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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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Groeningemuseum
5 Tours and Activities

One of Belgium’s best fine art museums, the Groeningemuseum, holds a collection that covers around 600 years of Flemish and Belgian painting, from the 14th through the 20th century. Notable pieces include the 15th-century Flemish painter Jan van Eyck’s Madonna with Canon Van der Paele. This piece was completed in 1436 and features highly sophisticated techniques such as fine detailing and the use of multiple layers of oil and varnish to achieve texture and depth. This painting is regarded as one of Van Eyck’s most ambitious works.

Other works on display include Hans Memling’s Moreel's Triptych; Hieronymus Bosch’s The Last Judement, Gerard David’s Judgment of Cambyses, which depicts the corrupt Persian judge Sisamnes being flayed alive, and other pieces by early Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden and the surrealists Magritte and Paul Delvaux.

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Burg Square
50 Tours and Activities

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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St. Bavo's Cathedral (Sint-Baafskathedraal)
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Originating from a chapel built back in 942 for Saint Jean-Baptiste, Ghent’s standout attraction is the historic St Bavo Cathedral (Sint-Baafskathedraal), notable as the location of Emperor Charles’ baptism. Today, the cathedral’s crypt is the last remaining remnant of the original Romanesque structure and the majority of the cathedral dates back to the 16th century, renamed in honor of Saint Bavo of Ghent.

Don’t be distracted by the cathedral’s less-than-impressive exterior, a muddle of Romanesque, Gothic and baroque architecture, because a breathtaking collection of artworks, sculptures and carvings adorn the interiors. The dramatic centerpiece is the show stopping ‘Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’, a 24-panel Hubert and Jan van Eyck polyptych, completed in 1432 and housed in the chapel of Joost Vijd. Additional highlights include an oak and marble rococo pulpit by Laurent Delvaux, Rubens's The Conversion of St. Bavo and the tombstone of Bishop Triest.

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Gravensteen Castle (Castle of the Counts)
25 Tours and Activities

Moated Gravensteen Castle is a circular, gray fortress built in 1180 alongside a split in Ghent’s River Leie to symbolize the power of Philip of Alsace, who was the ruling Count of Flanders. Although a wooden castle had existed here for centuries, the new fortification was built to send out a clear message of his supreme power to his political enemies. Philip had been on several Crusades and clearly modelled the design of his new home on the austere crusader castles scattered around the Mediterranean Sea from Portugal to Greece. Its two-meter (six-foot) thick walls were made of Tournai limestone and fortified with battlements while the castle’s towers and turrets housed stables, a church and state apartments as well as a torture chamber to deal with anyone brave – or foolish – enough to cross Philip. Following extensive restoration in the late 19th century, today the torture chamber is a gruesome museum displaying guillotines, branding irons and thumbscrews.

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Grand Market Place (Grote Markt van Antwerpen)
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28 Tours and Activities

Antwerp’s Grote Markt (Grand Market Place) is one of the city’s main attractions. Around the edges of the triangular-shaped marketplace you’ll find lovely buildings, most notably Our Lady’s Cathedral and several 16th-century guild houses. Although many of these buildings burned down at the end of the 16th century, they were rebuilt in the same style to showcase the excellence of Flemish architecture when Antwerp was a major European port city. The biggest building on the marketplace is the city hall. In the center of the marketplace, right in front of city hall, you’ll see the Brabo Fountain. The statue was built to honor this folklore tale: the Roman soldier Brabo defeated Antigoon, a giant who charged a fee to cross the river Schelde. Those who couldn’t pay had their hand cut off by the giant and thrown into the river. Brabo stopped this nonsense by cutting off the giant’s hand, and now has a bronze fountain to celebrate his heroics.

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Museum aan de Stroom (MAS)
13 Tours and Activities

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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Butcher's Hall (Vleeshuis)
4 Tours and Activities

Centered on Antwerp’s Grote Markt and the surrounding streets are some outstanding guild houses, built during the city’s 16th- and 17th-century Golden Age as trading was expanding and its citizens were getting seriously rich. Just north of the square stands the former Butcher’s Hall, a lovely Gothic structure built of alternating stripes of white sandstone and red brick by Flemish architect Herman de Waghemakere, completed in 1504 and adorned with gables and round towers at each corner. This handsome building was started life as the city’s meat market but during the struggles for power in northern Europe in the early 19th century, the French took over Antwerp and disbanded its guilds; the Butcher’s Hall became a storage depot and was largely forgotten until it was given new life as a museum in 1919. In 2006 a themed “Sounds of the City” permanent exhibition opened in its cavernous interior, highlighting the musical life of Antwerp.

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Market Square (Markt)
66 Tours and Activities

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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Church of Our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk)
39 Tours and Activities

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

Minnewater (Lake of Love)

Minnewater (Lake of Love)

36 Tours and Activities

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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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)

25 Tours and Activities

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)

15 Tours and Activities

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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Duvelorium

Duvelorium

3 Tours and Activities
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Belfry and Lakenhalle (Bell Tower and Cloth Hall)

Belfry and Lakenhalle (Bell Tower and Cloth Hall)

14 Tours and Activities

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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Graslei and Korenlei

Graslei and Korenlei

24 Tours and Activities

The medieval quays of Graslei and Korenlei face each other across the canalized River Leie and originally formed part of Tusschen Brugghen, the city’s thriving harbour. Their banks are lined with a rare architectural treat – the loveliest gabled guild houses and warehouses in Belgium, built between the 1200s and 1600s by rich merchants and guilds whose wealth came from trade. The streets are united by St Michael’s Bridge, from where their gabled delights can be seen at best advantage, and although considerable restoration work has taken place, these distinctive townhouses have maintained their allure.

Graslei is lined by canal-side restaurants blessed with a graceful backdrop of gabled gild houses; the oldest is the Het Spijker (Stockpile House) at no. 10; other ornate façades once contained the guild houses of the stonemasons, the free boatmen and the grain measurers as well as the former customs house.

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Mini-Europe

Mini-Europe

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9 Tours and Activities

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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Grand-Place (Grote Markt)

Grand-Place (Grote Markt)

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109 Tours and Activities
Europe’s most picturesque square, Grand-Place is surrounded by baroque and gothic guildhalls and the stunning 315 foot (96 meter) Brussels Town Hall. The stunning buildings in this UNESCO World Heritage site date mainly from the late 17th century. Grand Place is also known in Dutch as Grote Markt as it was the large central market in Brussels. The surrounding streets still bear the names of the stalls that lined the street: Rue des Bouchers (butchers) and Peperstraat (pepper merchants). Every second year, in August, the square is filled with an enormous flower carpet. A million begonias are used to create a stunning pattern. Concerts and music recitals are held here throughout the year. The size and beauty of the square amazes everyone when they first turn a corner to find it unexpectedly in front of them. After the initial shock sit down at a table outside one of the many cafés or chocolatiers and find out why Belgium is justly famous for its beer and chocolate.
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Manneken Pis

Manneken Pis

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The Manneken Pis, a bronze fountain statue by Jerome Duquesnoy, dates from 1619 when it replaced a stone statue from the 1400s. The residents of Brussels have embraced this diminuitive statue of a small boy urinating into a fountain as a symbol of their irreverence. There are many stories behind the Manneken Pis with most either referring to a young boy urinating on a fire/explosive device thus saving the city from destruction by invading armies or the lost son of a nobleman who was later found urinating in a fountain. The well-loved statue has over 800 costumes and will often wear the national dress of visiting dignitaries. You might otherwise see him dressed in football colors or as a plumber or even Elvis. His costume is changed around 30 times a year. These occasions are marked with brass-band music and an unveiling of the newly kitted-out statue. Sometimes Manneken Pis produces beer to celebrate with the people of Brussels.
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Atomium

Atomium

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58 Tours and Activities

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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Basilica of the Holy Blood (Heilig-Bloedbasiliek)

Basilica of the Holy Blood (Heilig-Bloedbasiliek)

46 Tours and Activities

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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