Perhaps you have never considered it, but you should think of Belgium as one of the most attractive places in Europe. It is a surprising destination because as well as its history - the one steeped in rich medieval architectural beauty and that of the last century marked tragically by wars – there is much more too.
For example, unpredictable in their beauty, there are the beaches of Belgium or the historical buildings that strike you due to their elegant lines and colours offering harmony and attraction. So many cities, all to be discovered. Wonderful towns with the canals and medieval walls, you can, for example, discover the best things to see in Bruges (www.costacrociere.it/costa-club/magazine/viaggio/cosa-vedere-bruges.htm) and much more too. Enjoy a relaxing evening, all washed down with a good beer! What can you see in Belgium? Bruges, Brussels, Antwerp and much more. Discover the best places in Belgium with Costa cruise!
Just think that its historical old city centre is a UNESCO world heritage site. Add on the beauty of its palaces and its alleyways, and its canals that offer you wonderful glimpses and a different perspective. Here there are also some characteristic workshops, for lace-making, spaces dedicated to art, historical bridges, churches that have changed identity and romantic places, such as the wonderful lake of love. If that is not enough, you can get lost amidst the castles and at least two innovative museums: the chocolate museum and the French fries museum.
Bruges is a city to discover, with so many things to do and see.
Basilica of the Holy Blood
When admiring it on the outside, it captures a visitor’s attention due to its excellent state of conservation and Romanesque style that fits perfectly with the colourful windows. However, this 12th century chapel has its greatest attractions on its inside. Among other things, it holds a particular relic: a cloth that is said to have been soaked in Jesus Christ’s blood, placed in a crystal bottle that – since it was brought to Bruges by the Count of Flanders, Thierry d’Alsace, in 1149 after a Crusade - has never been opened.
The church actually comprises two chapels, the Romanesque one of St Basil and the other real Basilica of the Holy Blood, with an entrance onto Burg Square, in the oldest part of Bruges where we also find the Stadthuis, the City Hall. The church's original windows were removed after the French Revolution (and some are stored in London), while the current copies date back to the 19th century. Some of the works to admire, are paintings from the school of Van Dyck. The silver altar stores the relic while outside the basilica many items belonging to the chapel are on display in the adjacent Museum of the Holy Blood.
St Bavos’ Cathedral
The oldest church in Ghent (Gent in Flemish) was built on the site of two previous buildings, when the city was undergoing a period of great opulence between the 15th and 16th century when imposing works were commissioned, like this Gothic Cathedral, built on the wishes of Charles V on a Romanesque base that can still be recognised, for example, in its central nave.
It is home to a wonderful collection of works of art: from the altar in Baroque style to the Rococo pulpit in gilded wood and marble, the Rubens masterpiece portraying St Bavos entering the Convent of Ghent and the famous Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (or Ghent Masterpiece). It is one of the symbols of early Flemish works, a masterpiece by Jan Van Eyck and his brothers. The altarpiece panels are open and turned towards the interior of the church each day around midday, to allow visitors to admire them. Fun fact: during Ghent celebrations, people are permitted to climb the ancient steps and enjoy the view of the city from up high.
In the 1950s, after several bombing raids that the city was subjected to during World War Two, the capital of Belgium created a role at the centre of Europe for itself, becoming the seat of the European Union Commission and Council, as well as the home of its Parliament. These achievements have definitely emphasised the cosmopolitan spirit. It is no coincidence that the young people of the city prefer the more international English language to the Flemish dialect or French.
On the subject of culture, the Royal Museums of Fine Art host collections ranging from ancient to modern art. The strength is clearly represented by the attraction of works by Flemish and Dutch authors. Names such as Rogier van der Weyden, Hieronymous Bosch or the Bruegel and Pieter Paul Rubens and the disciple Antoine van Dyck give an idea of what the Palas de la Dynastie can offer in its exhibitions. And we have forgotten to mention George Seurat or Magritte.
Brussels is the city of the European Union and the buildings of power. The most accessible for tourists is the House of Parliament, where it is also possible to sit in on (for no longer than an hour) plenary sessions. The city has another symbol, however, the Atomium.
Grand Place, Brussels
In ancient times, it was a swamp. Today it is a huge square that represents the very heart of the city, a meeting place for everyone and the favourite place for a glass of Belgian beer while amidst so much history and the coming and going of tourists. An open-air exhibition of important buildings with a special atmosphere appreciated by UNESCO too, as it made it one of its World Heritage Sites.
At the centre of Grote Markt (Large Square in Flemish), you can see the variety and beauty of the buildings all around you. For example, the Hotel de Ville, the Town Hall, an architectural jewel that can boast having the most ancient history in the square. It was built in 1459 and is an imposing sight with its 96-metre high tower on top of which a golden statue of St Michael Archangel stands. The King's house, Maison du Roi, was built about one century later and was home to the royal family for many years. Today it is the site of the City Museum. Le Pigeon is also a sight to see. The house where Victor Hugo spent his exile in Belgium.
Busy by day and night, the square is often the setting for musical concerts and plays. Each Sunday morning, thee bird and flower market is also held here and at Christmastime it has great light and sound shows. Every two years for the August national holiday, it plays host to a flower exhibition while in the month of July we can witness the Ommegang, a procession in costume, with 1400 participants.
The castle became the official residence of the Kings of Belgium in 1834. To be precise, this is where all the sovereign's official functions take place, while their actual residence is in Belvedere Castle. This is why it cannot be visited by the public.
However, a visit to the park that stretches for 26 hectares into an even larger area that houses other attractions, for example the Atomium, is well worth a visit. In the exact centre of the park, we can find the Gothic monument dedicated to Leopold I, the famous “Dynasty Monument”. The avenues are filled with horse chestnut trees and magnolia trees, which are at their best in spring time, with the addition of jasmine and hawthorn bushes. While walking, you reach the Chinese Pavilion with its collection of porcelain and Chinese and Japanese items, including the Japanese tower.
There are also the Royal Greenhouses, the last piece of the royal residence. They look like a city made of glass, comprising huge pavilions. A real architectural masterpiece in art nouveau style, created on the wishes of Leopold II at the end of the 19th century. The natural heritage they contain is wonderful, so much so that to preserve its exclusive beauty, the greenhouses are only open to the public from the end of April to the start of May.
The city’s true symbol is a gigantic iron crystal, 102 metres high. When it was built in 1958, this construction looked totally futuristic but even today it still has an attraction that is projected towards the future. It comprises nine metal spheres all connected by a tube structure. Each sphere hosts various activities, in particular permanent or temporary exhibitions. On entering and looking out of the small windows that the spheres have, you can admire the view below you.
The central sphere now has a coffee shop, in the top one, you can dine under the stars right on top of the park. After time-consuming renovation work, the Atomium was reopened to the public in 2006 and is now perhaps Brussels’ main attraction. In fact, it attracts about half a million tourists a year. It is funny to think that when it was designed, it was originally intended only to be used for six months. A short distance from the Atomium, we find the Planetarium, an extremely interesting place for astronomy lovers. It also houses a miniature reproduction of Europe.
Capital of Walloon, French speaking, it has been nicknamed the City of Fire, due to its intense activity and the desire to party, perhaps while tasting a gaufre (also known as waffles) or boulets a la liègeoise (meatballs) with famous French fries on the side, a local delicacy. Liege is known for its love of live.
The city is also famous for being the birthplace of the writer George Simenon and – according to more than one historian, – also of Charlemagne. Liege is also the city of “one hundred bell towers”, that are the synonym of a strong cultural and architectural tradition. For example, we can find it in the Perron, the fountain that does not go unnoticed in the centre of Place du Marché, a symbol of liberty. Or in the most characteristic corners of the city, such as the lanes, the ancient buildings, and the streets that join one district to another.
There are also religious places that are majestic historical and aggregation references. The Cathedral of Saint-Paul first of all, but also the Collegiale Saint-Denis, and Collegiale Saint-Barthélémy with its noteworthy baptismal fonts. And also the Palace of the Bishop Princes in Place Saint-Lambert. Centuries-old traditions alongside the desire for modernity, that here we find expressed in the futuristic lines of Guillemins Station, designed by the archistar Calatrava and the place that welcomes visitors who arrive in Liege on high-speed trains.
Involved in the Ronde van Vlaanderen, it is inevitably a popular place with cyclists. On this subject, a visit to the museum dedicated to this legendary race is an absolute must: there are interactive representations and several historical items linked to the cyclists who have ventured onto the pavé of this race. The other well-known characteristic of this city on the banks of the Schelde is the tradition of master brewers, so another place to possibly visit is to the Liefmans Brewery, founded back in 1679 where the famous Goudenband beer is made. It is typically copper colour, slightly acidic and gives of a fragrance of black cherries.
There is also art to be seen here. The Town Hall is decorated with a wonderful Flemish-style tower, the belfort, with a beautiful internal hall (Lakenhalle) that shines with its golden items and mirrors. There is an exhibition of the famous Flanders tapestries, in the De Lalaing house, where Margherita of Parma (or Margherita of Austria who was the Duchess of Florence as well as of Parma and Piacenza, then governor of the Netherlands ruled by the Spanish) was also born.
This town was sadly made famous for the first and second “Battle of Ypres”, both during the First World War: this was where chlorine was used for the first time as a lethal weapon (which has been known as Iprite since that time). The gas killed thousands of English soldiers while the Germans were surprised by the devastating effects of this weapon. In the end, however, the British army managed to control a strategic position that forced the Germans to not conquer the city, even after having destroyed it by bombarding it. Including the medieval historical old town. Today the several war cemeteries (170) and the battle grounds have become places of pilgrimage. The tour can also be done by bike, following the Ipres Salient Cycle Route, thirty kilometres on the front lines, in the middle of the countryside and villages, in the heart of tragic, permanent memories.
In medieval times, it was an important city for Belgium, a trade centre for fabrics and textiles. The city’s central square is occupied by the Grote Markt, the market characterised by the Lakenhalle, a building organised as a fabrics market. Built between 1260 and 1304, demolished by German attacks, it was rebuilt in 1958. It exhibits the statues of the monarchs Albert I and Elisabeth I. In the medieval times, ships came here directly from the sea.
Sint-Maartenskathedraal is similar to French cathedrals in size. Nearby, we find the Schouwburg Theatre and the Anglican St George’s Church that celebrates the Commonwealth soldiers killed in the battles of Flanders. Outside the market square, we find the Menin Gate through which the English army marched towards the battlefields and often towards death. It is the monument from where every visit to those historical places begins.
University city (Kit Leuven was founded in 1425) and cultural centre. Some lucky students live in the “Beguinage”, the historical district that is a UNESCO world heritage site. Generally, about thirty thousand students who frequent the city lend a lively atmosphere to Leuven.
It is the Flemish capital of beer, the headquarters of Inbev, a world colossal in beer production. The annual Zythos Beer Festival is not to be missed, while every spring, the Leuven Beer Weekends are held, usually in April. It is a real paradise for anyone who appreciates beer. But also for curious travellers: every corner holds beauty and you can easily travel round on a bike or on foot.
Looking out onto the North Sea, the city of Ostend is closely connected to its port that is the leader in Belgium for handling cargo. Another important place is the beach, a long strip of fine, golden sand, almost like it is lapped by the Mediterranean. In the past, the city was loved by the monarchy or aristocrats who often built summer residences in the area. A symbol of this special attention for elegant buildings is the Koninklijke Gaanderijen, the 400-meter royal gallery that joins the park and the royal villa with a racetrack. The centre of the gallery holds the Thermae Palace, a luxury hotel linked to the adjacent golf course.
The Kuursal is a building rebuilt after the War, for holding concerts. This is where the city casino is also located. Coming to Ostend by train means discovering the French-style station building that welcomed the kings with a dual tower structure. The Sint Petrus en Pauluskerk Cathedral offers a view of the two Gothic spires from a distance. While walking around the city - and on the Visserskaal that runs along the port - we can breathe in the sea air. There are restaurants and kiosks nearby where you can eat fish, while seagulls fly overhead. You then come to the fish market and then to Albert I Promenade that changes the panorama.
This iconic monument at the top of a hill dominates what was the Waterloo battlefield, the stage of the allied victory over the French Emperor Napoleon’s attempts to conquer it. The lion roars once more, in the direction of France, from its forty metres height. This is perhaps the most famous monument in Belgium, an artificial hill with a cast iron sculpture on top that was built between 1823 and 1826. It is said that this was the exact point where the Prince of Orange was injured during the victorious battle.
There are 226 steps to climb to the top. The monument, known as “to the Dutch” is also an excellent observation point over the battlefield. A table summarises the topography of the location and the movements taken by the troops.
Antwerp and the Het Eilandje District
The second city of Belgium, one of the most important trade centres in Flanders and in general in the whole of northern Europe. Antwerp is famous for its rich and exclusive diamond trading. There are several activities and points of interest, especially if you are an art, architecture or fashion enthusiast. That is not all. It is also a reference point for business, design, shopping and, of course, beer.
The most important district of Antwerp is still Eilandje: this is where once over the trading city stood, where the port was the main area. Now the new trends pass and merge with the city's rhythm. With many souls: The transgressive soul of Vervesrui with the girls in the shop windows, the elegant soul of the palaces and coffee shops near the church of Saint Paul. A visit to the Mas is essential. It is a museum in two red-brick and glass buildings, ten floors of elevators that allow visitors to discover the city from a special point of view.
Victor Horta’s Houses
If Brussels is considered to be one of the capitals of art nouveau, merit must partly be attributed to Victor Horta. While walking around the Belgian capital, we continuously come across Liberty-style buildings built in iron, red bricks and glass. There are about 500 and UNESCO has acknowledged this characteristic of the city, rewarding the main houses designed by the architect Horta.
Hotel Tassel is a real monument to art nouveau, the manifesto, the first house built by Horta according to his innovative theories. The façade is embellished with columns and cathedral windows with a metal structure structure that joins two buildings into one using a large window. Hotel Van Eetvelde is a small building considered to be Horta’s masterpiece.
On four levels, it has a charming winter garden surrounded by wrought iron balustrades. Musée Horta was the studio of the father of art nouveau, now transformed into a museum that is dedicated to the Belgian architect's life. Hotel Solvay is considered to be a true jewel, commissioned by the chemical magnate, Ernest Solvay. That is not all: there are also the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles, the Central Station and the antique Waucquez Store.
Set sail for Belgium with Costa Cruises
This is the moment to set sail, maybe with the desire to ride on a bicycle, a favoured means of transport for discovering the best of the beauties of Belgium slowly but with the desire to make discoveries. There are so many things to see, just find a little enthusiasm and decide on your next holiday.