Belgium is a feast of top weekend getaways nestled between sandy coastlines in the northwest and rugged, hilly terrain in the southeast.
Being a small country means nowhere in Belgium is too far. It’s never too difficult to escape to a beach retreat or hike around rural countryside, making it the best country for weekend getaways. Apart from the top Belgian sites in cosmopolitan Brussels and Antwerp or the fortress cities of Brugges and Ghent, many of Belgium’s wonders go unexplored by the tourist masses. Hop in your car for a weekend getaway and discover what else Belgium has to offer
1. Take the plunge
Let the original Spa take away the stress of modern life. The eponymous town of Spa is located in the heart of the Ardennes. Its sulphurous waters were originally discovered by the Romans, although it was another half century before it became famous as a resort. After falling into disrepair and disregard in the 19th-century, Spa has been transformed since 2003 into a magnificent therapy and relaxation centre, worthy of a new millennium. The water is a relaxing temperature of around 32 degrees Celsius.
2. Travel through time
Spend your weekend in Tongeren, the oldest town in Belgium, to be transported back to Belgium’s historic Roman roots. Fortified walls dating to the 1st century and a Roman archaeological site from the 4th century greet visitors as they enter the city, which is only a 30-minute drive from Liège. Previously known as the only Roman administrative capital within the Belgian borders, the city’s pride in its archaic origin is evident in streets named Pliniuswal, Caesarlaan and even car parks that are called Praetorium.
Browse through artefacts from the past at the Gallo-Roman Museum near the city’s centre and see valuable objects from the Iron Age found during excavations. As you walk the city’s paved paths, medieval defense towers will lead you to the market square where a three-metre bronze statue of legendary Gallic chieftain Ambiorix stands. Although not a citizen of Rome, the wild-eyed warrior led his tribe to a roaring victory against Julius Caesar’s legions around 54 BC. Another of the city’s main attractions is the Our Lady Basilica, which was built to replace the original Romanesque tower. Built in 13th-century Gothic style, the imposing building has been the site of some of the richest archaeological finds in Flanders in recent times.
For 30 years and counting, the city also hosts a huge antiques fair every Sunday in the city centre. Starting at 6am until 1pm, more than 350 exhibitors and about 40 antique shops display their best merchandise for visitors seeking unique shabby chic finds.
Every seven years since 1890, Tongeren also becomes the hub of one of the oldest and largest medieval Roman Catholic celebrations in Belgium — the Kroningfeesten or Coronation Celebrations. The 18th Kroningfeesten will take place in the city this year and thousands of locals and pilgrims will commemorate the crowning of the miraculous statue of the Virgin Mary by Bishop Doutreloux in 1890. A tour of the miraculous relics to different Belgian towns start in February and culminate in July when the artefacts are carried around Tongeren during four huge processions scheduled on 3, 5, 8 and 10 July 2016. Around 3,000 locals clad in Roman armour and traditional Biblical clothing like tunics made of fine linen, wool and animal skin re-enact the highlights of Mary’s and Jesus Christ’s lives. The participants, or Het Bidden Volk as they are called, will parade the religious treasures across the streets and lay them in the restored Our Lady Basilica’s treasury. Once the relics have been delivered for safekeeping, a city-wide game and play are staged for free in the main town square along with a sound and light installation and other interactive performances.
3. Wandering the Ardennes
The Ardennes, in the south of the country, covers the three provinces of Namur, Luxembourg and Liège and is an area of outstanding beauty. The gentle but rugged countryside of the Ardennes is full of heritage, history and charm, but it equally serves as an ideal location for truly experiencing the natural environment whether it be by walking, climbing, cycling, horse riding, fishing, canoeing, or even kayaking. It can get quite touristy in the summer, but there’s always a spot to escape to, especially if you have a car.
Also in Namur, Dinant is a spectacular day trip from Brussels and where you will find the birthplace of saxaphone inventor Adolphe Sax. Overlooked by its hilltop citadel on a 100-foot cliff and dating back to 1051, Dinant is in an idyllic location along the river Meuse. The local tourist office offers downloadable audio tours to seven of their historical sights. Besides a number of abbeys, the Collegiate and Notre-Dame churches and the grotto of Dinant with its rock formations are other popular attractions, making it perfect for a day out for couples or groups with a love of history.
St-Hubert also has a railway station and is a perfect base for setting out on cycling or walking activities. It’s named after the patron saint of hunters, which explains why this is the centre of hunt land and why its restaurants specialise in game.
4. Winter wonderland: Ski weekends in Belgium
As soon as the temperature dips and snow falls, the eastern region near the Belgian-German border turns into a winter paradise for every skier. Belgium’s ski slopes are ideal for alpine and cross-country skiing and toboganning, with trails that pass through picturesque summits and forests blanketed with snow.
In the winter months, the Ardennes also becomes a haven for skiing enthusiasts, with its natural contours creating three alpine pistes. The highest point, Baraque de Fraiture at 652 metres, was previously only open for less than 20 days a year but in recent years it has stayed open for up to 60 days — so make sure to check the schedule.
Other well-known pistes in Belgium are Mont des Brumes and Ovifat. North of Baraque de Fraiture, Mont des Brumes is famous for its stellar alpine ski slope that extends to 1,000m, making it one of the longest slopes in the country. Farther north, Ovifat is a perfect destination for beginner and professional skiers with three downhill skiing tracks suited to a range of ski levels.
Several resorts specialise in cross-country skiing — arguably the most popular winter activity in Belgium — but the standout is the High Fens, the largest nature reserve in Belgium and home to Signal de Botrange, the highest point in Belgium at 694m. During winter, all the water sources freeze over and become covered in snow, creating one of the country’s best trails for cross-country skiing.
There are many places to rent gear located near or in the resorts themselves. Once you’ve had enough adrenaline for the day, you can also relax with cup of hot chocolate or gluhwein inside the cozy chateaus positioned at the end of each trail.
5. Dip your toes
The Belgian coastline embraces the best of kiss-me-quick seaside activities, sophisticated living and wildlife sanctuaries. Ostend is a great place to head if you want a taste of royal Belgium, once known as the Queen of Belgian Resorts. The Fort Napoleon, built in 1812, is the only intact Napoleonic fortress left in Europe, while Leopold’s 390-metre gallery can be found at the western end of the promenade. Without doubt the crowning glory of the postwar period is the Ostend Casino, built in 1953. You can enjoy Ostend’s top attractions during a tour of the city on the miniature train or by horse-drawn carriage.
Knokke-Heist is a much more upmarket resort, where wealthy Belgians keep swanky seaside homes and where the shops, restaurants and beach clubs are all designer. A short way north, close to the Dutch border, is Zwin, a protected area of natural beauty.
A great way to explore the enchanting Belgian coastline is by the Kusttram, a coastal tram that runs its entire length from De Panne on the French border to Knokke-Heist close to the Dutch border. Trams run through Ostende every 10 minutes during the summer and make almost 70 stops along the entire stretch of the North Sea coastline, calling in at 15 towns en route. Think of it as a coastal hop-on hop-off tour, with many beautiful sights along the way.
6. Small but not the least
Famous for touting itself as the ‘smallest city in the world,’ Durbuy attracts hordes of tourists with that moniker alone though the premise is no longer true. Although once you walk along its narrow cobbled streets and glimpse its enchanting riverside views, it is evident that this quaint town deserves more than a quick stopover. Overlooking the banks of the Ourthe River in the province of Luxemburg, it’s one of the most picturesque cities in Belgium. A stroll in the old town reveals medieval stone houses, some of which have been turned into cafes, bars, fancy boutiques and artisanal shops for Wallonian specialties like jams, tea, and local brews Marckloff and Durboyse.
Ironically, Durbuy is also the site of the largest topiary park in the world. Dedicated to the art of clipping trees into ornamental shapes, the 10,000sqm park boasts 250 elaborately made figures in the shape of mazes, elephants, kayaks and more. The park is open year-round except from 6 January to 8 February and entrance costs EUR 4.50 per person (free for children under 12).
Lying atop a hill and over the Ourthe river is the Durbuy Castle, the privately owned home of the d’Ursel family. Hop on the Tourist Road-Train to visit the castle and many other landmarks in Durbuy including the topiary park, a traditional Marckloff brewery and the Confiturerie Saint-Amour jam factory where you can take a free peek at how the mouth-watering jams are made.
If you’re looking to stretch your legs, Durbuy is the perfect base for outdoor activities near the Ardennes. After sightseeing, you can take bike along the Ourthe river or enjoy the water by kayaking, canoeing or rafting.
7. Two cities split by a border
At first glance on a map, the Flemish town of Baarle-Hertog appears as if it’s part of the Netherlands, lying inside the Dutch border. The truth, however, is much more complicated. The combined cities of Baarle-Hertog and its Dutch neighbour Baarle-Nassau are made of enclaves, pockets of land that each country has claimed as their own. An urban planner’s nightmare? Certainly. But the chaos makes this kooky town worth a visit.
Wandering around both towns is an unique experience — you can zip between Belgium and the Netherlands at least three times in one street. White crosses on pavement tiles and metal studs on the roads depict the border between the two cities and snake like a labyrinth across town with no regard for streets, stores or even houses. Since many homes are split in half by the boundary, the country where their front door is located dictates where they pay their taxes. It was once tradition in both cities to reconstruct the direction of their doors depending on which country had a more favourable tax regime. Each front door is marked with emblems or flags depicting the residents’ nationality.
Consisting of 24 Belgian enclaves including its main division Zondereigen, there is a lot to see in Baarle-Hertog and its neighbour Baarle Nassau. Formed in the 12th century due to disputes between the Lords of Breda and the Dukes of Brabant, the border complexity has resulted in equally complex medieval treaties and agreements that led to two of most public facilities: two town halls, churches, fire stations and police forces among others. Baarle-Hertog has tons of shops, cafes and restaurants that stay open on Sundays. It also has its own cultural centre and two museums: Baarle’s Museum and the Museum Vergane Glorie dedicated to First and Second World War artefacts.
8. Hiking the High Fens
The High Fens or Hautes Fagnes in French is one of the most beautiful regions in Belgium. Stretching north of Malmedy to the Eupen peaks near the German border, the upraised plateau is Belgium’s first nature park and largest reserve. The 11,123-acre land is a hiker’s paradise with its high elevation and unique topography of raised bogs, moorland, thick forests and hills covered with vivid foliage.
There is much to discover in the High Fens year-round. In the winter, the reserve is great for cross-country skiers, while the Botrange Nature Centre unveils the High Fens’ many riches through expositions, educational eco-activities, electrical bike and scooter rides,18-km audio trips on tractor wagons and guided walks from March to November. It is open all-year except from 25 December to 1 January and tickets start from EUR 4.
The High Fens becomes truly exceptional in spring, summer and fall due to its astonishing flora and fauna. Part of the park, however, remains closed during spring for the endangered black grouse’s breeding season.
To fill up a whole weekend, nature lovers will revel in hiking the park’s different marked trails that take you on a tour around secluded marshlands, forests, meadows, rivers and gushing waterfalls. You can also enjoy the vast scenery by renting a mountain or electrical bike at the Ardennes, which borders the High Fens in the south. After hiking or biking, you can relax at the dozens of cafes and terraces in three charming towns near the park, Spa, Malmedy or Stavelot, and head to various holiday cottages in the area.
9. Pilgrimage to perfection
Beer is sacred to the Trappist monks of Belgium where six of the 11 abbeys in the world make the authentic renowned brews. If you have a palette for fine beers then a weekend tour to the monastic breweries is a must since most authentic Trappist beers are produced in limited quantity and available only within the region they’re produced. A pilgrimage will take you across the country from Westvleteren, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle to Achel but since seclusion is paramount for the strict Cistercian order monks, only some of the abbeys are open to public. There are also a number of top bars around Belgium to taste a range of these speciality beers.
An ideal weekend beer tour would start at Chimay in the south of Belgium. The Abbey of Notre-Dame de Scourmont is famous for brewing three widely distributed ales, Chimay Rouge, Chimay Bleue and Chimay Blanche, and also making four cheese varieties. While neither the abbey nor the bottling plant is open to the public, the gardens, cemetery and church can be visited from 8am to 8pm every day. Adjacent to the abbey, however, is the Espace Chimay where visitors can expect to learn and taste the brews for a small fee. You can spend the whole day exploring the complex, which is complete with a shop selling Chimay products, a hotel, an interactive visitor centre called the Chimay Experience and finally, the Auberge de Poteaupré, an inn and brewery tap featuring the entire lineup of Chimay ales and cheeses.
You can take a detour to the Abbey of Notre-Dame de Saint-Rémy, an hour east of Chimay, in the Belgian town of Rochefort. The monks from the abbey are some of the more secretive ones in the order therefore not much is known about the brewing process of their famous Trappistes Rochefort. The majestic abbey, however, is a sight to behold even from the outside and with no shortage of nearby bars where you can sample the famous well-aged brew, Rochefort is still worth a short trip.
An hour south through the Ardennes is the Abbey of Notre-Dame d’Orval, where the much-lauded Orval and Petite Orval Trappist are produced. The ruins of the medieval abbey, the in-house and pharmaceutical museums, and the medicinal herb garden are open year-round. The brewery, however, is only open twice a year on 16 to 17 September 2016 from 8:30 am to 4pm. Registration is required for the one-hour brewery tour, which showcases why Trappist beers are in a league of their own. You can also try the abbey’s famed brews during the tasting that coincides with the tour.
Beer connoisseurs can also visit the rest of Belgium’s monastic breweries in Achel, Westmalle and Westvleteren.
10. Remember history
A top weekend tour for military history buffs is undoubtedly Waterloo and Ypres — the sites of the two bloodiest and most decisive battles pre- and during World War I. Both cities remember their dark past but their modern-day realities are much different.
The 1815 Battle of Waterloo was one of the last Western European battles fought with sword, cannon and musket. It ended two decades of conflict and shaped the future of Europe for the next century. Contemporary Waterloo still maintains its old world charm with well-preserved buildings and mementos dating back to the Napoleonic era. Visit the Lion’s Mound, a huge conical lion mound that was erected at the battle’s epicentre where the Prince of Orange was wounded. Following that, you should make a stop at the memorials and battlefield museums at adjacent Quatre Bras and Ligny. Other points of interest are the Wellington Museum, Caillou Farm and Hougoumont Farm.
A one-and-a-half hour drive away east of Waterloo is Ypres, which was rebuilt and is now a near perfect replica of the pre-WWI city. Any discerning visitor should start their tour of Ypres at the internationally renowned Flanders Fields Museum in the city’s main town square where the new interactive poppy bracelets allow you to follow the wartime story of a veteran. After the museum, you can continue learning about the history, horrors and the role Ypres played in the war by visiting on of the several war cemeteries, the Trench of Death and the Yser Tower, at the city’s outskirts. Make sure to come back to the city centre before the clock chimes 8pm for the Last Post ceremony at the Lenin Gate. The simple yet moving tribute has been held every evening since 1928 to commemorate the British soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the Belgian people.
Photo Credits: Iain Cameron (Spa), Marc Meeus (Tongeren), Stephane Mignon (Ski), sophie (Oostende), Donar Reiskoffer (Durbuy), iamdanw (Baarle-Hertog), Eva Onkels (High Fens), Philip Rowlands (Trappist), Andrew Nash (Ypres).