The Best Places to Visit in Belgium That Aren’t Brussels

I have this weird thing with picking travel destinations. I have been to several continents and have spent months exploring remote parts of the world. But I rarely seem to visit the places that are close to home. I always end up putting it off, thinking “it’s so close, I can go another time.”

That’s how it took me 28 years before I visited London, even though it’s only a 1-hour flight from the Netherlands. And how I had only been to Belgium once. Until last week.

I decided that it was finally time to take the ridiculously short drive (2 hours) down to my southern neighbors. I visited my friend Caroline from the Veggie Wayfarer in Mechelen en took day trips to Ghent and Bruges. Visit her website for specific tips on all of these places, she knows all the best spots to go.

I don’t know why I put it off for so long, because Belgium is awesome! Beautiful old cities, great food, even better beer and it’s basically just around the corner from me. As a Dutch speaker, I had the added bonus of being able to speak the local language (although most Belgians speak excellent English).

This trip has reaffirmed my idea that you don’t have to go far to travel. So, follow my lead and take some time to visit the wonderful places that are closer to home. And definitely put Belgium on your travel bucket list, because it’s a lovely little country!

Because Belgium is modest in size and has a great public train network, you can visit a lot of places in a single trip. While most people base themselves in Brussels, that is not my favorite city in Belgium. As most people would agree, it’s rather dirty and lacks the charm of smaller Belgian towns.

These are some of the best places to visit in Belgium that aren’t Brussels, although you could also do them as day trips from Brussels:

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Antwerp

Antwerp Central Station
Me

Any trip to Antwerp starts you off right because it has one of the most beautiful train stations in the world. It might seriously be the most elegant train station I’ve ever seen. It looks more like a cathedral!

As you stroll around the city, be sure to look at diamonds in the Jewish Quarter. There are lots of museums worth visiting in Antwerp, such as the Rubenshuis (former house of the famous painter Peter Paul Rubens), and the Museum aan de Stroom. This modern museum contains exhibitions on the history of the city and offers a beautiful view from the rooftop terrace.

Of course, no trip to Belgium would be complete without lots of food and drinks. The Belgians are known for their fries, chocolate, waffles, and beer. Antwerpen is the perfect place to try a few local brews. Watch out though, some of them can have as much as 15% alcohol!

In love with Belgian beer? Get one of these cool posters for at home!

Ghent

The old harbor in Ghent Belgium with old houses lining the canal

Not too far from Antwerp, you’ll find the beautiful historical city of Ghent. I instantly fell in love with this gorgeous city and its fairy tale Gothic architecture. The little streets are filled with cute houses, delicious street food and beautiful sights.

Ghent is also a University town with a vibrant, young population and tons of cultural events.

While you could simply wander around and look at all the beautiful buildings, I highly recommend joining a Free Walking Tour of Ghent to learn more about its fascinating history.

Some of the most important sights in Ghent are the Belfort with its dragon protecting the city, the massive fort, and the Korenlei. Fans of art won’t want to miss the Lamb of God painting from 1432.

Bruges

Canal with old houses and clock tower in Bruges Belgium

Bruges might be the most famous town in Belgium. Its historical centre is protected as a UNESCO Heritage Site and draws millions of visitors every year.

Walking around Bruges feels a bit like walking in a giant open-air museum. All around you are the cutest little streets, canals, and squares you’ve ever seen. If it weren’t for all the other tourists, you’d think you’d wandered through a wormhole back into the Middle Ages.

If you love history, this is one of the best places to visit in Belgium. Let yourself get lost and simply wander around, there’s something beautiful around every corner.

I also recommend visiting the Historium. Is it touristy? Yes. Is it still worth it? Absolutely! This interactive museum leads you back in time through Bruges of the 15th century with a mix of fiction and fact. It’s a lot of fun!

More interested in Belgian culinary history? Take a look at the Frietmuseum, to learn all about those delicious Belgian fries.

You can try Belgian candy at home with this Etsy snack box

Mechelen

Three colorful houses in green, red, and black in Mechelen Belgium

Often overlooked for the more famous Ghent and Bruges, Mechelen is certainly worth a visit as well. It’s close to both Antwerp and Brussels and makes for a perfect day-trip from either.

With a beautiful historic city centre, romantic little courtyards and an impressive Cathedral, Mechelen is a stunner.

Take your time strolling around the historic Old Town and taking in the sights. If you’re a fan of Gothic architecture, you’ll love the Cathedral. It is a beautiful example of Medieval Belgian architecture. You can even climb the 538 steps to the top of the tower for a gorgeous view.

If museums are more your thing, the Hof van Buyleyden is a must-visit. The museum is housed in a beautiful old city palace and the teaches you everything you need to know about the history of Mechelen.

For your Instagram shots, the Grote Markt and the Havermarkt are the best places to go. The 3 colorful houses called the Sint Jozef, De Duiveltjes, and Het Paradijske are one of the most photographed buildings in the city.

The Begijnhoven are also very charming. These used to house single women and mothers whose husbands didn’t return from the crusades. They dedicated their lives to God and community service. The Small and Large Begijnhof are on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Leuven

University Library in Leuven Belgium

Last, but not least: Leuven. My sister moved to Leuven in 2020 and because of corona, I was finally able to visit here in October 2021.

I couldn’t wait to see the town she now called home. And I certainly wasn’t disappointed!

Leuven is a beautiful, charming city. Because it houses the biggest University in Belgium, there’s a vibrant atmosphere despite the small size.

There are cute cafés, hip boutiques, and good restaurants on every corner. The real magic of Leuven to me lies in the historical architecture. The city is filled with monument upon monument, from the famous City Hall to the imposing University Library.

My favorite part was the Groot Begijnhof. This former beguinage now houses students and faculty. It is made up of cobblestone alleys, wooden bridges, and 17th century buildings. Strolling around here feels like stepping back in time.


What are your favorite places in Belgium? Let me know in the comments!

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