Things to Do in Flanders
Bruges often tops the list of Europe’s most picturesque cities, and its Historic Center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, abounds with photo opportunities. A warren of cobbled lanes and scenic canals opens out onto grand medieval squares framed by colorful old buildings and dramatic Gothic facades.
Bruges’ Princely Beguinage Ten Wijngaarde is one of the most famous and best preserved of Belgium’s UNESCO-listed Beguinages. One of the town’s most-visited attractions, it offers a glimpse into the European Beguine movement of the Middle Ages.
The medieval-style Markt (Market Square) is the setting for Bruges’ most photogenic landmarks, including the belfry (Belfort) and the Provinciaal Hof. At its center stands a statue of Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck, who played leading roles in the Flemish resistance against the French in the 1302 Battle of the Golden Spurs.
The brick spire of the Church of Our Lady is visible across the city. Home to several important artworks, including Michelangelo’s marble Madonna and Child, the restored interior of the church is a must-visit for fans of European architecture.
Burg Square sits on the former site of a castle, which was originally built to protect the area from invading Vikings and Normans (and remained the seat of the Counts of Flanders for more than 500 years). The castle is now gone, but the charming public square that replaced it, the Burg, has been the heart of Bruges ever since.
Surrounded by a park that’s long been known as a romantic place for a stroll, Minnewater—also known as the Lake of Love—is a great place for anyone looking for some quiet time in nature. Swans are a common site on the lake, and the traditional Belgian brick houses around it make the park particularly photogenic.
Fronted by a Romanesque, baroque and Gothic facade, Ghent’s cavernous cathedral serves as a repository for a valuable collection of art treasures, including works by Rubens and Laurent Delvaux. Its showpiece attraction is the Van Eyck brothers’ world-renowned 24-panel altarpiece,The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.
Owner of the oldest of the three great spires that dominate the pedestrianized heart of Ghent, the St. Nicholas’ Church (Sint-Niklaaskerk) was constructed between the 13th and 15th centuries in an eye-catching mixture of Romanesque and Flemish Gothic architectural styles. Built of Tournai limestone, its lovely exterior is adorned with flying buttresses and spiky spires as well as an imposing central tower; all this grandeur was paid for by Ghent’s wealthy medieval merchants to signal their wealth to the rival Flanders trading cities of Bruges and Antwerp. It’s probably more beautiful inside than out, but nevertheless all eyes lead to the Baroque high altar with its twisted side columns, floodlit through stained-glass windows high above. The church is currently under restoration but faint traces of fresco can still be seen on the supporting pillars of the nave. For the best view of St Nicholas’s flying buttresses, head for the viewing platform of the Belfry a few steps away.
Dominating the Bruges skyline at a height of 272 feet (83 meters, this striking Gothic belfry (known as the Belfort stands proud over Markt Square as one of the city’s most cherished landmarks. This 13th-century tower is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, drawing tourists with its historic galleries and panoramic views from the top.
The medieval quays of Graslei and Korenlei face each other across the canalized River Leie and originally formed part of Tusschen Brugghen, the city’s thriving harbour. Their banks are lined with a rare architectural treat – the loveliest gabled guild houses and warehouses in Belgium, built between the 1200s and 1600s by rich merchants and guilds whose wealth came from trade. The streets are united by St Michael’s Bridge, from where their gabled delights can be seen at best advantage, and although considerable restoration work has taken place, these distinctive townhouses have maintained their allure.
Graslei is lined by canal-side restaurants blessed with a graceful backdrop of gabled gild houses; the oldest is the Het Spijker (Stockpile House) at no. 10; other ornate façades once contained the guild houses of the stonemasons, the free boatmen and the grain measurers as well as the former customs house. Across the river from Graslei, Korenlei offers many surprises of its own, including imposing step-gabled, red-brick 16th-century houses. No. 9 is of particular interest for the gilded swans adorning the facade; in its time De Swaene has been both a brewery and a bordello. The pink-and-white Gildehuis van de Onvrije Schippers (Guild House of the Tied Boatmen) dates from 1739 and is a masterpiece of Flemish Baroque architecture.
By day, tour boats leave from the quays of Graslei and Korenlei; after dark the district morphs into party central and restaurants, cafés and bars sprout along the quaysides.
More Things to Do in Flanders
Standing next to city hall on Burg Square, the Basilica of the Holy Blood (Heilig-Bloedbasiliek) is a highlight of Bruges’ historical center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The church dates back to the 12th century and houses one of the city’s most sacred relics: a vial believed to contain the blood of Jesus Christ.
One of Belgium’s best-preserved medieval fortresses, Gravensteen Castle (also known as the Castle of the Counts) boasts thick stone walls, crenellated towers, and a history laced with intrigue and torture. Today, the landmark is a historical gem in the heart of Ghent; stop by to learn its often dark history firsthand.
One of Europe’s major World War I landmarks, the Menin Gate Memorial (sometimes known as the Ypres Memorial) commemorates more than 54,000 British and Commonwealth troops who perished in the Flanders region. Many of these soldiers were never formally buried, and their names are inscribed on the historic gate in a lasting tribute.
Antwerp’s main railway station, nicknamedSpoorwegkathedraal (Railway Cathedral) by locals, features glass-and-iron vaulted ceilings, an ornate central dome, and hundreds of gilded flourishes. An extensive restoration of the station was completed in 2009, when a shopping mall and two further platforms were added to the complex.
The historical and cultural heart of Antwerp, Grand Market Place (Grote Markt van Antwerpen) is surrounded by lavish 16th-century guild houses and the Cathedral of Our Lady (Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal). Although many of the buildings burned down in the 16th century, they were rebuilt in the same style and showcase Flemish architecture.
Bruges City Hall (Stadhuis van Brugge) is Belgium’s oldest building and arguably Bruges’ most beautiful. Constructed between 1376 and 1420, the flamboyant, Gothic-style building 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 only brewery still working in Bruges’ city center, Brouwerij De Halve Maan has been operated by the same family since 1856. It’s believed, however, to have been in operation for much longer: The first recorded mention of the brewery dates from 1546, when Bruges was home to more than 30 breweries.
Spearheading the rejuvenation of the once derelict Willemdok harbor area,Museum aan de Stroom (MAS) (which translates as ‘Museum on the River’) opened in 2011 to great acclaim – as much for its stellar architecture as its thoughtful, well-curated exhibitions paying homage to the city of Antwerp, its history and culture. Sitting just north of the city center on a dock commissioned by Napoleon in 1811, the museum was designed by Dutch architects Neutelings Riedijk and towers 60 m (197 ft) above the harbor. It is comprised of layers of bright-red sandstone bricks held together with glass and steel; the five themed floors of interactive and entertaining displays make use of nearly half a million artifacts – including anything from Old Master paintings to model boats, newsreel, penny farthings, model ships and personal accounts on video – to showcase Antwerp’s development into one of Europe’s largest ports, a diamond capital and a multiracial center of learning and culture. On the ninth and top floor an outdoor terrace gives views stretching over the city to the River Scheldt, where the Antwerp story began. Unusually for a museum, MAS also has the double-Michelin-starred restaurant ‘t Zilte, presided over by chef Viki Geunes. Outside is the MAS Boulevard, with a couple of small temporary exhibition galleries and pretty views over the bobbing boats in the harbor.
Located in central Ypres, the In Flanders Field Museum chronicles the history and horrors of World War I as they were played out in the Flanders’ countryside surrounding the city. Named after the WWI “In Flanders Fields” poem; it tells the story of the key battles that occurred nearby through artifacts, testimonials, photographs, and audio-visuals.
Also known as the Bruges Beer Experience, this innovative exhibition in the heart of Bruges immerses guests in Belgian beer culture through interactive tours and an on-site tasting bar. Opened in 2014, the museum uses modern technology to bring Belgium’s brewing history to life, making it a top spot for young families and beer lovers alike.
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.
The Cloth Hall dates from 1425 and was built as the storehouse for textile produced in Ghent; every piece had to be inspected here for quality before it could be exported. The hall still has its original carved wooden ceiling and a Baroque extension added in 1741 served as the city’s prison until 1902. Like Graslei and Korenlei, the Belfry looks spectacular when floodlit at night.
Hill 60 was a World War I battlefield in the Ypres Salent battlegrounds of Flanders named for its height at 60 meters (197 feet) above sea level. It was the site of intense fighting between British and German troops in April and May 1915. The British attack on April 17, 1915, began with the explosion of three mines which blew the top off the hill. Hundreds of soldiers died, and because of the continued fighting in this area, it was not possible to identify or even recover many of the bodies. Tunneling and mining operations were carried out here throughout the war by French, British, Australian and German troops. If tunnels caved in, soldiers who died underground were often left behind because of the difficulty of retrieving them. The remains of many soldiers from both sides of the war are still at this site.
At Hill 60 is a memorial to the 1st Australian Tunneling Company. Its plaque has bullet holes from World War II when this area was briefly fought over again. Near this memorial is the 14th Light Division Memorial. The site also holds the remains of several concrete bunkers which were used by both sides. Several other memorials and monuments are located at Hill 60 to honor soldiers who fought here during World War I.
Located inside the Historium Brugge building in the center of Bruges, the Duvelorium Grand Beer Café offers a relaxing space to have a drink and a bite following a Historium tour. Belgian-beer aficionados will want to spend some time at the bar, which is open to the general public and offers excellent people watching and Market Square views.
Covering a hillside near Ypres, Tyne Cot Cemetery is the world’s biggest Commonwealth military cemetery. Home to the graves of 11,954 British Commonwealth servicemen lost in World War I, the site—with its white gravestones and Memorial Wall— is a key fixture on WWI battlefields tours.
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