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.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Belgium.
GalleryThe Adoration of the Mystic Lamb
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 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.
Historic BuildingOld England Building
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.
Historic BuildingSt-Gilles Town Hall
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.
FortressCitadelle de Namur
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.
Whether it’s a guided tour of a historic landmark, private tasting of local delicacies, or an off-road adventure — explore the best experiences in Belgium.