Belgium may be small but it has much to offer any nimble tourist. To many Europeans, it represents a centre-point for the continent’s politics – headquartering the both the European Union and NATO. To non-Europeans, it’s relatively unknown compared with its more famous neighbours of France, Germany, the UK and the Netherlands. But make no mistake, Belgium, has far more to offer than just chocolate.
Although on the smaller side as far as countries go, Belgium manages to throw a curveball at any would-be visitor: it’s essentially two countries, bound together at the hip for better or for worse.
Wallonia, the French-speaking Southern half of the country, is entirely self governing – as is its Flemish-speaking Northern neighbour, Flanders. While Wallonia is mostly swathes of rolling hills, winding rivers, and dense forests, Flanders comprises an entirely different geography – vast, flat, fertile plains.
What this means is if you want to get a comprehensive idea of all things Belgian, you need to visit both Flanders and Wallonia, in addition to the officially bilingual federal capital, Brussels.
Here is a quick primer on Flanders’ most interesting cities – none of which you will regret visiting. All four destinations are easily accessible by train from Brussels within a couple of hours. A word of warning, however – these places are packed with tourists each summer and each Christmas, so come prepared to be one among many sightseers if visiting during these seasons.
Antwerp is the second largest city in Belgium, and the largest in Flanders.
With over a million people, it is a multicultural, cosmopolitan hotbed of culture and business.
At its centre lies an ornately fronted town hall, typical of Belgian cities. The grand cathedral is the tallest building, crowning the centre of this ancient city.
Winding narrow streets are populated with hidden gems of architecture and culture such as churches, theatres, and the world-renowned city-centre university.
Antwerp is Belgium’s port, and is the second largest in Europe. Although the old city is far removed from the port area, the city looks out over the wide river Scheldt as it charges towards the North Sea.
The city is also the world centre of one particularly glamorous commodity: diamonds. The city’s diamond district, immediately obvious upon exiting the main railway station (Centraal), comprises entire blocks of jewellers.
It is thought that more than 80% of the world’s diamonds pass through Antwerp, with over 350 jewellers in the diamond district alone.
Because of the abundance of dealers, diamond prices in the city are among Europe’s most competitive. Boyfriends, beware.
Far smaller than Antwerp but still a titan of heritage, Ghent is an essential stop to make. The old capital of the Flanders region, Ghent is far less industrialised than Antwerp, with a history dating back over a thousand years.
The old city is very well preserved, yet doesn’t feel especially crowded when compared with its smaller sibling, Bruges. Winding canals dissect city districts, with tall townhouses rising from the water’s edge.
The badass-named city castle, Gravensteen, dominates the city centre. A behemoth of a fortress, it is one of the best in Europe due to its visual splendour and age – the keep dates from 1180. Climbing to the top of the tower offers a great view of the city.
I was lucky enough to be passing through during the UEFA Euro 2016 football tournament on the eve of a Belgium vs Italy match. The city centre was ablaze with flags, beer and packed bars during the buildup to kickoff, which sold the city for me even more. What a shame it was when Belgium later lost the match!
Ahh, Bruges. It’s literally like a fairytale – the most well preserved medieval town in this whole region of North-West continental Europe, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Lucky to avoid bombing in the Second World War, Bruges has now become world-famous, attracting millions of visitors per year.
Bruges is not only well-preserved but also absolutely beautiful.
Narrow alleys meander between tall houses, roofs lined with elegant masonry and brick and timber walls left unpainted or a glowing white.
Canals, both wide and narrow, weave among the streets, awash with secret tunnels and quiet trickles of water, as old houses and bridges give way. You can take a tour on a canal boat to get a feel for the “Venice of the North”.
Picturesque canals weave between the narrow streets
There is also a fantastic view of the city offered in the Belfry, a large tower crowning the city’s main square dating from 1280. A word of warning however – the stairs are really narrow.
The old town is entirely surrounded by a moat, and many of the cities elegant medieval gates remain in place, with thousands of cyclists and walkers passing under their arches every day.
It truly is a marvellous experience to walk around the city in the early morning or at dusk after the shops have closed, just to listen and watch your surroundings.
Bruges is, without a doubt, the best Flanders – and Belgium – has to offer.
Ypres tells a slightly different story than Antwerp, Ghent and Bruges. A smaller market town with Roman roots, Ypres boomed with its cloth trade by the 13th century and was the fourth largest city in Flanders after the aforementioned cities.
However, Ypres is today more infamous than famous, due to its modern history.
Being at the epicentre of several First World War battles, the town was reduced to rubble over the course of the war. Today, Ypres is perhaps the best destination to learn about that war, and its violent legacy.
In 1915 the town was the first to be shelled by newly invented chemical weapons, which were so lethal that they were internationally banned as soon as the war ended.
By 1917, the town was completely destroyed by artillery during the Battle of Passchendaele – a campaign where 400,000 soldiers were killed or injured in the space of 3 months.
Since the town’s almost complete annihilation, the town has become a symbolic reminder of the horrors of war, in a similar vein to Hiroshima in Japan.
The reconstructed medieval cloth exchange now hosts a renowned museum (http://www.inflandersfields.be/en) which details the town’s role in the First World War.
For the British, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Indians, and South Africans, Ypres is therefore something of a pilgrimage site. The famous Menin Gate, built in the 1920s to commemorate British & Commonwealth soldiers whose bodies were never found, marks the town’s old Eastern boundary. Since the end of the war, a brief ceremony has been performed every night inside the gate – a staple event for visitors to the city to attend.
It may not interest every tourist, but the experience is sure to be sobering at the very least. I think it would be a major mistake when visiting Belgium to omit an excursion to Ypres or other First World War battlefields and memorials.
Flanders is, ultimately, only one third of Belgium. The Southern Walloon region, and the Brussels Capital Region, are absolutely worth visiting too. The beauty of Belgium is that it’s very easy to get from one place to the next, given its fantastic rail network and small overall size. Guides to Brussels and Wallonia will be coming to TNT soon!
Beyond Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges, and Ypres, where else in Flanders do you think is a ‘must-see’?