I love my country, I’ve never made a secret of that. Even more so, after moving to the U.S. more than two years ago, I’ve gotten a whole new appreciation for Belgium. I got to see it from a different perspective, one that only increased my fondness for the place where I grew up and spend (most of) the first 27 years of my life.
Now, whenever I go back, which, incidentally, I did for a week earlier this month, I try to visit at least one new place. That’s obviously part of the urge I feel to always explore new places, but also because I like to take photos, and because there are a lot of beautiful places in Belgium to photograph. A lot. During my time in Belgium earlier this month, for example, my parents and I visited this beautiful castle.
Over the course of the past several years, I’ve seen more of Belgium than the vast majority of my fellow countrymen ever will. I’ve been to all towns and cities of any significance, visited a couple of historic battlefields, hiked in Belgium’s only national park, and visited many UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Belgium. That’s just because I made, and continue to make, this an absolute priority.
Of all those things, I must say that I like Belgium’s historic cities best. Nothing compares to the historic hearts of places such as Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp, while the less-known towns in the Ardennes—Dinant, Durbuy and Namur, for instance—are no less worthy of a visit.
Make no mistake, Belgium is an incredibly picturesque country. I love spending time in its cities and photographing away, and I’ve now spend some time compiling this list of my favorite urban places in Belgium to photograph. Whichever city you decide to visit—please do visit more than one of them, though!—hopefully, this list can serve as some kind of inspiration.
Amazing Urban Places in Belgium to Photograph
- St. Michael’s Bridge and Graslei, Ghent
- Market Square, Antwerp
- River Meuse, Dinant
- Historic City Center, Leuven
- River Nete, Lier
- Grand-Place, Brussels
- Old Town, Durbuy
- Still to Do: Rozenhoedkaai, Bruges
St. Michael’s Bridge and Graslei, Ghent
Known in Dutch as the Sint-Michielsbrug, St. Michael’s Bridge in Ghent offers the ultimate photographic vantage point to capture the medieval heart of this breathtaking, yet relatively unknown, city.
From this bridge, you have a panoramic view of essentially all of the major highlights in Ghent. This view takes in the Gravensteen Castle; the iconic “three-tower row” consisting of the towers of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Belfry, St. Nicolas’ Church and St. Bavo’s Cathedral; and both the Korenlei and the Graslei, which, in my opinion, make up one of Europe’s most beautiful historic waterfronts.
More info: Visit Ghent
Market Square, Antwerp
Antwerp used to be the economic capital of the Low Countries and the grandeur of its Market Square reflects that period of prosperity perfectly. This square is entirely pedestrianized, allowing you to take all the time you need to snap a great photo of the square’s landmarks.
The spectacular City Hall dominates Antwerp’s Market Square, a structure that dates from the 16th century and is on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Elsewhere, elaborately decorated guildhalls in Flemish Renaissance style flank this majestic square.
At the center of the square stands the iconic Statue of Brabo. The statue depicts the city’s legendary hero Brabo who is about to throw the hand of the giant Antigoon into the River Scheldt. (The city’s Dutch name, Antwerpen, is said to have come from “hand werpen”, which literally means “hand throwing.”) The Market Square in Antwerp is definitely one of the most iconic places in Belgium to photograph—and my personal favorite.
More info: Visit Antwerp
Further reading: 10 Belgian Towns that Will Surprise You
River Meuse, Dinant
Straddling the banks of the River Meuse, Dinant is arguably the most picturesque small town in the entire country. Squeezed in between the water and the towering cliffs that line the river, its narrow center stretches out along the river for lack of available space.
What makes Dinant one of the greatest urban places in Belgium to photograph is its exceptional riverside setting, combined with the presence of a sheer rock formation right behind the town center. The mighty Citadel of Dinant that once commanded boat traffic on the River Meuse overlooks the town from atop that rock formation. Other features that make this an interesting destination for photographers are the Church of Our Lady with its notable onion-shaped dome and the saxophone statues that dot the townscape. (Dinant is the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone.)
More info: Dinant Tourism
Historic City Center, Leuven
Imposing buildings and jaw-dropping architecture fill the historic city center of Leuven, Belgium’s premier student city and home to the Stella Artois brewery. Leuven’s historic heart is compact and easily walkable, its core home to both the Old Market Square and Great Market Square, which lie literally two minutes on foot from one another.
The Old Market Square is rather long and lined on both sides by restaurants, cafés and bars. In summer, those venues set up terraces on the square’s cobblestones, creating what is sometimes referred to as “the longest bar in Europe.” This is the beating heart of Leuven.
The Great Market Square, on the other hand, features a couple of extraordinary buildings. This is where you can find St. Peter’s Church—Sint-Pieterskerk in Dutch—which is the city’s oldest church and part of the same UNESCO World Heritage Site as the above-mentioned City Hall in Antwerp and Belfry in Ghent. The most spectacular edifice, however, is Leuven’s Town Hall, boasting no fewer than 236 statues. This is an absolutely magnificent building, one of the greatest Gothic town halls in the world.
More info: Leuven Tourism
River Nete, Lier
If you’re looking for a quiet yet surprising, off-the-beaten-path yet historic town to visit in Belgium, Lier is an excellent choice. Located in the valley of the River Nete, within easy reach from both Brussels and Antwerp, this undiscovered gem of a town is home to a number of amazingly picturesque sites.
Lier has to not one, but two UNESCO World Heritage Sites—its Belfry and its quaint Béguinage are both part of two different World Heritage Sites and definitely deserve a visit. In addition, Lier’s iconic Zimmer Tower is a highlight as well. But the best place to photograph in Lier is the River Nete that cuts the town in half. Beautiful architecture, including some really, really old buildings, lines the banks of this peaceful river.
More info: Visit Lier
Further reading: Urban Belgium in 50 Photos
The Grand-Place in Brussels—Grote Markt in Dutch—is arguably Belgium’s best-known attraction. Drawing in tens of thousands of visitors every year, this fabulous square is of such architectural, cultural and historical importance that UNESCO declared it World Heritage in 1998.
The most eye-catching building at the Grand-Place is the Brussels Town Hall, a marvelous structure featuring a 96-meter-(315-foot-)high tower in Brabantine Gothic style. Opposite the Town Hall stands the Breadhouse—Maison du Roi in French, Broodhuis in Dutch—which houses the Museum of the City of Brussels. Those are the two largest buildings at the square. All other buildings are gorgeous, lavishly decorated guildhalls, featuring large windows, statues and leaf-gold.
More info: Visit Brussels
Old Town, Durbuy
Promoting itself as the smallest city in the world, Durbuy is small, indeed. Even though it does have a city charter, which it received in 1331, the town still has only a bit more than 10,000 inhabitants.
Situated deep in the forests of the Ardennes, Durbuy is one of Belgium’s prettiest towns. It consists of stone buildings, crisscrossed by cobbled streets and narrow alleys, home to a castle and bisected by a shallow river. Nowadays, the Old Town of Durbuy is a major tourist attraction—it is half parking lot, half actual town. I advise you to visit in the low season as this small town gets overrun by tourists in summer. And, even though many of the historic houses now house a restaurant, bar, café, souvenir shop, stores selling local products or B&B, Durbuy is so small venues tend to fill up fast in the high season.
Nevertheless, Durbuy is exceptionally beautiful. It is a lot of fun to simply wander its streets aimlessly, turning corners to stumble upon yet another beautiful scene. This is a place that is extremely touristy, yet doesn’t really receive any other nationalities than Belgian, French, Luxembourgish, German and Dutch. It is virtually unknown to people outside of Belgium and its neighboring countries, yet it is one of my favorites urban places in Belgium to photograph.
More info: Durbuy Tourism
Still to Do: Rozenhoedkaai, Bruges
Even despite having visited Bruges twice before, I don’t have any good pictures of the city. That’s a real shame, I know. The last time I visited was in 2011, when photography wasn’t something it took seriously quite yet, and I haven’t come around to paying Bruges a visit again since then. I do know, however, that next time I’m in Belgium, I will go to Bruges and finally get some good shots of this most photogenic of cities. Check out this picture of the Rozenhoedkaai, for example. How stunning is that?
Once I have visited Bruges again, I will definitely update this last one of these great places in Belgium to photograph with a couple of my own photos.