This pop-up cut-out of a mediaeval village in the heart of Flemish Belgium sprang to famous thanks to the 2008 blockbuster film In Bruges, and it never ceases to wow. Its historic centre is a beguiling maze of meandering gravel alleyways that are surrounded on all sides by towering Low Country townhouse apses. Above the Grote Markt, soaring belfries with Gothic sculptures and twisted gargoyles rise; chip vendors sell double-fried Belgian frites next to several Irish pubs (the city has a surprisingly active nightlife); and beautiful gondolas float around the canals. Oh, and don’t forget to see the Basilica of the Holy Blood, a marvel of Gothic architecture thought to contain a vial of Christ’s congealed blood. See also our Bruges travel guide!
It’s just a matter of time until Ghent begins to fight against Antwerp and Brussels for the top place on lists of Belgium’s must-see urban locations. In the modern era, it chose to take a backseat, choosing to conceal its stunning location at the confluence of the Scheldt and Leie rivers and that candy-colored old town area. It was once one of the most influential city states in Europe (the largest pedestrianised urban zone in the country). The picture-perfect rows of Flemish townhouses that border the Graslei docks are now visited by tourists, while others investigate the Gothic hodgepodge that rises beside the Gravensteen castle’s bulwarks. Others sip Belgian brews in the riverside pubs, or devour platters of moules frites amidst the tight-knit alleyways.
Durbuy, which is hidden deep in a valley covered in trees in the Wallonia Ardennes, charms visitors with a maze of narrow cobblestone streets and charming homes draped in rhododendron, ivy, and poppies. Between the alleys of the historic centre, a number of hospitable and hearty Belgian beer establishments can be found, and small passageways like Rue des Récollets are a wonderful pleasure for pedestrians. In the self-described “smallest town in the world,” summertime brings throngs of shoppers, but winter lends the riverside environment in the centre of lovely Luxembourg province a wilder tint.
Cool, confident and classically subversive, Antwerp has really honed its rep as the second city of Belgium. Rich to the hilt and a thriving centre for the trade in diamonds, the town is known for its grand Flemish homes, winding mediaeval streets, the magnificent former residence of Rubens, and an endearingly garish Red Light district where Toots Thielemans music can be heard echoing past candlelit beer bars. Of course, there is also Antwerp’s sleepless contemporary edge, Het Zuid, where fixie riders pass graffiti artists and the renowned MUHKA art museum features cutting-edge avant-garde. Bohemian coffee shops coexist with antique stores in this area. For more information, see our article on the top things to do in Antwerp
Little Ypres in the Westhoek is a true must-see for any history fans travelling through Belgium since it is etched into many people’s memories as the location of one of the bloodiest and most damaging battles of the First World War. French, Canadian, British, ANZAC, and other allied forces dug up trenches in the undulating fields surrounding this historic city beginning in 1914 as they fought for control of West Flanders and sought to drive German lines back over the famed Passendale Ridge. Today, the Menin Gate Memorial and the In Flanders Fields Museum—hailed as the most comprehensive World War I museum in all of Europe—honor this horrific conflict.
6. The Hoge Kempen National Park
The lone National Park of Belgium perfectly captures the untamed Eastern Flanders hinterland with its mix of natural splendour. The park, which spans 60 square kilometres of the gorgeous Limburg area, is home to rolling heath, undulating hills, foggy pine woods, and mirror-like lakes, all of which are sprinkled with herds of wild deer and sweeping lavender and thistle blossoms. With a stunning total of more than 200 kilometres of twisting hiking trails and many bridal walks and bike tracks besides, it’s scarcely surprising that this one’s become a true favourite with adventurous types making their way through the Low Countries.
It should come as no surprise that Leuven is prospering given its 800-year-old university, a thriving student body of more than 25,000 beer-loving, intelligent Belgians, and the renowned Grand Béguinage district (a UNESCO-recognized area of cobbled streets, charming red-brick buildings, and pretty Flemish facades). Yes, sir, tourists are more eager than ever to explore the opulent streets that wind around the Grote Markt beneath the intricately carved Gothic spires of one breath-taking City Hall, while others will come just for the beer — this is the location of the sprawling InBev brewery, one of the largest of its kind in the world, as well as countless specialised craft bars hawking vintage Trappist ales and Belgian abbey beers to boot! View the top 15 things to do as well.
Without at least mentioning Belgium’s expansive, bustling, and indescribably thrilling capital city, no list of the country’s top must-see attractions could ever be considered complete. Yes sir, Brussels is not only the centre of contemporary European politics, attracting legislators from Portugal to Estonia, but it is also the location of the famous Grand Place market square, where a palimpsest of Gothic, Baroque, 18th-century, and Beaux-Arts architectural styles coexist among the spires and apses. And all around this historic plaza, obscure lanes hide Belgian beer bars brimming with Trappist brews and foamy ales, well-known chocolatiers, taverns serving waffles and stacks of double-cooked Belgian fries, fine art museums bursting with Bruegel and Rubens, regal parks with towering monuments like the Cinquantenaire, and the list goes on.
Mons, a proud former European Capital of Culture and the location of what is arguably the most opulent historic centre in the entire country of Belgium, is draped over the southwest slopes, close to the French border. Mons is home to a variety of Luxembourgish-come-Germanic townhouses. The action centres on the enticing Grand Place plaza, where the lone Baroque belfry in Belgium sits under the magnificent façade of one really gorgeous town hall (a UNESCO World Heritage Site to boot). The town is also the location of the former residence of the totemic Dutch post-impressionist Vincent Van Gogh, and the springtime Ducasse celebrations, which feature biblical reenactments, pitched battles between St. George and the dragon, and horse parades, are a stunning display of local religious customs and more
This quaint little town in the centre of Liege province is equipped with row upon row of royal facades and La Belle Époque architectural features, and it is responsible for lending the term “spa” to sites renowned for their boiling mineral springs all over the world. People still go to the brand-new Thermes baths that overlook the downtown streets where previously Dumas, Victor Hugo, and the legendary Hercule Poirot would have flitted between Parisian-style cafés and tinkling fountains. It has been praised for its medicinal waters since way back in the 14th century. Nice.
Namur belies its formal status as a regional capital with a laid-back, mediaeval air. It is a mix of classic Mosan-style dwellings constructed from grey brick and rugged black slate, crisscrossing cobblestone roads, and attractive riverfront promenades. The huge mediaeval Citadelle that adorns the mountains above the Sambre is without a doubt the piece de resistance. It is one of the biggest fortifications in all of Europe and is more than 1,000 years old. It has a tonne of escape tunnels and bulwarks that were used up to World War II. When visitors have had their fill of the castle complex on the hill, Namur’s cobblestone Place du Vieux Marché, a charming European square bursting with outdoor cafés and Belgian beer bars, beckons.
Liege is one of Belgium’s less-traveled cities, sitting on the Meuse River as it meanders through the verdant valleys and woodlands of Wallonia. But those who stay a bit longer here before leaving to explore the Ardennes’ wilds are in for a genuine treat. For starters, there is a seriously lovely mediaeval old town area that descends from the intriguing Citadel of Liege to the riverbanks, passing by renowned establishments like the Musée des Beaux-Arts and the eclectic Curtius Museum’s collections of Egyptology and Bonapartist art. The area also includes the flying buttresses of a rebuilt city cathedral. Then there is the nightlife, which is a mash-up of Low Country pubs and student-run jazz bars that buzz in between the Victorian and Art Deco residences of the Le crossing the Meuse River as it flows north through the neighbourhood of Carré. Find out more about Liege and the top things to do there.
13. The Ardennes
The Ardennes, a vast region in southern Belgium, stretches from Namur, over the valleys of the meandering Meuse River, and down to the wild plateau Fens on the border of the German Eifel Mountains, and is renowned as one of the most stunning hiking locations in all of Northern Europe. Travelers can find stalactite-dotted caves and grottoes amidst the Ourthe hills, beautiful canoeing waters along the River Lesse, Mardi Gras celebrations in Malmedy, dense woodlands and Trappist monasteries in Rochefort, rugged cliffs in Dinant, verdant valleys that give way to winding river channels, misty forests that stretch for miles, and oodles, oodles more within its borders.
The sun-drenched (at least by summer!) esplanades of Ostend, which run their way down the wind-whipped coastline of West-Flanders only a short ride out of Bruges, are a great opportunity to get away from the inland cities and villages of Belgium for a blast of North Sea air. It’s really shockingly simple to fall in love with this one’s cookie-cutter coastal hotels, oddly English tearooms, and hedonistic clubs along Langestraat, which is much-loved by residents for its vibrant atmosphere and sandy beaches between June and August. There are historical sites to visit as well, most notably the controversial Atlantic Wall Open Air Museum, which details German fortification of the European shoreline. Aquariums and other marine-themed expos also highlight the town’s enduring relationship with the North Sea.
Bastogne, a peaceful town of 15,000 people, is perched directly on the borders with Luxembourg to the south. It has a long history that dates back to the years when Gallic tribes fought Roman centurions in the Low Countries. The location is now more well-known for its role in the turbulent and gloomy histories of the 20th century, though. German armies planned the Battle of the Bulge from here in 1944, and the town later hosted the valiant 101st Airborne Division when they were surrounded by Axis forces. Today, the renowned Bastogne War Museum, the enormous Mardasson Memorial, and the Bastogne Barracks all pay tribute to this crucial period of the Western Front.