Where to go
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.
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