The city of Ypres in Belgium is situated in Flanders. It’s located 40 km/ 24 miles from the French border town Lille and 120 km/75 miles from Brussels. The city is known for its fierce battles during WWI but it has much more to offer. I recently went to Ypres for a weekend and I give you 7 tips to discover historic Ypres.
Why go and discover historic Ypres?
When my boyfriend suggested we’d go to Ypres, I had to look on the map to see where it was located. Just a small town, not nearly as famous as tourist attractions like Brussels, Antwerp or Gent and Bruges. When I googled Ypres, I found most things about WWI which didn’t excite me very much at the beginning. I mean, who wants to be confronted with a violent past and death and war?
After I researched a little bit more, I learned Ypres has many more things to offer. When we visited the city, I was pleasantly surprised with the charm and splendour of the city. The medieval look is present everywhere, although the city was completely rebuilt after the war. I was also surprised how interesting Ypres’ past really is. Yes, there is war. But Ypres has much more to offer than just war tourism.
Built as a settlement along the river Ieperlee, the city blossomed. During the 13th century, the city was bigger than London or Paris at the time. After WWI, the whole city is in ruins. The British forces wanted to conserve the city as “Holy Ground”, but the people of Ypres wanted their old city back. After 1918, the whole city was rebuilt, according to its previous design. The lay-out of the streets and the houses are rebuilt as if the war has never happened. The city made room for war memorials which makes for an interesting mix between old and new.
How to discover historic Ypres
Ypres is a small town with only 35.000 inhabitants. Its official name is “Ieper” from Dutch origin but known in the English speaking world by Ypres. It only measures 20 square km so it can easily be explored on foot. You can reach Ypres by train, bus or car but Ypres is best explored on foot or by bicycle. All major sights are located at or near the centre square but strolling around the little cobble stoned streets gives you a good impression of the city.
A map of Ypres with the main points of interest
1. Discover Grote Markt – Main Square
All major sights and attractions are located around the town central square or in direct vicinity. The square is the 2nd largest square of Flanders. The square is lined with medieval (looking) houses and has an old look and feel to it. There are some major shops and restaurants. You can shop for delicate chocolates or marvel at the other important attractions on the square, like the town hall. On Saturday morning there is the city’s market which offers a variety of foods.
2. Discover St. Martin’s Cathedral
The St. Martin’s Cathedral is located behind the famous Cloth Hall but equally beautiful. This cathedral was originally built in 1221 AD in Gothic style. Its side rosette window resembles the Paris’ Notre Dame. During WWI the cathedral suffered heavily and the people of Ypres rebuilt it from the ground. It did get away with a higher spire than during the middle ages. Its current spire is 100 m tall.
3. Discover Cloth Hall – Lakenhalle
The Cloth Hall was the largest commercial gothic building of its time. Built between 1260 and 1304 AD the Cloth hall is now a Unesco World Heritage site. It’s the must see to discover historic Ypres. The front of the building is 125 metres long and its Belfry tower is 70 metres tall. The Belfry houses a 49-piece carillon. On the first floor the “in Flanders Fields museum” is situated and you can climb the Belfry where you’ll have a stunning view over the town. It takes about 30 minutes to climb the Belfry and it’s an additional 2€ to the entree fee of the museum. On the ground floor you’ll find the tourist office where you can find more valuable information on how to discover historic Ypres.
There are plans to move the Municipal Museum to the Cloth Hall to draw more visitors to this lovely museum. But at the moment, the museum is still located in the Saint John’s Almshouse, two streets away from the main square.
4. Discover WWI at In Flanders Field’s Museum
Ypres is known for being the main battle field in Flanders during WWI. For 4 years (1914-1918) the Ypres Salient was home to many soldiers from mainly England and France, but also soldiers from the Commonwealth. They all fought the German invaders in trenches. Sometimes no more than 30 metres from each other. The In Flander’s Field Museum cannot be missed when you want to discover historic Ypres.
I wasn’t too keen on visiting the museum. It doesn’t sound “fun” to discover the bloody history of the war around Ypres. But I’m glad I did. The museum lets you discover historic Ypres with video and photos and war artefacts. At the entrance, you’ll receive a “poppy” bracelet which you can use to activate the videos in your language. The museum uses state-of-the-art multimedia applications to get to know the history and the consequences of the war. Take a good 2 hours to explore the museum, maybe 1.5 when you’re in a hurry or do not want to see all the videos. The entrance fee is €9 for adults, with discounts for adolescents and children and people in groups.
5. Discover Medieval Ypres with a city tour
We didn’t want to focus solely on the history of Ypres during WWI. We decided to join a guided walking tour organised by the Ypres Tourist office. It was one of the most fun things we did in Ypres. A medieval night watcher is the host for the night. He protected the city after night fall and he will take you through the city to discover historic Ypres. We walked along the ramparts and the gates of the city. We visited the old ice chamber where they stored the ice as a fridge avant la lettre.
We continued to the Casemates (some sort of basements) and explored the tine little alley ways of Ypres. The guide informed us about the name giving of many historic places. He even pointed out the only building which wasn’t completely destroyed during the war. The tours ends at the main square and the tour takes 2 hours, costs €3,50 per person (children under 12, free) and starts at 5.30 pm in winter. It finishes just in time to head over to the Menin Gate for the last post. You need to reserve your place for the tour at the tourist office in advance. For more information, check the site.
In case if you don’t feel like joining a guided tour, you can also discover historic Ypres on foot via the heritage footpath of Ypres. This is a 5,6 km long path, marked by bronze rivets on every street corner. The rivets depict the Cloth Hall, the Cathedral and the Menin gate. For more information, you can download the I-Ieper app from the App store.
6. Attend the memorial service at Menin Gate
The Menin Gate is located o the east of the town square. They erected this gate after the war to remember and honour the unknown fallen soldiers from Britain and the Commonwealth. The gate is a triumphal arch and the inside houses the Hall of Memory. They engraved the names of the unknown fallen soldiers here. Each night at 8.00 pm, the Last Post will be played by the local fire brigade. Or special days, like November 11th, the ceremony is bigger with laying of a wreath and a minute of silence.
7. Taste historic Ypres via beer
After you’ve explored all the above options, you might be hungry and are looking for some other things to do. Ypres is not just about the WWI and it’s time to lighten the mood. The area around Ypres is known for its beer tourism. Yup that’s right, that’s an actual word: beer tourism.
The area around Ypres is where 80% of Belgium’s hop is grown which makes it the hop capital of Belgium. Most famous is the Abbey of St. Sixtus at Westvleteren, where the Trappist beer Westvleteren is brewed. It’s known as the most flavoursome beer in the world. But the hype is mainly due to its sparseness and difficulty to get a hold of. You need to make a reservation by phone and buy the beers from the monks at the abbey at a certain time.
But this isn’t the only place to taste some local beers. You can find other breweries in the area, or go to one of the Beer Cafes in town. We went to St. Arnoldus near the Menin Gate, where I tasted some local beers. My first beer was the Wipers Times 14. Originally brewed in one of the Casemates during the war, this is tasteful beer with 4 grains and 4 herbs. I also tasted Grotten Santé (bitter and sweet) and two St. Bernardus beers (prior 8 and the triple). All in all a fun way to conclude the day in Ypres and a good way to discover historic Ypres.
After visiting the above mentioned sights and attractions, we settled for some beers in the cafe. All the impressions of the day made for some heavy conversation about war, pain and our world.
At first the mood was heavy loaded with war facts. But after some beers, it was lifted by the deep appreciation that we can live in peace in Europe these days. Thanks to all those people who fought for us and sacrificed their lives so we could live in peace. Sometimes, these are not the nicest things to learn, but they are the most valuable ones. Please don’t let it be a reason to skip Ypres. The city has much to offer and you can discover historic Ypres. Not only the history of the WWI but also its medieval character and beer loving history.
Have you been to Ypres? What was your way to discover historic Ypres? Did you enjoy your time in the city? Please share what you’ve learned.