While its name may evoke heavy sighs from any would-be Pieter Paul Rubens who ever picked up a paintbrush, the compact and richly historic city of Antwerp is Belgium's most underrated tourist destination. It's bordered by the Scheldt River and the 'Ring', a highway built on a 16th-century moat which encircled the city in a vain attempt to keep the Spanish out.As a world port, Antwerp's air is international and just a tad seedy, while from behind the discreet facades of the Jewish quarter the world's largest diamond industry thrives. Few places tangle the old and the (relatively) new quite so enchantingly. Here eclectic Art Nouveau mansions stare back at Neo-Renaissance villas, and medieval castles provide a magical backdrop for the city's myriad bars and cafes.Home to Belgium's largest Gothic church (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwe Katedraal), and the birthplace of Rubens, Antwerp is a haven for art lovers, architecture buffs and aimless wanderers. For a great collection of Flemish Primitives, check out its Royal Museum of Fine Art. And for a great collection of exotic beasties, the Antwerp Zoo is highly recommended.About 40km due north of Brussels, Antwerp has an airport and there are international trains and buses from Brussels and neighbouring countries.
Europe's best-preserved medieval city and Belgium's most visited town, this 13th-century 'living museum' was suspended in time five centuries ago by the silting of its river. Blessed with two medieval cores, the Markt and the Burg, the town also boasts some of the country's most compelling art collections. The Groeninge Museum specialises in blood-and-guts Early Primitives and the 14th-century Stadhuis features both fine paintings and furniture. For a spectacular view of this ambler's delight, climb the 366 stairs of the central belfort.You can catch a train to this north-eastern town from Antwerp or Brussels. Buses pass through from Antwerp to London, via Calais in France. Day trips are also popular from Bruges to the famous poppy-filled battlefields of Flanders.
An unpretentious mix of grand edifices and modern skyscrapers, Brussels is a modest, confident capital that many visitors find to be an acquired taste. Since it doubles as the capital of the European Union, it's packed to the rafters with bureaucrats and Eurocrats who have given the place an air of bustling efficiency without exactly festooning it with fun. The city is built along a pentagon of boulevards known as the Petit Ring. At its heart is the Grand Place, arguably Europe's most beautiful central square. Within a twenty-minute walk is much of the city's accommodation, most of it easily accessible by tram, bus or metro.Around the Grand Place are a number of museums, architectural gems and oddities. To the south, behold the famous Manneken Pis, the statue of a boy taking a leak on a street corner. Are the Belgians taking the piss? You decide. To the north, Tintin fans should not go past the Comic Strip Centre in an Art Nouveau building designed by Horta. To the east, near the Royal Palace, the Ancient Art Museum and the Modern Art Museum complement each other brilliantly.Brussels' dining heart is Rue des Bouchers (Butcher's Street), near the Grand Place. Here you'll find lobster, crab, mussels and fish awaiting conspicuous consumption in one terrace restaurant after another. And to think, not a sprout in sight...
If it wasn't for Paris, Ghent would be medieval Europe's largest city. Steeped in history both rebellious and industrious, it sits at the junction of the Leie and Scheldt rivers and was once the site of armed battles by its townsfolk, who raged against heavy taxes and restricted civil liberties. Ghent is grey and somewhat begrimed - not picturesque like Bruges, but ultimately more realistic. Like Bruges, the town has a belfort well worth climbing and, at the Sint-Baafskathedral, a must-see masterpiece by Jan van Eyck - Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.Between Brussels and Bruges, the city is best reached by bus or train.
Home to deep river valleys and high forests, Belgium' s southeast corner is often overlooked by travellers hopping between the old art towns and the capital. But here you'll find tranquil villages nestled into the grooves of the Meuse, Lesse and Ourthe valleys or sitting atop the verdant hills. It was in this area that the Battle of the Bulge once raged. There are several tours available which make the most of the ancient citadels of the region.The town of Namur is the best base for exploration - well positioned on the railway line to Luxembourg and with rail and bus connections to some of the more inaccessible spots.
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