Brussels is an essential destination for any tourist. The city is a leading cultural, historic, culinary and tourist centre.
In the centre of Brussels, you must certainly visit the Grand-Place with its large number of historic mansions, the magnificent 15th-century Town Hall and the well-known Maison du Roi Museum. There is also the Galeries St Hubert, which is the oldest covered shopping arcade in Europe. The fifteenth-century Saint Gudula and Saint Michael Cathedral is also worth a visit. You can relax in the Parc de Bruxelles facing the Royal Palace.
You can also go for a walk along the Place du Grand Sablon, with its large number of antique shops. The daily flea market on Place du Jeu de Balle is certainly an attraction. Other sights include Sablon Church with its Gothic interior and the Palace of Justice on the Galgenberg. The European quarter, which is the centre of government for the European Union, surrounds Place Schuman. Just outside the city centre, you will find the Atomium, a steel molecule enlarged 165 billion times.
Châtelain: a quarter full of independent boutiques and laidback restaurants: the square itself hosts a popular Wednesday evening food market.
Dansaert: there are always things happening – and a new boutique to explore – in the Dansaert quarter, the fashion heart of the city.
Louise: upmarket Avenue Louise is where all of Brussels heads at the weekend: the area has a real buzz and the city's best shopping.
St. Gilles: multicultural St. Gilles is full of hidden treasures: wonderful architecture; great restaurants and quirky boutiques.
Flagey: laid-back bars, an excellent weekend food and flower market and the beautiful Ixelles Ponds to stoll around.
Sainte Catherine: from the ultra-tradition fish restaurants on the square to the hip shops and bars of Rue de Flandre, Sainte Catherine is packed with distractions.
Uccle: Leafy Uccle has sweeping Art Deco avenues, pretty squares full of shops and cafés as well as acres of surprisingly wild forest to discover.
The heart of Europe will enchant you with its festive holiday atmosphere. The city centre will be transformed into a Winter Wonderland with festive stalls, a ferris wheel, a big ice rink and plenty of events and activities for everyone (28 Nov 2014 - 4 Jan 2015).
Discover Belgium: Antwerp - Bruges - Ghent - Mons - Namur - Liège - Leuven - Mechelen - Ostend
Belgium's "so cool it's hot" city has received a lot of well-deserved attention lately, especially since becoming one of Europe's Cool Capitals. Always creative - in the 16th and 17th century, the city was home to great masters such as Rubens and Anthony Van Dyck; in the 20th and 21st century, to many fashion designers like the world-famous Antwerp Six. There is much to do of a cultural nature, but the city is also well worth a visit for its excellent restaurants, bars and clubs, as well as for its shopping. Much like Antwerp diamonds, the city sparkles with an impressive range of architecture from medieval buildings in Art Nouveau styles to the contemporary Courthouse.
EVENTS Every holiday the Grote Market is transformed into a wonderful Christmas market packed with stalls and a big ice skating rink (6 Dec 2014 –4 Jan 2015). - Fashion exhibition (25 Sept 2014 - 4 Jan 2015) showcasing contemporary pieces from Belgian fashion designers at the Antwerp Fashion Museum.
EAT Michelin-starred Dôme (Grotehondstraat 2), is one of Antwerp's best-loved restaurants. Just across the street is the seafood eatery Dôme sur Mer (Arendstraat 1) and bakery Domestic (Steenbokstraat 37).
SHOP An exhibition space, fashion boutique and bookshop with a café, Ra (Kleine Markt 7-9) is a favourite with Antwerp's style-conscious crowd.
LATER Well-heeled creatives make a beeline for the café-bar Vitrin (Marnixplaats 14), located on a key square in the trendy Zuid (South) district.
The heart of Bruges, surrounded by an almost continuous ring of canals, is the best preserved example of medieval Flanders. So picture postcard perfect is the city center, known as "the Venice of the North", that it is nigh on impossible to take a bad photograph. With the city center closed off to cars, all the stunning beauty and culture of this unforgettable city can be easily explored on foot, by boat ride along quiet canals, or by horse-drawn carriage over cobblestone streets. Although Bruges is a small city, it will easily take more than one day to explore all of its architectural and artistic treasures, folklore, chocolate shops, lace boutiques, and local restaurants. The historic center of Bruges is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites and is teeming with places of interest. Bruges is so magical that it's akin to a film set. This seems appropriate given that the 2008 film In Bruges was filmed on location in the city. This film, starring Ralph Fiennes and Colin Farrell, features two hit men holing up in the city after a difficult job. Farrell allegedly stayed in Bonifacius Exclusive Guesthouse (Groeninge 4) while in town filming.
EVENTS Stroll through the seasonal Christmas Market with its food and festive gifts stalls, plus an ice rink, right on the Market Square (21 Nov 2014 – 2 Jan 2015). - Great War Battlefields tour commemorating WW1 (Until 31 Dec 2018). - December Dance 2014: Connecting Asia (4-14 Dec 2014): Yearly modern dance festival. This year's edition focuses on the contemporary Asian dance scene.
EAT Bistro Bruut (Meestraat 9) has had a radical facelift; its dining room now combines vintage industrial-style lampshades and reclaimed-wood tabletops. The honest Franco-Belgian cuisine at Assiette Blanche (Philipstockstraat 23-25, assietteblanche.be) is a hit with the chic local crowd.
SHOP Family-run chocolatier Dumon (Eiermarkt 6) occupies a dollhouse-like shop near Markt Square, while newcomer BbyB (Sint Amandstraat 39) features chocolates from top chef Bart Desmidt in minimal Pantone-style packaging.
LATER Venerated 't Brugs Beertje (Kemelstraat 5) offers 300 different beers, including Brugse Zot ('the fool'), the city's only official home brew. A former employee runs Comptoir des Arts (Vlamingstraat 53), a hip and atmospheric cellar jazz bar with a roaring fire.
"Here's a secret within a secret: Ghent might just be the best European city you've never thought of visiting, in a country that continues to be criminally overlooked." - Lonely Planet 10 places to visit in 2011. If you're the type who prefers exploring away from the tourist hordes, funky Ghent is definitely the place to go. Ghent is praised for its brilliant mix of a wonderful past and a vibrant present. Here hides one of Europe's finest panoramas of water, spires and centuries-old grand houses. But this is no place to simply kick back. It's also Flanders' biggest university town, which means linger-as-long-as-you-like cafés, well-priced restaurants and a laid-back atmosphere. Under the watchful eye of Gravensteen Castle or Castle of the Counts, the city boasts an Opera House, 18 museums, 100 churches and over 400 historical buildings. The most visited site in Ghent is the famous polyptych, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, painted by the brothers Jan and Hubert van Eyck in 1432. It still hangs in its original location, the St. Bavo Cathedral. The locals, while intensely proud of their city, are very modest and would never brag about its merits. One reason, perhaps, why it has taken so long for the rest of the world to discover this little gem.
EVENTS Visit the traditional Christmas market on the Saint-Bravo Square (14 Nov 2014 - 4 Jan 2015) and enjoy the fairy-tale atmosphere created by the illuminated monuments around the square lights. - Ghent Art Week (4-7 Dec 2014): starting with the Night at the Museum, where all museums of Ghent open at night.
EAT Dine on tapas-style dishes at Pure Daphne (Gebroeders Vandeveldestraat 3), Belgium's first croquette bar.
SHOP Rustic interiors shop Comme un rêve (Brabantdam 56b) sells a mixture of super flea-market finds and new country-style knick-knacks for the home.
LATER Sip inventive, delicious cocktails out of glass balls and Mason jars at the futuristic Limonada (Heilige-Geeststraat 7).
Cultural capital of Wallonia since 2002 and future European Capital of Culture 2015, Mons is a dynamic city with a rich heritage. Located close to the French border and at the centre of the largest mining and industrial region of Belgium, Mons has been a pilgrimage destination since the 7th century, when a Frankish woman, later St. Waltrude, decided to stop here and dedicate her life to God. St. Waltrude's Collegiate Church, one of Mons principal attractions, was never fully completed after 200 years of works! This can be seen on the church's exterior as the tower is not completed, the interior however, was completed in the 17th century. The church is considered one of the best examples of Brabant Gothic. Other remarkable landmarks of Mons are the Grande-Place, surrounded by the impressive Town Hall, and the Belfry (listed as a World Heritage site by the UNESCO), a bell tower hosting a carillon of 47 bells. If you have a more contemporary feel, don't miss the Marsh House, where painter Van Gogh lived around 1880.
EVENTS Enjoy the seasonal Christmas market with its gigantic Christmas tree held on the Grande Place (13 Dec 2014 - 5 Jan 2015). - A Belfry under construction (Until 31 Dec 2014): exhibition on the construction of the Belfry of Mons. - The first and the last (Until 23 Nov 2014): exhibition on WWI.
EAT Jean-Philippe Watteyne is famous in Mons, thanks to his run on the French TV series Top Chef. He's also the genius behind iCook (Rue des Fripiers 2, restaurant-icook.be), one of the city's most popular restaurants.
SHOP Mons Où Venir (Rue des Clercs 13) takes souvenir shopping to a zany new level, with models of the doudou – the city's green medieval dragon – among the many items on sale in Catherine Franeau's quirky little boutique.
LATER Cuba'R (Rue de Nimy 57) is a cellar bar that has brought Cuban music, Cuban drinks and some great cigars to Mons.
Namur is the capital of Wallonia, the southern region of Belgium. Enjoy a stroll through the medieval city centre or the Citadel, one of Europe's most impressive strongholds. If you want to give your feet a rest, you can join one of the many boat trips on the rivers Sambre and Meuse, as the city is neatly tucked in between where both rivers meet, an ideal and romantic way to explore the region. Do you prefer a more challenging way of exploration? Namur is also the gateway to various nature hikes in the Belgian Ardennes, an extensive forest region famed for its gorgeous landscapes and hillsides.
EVENTS Visit the magical Christmas market and take a spin on the ice-skating rink in Namur (28 Nov - 31 Dec 2014). - Check out the works by 19th-century Namur artist Felicien Rops at Musée Felicien Rops (Rue Fumal 12). - Antica (8-16 Nov 2014): Yearly Art & Antiques fair.
EAT Le Métropole Brasserie (Rue Emile Cuvelier 1) is a good no-nonsense brasserie with an emphasis on beer and big portions. If it's a sunny day, nab a seat outside and enjoy the view of the Théâtre Royal.
SHOP b.d.Librairie (Rue Saint-Jean 8) has been selling that great Belgian art form, the bande dessinée (comic book), for 18 years.
LATER Exterieur Nuit(Place du Chanoine Descamps 6) is only open until 11pm but it's a good place for Belgian beer and French wine.
Just an hour from Brussels by train, Belgium’s third most populous city is perfect for a weekend getaway. As your train pulls into Liège, the first thing you’ll notice is the hypermodern train station designed by the famous Spanish architect Calatrava. The modern architecture of the train station contrasts with the rest of the city, which is a more eclectic mix of styles that reflect Liège’s long history dating back to the Middle Ages. As a Prince-Bishopric, Liège was a city of great importance in medieval times. Later, in the first half of the 20th century, the city gained further importance as one of Europe’s main centres of the iron and steel industries. Remnants of the city’s history can be found in the old Citadel, and at the Archeoforum which lies below Liège’s main square, Place Saint-Lambert. Liège’s most famous tourist attraction is the long stairway Montagne de Bueren - after taking on the more than 400 steps, you’ll be rewarded with a magnificent panoramic view of the city. Definitely a challenge that’s worth the effort!
The city is located on the banks of the river Meuse, which divides the city into two parts. The Outremeuse (which translates to ‘the part beyond the Meuse river’) is famed for its more creative vibe and folklore. The most important character in Liège’s folklore is Tchantchès, a marionette doll representing the stubborn and rebellious yet good-natured character of Liège. Enjoy the puppet theatre at the Musée de Tchantchès and learn more about Outremeuse’s history with the help of Tchantches and his wife Nanesse.
EVENTS Belgium’s largest and oldest Christmas Village tradition takes place in Liège (28 Nov - 30 Dec 2014).
EAT Every bite is an adventure at Mandibule en Roue Libre (rue Souverain-Pont 38), a cosy bistro where chef-owner Fabien Henrard encourages customers to pick up their own orders from the kitchen and play their own vinyl records during meals.
SHOP For a genuine Liégeois shopping experience, forget the high street stores and join the foragers at the city’s many antique markets. Every Sunday morning on the left bank of the Meuse river, La Batte (Belgium’s oldest outdoor market) is a beehive of activity. Alternatively, try the Saint-Pholien market every Friday morning on the Boulevard de la Constitution.
LATER Party until the wee hours in the pubs and nightspots of the Le Carré neighbourhood.
Whether you're looking to quench your thirst for knowledge or just your thirst, Leuven is the ideal place. This youthful town, less than half an hour by train from Brussels, is home to one of Europe's oldest universities (KU Leuven), and history is present on every street corner. A few lucky students even have the distinct privilege of living in the 13th century stone beguinage (begijnhof) selected as a world heritage site by UNESCO. And where there are students... there is beer! Leuven is Belgium's reigning brewing capital – no small feat in a country that produces hundreds of delicious varieties. Leuven is the headquarters of AB Inbev, the largest brewery in the world, famous for Stella Artois beers. Centuries of Flemish tradition and craftsmanship lie behind Leuven's premium brews. The university, one of the oldest and most important in Europe, has its roots in the center of Leuven, and its historic college buildings dominate many of the squares and streets. The university and its 28,000 students and professors have a special tie with Leuven, which has existed since the university's founding in 1425. Leuven is a great place for the curious traveler with time to explore. It is an intimate city; any spot can be easily reached on foot or by bicycle.
EVENTS Musical parties, stalls packed with decorations and local food, fun fair attractions, ice skating rink… you can even visit Santa’s house at the Christmas market in Leuven (11-21 Dec 2014). - Playground festival (13-16 Nov 2014): Art expositions and performances. - Short Film Festival Leuven (28 Nov - 6 Dec 2014).
EAT Located at the heart of Leuven's culinary scene, Trente (Muntstraat 36) is run by a top young Flemish chef. Typical dishes include bream, fennel and bouchot mussels.
SHOP Running in parallel, Dietsestraat and Bondgenotenlaan streets house luxe labels such as Delvaux (Bondgenotenlaan 15). For more offbeat food and clothes, try Mechelsestraat and the Vismarkt: Sumo (Mechelsestraat 7) stocks shoes by Chi Mihara and Dries Van Noten.
LATER Sample Con Domus and Nostra Domus beers at home brewery Domus (Tiensestraat 8).
Mechelen is a small and picturesque city that is big on charm and history but is probably best known for its carillon school. Here students from all over the world come to learn to play church bells. One of the most pleasant experiences to have in Mechelen is to sit outside on the terrace of a cafe sipping a local beer while listening to the delightful bell music coming from the sky. It is a city thriving with quaint shops, car-free areas and amazingly pleasant little squares. The grace of centuries-old palaces and majestic churches appeals to everyone. Mechelen is a city for all ages. Young people can actively enjoy themselves in the Toy Museum or the Tivoli Children's Farm, whereas the young at heart can entertain themselves at the Anker, one of the oldest operating breweries in Belgium. There are also many parks and gardens to stroll in, and the boat trip to these parks from Mechelen Central Station is not to be missed. Mechelen has no less than 336 listed buildings and monuments including eight gothic and baroque churches from the 14th century through the 17th century.
EVENTS At the Christmas market in Mechelen you will find various chalets offering local products and decorations (13-21 Dec 2014). - Rik Wouters (Until 31 Dec 2014): Exposition of Belgian expressionist painter Rik Wouters. - Toy museum of Mechelen (Nekkerspoelstraat 21) displays several expositions all year round.
EAT Grand Café Lamot (Van Beethovenstraat 8/10) is a modern riverside brasserie-restaurant with good views of St Rumbold's Cathedral. For a completely different experience, Het Nieuwwerk (Nieuwwerk 11) serves classic Belgian cuisine in a peaceful, picturesque spot behind the Cathedral.
SHOP Kaashandel Schockaert (IJzerenleen 28) is a shop selling almost 300 cheeses and is particularly famous for its Gouden Carolus Brouwerskaas, which is made with local beer.
LATER Unwined (Begijnenstraat 23) with a glass or two of grape at this unpretentious bodega. The sommelier has removed the snobbery associated with choosing wine by creating a selection chart based on country of origin and occasion.
At the "City by the Sea", over five and a half miles of sandy beaches invites you to delightful sunbathing and a refreshing dip in the North Sea. After frolicking in the sun, take a walk down the Promenade where you will find many shops, bars and restaurants. Ostend is a cosmopolitan city with a harbour, yacht-basin, airport and over 50 hotels. Visitors will be amazed by all there is to see and do. All year round, many activities take place. Some highlights are: Oostende at Anchor, Theatre by the Sea, Magic Lights in the Park, the Christmas Market with huge ice-skating ramp and Carnival week-end with the well-known Bal Rat Mort. One of Ostend's main, and maybe lesser known, trump cards is the gastronomy. What better place to sample the sea's delicacies than on the seaside. There are many restaurants, ranging from exclusive hot spots to cosy bistros, so there is something to suit everyone's taste and budget. The specialities are Dover Sole, shrimp croquettes and "tomato filled with shrimps". There is also plenty to keep you amused later on in the evening such as pubs, clubs and cinema complexes.
EVENTS Enjoy the beautiful scenery, enchanting illuminations and marvellous decorations at the Christmas market in Ostend and have fun on the huge ice skating rink (28 Nov 2014 – 4 Jan 2015). - Atlantic Wall (Until 16 Nov 2014): unique open-air museum. Walk through the trenches of 2 world wars. - The Sea – Salut d'honneur (Until April 2015): Sea-themed exhibitions curated by internationally renowned artist Jan Hoet.
EAT Traditionalists eat mussels only from September to April, and the busy De Mosselbeurs (Dwarstraat 10) serves up more than a dozen versions, from basic to Thai-style, spiced with coconut, curry and coriander. Otherwise head down to Ostend Queen (Westhelling 12), where you'll feel like you've stepped aboard a cruise liner that serves excellent seafood.
SHOP Stock up on local delicacies at the outdoor market on the Wapenplein every Monday, Thursday and Saturday.
LATER Choose from 500 types of beer and 50 kinds of genever (a Belgian juniper-flavoured spirit) at the English pub-style Café Bottelje (Louisastraat 19) or throw shapes on the dancefloor at Tao Bar (Langestraat 24-26).