A real gem of the European Low Countries, Belgium might be small but boy does it pack a punch! Ranging from the Francophone villages of Wallonia in the south to the Flemish diamond towns and North Sea coast, this nation hosts everything from buzzing European parliaments to sobering war memorials between its borders. Here, we take a look at all the best places to visit in Belgium, checking off the energetic capital, the wilds of the Ardennes, culturally-rich Mons and plenty, plenty more along the way!
Catapulted to fame by the 2008 hit film In Bruges, this pop-up cut-out of a medieval town in the heartlands of Flemish Belgium rarely fails to impress. Its old centre is an enchanting labyrinth of winding stony streets, each fringed with the rising apses of Low Country townhouses. Here, soaring belfries clad in Gothic carvings and twisted gargoyles peak above the Grote Markt; chip merchants tout double-fried cones of Belgian frites next to ubiquitous Irish pubs (there’s an unexpectedly lively nightlife), and romantic gondolas drift up and down the canals. Oh, and don’t miss the Basilica of the Holy Blood – a Gothic masterpiece that’s said to house a vial of Christ’s congealed blood!
It’s just a matter of time before Ghent begins to vie against Antwerp and Brussels for the top spot on lists of Belgium’s must-see metropolitan destinations. Once one of the most powerful city states in Europe, it opted to take something of a backseat in the modern age; preferring to hide its gorgeous location on the confluence of the Scheldt and Leie and that chocolate box old town area (the largest pedestrianised urban zone in the country). Today, travelers head in to explore the postcard-perfect rows of Flemish townhouses that line the Graslei docks, or delve into the Gothic medley that rises with the bulwarks of the Gravensteen castle. Others sip Belgian brews in the riverside pubs, or devour platters of moules frites amidst the tight-knit alleyways.
Nestled deep in a wooded valley in the midst of the Wallonia Ardennes, Durbuy enchants visitors with a rustic web of winding cobblestone lanes and bucolic cottages dressed in rhododendron, ivy vines and poppy blooms. A clutch of hearty and welcoming Belgian beer joints rubs shoulders with accomplished fine-dining restaurants between the streets of the medieval centre, while narrow lanes like Rue des Récollets are a real treat for strollers. Summertime brings booming crowds to the craft boutiques of the self-proclaimed ‘smallest town in the world’, while winter gives a wilder hue to the riparian setting in the middle of pretty Luxembourg province.
Cool, confident and classically subversive, Antwerp has really honed its rep as the second city of Belgium. A booming diamond trading centre and moneyed to the hilt, the town touts grandiose Flemish houses, winding medieval streets overshadowed by the looming Gothicism of the city Cathedral, the glorious old home of Rubens, and an endearingly gaudy Red Light district where Toots Thielemans tunes echo past candlelit beer bars. And then – of course – there’s the Het Zuid neighbourhood; Antwerp’s sleepless modern edge, where bohemian coffee shops rub shoulders with antique emporiums, fixie riders glide past graffiti artists and the acclaimed MUHKA art gallery offers cutting-edge avant-garde.
Etched into the minds of many as the site of one of the most bloody and destructive battles of the First World War, little Ypres in the midst of the Westhoek is a real must for any history buffs making their way through Belgium. From 1914 onwards, the rolling fields around this ancient city were dug-out by French, Canadian, British, ANZAC and other allied troops as they vied for control of West Flanders and attempted to push German lines back over the infamous Passendale Ridge. Today, this bloody struggle is commemorated by the Menin Gate Memorial and the In Flanders Fields Museum, which has been hailed as the most comprehensive World War I exhibit in all of Europe.
6. The Hoge Kempen National Park
Belgium’s solitary National Park is a real patchwork of natural beauty that does well to sum up the wild hinterland of Eastern Flanders. Covering 60 square kilometers of the picturesque Limburg region, the park is home to rolling heath and undulating hills, misty pine forests and mirror-like lakes, all dotted with packs of wild deer and sweeping blooms of lavender and thistle. With a whopping total of more than 200 kilometers of winding hiking trails and countless bridal paths and biking tracks besides, it’s hardly surprising that this one’s now a real favourite amongst outdoorsy types making their way through the Low Countries.
Touting its 800-year-old university, a booming student population of more than 25,000 beer-loving erudite Belgians and the famous Grand Béguinage district (a UNESCO-attested area of cobbled streets, enchanting red-brick buildings and pretty Flemish facades), it’s hardly a surprise that Leuven is on the up. Yes sir, travelers are now more eager than ever to delve into the elegant streets that weave around the Grote Markt below the filigreed Gothic spires of one eye-watering City Hall, while others will come just for the beer – this is the home of the sprawling InBev brewery (one of the largest of its kind in the world), along with countless specialist craft bars touting ancient Trappist ales and Belgian abbey beers to boot!
No list of Belgium’s top must-see sights could possibly be complete without at least a mention of its sprawling, action-packed and indelibly exciting capital city. Yes sir, not only is Brussels the beating heart of modern European politics, drawing lawmakers from Estonia to Portugal, but it’s also the home of the iconic Grand Place market square, where a palimpsest of the Gothic, the Baroque the fin de siècle and Beaux-Arts styles coalesce amidst the apses and spires. And all around this historic plaza, hidden alleys conceal Belgian beer bars bursting with Trappist brews and frothy ales, famous chocolatiers, holes-in-the-wall touting waffles and stacks of double-cooked Belgian frites, fine art museums bulging with Bruegel and Rubens, regal parks with soaring monuments like the Cinquantenaire.
Proud former European Capital of Culture and the home of perhaps the most elegant historic centre in all of Belgium, Mons and its array of Luxembourgish-come-Germanic townhouses sits draped over the southwestern hillsides just a stone’s throw from the border with France. The action focusses on the irresistible Grand Place square, where the elaborate facades of one seriously photogenic town hall sit in the shadow of Belgium’s only Baroque belfry (a UNESCO World Heritage Site to boot).
The town is also home to the erstwhile house of the totemic Dutch post-impressionist Vincent Van Gogh, while the famous Ducasse festivities in the spring make for a striking display of local religious traditions, complete with biblical re-enactments, pitched battles between St George and the dragon, horse parades and more.
Responsible for adding the prefix ‘spa’ to destinations famed for their bubbling mineral springs right across the globe, this charming little town in the heart of Liege province comes complete with row upon row of regal facades and La Belle Époque architectural pieces. It has been hailed for its healing waters since way back in the 14th century, and today folk still flock to the all-new Thermes baths that look over the downtown streets where once Dumas and Victor Hugo and the fictional Hercule Poirot would have flitted between Parisian-style cafes and babbling fountains. Nice.
A patchwork of traditional Mosan-style homes built from grey brick and stoic black slate, crisscrossing cobblestone lanes and pretty riverside promenades, Namur belies its official status as a regional capital with a laid-back, historic vibe. Its undisputed piece de resistance is the sprawling medieval Citadelle that crowns the hillsides above the Sambre. More than 1,000 years old, it remains one of the largest fortresses in all of Europe and comes complete with oodles of escape tunnels and bulwarks that were used right up until WWII. And once travelers are done touring the castle complex on the hill, Namur’s cobbled Place du Vieux Marché beckons; a pretty European square that’s awash with al fresco cafes and Belgian beer bars aplenty.
Straddling the Meuse River as it meanders northwards through the grassy valleys and woods of Wallonia, Liege is one of the less-trodden cities in Belgium. However, travelers who linger here just a little before heading out to explore the wilds of the Ardennes are in for a real treat. For one there’s a seriously pretty medieval old town area that cascades down from the fascinating Citadel of Liege to the riverbanks, encompassing the flying buttresses of a reconstructed city cathedral, acclaimed institutions like Musée des Beaux-Arts and the eclectic Egyptology-come-Bonapartist collections of the Curtius Museum as it goes. And then there’s the nightlife – a medley of student-led jazz bars and Low Country pubs that bustles between the Victorian and Art Deco homes of the Le Carré neighbourhood.
13. The Ardennes
A sprawling section of southern Belgium that’s famed as one of the most beautiful hiking destinations in all of Northern Europe, the Ardennes ranges from the city of Namur, across the valleys of the meandering Meuse River and down to the wild plateau Fens on the edge of the German Eifel Mountains. Between its borders travelers can seek out rock-clad castles like Chateau de Bouillon, Mardi Gras festivities in Malmedy, beautiful canoeing waters along the River Lesse, stalactite-dotted caves and grottoes amidst the Ourthe hills, dense woodlands and Trappist monasteries in Rochefort, rugged cliffs in Dinant, verdant valleys that give way to winding river channels, misty forests that go on for miles and oodles, oodles more!
Escape the inland cities and towns of Belgium for a blast of North Sea air along the sun-splashed (at least by summer!) esplanades of Ostend, which runs its way along the windswept coastline of West-Flanders just a short ride out of Bruges. Much-loved by locals for its buzzing atmosphere and sandy beaches between June and August, it’s actually surprisingly easy to fall in love with this one’s cookie cutter seaside hotels, curiously English tearooms and hedonistic clubs along Langestraat. There’s history to explore too, most notably at the infamous Atlantic Wall Open Air Museum, which chronicles German fortification of the European seaboard, while aquariums and various marine-themed expos relate the town’s indelible connection to the North Sea.
Perched right on the borderlands with Luxembourg to the south, the now sleepy, 15,000-strong town of Bastogne boasts a history going all the way back to the centuries when Gallic tribes waged war with Roman centurions in the Low Countries. However, the spot is now better known for its place at the heart of the tumultuous and dark histories of the 20th century. In 1944 it was from here that German divisions planned the Battle of the Bulge, and the town subsequently played host to the heroic 101st Airborne Division as they were encircled by Axis troops. Today, this pivotal moment of the Western Front is commemorated at the acclaimed Bastogne War Museum, the colossal Mardasson Memorial and the Bastogne Barracks alike. #thecrazytourist