Belgium is sometimes disregarded by visitors in favour of neighbouring countries such as France and the Netherlands, yet it is one of Europe's best kept secrets. Belgium is both linguistically and culturally varied due to its past; the country is tiny and compact, allowing travellers to easily travel to numerous sites. Belgium has something for everyone, from polished delights like fries and chocolate to accessible nature vacations, gorgeous mediaeval towns to trendsetting art scenes. Here are the top locations to go.
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Brussels, Belgium's capital and the headquarters of the European Union and NATO, is considered one of Europe's most cosmopolitan towns. The Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium is made up of six separate museums, including the must-see Magritte Museum, the Boghossian Foundation at Villa Empain, a spectacular art deco building, and the contemporary Center for Fine Arts, a multipurpose cultural venue known as BOZAR. Many architectural treasures may be found in the city, including the Grand Place, a Unesco World Cultural Heritage site, and the famed Maison Cauchie, which is available to the public only on the first weekend of the month with previous appointments. Brussels is the destination to go for foodies who want to sample all of Belgium's gastronomic treasures. Délirium Café is a popular, always-crowded café that serves over 2000 different varieties of beer, including that of the country's famous Trappist brews. There are a few outdoor kiosks nearby called frietkot (snack stalls) where you can get your frieten fix - fries served in a distinctive paper cone with your choice of sauce. To satiate a sweet taste, try Pierre Marcolini's Belgian chocolate and, of course, Maison Dandoy's fluffy Brussels-style waffles.
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Visiting Bruges is like entering a fantasy. With its elaborate system of tree-lined canals, cobblestone alleys, and well-preserved buildings, the city is sometimes referred to as the Venice of the North. To add to the charm, much of the distinctly mediaeval architecture, due to the red Gothic brick, resembles gingerbread cottages. All of this, as well as the fact that it is the cradle of Flemish Primitive art, contributed to the designation of the entire mediaeval city centre of Bruges as a Unesco World Heritage Site. Bruges are best enjoyed at your own speed. Wander about Old Town on foot, taking in the city squares, the Markt, and the Burg; take a canal boat trip and count all the bridges (54 in all), then cycle down the canals to less congested spots. Head to the Belfort, one of Bruges' most famous monuments, and climb the 366 steps to the summit for the greatest bird's-eye views. Grasp your breath with a refreshing Belgian beer, which can be found on almost each corner of the city. De Halve Maan, a 16th-century brewery that also provides brewery tours with tastings, and 't Brugs Beertje, a famed beerhouse with over 300 Belgian beers on the menu, are two notable beer attractions. Last but not least, no trip to Bruges is complete without a stop at the Groeninge museum, a fine-art museum with an exceptional collection of Flemish Primitive art.
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Namur, known as the "Land of Valleys" in Wallonia, is surrounded by nature, with rivers, cliffs, undulating agricultural hills, and rich Belgian Ardennes flora. Dinant is the ideal day-trip destination, with postcard-perfect beauty and a powerful fortress built on limestone cliffs. Stroll through the picturesque riverside town, sailing along the river, take the cable car up to the fortress for sweeping views, and admire the scenery from a cafe while sampling regional specialties like the Couque de Dinant, an exceedingly difficult honey-flavoured biscuit that is available in a variety of shapes. They can be preserved indefinitely and are made entirely of wheat flour and honey, making them ideal keepsakes to take back home. Travel to Liernu, another even smaller hamlet that exudes tranquillity, for a once-in-a-lifetime gastronomic experience. L'air du Temps, a fine-dining establishment in a beautifully refurbished farmhouse, is located on 12 acres of private land. Approximately 80% of the foods served here are taken from the onsite garden and frequently contain characteristics of the local terroir, such as the Petits Gris de Namur snails, Wallonia's most sustainable food source. From there, you're just a short distance from Namur, the provincial and regional capital. This laid-back city is home to one of Europe's largest citadels, as well as the adults-only Musée Félicien Rops, which showcases the life and work of the controversial 19th-century Belgian artist. It's the ideal starting point for your journey through the Belgian Ardennes woodlands.
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Antwerp, Belgium's second city and residence to the world famous Royal Academy of Fine Arts, is also its coolest. Some of fashion's most influential designers, including Martin Margiela and Demna Gvasalia of Balenciaga, have heritage in Antwerp, and a handful have gone on to open one-of-a-kind stores worth visiting, such as Dries Van Noten's Het Modepaleis and Ann Demeulemeester's sleek, black-and-white flagship store. More stylish boutiques may be found in the Fashion District's Kammenstraat and Nationalestraat sectors. The magnificent Fashion Museum Antwerp is also located here (MoMu; reopening September 2022). Aside from its elegant residents, the city has an aesthetic edge due to its various architectural styles. Recent contemporary developments have joined the mediaeval structures, adding to Antwerp's rich environment. Take a stroll down to the waterfront to see architect Zaha Hadid's Antwerp Port House and the MAS, which houses exhibitions and artefacts centred on Antwerp.
The Belgian Coast
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The white, beachfront Belgian coast runs for 65 kilometres (40 miles), allowing you to explore many diverse communities without feeling overwhelmed. There's also the de Kusttram, a public coastal tram that begins near the French border at De Panne and runs all the way to the bottom to Knokke-Heist, close to the Dutch border, making 68 stops in all. The entire trip would take 2.5 hours and enables you to see the coastline from the luxury of your seat. De Haan and Oostduinkerke are two must-see destinations. De Haan is unique in that all structures must be no taller than five stories, preserving the original small-town charm. Many fall in love with the modest beachside skyline made primarily of Belle Epoque houses and pristine grassy dunes. Are you still not convinced? The nostalgic Wafelhuis Annie's sweet delicacies or high tea in the antique 't Stil Genot tea restaurant are guaranteed to win you over.
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Ghent, nestled between Brussels and Bruges, offers the finest of Belgian cities, including winding canals, mediaeval architecture, excellent museums, and cobblestone alleyways lined with shops and restaurants. The difference is that Ghent has Belgium's greatest student population - a youthful, pounding core in one of the oldest existing cities. Take a deeper look, and you'll discover an out-of-the-box creative culture, a thriving music scene, and enough drool-worthy plant-based menu selections to make the town the Vegetarian Capital. Furthermore, more than half of the population and 120 establishments engage in Donderdag Veggiedag, or Thursday Veggie Day, an effort that encourages omnivores to abstain from meat and fish for 24 hours. Ghent has been a Unesco Creative City of Music since 2009. There's something for everyone's taste, from Belgium's first silent disco at Abacho to performances at the never-boring Vooruit Art Center, and also from traditional performances at De Bijloke Muziekcentrum to live music on the roadside and in cafes and bars like Kinky Star, a native record-label-owned cafe renowned for its Irish coffees and alternative concerts.
Hoge Kempen National Park
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