When most people imagine their European vacation, they think of cities like Paris or Rome, countries like Spain or Greece, or maybe one of the most current tourist hotspots like Lisbon or Edinburgh. But a problem arises exactly because these are the places where most people think of going, and by the time they get there, they find themselves competing against the crowds.
Allow me to proffer a suggestion that delivers an abundance of the Old European charm you seek minus the tourist hordes: the small but stunning country of Belgium.
Located at the crossroads between many of Europe’s historic powers, Belgium offers a singular blend of influences drawn from its once-German, French, Dutch, and Spanish rulers, as well as its own unique culture. As a consequence, it has four official languages—including English. So you can scratch “language barrier” off your list of excuses not to go.
But while Belgium is—historically speaking—directly on the beaten path, in regards to tourists and vacationers it is decidedly underappreciated. You therefore might not know where your visit should take you. Here are a few suggestions spanning the cities of Brussels, Bruges, and Ghent, including everything from great places to stay, to delicious places to eat, to astounding sites to see.
As the capital city of Brussels is home to Belgium’s primary airport, this is almost certainly where you’ll begin and end your visit. I recommend staying at the Hotel Amigo, 5-star accommodation with an interesting history. Built on the site of 16th-century prison, the Amigo still bears traces from that past. It’s also mere steps from the Grand Place where you’ll find many of the country’s most historic buildings, seasonal markets and events, and of course the notorious Manneken Pis—a fountain that portrays a naked young boy relieving himself.
Brussels enjoys a reputation as one of the most walkable cities in Europe, but in the course of your wandering, you might find yourself in need of a good place to rest. Ideal for this purpose is the centrally located Parc du Cinquantenaire—an expansive park that offers gorgeously manicured landscaping nestled within the embrace of a 140-year-old building complex. This unique structure is home to the Royal Military Museum, the Art & History Museum, and the AutoWorld vintage car museum, as well as the Great Mosque of Brussels. It’s a delightful place to sit for a picnic or explore the architecture and museums.
Pand Hotel, Bruges
Once you’ve arrived in Bruges, your first stop will be to check into your hotel, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find accommodations as uniquely charming as the Pand. An 18th-century carriage house converted into a luxurious boutique hotel, the refinement and comfort offered by the Pand is obvious at a glance, but it’s all the little details you might not notice at first that make it a truly thrilling experience. Your breakfast, for example, is prepared on a vintage cast iron stove before being served by a maid in a classic French maid outfit. And the room is outfitted with a selection of elegant Ralph Lauren fabrics. With its proximity to the historic Burg Square, Markt Square, and more, the Pand places you right near everything you’ll want to see.
Explore the City by Foot, Boat, or Sky
Like Brussels, Bruges is an extremely walkable city, so enjoy meandering its charming cobblestone streets, check out the historic art on display at the Groeninhemuseum, and stop off for some of Belgium’s famous beer and a tour at the Brewery De Halve Maan. If you feel like taking in the city via alternative transportation, hop on a boat to navigate its canals, or take to the sky and view it from above from a hot air balloon.
No stop to this part of Europe is complete without a visit to the Flanders Fields, home to many of World War One’s most epic battles. Ypres Sallient, Passendale, Site John McCrae, Menen Gate, the Polygon Wood, and others represent some of the most important historic sites from the war’s Western Front. These can be viewed from the ground, or if you’d like an overhead view there are a number of helicopter tours. Or if you’re looking for a truly singular experience, there are even companies that will fly you over the battlefields in an authentic WW2-era P-51 Mustang.
One of my favorite cities in the region is Ghent, which is known for its stunningly preserved medieval architecture. Providing convenient proximity to and stunning views of the city’s medieval district is the 1898 Post Hotel. With its Belle Epoque design and décor featuring an assortment of antiques and vintage paintings, walking through its doors feels like traveling back in time. Be sure to enjoy one of the hotel’s signature sherry Cobbler cocktails at the classy Cobbler Bar.
Explore the Culinary Delights of Patershol
Ghent’s Patershol district is famed for its culinary offerings, so try a little bit of everything. Most importantly, visit Tierenteyn-Verlent. Located a mere three-minute walk from the Post Hotel, this world-renowned shop has been producing mustard and pickles since 1790. Once you’ve tried its mustard you will crave it for the rest of your life. No joke. And be sure to check out Gravensteen—also known as the Castle of the Counts—which is a nine-hundred-year-old castle looming at the heart of the neighborhood.
In a way, the castle is the perfect representation of your adventure through Belgium. With its medieval majesty tucked into a neighborhood that itself is something of a contemporary foodie smorgasbord, here you’ll find the spectrum of what Belgium has to offer. Take in the view, take in the brew, and enjoy.