From fairytale castles and Gothic cathedrals to epic battlefields and dreamy chocolate shops, here are some of the best places to visit in Belgium.
Believe it or not, there is far more to do in Belgium than simply guzzle beer and devour chocolate. As fun as that may be, the country is packed full of fascinating sites and attractions that draw millions of tourists each year. Furthermore, Belgium’s excellent transport links and the close proximity of its major cities means it is easy to plan leisurely Belgian weekend getaways and short trips. That said, it is always wise to avoid visiting the biggest hotspots during the busy school holidays in Belgium. If you are feeling adventurous, however, here are some of the best places to visit in Belgium.
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Marvel at the architecture in Brussels
The bustling capital of Brussels is unsurprisingly one of the most popular places to visit in Belgium. Filled with wonderful architecture, great museums, and luxury shops, the city is a great place to explore for a day. If you’re an avid foodie, you’ll be in paradise as the city is known to be one of Europe’s gourmet centers. In fact, the Michelin Guide ranks it as the third most-starred European capital city. Whether you want to sip on a coffee in one of the many terraces in the main square, Grand Place, stroll around the elegant shops in the glass-roofed Galeries St Hubert arcade, or wander around the stunning Royal Palace, there is something for everyone to enjoy.
What makes Brussels particularly special, however, is its stunning architecture. Grand Place, for instance, is surrounded by opulent 17th-century baroque townhouses, guild houses, and a Gothic town hall dating back to the 13th century. The city was also at the center of the 19th-century Art Nouveau movement. As a result, you will spot whole neighborhoods designed by the famous Belgian architects Victor Horta and Paul Hankar. Of course, Belgium is also the birthplace of Georges Remi, the creator of Tintin. Fans of the comic strip hero won’t want to miss visiting the Hergé Museum just outside Brussels in Louvaine-la-Neuve. Alternatively, they can walk the Brussels comic book mural tour. Brussels’ most striking architectural landmark, however, is arguably the Atomium. This futuristic structure is the most popular tourist attraction in the capital of Europe and attracts 600,000 visitors per year; who come to enjoy the panoramic view from the top.
Take a boat trip on the canals in Bruges
Located just an hour or so from Brussels, Bruges (or Brugge in Dutch) takes visitors back to medieval times. Surrounded by an extensive network of canals, the picturesque city is often dubbed the ‘Venice of the North’. Its historic center a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and perhaps the best-preserved example of medieval Flanders in the country. A fun way to experience Bruges is by hopping in a boat and taking a scenic canal tour. There are five landing stages around the city and boat rides last half an hour.
Meanwhile, chocolate lovers will enjoy exploring the numerous chocolate shops dotted around the city; as well as the mouth-watering Choco-Story chocolate museum. Beer lovers, on the other hand, can sip to their hearts’ content at the De Halve Maan brewery. Foodies will no doubt enjoy delving into a delicious bowl of moules frites; or treating themselves to dinner at one of the many Michelin-star restaurants. And for the ultimate culture fix, you can head to the Groeninge Museum and discover the Flemish masters (including Brueghel). The 83-meter-high belfry tower is also worth a visit; as is the Basilica of the Holy Blood which contains the preserved relic of the Holy Blood.
Explore Notre-Dame Cathedral in Tournai
One of the main reasons to visit the French-speaking city of Tournai is to marvel at the magnificent Notre-Dame Cathedral. The five-towered Romanesque and early Gothic masterpiece is one of the most beautiful religious buildings in the world and a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built during the 12th and 13th centuries, the cathedral now houses The Shrine of Our Lady; plus work by Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens.
If you have the energy to climb the 257 steps to the top of the free-standing Belfry bell tower, you’ll be rewarded with fantastic panoramic views of the city. The Museum of Fine Arts, meanwhile, boasts magnificent architecture and an impressive collection of works. These include paintings by Brussels patron Henri Van Cutsem and the French artist Édouard Manet. And if you need to rest your feet after all that exploring, the cafés in La Grand-Place provide a great spot to relax and people-watch.
Visit the war museums in Waterloo and Flanders Fields
Belgium is steeped in military history; not only for its involvement in the World Wars but also for the Napoleonic Wars. These ended with the famous Battle of Waterloo in June 1815 when the Duke of Wellington defeated Emperor Napoleon I. Today, you will find a range of historical attractions that commemorate the epic battle in the town of Waterloo. These include battlefield tours, Napoleon’s Last Headquarters, the Wellington Museum, and a re-enactment every June. There are also several important historical monuments; including Lion’s Mound, an artificial hill that is topped by a cast-iron lion that overlooks the battlefield.
At the foot of the hill is a rotunda that houses a vast circular painting called the Panorama of the Battle. Nearby, the Mémorial Waterloo 1815 museum illustrates the battle’s historic significance. Of course, Flanders Fields, which straddle the French-Belgian border around the city of Ieper (Ypres), is the famous battleground of World War I. There are numerous monuments, sites, and cemeteries in the area that are open to the public. One of the most famous battles of World War II, the Battle of the Bulge, also took place in the forested Ardennes region, near Bastogne. Today, the Bastogne War Museum offers a glimpse into the causes, events, and consequences of the war; while honoring the lives of all the fallen soldiers.
Shop for diamonds in trendy Antwerp
Located in Flanders, Antwerp (or Antwerpen in Dutch) is Belgium’s creative city and the diamond capital of the world. In fact, more than 85% of the world’s rough diamonds and 50% of cut diamonds are traded in the city. As a result, you can buy a better quality diamond cheaper here than anywhere else; just be careful of the many scammers! Instead of shopping for diamonds, however, you can always step inside one and visit Antwerp’s finest architectural jewel, The Port House. The building resembles a giant diamond and offers a stunning panoramic view of the city from the top.
But it isn’t only diamonds Antwerp is famous for. The city has acquired an international reputation as a leading fashion capital. Fashionistas may already be familiar with the Antwerp Six; a group of fashion designers who graduated from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1980–1981. They will no doubt want to visit the MoMu Antwerp Fashion Museum which houses a vast collection of clothing, accessories, and textiles from around the world. Meanwhile, art lovers will enjoy visiting the home – or Rubenhuis – of Flemish artist Sir Peter Paul Rubens. You can also see his work, alongside that of other Flemish artists, in the city’s cathedral; as well as the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten. History buffs, meanwhile, might want to explore the Red Star Line Museum. The exhibition tells the fascinating story of the two million European emigrants who sailed to America after 1800.
Get snap happy in Charleroi
If you love photography, then Charleroi is definitely one of the best places to visit in Belgium. Located in the Walloon province of Hainaut, it is home to the largest Museum of Photography in Europe, housed inside an ancient renovated Neo-Gothic Carmelite convent. The impressive museum conveys the history of photography from its inception in the 19th century to the present day. More than 80,000 prints and 3 million negatives are on display to view, alongside photographic equipment from throughout the ages.
Besides photography, there are many other must-see attractions to explore in the city. These include the Glass Museum of Charleroi, which features more than 6,000 pieces of glass and tools, the 17th-century Cartier Chateau and its grand estate, and the beautifully renovated Saint-Christophe Church. The town hall of Charleroi is also worth a visit, mainly due to its 70-meter high belfry, which is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Make a splash at Aqualibi water park
For something a little different, but certainly no less fun, Aqualibi indoor water park is one of the best places to visit in Belgium during the warmer summer months. If you fancy taking a break from cultural sight-seeing, the action-packed park is the perfect place to cool down with the whole family. There are numerous attractions to keep kids of all ages entertained – not to mention adults!
Children will have hours of fun riding the high-speed and gentle water slides and gliding down the never-ending wild water river. Meanwhile, adults can relax and unwind in the dreamy whirlpools and jacuzzis. And if your kids aren’t able to swim yet, that’s not a problem, as they can enjoy splashing around at the brand new kid’s zone, Kiddie Bay, which features fountains and cascades, custom-made glides, and other fun surprises. Given the popularity of Aqualibi among families, however, you might want to avoid visiting during the school holidays in order to dodge the long queues.
Explore the Gothic churches in Ghent
The Flemish city of Ghent (Gent) is a laid-back university town that boasts numerous cafes, restaurants, and a generally cool vibe. But what really makes it special is the backdrop of 13th-century Gothic churches, 17th-century canal-side houses, and the commanding Gravensteen; a medieval fortress complete with battlements and torture chamber. Also known as ‘Castle of the Counts’, the incredible structure also offers fantastic 360-degree views of the city from its rooftop.
Ghent is a fantastic city to explore by foot or by boat and there are various tours available on the rivers and canals. While you’re there, make sure to swing by Sint Bavo’s Cathedral and check out one of western Europe’s treasures, the famous polyptychs (panel paintings) of The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. This was painted in 1432 by Jan and Hubert van Eyck. Other notable attractions include the 91-meter-high Ghent Belfry, a recognized UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Vrijdagmarkt; a large square in the historic center which is named for its popular Friday and Saturday market.
Discover fairytale castles in Namur
If you grew up loving fairytales then a visit to Namur is a definite must. Located in the French-speaking Wallonia region of Belgium, the city boasts an abundance of whimsical castles that are open to the public. Unsurprisingly, it remains one of the most popular places to visit in Belgium. The Castle of Vêves is particularly striking with its spooky dungeons and six pointy towers that date back to 1410. Perched on a hill overlooking the sleepy village of Celles, the ethereal castle looks like something straight out of the pages of a children’s bedtime storybook.
The elegant 18th century Castle of Annevoie, meanwhile, attracts thousands of visitors each year who come to wander its beautiful gardens filled with fountains and waterfalls. The Castle and Gardens of Freÿr, near the city of Dinant, is another impressive sight to behold. Aptly named after the Scandinavian goddess of beauty, the castle features a walled terraced garden filled with 6km hedged small mazes and 300-year-old orange trees. The most famous castle in Wallonia, however, is Castle of Lavaux-Saint-Anne which consists of an eccentric, moat-encircled series of domes containing three separate museums and a collection of stuffed animals.
Explore the cultural capital of Liège
Situated on the Meuse River, not far from Maastricht in the Netherlands, Liège is considered to be the cultural capital of Wallonia. It is also the birthplace of Emperor Charlemagne and writer Georges Simenon; creator of the fictional detective Jules Maigret. The city is the third-largest in Belgium and is filled with landmarks that date back to the medieval era. Needless to say, if you love history, then this is one of the best places to visit in Belgium. Must-see sights include Saint Paul’s Cathedral, or Liège Cathedral, which was built in the 15th century and is still revered today for its Gothic architecture and collection of treasures.
The Palace of the Prince-Bishops is also worth visiting for its remarkable Gothic and Renaissance design. The impressive structure features a grand court enclosed by 60 columns, with richly ornate details such as grotesque masks and fantasy human figures. Meanwhile, Le Grand Curtuis museum is worth visiting for its archaeological treasures all housed within a 17th-century mansion. If you have the energy, it is well worth climbing the 374 steps of the Montagne de Bueren. From the top, you can enjoy breathtaking views, which is perhaps why so many people consider it to be one of the world’s ten most extraordinary staircases. If you fancy shopping, however, make sure to visit the La Batte market, the largest and oldest market in Belgium. Here you will find fruits, vegetables, books, clothes, and plants amid picturesque stalls.