Lesser-known cities to visit in Belgium
Karen Harvey takes us on a tour of some of Belgium’s lesser-known cities, each with plenty to offer lovers of antiques shopping, fine food and culture
Look beyond the cobbled streets of Bruges and Brussels – worn down by the hordes of day-trippers carrying their carefully packed chocolates and Christmas Shop purchases – for what else Belgium has to offer; from the botanical gardens of Leuven to the architecture of Ghent, it’s a beautiful country to explore.
If you’re looking for fine food, historic buildings, and flea markets as good as any French brocante but without the crowds, then look no further. You could even throw in an easy-going heavy-metal concert and a few waffles while you’re there!
The city of the ‘Mystic Lamb’, Ghent straddles the rivers Scheldt and Leie and is small enough to walk around and enjoy for a weekend, but easily connected to other great Belgian cities for a longer trip. For lovers of art, heritage and architecture, it’s an inspiring place to explore. A 48-hour CityCard gives you access to all the sights, monuments and museums in Ghent, as well as public transport and a boat trip.
Where to stay in Ghent
1898 The Post
Right in the centre of Ghent, this former post office has been beautifully restored. Bedrooms are dark-walled, with crisp white linen and great lighting, while the main building is a stunning architectural example. If you don’t book a room, make sure you still visit their fantastic cocktail bar, The Cobbler.
What to do in Ghent
Ghent University Museum (GUM)
Located in the heart of the late 18th-century Ghent Botanic Garden, this brand new museum has a historic collection of over 400,000 scientific and anthropological artefacts. Alongside the wonderfully displayed permanent collection, accumulated over 200 years, you’ll find thought-provoking and changing exhibitions.
River boat trip
Use your CityCard and take a short journey by boat along Ghent’s rivers, and see the city’s secrets from the waterways. Or, if you’re feeling extreme, upgrade your experience to a kayak.
The Ghent Altarpiece
Probably less known if you’re not a Belgian, but the Ghent Altarpiece (aka The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb) is one of the most influential paintings ever made, completed in 1432 by the Van Eyck brothers. You can find it, now fully restored, in the magnificent St Bavo’s Cathedral.
Where to eat in Ghent
Cochon de Luxe
The place for dinner. Created by a husband and wife team, Alison and Tom, you’ll find world-class food, served with good humour and a relaxed atmosphere. You’ll probably be surprised, but you won’t be disappointed.
For an extra-special foody shopping experience, visit Hilde Devolder Chocolatier for amazing flavours such as green tea and cherry blossom, and Tierenteyn Verlent, the timelessly serene, famous mustard shop, full of beautiful stoneware jars.
Have lunch at Groot Vleeshuis (big meat house), an old butcher’s hall where they only sell produce from the East Flanders area. Buy a bottle of RoomeR, an elderflower liqueur made locally with secret herbs, and watch out for the Cuberdons – super-sugary jelly sweets shaped like noses!
A fabulous renaissance city, and a really popular destination in Belgium, Antwerp was home to baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens. Also famed for its diamonds, over half the world’s diamonds still go through Antwerp’s diamond exchange each year. Arrive by train, or at least visit the station – they call it ‘Railway Cathedral’, it’s so magnificent. You’ll find a mixture of the best architecture, from the Gothic beauty of the Cathedral of Our Lady to the modern lines of Antwerp Port House by Zaha Hadid.
Where to stay in Antwerp
This super-chic but simple hotel is built in a former convent. The rooms are calm and clean, the gardens and spa are serene and secluded, and the restaurant serves a seasonal menu in an atmospheric setting.
What to do in Antwerp
The Rubens House
Visit the palazzo home and studios of Rubens, where you can enjoy the original gardens and view famous works from the permanent collection and temporary exhibitions.
For something a bit shiny, visit the diamond museum. It’s small and central, with changing displays and lots of silverware.
This printing museum, situated within a fabulous mansion, is a dedicated UNESCO World Heritage site. It contains the two oldest printing presses in the world, dating from around 1600, and an incredible Great Library. Exhibitions focus on the history of books and the art of printing.
Antwerp antiques district
For several decades, Kloosterstraat has been the go-to street for antiques and vintage. You’ll find dozens of shops filled with fine art, antiques, vintage clothes, books, vinyl and furniture. There are also great food stores, cafes and, of course, chocolate. Leopoldstraat is another hot-spot for antiques. On Sundays, visit Sint-Jansvliet Antique Market, and in the summer, head to BrocAntwerpen flea market.
Antwerp’s fashion museum has a collection of over 35,000 pieces from the past three centuries, and the most important collection of contemporary Belgian fashion in the world. Enjoy its immersive thematic exhibitions, plus an extensive library and a cafe in collaboration with Graanmarkt 13.
Where to eat in Antwerp
Eat at this award-winning restaurant and then shop for modern pieces in their concept store. There’s even a super-sleek apartment if you want to book a stay. Apparently, it’s the place to be seen in Antwerp.
Leuven is a compact and historical city, famous for its university and less than half an hour’s drive from Brussels. The streets are full of mostly small and artisanal shops, and on Fridays there’s a general market with food and flowers, with Saturday set aside for the antiques market. Leuven’s Oude Markt has the longest ‘bar counter’ in Europe, full of pubs and bars and terraces. If you can, try to fit in a visit to Animaux Spéciaux, a shop full of plants, taxidermy and other wonders!
Where to stay
Martin’s Klooster Hotel
Close to the botanical gardens and perfectly located in the historical centre of Leuven, Martin’s Klooster is a converted monastery with a modern extension. Some of the rooms are in the old wing, so if you’d like to experience them it’s worth asking specifically when you book.
What to do
Hortus Botanicus Lovaniensis
Take a calming walk around the oldest botanical garden in Belgium. Created in 1738 by the university for its students of medicine, the garden is home to around 800 plant species, and also plays host to regular exhibitions.
This Norbertine Abbey is outside Leuven, but close enough for a quick cycle on a hired bike. Today, a small community of canons still live here under the fine stucco ceilings. Many buildings have already been restored, with some still underway. Also located at Park Abbey is PARCUM, a museum of religious arts, and The House of Polyphony, the home of early polyphonic music.
Slightly scary, but also fascinating, this medical teaching facility from the 1700s was built to investigate the human body. It has some nice rococo features to distract you, too!
There’s a regular street market of all sorts of antiques and vintage bits and bobs. The market weaves its way around the church and through several streets. Combine a trip to Leuven with a day-trip to Tongeren – on a Sunday if possible. Aside from being of interest as the oldest town in Belgium, every Sunday the streets of Tongeren host a huge antiques and flea market, with hundreds of stalls and a lively atmosphere. If that’s not enough (or you can’t make it on Sunday) there are lots of antiques shops in the area, too.
Where to eat
Grab lunch at Gloria, based in the former La Gloria cigar factory; it’s informal and friendly, with a simple menu and BelgianFrench flavours.