Mainly known for its key role in the administration of the European Union, the small nation that is Belgium might surprise you with its rich and magnificent heritage. It has a number of fascinating historic cities, rich in medieval and Art Nouveau architecture and famous for its long tradition of art, fashion and gastronomy. When you’ve seen the best, the Belgian countryside offers everything from sandy beaches to the densely forested hills and ridges of the Ardennes.
Brussels, the country’s dynamic capital, is a modern cosmopolitan city with a very international character. It combines massive postmodern buildings in its European Quarter with impressive historical monuments, such as the World Heritage Grand Place, surrounded by guildhalls and the Gothic City Hall. There is Laeken Castle and the great Cathedral of St Michael and St Gudula, dedicated to the city’s patron saints. The Royal Palace is a newer but no less grandiose building. The Atomium, a remarkable steel structure and a remnant of the 1958 World’s Fair, is one of the city’s most famous landmarks. And yet, with all these grand sights within reach, many travellers’ favourite is a tiny bronze fountain in the shape of a little boy peeing: the curious Manneken Pis. The province of Walloon Brabant, a few kilometres south of Brussels, is certainly worth a visit. You can visit the Lion’s Hill in Waterloo or the magnificent Villers Abbey in Villers-la-Ville.
Perhaps the most popular Belgian city is Bruges. Much of the outstanding architecture built during the city’s golden age, around the 14th century, has been preserved and the old centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Among the most important monuments is the 13th-century bell tower, where the carillonneur still rings the bells daily. Along with countless other remarkable monuments, Bruges is a very popular destination and gets a little crowded during the holidays. Then there’s Ghent, which was once one of the richest cities in northern Europe. Although it is larger and much livelier than Bruges, it certainly holds its own with its excellent medieval architecture. The beguinages, the bell tower and the former linen hall are World Heritage Sites. You can also visit Antwerp, now a mecca for Belgian fashion, clubbing, art and diamonds. Nevertheless, the city’s timeless historic centre is on a par with the country’s most impressive cathedrals. Other cities worth visiting are Leuven, with the oldest Catholic university still in operation, and Liège.
In Wallonia, don’t miss the city of Mons, which has been the Walloon Capital of Culture since 2002. In 2015, the city will have the unique honour of being the European Capital of Culture. Mons is the largest and most important city in the province of Hainaut, of which it is the administrative and judicial centre. But lately, the focus has been on preserving its heritage to better share it with the growing number of tourists in the region. Three great masterpieces, the Belfry, the Neolithic flint mines of Spiennes and the Doudou, all inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, are located in and around Mons.
For hiking, cycling and camping, the rugged hilly landscape of the Ardennes with its narrow forests, caves and cliffs is ideal. Home to wild boar, deer and lynx, they hide a number of welcoming villages, numerous castles and several other remarkable sites. The impressive caves of Han-sur-Lesse, the castle of Bouillon and the modern labyrinth of Barvaux are among the best options. The city of Namur is an excellent base for exploring the Ardennes and also has some beautiful sights to offer. The city is beautifully situated on the rivers Meuse and Sambre and from the old citadel you have a breathtaking view of the city.
The Belgians have produced a number of world-famous masters of art, and their love of art is still reflected in the range of art museums on offer today. The Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels and the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp are just a few excellent examples. But Belgians love museums, and there are more than 80 of them in the capital alone. Besides art, they present exhibitions on history, folklore, industry and technology. As some of the worst fighting of the two world wars took place on Belgian territory, there are also a large number of memorials and museums dedicated to those dark times, along with some modest military cemeteries.