The Most Significant Historical Sites in Belgium

Waterloo reenactment
Waterloo reenactment | © Dennis Jarvis / Flickr
Nana Van De Poel

Squeezed between traditional military powerhouses Germany and France, Belgium has seen more than its fair share of battlefields and wartime curiosities. Combined with a medieval town straight out of a storybook and the ancient cathedral that houses one of the most coveted artworks of all time, these five historic sites show that the small country at the heart of Europe has played an essential role in the continent’s history.

1. Saint Bavo’s Cathedral, home to the world’s most stolen artwork

Cathedral, Church

Stolen a record 13 times by looting armies and art-hungry Nazis among others, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb didn’t win the title of “world’s most coveted artwork” lightly. Now hanging safe and sound inside Ghent’s Saint Bavo’s Cathedral, its original home since 1432, the 12-panel altarpiece by Renaissance brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck has traveled more than most people will in a lifetime. Being one of the first large-scale oil paintings ever made and one depicting Catholic mythicism in breathtaking detail, the artwork’s reputation soon spread far and wide over the continent. Over the course of six centuries, it was taken by Napoleonic troops, a mischievous Ghent vicar, Nazis and eventually the Monuments Men, who were the last to return it to its rightful home over 60 years ago. Meanwhile, Ghent’s Saint-Bavo’s Cathedral had become an esteemed holder of other religious art as well, including an altarpiece by Rubens and a celebrated Rococo pulpit.

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