Located in north-western Europe, Belgium is a small country bordered by The Netherlands, France, Germany, and Luxemburg. There’s more to the country than Belgian fries, glass and beer: multicultural and multilingual, Belgium is a veritable Europe in miniature.
Belgium reached its zenith under the Duke of Burgundy during the 14th century. However, the country declined in the mid-15th century. During the First World War, despite Belgium’s neutral policy, the Germans invaded the country in 1914. The Germans attacked it again in 1940, this time taking control over the entire country within barely three weeks. After the war, Belgium witnessed an economic boom, which was further boosted by Brussels appointment as the headquarters of both the European Union and NATO.
Brussels today is a bustling city of diplomats, followed closely by towering skyscrapers and numerous restaurants. You will see superb examples of art and architecture, both past and present-Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque, and Nouveau. The city is also famous for some well-preserved ancient châteaux, colourful fairs and festivals, nature reserves as well as amusement parks-all within easy reach.
Due to the country’s strategic location, Belgians play host to tourists from all parts of the world. The local people are always friendly, cooperative and courteous. Though Dutch and French are the commonly used languages, you’ll find that almost everyone can manage to communicate in English.
Belgium has some of the renowned art cities of Europe- Antwerp , Bruges and Ghent . The southern region of the country is interspersed with the rolling hills of the Ardennes, numerous castles, and the cities of Liege , and Tournai . The Ardennes, in particular, are a major centre for skiing in winter and kayaking in summer, with added facilities of hiking and mountain biking along the forest tracks.
A visitor can have an agreeable time in Brussels. As far as sightseeing is concerned, Brussels has a lot to offer. It is known as a cultural centre of Europe. There are some famous attractions in Brussels.
Some of the most famous are:
The Manneken Pis
The Manneken Pis is a statue of a little boy ‘pissing’. People all over the world know about Manneken Pis. It is not a very sizeable statue. Some tourist shops nearby sell same size replicas of the Manneken Pis. This little statue has got a big reputation and can be seen with many different costumes throughout the year. There are many stories behind the Manneken Pis and some people call it Brussels oldest citizen.
This is a triumphal arch built in the XIX century to mark the golden jubilee of the Belgian State.The Cinquantenaire is similar to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Although it is not as big as the one in Paris but it can be seen from a distance in neighbouring areas. The Cinquantenaire also has two museums on its sides. The Automobile Museum and the War Museum.
White and elegantly proportioned, Place Royale is the centerpiece of the Upper Town, which became the centre of power during the 18th century. The equestrian statue in its centre, representing Godefroid de Bouillon, crusader and King of Jerusalem, is a romantic afterthought. Place Royale was built on the ruins of the Palace of the Dukes of Brabant. The site has been excavated, and it is possible to see the underground digs and the main hall, Aula Magna, where Charles V was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1519.
Place du Grand Sablon
The name of this area refers to the time when it was still situated outside of the city walls of the 12th century. It was originally a sandy road along which people had access to the city gates. The Large Sand Place is where the people of Brussels come to see and be seen. The elegant square is surrounded by numerous restaurants, cafés, and antiques shops, some in intriguing alleys and arcades. Every Saturday and Sunday morning there’s a lively (and pricey) antiques market at the upper end of the square. The Place du Petit Sablon, opposite the Grand Sablon, is surrounded by a magnificent wrought-iron fence, topped by 48 small bronze statues representing the city’s guilds. Inside the peaceful garden stands a double statue of the Flemish patriots Counts Egmont and Hoorn on their way to the Spaniards’ scaffold in 1568.
This monument from 1958 has become one of the most famous sights of Brussels. The Atomium is the visual representation of the concept of an atom. It symbolizes an elementary iron crystal with its 9 atoms and magnified 150 billion times. It honoured the metal and iron industry and the belief in the atomic power. The architect was André Waterkeyn. It took 18 months to conceive and another 18 months to construct. The monument is 102 meters high. Each sphere has a diameter of 18 meters. An elevator takes visitors to the upper sphere where one can enjoy a panoramic view of the Heysel area and (if the weather is good) the city of Brussels. There is also a good buffet-restaurant (Chez Adrienne) in the upper sphere. In the other spheres expositions are organized. They can be visited by means of escalators.
Located at the foot of the Atomium, Mini-Europe is a park where you can have a tour around Europe in a few short hours. It is a unique journey. Stroll amidst the typical ambiance of the most beautiful towns of the old continent. The incomparable chimes of Big Ben welcome you to the heart of London. The gondolas and the mandolins will invite you to discover the charms of Venice. Follow the T.G.V. from Paris to the other end of France. You can make the models work yourself : the eruption of Vesuvius, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the bullfight in Seville and many more. In total 300 models and sites in a quite unequalled craftsmanship.
Centre Belge de la bande déssinée (Belgian Comic Strip Centre)
This unique museum celebrates the comic strip, focusing on such famous Belgian graphic artists as Hergé Tintin’s creator; Morris, the progenitor of Lucky Luke; and many others. There are a library and a bookshop. The collection includes more than 400 original plates by Hergé and his successors and 25,000 cartoon works; those not exhibited can be viewed in the archive. The display is housed in what used to be a draper’s warehouse, designed in 1906 and restored to its former glory in 1989.
Bruges is the capital of the Belgian province of West-Flanders. A lot of people take day-trips from Brussels to Bruges, but there is to much to see here to fill only 1 day. Bruges is always beautiful, in the summertime as well as in the wintertime.
Some attractions you can admire in Bruges are:
Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk (Our Lady’s Church)
Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk can be seen far outside Bruges, it is the highest tower in the city. The height of the tower is 122 meters. This church is not the most important one on the religious level (St.Salvatorskathedraal is the most important). But the church attracts most visitors because of its medieval character and the important works of art that can be admired here. Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk presents the famous Madonna by Michelangelo and the tombstones of Mary of Burgundy and her father Charles the Bold. The church has been built in different styles like Romanesque, Scheldt-Gothic and French Gothic.
St. Salvatorskathedraal (St. Salvator’s Cathedral)
St. Salvatorskathedraal is the main church of Bruges. It was only a parish church but in 1830 it got the status of a cathedral. The church has undergone quite a lot of changes and it also has been renovated quite a few times. In the St.Salvatorskathedraal you can admire works of art. You can take a look at the beautiful wall tapestries, the St. Salvatorkathedraal also possesses the original paintings that were used as models for the wall tapestries. In the choir a visitor can see the original choir stalls from the 16th century.
The Market square is completely dominated by the cloth hall and the 83 meter high Belfort tower (Belfry). Belfort is one of the symbols of the city. The original cloth hall and tower date from 1240. When you go up the stairs (366 steps) you can get a nice view of the city. Nowadays the visitor can enjoy the lovely music of a carillon, which consists of 47 bells.
Because of its canals Bruges is also called “The Venice of the North”. Although there are some differences. For instance was Venice founded on islands in a lagoon of the Adriatic sea whereas Bruges lies deeper inland. When visiting Bruges you have the possibility to take a guided boat trip. You can see the age-old houses and picturesque bridges from a different perspective. Nowadays no commercial ships sail on the Bruges canals anymore. The canals are now only used for tourist boats. There are five families who are allowed to organize tourist excursions by open boats on the canals. Each family has 4 boats.
Gouden Boom Brewery
The location of the Gouden Boom is in the city centre of Bruges. During the summer months, this historic brewery is open for public tours. Since 1455 there have been people brewing at the present-day location of the Gouden Boom brewery. Jules Vanneste turned the site in a brewery once and for all in 1889. In 1983 the brewery is renamed the Gouden Boom (golden tree). Some of the beers that are brewed are: Brouwer van Brugs Tarwebier, Brugse Tripel and Abdijbier Steenbrugge. You can also visit the malt-house and brewery museum. There you can see among other things like the whole malt process.
For a lot of visitors the Minnewater and its park are the entrance to the city of Bruges. The Minnewater is a canalised lake. It is mostly referred to as “the lake of Love”, because of the surroundings. The surroundings are very idyllic and make it a romantic place. Next to the lake is the Minnewater park. One of the symbols of Bruges is the swan. There are always plenty of swans on and around the Minnewater.
The Groeninge Museum
The Groeninge Museum is also known as “The city museum of Fine Arts”. Some pieces of the collection date from the beginning of the 18th century, but the building itself dates from 1929-1930. The collection in the museum spans several centuries (from the 14th to the 20th century) and its focus is on works by painters who lived and worked in Bruges. A very valuable collection of Flemish masters is the pride of this museum. Among the painters who are represented in the museum are: Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, Jan Provoost, Cornelis van Cleve, Jan Antoon Garremijn, Constant Permeke and Roger Raveel.
Antwerp has so many different facets that it takes a while before one gets to know it thoroughly. There are enough monuments for those who like monument-hopping to spend a few days admiring them. The past is also represented by the numerous paintings of Peter Paul Rubens who lived in the Antwerp of the early 17th century. Thanks to artists such as Rubens and also Van Dyck, and Jordaens, the town was one of Europe’s leading art centers.
But Antwerp is not only a place to see the work of Old Masters.
It is also on the cutting edge of contemporary art and fashion.
Some of the most famous attractions are:
The gothic Saint Paul’s Church, built from 1530 to 1571, is known for the collection of art it displays. The more than 50 paintings include three by Rubens, as well as early works by Jordaens and Van Dyck, and there are more than 200 17th- and 18th-century sculptures. The towers and interior are in baroque style.
Sint-Pauluskerk was restored in 1968 after damage from a major fire. There are walking tours and presentations – available in English, French, and Dutch – on the church’s history, art and artefacts.
This is a gothic cathedral, the Cathedral of Our Lady is topped by its 123 meter high north spire. Work on the cathedral began in 1352 and continued in fits and starts until 1584. The tower holds a 47-bell carillon. The carillon plays Fridays from 11:30 AM-12:30 PM and Sundays 3-4 PM, as well as on Mondays in the summer from 8-9 PM.
Inside you can admire an outstanding collection of 17th-century religious art. Highlights are the famous “Kruisafneming” and “Kruisoprichting” by Rubens.
Vlaeykensgang is a quiet cobblestone lane in the centre of Antwerp and it seems untouched by time. The mood and style of the 16th century are perfectly preserved. It is a very good place to spend some time on a Monday night in the summer, when the carillon of the cathedral is playing. The alley ends in Pelgrimsstraat, where there is a great view of the cathedral spire. Nearby you can find the Jordaenshuis. This was the home of Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678), the painter many saw as the successor of Rubens.
The Ethnographic Museum
The Ethnographic Museum explores the art, myths and rites of the native people of Africa, the Americas, Asia and the South Seas. You can admire a collection of 30,000 masks, tools, weapons, sculptures and other objects. The Museum possesses several unique pieces. Even some of them are described in Le Musée Imaginaire. Le Musée Imaginaire is the French novelist André Malraux’s compilation of the world’s most important art and artefacts.
The Grote Markt is the heart of the Old Town, it is a three-sided square dominated by a huge fountain crowned by the figure of the legendary Silvius Brabo, the giant-killer.
Antwerp’s Renaissance Stadhuis (City Hall) flanks on one side of the square. The Stadhuis was built in the 1560s, the city’s golden age. Guild houses flank the other two sides. There is a 16th-century guild house topped by another famous monster slayer, St. George, while the dragon appears to be falling off the pediment.
Diamond-cutting began in Bruges but moved to Antwerp in the 16th century. As mentioned in the section “Antwerp” some 70% of the world’s uncut diamonds pass through the city. The industry employs some 18,000 people, divided among 6,000 independent firms. Below the elevated railway tracks, a long row of stalls and shops gleams with jewelry and gems. Bounded by De Keyserlei, Pelikaanstraat, Herentalsestraat and Lange Kievitstraat.
You also can visit Diamondland. A spectacular showroom, it was created to enable visitors to get a sense of the activity that goes on behind closed doors in the security-conscious Diamond District. Diamondland has three floors of slide shows and films, showcases of rough and polished diamonds and several diamond cutters at work.
The Antwerp Zoo is one of the oldest and most famous zoos in the world but also one of the most modern and progressive zoos in the world. The Antwerp Zoo presents more than 6000 animals from 750 different species. The zoo was created 150 years ago in 1843. The zoo is situated in the centre of Antwerp. Today animals are allowed maximum space, and much research is devoted to endangered species. The zoo also has dolphin tanks, an aquarium and a house for nocturnal animals. Depending on the hour of your visit 1 to 3 restaurants are opened. When you decide to visit this zoo, you probably will need half a day because there is so much to see.
Ghent was one of the biggest cities in Western Europe at the end of the Middle Ages. Today it is the third biggest city of Belgium and one of the most beautiful ones. Nearby Bruges may be cuter, but Ghent is more of a real city, and has better museums, better nightlife and restaurants and is not that touristy.
In a unique way Gent has managed to preserve its medieval power while keeping up with the times. The city center alone is a showcase of medieval Flemish wealth and commercial success.
The tourist will not have eyes enough to admire the awesome architectural wealth, which offers a splendid combination of impressiveness and idyllic charm of the proud and (in former times) often rebellious city of Ghent.
Modern Ghent certainly cannot be overlooked either. The city has an important port, thanks to the canal Ghent-Terneuzen which allows sea-going vessels to bring their products to the city and its industrial hinterland.
Destinations in Ghent
If you walk around the city center, you may stumble upon a little alley (Werregarenstraat) which is completely filled with graffiti. The paintings, which can be real works of art, change every week or so, as some 20 youngsters come to express themself in a place where nobody seems to be bothered by their splendid ‘vandalism’.
Photo by Wikimedia Commons.