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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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121 Tours and Activities
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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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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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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St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral
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It took 300 years to complete the St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral and its architecture spans styles from Romanesque to Gothic to Renaissance. The Renaissance stained-glass windows are amazing and fill the cathedral with light. Inside, the chapel is not overly adorned after plundering by various invading armies.

The cathedral sits atop the ruins of an 11th century Romanesque chapel the remains of which can be viewed in the crypt. Saints Michael and Gudule are the male and female patron saints of Brussels. All Royal weddings take place here and many concerts are held throughout the year. On Sundays a concert is played on the carillon of 49 bells.

There is also a family of Peregrine Falcons who live in the northern tower of the cathedral. In front of the St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral is a viewing spot and on Sunday afternoons local bird experts are on hand to answer any questions.

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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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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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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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Burg Square
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The birth of the city of Bruges was heralded by Baldwin Iron Arm’s (Count of Flanders I) construction of a fortified castle on top of a hill in the 9th century. The castle 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 which replaced it, known as the Burg, has been the heart of the city for centuries.

The Burg is just a short stroll from the Markt (Bruges’ other town square) and is home to a collection of historic buildings, which together represent almost every era in Bruges’ history. The most impressive buildings include the late medieval town hall, the Renaissance-style old civil registry and the neo-classical court of justice.

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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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Basilica of the Holy Blood (Heilig-Bloedbasiliek)
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The Basilica of the Holy Blood (Heilig-Bloedbasiliek) is a church in Brugge, Belgium that has what is believed to be the blood of Jesus Christ. The basilica was once a chapel built in the 12th century, and it has been added to and rebuilt over the centuries. The lower chapel was built in a Romanesque style and has little decoration. The upper chapel, though originally Romanesque, was rebuilt in a Gothic style with plenty of colors and details.

Legend has it that Joseph of Arimathea wiped blood from the body of Christ after the crucifixion and preserved the cloth. Supposedly the cloth remained in the Jerusalem until the Second Crusade. At that time, the King of Jerusalem gave the relic to his brother-in-law, Count of Flanders, Diederik van de Elzas. The Count took the relic back to Brugge in April 1150, and had it placed at the chapel he had built on Burg Square.

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More Things to Do in Belgium

Minnewater (Lake of Love)

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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St. Bavo's Cathedral (Sint-Baafskathedraal)

St. Bavo's Cathedral (Sint-Baafskathedraal)

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Originating from a chapel built back in 942 for Saint Jean-Baptiste, Ghent’s standout attraction is the historic St Bavo Cathedral (Sint-Baafskathedraal), notable as the location of Emperor Charles’ baptism. Today, the cathedral’s crypt is the last remaining remnant of the original Romanesque structure and the majority of the cathedral dates back to the 16th century, renamed in honor of Saint Bavo of Ghent.

Don’t be distracted by the cathedral’s less-than-impressive exterior, a muddle of Romanesque, Gothic and baroque architecture, because a breathtaking collection of artworks, sculptures and carvings adorn the interiors. The dramatic centerpiece is the show stopping ‘Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’, a 24-panel Hubert and Jan van Eyck polyptych, completed in 1432 and housed in the chapel of Joost Vijd. Additional highlights include an oak and marble rococo pulpit by Laurent Delvaux, Rubens's The Conversion of St. Bavo and the tombstone of Bishop Triest.

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Princely Beguinage Ten Wijngaarde (Begijnhof)

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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Gravensteen Castle (Castle of the Counts)

Gravensteen Castle (Castle of the Counts)

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Moated Gravensteen Castle is a circular, gray fortress built in 1180 alongside a split in Ghent’s River Leie to symbolize the power of Philip of Alsace, who was the ruling Count of Flanders. Although a wooden castle had existed here for centuries, the new fortification was built to send out a clear message of his supreme power to his political enemies. Philip had been on several Crusades and clearly modelled the design of his new home on the austere crusader castles scattered around the Mediterranean Sea from Portugal to Greece. Its two-meter (six-foot) thick walls were made of Tournai limestone and fortified with battlements while the castle’s towers and turrets housed stables, a church and state apartments as well as a torture chamber to deal with anyone brave – or foolish – enough to cross Philip. Following extensive restoration in the late 19th century, today the torture chamber is a gruesome museum displaying guillotines, branding irons and thumbscrews.

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Graslei and Korenlei

Graslei and Korenlei

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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.

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Historic Centre of Bruges (Historisch Centrum van Brugge)

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)

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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Belgian Comic Strip Center

Belgian Comic Strip Center

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This exploration of comic strips as art is appropriately housed in an Art Nouveau building designed by Brussels’ most famous architect, Victor Horta. It traces the history of first comic strips through to the evolution of European comic books and present day pieces. The museum celebrates both the heroes and the creators of so many beloved comic strips. Many know of the Smurfs or the famous character Tintin of “The Adventures of Tintin,” and the center’s exhibit on imagination traces comic strip art from the development of Tintin in Belgium in 1929 up to 1960. Comic strips in French, Dutch, and English as well as from genres ranging from politics to science fiction and children’s comics are all represented.

In addition to the permanent collections, visitors have the option to delve into animation, a reading room, a research library, and a conservation facility.

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Brussels Town Hall (Hotel de Ville)

Brussels Town Hall (Hotel de Ville)

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Dominating the Gothic and Baroque mansions of Brussels’s glorious cobbled Grand-Place from the south side, the spectacular City Hall has a flamboyant Gothic façade and more restrained classical additions lying around a courtyard behind it.

Begun in 1402, this beloved local landmark was largely designed by Flemish architect Jacob van Thienen, but its distinctive lacy central belfry is the work of his compatriot Jan van Ruysbroeck and doubles the height of the façade, reaching up to 320 feet (97 m). It is adorned with a copper statue of St Michael – the patron saint of Brussels – killing a dragon; the belfry is useful to navigate by when lost in the charming tangle of streets of Brussels old city, especially when gloriously floodlit at night. The entire building is encrusted with 294 sculptures of saints and public figures, which were added by 91 different artists during the late 19th century.

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Musical Instruments Museum

Musical Instruments Museum

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The Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels celebrates the making of music with thousands of instruments from around the world. In one section, visitors can explore different instruments throughout history, from antiquity to present day, while another section displays popular instruments from Belgium, other parts of Europe, and from other continents. Another part of the museum focuses on string and keyboard instruments. Here visitors can learn about pianos, harps, violins, and more. There's also a section of mechanical, electrical, and electronic instruments, plus clocks and bells. The star of this section is the componium, which is a 19th-century orchestrion that automatically composes an infinite variety of music.

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Coudenberg (Former Palace of Brussels)

Coudenberg (Former Palace of Brussels)

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Found at the southern end of the Parc de Bruxelles, Coudenberg marks the site of the original palace of the Belgian Royal Family, which was destroyed to make way for the present Palais Royal. In the 12th century a small, fortified castle stood on Coudenberg Hill, and this was gradually extended and reworked by successive monarchs until it reputedly became one of the most beautiful palaces in Europe and the main residence of King Charles V.

In 1731 this imposing palace was destroyed by fire but it was not until 40 years later that its ruins were pulled down and the site flattened in preparation for the building of today’s stately Palais Royal. The cellars and chapel of the original palace can now be viewed underground as they stretch far underneath the present-day Rue Royale. Once open to the elements, the forgotten medieval cobbled Rue Isabelle is now below the Place Royale.

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Brussels City Museum (Musée de la Ville de Bruxelles)

Brussels City Museum (Musée de la Ville de Bruxelles)

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Behind the facade of a dark, grey Neogothic structure lays a collection of artifacts that tell the story of the city of Brussels. This intricate building is known as the Maison du Roi ("King's House”) and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The structure is also known as Broodhuis (bread market), a nod to its use as such in the 13th century.

From its early development to medieval era to present day, learn about the city’s history through its tapestries, paintings, sculptures, and photographs. Altarpieces, porcelain and silverware round out the collection of historical objects on display. Exhibits cover everything from urban development to the social, political, and cultural life of the capital. Envision the past with 3D models to scale of the city in different time periods. Of particular note is the costume collection of the statue of Manneken-Pis, an emblem of Brussels said to have nearly 800 wardrobe choices.

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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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