Design and diamonds, Rubens and techno, art nouveau and high fashion: in all its thrilling contradictions, the dynamic port city of Antwerp dominates northeastern Belgium. But it is by no means the only historic townscape that demands attention here. Were there no Bruges, Belgium might be celebrating Lier as one of its loveliest towns. Or maybe Mechelen, with its fascinating Brabantine history, remarkable churches and glorious central square. Like Lier, Diest and shamefully underappreciated Turnhout have some of Belgium’s most romantically delightful begijnhoven. South of prosperous 'gin town' Hasselt lies lovable Tongeren, which claims to be Belgium’s oldest settlement. Between here and buzzing university city Leuven is a charming region of undulating orchard-covered hills. This area is further dotted with easily accessible historic gems: the fairy-tale towers of Sint-Truiden, the unique church at Zoutleeuw and Tienen's trio of Roman tumuli (grave mounds).
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Northeast Belgium.
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.
This delightfully indulgent 1611 mansion was built as a home and studio for celebrated painter Pieter Paul Rubens. It was rescued from ruins in 1937 and has been very sensitively restored with furniture that dates from Rubens’ era plus a priceless collection of 17th-century art. There are around a dozen Rubens canvases, most memorably his world-famous hatted self-portrait and a large-scale canvas of Eve glancing lustfully at Adam's fig leaf.
Belgium’s finest Gothic cathedral was 169 years in the making (1352–1521). Wherever you wander in Antwerp, its gracious, 123m-high spire has a habit of popping unexpectedly into view and it rarely fails to prompt a gasp of awe. The sight is particularly well framed when looking up Pelgrimstraat in the afternoon light.
Combining the impressive 17th-century houses of artist Frans Snijders and of Antwerp lawyer, mayor and Rubens-patron Nicolaas Rockox, this recently revamped museum does a superb job of making accessible a fine collection of 16th- and 17th-century masterpieces with a very helpful tablet tour, headphones and two six-minute films.
As is the case with every great Flemish city, Antwerp’s medieval heart is a classic Grote Markt (market square). Here the triangular, pedestrianised space features the voluptuous, baroque Brabo Fountain depicting the hero of Antwerp’s giant-killing, hand-throwing foundation legend. Flanked on two sides by very photogenic guildhalls, the square is dominated by an impressive Italo-Flemish Renaissance-style stadhuis completed in 1565.
Some 12km northwest of Mechelen, this haunting, moated prison-fort was built in 1906. However, its use as a notorious Nazi internment camp in WWII is the main focus of the audio-guided visit, with over two hours of detail including harrowing personal accounts: around 3500 victims were subjected to its torture rooms, cells and dark, dank corridors. An extra exhibition also looks at later war-crimes trials.
Far and away Leuven’s most iconic sight, the incredible 15th-century stadhuis is a late-Gothic architectural wedding cake flamboyantly overloaded with terraced turrets, fancy stonework and colourful flags. Added in the mid-19th century, a phenomenal 236 statues smother the exterior, each representing a prominent local scholar, artist or noble from the city’s history. Somehow the stadhuis survived the numerous wars that devastated the rest of the town. A WWII bomb that scoured part of the facade miraculously failed to explode.
This soaring, Gothic-vaulted cathedral features a 1723 monumental pulpit, a 1630 Van Dyck crucifixion scene in the south transept, and dozens more fine artworks below the stained-glasswork of the apse. But the most notable feature by far is the 15th-century tower, soaring 97m high and dominating the city skyline.
One of Europe’s largest open-air museums, Bokrijk Openluchtmuseum offers a nostalgic look at Flanders’ past, with over 100 old buildings originally reassembled here in 1958. Many have since been (or are being) meticulously renovated. Entrance is free after 5pm, though you really need at least three hours to do the place justice.