Belgium is a little country often overlooked on European travel itineraries. When tourists visit at all, it is major centres like Brussels and Antwerp or charming, UNESCO-listed Bruges that they head for. But Belgium deserves to be on your European bucket list in its own right.
After living in Belgium for over 11 years, I still feel I barely scratched the surface of everything this amazing little country has to offer. Instead of focusing on the country’s well-known highlights, today I’d like to share 12 places in Belgium you’ve probably never heard of – but should add to your must-visit list for your next European adventure.
1. Namur, Namur Province
Belgium is a country divided by language with Brussels at its centre. Flemish (a dialect of Dutch) Flanders, in the north, is typically more well-known. The southern, French-speaking Wallonia is often left off the tourist radar. This is truly a pity.
Namur, the capital of the province of the same name, is a hidden gem. Built on the Meuse River, it is dominated by a sprawling hilltop citadel. The warren of streets below is filled with shops, restaurants, and historic buildings, including a UNESCO-listed belfry. Tour the caverns of the citadel and admire the breath-taking view of the Meuse River Valley from above. End your visit with an unforgettable lunch at the Royal Snail Restaurant.
2. Dinant, Namur Province
Leave Namur and follow the Meuse River for one of my favourite drives in Belgium. Along the way, you’ll pass castles, dramatic cliffs, and Art Nouveau mansions. You’ll soon arrive in Dinant, the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone. There’s a small, free museum dedicated to Sax and his many inventions and you spot painted saxophones dotted all over town.
Dinant’s most dramatic feature is the onion-domed Notre-Dame Collegiate Church sitting beneath the cliff-top fort. You can opt to climb the 408 stairs or relax and take the funicular up to the fort for another spectacular view of the valley. It’s well worth spending a few days in the Dinant and Namur area to explore the castles, visit a few Belgian breweries, and take a cruise on the Meuse River.
3. Leuven, Flemish Brabant
Just a 25-minute train ride from Brussels is the vibrant Flemish university town of Leuven. Despite its proximity to Brussels, it couldn’t be more different. The city centre is easily walkable and bike-friendly and filled with one-of-a-kind boutiques and great restaurants.
The university provides a young and hip atmosphere in sharp contrast with the historic architecture, like the ornate, gothic Town Hall and the UNESCO-listed beguinage. Don’t miss the fascinating M Museum for a mix of Belgian art and history. It’s won global awards for museum design.
Grab a Belgian beer at ‘the world’s longest bar;’ actually a collection of pubs side-by-side overlooking a square and finish your day at one of the many excellent restaurants.
4. Hoeilaart, Flemish Brabant
Thirty minutes south of Brussels is the town of Hoeilaart, the gateway to the Sonian Forest. If you love exploring nature, it’s the perfect base, outside of busy Brussels. Visit the Bosmuseum Jan van Ruusbroec, to learn about the forest before exploring one of the many walking trails.
Hoeilaart has another secret; it’s home to the best grapes in Belgium. Hoeilaart was once known as ‘the glass city’ because of all of the grape-filled greenhouses. While production has diminished over the years, Hoeilaart grapes are still prized around the country, and they sell out so quickly, it’s best to go straight to the source to get your hands on them.
5. Beersel, Flemish Brabant
Not far from Hoeilaart, you’ll find the town of Beersel, famous for its unique round castle. If Beersel Castle isn’t enough to quench your castle appetite, nearby Gaasbeek Castle looks like something straight out of a fairytale. The extensive grounds are a favourite with local picnickers, and inside the castle, you’ll find an ever-changing variety of art and history exhibitions.
A visit to Coloma Rose Garden is an absolute must for garden lovers. With more than 30,000 bushes on the grounds of yet another castle, it’s Europe’s largest rose garden and is a feast for the senses.
For a sensory experience of a different kind, visit the Lambic Beer Visitor centre to learn about Belgium’s naturally fermented beer.
6. Eupen, Liège Province
Most outsiders don’t know Belgium has three official languages. When visiting Brussels, you’d be forgiven for thinking the third language is English, the language of much of the country’s business community. However, German is Belgium’s third official language, and the capital of the tiny German-speaking population is Eupen. Located on the extreme eastern border with Germany, Eupen is the gateway to High Fens Nature Reserve, shared between the two countries.
This small, friendly city is home to excellent restaurants featuring the best seasonal products from the area. Outdoor activities are at their best in Eupen, and you can do everything from hike to the top of Belgium’s highest peak (admittedly only 694 metres above sea level) to riding the rails on a railbike in nearby Laykaul. Eupen is the perfect base for exploring this extraordinary natural area.
7. Tongeren, Limburg
Tongeren, in the Flemish province of Limburg, is nicknamed ‘The oldest town in Belgium,’ owing to its rich Gallo-Roman history. Signs of this history are visible throughout the city, but the best starting point is the award-winning Gallo-Roman Museum. Once you’ve steeped yourself in the interactive exhibits, hit the streets on one of the self-guided walking tours to discover the layers of history in Tongeren.
This little city has two UNESCO-listed monuments, the belfry of the Basilica of Our Lady and the beguinage. Learn about the life of the Beguines, women who dedicated themselves to the church, at the Beguinage Museum Beghina. On Sundays, Tongeren hosts Benelux’s biggest antiques market, with more than 350 stallholders selling antiques from all periods history.
If you still haven’t had your fill of the past, stop at the nearby Alden Beisen Castle for a stroll through the picturesque formal garden.
8. Aubel, Liège Province
With a population just over 4,000, Aubel is barely a blip on the Belgian map. If you enjoy discovering local cuisine, however, it’s not to be missed. Aubel is famous for its local produce, most of which you can discover at the open-air market held on the main square every Tuesday and Sunday morning. Among the delicacies, you’ll find meats, cheeses, ciders, and sirop de Liège, a dark and sticky molasses-like spread made of fruits, usually apples or pears.
Just outside the town is Val Dieu Abbey, a peaceful place for quiet contemplation but also a pilgrimage spot for Belgian beer lovers. Although no longer brewed by monks, Val Dieu’s beers are still produced in an artisanal way. You can enjoy them paired with the excellent local cuisine at one of a number of mouth-watering restaurants.
9. Hasselt, Limburg
As the capital of Limburg and the 18th largest municipality in Belgium, you’d think more travellers would have Hasselt on their radar. In the far east of the country, Hasselt is closer to the Dutch city of Maastricht than Brussels, and the city has a distinctly Dutch atmosphere. In fact, plenty of Dutch day-trippers come to Hasselt to shop in the upscale boutiques and enjoy Belgian beer and chocolate.
Hasselt is neat and orderly, and the city centre is pedestrian and bike friendly. Even the graffiti is of a high calibre. There are plenty of activities beyond shopping including an excellent fashion museum and the National Jenever Museum, highlighting the favourite Belgian juniper-flavoured gin. In the spring, visitors flock to admire the cherry blossoms in Hasselt’s Japanese Gardens, the largest in Europe.
Hasselt also makes a great base for cyclists as the rolling hills of the primarily agricultural province offer excellent bike trails for all skill levels.
10. Binche, Hainaut
The town of Binche in the Belgian region of Hainaut, looks like many other small towns in Wallonia. It’s a sleepy sort of place with only one major tourist attraction, the excellent International Museum of Carnival and Masks, or MÜM. Looking around the quiet town, you’d be forgiven for wondering how an internationally-known museum ended up here.
In the days leading up to Ash Wednesday, Binche is anything but sleepy. The Carnival of Binche is unique in the world and is taken extremely seriously, with carnival roles being passed ceremoniously down through generations. The celebration, involving elaborate costumes, music, dancing, and a fair bit of drinking and fun, is so special it was inscribed as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
The traditions and ceremonies can seem completely inexplicable to outsiders, luckily MÜM is there to explain everything in vivid detail. Attending the Carnival of Binche is a truly unforgettable experience.
11. Oostduinkerke, West Flanders
Like Binche, Oostduinkerke is an unassuming town, this time on the Flemish coast. But also like Binche, it’s known for a tradition unique in the world. At one time, villages up and down the coast, from the Netherlands to Northern France were known for fishing the tiny grey shrimps local to the North Sea in a peculiar way. Oostduinkerke is one of the last places to see the remarkable practice of shrimp fishing on horseback.
The fishermen ride into the water on sturdy horses and slowly walk down the coast dragging nets behind them. The shrimp-filled nets are brought ashore where traditionally the fishermen and their wives, sorted and sold them to locals. Despite being listed by UNESCO, most of the fishing beaches are empty of tourists and it’s possible to chat with the fishermen and taste the sweet little shrimps for yourself.
12. Durbuy, Luxembourg
The Walloon region of Luxembourg is well worth visiting simply to explore the stunning Ardennes Mountains. The province is a road tripper's dream with plenty of winding roads and picturesque grey-stone villages. One of the most charming villages is Durbuy and, like many things in Belgium, it has a quirky story. Durbuy claims itself the ‘World’s Smallest City’ owing to a quirk of administration (as so many things are in Belgium) in the 1300s.
Even though Durbuy only has a few hundred citizens, it’s maintained its city status. But there are plenty of reasons to visit Durbuy, beyond the charm and quirk. There’s a river for rowing, a castle to admire, several local brews, an extensive topiary garden, and a variety of shops for gourmets and handicrafts lovers.
I hope I’ve convinced you Belgium is so much more than a stopover point on your next European tour. I could easily list dozens more fascinating places to visit in Belgium, but I’ll leave those for you to discover for yourself.
|ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alison Cornford-Matheson is a Canadian travel writer and photographer. During her 11 years living in Belgium she founded CheeseWeb.eu, a website focused on slow travel, slow food, and slow living. In 2015, she and her husband, computer guru, Andrew, packed up their two cats and left their busy life in Brussels to live full-time in a motorhome. In addition to CheeseWeb, Alison writes and photographs for a variety of travel publications and has published The Foodie Guide to Brussels. She and Andrew are currently exploring Canada in their Bigfoot motorhome, Yeti. You can follow their adventures on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.|
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