Quite a while ago, I did a blog series called Belgium Under the Radar, which featured a selection of Belgian towns that may be less-known and less-visited, but do have some great attractions and fascinating highlights.
In this post, I’d like to offer an overview of those towns—in addition to the bigger cities that I’ve been featuring recently, such as Ghent and Leuven. Trust me, when you visit Belgium, these are places that you will want to take a look around in. From stunning architecture to old battlefields to UNESCO World Heritage Sites to fortresses, all of the following ten Belgian towns have something going for it.
Ten Surprising Belgian Towns
Flanders, Dutch-Speaking Belgium
Situated in the far western corner of the province of West Flanders, Ypres is one of the absolute highlights in Belgium. Set in the heart of “Flanders Fields”, this town was in the middle of the western front during World War 1. The city was made world-famous not only because of the horrific battles—some of the very worst in the entire war—that were fought in the area, but also because of the poem “In Flanders Fields” that was written by John McCrae, a Canadian lieutenant-colonel.
The town was leveled completely during the Great War, but rebuilt meticulously afterward. It now looks exactly as it did before. Highlights in and around Ypres are the phenomenal In Flanders Fields Museum housed in Ypres’ Cloth Hall, countless war memorials and monuments, literally hundreds of war cemeteries—both allied and German—and a couple of well-preserved trenches.
More information: Tourism Ypres
Aalst is a town in the province of East Flanders. Although almost completely unknown to foreign visitors, this old city has a rich history and some interesting characteristics. Founded in the 9th century, Aalst was where the world’s first printing business was established, by Dirk Martens in 1473.
Nowadays, Aalst is famous for its annual carnival parade and celebrations, a three-day event that attracts thousands and thousands of visitors. This traditional and event is included in UNESCO’s fancy-sounding list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Moreover, Aalst is also home to a physical UNESCO World Heritage Site—its imposing belfry on the market square.
More information: Tourism Aalst (Dutch)
Located on the banks of the Nete River in the heart of the province of Antwerp, Lier is one of those unassuming Belgian towns that have more to offer than most people expect. I say unassuming because it’s peaceful, quiet and rather void of tourists. It is simply a cozy town to spend an afternoon in, wandering its old streets—people have been living in the area since Roman times—and admiring some architectural highlights.
UNESCO World Heritage Site hunters will be particularly interested in this small town, for it has two of them. The belfry of Lier is attached to the beautiful town hall, dates from the 14th century and is part of the World Heritage Site “Belfries of Belgium and France.” The second site is Lier’s béguinage, which is one of the most beautiful in the world. Also take the time to check out the huge St. Gummarus’ Church and the Zimmer Tower with its astronomical clock.
More information: Tourism Lier
Additional reading: What to See in Leuven, Belgium
Perched on the banks of the Dyle River in the province of Antwerp, Mechelen is a historically very significant town. For a while, between 1506 and 1530, it was the capital of the Netherlands. It became an archbishopric in 1559, which indicates the town’s sheer importance at the time. Nowadays, Mechelen is a charming town with a gorgeous historic core. There are several picturesque squares to visit, car-free areas to enjoy and plenty of magnificent architecture to admire.
The city is home to no fewer than 336 listed monuments and structures, which includes eight old Gothic and Baroque churches. The St. Rumbold’s Cathedral is truly a sight to behold, a massive cathedral with beautiful interior decorations—and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
More information: Tourism Mechelen
Tongeren, in the east of the province of Limburg, is the oldest town in Belgium. It was founded as a supply station for the Roman legions that were stationed in the Rhine Valley in 15 BC. Because of its location on the crossroads of two major military roads, the settlement rapidly expanded into an influential trade center in the region—eventually, it became one of the largest towns in northern Gaul. Fortified walls were built around it, showing how important the town had become. In the Middle Ages, another ring of city walls was added. This was also when the massive Basilica of Our Lady was built, the tower of which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Another World Heritage Site is the quiet béguinage of Tongeren.
It’s because of this long history and the presence of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites that Tongeren is a strongly recommended town to visit in Belgium. Major highlights are the fantastic Gallo-Roman Museum, the remnants of the two fortified walls, the basilica and the statue of Ambiorix, a legendary king of the Belgian Eburone tribe who, under his lead, destroyed an 8,000-man-strong legion of Julius Caesar in 54 BC—before the area fell under Roman rule. This fierce resistance caused Julius Caesar to note that “of the three regions in Gaul, the Belgae are the bravest” in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico.
More information: Tourism Tongeren
Additional reading: Why You Should Visit Ghent, Belgium
Wallonia, French-Speaking Belgium
Dinant is a riverside town in the province of Namur. It is situated along the banks of the Meuse River, banks that are quite narrow and backed by sheer rock cliffs. This strategically beneficial feature made it a much-wanted town among European powers. Dinant has seen its fair share of battles and destructions. A particularly memorable siege was the one by Duke Philip the Good and his son Charles the Bold who, in 1466, put the town to the torch, demolished parts of the church and threw 800 inhabitants into the river.
Nowadays, however, Dinant couldn’t be more peaceful. For a town of its size, it is home to a surprisingly large number of landmarks and highlights. From the mighty Citadel of Dinant that overlooks the town and river from atop a cliff, to the beautiful Collegiate Church of Notre-Dame, to the old brewery of the popular Belgian beer Leffe, to the home of Adolphe Sax—that’s right, the inventor of the saxophone—Dinant has enough to offer to keep you occupied for at least a day.
More information: Tourism Dinant
Namur is the capital of the namesake province of Namur, as well as of Wallonia. Settled during Roman times on a narrow stretch of land at the confluence of the Sambre and Meuse Rivers, it grew into an important trading town. It was particularly renowned for its skilled blacksmiths and talented potters. In the Middle Ages, the feudal system emerged and a citadel was constructed on a rocky spur between the two rivers. With its strategic position on two rivers and boasting a powerful stronghold, Namur became a prosperous and valuable town—it, for one, offered the even wealthier Flemish cities of Bruges, Antwerp and Ghent protection from invading armies. The Citadel of Namur kept playing its military role until as late as the Second World War.
Nowadays, the citadel is a delightful public park, free to visit and offering amazing views of both rivers and the historic town. This is the absolute number one highlight in Namur. Additionally, you may also want to take a look at the Italian-looking St. Alban’s Cathedral, the centuries-old Meat Hall and the belfry—a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
More information: Tourism Namur
Advertising itself as the “smallest city in the world”, Durbuy, in the province of Luxembourg, is a small place indeed. And it does have a city charter. Durbuy is an incredibly charming stone town on the banks of the Ourthe River. The vast Ardennes forest surrounds the town; caves dot the area. Durbuy is a wonderful base to explore this green region in Belgium—outdoor activities are plentiful and range from kayaking to zip lining to hiking to caving.
The town itself is so charming it’s almost surreal. That is, if you ignore the tourists that flood it in summer. About half of Durbuy is a parking lot; the other half is medieval cobbled alleyways, romantic streets, stores selling local products and crafts, and B&Bs and restaurants. I love this town and I’d suggest you pay a visit whenever you’re Belgium.
More information: Tourism Durbuy (French)
Additional reading: 15 Essential Activities to Do in Belgium
Bouillon is a tiny town with a few big surprises. Located in the far south of Belgium, in the province of Luxembourg, near the French border, this beautiful medieval town has a long and amazingly rich history. The star attraction in Bouillon is Bouillon Castle, a phenomenal fortress that dominates the townscape from a rocky cliff.
Built sometime in the 10th century—sources are rather vague on its foundation year—the fortress came to play a big role in the history of Europe, and possibly even the world. Bouillon Castle was inherited by Godfrey of Bouillon in 1082, who sold the castle not too long after to the Bishopric of Liège to finance a project he was working on: the First Crusade. Godfrey of Bouillon became one of the leaders of that First Crusade and eventually also the first ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. If that’s not a feature that makes a town worth visiting, I don’t know what is.
More information: Tourism Bouillon
The name Waterloo may ring a bell, but that’s most likely not because you think about this Belgian town. Waterloo has lent its name to many other places and institutions around the world. Waterloo, you see, is the home of one of Europe’s most important battlefields. It was here that, in 1815, Napoléon Bonaparte was defeated by the armies of the English Duke of Wellington—who also lend his name to many places after the battle, most notably New Zealand’s capital—and the Prussian General Blücher. After the Battle of Waterloo, one the greatest battles in European history, and the defeat of Napoléon, the map of Western Europe was redrawn. The very creation of Belgium, as a buffer state between the major European powers of the day, followed.
Modern-day Waterloo is where you can learn everything about this great battle and its consequences. The Lion’s Mound is the focal point in the area, an artificial hill that overlooks the former battlefields, which are now just fields and meadows. Both Wellington’s and Napoléon’s headquarters have been turned into museums and can be explored.