The provinces of East Flanders (Oost-Vlaanderen) and West Flanders (West-Vlaanderen) make up Northwest Belgium, though comprise only around half of the total Flemish region that covers the whole of northern Belgium.
The top highlights here are a series of enticing cities featuring fabulous medieval marketplaces, cobbled streets, belfries and begijnhoven. But it’s beautiful Bruges and somewhat grittier Ghent – each with atmospheric age-old waterways – that steal the show. Bruges is home to the breathtaking Belfort and a cache of spectacular classical architecture, while Ghent boasts art nouveau buildings and a big student population.
Buffer your explorations with the dunes and beaches of the Belgian Coast, the thought-provoking WWI sites and cemeteries of Ypres Salient, and the landscapes of the 'Flemish Ardennes' around Geraardsbergen. It doesn't take long to understand why folks keep falling for Flanders.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Northwest Belgium.
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 heart of ancient Bruges, the old market square is lined with pavement cafes beneath step-gabled facades. The buildings aren't always quite as medieval as they look, but together they create a fabulous scene; even the neo-Gothic former post office is architecturally magnificent. The scene is dominated by the Belfort, Belgium's most famous belfry. Its iconic octagonal tower is arguably better appreciated from afar than by climbing the 366 claustrophobic steps to the top.
No museum gives a more balanced yet moving and user-friendly introduction to WWI history. It’s a multisensory experience combining soundscapes, videos, well-chosen exhibits and interactive learning stations at which you ‘become’ a character and follow his or her progress through the wartime period. An electronic 'identity' bracelet activates certain displays.
Bruges’ most celebrated art gallery boasts an astonishingly rich collection that's strong in superb Flemish Primitive and Renaissance works, depicting the conspicuous wealth of the city with glittering realistic artistry. Meditative works include Jan Van Eyck’s radiant masterpiece Madonna with Canon Van der Paele (1436) and the Madonna Crowned by Angels (1482) by the Master of the Embroidered Foliage, where the rich fabric of the Madonna’s robe meets the ‘real’ foliage at her feet with exquisite detail.
In the restored chapel of a 12th-century hospital building with superb timber beamwork, this museum shows various torturous-looking medical implements, hospital sedan chairs and a gruesome 1679 painting of an anatomy class. But it's much better known for its six masterpieces by 15th-century artist Hans Memling, including the enchanting reliquary of St Ursula. This gilded oak reliquary looks like a miniature Gothic cathedral, painted with scenes from the life of St Ursula, including highly realistic Cologne cityscapes.
The western end of the stadhuis morphs into the Basiliek van het Heilig Bloed. The basilica takes its name from a phial supposedly containing a few drops of Christ’s blood that was brought here after the 12th-century Crusades. The right-hand door leads upstairs to a colourfully adorned chapel where the relic is hidden behind a flamboyant silver tabernacle and brought out for pious veneration at 2pm daily.
Dominating the Grote Markt, the enormous reconstructed Lakenhalle is one of Belgium’s most impressive buildings. Its 70m-high belfry has the vague appearance of a medieval Big Ben. The original version was completed in 1304 beside the Ieperslee, a now covered-over river that once allowed ships to sail right up to the Lakenhalle to unload their cargoes of wool. These were stored beneath the high gables of the 1st floor, where you’ll find the unmissable In Flanders Fields Museum.
The beautiful 1420 stadhuis features a fanciful facade that’s second only to Leuven’s for exquisitely turreted Gothic excess. Inside, an audioguide explains numerous portraits in somewhat excessive detail before leading you upstairs to the astonishing Gotische Zaal (Gothic Hall). The exterior is smothered with replica statues of the counts and countesses of Flanders, the originals having been torn down in 1792 by French soldiers. Entrance includes admission to the Gothic Hall and adjacent Brugse Vrije.
Flanders’ quintessential 12th-century stone castle comes complete with moat, turrets and arrow slits. It’s all the more remarkable considering that during the 19th century the site was converted into a cotton mill. Meticulously restored since, the interior sports the odd suit of armour, a guillotine and torture devices. The relative lack of furnishings is compensated for with a handheld 45-minute movie guide, which sets a tongue-in-cheek historical costumed drama in the rooms, prison pit and battlements.