Ypres (also known as Ieper) is a place with a haunting past since it played an important role in the First World War. So If you are visiting Ypres, you should be prepared to be emotionally moved. The medieval town is surrounded by numerous battlefield areas where brave soldiers from different countries were fighting over the course of the four years. 300,000 soldiers lost their lives on the front line here known as the Salient. As you would expect there are plenty of war museums, memorials, military cemeteries and battlefields to tour, learn about and respectfully explore.
Ypres is a small town with only 35.000 inhabitants but it also has a charming side that every tourist would appreciate. Most of the beautiful medieval architecture of the town has been restored and the market square is great evidence of it. There are also nice places to eat, for those who would like to taste the traditional Flemish cuisine and of course famous Belgian beer. You can reach Ypres by train, bus or car nevertheless the best way to explore it is on foot or by bicycle.
Where to stay in Ypres
We were staying in a wonderful apartment located in the heart of the historic centre of Ypres, Apartments Ypres. Ypres is a small town and all main sights can be found within walking distance. Nevertheless it’s amazing to be just a stone’s throw away from the medieval Cloth Hall with it’s Belfry or the Menin Gate where the Last Post starts every evening at 8pm.
There are 3 different sized but cozy apartments available. We were staying at “Belfort” on the top floor. It’s stylish, comfortable and has everything what you would need. Starting with well equipped kitchen, lovely bath, great double bed and last but not least free Wi-Fi. It’s just ideal for a getaway for two!
There is also another apartment available for 4 people or for a family with kids, “Cathedral”. It’s on the first floor and it’s more spacious and is also fully equipped (we had a chance to have a sneak peak into it).
For those who don’t want to eat in the restaurants the supermarket is just 5 minute walk away so you can cook in the lovely kitchen. There is also a bakery next door. If you decide to drive by car you can rent a closed garage.
We loved to spend our time in here and the host Katie made it very welcoming too! She showed us around the apartment, offered the map and information about the city. We were accommodated with everything that we needed from the very start of our trip!
But now lets start with the best things to do in Ypres!
In Flanders Fields Museum
One of the top things to do in Ypres is to visit the famous In Flanders Fields museum. The museum is located on the market square in the city centre and lets you to immerse into all aspects of WW1 by using various media and sensory experiences like videos, sounds and smells. The name of the museum comes from the poem of a Canadian army medical officer John McCrae.
It’s a great way to get to know history in an interactive way. The permanent exhibition presents the period of the run-up to WWI, also the invasion of Belgium, during the war period and the time after it ended. You can even follow the story of a war time soldier and follow his trials and tribulations throughout the war.
Cloth Hall & Carillon
The Cloth Hall is an impressive gothic building and an important part of Ypres. Located in the heart of the town, it used to be the largest commercial building of the Middle Ages, when it served as the main market and warehouse for the Flemish city’s cloth industry.
In 1304 it was almost completely destroyed during the war and it took a long time to completely restore it. Only in the 1967 the structure was regarded as finished.
If you are a sporty one you can definitely climb 70-metre-high belly tower (231 steps) and enjoy a magnificent view over Ypres.
Behind the Cloth Hall to the north you can find Sint-Maartenskathedraal. The church was originally built in the 13th century and its south entrance and tower added in the 15th century. Unfortunately it was completely destroyed during the war and needed to be totally rebuilt in 1922. The architecture is reminiscent of the monumental French cathedrals and presents the tower more than 100 meters high.
Inside of Sint-Maartenskathedraal treasures that survived the bombardment of the war can be found. The church is also a residence to a brass font and the picture of Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-van Thuyne that is traditionally believed to have miraculous powers.
Also inside the church are the tombs of the founder of Jansenism, Bishop Jansenius; sixth bishop of Ypres, Georgius Chamberlain; and Count Robrecht of Bethune. The church’s glass paintings are a gift from Great Britain to pay homage to the war losses.
The Menin Gate Memorial
One of the main landmarks relating to the First World War is the Menin Gate. It’s a memorial to the 55,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who went missing during the First World War. This is a place where silence speaks louder than words.
Historically, the Menin Gate of Ypres was a crossing point over the moat to the closeby town of Menin. For the troops it played a significant role though because from this spot thousands of soldiers were set off for the part of the Front known as the Ypres Salient. The new Menin Gate was designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield and built in the form of a Roman triumphal arch.
Watch the Last Post ceremony
The tradition started in 1928 and since then every night at 8.00pm a moving ceremony takes place under the Menin Gate in Ypres. The Last Post Ceremony is a part of the daily life in Ypres. It’s a a wonderful way to honour the fallen heroes from WWI.
To ensure yourself a decent view I would recommend to come a bit earlier because the Gate gets busy around the time of the Last Post. Also traffic passing through the Menin Gate temporarily comes to a halt to give the traditional final salute to the fallen.
City walking activities
Ypres offers various guided walking tours that you can join for a little fee. One of them is the interesting tour with Ypres Night Watch for only 4€. But if you don’t feel like that you can also just follow bronze rivets decorated with the silhouette of the Cloth Hall, the Cathedral and the Menin Gate that can be found on the streets of Ypres. It’s a reference to the 6,6 km town walking tour leading to the numerous important features of Ypres. Start with the Menin Gate and follow the path around the town. You will see memorials, sculptures and many other monuments dedicated to the war times.
On your way you will also stumble upon Lille Gate, the oldest and only 14th century town gate that still exists. It connects the two remaining ramparts of Ypres.
Tyne Cot Cemetery
Tyne Cot Cemetery is one of the most breathtaking memorials that I’ve ever seen to the missing soldiers. It is also the largest Commonwealth cemetery, not only in Flanders, but in the world. The cemetery is about 12 kilometers northeast of Ypres and is very easy to reach by car or rental bike. We decided to rent our bikes and see the surroundings of Ypres which are home for many memorials and other worth of visiting war sights.
Be prepared to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the Tyne Cot Cemetery. This beautiful but at the same time sad place was laid out by Sir Reginald Blomfield with almost 12,000 war graves and a memorial to 35,000 soldiers missing after August 16, 1917. The location offers one of the best views of the former battlefields.
We haven’t had time to visit all cemeteries of Ypres and it’s actually impossible since there are no less than 247 large and small cemeteries in Flanders Fields. Nevertheless Lijssenthoek Cemetery, Buttes New British Cemetery, and New Irish Farm Cemetery are also significant places to visit.
Hooge Crater Museum
Hooge Crater Museum is located some five kilometres from Ypres. This is where some of the First World War trenches were, and where you can learn a lot about them by visiting the area. It’s a full scale reconstructions of war scenes but there is also an extended collection of weapons, war equipment and photos. We didn’t have time to visit that one but I’ve heard that everyone who had an opportunity to stop by were thrilled about everything they saw there. So I would say it’s a must see in Ypres!
Ypres, city of cats!
You would not expect that but Ypres is also famous for it’s cat parade. Every three years, on the second Sunday in May (the next event is on Sunday, 9th of May 2021) giant cats are crossing the streets of Ypres. The highlight of the parade is when the City Jester throws fluffy toy kittens down from the belfry. That makes young and old alike giggle!
If you enjoyed visiting Ypres I would also recommend to have a day trip to Bruges or Ghent since they are not far away. Despite being so close to Ypres these cities have completely different vibes and it seems like World War One passed by and didn’t affect their history. It’s doubtlessly worth of visiting!