Nestled between Germany and France, small Belgium has every reason to be confident in its cultural offerings. From medieval fairytale settings to phenomenal nature displays and eerie ghost towns, these 20 are Belgium’s crème de la crème of traveler attractions.
Nine giant steel balls connected with thin tubes—it’s what Belgium and its capital call one of their ultimate symbols: the Atomium. The remarkable architectural feat was designed to look like an elementary iron crystal blown up to 165 billion times its size. The crown jewel to Brussels’s 1958 World’s Fair, the gravity-defying Atomium has remained a defining part of the city’s skyline.
The Atomium, Avenue de l’Atomium, Brussels, Belgium, +32 2 475 47 75
The Royal Greenhouses of Laeken
In a gorgeous coming together of Art Nouveau architecture and exotic greenery, the Belgian monarchy’s Royal Greenhouses are a sight for sore eyes, not to mention a lovely fragrance for the nose. Earthly paradise doesn’t seem far off when walking through its pavilions during the annual spring month it opens its doors to the public.
The hundreds of reenactors who come together annually to remember Napoleon’s illustrious defeat on the fields near Waterloo prove that the eponymous battle very much lives on in the collective imagination. Besides the yearly spectacle, the Lion’s Mound and a plethora of other memorials recall the French general’s fateful day two centuries ago.
Tell the world’s most imaginative drawer to come up with a prosperous, late medieval market square, and chances are you’ll get something like Brussels’s Grand-Place. The plaza, hidden from view and accessible through one of six spindly cobbled alleys, is guaranteed to overwhelm with dozens of baroque guild houses, the ornate “King’s House,” and the 15th-century City Hall. All contribute to the remarkably homogeneous look of Europe’s best-preserved medieval plaza.
Grand-Place, Brussels, Belgium, +32 2 513 89 40
Victor Horta’s Major Townhouses
Often exalted as the father of the Art Nouveau movement, Victor Horta has left Brussels dotted with innovative townhouses that changed the face of late 19th-century architecture in the West. When in a time crunch and having to choose between his four UNESCO-labeled townhouses, the Maison & Atelier Horta honors the artist in his former home, while UNESCO describes the Hotel Solvay as “the most ambitious and spectacular” of his work in the Art Nouveau period.
Saint Bavo’s Cathedral and the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb
The most stolen piece of art in the world resides in Ghent’s Saint Bavo’s Cathedral, its rightful home ever since Jan van Eyck and lesser-known brother Hubert created it in 1432. More commonly referred to as the Ghent Altarpiece, the 12-panel polyptych has survived a tumultuous eight centuries. Seen as the first great painting that kick-started the Renaissance, the work was taken by Napoleon’s troops, commandeered by Nazis, recovered from salt mines by the Monuments Men, and at one point sold by a duplicitous priest.
Saint Bavo’s Cathedral, Sint-Baafsplein, Ghent, Belgium, +32 9 269 20 45
For the better part of the Great War, allied troops found themselves buried in a gruesome trench-war stalemate in the fields surrounding Ypres, in the Flemish part of Belgium. Memorials dot the countryside and city, and the nearly destroyed Cloth Hall is now the In Flanders Fields Museum, named after the famous poem.
The Basilica of the Holy Blood
Squeezed in a corner on the generally pale, cream-colored Burg Square in Bruges’s historic core, the darker-hued, Romanesque Basilica of the Holy Blood stands out like a sore thumb. Of course, the extraordinary chapel contains an extraordinary relic; a vial believed to contain the blood of Jesus is brought out for worship every day.
The Bruges Belfry
Climbing the Bruges Belfry’s 366 steps is an excellent way to first acquaint yourself with the “Venice of the North’s” city center and medieval cobweb streets.
The Bruges Belfry, Markt 7, Bruges, Belgium, +32 50 44 87 43
The Hallerbos or “blue forest”
Spring forests overflowing with bluebells aren’t just a British privilege. They exist all over Europe, and Belgium’s Hallerbos puts on a particularly lovely display. Timing is everything on this one since its purple flower carpet can start blooming anytime in April and May and only sticks around for a couple of weeks.
The Beaufort Project’s permanent pieces
Since the Beaufort Project started, Belgium’s coastal towns have grown exponentially in surreal sights. From Arne Quinze’s giant, indented orange rocks (Rock Strangers) to Jan Fabre’s self-portrait that has him riding a massive bronze turtle (Searching for Utopia), the exceptional pieces that earned a permanent spot at the end of the public art triennial make the country’s seaside a more exciting place to explore.
The Grand Curtius Museum
It might not be Belgium’s flashiest museum or one that rings a lot of bells, but history and anthropology buffs will find heaven in Liège’s Grand Curtius. Archaeological objects are preserved and displayed in great numbers, telling the tale of mankind and its evolution throughout the ages in comprehensive, detailed ways.
Grand Curtius Museum, Quai de Maestricht 13, Liège, Belgium, +32 4 221 94 04
The charming town of Durbuy
Tiny Durbuy is a cheery storybook town on the banks of the Ourthe River in the forested Ardennes region. This “smallest city in the world” is an ideal base for long hikes or kayaking trips, and their artisan jam factory and quirky topiary park can’t help but up the cute factor considerably.
The High Fens
In a natural, no man’s land straddling the Belgian-German border, the High Fens nature reserve, with its mysterious moors and rare wildlife, makes for a hiker’s dream.
That Peter Paul Rubens was a man of many talents is evident when entering his self-designed villa-cum-atelier in Antwerp. The Italian-style home now offers glimpses at both the painter’s art as well as his private life.
The Rubenshuis, Wapper 9-11, Antwerp, Belgium, +32 3 201 15 55
Antwerp’s MAS and neighborhood Het Eilandje
Out of Antwerp’s tight relationship with the sea—the Belgian capital of cool is also Europe’s second largest port—the impressive MAS museum was born. And the MAS, in turn, took care of the rebirth of the old dock neighborhood Het Eilandje. To get a panoramic view of one of Antwerp’s hippest neighborhoods, climb the museum’s freely accessible “horizontal boulevard.”
MAS Museum, Hanzestedenplaats 1, Antwerp, Belgium, +32 3 338 44 00
The Plantin-Moretus Museum
Precious 16th-century dictionaries that creak upon opening, some of the world’s oldest printing presses and the copper plates that were used to revolutionize the business is what you’ll find at the Plantin-Moretus Museum. The former home and workshop to a true printing dynasty, this is where the first atlas and King’s Bible were published.
Plantin-Moretus Museum, Vrijdagmarkt 22, Antwerp, Belgium, +32 3 221 14 50
The Carnaval de Binche
In the small Walloon town of Binche, clown-like figures known as “Gilles” have been celebrating Mardi Gras by parading around town in ostrich plume hats and pelting oranges at the crowd for as long as memory serves.
Ghost town Doel
An accidental ghost town in the shadows of a nuclear power plant and, thus, a graffiti haven, the village of Doel has long ago been slated for demolition to expand the harbor of Antwerp. So far, however, the town is still there, having become an unofficial urban canvas for Belgian and international street artists in which to go hog-wild. As would befit the post-apocalyptic movie Doel seems to come straight out of, a dwindling handful of rebel inhabitants refuse to leave.
The abandoned IM cooling tower
Talking about urban explorers’ pilgrimages, the abandoned IM power plant of Charleroi is one for the books. Entering its sky-high cooling tower and looking up from its moss-covered bowels is enough to send shivers down the spine. Security guards are often on-site to prevent explorers from entering the aging construction, though, as safety can’t be guaranteed.