The city of Ostend lies at the Belgian coast but has plenty to offer all-year-round. If you're looking for things to do in Ostend in winter, you can't ignore the many museums that offer shelter against the wind and an artistic or historical boost to the brain.
Below you can find five diverse museums in Ostend I've visited myself as well as some practical information for your trip.
- Things to do in Ostend: 5 museums you can't miss
- 1. The Mercator ship
- 2. The James Ensor Museum
- 3. The Amandine ship
- 4. Mu.ZEE Museum of Belgian Art
- 5. The Ostend City Museum
- Go on an art and architecture walking tour
- Where to stay in Ostend
- How to get to Ostend
- Pin for later
Things to do in Ostend: 5 museums you can't miss
1. The Mercator ship
In the harbor of Ostend, a Belgian coastal city, lies the sailing ship Mercator. She was designed by polar explorer Adrien de Gerlache and built in Schotland to make her first journey in 1932.
The Mercator has served several purposes: it went on scientific expeditions all over the world, served as a British submarine depot ship after World War II, represented Belgium during international fairs, participated in sailing competitions and acted as a training ship were many boys and young men learned about life on deck.
The Mercator was the last in a series of five Belgian training ships and made its final voyage in 1960. It's been a museum since 1961 and hasn't left the harbor of Ostend since 1965. In 1966 it was declared a protected monument.
The Mercator's two most famous journeys date back to 1934, when it sailed all the way to the Eastern Islands to pick up a scientific team doing research there; and 1936, when it had the honor of bringing Father Damian‘s body home from Christchurch (it had been brought there from Hawaii by an American ship).
Visiting the Mercator in Oostend
It was late afternoon when I arrived at the Mercator. The sky was dark, with thick clouds hovering low. Not the type of weather I'd want to go sailing in. Luckily I didn't have to, as the ship would stay right where it was while I explored it.
That exploration is pretty regulated. When you embark the Mercator there's really only one way you can go, as a route through the ship is fixed with ropes and numbered signs guiding you. That doesn't spoil the fun, though, as you can still wander over the deck, go down narrow stairscases and pretend you're one of the cadets that used to be trained on the ship.
Inside the ship, it's as if time stood still. You walk through dining halls, officer's rooms, and bedrooms and constantly expect to bump into a sailor.
You even get to take a look at what used to be the infirmary. What do you think, doesn't look as cozy as your couch back home, does it?
The Mercator receives thousands of visitors each year, but when I was there only a few people were visiting. It's winter, after all. Not immediately the Belgian seaside's high season.
I did the tour “just like that”, but for €2 you can also borrow an audio guide from the ticket booth to get more information on what you see while visiting the ship. I prefer information boards when I visit a place, as you can go through a text as quickly or slowly as you want, while you can't do that with an audio guide.
However, there's not a lot of written information during the tour, besides from some signs that tell you what you are looking at. So if you're really interested in learning the story behind each room, I recommend getting an audio guide.
Sailing ship Mercator
Mercatordok, Ostend (between city hall and the train station)
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2. The James Ensor Museum
Friends had told me it was small and it is small, but it's also cute, in a way. Plus, it's the house where the artist himself has lived until his death in 1949, not just a cold museum building. I'm talking about the James Ensor Museum.
James Ensor, painter
James Ensor was a Belgian avant-garde artist who lived in Ostend almost his entire life. He was a painter who worked around a variety of themes but is widely known for his paintings of masks and anything related to the carnival. Few people know that he also composed music.
The James Ensor Museum in Ostend
Entering the museum is like entering a shop, with the counter immediately to your left next to the door and a large closet to your right, filled with all kinds of curious objects. That shouldn't be surprising as this place used to be a souvenir store owned by the uncle and aunt of Belgian painter James Ensor. The artist inherited the house after their deaths and left this room unchanged. It's not hard to see a link between the shells, toys and masks that had been sold in the store, and the same recurring objects in Ensor's work.
On the mezzanine, you can watch a 45-minute long movie about James Ensor. If you want to do that, be sure to go to the museum on time as it closes over lunch. I was on time to see the exhibition, but not to watch the entire movie.
On that same floor, there's also a small room with James Ensor paintings.
The most interesting floor to me, however, was the first floor. It consists of Ensor's living room and his dining room. Both contain original furniture, various objects and some of his paintings. Be aware though that these are replicas. The Ensor Museum is not about the works of the artist, its goal is to give visitors a look into the life of the artist James Ensor.
Ensor's bedroom was located on the second floor, but this area isn't accessible for visitors.
James Ensor House
Vlaanderenstraat 27, Ostend
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3. The Amandine ship
Most people visiting the city of Ostend on the Belgian coast know about the training ship Mercator, but I think only a few people know that there's another museum ship you can visit as well: the Iceland trawler Amandine.
Because I'd known about the Mercator ever since I was little, but only found out about Amandine when I was planning my day trip to Ostend, I didn't have high expectations for this ship. You know what? It was great!
Iceland trawler Amandine: a bit of background
The Amandine made her first trip in 1962. She fished the waters around the south of Iceland in the summer and the Channel and the North Sea in the winter. At first, a lucrative business, but things got hard when fishing the Icelandic waters became more and more restricted. The Amandine made its last trip in 1995 and is the last Iceland trawler that came from Ostend.
Visiting the Amandine
A visit of the Amandine consists of two parts:
- a small museum built around around the Amandine that tells you about life on board, the history of the Amandine and fishing around Iceland
- the ship itself that shows you what life on board looked like.
Off the boat
The “classic” museum part looked kind of outdated at first but was actually quite interesting. There were information boards, but also lots of photos and documentaries about fishing the Icelandic waters. A couple of miniature boats give you an idea of what the fishing ships used to look like and there's a fake little harbor built around the Amandine, to show you what the fishermen did when they weren't at sea.
This part also looks pretty outdated, but I found it to be quite charming and I think it must be fun for kids as they get to peek through the windows of “stores” and “taverns”.
On the boat
The best part is getting inside the Amandine. It's kind of silly because I was the only person there at the time and I had so much fun, even though I was visiting by myself.
The ship actually still looks like how it must have looked during its last trip and what's really cool is that they've installed sound and other effects in the different cabins. For example, in the engine room there's a hell of a lot of noise and in the room where they kept all the fish cool in ice, it's actually much colder than in the rest of the ship.
One thing scared the hell out of me though: the puppets! There were puppets in several cabins demonstrating things the fishermen would do on the ship, but two of them I didn't immediately spot and I'm telling you: when there are noises playing and you're all alone on a ship like that, a puppet can be scary!
Well, to me it was.
See this guy in the left bed, in the photo below? I saw him out of the corner of my eye when I entered this room and he really startled me because he looks so real. Even now that I look at the photo again I think he looks real.
And then there was the guy in the middle of the next photo. He was sitting in this tiny room and you couldn't see him until you turned around to move on to the next cabin. Yikes!
The puppets did add a lot to the museum though and they were really well made, as you can probably see.
Luckily there weren't any puppets on deck to startle me. People walking by were already looking a bit funny at me when I explored the deck, all excited yet careful not to slip.
I had a great time on the Amandine and I'm kind of sorry I didn't get to share it with anyone. If you're planning a trip to Ostend, this is a must. Especially with kids, or with big kids like me.
Vindictivelaan 35, Oostende
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4. Mu.ZEE Museum of Belgian Art
It's not that logical that I visited Mu.Zee when I was in Ostend. You see, I'm not a big art museum person. And by “art” I mean the kind of art you find in a museum. I love going to concerts of all kinds of music, to the theater or to a dance performance, but I'm not that big on paintings, sculptures, and installations in general.
It's not that I dislike them. I've been to many museums during my travels and I've seen several paintings that I really liked and installations that intrigued me, but if I'm honest I have to say that I also find art museums quite tiring.
I realize that's probably because I don't have enough background and when I look at a piece I'm mostly just wondering whether I like it or not and what the artist could have meant with that specific work.
Visiting Mu.ZEE Oostende
Still, I wanted to visit the Mu.ZEE as I'd heard great things about it and, well, also because I was simply curious.
The Museum of the Sea or Mu.ZEE (“zee” meaning “sea” in Dutch) exhibits work by various Belgian artists from 1850 until present day through a permanent and several temporary exhibitions.
What definitely adds to the collection of the Mu.ZEE is where it is presented. The impressionist museum building by Gaston Eysselinck used to be a department store, and one that was fun to shop in, I can imagine.
Instead of simply having floor above floor, there are mezzanines in between each floor. These mezzanines are accessible from the left and right side of the main floors but don't run over the complete width of the building.
What does this mean? That you really have to pay attention to which parts of the museum you've already visited and which ones you haven't! I had quite a bit of fun going down stairs, entering rooms, climbing up other stairs and then turning back because – “Doh!” – I'd been there already.
What I really liked is that Mu.ZEE encourages visitors to be more than just spectators. On one of the mezzanines, there's a workshop area where you can draw or build your own piece of art and leave it there to be seen by other visitors. Cool for kids, definitely, but the great thing is that it isn't meant just for kids. Anyone can take a seat and let his creativity run loose.
Unfortunately, it was near closing time when I finished my tour of the museum and I didn't have the time to make something of my own, but if you ever decide to visit Mu.ZEE, I'd love to see what you come up with!.
Romestraat 11, Ostend
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5. The Ostend City Museum
You have to be careful when walking through the Langestraat, as the Ostend City Museum is easy to miss. It's housed in a … well… regular house, but it's actually much larger on the inside than it looks from the outside.
When I walked in a friendly lady welcomed me. She gave me an explanation of what I could find where in the museum and showed how some of the interactive screens worked.
That's something I immediately liked about Ostend's City Museum: the use of bought historical items and new technology to tell the city's story. There are old paintings and artifacts, but also documentaries, interactive maps and multi-lingual storyboards, like the one here below.
Ships and the harbor
While the first part of the exhibition focuses on the evolution of Ostend as a city from its origins until now, the second part focuses on the harbor and the shipping industry.
King Leopold I and queen Louise-Marie
The third part teaches us part of the story of the museum's past inhabitants: King Leopold I and his wife Queen Louise-Marie. The first king and queen of Belgium have actually lived in what is now the City Museum of Ostend. It used to be their summer retreat. However, the presence of the royal couple in this coastal city is overshadowed by the early death of Louise-Marie. You can actually visit the room she spent her last moments in.
You can't see it as I've only taken a photo of it, but the museum had an actress play the role of Louise-Marie to let her tell the queen's life story. This is pretty cool. What you see seems like a painted portrait, but when you push the play button, the portrait comes to life.
An unexpected extra
I spent little less than an hour actually visiting the museum, but afterward, I stuck around for another half an hour. I'd started talking to the lady who was keeping it open that day. We were the only two people there and I kind of had the feeling she wanted to chat with someone.
This lady was full of stories and you could tell that she cared for her city. I don't want to go too much into what we talked about as it really felt like we were having a personal conversation, but I'll tell you this: after I left the City Museum, it wasn't the evolution of the harbor that stuck with me for hours, it were the stories that lady told me. Stories from a person who has lived in Ostend her entire life and saw the city evolve.
Every city museum should have a person like her to welcome people in and tell them their story.
City Museum Ostend
Langestraat 69, Ostend
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Go on an art and architecture walking tour
If you want to get a good general idea of the cities art offering and interesting architecture, consider this two-hour art and architecture walking tour.
Where to stay in Ostend
If you'd like to stay at an Ostend hotel, the following three all get great reviews and offer a different experience.
1. B&B Huyze Elimonica
This Bed and Breakfast lies in the center of Ostend and just a five-minute walk from the beach. It offers free WiFi, free parking space (it's one of the few Ostend hotels with parking for free!) and an airport shuttle. The B&B is pet-friendly, highly rated by couples and provides an amazing breakfast which is included in the price.
2. C-Hotels Andromeda
If you want a bit more than a B&B, C-Hotels Andromeda has an indoor swimming pool, a terrace with views of the sea and a bar. There's also a spa and guests can use the private parking as well as the free WiFi. The breakfast comes highly recommended and is included in the room price.
C-Hotels also runs the Burlington Hotel in Ostend which is located near the train station and also offers free WiFi, on-site parking and an excellent included breakfast. No swimming pool here, but there is a terrace, a sauna and a solarium.
3. Hotel Princess
For more of a budget-friendly option, have a look at Hotel Princess. It offers free WiFi, has its own bar and provides an excellent breakfast free of charge. It's also located right on the beach.
Extra: Mercure Oostende
Sometimes you want to stay somewhere nice but also somewhere known. At the Mercure hotels you know you'll always find the comfort you need. The Mercure Oostende offers free WiFi and on-site parking. It's just a 6-minute walk from the beach. This hotel also has its own restaurant. Breakfast does come at an extra cost.
How to get to Ostend
1. Flights to Ostend
The nearest airport to Ostend is Ostend International Airport, but chances are more likely that you'll arrive either via Brussels Airport or Brussels Charleroi Airport as there aren't that many airlines running flights to Ostend. If you're flying to Brussels or Charleroi, you'll need to take a taxi, a shuttle or public transportation to get to Ostend, which brings me to…
2. Ostend train station
The Ostend railway station is located right by the city center and you can easily take the train to Ostend from plenty of both small towns and big cities within Belgium.
3. Ostend ferry
When traveling from the UK to Ostend, you can even come by ferry! P&O offers a mini cruise that goes from Hull to Zeebrugge after which you're taken to Ostend by coach. Starting March 1, 2018, there will also be a direct boat to Ostend from Ramsgate, but that will initially only take lorries.
4. Budget option: by bus
The cheapest way to get to Ostend from other big cities is probably with Flixbus. This budget long-distance bus travel provider often offers great prices for intercity travel.
That's it! Which of these Ostend things to do would you add to your list?
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Tourism Oostende provided me with a City Pass Oostende with which I could visit several museums in the city. Partnerships like these allow me to travel more but will never affect my opinion on the things I do.