The Best Experiences in Belgium for First Timers

BelgiumBelgium may be famous for its chocolate and beer, but this relatively small country has so much more to offer. Travelers who enjoy history, cultural sites, world-class museums, and fine food will love Belgium. It’s easy to get around and the people are friendly so it’s a perfect introduction to Europe. In fact, it’s known as The Heart of Europe. Here are some favorite things you’ll want to see and do in Belgium.

Sightseeing in Belgium

Because of its compact size, you could explore most of the country using Brussels as your base. Or you could plan overnights in Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp to fully soak in the local flavor of the smaller towns.

Brussels

Brussels is the very cosmopolitan capital of Belgium, as well as the primary seat of the European Union and the location of NATO headquarters. The city is sophisticated and cultured with an abundance of fine museums, restaurants, classical music, and opera.

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The Grand Place in Brussels exudes hundreds of years of history.

The must-see sight to start with in Brussels is the Grand Place, one of the most perfectly preserved market squares in Europe. Travel Maestro tip: Return at night when the graceful Gothic Town Hall is illuminated. Close by, you’ll find the notorious tot known as Manneken Pis urinating with glee. The tiny bronze statue has been dressed to cover his immodesty hundreds of times since 1698!

You’ll want to visit the Sablon, an old, well-heeled neighborhood with wonderful markets, the Gothic Church of Notre-Dame du Sablon, and the Petit Sablon, a peaceful commemorative garden.

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The Waterloo Battle Site also features a museum with explanations of the battle.

The Waterloo Battle Site, where Wellington defeated Napoleon, is dominated by a huge man-made hill topped by a 28-ton lion statue. Climb the hill for a view of the whole site. The Basilique Nationale du Sacre-Cour is one of the largest churches in the world and a monument to those who died for their country. One of the best panoramic views of Brussels is from the dome.

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The Atomium was built for the 1958 World’s Fair.

Another great view of the city can be seen from atop the Atomium. This 335-foot high steel construction was built for the 1958 World’s Fair and it has a gourmet restaurant at the top. At the foot of the Atomium, Mini-Europe is a miniature park of all the monuments in the EU. About 80 cities and 350 buildings are represented in 1:25 scale.

Bruges

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Bruges is a charming and well-preserved medieval city that deserves at least a two-day visit.

The historic city center of Bruges is a UNESCO World Heritage site. A network of scenic canals carves the city into a patchwork of ancient squares graced with beautiful architecture and connected by dozens of bridges. The 13th-century Grote Markt (Market Square) is where you’ll find the famous belfry where the 47-bell carillon plays concerts on Sundays. Climbing the 366 steps to the top affords a breathtaking 360-degree view of the city.

Also on the markt is the 14th-century Town Hall with its ornate Gothic Hall. Nearby is the 12th-century Basilica of the Holy Blood which is home to a relic recognized as the blood of Jesus and other artifacts from the Crusades.

Be sure to stroll through the serene beguinage, a self-contained, medieval neighborhood for women who wanted a religious community without taking the vows required of nuns. These preserved white houses are now a convent.

Ghent

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Ghent is another delightful medieval Belgian city.

Only 30 minutes away from Bruges is another ancient town, Ghent. Also charming, although not quite as well-preserved, Ghent has the advantage of fewer tourists than Bruges. Explore the old section of town on foot to see the famous trio of medieval towers – St. Nicholas’ Church, Het Belfort van Gent (belfry), and St. Bavo’s Cathedral. The belfry is the tallest in Belgium and St. Bavo is home to the renowned Ghent Altarpiece by van Eyck.

Be sure to visit Graslei Quay (pronounced kee), a working port dating back to the fifth century with a fabulous row of historic houses dating to the Middle Ages. Today the waterfront is full of al fresco cafés and is a gathering place for tourists.

Antwerp

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The clock tower of the Cathedral of Our Lady is a Gothic masterwork.

Antwerp is most famous for two things: Baroque artist Sir Peter Paul Rubens and diamonds. The Rubens House where Belgium’s most famous son lived and worked displays a collection of his art. The artist’s workshop and gardens are also open to visitors. To see diamond cutters at work, go to the area around Pelikaanstraat.

The Cathedral of our Lady is the largest Gothic church in Belgium. It houses three preeminent Rubens masterpieces that art lovers will enjoy.

Museums

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Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens’ self-portrait (1623)

Art and culture lovers will delight at premier museums found throughout Belgium. There are so many that space doesn’t allow a full listing and review, but here are some of the standouts.

Brussels: The Royal Museum of Fine Arts exhibits antique and modern works by Flemish and Belgian artists. The Musical Instruments Museum is housed in a stunning art-nouveau former department store building and is a delight for all music lovers. The Costume and Lace Museum includes fine examples of historical Belgian-lace styles. The Belgian Comic Strip Centre honors Belgian comic heroes including Tintin. TM tip: The Brussels Card offers 1- to 3-day admission to more than 30 museums plus a public transport ticket for the period.

Bruges: Groeninge Museum features a world-class collection of the Flemish primitive painters as well as expressionism and post-war modern art.

Ghent: The walled Castle of Geraard de Duvel, aka “Gerald the Devil,” offers a grisly display of torture instruments.

Antwerp: Middelheim Open-Air Museum has an impressive collection of sculpture by Rodin and Henry Moore, among others. For divers, there is a unique underwater museum in Het Zilvermeer Lake in nearby Mol that displays artifacts, statues, and busts of Greek and Roman gods.

Food in Belgium

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Moules, frites, and beer is a popular meal in Belgium. Photo credit UnorthodoxY

The food in Belgium is arguably the best in Europe. TM tip: Brussels has more Michelin-starred restaurants than Paris! The high-quality cuisine is either Flemish or French style, representing the northern and the southern regions of the country, respectively.

Don’t leave Belgium without getting moules (mussels) and frites (TM tip: Never call them “French fries!”). Mussels are served many ways – steamed, in soups or casseroles – always accompanied by frites. You can also get walk-away paper cones of frites everywhere because they are somewhat of a national obsession.

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To top or not to top? The choice is yours.

Another popular snack from cafes and street vendors is the famous Belgian waffle (gaufres) topped with anything from fresh fruit to chocolate sauce.

Of course, Belgium is known for its many superb beers. Some favorites are the frothy and tart Gueuze (it isn’t exported so be sure to try it there), rich Trappist ales made by monks using old methods, sour lambic that has little carbonation, and wheat beers.

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No words can express …

And then there is Belgium’s world-renowned chocolate. The delicacy is made two ways: pralines with flavors or fillings, such as nuts or liqueur and caraque, which is pure, unadulterated chocolate. TM tip: Sample heavily and bring plenty home for later!

Planning Your Belgium Vacation

Belgium has so much to do and see that you’ll want to spend at least a week there. Plan a minimum of three days in Brussels, two in Bruges, and one each in Ghent and Antwerp. Ask your Covington vacation advisor for help customizing your itinerary to fit your interests and style.

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