Belgium may be small but it is packed with sights. UNESCO World Heritage sites in the capital of Brussels range from 14th-century guild houses around the elegant Grand Place to the early 20th-century Art Nouveau mansions of Victor Horta. Bruges is a major tourist draw, with its perfectly preserved medieval streets along quiet canals attracting groups of travelers every year. But other cities in the country – in particular Ghent and Mechelen – also retain excellent architectural examples from the Middle Ages. This small nation has always been at the forefront of Europe’s history, hosting many of the continent’s most important events in the countryside.
It was in Belgium that Napoleon met his side at the Battle of Waterloo and during both the First and Second World Wars, Belgium ended up in the front line. The battlefields of Ypres in the First World War are now important pilgrimage sites that are among the most popular sites in Belgium. Whether you’re here for ancient or modern history, Belgium offers a huge piece of European heritage in a bite-sized piece of land.
1 Grand Place, Brussels
La Grand Place, or De Grote Markt in Dutch, is surrounded by beautiful guild halls and other buildings from the 14th to 17th centuries. One side is dominated by the ornate medieval Town Hall, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture. Grand Place was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its excellent blend of architectural and artistic styles. The square is bustling with tourists and locals all year round, but especially in August of alternate year when the center is filled with the 75 by 24 meter Carpet of Flowers, consisting of more than 700,000 carved begonias. Tip: You get the best full view of the beautiful designs from the City Hall balcony.
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2 The canals and the belfry of Bruges
Bruges started on the banks of the river Reie, and as it grew, so did a number of waterways connecting it to the Zwin estuary and the North Sea. Today, the canals are wonderful reminders of Bruges’ history, and cruising or walking along them is one of the most popular things to do in Belgium. You can download a walking map from the tourist website to explore the inner canals, where you’ll get great views of picturesque bridges and glimpses of hidden gardens. Or explore the canals by boat, which you can take from one of the five landings.
One of the most recognizable landmarks in Belgium is the beautiful Belfry and Halle, which dominate Bruges’ main square. This impressive building dates back to the Middle Ages and was once the city’s main market hall. It has been beautifully preserved, allowing visitors to truly enjoy the architectural prowess of the Middle Ages. Climbing the 366 winding and narrow stairs of the belfry is one of the favorite things to do in Belgium. Once at the top, the views of church steeples and tower roofs form one of the best-known panoramas in the country.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Bruges
3 The battlefields of Flanders
For many visitors, Belgium’s role on the front line of the First World War, and in particular the battlefields of Flanders around Ypres, is the main reason for a trip here. Not only historically significant, the battlefields are an important pilgrimage site. The preserved trenches run for miles around the city of Ypres, while this area is also dotted with vast cemeteries for the thousands of soldiers who fell here. The Tyne Cot Cemetery (British) and Langemark German War Cemetery are both solemn reminders of the brutal fighting that took place here during the Great War.
4 Ghent Gravensteen and the old city centre
This hugely impressive fortress was once the grand home of the Counts of Flanders, who drew inspiration for the castle building from the extensive castles the Crusaders built in Syria. Today Gravensteen is one of Europe’s best surviving examples of a moated castle and is incredibly well preserved. The strong and impressively thick and high walls rise from the waters of the river Lieve, right in the old center of Ghent, and rise above the roofs of the surrounding streets. Inside, the huge vaulted halls and chambers contain exhibits of medieval life, but it’s the architecture of the castle itself that is the real star of the show. Climb the stairs to the roof for a panoramic view of the city before walking through Ghent’s charming cobbled streets.
Accommodation: where to stay in Ghent
5 Horta Museum and mansions
Victor Horta was the most influential architect and designer of the early 20th century style known as Art Nouveau. Several of its beautiful buildings survive in Brussels and are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Start at the Horta Museum, housed in his former home and studio, which have been preserved as he designed them, with the original stained glass, mosaics, woodwork, and decorations. Horta pioneered this artistic revolution that maximizes and diffuses natural light and incorporates themes from nature into its undulating curves. Horta’s aesthetic included attention to every detail of construction and decoration, from the design of the house to the furniture and even the decoration on hinges and doorknobs. The two connected buildings of his house and studio show Art Nouveau at its peak,
Address: 23-25 rue Americaine, Sint-Gillis, Brussel
Official site: www.hortamuseum.be/en
6 Cathedral of Saint Bavo, Ghent
This majestic cathedral with its high Gothic choir and Romanesque crypt showcases the best of religious architecture in Belgium and is Ghent’s most notable tourist attraction. While the soaring building, with its harmonious stained-glass windows, is a highlight in itself, most people come here to see the famous artwork that adorns the interior; specifically the Flemish masterpiece known as The Altar of Ghent . Once you’ve seen the painting, don’t miss the mammoth crypt beneath the cathedral, which contains important tombs and some beautiful wall paintings.
Accommodation: where to stay in Ghent
7 Basilica of the Holy Blood, Bruges
If you are only going to visit one church in Bruges, make it this one. The Basilica of the Holy Blood is impressive not only for its blend of Romanesque and late Gothic architecture, but also for the holy relic kept inside. The upper chapel is home to the famous vial for which the church takes its name; said it contains a drop of Jesus Christ’s blood that was brought back to Belgium after the Second Crusade. The interior of the church is a dazzling riot of guildwork completed in the 16th century and provides ample reason for a visit even if you’re not interested in sacred relics.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Bruges
8 Grote Markt (Grote Markt), Antwerp
At the core of Antwerp, is the city’s beautiful Grote Markt (also known as the Grote Markt), which contains some of the finest examples of guildhall architecture in Belgium with their typical tower roofs. The Town Hall here is a well-preserved example of 16th-century construction and the interior is worth seeing for its collection of paintings depicting Antwerp’s history. The guild houses that still form the edge of the square are the main reason to visit the Grote Markt. One of the best facades is the Coopers’ house and Grocery Store , but all are well-preserved examples of this Belgian style of architecture.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Antwerp
9 Meuse valley
The Meuse valley, in the south of the country, is one of the best places to get a taste of Belgium’s lush countryside. This is the perfect opportunity to take a trip along the river and watch the beautiful surroundings unfold; dense forests alternate with cute towns with limestone cliffs. In particular, the cities of Namur and Dinant act as a gateway to this region, which has a large number of hiking and cycling trails for travelers looking to add some activities to their holiday. Steep rocky citadel and other historic sites add to the appeal, but the real highlight in this area is the scenery itself.
10 Mons Old Town
The old center of Bergen is a pleasure to discover. At its center is the Grand Place , a main square characterized by a variety of typically ornate buildings spanning a 400-year period, dating from the 15th to the 18th centuries, yet retaining a sense of symmetry. In particular, the Toison d’Or House (1615) and the Chapel of St. George (1604) are architectural highlights. Away from the Grand Place, the old town hides many more sights. The UNESCO-listed bell tower on the hill above the town and the Church of Sainte-Waudru with its interior full of artistic and religious relics are two of the main attractions.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Mons
11 St. Peter’s Church, Leuven
St. Peter’s Church is located in the center of Leuven on the city’s main square or Grote Markt . For architecture and history buffs, this is one of Belgium’s best-preserved examples of Brabantine Gothic, with its pointed arch windows and sheaf pillars. Inside, art lovers will find an extra treat. The choir and ambulatory are home to a museum dedicated to religious art, displaying some of the finest Flemish paintings illustrating biblical scenes. In particular, the baroque carved pulpit and Dirk Bouts’ painting of the Last Supper are worth a visit.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Leuven
12 Mechelen Old Town
The monuments may not be as famous as those in Bruges, but Mechelen’s Old Town is a great place to capture a sense of medieval Belgium with plenty of gabled architecture and fine old buildings still in situ. The central Grote Markt is bordered by a number of exceptionally beautiful buildings, including the Stadhuis and Lakenhall , while the impressive Sint-Rombouts Cathedral with its tall bell tower rises just behind it. Away from the main square, a walk through the center will also reveal plenty of typical guild house architecture that history buffs will want to see.
Accommodation: where to stay in Mechelen
Yes, history buffs, it’s that Waterloo; the place where Napoleon was defeated in the famous battle. Today, the countryside where battle once roared is a bucolic landscape of farmland, but an artificial hill rises from the surrounding plains with a lion’s crest memorial to commemorate the day when Napoleon’s army was finally stopped. From the top there are excellent views over the countryside. For anyone interested in the history of Belgium and Europe, Waterloo remains an important stop on the route.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Waterloo
14 Semois Valley
The lush Semois valley is the perfect antidote to the historic walking in Belgium’s towns and villages. Here, in the south-east of the country, the Semois cuts through dense forest-covered hills and is the main area for walking. For those who prefer a less stressful way of looking at this landscape, a riverboat tour of the area is an excellent alternative. The Semois valley offers a piece of Belgian countryside at its most visceral beauty and is a nature lover’s delight, especially in spring when the wildflowers are in bloom.