Small, beautiful, and wedged between popular Europe vacation giants, Belgium is in many ways quintessential Europe. A coming together of Flemish and French culture and language. The capital of the European Union. A treasure trove of canals, intricate architecture, and medieval streets. A compact, easily traversed country where beer, pastries, and chocolate are readily available – and arguably better than anywhere else in Europe. All this to be experienced on a Belgium vacation.
So why don’t more Europe-bound Globetrotters make a beeline for Belgium? Why do Europe first-timers so often skip Brussels or Antwerp on their way to Amsterdam or Paris (Bruges is another story…)? Whatever the reason for Belgium’s “sleeper” status, this European crossroads is a political, cultural, and culinary powerhouse that not only deserves attention during your trip, but makes a great one-week Europe vacation on its own.
Brussels (2 or 3 days)
You can spend your whole Belgium vacation in Brussels and day trip to other cities. But while Brussels may be the centre of Belgium, it doesn’t define Belgium, any more than say, Amsterdam tells the whole story of the Netherlands. Even if you do focus on Brussels, spend at least one night each in Bruges and Antwerp to appreciate what makes them unique.
With that said, Brussels is often unfairly brushed off as a transport hub and business city, when really it deserves a closer, more relaxed look. Spend your first day letting your jaw drop at architectural marvels such as Grand Place and the Musical Instruments Museum, housed inside a beautiful Art Nouveau building in the Mont des Arts district.
Stroll around the impressive monuments of the Cinquantenaire in between museums devoted to art and history, along with Belgium’s military past. Two of the country’s great passions however are enshrined at very special museums in Brussels. The Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate is a must for chocoholics, while comic book and animation fans shouldn’t miss the Belgian Comic Strip Center.
Paris has the Eiffel Tower, while Rome has the Colosseum. Brussels may boast the most unusual city icon in the Atomium. Built to celebrate Belgium’s arrival into the atomic age, this gigantic steel atom contains a variety of science-related exhibits and overlooks all of Europe. Well, Mini Europe at least, which reduces the continent’s most famous land marks to 1:25 scale and makes a great afternoon of discovery, particularly for families.
Back downtown, try not to be too disappointed by the much loved, but very small Mannequin Pis. Find it, have a giggle, snap a photo for your friends, then go in search of his lesser known sister and their dog for a more satisfying urban explorer’s challenge.
Bruges (2 or 3 days)
Some say if you’re going to see one city in Belgium, make it Bruges. It’s hard to argue. Just when we thought we were done with clichés about Europe’s “cobblestone streets,” Bruges’s historic Bruges Markt turns around and makes good on that promise in all its Gothic Revival splendour. Overlooking it all is the intricate and beautiful Belfry of Bruges, while the Gothic Revival building to your left as you look at it is the Provincial Court. Next door is the equally stunning Historium Bruges, which tells the medieval history of the city. Not a bad bit of sightseeing for standing in one spot!
When you’re ready to make a move, book a city canal cruise. While the canals here lack the intricacy of those in say, Amsterdam, they’re still a great way to see a lot of the city in a short period of time. Bruges is also much smaller, adding to its charm. Don’t miss the intricate Basilica of the Holy Blood, famous for its holy relic, a cloth with Christ’s blood on it (makes sense, really). The equally impressive Stadsbestuur Brugge (or town hall) is right next door.
Bruges is also a marvelous biking city, thanks to its flat geography and relatively compact layout within the circle of the canal. A riding tour might help ease your guilt after enjoying the city’s ubiquitous frites or waffles. Not only are these far too good to resist, they’re taken seriously in Belgium, with cafes and restaurants devoted to serving the best fries and waffles in town. Ready for beer? The Bruges Beer Experience is ready to satisfy both your curiosity and cravings on your Belgium vacation.
Of course, Bruges’s beauty and compact size comes at a cost. Be ready for crowds and higher hotel prices, especially in the summer. While it can be tempting to try and escape the latter by day tripping, you will want at least one night in Bruges to enjoy its Gothic beauty from every angle. You might even be invited into the lair of the city’s famous vampire for a deliciously odd night out.
Antwerp (2 or 3 days)
Every country has its grittier, edgier, arts loving “second city.” Often it’s the country’s main port, absorbing influences from nations far and wide into the city’s identity. In Belgium, that city is Antwerp, which serves up maritime grit with arts-loving style. Shopaholics will probably remember Antwerp as their favourite Belgian city thanks to the city’s thriving fashion industry. Offerings range from top-end brands to underground stores filled with unique, creative finds.
Antwerp isn’t so much a glamour city, but it does feature some striking architecture all its own, particularly around its waterfront. Looking up, you’ll see the impressive Port House, and the MAS, Antwerp’s maritime museum. Before you rush there, take a moment to admire Central Station, easily one of the most beautiful and colourful railway stations in Europe. The Cathedral of Our Lady is worth a look as well for some traditional architectural beauty.
The city won’t disappoint art or museum lovers. The Plantin-Moretus Museum holds the distinction of being the only UNESCO World Heritage listed museum in the world, while The Rubenshuis immortalizes the home of multi-talented painter Peter Paul Rubens in all its Gothic glory. The small but beautiful 13th century castle Het Steen is another Antwerp marvel, overlooking the Scheldt River, while the newly opened Red Star Line Museum tells the story of the Belgians who emigrated to North America.
For some free outdoor art, simply look up. Belgium’s comic book heritage is alive and well on the city’s walls. Antwerp is also an ideal base for an excursion into Belgium’s “ghost town” of Doel. Mostly abandoned and now a haven for graffiti artists, Doel will delight the intrepid urban explorer on a Belgium vacation – at least until it’s demolished to make way for an expanded Antwerp port.
Ghent (1 or 2 days)
Right in the middle of Belgium’s “Big 3” is Ghent, a beautiful town with more protected buildings than any other city in Belgium. It’s also the third largest city in the country after Brussels and Antwerp, so give it at least a full day if you plan to visit.
Without doubt, its crowning glory is Gravensteen. The beautiful fortress with a somewhat ghoulish past offers an ideal start to your Ghent sightseeing day. From here, spend some time wandering the surrounding Patershol neighbourhood, which should take up the rest of your morning. By the way, if you see an old-fashioned streetlight flashing on Sint-Veerleplein Square, it means a new baby has been born somewhere in Ghent.
After lunch, wander your way south via the attractive Korenmarkt and the city’s Stadthuis, and the Ghent School of Art until you reach St Michael’s Bridge, for an early afternoon of Ghent 101. If it’s not closed for preservation, you might also want to make your way east to St Bavo’s Abbey, a slice of Ghent spiritual history frozen in the beauty of its own slow decay.
Yes, Belgium may be the world’s capital of gorgeous melancholy.
Putting it All Together on Your Belgium Vacation
One nice thing about Belgium being so small is that its cities can be seen in almost any order, since you can usually reach your next stop within an hour. You’ll probably land in Brussels though, so this itinerary starts with two or three nights here to avoid stressing over catching trains after your international flight.
Day 1-3: Brussels
Brussels is primarily a business city, so you might find a better deal by spending the weekend here – not to mention seeing the city at play. If you’re only spending two nights in Brussels, consider giving your third night to Ghent instead to enjoy that city’s after-dark charm.
Day 3 (optional): Ghent
Spend your third night in Ghent, or simply day trip from Brussels.
Day 4-5: Bruges
Avoid Bruges on the weekend if you can. The city is a popular European weekend away! Two nights is probably enough unless you completely fall in love (and you may). If you time them for midweek, you can enjoy Belgium’s “Venice of the North” with a lot less competition from fellow travellers.
Day 6-7: Antwerp
Give Antwerp your last two nights. You’ve adjusted to Belgium’s local rhythms and quirks by now, so let its “coolest” city delight you with its art and creative design, thriving entertainment scene, and maybe a quick shopping spree before you return to Brussels. If you’re particularly keen on modern art and fashion, you might want to give Antwerp a third night, particularly in the summer when the city’s festivals are in full swing.
Time up your sleeve? Consider zipping over the border for a day or two to the Dutch city of Rotterdam, a worthy rival to Antwerp when it comes to modern port city chic.
Canadians may also want to devote half a day to the Canada War Museum of Adegem. Established by the son of a Belgian WW2 resistance fighter whose life was saved by Canadian forces, the museum tells the story of Canada’s role in liberating Belgium from the Nazis, complete with miniature dioramas.