Bruges canals, Antwerp fashion, decadent chocolate, mussels and chips, belfries and castles, crazy carnivals, Tintin and Trappist beers… how could anyone call Belgium boring?!
Belgium’s biggest draws are its medieval town cores, home to a bounty of Unesco sites and many a delightful cafe-bar serving some of the planet's finest beers. But there's so much more, from stalactite-filled caves to post-industrial heritage, forest-edged kayaking rivers and rural chateaux to sandy North Sea beaches. Cutting-edge museums and finely endowed galleries unveil the complex history of what has been a crucible of European art, from the Flemish Primitives, through Rubens' voluptuous nymphs and art nouveau's sinuous curves to bizarre surrealism, comic strips and 21st-century fashion. Belgium also hosts some of the world’s weirdest carnivals.
Since at least Roman times, what we now call Belgium has regularly found itself in the path of invaders. Cities have been ravaged and brutal conflicts have raged, not least in the last two centuries. A lion statue atop a conical artificial hill overlooks the world famous Waterloo battlefield where Napoleon was finally defeated. Seemingly endless rows of white gravestones in Flanders fields commemorate four years of WWI hell. And haunting former prison camps and numerous museums sensitively honour those who died in WWII, the last throes of which included Hitler's devastating 'Battle-of-the-Bulge' counter-attack in the Ardennes.
Town & Country
Though compact, Belgium is a place of striking contrasts: linguistic, cultural and topographic. Most of the historic ‘art’ cities lie in predominantly flat, Dutch-speaking Flanders, seducing visitors with medieval belfries, magical market squares and step-gabled houses that often overlook pretty urban canals. Dotted with superb museums and galleries, these places are close together and seamlessly interconnected by regular public transport. In contrast, despite some intriguing post-industrial cities, much of hilly, French-speaking Wallonia is profoundly rural. So it's useful to have your own wheels to reach the region's spectacular caves, impressive castles and bucolic valleys, where there's endless outdoor fun to be had.
Chips, Chocolate & Beer
Prepare to add an inch or two to your waistline: Belgium's remarkable range of comestible specialities goes far beyond the country's diminutive size and isn't aimed at weight-watchers. Brussels and Liège compete over what constitutes the perfect waffle, while countless speciality shops sell some of the world's most luscious chocolates. Jumbo mussels are served with crispy, twice-fried frites that you'll only call 'French' fries at your peril. Then, of course, there’s beer. Brewing is an almost mystical art in Belgium with a dazzling rainbow of different styles, most notably the six great Trappist beers, still created within active monasteries.
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Art enthusiasts swarm the Sint-Baafskathedraal to glimpse The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (De Aanbidding van het Lams God), a lavish representation of medieval religious thinking that is one of the earliest-known oil paintings. Completed in 1432, it was painted as an altarpiece by Flemish Primitive artists the Van Eyck brothers, and has 20 panels. The work represents an allegorical glorification of Christ's death: on the upper tier sits God the Father flanked by the Virgin and John the Baptist. On the outer panels are the nude Adam and Eve. The lower tier centres on the lamb, symbolising the sacrifice made by Christ, surrounded by all manner of religious figures and a landscape dotted with local church towers. The luminous colours and the rich, detailed crowd scenes are stunning. The painting has had an illustrious history – the Calvinists nearly destroyed it; Austria's Emperor Joseph II was horrified by the nude Adam and Eve and had the panels replaced with clothed versions (the originals are now back in place); and the painting was marched off to Paris during the French Revolution and was later stolen by the Germans who concealed it in an Austrian salt mine during WWII. The panel De Rechtvaardige Rechters (The Fair Judges), stolen in 1934, is still missing, although in June 2018, engineer Gino Marchal and youth fiction author Marc de Bel created quite a stir by publicly declaring they had substantial evidence to suggest the missing panel was buried beneath the town's Kalandeberg square. At time of writing, Ghent officials were taking the claims quite seriously, but for many, the story reeks of a publicity stunt. Stay tuned as the mystery unfolds.
The medieval building and 1622 courtyard garden alone would be worth a visit, but it's the world's oldest printing press, priceless manuscripts and original type sets that justify this museum's Unesco World Heritage status. It's been a museum since 1876 and its other great highlights include a 1640 library, a bookshop dating from 1700 and rooms lined with gilt leather. The valuable painting collection includes work by Rubens, a family friend of Jan Moretus, and there are fascinating examples of Moretus-published books by Rubens’ brother Philip, illustrated by Pieter Paul.
This 1899 former department store is an art nouveau showpiece with a black facade aswirl with wrought iron and arched windows. The building contains the groundbreaking MIM music museum, a celebration of music in all its forms, as well as a repository for more than 2000 historic instruments. The emphasis is very much on listening, with auditory experiences around every corner, from shepherds’ bagpipes and Chinese carillons to harpsichords. Don’t miss the rooftop café for a superb city panorama.
Brussels’ magnificent Grand Place is one of the world’s most unforgettable urban ensembles. Oddly hidden, the enclosed cobblestone square is only revealed as you enter on foot from one of six narrow side alleys: Rue des Harengs is the best first approach. The focal point is the spired 15th-century city hall, but each of the antique guildhalls (mostly 1697–1705) has a charm of its own. Most are unashamed exhibitionists, with fine baroque gables, gilded statues and elaborate guild symbols.
Strap on a pair of headphones, then step on the automated floor panels in front of the precious instruments (including world instruments and Adolphe Sax’s inventions) to hear them being played. As much of a highlight as the museum itself are the premises – the art-nouveau Old England Building. This former department store was built in 1899 by Paul Saintenoy and has a panoramic rooftop café and outdoor terrace.
The typically austere exterior doesn’t give much away, but Victor Horta’s former home (designed and built 1898–1901) is an art nouveau jewel. The stairwell is the structural triumph of the house: follow the playful knots and curlicues of the banister, which become more exuberant as you ascend, ending at a tangle of swirls and glass lamps at the skylight, glazed with plain and citrus-coloured glass.
One of Brussels’ overlooked architectural wonders, this splendid Napoleon III–style palace sports a soaring brick belfry dotted with gilt statuary. Try to see the wedding-hall ceiling, painted by Belgian symbolist artist Fernand Khnopff.
Set on the grounds of a former Cistercian Abbey, this 65-hectare park is home to more than 5000 animals (including pandas, koalas, gorillas and lemurs) living in beautifully designed settings with elements from every corner of the globe. You'll find a recreated African stilt village, the red desert outback of Australia, East Asian temples (plus the largest Chinese garden in Europe) and a spooky belfry where free-flying bats glide overhead. There are ample dining and drinking spots, including a charming canal-side brasserie with good Trappist beers. Get an early start and plan to make a full day of it, as there's much to see here including unique animal encounters – like spying falconry demonstrations, feeding the goats or watching Sumatran elephants being bathed. On Friday and Saturday nights from July to late August, the park stays open until 11pm with eclectic world-music groups playing all around the park. Save cash by buying tickets (€2 cheaper) online. You can reach the park by train on the Mons-Ath line. Disembark at Cambron-Casteau train station, a 10-minute walk from Pairi Daiza.
Dominating the town, Namur's mighty fortress covers a whole hilltop with ramparts, tunnels and grey walls. What you see now is more 19th and 20th century than medieval, but is still compelling, great for strolling and offers terrific views. The best are from a section known as Château des Comtes and the café Le Panorama, by the curious art deco sportsground Stade des Jeux. Most open areas, including the rampart footpaths, are accessible at any time. Be careful not to get caught in the Terra Nova zone, whose main gates lock at 6.30pm. Citadel access for pedestrians is on the steep sloping Rampe Verte from Rue des Moulins or via a stairway from Place St-Hilaire. By car use Rte Merveilleuse from behind the 1911 casino building. Six shuttles (€2) run between the train station and Terra Nova on weekends. Alternatively take bus 3 (hourly) to the Château de Namur and stroll downhill from there.