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Things to Do in Belgium

The multi-cultural political center of Europe, this small-but-important country lures visitors with its specialty beers, tantalizing chocolate, and famous diamonds, along with a rich history—and the old buildings that honor that. Belgium's location, squished between Germany and France, give it an often-outsized historical importance, with World War I and II having left notable marks. Day tours from the capital, Brussels, show historic sites related to the well-known Battle of the Bulge about two hours away, or, even closer, the Battle of Waterloo only half an hour away. Brussels itself holds a warren of medieval architecture, the Houses of Parliament, and plenty of that renowned Belgian beer and chocolate to taste. But within a one-hour train ride, big city life fades away quickly into the picturesque fields of Flanders, as visitors head to the secondary cities of Antwerp and Bruges. Visitors can easily see one or both in a single day with the help of a guided tour. Antwerp's beautiful port and majestic town square opens to reveal celebrated art by Rubens and the intense center of the diamond industry. Meanwhile, Bruges’ quaint serenity creates a timeless fairy-tale scene where travelers can step back a few centuries via canal cruise or walking tour through the town.
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Grand-Place (Grote Markt)
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Europe’s most picturesque square, Grand-Place is surrounded by baroque and gothic guildhalls and the stunning 315 foot (96 meter) Brussels Town Hall. The stunning buildings in this UNESCO World Heritage site date mainly from the late 17th century. Grand Place is also known in Dutch as Grote Markt as it was the large central market in Brussels. The surrounding streets still bear the names of the stalls that lined the street: Rue des Bouchers (butchers) and Peperstraat (pepper merchants). Every second year, in August, the square is filled with an enormous flower carpet. A million begonias are used to create a stunning pattern. Concerts and music recitals are held here throughout the year. The size and beauty of the square amazes everyone when they first turn a corner to find it unexpectedly in front of them. After the initial shock sit down at a table outside one of the many cafés or chocolatiers and find out why Belgium is justly famous for its beer and chocolate.
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Market Square (Markt)
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The heart of medieval Bruges and the nucleas of the modern city, Bruges’ Market Square (the Markt) is one of the most striking in Europe. Bordered by rows of medieval townhouses, the 1-hectare square is the focal point of city events, with souvenir stores and restaurant seating spilling onto the streets during the summer months and a vibrant Christmas market and open-air ice rink transforming the square for the festive season.

The Market Square is also home to some of Bruges’ most celebrated architectural works, including landmarks like the 12th-century belfry, which offers spectacular views from its 83-meter high tower. Additional highlights include the 19th century Neo-Gothic Provincial Courthouse and the towering central statue of Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck, which honors the political leaders who led the 1302 Battle of the Golden Spurs.

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Minnewater (Lake of Love)
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With a name that translates into English as "Lake of Love," you might be tempted to dismiss Minnewater as a little clichéd. That would be a mistake, however, as this canalized lake is genuinely charming and can even create the feeling of traveling back in time to Bruges’ medieval heyday.

The lake is surrounded by trees and old brick houses and the adjacent Minnewater Park is often the site of live musical performances during the summer months. You will likely spot many swans on the lake, they are one of Bruges’ symbols, but be warned that they can be known to be quite territorial. The best views of the Minnewater can be had from the 18th-century bridge that crosses the lake. Minnewater is certainly a romantic place to stroll around with someone special, but anyone can appreciate the peacefulness and scenery and it can make a relaxing break from the hustle and bustle of the nearby city center.

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Belfry and Lakenhalle (Bell Tower and Cloth Hall)
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Book-ending the square of Botermarkt with St Bavo’s Cathedral, the ornate UNESCO-listed Belfry and the Cloth Hall at its feet stand testament to the great wealth of Ghent in the 14th century; built with money from members of the wool and textiles guilds, they are in striking Brabant Gothic style. The Belfry is topped with a gilded copper dragon and holds a carillon of 54 bells that have rung for more than six centuries; take the elevator to the viewing gallery at 66 m (217 ft) above Sint-Baafsplein to see the bells and take in panoramic views of gabled facades, St Bavo’s Cathedral and the Gothic ornamentation of St Nicholas’ Church. A small museum displays models of the church, a few pieces of armor and the original dragon from atop the tower.

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Manneken Pis
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The Manneken Pis, a bronze fountain statue by Jerome Duquesnoy, dates from 1619 when it replaced a stone statue from the 1400s. The residents of Brussels have embraced this diminuitive statue of a small boy urinating into a fountain as a symbol of their irreverence. There are many stories behind the Manneken Pis with most either referring to a young boy urinating on a fire/explosive device thus saving the city from destruction by invading armies or the lost son of a nobleman who was later found urinating in a fountain. The well-loved statue has over 800 costumes and will often wear the national dress of visiting dignitaries. You might otherwise see him dressed in football colors or as a plumber or even Elvis. His costume is changed around 30 times a year. These occasions are marked with brass-band music and an unveiling of the newly kitted-out statue. Sometimes Manneken Pis produces beer to celebrate with the people of Brussels.
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Church of Our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk)
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The soaring 400-foot (122-meter) spire-topped brick steeple of the Church of Our Lady – the city’s tallest structure – lends itself to commanding views of Bruges. The spire dominates the Bruges skyline and can be seen from all over the city, while from inside the tower, on a clear day, you can see across Belgium as far as the Netherlands.

The church was built over two centuries (13th-15th) and houses a substantial collection of artworks. The most celebrated of the church’s art collection is a white marble sculpture of the Madonna and Child, created by Michaelangelo in the early 16th century – it is one of the very few Michaelangelo pieces that can be seen outside of Italy. The Church of Our Lady also holds an oil painting depiction of the crucifixion by the Flemish Baroque artist Anthony van Dyck, and a rococo pulpit by Bruges artist Jan Antoon Garemijn.

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Princely Beguinage Ten Wijngaarde (Begijnhof)
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One of the most famous and best preserved of Belgium’s UNESCO World Heritage listed Beguinages, Bruges’ Beguinage (Begijnhof) or ‘Ter Weyngaerde’, is one of the town’s most visited attractions, offering a unique glimpse into the European Béguine movement of the Middle Ages. A fine example of a traditional Flemish béguinage, the secluded complex of houses, churches and gardens was founded in 1230 by the Countess Johanna of Constantinople and up until 1926 housed a small community of Béguines, lay women who devoted their lives to god.

Today, the compound is home to around 25 Benedictine nuns but its Béguine past lives on at the onsite Beguinage museum, which features displays like a recreation of a 19th century kitchen and a showcase of traditional crafts. For most visitors though, simply wandering around the daffodil-filled gardens, whitewashed houses and 13th-century church provides an evocative glimpse into the solitude of the Béguine lifestyle.

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Historic Centre of Bruges (Historisch Centrum van Brugge)
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Bruges is one of the most picturesque cities in Belgium. It's one of Belgium's best preserved cities, and its medieval architecture escaped destruction from both World Wars. More than 1,000 years ago, Brugge was an important trade city due to its location near the coast. But in the 11th century, waterways that had direct access to the sea began to silt up. Although the walls of the city no longer stand, four old gates mark the boundaries of the old town and what is today the city center. Cobblestone streets, colorful buildings, and a series of canals add to the charm of this small city.

Start your visit in the Grote Markt, Brugge's main square. Here you'll find the Belfry with its 272-foot tall tower, which you can climb for fantastic views of the city. Another great way to enjoy the city is from a boat tour of the canals. At the Basilica of the Holy Blood, you can see a vial of what is said to be the blood of Jesus.

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Bruges City Hall (Stadhuis van Brugge)
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The Town Hall (Stadhuis) is Belgium’s oldest building and arguably Bruges’ most beautiful. The Flamboyant Gothic-style building was constructed between 1376 and 1420, and was one of the first grand town halls in the Low Countries. The city has been governed from this building for more than 700 years.

The town hall’s front facade features Gothic windows and the town weapons of the cities and villages that were under Bruges’ administrative rule. The statues of biblical figures and Counts of Flanders that sit in the niches of the façade are 20th-century replacements for the originals. Those were painted by Jan van Eyck and destroyed by pro-French rebels in the 1790s. In the entrance hall, a large staircase leads to the ornate Gothic Hall, which was decorated in 1895 with neo-gothic wall murals that illustrate events from Bruges’ history – pick up an audio guide for detailed information.

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Atomium
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This alien-looking and vast silvery sculpture near the Bruparck was created in 1958 for the Expo 58 and represents a iron molecule magnified 165 billion times. A mesh of nine corridors leading to nine giant spheres, it was destined to be demolished after the exhibition but proved such a hit with the Bruxellois that it was reprieved and has become a national icon.

Reaching up to 335 feet (102 m) the Atomium underwent a much-needed and rigorous facelift in the early 2000s; the spheres were originally made of an aluminum skin but this has been replaced by stainless steel. An elevator shoots up the central column to the five spheres that are currently open to the public; three provide a permanent record of Expo 58 and two host temporary interactive art and science displays.

The highest sphere stands at 300 feet (92 m) above the ground and now has a glass roof, allowing 360° views across the Heysel Plain towards Brussels.

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More Things to Do in Belgium

Royal Galleries of Saint Hubert (Les Galeries St-Hubert)

Royal Galleries of Saint Hubert (Les Galeries St-Hubert)

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The Royal Saint Hubert Galleries are a series of shops and restaurants in Brussels that are covered by panes of glass. They were designed by the architect Jean-Pierre Cluysenaer in 1847 and are often referred to as the umbrella of Brussels. The galleries are divided into three different sections: the Galerie de la Reine, the Galerie du Roi and the Galerie des Princes. The glass roof helps protect visitors from rain or cold weather. In the past, visitors had to pay 25 cents on Thursdays and Sundays and 10 cents on other days just to access the galleries. Of course today it is free to visit, and over 6 million people visit each year.

The galleries have something for everyone. There are boutiques selling the latest fashions as well as more classic clothing. Accessories shops sell gloves, hats, umbrellas and more. Several jewelry stores are located here along with book stores, chocolate shops, and other specialty shops.

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Duvelorium

Duvelorium

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Brussels Royal Palace (Palais Royal de Bruxelles)

Brussels Royal Palace (Palais Royal de Bruxelles)

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Although the Royal family no longer call the Royal Palace (or Palais Royal Bruxelles) home, it is where the King and Queen still have their offices and the King carries out his duties as the head of state. The building also houses state rooms where large receptions are held and also living quarters for visiting dignitaries. The Palace was built in 1775 on the site of the former Coudenberg Palace which was built in the 11th and 12th centuries, but burnt to the ground in 1731. The Palace is at the southern end of the Parc de Bruxelles, at the northern end is the Palace of the Nation which houses the Belgian Parliament. Between them they are said to reflect Belgium’s constitutional monarchy. Over summer the Palace is open to the public. On show are fantastic State Rooms like the Goya Room with its Goya inspired tapestries, the imposing Throne Room with bas-reliefs by Rodin and the well-preserved 18th century Large White Room.
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European Parliament

European Parliament

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Brussels is the administrative heart of the European Union and the Espace Léopold buildings are where parliament meets throughout the year to debate and discuss the future of Europe. The main building of the European Union Parliament complex is the Paul-Henri Spaak building, an impressive glass structure with a distinctive arched roof, it’s been nicknamed "Caprice des Dieux" (whim of the gods) after a similarly shaped French cheese.

The hemicycle is where parliament debates; it seats the 736 Members of the parliament, numerous translators and a gallery for the general public. The semicircular shape is designed to encourage consensus among the political parties.

There are a number of interesting works of art on public view including May Claerhout’s sculpture Europa, which has become a favorite among tourists.

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Palace of Justice (Palais de Justice)

Palace of Justice (Palais de Justice)

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The Palace of Justice is believed to be the largest building constructed in the 19th century. It’s covers 260,000 square feet (24,000 square meters) and dominates the Sablon area. It was built on an area known as Gallows Hill overlooking the working-class parts of the city. Around 3,000 houses were demolished to make way for the building that is larger than St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. This angered locals and the word "architect" became a derogatory term.

The style of the imposing grey building is described as Assyro-Babylonian. It’s dominated by columns and a large glittering golden dome. The courts were commissioned by Leopold II and designed by Joseph Poelaert, and ended up costing 45 million Belgian francs to build.

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Sablon District

Sablon District

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The Sablon District is a neighborhood in Brussels that was once home to the city's elite. In the 15th century, the Church of Our Blessed Lady of the Sablon was rebuilt, and it later became the site of royal baptisms. The district began to expand during this time, and more nobles began to call it their home. Soon it was the richest part of the city. In the 19th century, the area was transformed when Rue de la Régence split the Sablon District into two sections. At the beginning of the 20th century, the district began to decline, but in recent years it has become hip again.

Today you can stroll through the cobbled streets of the Sablon District and soak up a little history. Antique and art lovers can enjoy the galleries during the week and find treasures at antique markets on the weekends. The district has also become the perfect place to find Belgian chocolates from names like Godiva, Wittamer, Pierre Marcolini and more.

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Cinquantenaire Park (Parc du Cinquantenaire)

Cinquantenaire Park (Parc du Cinquantenaire)

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A large public park, the Cinquantenaire Park (or "Parc du Cinquantenaire" as it is known in French) is dominated by buildings built for the 1880 National Exhibition which also celebrated fifty years of Belgian independence. The centerpiece of the park is a triumphal arch finished in 1905.

To the north of the arch is the Royal Military Museum. To the south are the Royal Museums for Art and History (these hold artifacts gathered from around the world), and AutoWorld, a vintage car museum with over 350 classic cars, one of the largest collections in Europe.

If you’re looking for an impressive place to lie under a tree the Cinquantenaire Park is especially lovely in the summer when it’s filled with locals making the most of the sunshine. Also in summer the area surrounding the arch is turned into a drive-in cinema. There’s discounted tickets for people driving vintage cars and a lawn reserved for people on bicycle or foot.

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Grand Sablon Square (Place du Grand Sablon)

Grand Sablon Square (Place du Grand Sablon)

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Sablon is a smart little quartier and one of the most charming in Brussels; it is an intricate maze of cobbled streets set around two delightful squares, and was once home to the aristocrats of Brussels. The whole area is packed with stylish restaurants, slick galleries and hip cafés; the bar terraces of the lovely Place du Grand Sablon in particular provide the perfect spot in which to enjoy a glass of Belgian beer after a day’s sightseeing.

This arcaded square is one of the most exclusive in Brussels and is lined with 15th- and 16th-century townhouses showcasing high-end antiques stores, organic delis and expensive restaurants. It’s hard to imagine that a weekly horse market was once held in Place du Grand Sablon and these days it’s better known for the weekend book and antique markets held under cheery red-and-green striped awnings.

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Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

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Brussels has several top-class museums and the Royal Fine Arts Museum is foremost among them. The four main galleries are adjacent to each other in the place Royale; these comprise the Musée Old Masters, Musée Modern and the Musée Fin-de-Siècle, connected underground to the Musée Magritte.

The revamped, spacious galleries show off Belgian art from the 14th-century Flemish Primitives to the 20th-century Surrealists. Star turns in the Old Masters include Hans Memling, Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Brueghel the Elder and Lucas Cranach. Next door, the modern art galleries are currently being re-organized, so a tiny percentage of collection’s treasures – such as Van Gogh or Delvaux – are on revolving display. Musée Magritte opened in 2009 and holds the world’s biggest collection of more than 200 works by the Belgian surrealist master René Magritte, including his seminal The Dominion of Light as well as sculptures, sketches, photos and musical scores.

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Museums of the Far East

Museums of the Far East

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King Leopold II wanted famous structures from around the world represented on his royal estate at Laeken, and architect Alexandre Marcel undertook the project with these two towers representing Japan and China. It is said that King Leopold was inspired by his visit to the 1900 Exhibition in Paris. The towers were completed in 1904, built entirely of wood, and connected by tunnel. The woodwork was completed by specialists from Shanghai and Yokohama, and on display are both Chinese and Japanese arts and artifacts dating back to the 17th century.

The area around both structures is surrounded by a lush garden, fit for picnics. The distinct cultural styles of both the Chinese pavilion and the Japanese pagoda makes them stand out amongst the rest of the city’s architecture. Standing tall in red and with adjacent wooden pavilions, the towers are unique parts of Brussels that are not to be missed.

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Magritte Museum (Musée Magritte)

Magritte Museum (Musée Magritte)

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Belgium’s most loved surrealist, René Magritte, now has the 26,000 square foot (2,400 square meter) Musée Magritte dedicated to his works. In 1926 Magritte was a founding member of the Belgian Surrealists group. His works play with contrasts intended to shake the intellect.

The museum opened in 2009 and houses over 250 artworks and archival pieces. His trademark motifs of bowler hats, birds and the female torso appear in many favorite works including Sky Bird and Empire of Light.

An afternoon at the museum gives an interesting insight into Brussels from the 1920s to the 1960s and the cultural movements that shaped the city. Magritte's paintings are said to have influenced the ‘pop’ artists including Andy Warhol and later Jasper Johns.

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Autoworld

Autoworld

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Autoworld houses over 250 incredible vehicles of various origins and covers the history of the automobile while demonstrating the evolution and development of cars over more than a century. The displays include automobiles that are basically horse drawn carriages from the time when the horse was replaced with a steering wheel and an engine. There are exclusive sports cars from the 1960s and a Bugatti from 1928. The museum even has motorcycles and exhibits about the development of the garage. A separate room houses horse carriages, including one used by Napoleon the Third's wedding in 1853.

The cars on display here are all of European or US origin. They are arranged in chronological order so visitors can start from the origins of the automobile and work their way through the different developments throughout history. There is also an evolutionary time line of cars from the late 1800s to the 2000s including a blank spot for the future.

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Horta Museum

Horta Museum

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The Horta Museum in Brussels, Belgium was once the home of the architect Victor Horta. Horta is considered the father of the Art Nouveau style of architecture, and his house is a fantastic example of this style. He built the house for his own use and lived there from 1901 to 1919. The interior designs are original, including the mosaics, stained glass windows, furniture, and wall paintings. The museum also has a collection of furniture designed by Victor Horta as well as old photographs, scale models of some of his other buildings, casts and plans explaining his work.

The museum consists of two buildings, Horta's house and his studio. He favored warm woods and wrought iron, and a tour through his home will reveal many interesting characteristics. Look for the shapes inspired by nature and art from Celtic and Asian cultures. Pay attention to the chairs, tables, lamps, door handles, banisters, and candelabras.

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Avenue Louise

Avenue Louise

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Walking down the tree-lined Avenue Louise is the best way to experience the city’s best in luxury and fashion. Belgian and international designer labels line the elegant thoroughfare, which runs adjacent to the Boulevard de Waterloo. Here you’ll find upscale clothing shops for both women and men, with smaller, more affordable boutiques interspersed.

The avenue was commissioned by King Leopold II in 1847 to provide more direct access to the city’s Bois de la Cambre area. Named for his daughter Princess Louise, it now serves as a main street in the heart of Brussels. Keep your eyes peeled for art deco townhouses, extravagant hotels, and small, manicured parks and gardens. The avenue is also home to some of the city’s tallest office buildings. Or go for a leisurely stroll along the avenue’s 2.7 kilometers and be content with window shopping and people watching.

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