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9 Best Cities to Visit in Belgium

Written by Lura Seavey
Jan 20, 2020

Although all of Belgium's cities are well worth a visit, the top picks are ones that can offer tourists a combination of history, culture, architecture, and things to do. Tourists can find buildings that have been standing for nearly a thousand years, witnessing the passage of time through the various architectural styles, from the medieval stonework of Bruges' Halle to the modern-day geometric form of Antwerp's Museum aan de Stroom.

Belgium has dozens of remarkable historic churches to admire, and the squares and parks of Belgium's most beautiful cities are a photographer's dream.

Belgium's top cities are also known for their excellent museums, especially the art museums, which often feature extensive collections of the Old Flemish Masters. Regional history and folk museums can also be found in many places, giving tourists the opportunity to understand the rich cultural history of Belgium.

Plan your travel itinerary with our list of the top cities to visit in Belgium.

1. Antwerp

Brabo Fountain on the Grote Markt, Antwerp

The Dutch-speaking city of Antwerp has long been known as a center for craftspeople and artists, as well as an active trade port. Visitors can explore the old town's Grand Place (Grote Markt) to see the historic guild houses and the old Town Hall (Stadhuis), and just a block north is the ornate Butcher's Hall (Vleeshuis). More historic buildings can be found nearby, including the Plantin-Moretus Museum and the Rubens' House (Rubenshuis), both of which have collections open to the public.

Antwerp's museums are some of the best in Belgium, and the Museum aan de Stroom (MAS) contains a surprising variety of exhibits that dive deep into history, both local and global. The Royal Museum of Fine Arts, as well as the Museum Mayer van den Bergh focus on fine arts produced by some of the city's most famous artists, including Van Dyck, Rubens, and Jordaens. One of the city's newest additions is the Red Star Line Museum, housed in the steamship company's former port building, which looks at the massive wave of emigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Antwerp has some excellent family attractions as well, both located close to the impressive Antwerp Central Station (also known as Middenstatie). A visit is not complete without a stop at Chocolate Nation, where you can learn about Belgian chocolate and, of course, sample it to your heart's content.

Nearby, the Antwerp Zoo keeps kids occupied with over 6,000 animals while parents appreciate the spectacular architecture that ranges from reproductions of ancient temples to Art Deco.

Tourists hoping to see ecclesiastical architecture and artwork have several options, the most famous of which is St. Paul's Church (Sint-Pauluskerk). This late Gothic church was built between 1517 and 1639 and houses paintings by Jordaens, Van Dyck, and Rubens. The Cathedral of Our Lady of Antwerp (Onze Lieve Vrouwkathedraal), the largest Gothic church in the country, is located in the heart of the old town near Grand Place, and St. James' Church (Sint-Jacobskerk) is the city's finest Baroque church, located just a few blocks from here.

2. Ghent

View of the Leie River and St. Michael's Bridge in Ghent

The old city of Ghent is rife with beautiful historic buildings, many of which are the guild houses and markets that run along the Graseli Canal. The oldest of these buildings is the Romanesque Koornstapelhuis, built around the year 1200. The House of the Masons (Gildehuis der Metselaars) and House of the Free Boatmen (Gildehuis der Vrije Schippers) date back to the early 16th century, and the Customs House (Tolhuisje) was built in 1682. The Korenlei Canal is lined with more fine examples, most of which once served as private homes to the city's elite merchants.

Ghent's Old Market Area sits close to the canals, starting with the Groot Vleeshuis (Meat Market), a fantastic medieval structure built in 1410. Next door, you will find the Vismarkt (Fish Market), built in 1689, and two blocks away the Korenmarkt (Wheat Market) sits at the head of an old market square that is now home to numerous cafés and restaurants. Nearby, tourists can also visit the city's old Town Hall (Stadhuis), known for its miscellany of architectural styles from centuries of additions.

The city is also home to some spectacular churches, most notably the Cathedral of St. Bavo (Sint-Baafskathedraal), which also chronicles architectural styles, including a Romanesque crypt, a 13th-century High Gothic choir, and a 16th-century late Gothic nave and tower.

Another excellent Gothic structure is Saint Michael's Church, built in the 15th century with Belgian sandstone. Adjacent is Saint Michael's Bridge (Sint-Michielsbrug), the perfect spot for a selfie with the city's skyline in the background.

Tourists who want to learn more about Ghent's history and Flemish folk life will want to visit the Museum voor Volkskunde, featuring reconstructed homes and workshops as they were around 1900. The Museum of Ghent (STAM), which is housed in the former Cistercian abbey of Bijloke, has more exhibits that explore the city's heritage.

3. Brussels

Grand Place, Brussels

The economic and political hub of the country, Brussels has a much different feel from any other Belgian city. In fact, its role as the capital of the European Union has provided an influx of culture from across the continent and is perhaps why the city's selection of restaurants and cafés is so diverse and plentiful.

First-time visitors often make the old town's Grand Place (Grote Markt) their first stop, home to historic guild houses (Gildehuizen), followed by a walk along Rue de l'Etuve to the city's most famous landmark, the Manneken Pis.

Tourists could spend days enjoying the attractions close to the Royal Palace (Koningsplein), the official residence of the Belgian royal family. Right at the foot of the palace, visitors can explore the Coudenberg Palace Archaeological Site, where the original palace's foundations and ancient streets have been revealed and are now open to the public.

Just beyond sits the Mont des Arts, home of the city's major museums, including the Museum of Ancient Art (Musée d'art Ancien) and the Museum of Modern Art (Musée d'art Modern); the Magritte Museum; and the BELvue Museum, which explores the country's history.

There is a beautiful park just below the palace, however Brussels' most celebrated public space is the Parc du Cinquantenaire, established in 1880. The Palais du Cinquantenaire sits at the back of the park, housing the Belgian Army Museum and Museum of Military History, as well as the Royal Art and History Museum. The European Union administrative buildings sit at the opposite end of the park.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Brussels: Best Areas and Hotels

4. Bruges

Canal and stone bridge in Bruges

The distinctly medieval old town of Bruges is one of Belgium's most romantic destinations, full of narrow cobblestoned streets and sleepy canals. Bruges' main squares, the Markt and Burg Square (also known simply as "the Burg"), are located at the heart of the historic district. This is the ideal area to start a day of sightseeing, with plenty of historic buildings and landmark sights.

The Markt's most famous feature is the Belfry (Belfort van Brugge), a medieval bell tower with a carillon of 47 bells that sits atop the Halle. Ambitious tourists who want a panoramic view of the city can climb the 366 steps to the top.

Other historic buildings on Markt Square are the 15th-century Huis Bouchoute and the Provinciaal Hof, a fine example of Gothic architecture. As the name suggests, visitors will also find a variety of shops in and around the Markt, as well as lovely cafés.

Just one block away is Burg Square, a pedestrian area that is home to the Town Hall (Stadhuis), a Gothic structure built between 1376 and 1420. The Burg is also home to the Basilica of the Holy Blood, best known for having a vial of what is said to be Jesus' blood. Another lovely building here is the Liberty of Bruges, the former home of the law courts and current home of the Bruges Tourist Office.

The Groeninge Museum (Stedelijk Museum voor Schone Kunst) is one of the city's best-known museums, home to an impressive collection of paintings by the Old Flemish masters. A small collection of works by Hans Memling can be found at the Memling Museum, which is in turn housed within Bruges' oldest building, the 12th-century Sint-Jansspitaal (St. John's Hospital). Within the old hospital, tourists can view exhibits of centuries-old medical instruments and other artifacts chronicling the site's history.

5. Liège (Luik)

View from the Steps of the Montagne de Bueren

Although Liège may not be the most picturesque of Belgian cities thanks to an industrial heritage that promoted function over flourish, it has plenty to offer tourists.

The city's most famous landmark is Montagne de Bueren (Bueren Mountain), a series of 374 steps, which are set at a staggering 30-percent incline. The steps once provided the soldiers with a direct route from the Coteaux de la Citadelle to the city center, and today they provide tourists with spectacular views if they can make it to the top. Tourists visiting during October should be sure to check it out at night, when the entire stairway is lined with candles.

Liège is home to many beautiful public spaces, its largest being Parc Boverie. In addition to spectacular gardens and expansive lawns along the Meuse and Dérivation rivers, the park is home to La Boverie, a museum of fine arts.

Several more museums can be found on the Quai de Maestricht, at the northern edge of the city center. The Curtius Museum (Musée Curtius) displays a variety of artifacts and decorative arts spanning from prehistory through the 19th century, and the Glass Museum (Musée du Verre) exhibits glassware from as early at the 5th century BCE.

Tourists in search of historic churches have several to choose from. The most centrally located are St. Paul's Cathedral on the Place de la Cathédrale, founded in 971, and the 11th-century Church of Saint-Barthélemy, which sits near the Quai de Maestricht. The Basilique Saint-Martin sits on a hill overlooking the old town center, rebuilt in the 16th century and featuring stained glass dating from as early as 1526.

6. Leuven (Louvain)

Leuven Stadhuis

Despite a great deal of destruction during both World Wars, a good number of Leuven's most impressive historic buildings still stand. Tourists will want to start in the center of the old town at the Grote Markt, an area that is still the hub of the city's social activity. Towering above the head of the square is St. Peter's Church (Sint-Pieterskerk), an impressive example of Brabant Gothic architecture that houses the Museum of Religious Art (Stedelijk Museum voor Religieuze Kunst). The old City Hall (Stadhuis) also sits on the square, showcasing its ornate facades complete with 236 figures.

Since the 15th century, Leuven's university has had a reputation for being one of the most respected institutions in Europe. It is here on the expansive campus, along the Naamsestraat, that tourists can find more examples of early buildings that have been constructed throughout the ages. Another fascinating group of historic homes can be found at the Groot Begijnhof, a community that was founded in the 13th century.

An excellent collection of local crafts and art is housed at the M-Museum Leuven, as well as exhibits that include art from around the world, dating from classical times to the present and encompassing all artistic media.

Naturalists will appreciate the Leuven Botanical Garden Kruidtuin, designed in the early 18th century as a medicinal plant garden for university students.

7. Mons (Bergen)

The Belfry of Mons

The city of Mons is located south of Brussels near the French border, acting as a hub for several major routes that converge and spider out in all directions. Like many other Belgian cities, the city center is the historic Grand-Place, a lively square lined with shops, restaurants, and cafés. This is an excellent place to spend an afternoon admiring the buildings of City Hall (also known as the Hôtel de Ville), some of which date back to the mid-15th century.

Not far from here on a hill overlooking the town, tourists can admire the Belfry of Mons (also called El Catiau), an 87-meter, 17th-century Baroque tower that houses a carillon of 47 bells.

Tourists who would like to know more about Mons' history and people can visit the Mons Folklore Museum (Musée de la Vie Montoise), located in a former convent. The Mons Memorial Museum gives a more in-depth look at how the city's strategic position affected its history and the lives of its people, especially during WWI and WWII.

Art lovers will appreciate the freshly renovated Musée des Beaux Arts, which focuses on Belgian and French artists, and the Decorative Arts Museum Francois Duesberg has a significant collection of decorative items once belonging to French aristocracy, with an astounding exhibit of clocks.

8. Namur (Namen)

Namur Citadel on the Meuse River

Namur is a smaller Belgian city that, similar to Mons, was the focal point of many conflicts due to its strategic position. The crowning jewel of this city is the Namur Citadel, located on an outcropping between the Meuse and Sambre Rivers. Tourists can explore the old fortification, including its ramparts, barracks, and underground tunnels, as well as take advantage of excellent views of the city below.

Some of Namur's most historic buildings house its numerous museums, allowing tourists to be fully immersed in the history and culture. Namur's Archaeological Museum is housed in a 1590 meat hall located in the central Old Town near the city's most lively square, Place d'Armes.

The Museum of Ancient Art (Musée des Arts Anciens du Namurois) is located on the Rue de Fer within the 17th-century Hôtel de Gaiffier d'Hestroy, displaying regional crafts and art dating back to the Middle Ages. Ecclesiastical artifacts can be found at the treasury of the Church of Notre Dame, a beautiful Baroque church.

9. Ypres

The Menin Gate, Ypres

Although a great deal of the city's original buildings were destroyed during World War I, Ypres is still home to many fine historic landmarks. The Grote Markt is still dominated by the enormous Lakenhalle (Cloth Hall), a building that was the center of the town's once prosperous industry.

Tourists can climb the tower for breathtaking views over Flanders, and from June through October, visitors can enjoy the sound of the 49 bells ringing out from the Lakenhalle's imposing belfry. Also located in the Grote Markt is the 13th-century Nieuw Vleeshuis (Meat Hall) and the Kasselrijgebouw (Old Town Hall).

Unfortunately, a great deal of Ypres' historic significance is due to the tragic WWI battles. The Flanders Fields Museum (located in Lakenhalle) is a good place to learn about the battles and get information about the self-guided battlefield tour. Traditionally, visitors begin their journey as the British soldiers did, embarking from Menin Gate.

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