11 Top Rated Tourist Attractions in Belgium
One of the world's most picturesque countries, Belgium offers many wonderful attractions, from rolling landscape to picturesque medieval cities. As a crossroads of trade routes, the country has retained a strong cultural heritage from both the Roman and Germanic civilizations. Modern Belgium is home to many of the world's greatest art treasures, from the stunning sculptures at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts to the incredible Gothic cathedrals and palaces.
Astonishing mountain peaks, fields of sunflowers, and sprawling fields of cows are just some of the fantastic landscapes on offer. And the country is home to a myriad of fascinating historical sights, including the mysterious salt mines of Pile and the Roman ruins of Trier.
Take a visit to Belgium with our list of the top attractions in this small country, and you're sure to be well rewarded.
Flanders has a number of well-preserved medieval towns in all sorts of architectural styles, from fortresslike to renaissance. Flanders' most famous city is Bruges, a famous watering hole for artists and craftsmen, who would have been amateurs had they had the good sense to drink elsewhere. It's also the birthplace of famed artist Peter Paul Rubens, who painted Madonna and Child with Saint Elizabeth. Bruges was besieged during the 16th century by Spanish troops, during which they came across the handless saint, Baron Rogier van der Weyden. Legend has it that he was killed by a hurled hand after three had been thrown from a scaffolding. It is said that the hand still hangs from the ceiling of his chapel and shows the three in-betweens on how the hand was thrown. Today, Bruges is known for its canals, which are navigated by jon boats. Cruises give passengers a chance to see a side of the city that is not so well-known, including inner sections that are little more than a maze of tiny streets. A fun alternative to the canal is to climb the terraced streets on foot to view the houses and gabled rooftops, and perhaps even visit some of the lovely churches, such as the 13th-century St. Van Eyck. The Groeningemuseum is a must-see, too.
Brussels, the capital and cultural capital of Belgium, is set on the banks of the River Senne, one of the best-preserved and prettiest rivers in Europe. The tiny but important UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Grand-Place, including its flamboyant town hall and splendid equestrian statue of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, as well as the remarkable Flemish Gothic St. Jacques church and the adjacent Royal Palace, were built in the 13th century. The Cathedral of Notre Dame, with its glorious woodcarving and colored stained glass windows, is the city's most notable sight. It was begun in the mid-13th century, but largely rebuilt in the 19th century. It was not, however, until its 20th-century extension that it was finished. While in town, check out the superb local museums, including the Musées Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire de Belgique and the Musées Royaux d'Histoire Naturelle, which contain vast collections of natural history and prehistoric artifacts.
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Ghent, a lovely city on the banks of the River Scheldt, was an important industrial and trading center throughout the medieval period. The town's famous belfry is one of Europe's most distinctive and popular sights. The massive 13th-century belfry has now been given a fresh face through its extensive use as the main broadcasting mast of Belgium's national radio and television networks. Ghent has a pleasant historic center, including cobblestone streets and historic churches. As you explore, be sure to look up to see the remarkable vaulting of its arcaded, stone buildings and the decorative metalwork of the doors, fireplaces, and balconies. To sample its rich culinary heritage, take advantage of Belgium's wide variety of excellent cafés, with typical dishes such as Tournedos Ghentois, Mussels with cheese and Cannelle flavored white wine, and Wiener Schnitzel with the world's best chips (fries).
Belgium's capital is famous for its art and world-renowned diamonds, but is also an industrial center with the second largest container port in the world, and has long been known for its strong beer. Antwerp was once part of France, and remained under the control of the Dutch until 1795 when it was annexed by the British. It has a rather typical Belgian veneer with grand architecture and canals. The town has seen great suffering during World War II, but in more recent years, Belgium's economy has boomed and many neighborhoods are again being repopulated by artists, businesspeople and the urban middle class. Today, Antwerp is a pleasant city with a relaxed, carefree feel. When in the city, don't miss a visit to the Royal Museum voor Schone Kunsten, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Modern Art, or Ghent's Rubens House and Cathedral.
Tournai, Belgium's second-largest city, enjoys a rich heritage of architecture and culture. The city's star attraction is its famous Cathar castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was built as a military citadel in the 12th century by French-speaking Muslims from the Languedoc. Today it's a beautiful example of the fortified castle that defended the city from hostile invaders. The castle has been faithfully restored with the original round towers and bastions along the battlements. Tournai is a medieval city where streets are generally flanked with towering half-timber houses, which can be glimpsed from the busy traffic along the grand canal. Just across the canal from the main square is the city's town hall, in a lovely half-timbered building. This is also home to the early 18th-century cloisters, which contain an array of artworks, and also the Art Deco-era Grande Halle. There are also historic churches in the city, including St. Lawrence's, which dates back to the 14th century, and St. Peter's. Tournai's cultural calendar is bustling with art shows, and its diverse music scene has a number of live bands and theaters. The city is the home of Belgian author Johan De Visser, whose novels about the modern lifestyle of Belgium have been best-sellers in the country.
The Flanders towns of Bruges, Ghent, Ypres, Courtrai, Damme, and Ostende are all medieval towns with cobblestone streets and classic gabled houses. All share a heritage of near-contemporary history. Around Ypres the flat landscape is scarred by war. For a chance to see firsthand the damage of battle, take the Flanders Fields bus tour. You'll visit Flanders Fields, a stretch of the Ypres Salient, where the Western Front trenches were originally dug in 1915 and 1916. Visit the tented museum at Messines for a firsthand look at trench warfare.
Leuven is the capital and largest city of the Flemish Brabant province. Located just south of Brussels, with the two capitals separated by the Grote Merwaard, Leuven is a university city, and in addition to its university, it is home to numerous museums, some of which contain an amazing collection of paintings and other arts and crafts from the Spanish, Flemish, and Dutch periods. Travelers can spend their time sightseeing in this lush, hilly Flemish city, walk along the local city walls, and experience the medieval center. The area around Leuven is noted for its impressive and prestigious art museums. A few well-known museums include the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, the Comédie-Française, the Flemish Brabant Museum, and the Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten, which holds a collection of classical art dating back to the 3rd century BC. Other worthwhile sights include the Marchand Brouckere, a museum in the Renaissance tower house of St. Bourse, with the largest collection of ornate Bourse lanterns in the world. The Haenenkensmuseum, in the town of Haenen, is a wonderful example of a Flemish farmstead and focuses on the characteristics of a typical Flemish farm.
It's easy to think of Belgium as a hodge-podge of what is essentially a Germanic area with a significant French part. Charleroi, in the Belgian province of Hainaut, is the birthplace of the pianist Clara Haskil, and is home to Belgium's oldest theater, La Monnaie. The main attraction is the monument to Charleroi's most famous resident, Louis Pasteur, who grew up in the surrounding province. There is an interesting museum here and a display of his vaccine-era discoveries. The city's charming market place is also a good place to start a day or night of shopping. Charleroi is well-connected to Brussels by train and by car. To get to Charleroi from the North, take the N19 highway south from Brussels. To reach the city from the south, take the A16, which joins the N19 east of the town.
Liège is a city full of surprises, with its rambling old streets and cobbled squares and the castle looming on the rocky hillside above. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the ramparts of its castle built by the Emperor Charlemagne in the 8th century have watched over the city since its founding. This is a city for all ages, from the grand town hall and ornate palaces of the 16th century to the artists' studios and boutiques of the pedestrianized center. One of Liège's other charms is the Patrimony, a collection of more than 150 well-preserved Art Nouveau houses lining the city's canals. Liège also has some excellent restaurants and interesting museums such as the medieval Kanarie Museum. Although you can visit most of these sites on foot, you can also get around by bike (rentals are available at the Palais-Porte, and the streets are easy to negotiate), or enjoy a horse-drawn buggy. Liège is served by both the domestic and international train stations.
Brussels Old Town
On a sunny day, the old town of Brussels, encircled by fortress walls and on an island in the middle of a vast expanse of water, is an idyllic place to wander. There is a lot of history to be seen here, not least the historic Centre Belge, including the monumental Grand Place and fascinating Cloth Hall, dating from 1370. It is the oldest and largest Gothic building in Europe. Some of the places to visit include the Royal Palace, Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts, The Fine Arts Museum, the Courtrai, a 12th century gothic hall now a museum of modern art, and the Cathédrale St-Gudule, built in the Middle Ages as the New Jerusalem, a St. John church and also a Roman theater. Brussels has a great nightlife, with many theaters, concert halls, and bars, and is also one of Europe's major conference centers. It is home to the European Parliament.
Manneken Pis, Brussels
A 3,000-year-old and much-photographed fountain, the Manneken Pis ("little man" in Flemish) was already in place when the city's first Bishop installed the statue of a child on the site in 1725. Still known by its original name, Mannekin Pis, the mythical figure wears traditional Flemish dress, leans against a column with the head of a lion, and holds a bowl in his hand. In Belgium, a country famous for its monocles, the Mannekin Pis is probably the most well-known landmark and popular tourist attraction. With many people taking a photo of the bronze figure, Brussels' main square, the Grand Place, is often flooded with visitors. The Mannekin Pis is also the major attraction of a small but interesting museum in the mannekin's former workshop, which houses some of his props and costumes. However, the most interesting thing about the statue is that it is the result of two inimitable artist's creations. Maurice Maeterlinck wrote the first poem that bears the statues name, and Maurice Coster, an archeologist and professor, is the one who sculpted the statue, which stands on a column in the center of the square. You can see many other monuments and famous sculptures around the area, such as the Atomium, a large, futuristic building, which is open to the public only a few hours per day.