A small, complicated country in the heart of Western Europe, set on the boundary between solemn and serious Northern Europe and flamboyant and hearty Southern Europe, Belgium offers a fine mix of two major European mindsets, cultures and language groups.
This tiny country of eleven million people is jam-packed with historic landmarks; carpeted with forests and fields; crisscrossed by picturesque canals and cobbled streets lined with tall old linden or plane trees; and dotted with centuries-old cities, medieval strongholds and the sites of history-changing battles.
- 15 Activities to Do in Belgium
- Further reading: 8 Delicious Belgian Dishes
- Further reading: 10 Belgians Towns That Will Surprise You
15 Activities to Do in Belgium
1. See the Grand-Place in Brussels
One of the world’s most stunning squares, the Grand-Place in Brussels is lined with golden-leaf guildhalls, all beautifully decorated with statues, sculptures and ornaments. The star attraction on the square, however, is the majestic Town Hall, the spire of which dwarfs all the other neighboring buildings. The Grand-Place is one of Belgium’s greatest attractions, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that belongs on any itinerary.
2. See the Saxophones of Dinant
Dinant, a small town in the heart of the Ardennes forest, stretches out between the banks of the Meuse River and sheer rocky cliffs. The entire town is essentially a waterfront and is overlooked, and was once protected, by a mighty citadel. Additionally, Dinant was the birthplace of a guy named Adolphe Sax, a man who would forever change the sound of music by inventing the saxophone.
3. Visit Flanders Fields
This region in the westernmost corner of the country is without question the most famous battlefield in Belgium—Bastogne probably comes in second, and Waterloo third. Surrounding the completely rebuilt medieval city of Ypres, Flanders Fields, one of the most horrific sections of the western front during the First World War, is an area dotted with literally hundreds of war cemeteries, well-preserved trenches, mine craters and monuments.
4. Shop for Diamonds in Antwerp
Antwerp is the world’s diamond capital—approximately 85% of all the rough diamonds in the world pass through the city of Antwerp, Belgium’s second-largest city. In the so-called Diamond Quarter, there are about 1,500 diamond companies and more than 3,000 merchants, diamond cutters and traders.
5. Eat a Chocolate-Covered Waffle
Combine Belgium’s two most famous export products and you have a marvelously tasty snack or desert—Belgian waffles are not intended to be eaten for breakfast. Waffle stands and shops are found in large numbers in pretty much all cities, as are chocolatiers.
Further reading: 8 Delicious Belgian Dishes
6. Drink a Beer or Two, or Twenty, or Two Hundred
Belgian beers are among the best in the world, rivaled only by the American beers. The country’s approximately 150 breweries and 45 companies brew between 800 and more than 1,000 varieties of beers, depending on the source, ranging from pale lagers to dark abbey beers and the world-renowned Flemish reds. Paying a visit to a tavern or brown café is a mandatory activity when visiting Belgium and a great one to finish off a fun day of exploring. My personal absolute favorite Belgian beers are Maredsous, Chimay and Leffe.
7. Admire Stunning Medieval Architecture in Ghent
Ghent, once the second-largest city in northern Europe after Paris, is chock-full with spectacular medieval architecture. There are cathedrals, a belfry, gorgeous guildhalls and cobbled streets. The best place to get an overview of the magnificent architecture in Ghent is the Graslei and the St. Michael’s Bridge.
8. Laze on a North Sea Beach
Although Belgium’s coastline is only about 40 miles (65 kilometers) long, its entire length is made up of wide beaches and sand dunes alternated with coastal towns. From De Panne in the west to Knokke-Heist in the east, the Belgian North Sea coast is a wonderful place to spend a sunny summer afternoon.
9. Visit the Battlefield of Waterloo
After Napoléon Bonaparte lost the battle against the English, Prussian, Russian and Dutch armies at Waterloo in 1815, the map of Europe was redrawn drastically. This historically extremely significant battle changed the geographical outlook and the history (or future if you will) of Europe forever. The battlefields are still very much there—not a lot has changed in the past two centuries, except for the construction of the rather impressive Lion’s Mound and an informative visitor center.
Further reading: 10 Belgians Towns That Will Surprise You
10. Stroll the Enchanting Streets of Bruges
Together with Brussels, Bruges is Belgium’s most famous city. Bruges, although almost completely transformed into a tourist attraction, is a dazzlingly beautiful medieval city filled with historic architecture, an imposing belfry, churches, museums and dozens of canals, on the banks of which you will see weeping willows or resting white swans.
11. See the Spring Blossoms in Haspengouw
The region of Haspengouw, also known as Hesbaye, lies in the east of the country. It consists of gently rolling hills and farmlands as far as the eye can see. Home to one of the largest fruit regions in Europe, this is a wonderful place to go for a bike ride in spring.
12. Sample Local Dishes
I’ve mentioned waffles, chocolate and beer above, but they can hardly be considered meals or dishes. Belgium, despite being so small, is home to many different regions, all featuring their own local specialties. When in Belgium, head into a brasserie on some cobbled market square and order yourself mussels and frites, vol-au-vent, Flemish beef and beer stew, paling in ‘t groen (literally ‘eel in the green’), rabbit with plums, mashed potatoes and sausages, or Gentse waterzooi.
13. Wander through Durbuy
Durbuy advertises itself as the ‘smallest city in the world’, a claim that lost its real value after the city merged with a few surrounding towns. It is, however, still a very tiny city, home to about 11,000 people. Durbuy’s city status dates from 1331. Nowadays, it’s mainly a tourist destination with many hotels and bed and breakfasts, restaurants and bars, and beautiful stone houses and cobbled streets.
14. Imagine a Battle Being Fought at the Citadel of Namur
A fortress in the city center of Namur, perched atop a cliff at the confluence of the Sambre and Meuse Rivers, this medieval fortress, dating from 937, was once one of the most powerful strongholds in Europe. Extended and enlarged over the course of the centuries, it is a truly vast building. In these times of peace in Western Europe, the Citadel of Namur is now a public park offering great panoramic views of the city.
15. Party with Students in Leuven
With more than 55,000 students, the University of Leuven is the largest university in the Low Countries (Belgium and the Netherlands) and, founded in 1425, also one of the oldest in the world. It is, in effect, the world’s oldest Catholic university that that still exists. But that’s not all. Leuven is also the headquarters of the largest brewing group in the world—Anheuser-Busch InBev, the Stella Artois brewery that took over major beer brands, such as Budweiser, Corona and several others. (If you weren’t convinced that Belgium is the beer capital of the world, you should be now.) The combination of tens of thousands of students and the presence of the largest brewing company in the world may seem like an explosive combination, but nightlife in Leuven is actually pretty jovial and friendly. One of the places to be in the evening is the Old Market, dubbed the ‘longest bar in Europe’ for its huge number of bars in a relatively small enclosed area.