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One advantage postage stamp-sized Belgium has over larger countries is the relatively short distance between most cities. In other words, a road trip across this quirky land doesn’t involve that much road, which frees up time for you to actually see the sights. Here’s how to tackle seven days in Belgium, traversing buzzing fashion capitals, charming coastal towns, Great War battlefields, and the wooded Ardennes all within the course of a week.
Wake up in an Airstream caravan after a night of urban ‘glamping’ at the Vintage Hotel. Take a walking tour to make sure you’ve witnessed the grandiosity of the Grand Place, the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert and all three of the capital’s quirky peeing statues. Reward yourself with lunch at one of Ixelles’ hip eateries and hit the E19. Once in the city of fashion collective ‘the Antwerp Six,’ make your way to the port neighborhood of ‘t Eilandje, a textbook example of gentrification and the location to fresh-faced museums MAS and The Red Star Line. Have dinner in one of the trendy restaurants on Het Zuid and spend the night at B&B Boulevard Leopold, a homey townhouse cluttered with all the right things.
Kick off the day with a cup of joe and a newspaper at one of Antwerp’s countless coffee bars. Continue the hipster route by shopping for vinyl at hidden independent record stores and catch a glimpse of the world’s oldest printing press at the Plantin Moretus Museum. Wave goodbye to Antwerp after one last walk by its river Schelde and fortress ‘t Steen and cruise down the E17 until you get to Ghent. Drop off your bags at Hostel Uppelink, housed in the third oldest building in the medieval city, and head straight for the Gothic Saint-Bavo’s Cathedral where Hubert and Jan Van Eyck‘s altarpiece The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, one of the Renaissance’s ultimate masterpieces, awaits. Make your way to snug neighborhood Patershol for dinner in the culinary heart of the city.
Enjoy your complimentary breakfast and coffee before exploring Ghent’s outdoor art scene that includes graffiti alley, renowned painter Michaël Borremans‘ outdoor oil portrait The Virgin, and the huge asymmetrical Market Hall by studios Robbrecht and Daem and Marie-José Van Hee. If you have the time, also make your way to contemporary art museum S.M.A.K or the Design Museum. Have a light lunch near the hostel at either Soup’r, one of Ghent’s many soup bars, or munch down on a veggie burger at Tasty World, one of the many eco-friendly eateries in the Belgian vegetarian capital. Then it’s off to another medieval city as you take the E40 in the direction of Bruges. First, climb the 336-step Belfry for a panoramic view and a sense of how the city is laid out. Then simply take a stroll through the ancient town center to acclimate to the old world in which you now find yourself. If you’re with your partner, make sure to squeeze in a smooch at the Minnewater Bridge – legend has it you’ll be granted eternal love. After dinner at Bruut, enjoy Belgian specialty brewskies at ‘t Brugs Beertje or Café Vlissinghe. Hostel Gran Kaffee en Passage is a great choice for moderate budgets, while the Adornes family, whose elite roots go back to 15th-century Bruges, provides more luxury in a charming 17th-century townhouse hotel.
Have a light breakfast and spend the first half of the day museum hopping. Make sure to include Flemish Primitive specialist the Groeningemuseum and a glimpse of Michelangelo’s Madonna with Child in the Church of Our Lady. Take a 15-minute drive to Blankenberghe and boom – you’re at the Belgian coast. Indulge in a fresh-as-can-be seafood extravaganza at De Oesterput, a fourth-generation family-run business that farms its own oysters and mussels in North Sea waters. Continue on to the second coastal town of De Haan and from there, rent bikes to peddle to Ostend on a scenic route along the sea that weaves through dunes and even a nude beach. Once at the ‘Queen of the Bath Cities,’ admire Arne Quinze’s outdoor art installation of curious, bright red blocks. Have mussels at hole-in-the-wall diner Kombuis, take a post-dinner stroll down the white sandy beach, catch the coastal tram back to De Haan and tuck in at Manoir Carpe Diem.
Drive over to Ypres to delve into the history of the Great War. Pay your respects to the fallen at Essex Farm Cemetery where Major John McCrae composed his famous poem In Flanders Fields and walk the trenches in which Belgian and English soldiers found themselves stuck for the majority of the war. Return to the center of town to enjoy a Flemish grandmother-style meal at De Ruyffelaer. Visit the In Flanders Fields Museum in the ancient Cloth Hall before driving to Mons and into the elevated area of the Ardennes. Take a stroll and pet the head of the guardhouse monkey at City Hall as he promises luck to those in love. Make yourself at home at the apartment hotel Saint Georges and cook up your own meal to enjoy by the fireplace.
Treat yourself to baguettes and croissants from a local boulangerie before taking in high society splendor at the Museum François Duesberg. Pay special attention to its world-renowned decorative clock collection. Leave the jovial town behind to go in search of one just as charming that likes to call itself the ‘smallest city in the world.’ Quirky Durbuy with its cobbled streets on the banks of the river Ourthe is tailor-made to be a starting point for kayak adventures through the most stunning scenery of the wooded Ardennes. Upon return, reward yourself with dinner at Le Sanglier des Ardennes and a good night’s sleep at Hôtel Victoria.
Have the lightest of breakfasts before setting off on a visit of old-school jam factory Confiturerie Saint-Amour, where they still stir their confitures by hand. After the tour, gather a picnic of artisanal Wallonian produce in their shop and eat it amidst the quirky elephant and Pamela Anderson-shaped shrubs at Durbuy’s Topiary Park. Drive over to Liège, and after marveling at its futuristic railway station designed by Santiago Calatrava (of Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences fame), munch on a piping hot, sugary Liège waffle at Une Gauffrette Saperlipopette. After getting lost between ancient treasures from Egypt, Greece, and Rome at The Grand Curtius, treat yourself to another Liège delicacy: boulets frites in sauce lapin (meatballs in rabbit sauce with fries). All contented, hop on the E40 back to Brussels. Spend your last night in Belgium on a beer discovery tour – otherwise known as a beer crawl – that includes Moeder Lambic, Á La Mort Subite, and Bier Circus.