Belgium is possibly our most favorite country. It has so much history, culture, art and each city is so wonderfully different from the other. And, it has SO much good beer! It is the holy land of beers after all and the delicious Belgian brews was our primary motivation to go on our beer pilgrimage to Belgium over the Christmas holidays.
Even if you’re not a beer lover, you will find Belgium incredibly fascinating. The buildings, the walls, the people, the culture, the food – will fill you with unbelievable joy. The Belgians are a class apart – they are quirky, bold, friendly, fun, and artistic. You will find both contemporary and medieval art in the cities of Belgium.They have deep regard for their history and struggles and yet do not hesitate to experiment and keep up with modern times. Belgium has a unique mix of culture and culinary delights owing to its French and Dutch influences.
There is something for everyone in this wonderful country – whether it is admiring art, learning about the history of comics, taking a peaceful canal ride, climbing up the bell tower for gorgeous views, walking past medieval buildings, visiting beautiful churches, indulging in mouth-watering food, or just drinking a well-brewed ale – you simply cannot get enough of this fantastic country. And, if you are visiting Belgium during Christmas, it makes it all even more special.
We spent a short 7 days in Belgium visiting Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent, and Bruges. And, this made for the most remarkable, joyful holiday, and the perfect end to a great year filling us with lots of inspiration and energy to ring in the new year.
Take a look at our Belgian journey.
[Click the image or link below to see what these cities are like.]
A medieval, little Belgian town filled with incredible history, art, and architecture.
When we were planning our visit to Belgium over the Christmas holidays, we knew we had to make time for Ghent (also known as Gent). It is less than an hour away from Brussels and is often overlooked for the neighboring, more popular Bruges. Bruges is of course simply amazing and we as well are absolutely in love with the city but Ghent is a Belgian gem you don’t want to miss if you are in Belgium and have a few hours to spare. The crowds are lesser, there is no insane queue to go up to the Belfry, and it has pretty canals too. While there are some striking similarities between Ghent and Bruges, they couldn’t be more different.
And, Ghent, like Antwerp is an architectural marvel, although in different styles. Antwerp being a much bigger city has mostly contemporary styles whereas Ghent is full of older, medieval buildings. But both cities, Bruges, most of Belgium, and parts of the Netherlands all have the same distinctive crow-stepped gable style.
We got to Ghent as early as we could (considering the late risers we are) and it was a short, pretty train ride. We passed by a bit of the Belgian countryside which is nice but not as mind-blowing as the Swiss countryside or even the German countryside but appealing nevertheless.
Our first stop was the Gravensteen or the Castle of the Counts. Much to our dismay, it was closed. Not sure why we were surprised considering it was the day of Christmas Eve. Although some of our plans are spontaneous, we are usually prepared at least in terms of checking out opening hours etc. but it was Christmas and let’s just say the Belgian beer and the Christmas spirit got the better of us. There were many others like us who went to the castle door, read the notice, and left disappointed. We felt bad that we’d missed it as it has a pretty cool torture chamber that we were intrigued about and wanted to see. But, we realized this would happen during our holiday as we were traveling during Christmas after all. Lifting our spirits, we headed over to the Belfry.
Like the famous Bruges Belfry, Ghent has its own Belfry too. What’s cool about the one in Ghent is that it has an elevator to take you up to the top so you don’t have to struggle like poor Ken (from the movie ‘In Bruges’) to climb up those winding stairs like you’d have to in Bruges. You can also get off the elevator at each level to check out their awesome bell collection and take a look at the intricate workings of the bell tower.
The first level is the secrecy room which as the name suggests served as a hiding ground for valuable records which were kept in heavy, chained trunks. This place also served as a hideout for some of the Germans during WW II.
The construction of the Belfry is said to have started in 1313 and finished in 1380, when the first dragon was placed atop the tower. A few centuries later, the dragon was made to spit fire during big events – ah, this would have been a pretty cool spectacle. Many a dragon went on the tower and were brought down weather-beaten. You’ll find one of these former dragons at the second level.
Also, at the second level is the Roland bell – the rockstar bell of the Ghent Belfry, which was installed originally as an alarm bell and then became an hourly bell. This bell kept the show going until the carillon (a musical instrument comprising of multiple bells to produce a melody) was built in the 17th century. The original Roland was melted to be used as bell metal for the new carillon. A new Roland came about soon after.
In the next level, you’ll find many of the older bells of the Belfry – they range from little bells to massive heavy-lifters.
In the same level, just a few steps higher, you will find this antique music box with 17600 holes in it!!
The bells sound for about 5 minutes and the entire mechanism is fascinating to watch. You can go up one more level to the see the actual bell room with all the 54 bells in action with the hammers pounding on them as the levers attached to the drum below are moving. It’s quite a riveting show! The Belfry not only served as a bell tower to announce the time and issue warnings of imminent danger but also served as a watchtower keeping an eye out for approaching enemies and offering some great views of the city.
We then headed on to the St Bavo’s Cathedral or Sint-Baafs Cathedral.
The cathedral is most renowned for its 15th century altarpiece – the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb– a masterpiece from the Van Eyck brothers. It’s amazing that the painting survived all those fires, wars, and thefts and it felt wonderful to be able to admire this brilliant piece of work. The piece has 12 front panels and each of them has a religious significance. The painting is a polyptych and has a beautiful closed view of the back panelsas well. You cannot take any pictures of the original piece however you will find a smaller copy further down the cathedral.
The interiors of the gothic cathedral are were quite impressive as well displaying other art works including one of Peter Paul Rubens. We had seen some of his stunning work already in Antwerp and he definitely seemed to be revered in the Flemish region.
Now all this excitement had gotten us very thirsty and it was time to make a beer-stop. The Christmas market was still open and in spite of it being the eve of Christmas, both locals and tourists flocked the stalls.
La Chouffe Golden Ale
Straffe Hendrik Quadrupel
Boy, were we pleased to see the beers in the Christmas market! Only in Belgium did we find awesome beer in the Christmas markets. It was so good to drink La Chouffe on tap. So fresh and bursting with flavor! And since it is so close to Bruges, we had some of the local Brugge beers too. We had still not visited Bruges – we’d been saving the best of Belgium for the last.. and we knew we just had to get there soon. Steve had visited Bruges before; he’d had the beers and had already set high expectations for me and I was pleased with the little I’d had in Gent. Gent has some lovely local breweries and beer bars.. we had time to visit just one as most of them were either closed or soon closing. Luckily the Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant was still open but just for a bit. It’s located right in the city centre with the backdrop of the canals for a view and has a great collection of Belgian brews. Being Christmas eve and all, they were shutting down early and we had time for just one beer. If you do have time, you should also check out the t’Dreupelkot which is located right next door and the Gruut Brewery (these guys brew their beers with herbs instead of hops and being hop lovers, this one majorly piqued our curiosity but we have to wait for our next trip to Ghent to explore this one).
We spent the next hour or so just walking around the city, taking in its beauty and indulging in some local bites.
Our final stop was the Graslei and Korenlei. This was the most loved and popular spot in Ghent. With its historical buildings, quaint little cafes, and people kayaking down the Leie river – Graslei and Korenlei have a delightful rustic, romantic charm to it.
Some of the buildings in the Graslei date back several centuries and have been heavily renovated over the years. This place would surely be a different scene in summer – sprawling with people on the riverbanks.
We look forward to going back to Ghent in summer. We just could not get enough of this charming little city – a day is just too short a time to explore this incredible, historic Belgian city.
And, yet, sometimes in just a day, you experience so much beauty that you are filled with a deep sense of gratitude and contentment for all that life brings your way.
A beautiful city in Belgium with gorgeous medieval buildings, a large port, a great sense of fashion, a diamond market, and an outstanding art scene.
You are hit with the architectural wonder of the city right from the minute you arrive at their central train station. They definitely have one of the prettiest train stations. You can see trains arriving/departing at 3 levels. It’s a beautiful big train station.
As soon as you step outside the central station, you can see several diamond stores. Antwerp is known for its diamond market and apparently more than 70% of the world’s diamonds are traded here!
We had just a few hours in Antwerp and wanted to make the most of our short time and decided to just walk up to the city’s main square. We walked past a whole bunch of cyclists – definitely more of them here compared to Brussels and Bruges. We passed by medieval buildings that were an architectural delight! We walked past numerous stores of the big brands Gucci, Armani, Prada etc. – Antwerp is quite a fashionable city!
In just a few minutes, we were in the centre of the town where they had the Christmas Market – the stalls displayed a great variety of well-crafted artefacts unlike the Brussels market.
Since we got to Antwerp somewhat late and well into the lunch hour, we had to stop for some grub and beer first.
Unfortunately, the Kulminator which is one of the highly recommended beer spots was closed the day we were visiting. We settled for the next best thing. They had a nice selection of restaurants just behind the Christmas market and we found a cosy one with a good selection of beers. The city’s most famous brew is the De Koninck, locally known as ‘bolleke’. While it was not one of our favorite Belgian brews, it quenched our thirst. Their other popular beer is the Seef Bier, a pale ale – liked this one better.
Post lunch, we walked around the city centre just exploring the place. Antwerp is filled with some creative, interesting monuments – you should especially check out Sleeping Nello and Lange Wapper.
), covered by a blanket of cobblestones
a local legend in the Flemish region of Belgium
One of the main attractions of Antwerp is the Cathedral of Our Lady (Onze Lieve Vrouwkathedraal). It is said to be one of the largest gothic cathedrals in Benelux. The cathedral is most renowned for its display of Peter Paul Rubens’ masterpieces. It also includes the works of some other well-known Flemish painters. It is a huge cathedral and a giant, mesmerizing art gallery.
One of the first things you notice as you walk in is this amazing 14th century marble sculpture of Madonna and Child(Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus). The gentle gesture of the child and the mother’s smile as she looks upon her child affectionately just warms your heart. There’s no greater bond than the one between a mother and her child!
We continued to be spell-bound as we walked on admiring Ruben’s paintings. Most of his works are altarpieces and a reflection of famous scenes from The Bible. Ruben’s masterpieces ‘The Descent from the Cross’ and ‘The Raising of the Cross’are simply mind-blowing. You can stare at it for hours.
While the exterior of the church is gothic style, the interiors are filled with Ruben’s baroque art. Although the artwork is definitely the main attraction, the cathedral itself is quite spectacular with its carved woodwork and sculptures.
We were the last ones to leave the church – we had completely lost track of time in here. As we were getting out of the church, we heard beautiful music. Intrigued, we walked out to see a choir full of youngsters. They were such a talented bunch, singing some really high-pitched phenomenal melodies.
It was just a day before Christmas Eve and the place looked so festive!
We strolled around the Grote Markt or Groenplaats, the city’s main square. The square is filled with ornate guildhalls similar to that of the Brussels’ Grote Market (or the Grand Place). Also adorning the Grote Markt is the city’s Stadthuis (town hall) and the Brabo Fountain.
This sculpture of Antwerp’s hero, Brabo, depicts him flinging a severed hand.The legend goes like this – There used to be a giant called Antigoon who used to take a toll from those who crossed the Antwerp river, Schledt. And, he cut off the hands of those who refused to pay. So, Brabo cut off the giant’s own hand and flung it into the river. And, that’s how the city got its name Antwerpen – meaning hand werpen or hand throw or throwing hand(s).
Antwerp definitely had the best Christmas Markets we’d seen in Belgium. It had stalls all around the centre of the city and some near the port as well. There was a huge ferris wheel and ice skating which seemed to be a trend in Belgium and Netherlands. The ferris wheel ride was so much fun. I hadn’t been on one in years and the views from up there was lovely.
Antwerp is also well-known for its jazz clubs and we were a bit disappointed that we couldn’t catch the jazz band in action at De Muze, a hotspot for great jazz music in town. The last train back to Brussels was at 11 ish PM and the band doesn’t start until after 10.
There’s so much to do in this beautiful Belgian city and we know we’ll head back there someday and stay a few nights.
Despite being bigger, fashionable and modern compared to the other medieval cities of Belgium, Antwerp has a charm of its own with its amazing collection of art, cobblestoned lanes, riverside castle and splendid jazz culture.
Brussels was our first stop on our Belgium beercation. Steve visited Belgium years ago and we had been looking forward to doing Belgium together for a while now and we were so kicked to finally visit Belgium over the Christmas holidays last year.
My first impression of Brussels, just seeing what was in plain sight, was like.. Whoa, wait, why do some of the buildings look so rundown and covered with soot!? Why do the metros and the metro stations look so ancient? Why is that guy peeing in the street, that too in the centre of the town!? [And, no, I don’t refer to the infamous statue of the little boy peeing]. It took me a while to warm up to Brussels and appreciate the city for what it is. The beer (uh… beers) helped. Brussels has tons of breweries, brew-pubs, bars, beer stores — there’s just loads of good beer everywhere. In Belgium, beer is not just a drink, it is a culture.. and, it has sacred origins!
[More on our beer pilgrimage in Belgium coming soon in a separate post but here’s a peek!]
There’s a lot to do in Brussels. A good place to start is definitely the city’s main square – la Grand Place (French) or de Grote Markt (Dutch). Yep, they have two names for everything including street names. And this can get confusing and you’ll wonder if it’s two different places as they are usually totally different. The city is bilingual and both French and Dutch are official languages. French though is the dominant language and you will hear it everywhere. It’s interesting to note that the city’s origins were that of Dutch and it has been more of a French speaking nation only since the 19th century (the French revolution of course).
The Grand Place was packed with lots of people, every time we passed thru. This picture was taken at 2 AM. Well, it was Christmas time and there were tons of tourists, like us. And, through the evening, they had this light and music show happening which had the crowd flocked to it like bees. The light show was alright, a bit too bright and way too colorful for our liking. And the music, well, may be some Belgian folk music or Christmas carols or anything other than electronica might have made the whole experience (being in a historic city, watching a light show on historic buildings etc.) more relatable.
The Grand Place is surrounded by ornate guildhalls, the Stadthuis (the Town Hall), and the Broodhuis (Breadhouse or the Museum of the city of Brussels). Most of these buildings including the town hall date back to the 15th century although the Grand Place itself dates back to early 12th century. The buildings here an architectural delight with their gothic and baroque styles. The ornamental guildhalls are especially remarkable and at night, even more so with a beautiful glow. There’s always something or the other happening at the Grand Place. It seems like the bi-annual flower carpet show that takes place in the Grand Place is one of their most popular events.
Just a few blocks away from the Grand Place is the infamous Manneken Pis (translates to Little Man Pee), popularly known as Peeing Boy. This small bronze sculpture of the naked peeing boy is a huge deal in Brussels and is a national symbol.
He is apparently seen in a variety of outfits from Santa suits to Elvis Presley to Tibetan monks to national costumes of other countries. What amused us the most though was that for some special occasions, he would be hooked up to beer kegs and you can have a sip of Belgian’s famous brews from his truly. 😀 There are many stories around the origins of the statue – check these out here. And, the boy has a sister and a dog doing exactly what he seems to enjoy doing. We didn’t check out the Jeanneke Pis and Zinneke Pis – decided to save some of this amusement for another trip to Brussels.
Brussels as well had a Christmas Market, just a few meters away from the Grand Place – nothing nearly as beautiful and festive as the German Christmas Markets but nice nonetheless.
They had a whole bunch of stalls selling handcrafted wares, woolen wear, Glühwein, and local Belgian food (loads of waffles and fries of course). And, surprisingly also had stalls selling other cuisines like Mediterranean, Turkish, and Asian. Definitely catering to the multi-cultural city that Brussels is. What we liked more about the Brussels and the other Belgian Christmas markets we saw were the beer stalls – we were especially thrilled to see a craft beer stall with a great collection of craft beers and some of the traditional Belgian beers.
The best way to discover Brussels is to just walk around the city. You will see sections with historic buildings and sections with high-rise offices. It’s a big city that looks so different at almost every turn in the road. AND, it has some super cool comic strip murals on a lot of its walls. The Comic Strip Route features over 50 paintings and is such a unique, fun way to discover Brussels. Check out this link for a map of the spots to hit.
Belgium is not just known for its beer, chocolates, waffles and fries. It’s also revered around the world for being the pioneers in the world of comics. Some of the world’s most beloved comics Herge’s Tintin and Peyo’s Smurfs have hailed from this beautiful country.
Our next stop was the Comic Book Museum. The museum features a permanent exhibition on the history and the making of comics. And of course there is separate section reserved for Belgium’s much-loved hero Tintin. Not only does the museum feature a whole bunch of Belgian comics but also comics in other languages. You can also read some of these comics in the museum’s reading room. And if you cannot read them all, there are numerous comic book stores throughout Brussels and other parts of Belgium. We bought a bunch in Brussels and a few more in Bruges (the ‘De Striep’ store in Bruges has a great collection of comics including in English).
Brussels has quite a few lovely churches but we had time to visit just the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula. This gothic cathedral’s history is believed to date back to as early as the 9th century.
We spent most of our time in Brussels just walking around, enjoying the street art and the wonderful street music, hopping from one beer bar to another, indulging in the local delicacies, and picking a few comic books along the way.
Brussels is lively, quirky, medieval yet hip, run-down yet rich with history … And, most impressively, standing tall and strong despite all the tough times the city has had to endure in the recent past. In the end, I fell in love with all of its uniqueness and rich culture and will surely go back for more.