Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Belgium
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
More Things to Do in Belgium
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.
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.
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.
The Royal Saint Hubert Galleries are a series of shops and restaurants in Brussels that are covered by panes of glass. They were designed by the architect Jean-Pierre Cluysenaer in 1847 and are often referred to as the umbrella of Brussels. The galleries are divided into three different sections: the Galerie de la Reine, the Galerie du Roi and the Galerie des Princes. The glass roof helps protect visitors from rain or cold weather. In the past, visitors had to pay 25 cents on Thursdays and Sundays and 10 cents on other days just to access the galleries. Of course today it is free to visit, and over 6 million people visit each year.
The galleries have something for everyone. There are boutiques selling the latest fashions as well as more classic clothing. Accessories shops sell gloves, hats, umbrellas and more. Several jewelry stores are located here along with book stores, chocolate shops, and other specialty shops.
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
The Essex Farm Cemetery is a World War I burial site outside of Ypres, Belgium. There are 1,200 servicemen buried or commemorated here, including 103 unidentified soldiers. Essex Farm was an Advanced Dressing Station during the war, so many of the casualties handled there were laid to rest in this cemetery. Remains of some of the bunkers used for medical services can still be seen near the cemetery. There is also a memorial to the 49th West Riding Division. John McCrae, a World War I soldier who fought in the Ypres Salient battlegrounds, wrote a poem called “In Flanders Fields” after a friend of his was killed. It is believed that he was in the area of the Essex Farm Advanced Dressing Station when he wrote it. In the poem, he talks about the poppies in Flanders fields, and his short but moving poem became well known. Because of this poem, the poppy has become a symbol of remembrance.
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.
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.
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.
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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