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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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Ghent City Center
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Ghent is Belgium’s best-kept secret, a cosmopolitan university city of imposing churches, top-quality museums and some of the most beautiful medieval architecture in Europe. Add to this a vigorous cultural scene, packed late-night bars, restaurants and clubs, plus stylish hotels and this is a city not to be missed.

The city’s pedestrianized heart surrounds triangular Korenmarkt, which was the medieval market place, with most of the major sights – the ornate Stadhuis, St Bavo’s Cathedral, St Nicholas’ Church and the Belfry – within easy walking distance. Just northwest of Korenmarkt, the River Leie is canalized and bordered with the medieval quays of Graslei and Korenlei; it curls through Ghent on its way to join the River Schelde and a network of canals leading to the port. Close by, the austere Gravensteen Castle lies on a split in the Leie, and beyond that is Patershol, an enclave of narrow streets crammed with 17th-century artisanal cottages.

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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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More Things to Do in Belgium

Manneken Pis

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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Mini-Europe

Mini-Europe

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If you’ve only got a few days in Brussels, make a speedy tour of the major sights of the countries in the European Union at Mini-Europe – all in miniature. Among the 350 detailed models exhibited here, the architectural highlights featured include the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the canals of Venice and the Acropolis; they’re all there in carefully replicated models scaled down to 1.25.

The park offers an entertaining way for kids to learn more about the countries of the EU and significant moments from their history. Interactive displays at each model light up various elements of the buildings, trains chuff around tracks, bells chime and national anthems play. Vesuvius erupts, the Berlin Wall comes down and matadors fight the bulls in Spanish bull rings.

As the EU expands, so new models arrive at Mini-Europe. The latest arrivals in 2013 were St Mark’s Church from Zagreb, Croatia, and a diorama celebrating the succession of King Philippe to the Belgian throne in July.

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Church of Our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk)

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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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Basilica of the Holy Blood (Heilig-Bloedbasiliek)

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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