Belgium is an underrated tourist destination. Unlike other European cities, Belgium doesn't feel overcrowded making it the perfect place to explore. The country has so much history and things to do from visiting museums to eating your way through brasseries, cafes, and Belgian chocolate shops.
The Belgian cities of Antwerp, Brussels, Ghent, and Bruges that we visited were beautiful with their medieval architecture and cobblestone roads making it feel like you stepped back in time. Envision medieval bell towers, castles, horse carriages, and picture-perfect canals.
It's Easy to Get Around:
Belgium is one of the smallest countries in Europe. It is equivalent to the size of the state of Maryland! It borders The Netherlands, Germany, Luxembourg, and France. The pink dots in the map below represent the locations we went to during our trip!
The cycling paths are integrated into the roads, and those driving cars seemed respectful of cyclists. When in doubt, feel free to ring your bicycle bell to warn pedestrians and drivers you are coming through!
With the help of the flat terrain in Belgium's cities, many people use bikes, and it is commonplace to bring your bike on the train, ferry, etc. Some people even have collapsible/foldable bikes to make it easier to bring on the trains.
The cities such as Antwerp have a focus on removing cars from view, even building underground parking lots so we don't have to see them! You don't need a car in Belgium. Public transportation options like underground metros and trams can get you around easily. Make sure you buy your tram ticket beforehand at the vending machines at the various stops since drivers do not sell them. You can also buy a metro ticket at any of the metro stations.
You can easily get around to different cities in Belgium and Europe in general via the train. I recommend adding Belgium to one of your travel destinations.
For example, we also included the city of Amsterdam in our trip. The train to Antwerp from Amsterdam was less than 2 hours.
The Thalys is a high-speed train that allows you to travel smoothly between France, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands. It's the fastest way to travel in Europe!
Belgian Cuisine to Try:
There are many options for fine dining. Belgium has the fourth-most Michelin-starred restaurants per person in the world (source). If that's not your speed, you can chill out on a restaurant's terrace and enjoy the scenery around you. If you’re big on beer, I’m not a connoisseur myself, but there are a LOT of options.
Keep reading to find things to do, food to eat, and places to check out in Belgium! I included a food recommendation for each city.
Bikes - Tours and Renting
Antwerp has a great bike system, Velo, making it affordable and easy to get around the city. A day pass (good for 24 hours) only cost €5! The only catch is that you have to return your bike to a station in a 30-minute time block and if not you will be charged an extra fee. It isn't a problem though since there are stations all over the city. So you ride your bike to one spot, dock your bike, explore, and then grab another bike when you are ready. It was a super seamless process for us and made exploring much easier than on foot!
We did a 3-hour bike tour during our first day in Antwerp and it was awesome! We were extremely lucky with getting a private tour since the other people in our group canceled unexpectedly. We went all over the city and the tour guide gave us a rundown on some of the city's history and gave us plenty of ideas of things to do during our stay.
Bike tours are hands-down the best bang for your buck! You get to quickly figure out the lay of the land and get insider tips from a local. Our guide suggested my next recommendation, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts. She said if she had to pick only one museum to visit, this would be it!
Visit a Museum
Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp
The Royal Museum of Fine Arts reopened this fall, bringing the Flemish masters back to the people after 11 years of closure for renovations. You’ll get to admire classical art by the famous Flemish painter, Rubens alongside modern art. The museum is often associated with "Old Masters” when in reality it makes up only 30 percent of the museum’s overall collections. This museum highlights modern art and has a bright shiny new space to finally showcase it.
MAS - Museum aan de Stroom
We didn't look at the museum's exhibitions, however, I do recommend riding the escalators to the rooftop where you can get a 360-degree view of the city. The museum building is also interesting to look at. The city held a design contest for the building design and this shipping container-inspired design was the winner!
The city of Antwerp has traditionally been a "market town" holding weekly, monthly, and yearly markets. During the weekend they have the Exotic Market (Saturdays - 8 am to 4 pm) and the Birds Market (Sundays - 8 am to 1 pm). We went to both and got to try some delicious local food like savory bread and waffles!
You can read more info on Antwerp markets here.
Frites Atelier is a boutique cafe serving up delicious fries with matching sauces. Pictured here are the "Parmesan & Basil" and the classic "Flemish Beef Stew" frites. They also serve homemade sauces from ceramic sauce pots so you can try out other sauces on your fries. I recommend the truffle mayo. It is soooo good!
Next up in our Belgium trip, we rode to the city of Ghent on the train for the day. The train ride was an hour long for the low cost of €9.90 one-way. Ghent is beautiful and full of character with its historical architecture, cobblestone roads, and quaint canal. There are plenty of cafes and shops to check out, especially chocolate shops!
See the 3 Medieval Towers
In the city center of Ghent, you can see St Nicholas' Church, the Belfry, and St Bavo's Cathedral.
The Belfry of Ghent
The Belfry is a must-do in Ghent! Located in the middle of the two churches, you can climb the 366 steps of the bell tower and get an unobstructed view of the gorgeous city center of Ghent below. In case you need it, there’s an elevator on the 2nd floor.
During the climb, you can check out some small exhibits on the middle floors where you can learn more about the history of the landmark. One room holds the famous dragon that looked over the city and became the city's symbol since 1377.
St Bavo's Cathedral
The cathedral is home to a famous painting, "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb" "also called the "Ghent Altarpiece" by Hubert and Jan van Eyck. It is considered one of the most important works of the early Northern Renaissance and one of Belgium's greatest masterpieces. You can see the inside of the cathedral for free, however, to view the Ghent Altarpiece it requires a ticket (€12.50).
Check both the Altarpiece hours and the opening hours of the cathedral here.
St Nicholas' Church
Built during the 13th century, St Nicholas' church is one of the oldest and most famous landmarks of Ghent. Its gothic architecture and castle-like structure are also beautiful to view at night when it's illuminated. It's free to go inside so make sure you check it out!
Opening hours: 10:00 am - 5:00 pm (Wed-Sun) and 2:00 pm - 5:00 pm (Mondays).
Castle of the Counts
A trip to Ghent is not complete without a visit to The Castle of the Counts, called Het Gravensteen in Dutch. It is a medieval fortress located in the heart of the city. There is a unique audio tour voiced by a Flemish comedian that will walk you through the castle's history.
The Castle of the Counts is open every day from 10:00 am - 6.00 pm. Entry is €12 for adults and free for children up to age 12.
Pakhuis is located on a side street near the city center right off the main canal. The restaurant has a lovely interior with high ceilings and excellent food. The meals we got were delicious! We both had a lunch special that came with a starter (a soup or salad) and a main course (we opted for "the catch of the day") for €18. A great deal if you ask me!
We were able to walk in for lunch, but I would recommend making a reservation if you come for dinner. It seems like a popular spot!
During our Belgium trip, we wanted to see the capital of Belgium, Brussels. Brussels is the most populated region in the country and is known for being the European Union's unofficial capital. Chocolate, beer, and its local waffle are also Brussel's claim to fame. The train ride from Antwerp to Brussels cost €7.70 one-way and took about 50 minutes.
See the Grand Place
The city's main plaza, The Grand Place, is Brussel's crown jewel. The square includes a Gothic Town Hall building surrounded by lavish townhouses. I recommend coming back at night to see the buildings all aglow.
Visit a Museum
The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium has a combined ticket (€10 for adults) for Old Masters + Fin-de-Siècle which gives you access to both collections in the same complex. The Old Masters includes work from the 15-18 centuries by Flemish, Dutch, French, and Italian artists. The Fin-de-Siècle Museum is dedicated to the 1900s when Brussels was the capital of Art Nouveau.
Cinquantenaire Park is not only a park but a landmark as well! It was built to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Belgium's independence. It's home to gardens, monuments, sculptures, and museums (Autoworld, an art museum, and an army museum). It's a lovely place to walk around and enjoy the sights!
Fin De Siècle
We really enjoyed our meal at Fin De Siècle. The food and service were both wonderful! This is the place to go to try some authentic Flemish cuisine. The menu is written in French on a blackboard so you may need some help from one of the friendly waiters.
We tried the rabbit and the stuffed endives. They were served with a flavorful beer sauce, mashed potatoes, and vegetables. The portions are large so you will definitely get a good and hearty meal!
An hour and a half train trip away from Antwerp, you can find yourself in the beautiful city of Bruges. Bruges is one of Europe's best-preserved medieval cities. In addition, the city is nicknamed "the Venice of the North" for its picturesque canals.
The market has many cafes, restaurants, and taverns with terraces overlooking the square which is a lovely place to spend some time. If you are looking for a tour, there are many horse carriages waiting to take you around the city.
The city's central market square indeed holds markets! We arrived on a Wednesday which is when the food and flowers market is held 8:00 am - 1:30 pm. For a schedule of the markets, visit the Bruges Tourism site here.
The Belfry of Bruges
Located in the city's central square, the bell tower of Bruges dates back to the 13th century.
After you climb up 366 steps, you will be rewarded with a stunning view of the city. On your way up, you can view the chests that held the city's funds, stamps, and seals during the Middle Ages. A few steps further on you will see the impressive music drum that operates the bells of the clock tower.
Tip: The stairs are quite steep and narrow, which means the number of people allowed to go up is limited. I would recommend visiting the Belfry either early (close to opening time) or late (close to closing time) to avoid peak traffic.
Ticket price: €14 for adults
Hours: Open every day: 9:00 am to 8:00 pm, last tickets sold 30 minutes before closing.
A 30-minute canal tour is a must-do activity during your visit to Bruges. There is audio explaining what some of the landmarks are, but for the most part, the tour is more about getting to see the sights. The captain will take you to the most beautiful spots on the water and you will get to experience the city from a new angle.
Minnewaterpark (Lake of Love)
When Entering Bruge's center from the south (coming from the train station), Minnewaterpark is a quiet place for a stroll. There are plenty of photo opportunities like the Minnewater Bridge overlooking the lake or walking alongside the tranquil canals. The park feels like a serene oasis away from the bustling city center.
Bike to the Town of Damme
We rented bikes from De Ketting (12€ for the day). The couple that owned the shop was very friendly and had us off on our way in less than 10 minutes. From their shop, you follow the road to the left and pick up the bike trail that takes you to the neighboring town of Damme (about 40 minutes one way). The route is quite scenic since you pass four windmills and go alongside a canal lined with poplar trees. This activity was one of the highlights of our Belgium trip!
Otto Waffle Atelier
Otto Waffle Atelier serves homemade Bruges Oat Waffles in a beautiful lace shape (a nod to Bruge's famous lace). They are topped with seasonal flavors like this "fall" one I got below with apple slices and yogurt. We also tried "The Chocolate Lady" waffle with homemade vanilla ice cream, homemade dark chocolate sauce, and cacao nibs. Yum!
De Vlaamshot Pot
With its warm lighting and gingham-covered decor, the atmosphere at De Vlaamshot Pot feels so welcoming and cozy. They are known for their hearty Flemish fare and are famous for waterzooi, a Flemish fish stew (pictured below).
I chose the Mussels in "Style - De Vlaamsche Pot" which was a leek and cream sauce. You can order your mussels "natural" or in beer or wine sauce as well. WOW, these mussels were amazing and were definitely the most memorable meal on our trip. Make sure you come with an appetite, the portions are huge!
Languages - Belgium has 2 official languages!
The primary language in Belgium is Dutch which is spoken by about 60% of the population. More specifically, Belgians speak "Flemish" which is a dialect of Dutch. The other 40% of the country speaks French. Luckily for us, the Flemish mostly speak excellent English and can jump between the two languages with ease once they know what you speak.
Most signs and written materials you come across in Belgium like museum descriptions are written in Dutch, French, and English. On the train, they announce the locations three times in each language since most place names have French and Flemish variations. For example, Brussels is spelled "Bruxelles" in French.
Where to Stay
Antwerp - a central hub
I suggest staying in Antwerp for the longer duration of your Belgium stay. Antwerp is centrally located and the train ride to Ghent and Brussels is only an hour away. We stayed in Bruges for a couple of nights - Bruges is about an hour and a half away and I think two days there is the ideal amount of time to explore the main points of interest.
Hotels near train stations
To make your life easier, you can also pick hotels that are located near the train stations. Tourists usually stay in the Central Station district of Antwerp since it's close to the train station and it's only a 20-minute walk or so to the central square area.
If you arrive before check-in, hotels can store your luggage, making it easy to drop off your luggage and get right to exploring!
How Long to Stay
Here are my recommendations on how long you should spend at each of the following cities.
Antwerp - 2 days
Ghent - 1day
Brussels - 1 day
Bruges - 2 days
Be Mindful of Business Hours
When it comes to planning your itinerary, keep in mind that business hours are different than what we are used to in the States. Most businesses open at 9, 10, or even 11 am and close in the evening around 5 or 6 pm. They open late and close early and the hours posted on websites might not always be correct.
Note, most shops are closed on Sundays so don't plan on doing any shopping that day!
Get an E-Sim Card
Before your trip, you can purchase an E-Sim card on your phone. This is crucial for accessing Google Maps for walking and public transportation directions in real time. You're also going to want to be able to browse the internet to look up things (like what is waterzooi?).
Bring Comfy Shoes and Have a Plan for Transportation
It's important to have a plan for getting around whether that be renting bikes for the day or getting a day pass to use the trams, buses, and metro. It isn't that practical to walk around all day to see all the sights. Your feet are going to thank me!
Thanks for reading!
- The Maine Chick