right in the centre of town give this nicely rebuilt place a historic touch. It's just a few kilometres from the North Sea coast and sits right on the Dutch-Belgian border, making it a popular day-trip destination for Belgian and Dutch visitors alike. The seaside of Sluis municipality (between Cadzand-Bad and Breskens) is very popular with German tourists, just like the rest of the Zeeland seaside. Some of those also make their way into Sluis city.
Sluis is part of the eponymous municipality, which - since municipal reorganisation in 2003 - makes up the entire western part of Zeelandic Flanders. Although the city gave its name to the whole new municipality, Sluis city is not the centre of the municipality. The larger town of Oostburg (double the population of Sluis), which is more centrally located in the municipality's territory, houses the municipality's town hall and administration. The seaside harbour town of Breskens, where the Westerschelde (Western Scheldt) flows into the North Sea, also has double the population of Sluis city.
During the Middle Ages, Sluis was an important port city in the County of Flanders. Especially after the main Flemish port city Bruges lost its access to the sea due to the silting up of the Zwin inlet, Sluis became a vital port for goods to be shipped to Bruges. During the Eighty Years' War (1568–1648 - essentially the Dutch War of Independence from Spain), Sluis was on the front line between Spanish and republican Dutch forces. It was turned into a fortified city (vestingstad) and played an important role in protecting the Dutch Republic against Spanish troops. The military front line between Spanish and Dutch troops running immediately (just 1 km) south of Sluis 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 front line became the Belgian-Dutch border.
Although only part of the historical fortifications and ramparts remain today, the town still has plenty of historic buildings. The most famous ones are the impressive windmill in the middle of town and the belfry on the main square (Grote Markt). Medieval belfries are very common in Flanders and northern France but the one in Sluis is the only one in the Netherlands.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, Sluis has gained in popularity among Belgian day-trippers to come shopping on Sundays as - in contrast to Belgium - the shops are open then in Sluis. This has also led to an unusually high number of pubs and restaurants for such a small city.
Sluis lies in a remote corner of the Netherlands, and is easier (and toll-free) to reach from Belgium. The N253 is the only main highway into town. It connects to the E34 motorway in Belgium to the south (via Aardenburg) and west (via Sint Anna ter Muiden, the westernmost point of the Netherlands). The connection to the Dutch highway network is northeast via Terneuzen through the Western Scheldt Tunnel (subject to toll - with 6,6 km the longest road tunnel in the whole Benelux), and then on to the A58/E312 motorway towards the rest of the Netherlands.
By public transport
The nearest railway stations are in Belgium, in Bruges and in Knokke-Heist. Knokke is the nearest one, but Bruges railway station has a direct bus connection (line 42) to Sluis (from Knokke, you have to change buses). The nearest train station in the Netherlands is Vlissingen, across the Western Scheldt. From Vlissingen Station, a bicycle and pedestrian ferry will get you to Breskens, where you can hop on the bus to Sluis (the same bus line 42 continuing to Bruges).
Sluis is very easy to reach by bicycle. From Bruges, a bike path (17 km) runs along the canal Damse Vaart, which terminates right in the city centre of Sluis. Knokke's railway station is just 9 km away from Sluis. Bicycle rentals are available in both Bruges and Knokke-Heist. Alternatively, you can take your bike on the train. From the nearest town on the Dutch seaside (Cadzand-Bad), follow quiet country roads via Retranchement and along the Belgian border to Sluis (8 km). The bicycle and pedestrian ferry to Vlissingen in Breskens is 17 km away if you cut straight through the polders, but it might be more interesting to follow the longer scenic route along the seaside between Breskens and Cadzand (bike path on top of the dunes with great views over the countryside on your one side and the beach and North Sea on your other).
The town is small and easily explored on foot. For places further afield (the seaside, other towns and villages in the municipality), a bicycle or car will be needed. Bus routes are mainly inter-city and don't go to e.g. the seaside.
Inside the old town
- Stroll along the remains of the historic city ramparts
- 1 Belfort van Sluis (the belfry), Grote Markt 1, ☏ . The only belfort in the Netherlands. Belforten in the Low Countries are medieval watchtowers with alarm bells, attached to the city hall or another civic building, erected as an expression of civic freedom, power and authority against the Church and the King. They often have a carillon playing music regularly, and so does this one in Sluis.
- 2 De Brak (the windmill), Nieuwstraat 26, ☏ . It was constructed in 1739. In season, you can get inside for a small fee, but you can also buy traditionally made flour here or have lunch in the brasserie downstairs.
- 3 Bizarium (Museum of Bizarre Inventions), Hoogstraat 35, ☏ . Closed temporarily because of the worldwide pandemic. Features such things as a flying bicycle, a walking submarine, a hair helmet, a swimming umbrella, and extravagant ideas from geniuses like Leonardo da Vinci, Athanasius Kircher and Nikola Tesla.
Outside of the old town
In the larger area of Sluis municipality, there are also several picturesque polder towns and villages which can be visited, such as Retranchement (near Cadzand on the Belgian border), Breskens (fishing and port town where the Westerschelde meets the North Sea), Groede (near Breskens, also has its own beach), Hoofdplaat (on the Westerschelde), Oostburg (the centre of Sluis municipality), etc.
- 1 Zwin Beach, Cadzand-Bad (8 km north). Head to the beach in nearby Cadzand-Bad. This coastal resort town's main beach is nothing spectacular, but the Zwin Beach on the Belgian border is one of the most remarkable beaches in Zeeland. The Zwin is a nature reserve at the North Sea coast, on the Belgian-Dutch border. It consists of the entrance area of a former tidal inlet which during the Middle Ages connected the North Sea with the ports of Sluis and Bruges inland. While the inland nature reserve mainly consists of mudflats and tidal marshes and places where birds breed, the coastal entrance to the park is a vast expanse of sandy beaches surrounded by dunes. At high tide, most of this sandy plain is flooded by the sea, but at low tide only a narrow channel of water remains in the middle, separating the Netherlands from Belgium. At low tide, it is possible to walk over from the Dutch to the Belgian side or vice versa, but beware you have to wade through 50-80 cm of fast-flowing water. The deeper inland you cross, the shallower the water. Also beware that, when the tide turns and water comes back in, it might be impossible to cross back into the Netherlands, meaning you have to walk all the way around the entire nature reserve (more than 5 km - this would be less of a problem if you also carried your bicycle across). Tide tables for nearby Zeebrugge can be found online. On the Dutch side of the Zwin Beach, there is one beach bar/restaurant (De Zeemeeuw - the most southwesterly restaurant in the Netherlands). On the Belgian side, you will find the most empty and unspoilt stretch of beach on the entire Belgian seaside. Only after 5 km do you reach Knokke-Heist, the first town on the Belgian coast.
- Ride your bike from 2 Cadzand-Bad to 3 Breskens on the scenic bike path atop the dunes, passing along 15 km of beaches before reaching Breskens. This is one of the best coastal bicycle paths in Zeeland, as it gives you unrivalled and uninterrupted views the whole time (in the rest of Zeeland, coastal bike paths often tend to run behind the dunes or through the forest, thus devoid of sea views). Unlike the Belgian coast, the Zeelandic Flanders seaside is very unspoilt and undeveloped. There are just some camping sites behind the dunes and a few beach bars on the beach, and none of the ugly and endless rows of grey apartment blocks (the so-called 'Atlantikwall') so typical of the Belgian coast which have ruined the dunes coastal landscape.
- Or ride in the other direction, from Cadzand-Bad to Knokke Heist (10 km), on the scenic bike path around the Zwin nature reserve.
For being such a small place, there is a very high concentration of shops in Sluis, mainly catering to Belgian cross-border shoppers. On Sundays especially, the main shopping streets will be flooded with Belgians.
There are two supermarkets in Sluis city centre:
There is no Albert Heijn. The nearest Albert Heijn (and the only one in the whole of Western Zeelandic Flanders) is at Oostburg.
There are no night shops in Sluis. The nearest ones are in Belgium, in Knokke-Heist (9 km) and in Maldegem (14 km).
There are no Michelin star restaurants left, but the city center is full of options. The best places get overcrowded in high season, so if you've set your mind on one, it's best to make a reservation. The places with the nicest views are those along the old port of Sluis, which is also the terminus of the Damse Vaart (Damme Canal) to Bruges.
- 1 De Frietstal, Nieuwstraat 20, ☏ . Popular fries restaurant.
- 2 Grill Restaurant Passie, Nieuwstraat 83, ☏ . This place out of the busy town centre serves great steaks and other grilled dishes in a nicely decorated restaurant. You can see how the food is prepared on the grill. Good value for money too.
- 3 Tearoom Petrus en Paulus, Oude Kerkstraat 11. Service can be a bit hasty in season, and the place gets crowded in town. That's because this tearoom is the go-to place for waffles and pancakes.
- 4 La Trinité, Kaai 11, ☏ . Top-notch restaurant with a terrace.
Sluis doesn't have much of a nightlife. Drinking is mainly done during daytime on pub terraces. For nightlife, head to the seaside or to Bruges.
Sluis is small and most people come for the day. There are a few hotels, but more accommodation options can be found on the nearby seaside (both the Sluis municipality seaside and nearby Belgian towns like Knokke-Heist). Bruges is another option with a wider range of hotels.
Keep in mind that Sluis is a border town and the 4G mobile phone signal might be weak and patchy near the Belgian border outside of the city centre.
- Hulst is another historic fortified city nearby, in the eastern part of Zeelandic Flanders.
- Vlissingen is a nice Dutch harbour town not far away.
- Middelburg is another historic Dutch town, and the capital of the Dutch province Zeeland.
- Bruges, one of the most beautiful cities of Belgium, is just 17 km away.
- Zeebrugge is a popular Belgian sea-side resort. From here, ferries also leave for the United Kingdom.