Since a country’s history kicks off long before artificial borders are drawn on a map, many of Belgium’s premier historic places came to be long before its flag or first government did. From wondrous caves millennia in the making to an opera house that accidentally lit the spark of the small country’s revolution, these seven monumental places are steeped in Belgian history.
Throughout the course of history, little Belgium has ended up sandwiched between two greater military forces at war many times. The Battle of Waterloo, which would ultimately be Napoleon’s downfall, was no exception. In Braine-l’Alleud, a town straddling the Flemish-Walloon border about 20 minutes from Brussels, main players England and France clashed in a major battle over 200 years ago. Today, you can climb a 40-meter-tall hill where the proud Lion of Waterloo awaits, a massive sculpture meant to symbolize a more peaceful future. Also on the site are the Hougoumont Farm, a focal point during combat, and the awe-inspiring panorama by Louis Dumoulin, a large 360-degree fresco of the battlefield during one of its key moments. History buffs will be glad to hear that there’s an annual reenactment of the battle in July.
One of Belgium’s worst kept secrets – postcard perfect Bruges has been extraordinarily well preserved. Its UNESCO-protected center is as close as you’ll get to exploring what Europe’s most prosperous port cities looked like in their 14th- and 15th-century heydays. When taking a stroll, take note of the shiny plaques on the stepped-gabled houses. They have the date they were built engraved in them so that you’ll know you’re looking at the real medieval deal as opposed to an impostor house that’s merely been dressed up to look old.
After your city center stroll, walk right on through to the Groeningemuseum, where Belgium’s rich Renaissance legacy is bound to impress any visitor. Their rare collection of early Netherlandish paintings includes works by 15th-century Flemish Primitives such as Jan Van Eyck, Hans Memling, and Gerard David. A lot are altar pieces and triptychs that got widely dispersed after the French occupation, making the scope of today’s collection even more impressive.
Stalactites, stalagmites, and limestone curtains give the caves in the wooded areas of the Ardennes an otherworldly feel, even if some of these curiosities have been part of the world since before our modern calendar era. Formed by millennia of constant water erosion, caves like those of Han-sur-Lesse, Remouchamps, and Hotton tend to leave their visitors awed with the sheer creative forces of nature.
When in Belgium, fans of the published word should pay a visit to Antwerp’s Plantin Moretus Museum. From here, French printer Christopher Plantin ran Europe’s most prolific publishing house in the 16th century and put Antwerp on the map as one of the three giants in early printing, along with Paris and Venice. The museum still holds an exceptional collection of typographical material Plantin brought with him from his homeland, not to mention a library stuffed with valuable prints, manuscripts, and works of art by Antwerp masters, including Breugel. It’s in this recently refurbished museum that you’ll get a glimpse at the world’s oldest printing press.
During the First World War, Belgium once again found itself as a strategic pawn between larger superpowers. Though greatly outnumbered, Belgian forces at first succeeded at keeping the German troops from a speedy assault on France – the Belgian part in the war would mainly be defined by a muddy, miserable stalemate at the Ypres Salient. Ypres’ countryside is still dotted with cemeteries, trenches, and mine craters. The In Flanders Fields Museum gives an impressive look at the Great War’s course while the air at the Menin Gate Memorial reverberates every evening with trumpet sounds. At 8 p.m., without fail, the buglers pay homage to the fallen soldiers during The Last Post.
Open to this day for the finest of classical concerts, operas, and ballet performances, Le Théâtre Royale de la Monnaie – La Monnaie for short – unintentionally lit the revolutionary spark that would lead to Belgium’s independence. On the 25th of August 1830, the opera La Muette de Portici was performed here in honor of King William I’s 15 years as Monarch of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. Not the wisest of choices by the powers that be, given that the opera was about an everyman rising up to Spanish rule and Brussels’ inhabitants were already simmering with nationalist discontent. And so, upon hearing the aria Amour sacré de la patrie (‘The Mute Girl of Portici’), the crowd erupted into a riot, spilled out onto the streets and started occupying government buildings. With the massive support they gained, it wasn’t too long until the city turned red when the rebels conquered the royal army sent to re-conquer the capital-to-be. By December, the London Conference had declared the Kingdom of the Netherlands no more.