Belgium is a vibrant country with a cosmopolitan culture reflected in scores of splendid museums, amazing architecture, art and world-class restaurants. Dotted with medieval cities and sprinkled with abbeys, Belgium has more than 60 UNESCO designated World Cultural Sites, each meriting a visit on its own. And then of course, there are the Belgian chocolates — simply divine and more exquisitely varied than you would find anywhere else on the planet.
Belgium's fascinating capital, and the administrative capital of the EU, Brussels is historic yet hip, bureaucratic yet bizarre, self confident yet unshowy, and multicultural to its roots. All this plays out in a cityscape that swings from majestic to quirky to rundown and back again. Organic art nouveau facades face off against 1960s concrete developments, and regal 19th-century mansions contrast with the brutal glass of the EU’s Gotham City. This whole maelstrom swirls out from Brussels’ medieval core, where the Grand Place is surely one of the world’s most beautiful squares.
Adjacent to France, the quaint and lovely community of Tournai is an excellent place to tune out the hustle and bustle of larger Belgium cities. More than 2000 years of rich cultural history can be explored here, and this city is home to what is believed to be one of the most beautiful churches in the world – the five-towered Gothic and Romanesque Notre Dame Cathedral. Constructed in the 12th and 13th centuries, the cathedral houses the Shrine of Our Lady and works by Ruvens and Jordaens. The town Belfry is the oldest in the country and offers visitors 257 steps to the most remarkable views in the city of Tournai. The Museum of Fine Arts is filled with masterpieces from primitive and contemporary artists ranging from Campin and Rubens to Roger Van der Weyden and Van Gogh.
Bruges: Belfry and Halle:
The most recognizable sight in Belgium is the beautiful belfry and Halle, which dominates the main square in Bruges. Dating from the medieval era, this impressive building once functioned as the main town market hall and has been wonderfully preserved allowing visitors a real taste of the architectural might of the Middle Ages. While in Bruges, a hike up the 366 winding and narrow steps of the belfry is a must-do activity. Once at the top, the views of church spires and steeple-roofs provide one of the country's most well-known panoramas.
Located in the south of the country, Meuse Valley is one of the best places to get a feel for Belgium's lush countryside. This is the perfect opportunity to take a trip along the river watching the beautiful scenery unfurl; dense forests are interspersed with cutesy towns backed by limestone cliffs. In particular, the towns of Namur and Dinant act as a gateway to this region, which has a host of hiking and cycling trails for travelers who want to add some activities into their holiday. Both towns boast craggy cliff top citadels as well as a clutch of other historic sites, but the real highlight in this area is the scenery itself.
The lush Semois Valley is the perfect antidote to historic rambling amid Belgium's cities and towns. Here, in the southeast of the country, the Semois River cuts through thick forest-clad hills and is a prime hiking territory. For those who prefer a less taxing way of seeing this landscape, a riverboat trip through the area is an excellent alternative. The Semois Valley offers a slice of Belgium's scenery at its most viscerally beautiful and is a nature-lover's delight, particularly during spring when the wildflowers bloom.
For hiking, biking and camping, visitors to Belgium should head to the rugged hills of the Ardennes with their tight forests, caves and cliffs. They are home to wild boar, deer and lynx and hide a number of friendly villages, lots of castles and a few other notable sights. The impressive caves of Han-sur-Lesse, the castle of Bouillon and the modern Labyrinth of Barvaux are some of the best picks. The city of Namur makes a great base from where to explore the Ardennes and has some fine sights itself too.
This hugely impressive fort was once the grand home of the counts of Flanders who took their inspiration for castle building from the bulky castles the Crusaders built in Syria. Today, Gravensteen is one of Europe's best surviving examples of a moated fortress and has been incredibly well-preserved. Its strong and impressively thick and high walls soar up from the waters of the river Lieve right in the middle of the old town of Ghent, rising above the rooftops of the surrounding streets. Inside, the vast arched halls and chambers contain exhibits of medieval life, but it is the castle's architecture itself that is the real star of the show.
Cathedral of Saint Bavo:
This majestic cathedral with its high Gothic choir and Romanesque crypt showcases the best of religious architecture in Belgium. Although the soaring building, with its harmonious stained glass windows, is a highlight in itself, most people come here to see the famous artwork that graces the interior; specifically the Flemish masterpiece known as ‘The Altar of Ghent’.
Like fashion, wine and finance, chocolate has become a complex cultural phenomenon. There is basic chocolate for the masses, artisanal chocolate for purists and avant-garde creations for connoisseurs. In Brussels, you get it all.
The capital of Belgium may be known as the Capital of Europe, but it is also, at least as far as most chocolate aficionados are concerned, the World Capital of Chocolate. Ever since the Brussels chocolatier Jean Neuhaus invented the praline 100 years ago, the city has been at the forefront of the chocolate business. There are a million residents and some 500 chocolatiers, about one chocolatier for every 2,000 people.