Who needs Bruges? 10 surprising travel options in Belgium

Chris Leadbeater
There's more to Belgium that wet weather, bureaucracy and Bruges. Hoge Kempen National Park is a pristine expanse of heath and pine forest - Copyright (C) 2015 Jason Langley (Copyright (C) 2015 Jason Langley (Photographer) - [None]

Visitors to Belgium inevitably make a beeline for Bruges. The fairy-tale city, with its canals and cobbles, is certainly pretty – but is increasingly falling victim to its own popularity. More than eight million tourists went there last year, raising concerns about the sort of overcrowding seen in cities like Venice and Barcelona. But Bruges is fighting back. City authorities this week announced plans to stop marketing and introducing curbs on cruise ships and holiday homes in a bid to keep the “Venice of the North” tolerable for local residents and preserve the Flemish city’s charm. Fortunately, Belgium has many more options besides the obvious choices of Bruges and Brussels.

1. You can go to the seaside

Granted, it is along the English Channel and the North Sea – bodies of water which are not renowned for their warm water and sunny demeanour. But Belgium has a lovely coastline – 41 miles of it, in fact. And it plays host to a number of resort towns which can make for a splendid few days within earshot of cawing gulls and whooshing waves. De Panne, close to the French border, is one of them. Knokke-Heist, close to the line in the sand with the Netherlands, is another. This latter (myknokke-heist.be) is particularly attractive, its picturesque qualities backed up by Zwin Nature Park (zwin.be) – an area of coastal dunes where sea lavender scents the air. The Zwin inlet, incidentally, is the border.

There are miles of beaches in Belgium Credit: YVES ADAMS

2. Or wander to high places

Another element of the general perception of Belgium as being likely to induce sleep even in insomniacs is the idea that it is exceedingly and unflinchingly flat. But it isn’t. At 2,277ft (694m), the Signal de Botrange is no Everest. But with such statistics, it is no molehill either – more than two thirds of the size of England’s own rooftop, Scafell Pike (3,209ft/978m). It sits in the east of the country, near the German border. You can hike to the summit, where a small café awaits. You can also ski on it in winter (ski-botrange.be).

Skiing in Belgium? Yep Credit: GETTY

3. There's a deserted national park

Belgium also has a splendid national park. This, too, is way over in the east of the country, in Limburg province – though, this time, the border which hangs down in the immediate vicinity is with the Netherlands. Hoge Kempen National Park is a pristine expanse of heath and pine forest, and is under tentative consideration for Unesco World Heritage status. It, too, is an enclave fit for hiking, as well as cycling – the website lists a raft of two-wheeled routes around the park (rlkm.be/en/hoge-kempen/recreation/cycling).

4. It has rollercoasters

There are other high places too – of the drop-you-at-colossal-speed-while-your-stomach-turns variety. Walibi Belgium (walibi.com/belgium/be-en) is an amusement park set in Wavre, to the south-east of Brussels. It used to be run and owned by American theme-park colossus Six Flags – which should be indication that it knows a thing or two about thrill rides. And so it proves. Here you can clamber aboard gravity-stretching options with names like Cobra, Werewolf, Pulsar and Vampire. The latter is a looping rollercoaster of particular venom – where passengers’ legs dangle beneath the carriages.

5. You can drink beer

Of course you can. Belgium is known for its frothy, potent hops- and wheat-based beverages. And nowhere more so than in Leuven, some 20 miles east of Brussels – a small city which is home to the Stella Artois brewery. Its doors are open to visitors, via guided tour, on weekends (breweryvisits.com). 

Reassuringly expensive Credit: GETTY

6. Or eat on the hidden street

Assuming you are in Antwerp. Vlaeykensgang is the concealed secret of the city’s food scene – a narrow passage that connects Hoogstraat, Oude Koornmarkt and Pelgrimsstraat. Oddly, though, it is veiled from view behind a series of medieval doors. Find your way in, however, and there are restaurants galore. The easiest point of access is on Hoogstraat.

Vlaeykensgang Credit: getty

7. There’s a moving museum

In Flanders Fields, in Ypres, is probably the best museum of the First World War, a work of museological genius – informative, personalised and deeply moving.

There’s Waterloo too, of course. The original battlefield has been preserved almost untouched. An impressive new visitor centre, called Mémorial 1815, was built a few years ago to mark the bicentenary, and the restored Ferme de Hougoumont is also now visitable.

8. You can channel your inner Eddy Merckx

Cycling is bigger than football in Belgium, and there are networks of cycling routes all over the country, including long-distance RAVeL routes on disused railways and towpaths.

9. There are hidden depths

Go underground in the limestone caves of the Ardennes: stalactites and stalagmites galore, as well as boat-trips on subterranean rivers. The most famous include the Grotte de Han, the Grottes de Remouchamps and the Grotte de Dinant La Merveilleuse.

Belgium has caves Credit: GETTY

10. And madcap carnivals

The Belgians love dressing up in costumes – the more unaccountably strange the better, it would seem – for a local processions, often linked to sacred traditions and saints. The most famous Lenten carnival is at Binche, but there are many others, for example at Eupen, Malmedy, Stavelot, and Aalst. Grand historic processions also take place in Brussels, Bruges, Veurne, Mechelen, Mons, Tournai, Tongeren – just about everywhere, in fact.