by Caroline Muller
Have you ever thought of adding Belgium to your bucket list? Is it even on your travel radar?
This small country is often overlooked for the glitz and romance of other European destinations.
Yet it is filled with an abundance of culture, great food and endless types of beer, so dare to go where others don’t. Strap on your walking shoes and follow along to visit the most beautiful cities in Belgium.
Just where is Belgium, exactly?
Tiny but mighty, Belgium is considered the beating heart of the European Union, with Brussels holding the dual title of both the Belgian and the EU capitals. It might come as a surprise to hear that the main governing bodies of the European Union are all located in the EU district of Brussels.
The country is made up of three different regions: Flanders, Brussels Capital Region and Wallonia. As a traveler, you will be hard-pressed to notice when you cross over from one region into the other, although the switch in language should give you a clue.
In Flanders, the official language is Flemish, close to Dutch; Brussels is predominantly French-speaking (though the large influx of expats means English is also widely used); and French is the main language in Wallonia.
Why visit Belgium?
Here’s the short answer: it is one of the safest countries to visit solo, and is stuffed with “hidden gems”, historically relevant cities and towns that remain wonderfully authentic and unchanged by overtourism.
And now for the longer answer.
Belgium was one of the first countries in the world to legalize LGBT marriage; like its northern neighbors, it is relatively tolerant of recreational marijuana use; and it has a thriving music scene with plenty of concerts and festivals organized year-round, especially in July and August.
Culture and history lovers will delight in the country’s more than 3000 different castles, 15 UNESCO sites, and some of the best-preserved Guild Houses in Europe.
And then there’s Belgian chocolate, clearly the most obvious reason.
There is nothing like creamy, rich Belgian chocolate. Available in all shapes and sizes, from the exclusive Pierre Marcolini pralines to the budget Côte d’Or tablets, Belgian is unequivocally the very best chocolate that will ever touch your lips.
Five Belgian cities that make Belgium irresistible
As Belgium is so small, its various cities can all easily be visited on a day trip from Brussels.
The capital offers a wide variety of accommodations, from budget B&Bs to lavish 5-star hotels, perfect to use as a hub while exploring Belgium.
Accommodations are scattered throughout the city so first, check the various areas to stay in Brussels before you book your hotel. This will ensure you pick an area that is safe and offers just what you are looking for, whether a thriving restaurant scene or a quiet night’s sleep.
Bruges: one of the most beautiful cities in Belgium
Location: A 57-minute train ride from Brussels Central to Bruges
Located in Western Belgium close to the coast is the most famous city in Belgium, picturesque Bruges. Known as the Venice of the North, a maze of little waterways snaking through medieval buildings connects through cobblestoned alleys, winning the hearts of many, many a traveler.
If you can, aim for shoulder season or early in the morning to visit Bruges. It is one of the few cities in Belgium that does get a lot of foot traffic. The streets are narrow, giving the city a crowded feel in high season. If you get there early enough grab a delicious brunch at That’s Toast.
Meander through the medieval historical center, and get the best views over the city from the top of the Belfry Tower and marvel at the magnificent Cloth Hall. The weekly market is held each Wednesday and is the perfect spot to see locals in action. Take a guided boat tour along the canals, gliding through the little waterways and listening to the history of the many buildings along the canals will give you an entirely new appreciation of the city.
Thinking of taking a horse-drawn carriage but not sure about the treatment of the animals? The use of horse-drawn carriages in Bruges is subject to very strict rules ensuring the animals get a break every few hours during which they are watered and fed.
Gent: a student vibe and stunning architecture
Location: A 28-minute train ride from Brussels Central to Gent Sint Pieters
The lesser-known Gent is the spitting image of Bruges, that is if you take away the abundance of tourists and add in the buzzing energy of students. While Bruges might feel like a sort of open-air museum, Gent will definitely feel like a living, breathing if not thriving city with a strong art scene.
De Graslei is without a doubt one of the most magnificent views you will find in Belgium. Towering 16th-century Guild Houses, reflected in the calm waters of the Leie River, are a favorite of both locals and visitors. During the warmer months, the Graslei becomes filled with locals embarking on an impromptu picnic.
A lovely way to visit Gent (also spelled Ghent) is on a boat tour through the city’s canals.
Highlights of Gent include the Gravensteen, St. Bavo’s Cathedral, the Saint Nicolas Church and a sunset stroll along the Saint Michael’s bridge towards the Korenmarkt.
The fashion capital of Belgium: Antwerpen
Location: A 30-minute train ride from Brussels Central to Antwerpen Central
Inhabitants of Antwerp (Antwerpen in Flemish) are traditionally known to be very proud of their city: they see Antwerp as “the city”, while the rest of Belgium serves as “mere parking”. While this might be a slight exaggeration, there is no denying the beauty of Antwerp and the important role it held both economically and culturally since the 16th century.
The historical wealth and importance of Antwerp become crystal clear the minute you step off the train into the sweeping Antwerp Central Station (one of the world’s most stunning railway stations). It is highlighted by the 16th-century gabled houses of the Grote Markt (Main Square), the ornate Antwerp City Hall and the opulent the Cathedral of our Lady.
Antwerp is a great spot to combine culture with a bit of shopping. Visit the Plantin Moretus Museum to discover one of the first commercial printing presses in the world, pop into the lesser-known baroque Saint Paul’s Church before heading up the viewing platform of the MAS museum to take in the best views over the city. Browse local clothing designers in the Nationalestraat, Kammestraat and the Lombardenvest.
Time permitting, head over to the Saint Anne Tunnel and walk under the River Schelde to Linkeroever. This side of the riverbank provides sweeping views over the main monuments and is an excellent spot to have a cold beer while watching the sun go down. Buy your beer in advance at one of the many stores around the entrance of the Saint Anne Tunnel.
One of the most underrated cities in Belgium: Mechelen
Location: A 20-minute train ride from Brussels Central to Mechelen
The little city of Mechelen sits between Antwerp and Brussels. With a mere 85,000 inhabitants, it is a small city easily overlooked by travelers to Belgium – which is exactly what makes it worth visiting.
Mechelen is one of the best places in Belgium to get a real feel for Flemish culture, and there is no better way to dive into this culture than by visiting the local market on Saturday morning. Weather permitting, locals flock to the central square on market day. Some go to purchase produce and flowers for the week, others to catch up with friends while indulging in a glass of white wine and a scrumptious portion of kibbling (battered chunks of fried fish) from the fish vendor.
The city has a wonderful tradition of supporting local entrepreneurs with generous start-up funding. This has meant that in recent years it has experienced a veritable boom in new eateries, from low-waste vegan restaurants (Lief), to a very cool covered food market (De Vleeshalle). You will not go hungry in Mechelen.
Aside from the market and the plentiful restaurants, take out enough time to walk around the Medieval Historical Centre. The best things to do in Mechelen include visiting the Main Square, the Cloth Hall and the Saint Rumbolds Cathedral. Lesser-known but equally beautiful are the tiny streets that form the beguinage (historical quarters where women lived in semi-monastic style) and the intricately carved colorful houses along the Haverwerf.
The capital of Belgium: Brussels
Located in the heart of Belgium, the capital city of Brussels is famous for a number of things: its beautiful Grand Place (Main Square), lined with ornate golden guild houses, the little peeing man statue (Manneken Pis), and its beautiful architecture. There are a lot of things to do in Brussels, and one could easily spend a week uncovering the many layers that make up the city’s DNA.
First-time visitors should leave enough time to visit the historical centre. Walking around the Grand Place, the curious traveler will notice that the streets around this majestic square all carry the names of food items, a tribute to the markets once held on and around the Grand Place. The Musical Instruments Museum has a great terrace with sweeping views over Brussels (brunch available on Sunday). The BOZAR is the best Art Museum in the city and a great alternative to walking around if it happens to be raining during your visit.
Not your first time? Expand your knowledge of Brussels by heading to the neighborhoods of Ixelles and Saint-Gilles, where you will find the masterpieces of Art Nouveau architecture. The Victor Horta Museum is a great place to start and learn about both Art Nouveau (and how it was born in Belgium) and the great architect Victor Horta himself. The Tassel House, Cauchie House, Solvay House and Autrique House are a few other well-known Art Nouveau buildings that are worth a visit if you are in the neighborhood.
Visiting on Sunday? Make sure to pass by the flea market in the Marolles neighborhood. You will find just about anything on sale here, from antiques, to furniture to Moroccan carpets. Listen carefully to the locals talk and you might catch a snippet of the elusive Bruxelois dialect solely spoken by those born and raised in Brussels.
Namur and its citadel
Location: A 1h10 train ride from Brussels Central to Namur
The city of Namur is the capital of the Wallonia region of Belgium and in recent years has started to flourish with the increase in public funding for tourism initiatives. The undisputed highlight of the city is the impressive Citadel of Namur. A 60-minute guided tour will take you deep into the underground heart of the Citadel, and explain its historical importance to not only the region but the country as a whole. Illustrated by projections, movies and music, it is a great activity for everyone.
What sets Namur apart is its proximity to some of Belgium’s prettiest castles and a multitude of outdoor activities. Rafting, climbing and hiking along the Meuse River are but a few of the outdoor activities available. Hikers can find routes on the Komoot or AllTrails apps, complete with GPX coordinates.
Vêves Castle and Walzin Castle are still privately owned to this day. Vêves Castle can be visited by buying tickets at the castle entrance of the Castle, while Walzin Castle opens its gardens to the public during certain months of the year.
How to get around Belgium
Belgium is serviced by an excellent public transportation network. Aside from the occasional delays busses, trains, trams and metros run on time, are clean and – most importantly – very safe for any traveler.
There is one caveat, however: taking the metro in the capital Brussels after 10 PM is less safe and not recommended for any solo female traveler. While you will be safe 90% of the time, there have in past been reports of muggings or harassment. Another place to watch out for are the environs of the city’s train stations at night.
As the various regions are serviced by a different network of train/bus provides the easiest way to consult the timetable is by using Google Maps. Tickets should be bought in advance from one of the vending machines, as purchasing on board is subject to a surcharge.
In addition to public transport, the larger cities are serviced by the Uber and Bolt networks and of course, the trendy electric scooters (Dot, Lime) are ubiquitous. These services require travelers to download an app and open an account before using them.
How to get to Belgium
Belgium has two main airports, Brussels Airport and Brussels South Charleroi Airport. Brussels is the largest airport, located a comfortable 10-minute train ride from the city center; Charleroi is a hub for low-cost airlines, a 45-min bus ride from Brussels city center. While technically to the south of Brussels, the naming convention of Brussels South Charleroi Airport is a great feat of marketing as the airport is in fact not in Brussels at all.
If you have the choice, fly into Brussels Airport. It has an underground train station with direct connections to all the main cities in Belgium, with trains leaving multiple times per hour. Simply walk out of the arrivals gate and veer slightly right, follow the yellow signs with a train icon to make your way to the station.
Safety in Belgium?
Belgium is a very safe country to visit for solo travelers of any age. The largest city, Brussels, is perfectly safe for a midnight solo wander, although, as everywhere, some parts of the city are to be avoided. Stay in the heart of the city and the worst that can happen is you get chatted up by a local or traveler that has overindulged in the famous Belgian beer. As with any large city, it is wise to keep an eye on your belongings, especially at night.
Caroline Muller blogs at veggiewayfarer.com, a blog for authentic and sustainable travel.