West Flanders is one of the five provinces of Flanders in Belgium and the country's westernmost. It encompasses Belgium's entire coastline and thus is a favourite travel destination for Belgians in the summer months. By far the most popular and beloved among tourists is the province's capital, Bruges, thanks to its unique medieval charms. Otherwise, West Flanders is mainly an agricultural and suburban region. There are many open fields between the small towns and villages and the general flatness of the region make it ideal to go on a cycle holiday.
As is the case in much of Belgium, decades of poor urban planning and heritage policies (where most old buildings have been replaced rather than refurbished) have lead to the destruction and disappearance of most historical architecture and wide open spaces. Nevertheless, for the tourist seeking towns with bucolic historic centres, West Flanders does have more to offer than the ever popular Bruges alone: towns such as Veurne, Diksmuide, Ypres (Ieper), and De Haan (by the sea) all have well-preserved historic centres not unlike those of Bruges – and they are far less overrun by tourists! Most open landscapes and historic centres are nowadays found in the more thinly populated western part of the province.
Cities and towns
West-Flanders is densely populated and has been so for centuries, therefore you will find a multitude of larger and smaller towns, featuring historic centres, spread over its entirety and connected with a network of roads and railroads, enabling one to get around easily by car or a solid network of public transportation (though the latter is mostly found in and around Kortrijk, Bruges and the coast). The landscape is flat and open, so cycling and hiking are also a good way to enjoy the countryside.
- 1 Bruges (Brugge) – capital of West-Flanders, whose entire town centre is classified as UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- 2 Kortrijk – a rather big town at the river Leie. You can find a mix of medieval buildings and shopping facilities. Very close to the French city of Lille.
- 3 Ostend (Oostende) – Queen of the coastal towns, developed by the Belgian royal family in the Belle Époque.
- 4 Roeselare – an industrialised town. The town is mainly known for its shopping facilities and the Rodenbach brewery. Its belfry is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- 5 Ypres (Ieper) – a military and fortified town by history, the medieval centre was bombed to the ground in World War I, and reconstructed in medieval style from photographs afterwards.
- 6 De Haan – a nice coastal town, with an original style of buildings.
- 7 De Panne – the most western town in Belgium, next to Koksijde, it also has a wide beach and many sand dunes. Including a nature reserve "De Westhoek".
- 8 Knokke-Heist – a worldly coastal town, with many facilities. On the north side of the town, at the boundary with the Netherlands, you can also find a nature reserve "Het Zwin".
- 9 Koksijde – together with Oostduinkerke, coastal towns with a very wide beach and many sand dunes. Oostduinkerke is also known for its horseback-fishers. During the low-tide, sturdy horses draw nets over the sandy shore to capture shrimps, sometimes the shrimps are cleaned and boiled on the beach itself, available for direct consumption.
- 10 Nieuwpoort – a medieval port on the Belgian coast, at the mouth of the river Yser. Now mainly used as a port for yachts and water sports. At the fishing mine (vismijn), you can also find fishing ships mooring, and buy fresh fish directly from the fishers. The old town still has a very nice medieval centre.
Other notable towns
- 11 Damme – a tiny medieval, fortified tiny town, along the canal that connected Bruges back to the ocean (after the sanding of the coast). Ideal to visit on a bike, or with a ferry, from Bruges. Though far smaller than Bruges, it can at times be equally overrun by tourists.
- 12 Diksmuide – a small rural town (roughly 6000 inhabitants), in the middle of the Flemish polders. The town also played a vital role in World War I. Its belfry is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The municipality of Diksmuide (ie. everything that lies within roughly 4.5 km from the town centre) otherwise consists of large, open fields and no less than 15 picturesque villages, each having somewhere between 100 and 2000 inhabitants.
- 13 Menen – its belfry is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- 14 Oudenburg – former Roman town
- 15 Poperinge – a small town with a medieval centre which played an important role during World War I.
- 16 Tielt – its belfry is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- 17 Veurne – a medieval coastal town, just south-east of De Panne and Koksijde. Now further away from the sea due to the sanding of the coast. Its belfry is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Many villages have become the victim of the rise in population and the reconstruction after World War I. Most West-Flemish villages have little to no historical architecture left, all of it having been replaced the past century. However, some villages kept their original look.
- 18 Heuvelland – Dutch for "the land of hills", a collection of small villages, south of Ypres, in a forested and very hilly environment. Ideal for mountainbiking or hiking. The hills also played a vital tactical role in World War I. It's close to the French border, where you can find French-Flanders: a region that was historically part of Flanders, with the similar villages and towns, but now belongs to France.
- 19 Lissewege – a picturesque village close to Bruges with many small white houses. Lissewege is to Bruges like Montmartre to Paris.
The main language in West Flanders is Dutch using the West Flemish dialect. Most people are proficient in standard Dutch and many have a functional command of English and French.
West-Flanders is crossed by many motorways.
- The E40 comes from Calais, follows the West-Flemish coast for a while, then near Bruges, turns towards Ghent and Brussels.
- The E403 crosses West-Flanders north-to-south. At Bruges, it has a connection with the E40, it passes Roeselare and Courtray to arrive in Lille.
- The E17 connects Coutray with Ghent and Antwerp
- The A19 is a local motorway, connecting Coutray with the front region around Ypres.
By public transport
There are train lines operated by the NMBS from France (Lille) to Bruges via Courtrai (Kortrijk), and from Brussels and Ghent to Bruges, De Panne and Courtrai. The front region around Ypres can only be reached via Courtray, the northern coastal region can only be reached via Bruges, the southern coastal region can only be reached via Diksmuide. Bus lines are also mostly concentrated in the areas in and around Bruges, Kortrijk and the coast (coastal tram).
It is not possible to get from Dunkerque (the nearest large coastal city in France) into West Flanders by train or by tram directly, however, DK'Bus (the Dunkerque metropolitan bus line) offers buses that connect Dunkerque to De Panne (the westernmost coastal place in Belgium). First you take a bus (C1 or C2) from Dunkerque's train station to the French coastal town Leffrinkhoeke (bus stop: Fort des Dunes). From there you take another bus from there (bus line 20) that stops at De Panne's train station. Notably, these buses are free, as are all DK'Bus buses!
The Coast Tram (Dutch: De Kusttram) is the longest tram line in the world with 69 stops over a 67 km long track. It connects all Belgian seaside towns from De Panne near French Dunkerque (Duinkerke or Dunkirk) to Knokke near the Dutch border. It does not travel across the Belgian borders, however. During peak summer months a tram goes every 10 min from 08:00 till 21:00.
Bruges is the capital of West-Flanders, and by far the most touristic town in West-Flanders. Its medieval city-centre is almost like a living museum, and certainly worth visiting.
West-Flanders is the coastal province of Belgium. The entire coast is a sand beach, ideal for walking. In the summer, dogs aren't allowed on the beach, in the winter, dogs are allowed (legally, dogs must always be on a leash). The coast is largely build-up with apartments, many consider this ugly, but if you go a bit further to the countryside, you can see the typical coastal houses.
- Het Zwin, Nature Reserve, Knokke-Heist. Het Zwin is a nature reserve near the boundary with the Netherlands. It's the north-most place of the province, and many sea-birds and salt plant species can be found.
- De Westhoek, Nature Reserve, De Panne. De Westhoek is a nature reserve near the boundary with France. It's the west-most place of Belgium. The nature reserve is a lot more "sandy" than Het Zwin, with hard-to-climb dunes. This is the only place in Belgium where your view isn't obstructed with trees, but where it's impossible to see any buildings. Get totally lost in the shifting sand. '
The front region
Along the front line of the First World War, there are many small towns and villages worth visiting. With many memorials and cemeteries in the countryside. Visiting the front line is best done by car, or with operated bus tours, since public transport is sparse in those regions with low population. Travelling by (electric) bicycle is also possible, when you want to combine sports and remembrance tourism.
247 British cemeteries are scattered all over - too many to list here. Please consult the cwgc for complete information.
- King Albert monument, Nieuwpoort. A monument dedicated to the King Albert I, king of Belgium during the first world war. The monument is placed near a lock-complex called De Ganzepoot. By operating the locks of de Ganzepoot wrongly, the entire area from Nieuwpoort to Diksmuide could be submerged, which caused the German army to stop. There's also a museum below the monument, and you can walk on top of the monument to get a good view on the surrounding region. The base floor is free to visit. But you have to pay for the museum and the walk on the top.
- 1 Lange Max cannon, Koekelare, Oudenburg (The site can only be accessed via the Clevenstraat.). The Lange Max was a massive cannon used by the Germans. This cannon in Koekelare served to bomb the French town of Dunkirk.
- 2 German military cemetery, Vladslo, Diksmuide. This Vladslo German war cemetery is one of the four remaining German cemeteries. Unlike the British cemeteries, all German victims were gathered into four big cemeteries. There are many more soldiers buried than the number of grave stones would give away. The cemetery in Vladslo also shows the artwork The grieving parents, by Käthe Kollwitz.
- Trench of Death (Dodengang), Diksmuide. The Trench of Death (Dodengang in Dutch), is a reconstruction of the trenches found near the Yser. At this place, the enemy lines were just a few meters apart (as opposed to the more northern region, where there was a big floodplain). Many people died in these trenches, due to the many raids from both sides.
- Yser tower, Diksmuide. The Yser tower is the tallest peace memorial in Europe. The first Yser tower was built after World War I, to honour the Flemish soldiers who fell at the river Yser. The tower had a big meaning for those who wanted Flemish independence. After World War II, the first tower was dynamited, as a payback for the many Flemish who collaborated with the Germans. The remains of the first tower are still visible on top the Pax gate (the entrance gate to the site). After World War II, the tower was rebuild, and now remembers both wars. The top of the tower contains the initials AVV-VVK, written in a cross. This stands for "All For Flanders, Flanders For Christ", symbolising the meaning of the tower for the Flemish. The four sides of the tower show the sentence "No more war" in the languages of the four fighting sides: Dutch, English, French and German. You can visit the tower, inside it, there's a museum about both world wars, and about the call for Flemish independence and the relation with the wars. At the top of the tower, you get a nice panoramic view over the very flat region.
- Belgian military cemetery, Houthulst, Diksmuide. Belgian families were allowed to chose, whether they wanted their son to be buried on the battlefield, or at their home. Many people chose the grave near their home, resulting in the rather low amount of Belgian graves. This is the biggest remaining Belgian cemetery.
- 3 German military cemetery, Langemark, Ypres. This is the biggest of the four German cemeteries on Belgian soil, and even the biggest in total (counting the number of casualties). There's a huge mass-grave, that also contains a few British soldiers. Langemark is known for its student-myth, a myth telling a story of how the students came to battle while singing, not knowing what would happen. At the entrance, there's a nice map of the front region, cut in wood.
- 4 Tyne Cot, British military cemetery, Passendale, Ypres. Tyne Cot cemetery is the biggest British cemetery in Flanders. Next to the huge number of graves, there's also a massive wall at the back of the cemetery, containing names of many missing soldiers. The battle of Passchedaele is known for its big loss of human lives, for a minimal gain in worthless territory.
- Passchendaele Memorial Museum, Zonnebeke, Ypres. The Passendaele Memorial Museum mostly shows you the life in the trenches, with the different clothes and weapons soldiers had. It gives you technical insight in the war.
- 5 Menin Gate, Ypres. The Menin Gate is one of the gates of Ypres. The gate has been constructed as a big memorial to the missing. On the walls, there are over 50,000 of names of missing soldiers. Every evening, at 20:00, the Last Post is blown under the Menin Gate, as a final salute.
- In Flanders Fields Museum, Ypres. The In Flanders Fields museum in Ypres gives you a unique experience. It shows the horror of the war, and the social dramas. At the museum, you get the ability to follow the life of a certain soldier throughout the war (or until he dies), giving you deep insight in the daily troubles. A must-see for everyone, veterans and young boys.
- Hill 60, Preserved Battlefield, Ypres. The site around hill 60 is a unique piece of land, preserved as it was after World War I.
- Talbot House, Poperinge. Poperinge was a town on the British side of the front. It was used as a centre of transport, to bring men and weapons to the front. The Talbot House was a famous pub, chapel and hotel where British officers would go when they returned from the front. It is operated as a museum.
- French Mass Grave, Kemmel, Heuvelland. Many of the French victims were brought back to their country, as a result, not many French graves remain. This cemetery is a mass-grave with many unknown French soldiers. It's on the hill of Kemmel, which was a strategically important hill due to the overview it gave over the area. Under the hill, there's still a military bunker that was operated until a few years ago.
- Spanbroekmolen Crater a.k.a. Pool of Peace, Heuvelland. During the Battle of Messines, the British army undermined the German trenches with 24 mines. The Germans could defuse one mine, and 19 mines exploded on June 7, 1917 (the remaining 4 mines did not explode, and are still loaded under the fields). This crater is 11th minefield of the 24, but the best known one. Nearby, there are also other craters visible.
- Island of Ireland Peace Park, Messines, Heuvelland. The peace park, and tower, is a memorial to the soldiers of the Island of Ireland. Many who died near Messines.
- 1 Plopsaland De Panne (Adinkerke, near De Panne). Daily 10:00-17:30 with evening openings in summer. One of Belgium's most popular theme parks, centred around characters from Studio 100's films and TV series for kids (if you're not from the Benelux or France, you may not have heard of any of these characters!) Also houses a water park, hotel and campsite. Combination tickets with entry to the park and transport by Kusttram (Coast Tram) are available from De Lijn. This is only worth it if you're arriving from somewhere along the tram route as De Panne railway station is less than a kilometre from Plopsaland. €48.50 for most visitors over 1 m; discounts available for shorter people and senior citizens. Parking €15.
Ostend and Menen are the only cities where you need to be careful in some parts of the city (although the crime rate is still much lower than in large metropolises).
- The province East Flanders with capital city Ghent are the closest.
- Lille — one of the most interesting cities of northern France.
- Bergues — worth checking out as a typical French-Flemish town.