Belgium is perhaps the world’s most misunderstood nation, but also one of its most fascinating, punching far above its weight in all sorts of ways. With three official languages, and an intense regional rivalry between the Flemish-speaking north and the French-speaking south that perpetually threatens to split the country in two, it’s actually a miracle that Belgium exists at all. But its historic cities – most famously Brussels, Bruges, Antwerp and Ghent – are the equal of any in Europe; and its cuisine is reason alone to justify a visit, with a host of wonderful regional specialities. Belgium also boasts some pockets of truly beautiful countryside in its hilly, wooded south and the flatter north – and, perhaps most famously, it produces the most diverse range of beers of any country on the planet.
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Many outsiders view Belgium as good weekend-break material, but not much else – which is a pity, as this is historically one of the most complex and intriguing parts of Europe. Squeezed in between France, Germany and the Netherlands, Belgium occupies a spot that has often decided the European balance of power. It was here that the Romans shared an important border with the Germanic tribes to the north; here that the Spanish Habsburgs finally met their match in the Protestant rebels of the Netherlands; here that Napoleon was finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo; and – most famously – here, too, that the British and Belgians slugged it out with the Germans in World War I. Indeed so many powers have had an interest in this region that it was only in 1830 that Belgium became a separate, independent state.
Where to go in Belgium
Belgium divides between the Flemish (Dutch-speaking) north of the country, known as Flanders, and French-speaking Wallonia in the south. There’s more to this divide than just language, though: the north and south of the country are visually very different. The north, made up of the provinces of West and East Flanders, Antwerp, Limburg and the top half of Brabant, is mainly flat, with a landscape and architecture not unlike the Netherlands. Antwerp is the largest city here, a sprawling, bustling old port with doses of high fashion and high art in roughly equal measure. Further west, in the two provinces of Flanders, are the great Belgian medieval cloth towns of Bruges and Ghent, with a stunning concentration of Flemish art and architecture. Bruges in particular is the country’s biggest tourist pull, and although this inevitably means it gets very crowded, you shouldn’t miss it on any account. Beyond lies the Belgian coast, which makes valiant attempts to compete with the seaside resorts of the rest of Europe but is ultimately let down by the coldness of the North Sea. Nonetheless, there are a couple of appealing seaside resorts, most notably De Haan, and the beaches and duney interludes along the coast are delightful. Nonetheless, you might be better off spending time in some of the other inland Flanders towns, not least Ieper, formerly and better known as Ypres, where every year visitors come to reflect on the stark sights of the nearby World War I battlefields and vast, sad acreages of cemeteries.
Marking the meeting of the Flemish and Walloon parts of Belgium, Brussels, the capital, is more exciting and varied than its reputation as a bland Euro-capital would suggest. Central enough to be pretty much unavoidable, it’s moreover useful as a base for day-trips, especially given that Belgium isn’t a large country and has an excellent public transport system. Bruges and Ghent are easily accessible from here, as is the old university city of Leuven to the east, and the cathedral city of Mechelen, halfway to Antwerp.
Flemish Brabant encircles Brussels, but to the south of the capital it narrows into a slender corridor beyond which lies Wallonian Brabant, distinguished by the splendid church at Nivelles and the elegaic abbey ruins at nearby Villers-la-Ville. To the west of Brussels, the Walloon province of Hainaut is dotted with industrial centres like Charleroi and more appealing Mons, but also home to the handsome old town of Tournai; while to the east lies Belgium’s most scenically rewarding region, the Ardennes, spread across the three provinces of Namur, Liège and Luxembourg. This is an area of deep, wooded valleys and heathy plateaux, often very wild and excellent for hiking, cycling and canoeing. Use either Namur or Luxembourg City as a jumping-off point for the heart of the region, at Bouillon or La Roche-en-Ardenne.
Top image: The Rozenhoedkaai canal, Bruges © Boris Stroujko/Shutterstock