From the Art Nouveau splendor of Brussels to Flanders’ medieval cities and the rolling hills of Wallonia, there are so many things to do in Belgium, a small but perfectly formed country that is crying out to be explored. It is ideal for active travellers, with great hiking trails, water sports and (outside Brussels, at least) excellent cycle infrastructure. The French influence is evident in Belgium’s food, with more Michelin stars per head than just about anywhere in Europe and a flourishing vegan scene in cities like Ghent.
Spend a little time here and you will find a country that rewards the curious traveller. Here are the best things to do in Belgium.
Spend the day in the living museum that is Bruges: Its medieval houses, cobbled lanes, charming cloisters and meandering canals add up to a must-see city that is easily explored in a day or two. Follow Potterierei north along the canal for a bit of respite from the crowds.
Pay your respects at one of Menin Gate’s Last Post ceremonies: The western corner of Belgium will forever be remembered as the bloodiest theatre of World War I. A hundred years after the armistice, the area still honors the war dead at dozens of military cemeteries and memorials large and small, with the city of Ypres at the centre of commemorations. Begin at the In Flanders Fields museum, where the battles are brought vividly back to life, and do not miss the moving Last Post ceremony held every evening at the Menin Gate.
Lose yourself in one of Europe’s most mesmerizing paintings at the Fine Arts Museum: Ghent is home to one of the world’s earliest oil paintings: The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, also known as the Ghent Altarpiece. Painted by the Van Eyck brothers in the fifteenth century, the 18-panel work is one of the great European masterpieces – and one of the most frequently stolen. Visit the Fine Arts Museum to watch experts painstakingly restoring sections of the work, before getting the bigger picture at Sint-Baaf’s cathedral.
Enjoy the view from the highest spot in Belgium at the Hautes Fagnes Wetland Nature Reserve: The Hautes Fagnes wetland nature reserve contains the highest point in Belgium, at a scratch under 700 metres above sea level. The land here is boggy and criss-crossed with boardwalks, and the park is a wild, faintly eerie place where at times you can walk for miles without seeing another soul (just be sure to take a map). It is rich pickings for nature-lovers, too: keep your eyes peeled for wild boar, roe deer, hen harriers and black grouse.
Discover Charleroi, a defiant city being reborn after hard times: Much-maligned Charleroi is slowly reinventing itself after years of post-industrial neglect to become a centre of alternative and contemporary art. An ironic urban safari takes you to the places other tours gloss over: slagheaps, abandoned factories, burnt-out cars and the tracks of a deserted metro station, but the city’s smart Photo Museum in a converted convent is one of many spots demonstrating that things are moving in the right direction.
See the pearl of the Ardennes from a different point of view: Bucolic Bouillon sits in a forested valley in Belgium’s deep south, combining Ardennes wilderness and natural charm with French-style sophistication. While others hike its hilly streets to enjoy the panorama from on high, you will get a different perspective from a paddle board along the meandering Semois river. In summer, explore the town’s darker side with a torchlit night-time tour of the castle’s dungeon and torture chambers.
Explore underground caves and sleep among the bears at Grotte de Han: Deep beneath the Walloon countryside is the Grotte de Han, a major cave complex made up of spectacular galleries, chambers, stalactites and an underground river. It’s part of a Unesco-recognised wildlife domain with some offbeat accommodation: spend the night in the trapper’s log cabin and you’ll get dinner, drinks and a chance to give the park’s bears their breakfast the next morning.
Sleep inside a Trojan horse at Balade des Gnomes hotel: With rooms christened Monk’s Despair and Legend of the Trolls, you know straight away that Balade des Gnomes isn’t going to be your standard holiday home. Dreamed up by an architect with a love for travel and mystery, the inventive accommodation includes a treehouse, a caravan and a Gaudi-inspired suite with hot tub and sauna. This must be Belgium’s most magical place to spend the night; the on-site restaurant is equally creative in both design and menu.