Belgium is an incredible country. From Brussels to Leuven, passing through Bruges or Ghent, this country is often overseen as a travel destination. It’s full of history and tradition, as well as both Flemish and modern architecture, depending on the city you visit, which makes it a very interesting mix, both for couples wishing to visit charming places, groups of friends and solo travellers alike. Either way, you will find that it is a country to remember.
Besides that, Belgium is also enviably well connected by means of public transit, which allows you to travel around the country in just a couple of hours. The Brussels airport, as well as the many low cost connections in Charleroi, allow for a quick getaway to many of the Belgian cities. For example, Brussels Zaventem International Airport is only sixty minutes by train from Ghent or just an hour and a half from Bruges, this gives you the opportunity to easily visit several cities in a single trip.
In order to give you a sneak peek at the wonders this beautiful country offers, Jacobo, my guest writer, has put together this small guide with information on some of the cities to visit in Belgium and their highlights. Let’s get started!
Leuven is one of the most beautiful student cities I have visited and one that I’m certain you will enjoy too. With lots of life and activity, as well as centuries of history in every stone.
Leuven is the capital of the Flemish Brabant province in the region of Flanders. And although its origins date back to the 9th Century, it became a rich commercial region between the 11th and 14th centuries. This led to the founding of the oldest university in Belgium, The Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, in 1425. Needless to say, that the university still stands and is currently the largest in Belgium and one of the oldest in Europe. In fact, it’s ranked 35th in the world and 12th among European institutions by “The Times Higher Education” which gives Leuven a lot of young and dynamic life, with plenty of bars for dinner or a drink, go out or just have a good ice cream.
It’s a city that has managed to maintain its charm, you will see incredible sites such as its town hall, of spectacular beauty. Alternatively you can also go grab a beer at Café Belge de Oude Markt or visit the Kruidtuin, a beautiful botanical garden particularly spectacular in the spring. Other recommendations for your next visit to Leuven are the Arenberg castle (half an hour from downtown) or the university library, including the tower, which has perfect views of the city.
Despite being a small city (in one or two days you can see all the main tourist attractions), thanks to the university it has a lot of cultural life too, so if you decide to stay a bit longer you will be able to enjoy a good dancing session at places like Musicafe, Rumba & Co, Café Manger or De Rector, everything will depend on the restrictions you find due to the Pandemic when you visit, but whether you can experience its nightlife or not, Leuven has a lot to offer.
Estimated visiting time: minimum 1 day
Bruges is the crown jewel of Belgian cities. It has undeniable charm, with its canals and the Flemish-style architecture, it’s simply beautiful. But that means it’s also well visited. Because of its charm, it’s not strange to see it full of people from all over the world. One of the main attractions in Bruges is the many chocolate shops with high quality Belgian chocolates of all shapes and colors.
Once filled in chocolate to your heart’s desire, Bruges’ canals and streets at sunset are a delight to explore with most buildings turning to soft brown or oranges sparkling with life and glowing reflections on the water.
Bruges retains a lot of Flemish architecture, so if you are looking for a charming place to visit while travelling through Belgium, it’s a wonderful place to go, particularly as a couple. It’s not a very big city so in a morning or a day at most you have seen everything.
Interesting things to see or do in Bruges are in no particular order:
- Taking a boat ride along the canals
- Visiting the Church of Our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk), which has a sculpture by Michelangelo inside
- If you like art, go to the Groeningemuseum, which collects paintings by great Flemish artists such as Jan Van Eyck, famous for their realism in detail using oil paint, or for using techniques such as glazing (applying layers of wet paint on wet paint)
- If you are here for the food instead, then a visit to the Chocolate Museum or the Frietmuseum (Museum of Belgian Fries), a snack Belgians love, is a must
- But, if you are like me, the real pleasure of Bruges is to walk around and get lost in its medieval streets, and a lovely place to rest is the Begijnhof, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site
And before we move on, a fun fact about Bruges: It’s the capital of the West Flanders province and its name comes from the West Germanic word Bryggia, which means “bridges”, “docks”, “piers” or “berths”.
Estimated visiting time: minimum 1 day
The third Belgian city on this list is Ghent, capital city of the East Flanders province and 3rd largest city in the country.
An interesting thing in Ghent is the City Card Gent, which can be obtained at the Ghent Tourist Office (in Sint-Veerleplein number 5). For 38€ for 48 hours and 44€ for 72 hours it includes entrance fees to monuments, historic houses or museums, transport by streetcar or city bus, a boat ride on the canals and even the day rental of a bike to tour the city.
Truth is, that most of the historical things to visit in Ghent are very close to each other, which means that if you want you can see them in one day, but I don’t recommend it, for several reasons:
- It’s a young city that has a lot of life and a lot of cultural offerings, so it is worth taking your time;
- It’s worth experiencing both sides of the city: night and day.
I’d not recommend staying for less than a weekend and consider combining your visit to Ghent with a stop by Bruges for the best experience.
Among Ghent’s highlights are:
- The Castle of the Counts of Flanders (Gravensteen)
- The docks of Graslei and Korenlei, the two banks that preserve the history of the economic port that was the city. With its guild houses and the old Post Office
- Behind the Graslei is Korenmarkt, the old grain market, a large square that invites you to sit and have a drink on the terraces open all year round (watch out for local regulations and restrictions when planning your trip). There is a lot of movement in this part of town.
- At Korenmarkt 10 is Restaurant du Progres, which serves typical Belgian cuisine and more specifically, Flanders cuisine.
- Also in the gardens of the Municipal Pavilion it is easy to see live music on lively days and it’s a large and open space.
Because of its history, Ghent, like Bruges, is a good place for a Free Tour and if you like urban art the city has a space for young artists to train, the Graffiti Street in Werregaren Straat.
The last stop, Brussels, is the seat of the European Parliament. But don’t fret, it’s not only a city of business or politics, it has a lot of life and history, from the Grand Place to the Royal Saint-Hubert Galleries, to the nightlife around the Delirium Tremens Café and its more than 2,000 different brands of beer. On top of it all, the urban art murals that dot the city and often pay tribute to comic characters like Tintin or Spirou. Like any European capital, it also has an institutionalised cultural offer, with a multitude of museums. Most of them are gathered around the Mont des Arts, a place that has one of the best views of the city at sunset. Local tip: The cafeteria of the Royal Library of Belgium is a prime spot.
Depending on your travel style and considering that Brussels is a big city, I do not recommend staying any less than two days. If you are more into the alternative scene, there are many urban art routes. For affordable activities, it’s worth looking into the Free Tours to the city hall itself through QR codes, for example. And the museum of musical instruments, the MIM, located in the Old England building (one of the most beautiful in the city), with pieces from around the world and from different eras or the Comic Museum (Rue des Sables 20) are some of the other entertaining things you could consider checking out while in Brussels.
If it is a trip with friends, I recommend Saint Géry or the flea market in the Place du Jeu de Balles. Sablon, in the same neighborhood, is very nice to walk for couples, and for the most romantic spot, check out the bar inside the glass building of the botanical garden. It offers live music, in Rue Royale 236 (here you can find the program of the 2021 season). As for parks where to enjoy a picnic, the Cinquantenaire or the Parc de Bruxelles, on the outskirts, are both great spots. And last but not least is the Heizel Park, a nice option to rest and people-watch. It’s also home to the famous “Atomium”, the metro stop is Heizel (line 6) and although it’s always a bit crowded, it’s an impressive sight.
Finally, it would not be a trip to Brussels without a stop by one of its most famous residents, the Manneken Pis (Rue du Chêne 2), a 65 cm high statue surrounded by many legends. However, what many visitors don’t know is that there is also a girl, the Jeanneken Pis (Impasse de la Fidélité 10-12) next to the Delirium Tremens Café, and even a dog Zinneke Pis (Rue des Chartreux 35). Pay them a visit too, they will be happy to see you!
And please, don’t miss the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, regardless of the price of its stores, it’s a beautiful place with a lot of history and it will make anyone who has passed through Milan smile. On the way out, don’t forget to stop by the Grand Place, one of the most beautiful squares in Europe and one of the most photographed too.
Estimated visiting time: 2 or more days.
And before I go, if/when you do visit Belgium (soon), make sure to forget all about what you may have heard about this beautiful country so far. Give it a chance to surprise you… and give it a try at the local delicacies 😉