Mostly known for its key role in European Union administration, the small nation of Belgium might leave you surprised by its rich and gorgeous heritage. It boasts a number of fascinatingly historic cities packed with medieval and Art Nouveau architecture and famous for their long traditions in arts, fashion and fine dining. If you've seen the best of them, the Belgian countryside offers anything from sandy beaches to the densely forested hills and ridges of the Ardennes.
Brussels, the country's vibrant capital, is a modern world city with a highly international character. It combines massive post-modern buildings in its European Quarter with impressive historic monuments, such as the World Heritage listed Grand Place, surrounded by guildhouses and the Gothic town hall. There's Laken Castle and the large St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral, dedicated to the cities patron saints. The Royal Palace is a more recent but no less grand structure. One of the city's most famous landmarks is the Atomium, a remarkable steel structure and remnant of the 1958 World's Fair. And yet, with all those magnificent sights at hand, many travellers' favourite is a tiny bronze fountain in the shape of a peeing boy: the curious Manneken Pis.
Perhaps the most popular of the Belgian cities is Bruges. Much of the excellent architecture that arose during the towns Golden Age, roughly the 14th century, remains intact and the old centre is a valued UNESCO World Heritage Site. Among its most prominent landmarks is the 13th century belfry, where the carillonneur still rings the bells on a daily basis. With countless other noteworthy monuments, Bruges is a highly popular destination and get a bit overcrowded during holidays. And then there's Ghent, which in ages past was one of the wealthiest cities in Northern Europe. Although larger and much busier than Bruges, its excellent medieval architecture can definitely compete. Its beguinages, belfry and former cloth hall are World Heritage Sites. Or visit Antwerp, the country's current place to be as it is a hotspot of the Belgian fashion, clubbing, arts and diamonds scenes. Nevertheless, the city's timeless old centre is right up there with the others, boasting the countries most stunning cathedrals. Other pleasant cities with good sights include Leuven, with the oldest Catholic University still in use and Liège.
For hiking, biking and camping, head to the rugged hills of the Ardennes with their tight forests, caves and cliffs. They are home to wild boar, deer and lynx and hide a number of friendly villages, lots of castles and a few other notable sights. The impressive caves of Han-sur-Lesse, the castle of Bouillon and the modern Labyrinth of Barvaux are some of the best picks. The city of Namur makes a great base from where to explore the Ardennes and has some fine sights itself too. The city is beautifully located along the rivers Meuse and Sambre and from the ancient citadel you'll have a great view over town.
The Belgians brought forward a good number of world famous masters of art, and their love for arts is still today reflected in the range of fine arts museums. The Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts in Brussels and the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp are just a few excellent examples. However, the Belgians love museums, with over 80 of them in the capital alone. Besides arts, they display anything from history and folkore to industry and technology. As some of the worst fighting of both World Wars took place on Belgian territory, there's also a large number of memorials and museums dedicated to those dark times, along some humbling military cemeteries.
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