Don’t let Belgium’s relatively small size fool you, since it has more to do per square mile than most other places on earth. And best of all for the traveler, it’s a comparatively easy place to get around and English is widely spoken.
By Jim Ferri
Despite it being one of the most popular and beautiful countries in Europe, Belgium confuses many travelers.
The crux of the problem, as it often is, is political.
The country is divided into two ethnic regions, Dutch-speaking Flanders to the north and French-speaking Wallonia to the south. An imaginary east-west line that bisects the country at Brussels, divides the two regions. Consequently, Brussels is a city claimed by both the Flemish and the Walloons.
Although this is a major political conundrum for the Belgians, for the traveler it’s inconsequential. Just forget the politics. In other words, focus instead on the cornucopia of culture, historical places and beautiful towns and cities throughout the country.
Visit Brussels, the self-proclaimed “Capital of Europe,” and wander around the magnificent Grande Place. See great museums such as the Magritte, dedicated to Belgium’s famous surrealist painter.
Also, cruise the canals and walk the lanes of popular and beautiful Bruges and Ghent. Also be sure to visit such treasures as Liege and Spa (luring spa-goers since the 14th century). In addition, historic Bastogne, made famous by the Battle of the Bulge in WWII.
Since cuisine is as highly regarded as the masterpieces in its museums, and you’ll certainly eat well wherever you go. If you’re up north in Flanders in August, you can get a Taste of Antwerp at Belgium’s largest culinary festival. Also visit Oostduinkerke on the Flemish coast for the shrimp festival in June, and Bruges Kookeet food festival every September.
Just remember that “If It’s Tuesday This Must Be Belgium” was a comedic spoof of American travelers. It was not a suggested itinerary for the rest of us.
Brussels, Belgium’s Capital
Brussels is quickly gaining a reputation as one of Europe’s must-see destinations. Moreover, with its central location in the heart of Europe, it’s easily accessible by air or high-speed rail from neighboring countries.
It’s an international metropolis – a mosaic of languages and cultures – and the home of the EU, NATO and myriad organizations. English is widely spoken, making it a great place for even a novice French-speaker to get by without an issue.
Brussels is a classic European city with small-town charm and cosmopolitan attractions. Among its most celebrated attractions is La Grand Place, a UNESCO World Heritage Site originally built in the 13th century. Arguably, it’s Europe’s most beautiful medieval square. If you’re a chocoholic make your way to Place du Grand Sablon and its numerous chocolate shops.
Just a short walk from the Grand Place is the Mannekin Pis, a small bronze statue of a little boy relieving himself. The statue, a good example of Belgium’s sense of humor, is given costumes to mark various occasions, anniversaries or events.
Travel Guides I Recommend for Belgium and Luxembourg
DK Eyewitness Travel Guide Belgium & Luxembourg I enjoy these guides and find them quite informative. Buy this one and you get Luxembourg for free (although you’ll still need to pay to travel there).
Lonely Planet Belgium & Luxembourg Here’s another guide that provides a wealth of down-to-earth info.
The Foodie Guide to Brussels To be truthful, I haven’t read this guide but since Brussels, Belgium, and Luxembourg are all such foodie destinations this would seem to be a good companion guide to either of the above guidebooks.
Antwerp, Belgium’s “Capital of Cool”
Known for its vibrant nightlife, funky bars and restaurants and numerous festivals, Belgians see Antwerp as the “capital of cool.” The Antwerp Fashion Academy produced a group of avant-garde designers who made a big splash on the fashion scene in the 1980’s. Consequently, they became known as “The Antwerp Six.” Nowadays, the Academy continues to churn out new, hot talent.
If shopping is not your thing, discover the compact center of Antwerp. It juxtaposes beautiful medieval buildings with modern architectural landmarks. You’ll find plenty historic buildings, as well as the biggest diamond center in the world.
Antwerp is an art-loving city with which the name Rubens is eternally linked. Still, more than 400 years after the birth of this brilliant painter, it’s still possible to see the extent to which Rubens left his mark on the city. You can cap your visit off with a taste of the city’s funky nightlife.
Bruges, One of Belgium’s Most Popular Cities
The historic center of Bruges, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is closed to cars, making it easily explored on foot. It’s an impressive city, stunningly beautiful and culturally active, that you can also explore by boat along quiet canals. Actually, you can do it well also by horse-drawn carriage.
Although Bruges is small, it’s filled to the brim with architectural and artistic treasures, folklore, chocolate shops and lace boutiques. Moreover, there’s no lack of fine restaurants.
One popular place in the city is The Beguinages, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s the home of the nuns of the order of Saint Benedict. Another is the Halve Maan Brewery, a family-owned brewery, and creator of the famous ‘Brugse Zot’ beer. If you’re on a budget buy the discount Bruges City Card or tour the countryside outside the city by bicycle.
Ghent, An Elegant City
Ask a Belgian where they like to travel within their country, many will tell you about the city of Ghent. Belgium’s third largest city with most of its town center closed to cars, it’s best best explored by foot. Of course, there’s also the possibility of bicycles, or by boat along its elegant canals.
Ghent is an unassuming, un-touristy city filled with university students, linger-as-long-as-you-like cafes, well-priced restaurants and vibrant energy. It’s a city with great mustard, Stropke beer (which is Flemish for noose), and the ten-day Ghent Celebrations. The latter is held every July and the city goes all out with theater performances, concerts, singing, dancing, and drinking.
Ghent boasts boasts an Opera House, 18 museums, 100 churches and over 400 historical buildings. The most visited site in Ghent is the famous and beautiful polyptych, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb painted by the brothers Jan and Hubert van Eyck in 1432.
Liege, A Historical City
Liege, the largest French-speaking city in Belgium after Brussels, is a historical city situated along the Meuse River. You can reach it by rail from Brussels in 1 hour; Maastricht, Holland in 20 minutes; Paris in 2 hours.
Dating back to Charlemagne, Liege is a treasure trove of historical sites and celebrated collections. Sitting on the Meuse River is the Grand Curtius, home to the prestigious archaeology, decorative arts, religious and Mosan art museums, a glass museum as well as the famous weaponry museum.
Walk up the Coteaux, a winding path of steps and courtyards leading up to the citadel of Liege, and enjoy an incredible view. Just outside the city, visitors have easy access to the Blegny mines and the Henri Chapelle American Military Cemetery, the largest in Belgium.
Spa, the “Pearl of the Ardennes”
Less than an hour from Liege is the city of Spa, a picturesque Belgian town that’s given its name to all spas worldwide. Nestled in a wooded valley surrounded by rolling hills and countless rivers and springs, it’s often referred to as the “Pearl of the Ardennes.”
People have traveled to Spa for its healing hot spring water treatments since the 14th century, but it wasn’t until the 18th century that it became a resort town. It’s also home to the world first casino, built in 1763 to cater to visitors. Today, it hosts one of the most important and fun annual music festivals in Belgium’s French-speaking region, The Francopholies.
Formula 1 racing fans may be familiar with Spa because it is home to the Spa-Francorchamps racetrack, the most scenic in the circuit, and the host of the Grand Prix each year at the end of August.
Namur, An Impressive Fortified Town
Namur, just one hour by car or train from Brussels, is the capital of Belgium’s French-speaking region. Sitting on the bank of the Meuse River, this impressive fortified town is surrounded by one of Europe’s largest ancient citadels, first built during the 3rd and 4th centuries, and later reconstructed during the 13th and 14th.
Just outside Namur, the towns of Dinant and Wepion offer wonderful day trips. During the summer months, Wepion produces juicy and flavorful strawberries and strawberry stands from local farmers line the streets selling the fresh fruit.
Further down the road is Dinant, sandwiched between the Meuse River and its citadel, originally built in 1051.
You can spend a day visiting the waterfalls of the Grotto of Dinant or the Sanctuary of Beauraing, then grab a table at one of the local cafés while taking in the views of the river.
In this town close to the Luxembourg border, thousands of American soldiers died in WWII’s “Battle of the Bulge.” On the Grand Place of the town there’s a Sherman Tank from the 11th US Armored Division and just outside town, you’ll find the Mardasson Memorial, which also honors the American fallen.
Also, outside Bastogne is the Wood of Peace, a forest of 4,000 trees planted for the 50th anniversary of the historic battle, and dedicated to the American veterans who fought in the Ardennes, Belgian combatants and all the civilians and soldiers who died in the winter of 1944-45.
Every veteran who returned to Bastogne in 1994 chose a tree, which will always bear his name. The Wood of Peace design, only visible from above, is laid out in the image of the UNICEF emblem: a mother and child, the symbol of human tenderness.
Mons, Rich in Tradition
Located just 1 hour from Brussels, Mons is rich in history and tradition. The town hall building on the Grand Place of Mons, constructed between 1458 and 1477, has a Belfry, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The city’s most important annual event, the Ducasse de Mons or the Doudou, dates back to 1349 and the Fraternity of Saint George. Each June, the city is filled with visitors who watch the reenactment of Saint George slaying the Dragon. As the dragon swings its tail at the crowd, spectators try to grab the tail and pull out its hair and ribbons, both of which bring good luck.
Van Gogh also spent some time near Mons before moving on to Provence. His house, an authentic and preserved environment, houses a permanent exhibition of reproductions and an audio-visual show in various languages.
Mechelen and Its Church Bells
Mechelen, a small and picturesque city of quaint shops and car-free areas, was once the capital of present-day Belgium and Holland. Today it’s best known for its carillon school where students from all over the world come to learn to play church bells. In fact, one of the most pleasant experiences in Mechelen is to sit in an outdoor café sipping while listening to bell music drifting through the streets.
Mechelen has more than 300 listed buildings and monuments including eight gothic and baroque churches from the 14th–17th centuries. It also has a Toy Museum, a children’s farm and, for those a bit older, the Anker, one of the oldest operating breweries in Belgium.
Editor’s Note: you may also enjoy Finding Nirvana in Bruges, Belgium’s Chocolate Heaven, An Awesome Brussels Food-Filled Weekend, and Things to Do in Luxembourg