Since the 15th century, Antwerp has been an important diamond centre. Today it is the most important diamond trade centre in the world. In addition to a flourishing trade in uncut and unpolished diamonds, countless diamond jewellers are established here. The diamond district is located right in the heart of the city.
Antwerp is also a renowned fashion hub with countless boutiques and shopping outlets throughout the city. This energy also surfaces in the new trendy bars and hip nightclubs that have joined the time-honoured beer and gin bars.
Beyond modern Antwerp the more traditional attractions are the impressive Grote Markt, containing the Town Hall and the Brabo Fountain, which commemorates the legend of the city’s origin and also the 18th-century Groenplaats, with its Rubens statue. The work of local artistic luminary Peter Paul Rubens surfaces all over Antwerp, most notably at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, home to what is arguably the world’s finest collection of his work. The Rubens’ House, the magnificent 17th-century house where the painter lived and worked, contains works by the painter as do many other museums and churches.
Royal Museum of Fine Art, Antwerp
The Royal Museum of Fine Art in Antwerp houses a vast collection of paintings from the 14th century onwards. These include Antwerp’s most significant painters - Rubens, Van Dijck and Jordaens. Apart from the superb art collection, the neoclassical architecture of the museum is magnificent. Built as a ‘temple to fine art’ for the 1894 Antwerp World Exposition, the building is decorated with Corinthian columns and two large bronze hoses.
Brugge is a pretty postcard town with a perfectly preserved medieval heart that can be explored from the comfort of a canal boat ride. With the city centre closed off to cars, Brugge can be explored on foot, by boat or by horse-drawn carriage along cobblestone streets. Its myriad of waterways has been referred to as the ‘Venice of the North’.
Brugge offers a variety of attractions such as the Lake of Love, which in the Middle Ages was the city’s internal port, the 14th-century Town Hall featuring a façade decorated with bas-reliefs and Biblical statues; the Cathedral of the Holy Saviour, a fine example of 13th-century Gothic architecture and home to many treasures; and the lively Grote Market. Brugge boasts several good museums, including the Groeninge Museum which houses a fascinating collection of 600 years of Flemish paintings, from Jan van Eyck to Marcel Broodthaers. The Memling Museum, housed in the medieval Saint John’s Hospital, is dedicated to the painter Hans Memling.
The city is close to some excellent beaches and the fertile Polder region, dotted with picturesque abbeys and parks. In 2002 Brugge was recognized with the award of European City of Culture.
The battle of Waterloo on June 18th, 1815 ended the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon I was defeated by the Duke of Wellington. Immortalised by Victor Hugo in "morne plaine” as well as by ABBA in their 1974 hit, the site is now a very popular tourist attraction. There is plenty of battle paraphernalia to visit including the Lion of Waterloo victory monument (Butte du Lion), a huge man-made hill topped by a 28-ton lion. For those energetic enough to climb the more than 200 steps, the lion provides a commanding view of the site. Visit the battlefield site, the H.Q. of Wellington and Napoleon, the Column of Victor Hugo and the Wellington Museum for an audio-visual reconstruction of the battle.
Brussels’ architecture is a smorgasbord, with the gothic Grand Place the prominent highlight. Other key sights in include St Michael and St Gudule’s Cathedral and the Mont des Arts Park, which links the upper and lower parts of the city. Then there is the elegant Place Royale, built between 1774 and 1780 in the style of Louis XVI, the Museum of Ancient Art and the Museum of Modern Art.
Among other areas worth exploring are the ÎIlot Sacré, the picturesque area of narrow streets to the northeast of the Grand Place; the fashionable boulevard de Waterloo; the park area in the administrative quarter which bestows a fabulous view of the surrounding area; the Grand Sablon, the area containing both the gothic Church of Our Lady of Sablon and the Sunday antique market and, lastly, the Petit Sablon, a square surrounded by Gothic columns. One important out-of-town attraction is the Battle of Waterloo site, 18km to the south of Brussels, commemorating the battle that shaped the future of both Belgium and modern Europe.
The Groeninge Museum, Flanders
The Groeninge Museum houses an extensive display of six centuries of Flemish, Dutch and Belgian paintings. The museum's many exhibitions include the world-famous collection of 'Flemish Primitive' art, works by an array of Renaissance and Baroque masters, a collection of paintings from the 18th and 19th-century Neo-classical and Realist periods, milestones of Belgian Symbolism and Modernism, masterpieces of Flemish Expressionism and many pieces from the city's collection of post-war modern art.
The Ypres War Memorials and the Flanders Battlefields
The town of Ypres is synonymous with the First World War. Scattered throughout the surrounding countryside are silent memorials to the dead of the 1st World War. Visit the authentic trenches in Sanctuary Wood, the life-sized reconstructions of scenes from the War in the Hooge Crater Museum and the bunker of John McCrae where he wrote the poem "In Flanders Fields", etc. The most moving sites include the 170 British military cemeteries located around Ypres. The Tyne Cot cemetery alone has nearly 12, 000 graves of soldiers from around the world, many unidentified.
Brugge perennial poor cousin has plenty to offer visitors today, with the lack of tourist crowds an attraction in itself. This old cloth centre was once the largest medieval city in Europe after Paris. The medieval heart of Ghent boasts many historic buildings, including three abbeys. Key attractions include Saint Bavo’s Cathedral, place of Charles V’s baptism and home to The Adoration of the Mystical Lamb, the Van Eyck brothers’ masterpiece; the Town Hall, where the Treaty of Ghent was signed in 1576; the Castle of the Counts, a medieval castle surrounded by the Lieve canal; the 15th-century Cloth Hall; the medieval town centre with its old guild houses; the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Museum of Industrial Archaeology.
This mountainous area is famous for its cuisine, forests, lakes, streams and grottoes. The Amblève Valley is one of the wildest in the Ardennes and the grottoes in the Fond de Quarreux are one of the great attractions of the region. Among these are the Merveilleuse grotto at Dinant and the cavern at Remouchamps. There are prehistoric caverns at Spa, Rochefort, Hotton and Han-sur-Lesse. The River Meuse winds its way through many important tourist centres. The town of Dinant, in the Meuse valley, boasts a medieval castle, while its most famous landmark is the Gothic church of Notre-Dame. Annevoie has a castle and some beautiful water gardens, while Yvoir Godinne and Profondeville are well known for water sports. The old university town of Namur, with cobbled streets in its centre, has a cathedral, castle and many museums. Houyet offers kayaking and other assorted outdoor activities. The River Semois passes through Arlon and Florenville; nearby are the ruins of Orval Abbey, Bouillon and its castle, Botassart, Rochehaut and Bohan.
The sandy Belgian coastline stretches for 67km from Knokke near the Dutch border to De Panne on the French border. Bathing in the sea is free on all beaches and there are facilities for sailing, sand yachting, riding, fishing, rowing, golf and tennis. Knokke and Ostend are the liveliest beaches and only 15 minutes by train from Antwerp. Visiting the World War I battlefields is an increasingly popular activity, with a number of sites open with varying degrees of facilities.
Tongeren is the oldest town in Belgium. Originally a major Roman stronghold, the town was destroyed twice. Once by the 4th century Norsemen and then by the Salian Franks in 881. The Gallo Roman Museum in the town centre, which is built on the remains of a large luxury Roman villa, provides an amazing insight into the town and its history and culture. The remains of a 4th century Roman tower can also be visited. One of the most remarkable monuments of Tongeren is Our Lady’s Basilica with its majestic 64-metre-high bell tower. This marvelous Gothic church has a long history, since its first stone was laid in 1240. Also worth checking out are the Church of Notre Dame with its Romanesque cloisters, the town’s Roman walls and its many houses dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. There is also a great weekly Sunday flea market.
Gravensteen Castle, Ghent
Belgium has over 3,000 castles, about 300 of which are open to the public. Gravensteen is one of the best-known and most popular. Also known as the Castle of the Counts, it is one of the strongest moated fortresses in Europe. Built between 1180 and 1200, it is beautifully situated, surrounded by the river Lieve. Gravensteen was used as a military base for many years, until the 14th century when it served many official functions such as the town’s mint, a court, a prison and a cotton mill! Check out the castle’s crypt, its underground dungeon and its instruments of torture. Not for the faint hearted!
The castle is open from 9am to 6pm April to September and from 9am to 6pm October to March. Phone (32) 9 269 37 30 or fax (32) 9 269 37 55.
The second-oldest city in Belgium dates back to the days of the Romans. Tournai Cathedral is one of the most beautiful religious monuments in the Western world. World War II damaged much of the old town, but the 12th century Cathedral of Our Lady boasts an impressive Belfry, which is the oldest in Belgium. The Museum of Fine Arts is one of the finest in Belgium, with works by Rubens and Bruegel, while the Natural History Museum is also worth visiting.
Liège opens up the other half of Belgian culture as it is a major city of Wallonia, the French-speaking portion of Belgium. Situated on the banks of the Meuse, with many reminders of a colourful and affluent past, Liège was independent for much of its history, ruled over by prince-bishops for 800 years.
The view from the Citadel overlooks the old town, the most impressive part of the city. Liège boasts many fine museums with the highlights being The Museum of Wallonian Life; the Museum of Wallonian Art; the Museum of Modern Art, displaying the works of Corot, Monet, Picasso, Gauguin and Chagall, to name but a few, and the Curtius Museum, housing a large collection of coins, Liège furniture and porcelain. Liège’s most notable buildings are the Church of Saint James, an old abbey church of mixed architecture, including an example of the Meuse Romanesque style, with fine Renaissance stained glass and the 18th-century Town Hall.
The Town of Spa
The town of Spa has been known since Roman times for its baths. It became so prominent the very word "spa" became synonymous with "a place to be restored and pampered" in the English language. Since the 16th century, the rich, royal and famous have come to Spa to be refreshed and rejuvenated by the curative powers of the region's waters and baths. The writer Victor Hugo was a great advocate of Spa's waters. Today you can still relax or seek cures in the waters of the town, in the Pouhon Pierre-le-Grand Spa (named after Peter the Great) or the Spa Monopole to name but a few. If you are not interested in relaxing in its fine waters, Spa also offers beautiful architecture and unrivalled historic charm.
The Diamond Museum, Antwerp
Antwerp has long been the world centre of diamond processing and the diamond trade. The famous ‘Antwerp cut’ and the advanced scientific research are documented in this fascinating museum. It traces the production process from mining to the dazzling finished product. There is a reconstructed nineteenth-century diamond and a treasure chamber in which to view some priceless pieces of jewellery. Each Saturday afternoon you can watch a diamond-cutter at work.
Top Things to Do
Admire the works of Belgium’s famous painters such as Hans Memling, Rene Magritte and Peter Paul Rubens at the numerous museums throughout the country.
Be dazzled by diamonds. The city of Antwerp has been an important diamond centre since the 15th century and you will find countless diamond jewellers in the diamond district, located right in the heart of the city.
Browse the antique markets. Belgium boasts exquisite antique markets that are fun to browse or buy a little (or big) treasure to take home. In Brussels head to the weekend markets at Place du Jeu de Balle, Place du Grand Sablon and the Antiques Sablon area… antique lovers’ paradise! In Antwerp, the antique shops are around Schuttershofstraat, Leopoldstraat and on Sint-Salvatorskerkhof. The city of Brugge holds many beautiful antique markets and an International Antique Fair every November.
Celebrate Carnival! If you happen to be in Belgium during February or March, join the wacky and wonderful festivities of Carnival. The best places to experience this lively event are Brussels’ Grand Place, the tiny town of Binche, Malmedy and Stavelot.
Enjoy Belgian cuisine. The country has the highest number of Michelin stars per capita. You will find an array of fine restaurants, sophisticated cafes, and pubs to choose from. Specialist tour operators offer gastronomy trips where visitors can learn how to cook Flemish dishes using local produce and beers. Try Belgium’s national dish – moules et frites, a steaming cauldron of mussels and a bowl of chips (fries). Also worth a try is the famous Belgian waffle topped with berries and cream.
Explore the Ardennes. This mountainous area is famous for its cuisine, forests, lakes, streams and grottoes. The Amblève Valley is one of the wildest in the Ardennes and the grottoes in the Fond de Quarreux are one of the great attractions of the region. Hike, take a kayak tour or simply sit among nature and soak up the scenery.
Stroll among Brussels Grand Place. This magnificent gothic square is teeming with life, cafes and historical buildings. It tops every tourist’s itinerary and should not be missed.
Take a canal tour of Brugge. The pretty medieval town of Brugge is closed to cars, making it utterly enjoyable to explore its myriad of canals by boat and its cobblestone streets by foot, bicycle or horse-drawn carriage.
Try the beer. If you like beer, you will be in heaven in Belgium! There are over 1000 varieties of Belgian beer that can be sampled throughout the country from trendy bars and traditional pubs to fine restaurants and ancient abbeys. In addition, the Belgian Beer Weekend is held annually in September, while the Christmas Beer Festival rings in jolly Yule tide spirit in December.
Treat yourself to some chocolate. Belgian chocolate is famous and sought after the world over and nowhere else will you find such a selection as in the country itself! There are countless chocolate shops as well as chocolate museums and factories open to the public