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Things to see and do
Indulge in chocolate
Visitors with a sweet tooth will already be well aware of Belgium’s lip-smacking prowess when it comes to chocolate. Famed for their freshness, you can pick up affordable boxes from the likes of Leonidas and Neuhaus, or splash out of boutique chocolatier Pierre Marcolini. Brussels (www.mucc.be) and Bruges (www.choco-story.be) both have chocolate museums.
Eat moules frites
No trip to Belgium would be complete without sampling moules frites (mussels with chips/ French fries). A summer speciality, often served with a light mustard dipping sauce, these plump seashells are best when washed down with a refreshing white beer such as Hoegaarden.
Flanders’ ‘second capital’ is the most dynamic of the northern cities. Famed for its diamond processing, the city is also home to the second-largest harbour in Europe and exposure to numerous nationalities has made it cultured and open-minded. Visit one of the world’s oldest zoos, a one-of-a-kind collection of Antwerp-resident Peter Paul Rubens’ masterpiece paintings, and shop ’til you drop along the Meir.
Battle of the Bulge
One of the deadliest surprise attacks launched by German forces against Allied troops during WW II, the Battle of the Bulge took place close to the Luxembourg border and is a key site of remembrance. The nearby Bastogne Historical Centre has a strong collection of memorabilia.
Explore Bruges’ canals
As the best-preserved medieval city in Europe, UNESCO-listed Bruges is a must-see. Early traders weaved their way through its many canals and it’s still the best way to see the city and its legendary historical sights. Numerous canal-boat operators line the banks.
Belgium’s capital is compact, but boasts myriad personalities thanks to its hotch-potch mix Eurocrats, locals and immigrant Congolese, Turkish and Moroccan neighbourhoods. From the UNESCO-listed Grand’ Place and cheeky Mannaken- Pis peeing statue, to the gleaming EU buildings and hip Ixelles district there’s always plenty to explore. Keep and eye out for Belgium’s famous begijnhofs − pious communities founded in the 13th century as sanctuaries for the many women left widowed by the Crusades.
Castles in Wallonia
It’s said that Belgium has a higher density of castles per square mile than anywhere else. The castles themselves, which range from manor houses to mighty fortresses, are found across the entire country, but it’s in Wallonia that the most attractive constructions are found.
Billed as ‘Bruges without the tourists,’ Ghent boasts almost as many waterways and historic buildings, as well as the ‘buzz’ provided by its university students. Must-sees are the 15th-century painting The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb in Sint-Baafskathedraal, the Graslei canal, and the foreboding city-centre medieval Gravensteen castle.
Built on the back of the steel industry, Liège’s charm is perhaps better hidden than other Belgian towns. Those that dig a little deeper, will come across some charming historic quarters and heritage buildings. It has a bohemian spirit and a strong association with folklore – look out for the mischievous character of Tchantchès in the Outremeuse district. Great as a day-trip from Brussels.
Once the playground of European aristocracy, the city, beaches and promenade of Ostend possess a faded elegance of days gone by. Visit the restored Mercator Navy ship and dine on fresh shrimp at the daily fish markets.
In June 1815, in a muddy field 18km (11 miles) south of Brussels, French Emperor Napoleon went head to head with England’s Duke of Wellington and lost. Known as the Battle of Waterloo, this pivotal fight ended 22 years of war and brought peace to Europe. Visits to the historic site are possible, with trains travelling out from Bruxelles-Midi/Brussel-Zuid. Car hire is also popular.
Take to the rivers on kayak, try spelunking, or enjoy a gentle cycle amid the hills of the Ardenne’s best base for outdoor activities. An idyllic spot ideal for young families.
Enjoy the original Spa
The Wallonian town of Spa is the place from which all spas take their name and, as such, makes for an essential stop-off for those who enjoy a spot of pampering. The modern hilltop spa (www.thermesdespa.com) offers a range of different treatments, while the 19th-century-style town is attractive in its own right.
Belgian lace is one of the country’s most famous products, with its production dating back to the Renaissance. Bruges and Brussels have a handful of shops selling high quality and antique lace, while the Kantcentrum (www.kantcentrum.eu) in Bruges gives regular demonstrations.
Have a few beers
Belgium’s brewing history reaches back to the Middle Ages, so it would be downright rude not to sample some of its famous ales. There are still well over 100 breweries in the country, producing everything from pale lager to hefty Trappist ales. Bartenders are always happy to talk you through the 800-plus options!
Join the carnival
Belgium has a colourful annual roster of festivals and celebrations, from the UNESCO-listed Binche carnival (www.carnavaldebinche.be) in Wallonia and Bruges’ Heilig-Bloedprocessie (www.holyblood.com) in Flanders, to Brussels’ 500-year-old Ommegang pageant (www.ommegang.be).
Learn about diamonds
Antwerp has long enjoyed a sparkling reputation as the world’s diamond centre, and visitors can discover the city’s prominence at the Diamant Museum (www.diamantmuseum.be). The venue features gem cutters and polishers at work, as well as outlining 400 years of history.
Take in a museum
From Brussels’ Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts − the best-stocked art gallery in Europe − to the hyper-modern Musée Hergé celebrating all things Tintin in Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium is brimming with first-rate museums.