110km (68 miles) NW of Brussels; 20km (12 miles) W of Bruges
The glitter of the "Queen of the Coast" has faded since its 19th-century heyday as a royal vacation spot and prestigious European watering hole, but plenty of reasons remain to justify a visit to Ostend (Oostende in Dutch; Ostende in French): Great beaches, a casino, a racetrack, art museums, a spa, good shopping, an Olympic-size indoor pool, outdoor pools filled with heated seawater, sailing and windsurfing, and, last but by no means least, a legitimate reputation of being a seafood cornucopia. This lively recreational haven is very much a people's queen now, welcoming all income levels.
Ostend (pop. 70,000) has been attracting seawater enthusiasts since 1784 when the town council allowed Englishman William Hesketh to set up a drinks kiosk on the beach. He later introduced mobile beach huts that were hauled into the water by horses. Before World War II, the elevated Albert I Promenade and Zeedijk that together parallel the entire length of the 6km (4 miles) of beach were lined with elegant villas, among them vacation homes of European royalty. Wartime destruction and postwar "improvements" brought down many of these fine old houses. From the debris sprung character-free modern hotels and apartment buildings.