The concept of pleasure piers is an English invention. The thrill of walking over water and apparently into the sea with an unmediated and expansive view of the ocean and the beach-inspired the building of piers on beaches. If you are looking for offbeat places in Belgium, Blankenberge should be on your list. It is a small West Flemish village on the coast of the North Sea that made its mark on the tourist map only when it was connected to Bruges by the railways.
It got its first pier in 1894 and incidentally, it was the last one on the Flemish coast. A show of opulence, the magnificent pier was once built for novelty only. Burnt down during the First World War by the Germans, the pier was reconstructed with a domed pavilion. The town council took over after the war and built a new concrete pier during 1931-33, in Art Deco style. Today it houses a seafood restaurant, a renovated ballroom, and a rooftop bar, and provides magnificent views of the North Sea, beautiful sand dunes, as well as a bird’s eye view of the entire beach. The 350-metre pier stretches into the sea and serves as a perfect strolling path for visitors. The view and sound of the waves crashing against the pillars provide the perfect euphony.
The beach is one of the longest I have ever seen, and probably why it’s fittingly called the infinite sandy beach. The promenade is lined with bars, hotels, restaurants and cafes. Known as one of the best-kept secrets of the West Flanders region, the offbeat town of Blankenberge can be explored on foot. The most bustling spot is the beach through the day, yet it never seems crowded due to its enormous size.
So is Blankenberge all about the magnificent pier and the long sandy beach? Not really. Since the town is small, it is easily one of the best towns in Europe to explore in a day. Apart from the beach promenade, you can opt for some reptilian adventure at the unique Zoo Serpentarium or soak in some history and culture at the Belle Epoque Centre and Majutte’s House, or live the high stakes life at the beautiful Blankenberge Casino.
Sea Life Blankenberge (10.30 AM)
I took the 9.54 AM train from Bruges to Blankenberge, just a 15-minute ride. If you are travelling from Brussels, it will take you 1.5 hours. A 5-minute walk from the station took me to Sea Life Blankenberge, an internationally recognised shelter for orphaned or beached seals. Here seals are rehabilitated who undergo a process to heal and are prepared for release back into the sea. Apart from this, there are 50 aquariums housing over 2,500 animals including sharks, piranhas and even seahorses!
Zoo Serpenterium (12 PM)
A 20-minute walk from Sea Life brings you to the only reptile zoo in Belgium. If they don’t creep you out, you can even hold the reptilians which include snakes, frogs, lizards and other amphibians. There is an impressive collection of rare and exotic species of animals in the Serpentarium. The reptiles are kept in clean vivariums and beautifully presented.
A stone’s throw away (5-minute walk) is the Picardie Restaurant where I stopped for some food. Their home-made croquettes were delightful and I loved the location and service.
The Pier (2.30 PM)
Another 20-minute walk from the restaurant will take you to Blankenberge’s most proud possession—the beautiful pier. I recommend this as the first of two visits you should make to the pier. During the day you will get a clear expansive view of the infinity beach, the North Sea and the impressive promenade. Enjoy the miles of fine sand and dip your feet in one of the most prominent fishing zones of Europe, the North Sea. If you are with family and kids, there are a lot of options to engage in—building sandcastles, bouncy tents, play rides and beach huts.
Belle Epoque Centrum (4 PM)
Walk for 15 minutes from Sea Life Blankenberge to reach the Belle Epoque Centre (open from 2-5 PM). This is where you will discover the prosperous period of Blankenberge, and learn how the town developed as a spa destination and became a hotspot for European middle classes who enjoyed remarkable prosperity from 1870-1914. This was a time of innovation and wealth for Great Britain and Belgium and seaside tourism got a boost. Blankenberge went from being a nondescript fishing village to one of the most sought after seaside resorts in Europe. Old posters, Art Nouveau documentation and many other embellished items in the museum describe the remarkable period and the transformation of the beach town.
Majutte’s House (5 PM)
Go ‘back in time’ in a typical late 18th-century fisherman’s house to see what a fisherman’s house looked like at the time. The house has been converted into a fun museum-café. Enjoy a cup of coffee and some delectable pastries in the ambience of the lovely old dwelling.
Casino Blankenberge (6.30 PM)
You can opt to visit the casino (a 4-minute walk from Majutte’s House). There are plenty of board games, game rooms, bars and a restaurant. Take your chances with American Roulette, Blackjack and other exciting games. If it’s not your thing, then just marvel at the Art Deco design with giant statues of babies all around, with a glass of bubbles or an eclectic cocktail in hand at the Casino Bar.
Dinner At The Belgium Pier Brasserie
I strongly recommend ending your day trip to Blankenberge with an evening walk to the pier. The sunset at the massive beach is a view to remember. With the lights of the pier in full force, the setting seems magical. This is one of the reasons you should visit the pier twice as the surroundings will seem completely different. The Brasserie at the pier serves delicious dinner with fresh seafood options and a variety of finger foods. There are quite a few vegetarian options in the menu as well. If you are not hungry, then you can opt for the Finley Rooftop Bar at the pier with a magnificent view of the lit-up promenade and the crimson sky.
The last train to Bruges is at 10.52 PM. Unpretentious yet striking, Blankenberge is one of the best offbeat places in Belgium and perfect to visit for a day.