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Things to Do in Belgium

The multi-cultural political center of Europe, this small-but-important country lures visitors with its specialty beers, tantalizing chocolate, and famous diamonds, along with a rich history—and the old buildings that honor that. Belgium's location, squished between Germany and France, give it an often-outsized historical importance, with World War I and II having left notable marks. Day tours from the capital, Brussels, show historic sites related to the well-known Battle of the Bulge about two hours away, or, even closer, the Battle of Waterloo only half an hour away. Brussels itself holds a warren of medieval architecture, the Houses of Parliament, and plenty of that renowned Belgian beer and chocolate to taste. But within a one-hour train ride, big city life fades away quickly into the picturesque fields of Flanders, as visitors head to the secondary cities of Antwerp and Bruges. Visitors can easily see one or both in a single day with the help of a guided tour. Antwerp's beautiful port and majestic town square opens to reveal celebrated art by Rubens and the intense center of the diamond industry. Meanwhile, Bruges’ quaint serenity creates a timeless fairy-tale scene where travelers can step back a few centuries via canal cruise or walking tour through the town.
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Mini-Europe
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If you’ve only got a few days in Brussels, make a speedy tour of the major sights of the countries in the European Union at Mini-Europe – all in miniature. Among the 350 detailed models exhibited here, the architectural highlights featured include the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the canals of Venice and the Acropolis; they’re all there in carefully replicated models scaled down to 1.25.

The park offers an entertaining way for kids to learn more about the countries of the EU and significant moments from their history. Interactive displays at each model light up various elements of the buildings, trains chuff around tracks, bells chime and national anthems play. Vesuvius erupts, the Berlin Wall comes down and matadors fight the bulls in Spanish bull rings.

As the EU expands, so new models arrive at Mini-Europe. The latest arrivals in 2013 were St Mark’s Church from Zagreb, Croatia, and a diorama celebrating the succession of King Philippe to the Belgian throne in July.

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Belfry and Lakenhalle (Bell Tower and Cloth Hall)
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Book-ending the square of Botermarkt with St Bavo’s Cathedral, the ornate UNESCO-listed Belfry and the Cloth Hall at its feet stand testament to the great wealth of Ghent in the 14th century; built with money from members of the wool and textiles guilds, they are in striking Brabant Gothic style. The Belfry is topped with a gilded copper dragon and holds a carillon of 54 bells that have rung for more than six centuries; take the elevator to the viewing gallery at 66 m (217 ft) above Sint-Baafsplein to see the bells and take in panoramic views of gabled facades, St Bavo’s Cathedral and the Gothic ornamentation of St Nicholas’ Church. A small museum displays models of the church, a few pieces of armor and the original dragon from atop the tower.

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Menin Gate Memorial (Ypres Memorial)
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The Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, Belgium is one of four Commonwealth memorials honoring missing soldiers of World War I. The remains of over 90,000 soldiers who fought in the Ypres Salient area have never been found or identified. The memorial holds the names of more than 54,000 Commonwealth soldiers who lost their lives in the Ypres Salient battlefields in Flanders and and who have no known grave. Throughout the war, nearly every British and Commonwealth regiment passed through the area where the memorial now sits, many of them never to return.

Every night at 8pm a ceremony is held under the gate. Most days, people start gathering around 7pm, traffic is stopped at 7:30pm for one hour, and buglers from the local volunteer fire department arrive a few minutes before 8pm. The buglers sound the “Last Post” bugle call which is followed by one minute of silence. On days when there is no extended ceremony, the buglers then play “Réveille” to end the ceremony.

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Hill 60
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Hill 60 was a World War I battlefield in the Ypres Salent battlegrounds of Flanders named for its height at 60 meters (197 feet) above sea level. It was the site of intense fighting between British and German troops in April and May 1915. The British attack on April 17, 1915, began with the explosion of three mines which blew the top off the hill. Hundreds of soldiers died, and because of the continued fighting in this area, it was not possible to identify or even recover many of the bodies. Tunneling and mining operations were carried out here throughout the war by French, British, Australian and German troops. If tunnels caved in, soldiers who died underground were often left behind because of the difficulty of retrieving them. The remains of many soldiers from both sides of the war are still at this site

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In Flanders Fields Museum
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The In Flanders Field Museum is a World War I museum is located in a famous cloth hall in the center of Ypres, Belgium. The major theme of the museum is the consequences of war. Mirrors are used to inspire visitors to examine how we look at the past, how and why we remember, and how we view the nations involved in World War I. The museum encourages visitors to reflect on the major historical events as well as the personal stories of individuals. Visitors will learn about how the war affected the lives of thousands of people of different nationalities who were involved in the war. The museum also has a heavy focus on how the war affected West Flanders and the city of Ypres.

Visitors receive a poppy bracelet for a one euro deposit when they enter the museum. The bracelet has a microchip in it which tells the stories of four individuals, in the language you choose, as you walk through the exhibits in the museum. You can also climb 231 steps to the top of the bell tower.

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Market Square (Markt)
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The heart of medieval Bruges and the nucleas of the modern city, Bruges’ Market Square (the Markt) is one of the most striking in Europe. Bordered by rows of medieval townhouses, the 1-hectare square is the focal point of city events, with souvenir stores and restaurant seating spilling onto the streets during the summer months and a vibrant Christmas market and open-air ice rink transforming the square for the festive season.

The Market Square is also home to some of Bruges’ most celebrated architectural works, including landmarks like the 12th-century belfry, which offers spectacular views from its 83-meter high tower. Additional highlights include the 19th century Neo-Gothic Provincial Courthouse and the towering central statue of Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck, which honors the political leaders who led the 1302 Battle of the Golden Spurs.

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Burg Square
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The birth of the city of Bruges was heralded by Baldwin Iron Arm’s (Count of Flanders I) construction of a fortified castle on top of a hill in the 9th century. The castle was originally built to protect the area from invading Vikings and Normans and remained the seat of the Counts of Flanders for more than 500 years. The castle is now gone, but the charming public square which replaced it, known as the Burg, has been the heart of the city for centuries.

The Burg is just a short stroll from the Markt (Bruges’ other town square) and is home to a collection of historic buildings, which together represent almost every era in Bruges’ history. The most impressive buildings include the late medieval town hall, the Renaissance-style old civil registry and the neo-classical court of justice.

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Minnewater (Lake of Love)
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With a name that translates into English as "Lake of Love," you might be tempted to dismiss Minnewater as a little clichéd. That would be a mistake, however, as this canalized lake is genuinely charming and can even create the feeling of traveling back in time to Bruges’ medieval heyday.

The lake is surrounded by trees and old brick houses and the adjacent Minnewater Park is often the site of live musical performances during the summer months. You will likely spot many swans on the lake, they are one of Bruges’ symbols, but be warned that they can be known to be quite territorial. The best views of the Minnewater can be had from the 18th-century bridge that crosses the lake. Minnewater is certainly a romantic place to stroll around with someone special, but anyone can appreciate the peacefulness and scenery and it can make a relaxing break from the hustle and bustle of the nearby city center.

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Church of Our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk)
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The soaring 400-foot (122-meter) spire-topped brick steeple of the Church of Our Lady – the city’s tallest structure – lends itself to commanding views of Bruges. The spire dominates the Bruges skyline and can be seen from all over the city, while from inside the tower, on a clear day, you can see across Belgium as far as the Netherlands.

The church was built over two centuries (13th-15th) and houses a substantial collection of artworks. The most celebrated of the church’s art collection is a white marble sculpture of the Madonna and Child, created by Michaelangelo in the early 16th century – it is one of the very few Michaelangelo pieces that can be seen outside of Italy. The Church of Our Lady also holds an oil painting depiction of the crucifixion by the Flemish Baroque artist Anthony van Dyck, and a rococo pulpit by Bruges artist Jan Antoon Garemijn.

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More Things to Do in Belgium

Basilica of the Holy Blood (Heilig-Bloedbasiliek)

Basilica of the Holy Blood (Heilig-Bloedbasiliek)

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The Basilica of the Holy Blood (Heilig-Bloedbasiliek) is a church in Brugge, Belgium that has what is believed to be the blood of Jesus Christ. The basilica was once a chapel built in the 12th century, and it has been added to and rebuilt over the centuries. The lower chapel was built in a Romanesque style and has little decoration. The upper chapel, though originally Romanesque, was rebuilt in a Gothic style with plenty of colors and details.

Legend has it that Joseph of Arimathea wiped blood from the body of Christ after the crucifixion and preserved the cloth. Supposedly the cloth remained in the Jerusalem until the Second Crusade. At that time, the King of Jerusalem gave the relic to his brother-in-law, Count of Flanders, Diederik van de Elzas. The Count took the relic back to Brugge in April 1150, and had it placed at the chapel he had built on Burg Square.

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Princely Beguinage Ten Wijngaarde (Begijnhof)

Princely Beguinage Ten Wijngaarde (Begijnhof)

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One of the most famous and best preserved of Belgium’s UNESCO World Heritage listed Beguinages, Bruges’ Beguinage (Begijnhof) or ‘Ter Weyngaerde’, is one of the town’s most visited attractions, offering a unique glimpse into the European Béguine movement of the Middle Ages. A fine example of a traditional Flemish béguinage, the secluded complex of houses, churches and gardens was founded in 1230 by the Countess Johanna of Constantinople and up until 1926 housed a small community of Béguines, lay women who devoted their lives to god.

Today, the compound is home to around 25 Benedictine nuns but its Béguine past lives on at the onsite Beguinage museum, which features displays like a recreation of a 19th century kitchen and a showcase of traditional crafts. For most visitors though, simply wandering around the daffodil-filled gardens, whitewashed houses and 13th-century church provides an evocative glimpse into the solitude of the Béguine lifestyle.

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Historic Centre of Bruges (Historisch Centrum van Brugge)

Historic Centre of Bruges (Historisch Centrum van Brugge)

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Bruges is one of the most picturesque cities in Belgium. It's one of Belgium's best preserved cities, and its medieval architecture escaped destruction from both World Wars. More than 1,000 years ago, Brugge was an important trade city due to its location near the coast. But in the 11th century, waterways that had direct access to the sea began to silt up. Although the walls of the city no longer stand, four old gates mark the boundaries of the old town and what is today the city center. Cobblestone streets, colorful buildings, and a series of canals add to the charm of this small city.

Start your visit in the Grote Markt, Brugge's main square. Here you'll find the Belfry with its 272-foot tall tower, which you can climb for fantastic views of the city. Another great way to enjoy the city is from a boat tour of the canals. At the Basilica of the Holy Blood, you can see a vial of what is said to be the blood of Jesus.

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Bruges City Hall (Stadhuis van Brugge)

Bruges City Hall (Stadhuis van Brugge)

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The Town Hall (Stadhuis) is Belgium’s oldest building and arguably Bruges’ most beautiful. The Flamboyant Gothic-style building was constructed between 1376 and 1420, and was one of the first grand town halls in the Low Countries. The city has been governed from this building for more than 700 years.

The town hall’s front facade features Gothic windows and the town weapons of the cities and villages that were under Bruges’ administrative rule. The statues of biblical figures and Counts of Flanders that sit in the niches of the façade are 20th-century replacements for the originals. Those were painted by Jan van Eyck and destroyed by pro-French rebels in the 1790s. In the entrance hall, a large staircase leads to the ornate Gothic Hall, which was decorated in 1895 with neo-gothic wall murals that illustrate events from Bruges’ history – pick up an audio guide for detailed information.

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Historium Brugge

Historium Brugge

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Atomium

Atomium

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This alien-looking and vast silvery sculpture near the Bruparck was created in 1958 for the Expo 58 and represents a iron molecule magnified 165 billion times. A mesh of nine corridors leading to nine giant spheres, it was destined to be demolished after the exhibition but proved such a hit with the Bruxellois that it was reprieved and has become a national icon.

Reaching up to 335 feet (102 m) the Atomium underwent a much-needed and rigorous facelift in the early 2000s; the spheres were originally made of an aluminum skin but this has been replaced by stainless steel. An elevator shoots up the central column to the five spheres that are currently open to the public; three provide a permanent record of Expo 58 and two host temporary interactive art and science displays.

The highest sphere stands at 300 feet (92 m) above the ground and now has a glass roof, allowing 360° views across the Heysel Plain towards Brussels.

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ADAM Brussels Design Museum

ADAM Brussels Design Museum

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Formerly known as the Art & Design Atomium Museum but now simply called "The ADAM," this museum focuses on design from the 1950s through the present, with a particular emphasis on plastic design. Here visitors will find a variety of permanent installations and exhibitions, along with a rotation of temporary exhibits and other programs.
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Central Station

Central Station

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Antwerp’s main railway station is a much-loved city landmark, a spectacular domed building of majestic proportions on Koningin Astridplain and nicknamed the Spoorwegkathedraal (Railway Cathedral) by its local fans. It was designed by Flemish architect Louis Delacenserie and was completed in 1905; it is 400 m (1,300 ft) long with a grandiose façade completely covered in fancy patterned brickwork and gilded flourishes. Along with a massive central dome topped by an ornate cupola, it has eight smaller towers and an interior lavishly decorated in different shades and patterns of marble. The platforms are covered by a vast glass-and-iron vaulted ceiling designed by Clement van Bogaert, while Jan van Asperen was responsible for the elevated section of track that passes four km (2.5 miles) through the city; this was completed in 1898 and ornamented with over 200 white stone mini-towers.

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Museum aan de Stroom (MAS)

Museum aan de Stroom (MAS)

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Spearheading the rejuvenation of the once derelict Willemdok harbor area, MAS (which translates as ‘Museum on the River’) opened in 2011 to great acclaim – as much for its stellar architecture as its thoughtful, well-curated exhibitions paying homage to the city of Antwerp, its history and culture. Sitting just north of the city center on a dock commissioned by Napoleon in 1811, the museum was designed by Dutch architects Neutelings Riedijk and towers 60 m (197 ft) above the harbor. It is comprised of layers of bright-red sandstone bricks held together with glass and steel; the five themed floors of interactive and entertaining displays make use of nearly half a million artifacts – including anything from Old Master paintings to model boats, newsreel, penny farthings, model ships and personal accounts on video – to showcase Antwerp’s development into one of Europe’s largest ports, a diamond capital and a multiracial center of learning and culture.

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Diamondland

Diamondland

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One of the best-known showrooms in Antwerp’s Diamond Quarter, DiamondLand is a sparkling, glittering homage to gemstones, with an exceptional array of certified diamonds on offer from simple solitaire rings to priceless necklaces.

Free guided tours narrate the history of Antwerp’s diamond industry and take in the polishers, cutters and goldsmiths in the workshops; a collection of spectacular jewels and uncut stones; and the salesrooms, where expert advice is available for buyers. DiamondLand is approved by the Antwerp Diamond Jewellers Association and recommended by the city’s tourist authority on the free ‘Antwerp Loves Diamonds’ map available from the tourist information offices in Grote Markt and Central Station.

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Belgian Comic Strip Center

Belgian Comic Strip Center

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This exploration of comic strips as art is appropriately housed in an Art Nouveau building designed by Brussels’ most famous architect, Victor Horta. It traces the history of first comic strips through to the evolution of European comic books and present day pieces. The museum celebrates both the heroes and the creators of so many beloved comic strips. Many know of the Smurfs or the famous character Tintin of “The Adventures of Tintin,” and the center’s exhibit on imagination traces comic strip art from the development of Tintin in Belgium in 1929 up to 1960. Comic strips in French, Dutch, and English as well as from genres ranging from politics to science fiction and children’s comics are all represented.

In addition to the permanent collections, visitors have the option to delve into animation, a reading room, a research library, and a conservation facility.

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Brussels Town Hall (Hotel de Ville)

Brussels Town Hall (Hotel de Ville)

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Dominating the Gothic and Baroque mansions of Brussels’s glorious cobbled Grand-Place from the south side, the spectacular City Hall has a flamboyant Gothic façade and more restrained classical additions lying around a courtyard behind it.

Begun in 1402, this beloved local landmark was largely designed by Flemish architect Jacob van Thienen, but its distinctive lacy central belfry is the work of his compatriot Jan van Ruysbroeck and doubles the height of the façade, reaching up to 320 feet (97 m). It is adorned with a copper statue of St Michael – the patron saint of Brussels – killing a dragon; the belfry is useful to navigate by when lost in the charming tangle of streets of Brussels old city, especially when gloriously floodlit at night. The entire building is encrusted with 294 sculptures of saints and public figures, which were added by 91 different artists during the late 19th century.

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Musical Instruments Museum

Musical Instruments Museum

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The Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels celebrates the making of music with thousands of instruments from around the world. In one section, visitors can explore different instruments throughout history, from antiquity to present day, while another section displays popular instruments from Belgium, other parts of Europe, and from other continents. Another part of the museum focuses on string and keyboard instruments. Here visitors can learn about pianos, harps, violins, and more. There's also a section of mechanical, electrical, and electronic instruments, plus clocks and bells. The star of this section is the componium, which is a 19th-century orchestrion that automatically composes an infinite variety of music.

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Brussels City Museum (Musée de la Ville de Bruxelles)

Brussels City Museum (Musée de la Ville de Bruxelles)

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Behind the facade of a dark, grey Neogothic structure lays a collection of artifacts that tell the story of the city of Brussels. This intricate building is known as the Maison du Roi ("King's House”) and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The structure is also known as Broodhuis (bread market), a nod to its use as such in the 13th century.

From its early development to medieval era to present day, learn about the city’s history through its tapestries, paintings, sculptures, and photographs. Altarpieces, porcelain and silverware round out the collection of historical objects on display. Exhibits cover everything from urban development to the social, political, and cultural life of the capital. Envision the past with 3D models to scale of the city in different time periods. Of particular note is the costume collection of the statue of Manneken-Pis, an emblem of Brussels said to have nearly 800 wardrobe choices.

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