If you’ve been to Europe a couple times before, you know all the “must-sees.” Paris. Venice. Been there. Done that. There must be something more!
Belgium has so much to offer, and so much of it is off-the-beaten-path, that it might be just be the cure for the common getaway.
1. Get a Little Tipsy
Belgium is all about craft beers. No matter where you go, you’ll find a signature brew or two. Sample the best local flavors by asking the host, bartender, or your fellow drinkers to make a recommendation. Just be advised that beers in Belgium often have a much higher percentage of alcohol than those found stateside. You’re going to want to pace yourself. Start with a Westmalle Tripel and don’t pass up on the Leffe Brown. If you want to learn more about a specific beer or its brewing process, look into touring a local brewery. You won’t leave thirsty!
2. Tour an Authentic Beguinage
Genuine beguinages, homes for the beguines, or religious laywomen, only exist in two places: the Netherlands … and Belgium, of course! You’re not likely to have another chance to see these architectural wonders again. A number of the complexes in Belgium are official UNESCO World Heritage Sites. No matter what beguinage you visit, you’ll likely find it calm, quiet, and soothing. The very atmosphere is tranquil.
3. Cruise the Canals in Bruges
Who needs Venice? Bruges, Belgium, is fondly called the Venice of the North, although residents are more apt to refer to Venice as the Bruges of the South. There’s nothing quite like the reflections of the city’s dramatic buildings dancing across the waters of its many canals. Floating along is a lovely way to wind down after a full day of exploring and sightseeing.
4. Explore a Different Kind of Art in Doel
Belgium is full of museums showcasing beautiful paintings and curiosities, but for your money the street art in Doel is even more inspiring.
The village of Doel, near Antwerp, dates from at least 1267. But today, it’s dying. The Port of Antwerp is the second-largest in Europe, and its expansion into Doel has led to depopulation.
As residents flee and corporations mull bulldozing the entire village along with all its history, street artists have been taking over. They can’t get enough of Doel, and their art is largely a protest against its slow demise. The colorful pallets they apply to crumbling buildings creates a dystopian atmosphere that’s both sad and irresistible.
5. Enter the Bathtub Regatta
The International Regatta of Bathtubs takes place every August in the tiny town of Dinant, which lies along the river Meuse. Even if you don’t want to build a barge made of various bathroom accessories and fixtures, you can certainly enjoy the show as the participants race their entries down the river. You might even be able to make a bet or two with a few of the locals, who love sharing their annual tradition with visitors.
6. Dare to Drink at Lucifernum
Lucifernum, an eccentric Bruges landmark, is unlike any other venue you’ll ever visit. The founder is a self-described vampire, and the bar itself is in a building that was once a Masonic temple. As you sip your drink and admire the unique artwork etched on every wall, you can listen to live music, performance art, and poetry readings. For the record, there’s also a cemetery on the grounds. Stop by for a visit and pay your respects to the Freemasons interred there.
7. Visit a Fairy Tale Nightmare
Gravensteen appears to be a castle straight out of a fairy tale. Seeing it rise from the surrounding moat as you approach, you might imagine it as the home of a sweet-hearted Princess or an eccentric old Duke. But today, it stands as a testament to the violence of power.
Gravensteen (which means “Castle of the Count”) was the seat of the Counts of Flanders until the 13th century. It subsequently became a courthouse, a ruin, and the site of a factory. It has since been restored, and now includes a museum showcasing medieval weaponry and instruments of torture.
Cold, grim, and not for the faint of heart, Gravensteen nevertheless gives you an accurate taste of what castle life must have been like.
8. Hit Up Manneken Pis
You’ve probably seen it, or at least heard about it. For those not in the know, the Manneken Pis is exactly what it sounds like. You won’t find a mannequin taking a pee break, but you will discover the bronze statue of a small boy who’s letting it fly where he may. Tourists go wild for it, although residents don’t consider it a big deal. To them, it’s nothing more than another fountain detail.
9. Experience Your Waterloo
You may not have a Napoleon complex, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t explore the history of the little Corsican general. Before Belgium was actually Belgium, it was the site of Napoleon’s ignominious final defeat. The Battle of Waterloo is still an epic story, well-remembered. During your visit to the town, which lies south of Brussels, you can climb Lion’s Mound, an artificial hill that offers a panoramic view of the battlefield. The trek isn’t bad at all, and it’s a must for history buffs.
Belgium is often overlooked in favor of France. But if you’re hungry for something less touristy, more “road less traveled by”, this Low Country should rank high on your list of future destinations!