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.
Amsterdam is full of energy, always bustling with activity, and packed with a stream of tourists in all seasons all days. It’s also a beautiful canal city — numerous canals everywhere even in the heart of the city.
It’s also a city with the most number of cycles I have ever seen. 800,000 bicycles — almost as many bikes as people in the city!! It’s such a pleasant sight – to see families riding their bikes together, chatting away and the elderly riding with so much ease and stopping for passersby. They seem to ride their bikes no matter the weather and there are so many parking spots for these bikes (including a floating parking spot bang opposite the train station, next to the ferry point). In some places, there are no footpaths but there is a bike lane! Apparently, bikes go missing quite often. Some stolen and some if you look hard into the canals, you might find a bike or two submerged in the water!
Apart from their bikes and canals, Amsterdam is likely more well-known for its red light district and its “coffeeshops“. There’s plenty of these “feel good” shops all around the central area and this is where the local crowd and the weed-starved citizens of other nations throng to. Cannabis is sold in all forms – of course there’s the traditional by gram and the joints but there’s also the brownies, the cookies, the chocolate bars and the lollipops! It is sold in an insane variety of forms. Although it is illegal to smoke in public, you’ll smell the marijuana everywhere and you’ll see lots of stoned people especially youthful tourists.
The whole culture and legality around this and prostitution in Amsterdam still amazes me. While the rest of the world is only now opening their legal doors to marijuana, this city had been the only paradise on earth for decades for peeps hankering after the green stuff. What I admire the most is – the city has a very open, bold, live and let-live attitude. The Dutch folks are also very warm, friendly people. And, they also seem to have a great tolerance for people from other ethnicities – Amsterdam is swarming with people from all countries.
We visited Amsterdam over our Christmas holidays and spent New Year’s eve here. There were decorations everywhere and the light festival was on — the city looked pretty spectacular.
If you do visit the city over New Year’s eve, you should note that the city shuts off its train system, all public transport really from as early as 8 PM on the 31st and it doesn’t kick back in until 6 am. There are a few night buses but I’d say nearly impossible to make these with all the connections and likely all the crowd trying to get on these. So be warned! 🙂
Amsterdam is so so packed, always. Of course, there were a lot more tourists because of the Christmas holidays and New Year’s eve but Amsterdam is one of those big cities that is always brimming with tourists and there’s always long lines everywhere, so planning well in advance saves you wasted time.
If you are in Amsterdam, you should go on a canal ride. They have all types of boats – we opted for the warm, closed one as the temperatures were terribly low during new year’s eve. We did the water colors evening cruise that was part of the Amsterdam Light Festival(usually takes places from Dec to Jan). The queues were long, extending to more than a kilometer.. but the wait wasn’t so dreadful as we had a DJ entertaining us – people were dancing on the streets, kids and old folks alike. The new year cheer was definitely in the air! It was a pleasant ride cruising thru the waters admiring the light artworks along the way. Some were quite impressive but I think I still have a soft spot for the Singapore night festival which is a somewhat similar display of art thru light (the festival includes lots of other fun events and is an amazing experience). What made the canal ride in Amsterdam fun was our boat driver (who was also our tour guide) and who like a lot of Dutch folks, had a great sense of humor. He cracked us up with witty, cheeky and some cheesy jokes about the local folks, culture and customs.
A visit to Amsterdam cannot be complete until you have visited some of the city’s brilliant museums– the Van Gogh Museum, Rijksmuseum and the Anne Frank Houseare a must-visit. The works of Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Dyck, and other Dutch artists are not only held in great reverence by the Dutch folks but by folks all around the world. The Dutch have produced more than a few exceptional masterpieces in the art world. We unfortunately were able to visit just the Van Gogh museum — Van Gogh and his works left us feeling pensive and simply awestruck. Visiting the museum gives you a chance not just to see his popular works, but also gives you a glimpse into some of his early, lesser-known but equally powerful works. We would have loved to see the Rijksmuseum that displays the works of Rembrandt and Vermeer and also the Anne Frank House — we now have yet another compelling reason for us to visit the city again.
We’d also like to visit again to explore the city’s brewing scene. While we visited some fantastic breweries in our short stay there, there was a bunch we couldn’t do. There’s just not enough time to drink all the beer you want to!
We were pleasantly surprised that this land of Heineken could brew some neat craft beers. We visited the De Bekeerde Suster brewery – not only did they have a feisty collection of beers, they also had a great spread for the hungry stomach and a very interesting story behind their name!
We were visiting Amsterdam after a couple of weeks in Belgium and were so glad to see their tourist centre (the I amsterdam centre). No wild goose chase trying to locate it, just visible in plain sight..like you’d expect. The city is well prepared and well set-up for tourists – so not too difficult finding your way around local transport and such. The I amsterdamis not only a tourist centre but possibly more well-known as a catch phrase with both locals and tourists alike. And, you’ll see the I amsterdam letters all around the city. The most popular one is the one right in front of the Rijksmuseum. In front of these letters is usually a small body of water which turns into an ice skating ring come winter. This spot is hugely popular and ridiculously crowded – as you can see in the pic below.. you can barely see the letters!
Amsterdam may appear like just another typical big city with throngs of people everywhere, busy streets, bad traffic etc. but it has an undeniable uniqueness to it. It’s a truly remarkable city – its rich culture, bold attitude, quirky traditions and pleasant folks — will leave you desiring for more.