Belgium city guide: Brussels, Bruges and Antwerp
Updated August 2018
For art junkies, beer aficionados and lovers of architecture, Belgium has a handful of fascinating cities, ripe for exploration and filled with open-minded people and vibrant cultural life.
A purveyor of Northern Europe’s most quintessential charms, you’ll find medieval squares and art nouveau in Brussels, fairy-tale landscapes and chocolate chasing in Bruges, and a vast portfolio of beers and excellent food in Antwerp, the country’s capital of cool.
Above all, Belgium is a small country of two distinct halves – so from Flemish speaking Flanders in Northern Belgium, to the French influence of Wallonia in the south and Brussels split between the two, you can appreciate the concentrated cultural impacts which make the country so unique.
For travellers, this trio of cities is a breeze: conveniently interconnected by regular trains between Brussels, Bruges and Antwerp, transport here is seamless, and you can easily enjoy and get under the skin of these three Belgian cities in a five day trip.
Brussels is many things: full of art nouveau masterpieces, a haphazard urban sprawl with a beautiful medieval core, the centre of the EU and with a bilingual interplay between French and Flemish. Understated Brussels doesn’t go out of its way to impress, but take a closer look, and get sucked into this surreal city of contrasts. Uncover urbanism and art in fascinating capital, Brussels.
When to visit:
Part of Brussels’ charm is its fickle weather – but its rich culture makes it an ideal city break any time of year, whether you spend long days lounging outside cafes and bars, or you escape the wintry elements in museums and galleries galore.
Heading over to Europe for your first stop in Belgium? Fly to Brussels airport.
Catch a coach from London from as low as £15 with Busbud. (HI members save 10% off all your Busbud journeys!)
Hop on the Eurostar from various cities in the UK and France, along with select cities in The Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland.
Must-eat and drink:
It’s not all beer, mussels, frites (fries/chips), waffles and chocolate, but that’s a good start. You can learn to make your own chocolate at a workshop in Zaabär, just off Avenue Louise. If beer is the question in Brussels, Moeder Lambic is the answer.
Embrace your inner child at the Comic Strip Centre, art lovers can revel in the Magritte museum for surrealism kicks, keep your eyes open for street art by Bonom and, grab a free copy of the ‘map for young travellers’ with plenty of tips. Head to Le Sablon, Brussels’ antique shopping area and be sure to stop at art nouveau bar and restaurant, Le Perroquet.
Head to Café Merlo, an authentic Flemish café-bar, which is quite a rare find in Brussels. For a great night out, opt for Madame Moustache; you can’t go wrong with its unique décor and staff in sailor outfits.
A beer pilgrimage in postcard perfect Bruges
Interspersed with a network of canals worthy of a Renoir painting, filled with fanciful gilded architecture and best enjoyed with a Duvel – a (strong) Belgian pale ale – there is far more to this city than the unappealing picture Colin Farrell paints of it in the film ‘In Bruges’. Here are a few pointers.
When to visit:
Visit Bruges midweek, to avoid the floods of weekender visitors. In spring, daffodils carpet the serene begijnhof (garden complex), and in winter, you can have the beautiful, ice-frosted town to yourself – except at Christmas.
From the UK, you can catch an overnight P&O ferry from Hull.
From Brussels, it takes around an hour to get to Bruges and you can find prices starting from about €7.
Must eat and drink:
Head to The Markt at the heart of Bruges to kick back and enjoy the Belgian beer: some bars offer over 100 varieties, so start with the local speciality – Brugse Zot (“Bruges Fool”). Don’t eat here – locals will tell you it’s overpriced for food – but do grab some famous frites from the fries vans (“Frietkot”) – and just add a dollop of mayonnaise for Belgian authenticity.
Still got a head for Belgian beer? Take a tour (€10) of the De Halve Maan brewery, established in 1564 and source of the famous Straffe Hendrick beer.
Visit the beautiful Basilica of the Holy Blood for a good day out on a budget, brimming with a fascinating history.
Explore Bruges on two wheels and hire a bike to navigate your way around its cobbled lanes.
View the city from the water by taking a canal tour: yes – every visitor does it – but the canals showcase both Bruges’ old textile market, and provide idyllic and iconic scenery, whether you fancy jumping behind the camera lens or indulging in a feast for your eyes.
The people of Bruges are notoriously relaxed, so why not ask them if they want to grab a beer in their local dialect – West Flemish: “Hoa je mee e pint’che schell’n?” – just smile and give it a go.
Antwerp: festivals, fashion and gothic facades
A focal point of Europe’s art and fashion scene, with bars, restaurants, and nightlife to match, Antwerp is a city break which is too good to miss. Whether you use it as a perfect pit stop on the way to huge Belgian festivals such as Pukkelpop (Hasselt) and Graspop (Dessel), or you fall head over heels for its gothic cathedrals and historic architecture, discover your favourite side to Belgium’s best kept secret.
When to visit:
The city’s peak visiting time has a broad scope between May and September. Book a summer visit for nearby festivals – Graspop is in mid-June, and Pukkelpop in August.
The train from Bruges takes about an hour and a half, and costs from about €14 one way.
Embark on a cultural escapade by hitting the streets for some of Antwerp’s cultural highlights. Marvel at the 1518 gothic Cathedral of our Lady, located in the city’s heart and with paintings by Antwerp’s world famous Baroque artist, Rubens, lining its inner walls. Roam around the old town, with its guild houses and the majestic Brabo fountain. Visit the White Palaces in Antwerp’s Zurenborg district; and gaze up at Boerentoren, one of the world’s oldest skyscrapers, built in 1929.
Flanked with fashion stores and boutiques, antiques, bric-a-brac shops, and lively markets for you to go treasure hunting in, Antwerp not only makes for good shopping, but it also gives visitors a taste of local life. Explore fashion district De Modewijk; wend your way around the exotic Vogelmarket on Theaterplein on Sunday morning for a slice of the ‘real Antwerp’. Browse this fashion guide to Antwerp and learn about the city’s prominent place in the fashion world, as well as get an inside scoop on the best shops.
Must eat and drink:
Follow your nose to century-old Van Hecke waffle house for the best afternoon treat of your life – a waffle piled with strawberry-topped mountains of whipped cream and washed down with strong coffee.