This article covers Bruges, Antwerp, and Ghent, each of which deserves in-depth exploration.
Bruges is one continuous delight of unending Kodak moments, a well-preserved and well-maintained medieval town that is eminently walkable and easy to enjoy.
The two main squares of the town, Markt ♥♥♥ and Burg ♥♥♥, are nothing short of spectacular, lined with palaces and ladder-gabled houses. Burg is smaller and its architecture more coherent, while Markt is more vast and its buildings more diverse. The beautiful bell tower, Belfort ♥♥, looks out on Markt. It is worth a climb, although the view from the top is through a wire mesh which is a bit disappointing. You can also experience bell music in close proximity; the bells strike and play several times each hour, and the sound intensity is manageable even when you stand directly under them.
Spend most of your time in town walking ♥♥♥ its cobbled streets, many of which have none to very limited automotive traffic. The focal points of the city can get very touristy, but there are many nice streets just a block away from the hustle where you will be practically alone. The touristy streets, of course, offer most in terms of beautiful houses and various forms of shopping and culinary delights, chocolate and beer establishments included.
Taking a horse-drawn carriage ride ♥♥ will go very popular with kids. The rides start on Markt and take you for a half an hour’s circle around the central sites. If you arrive early enough in the morning, you may luck into a carriage waiting for you. There are only about a dozen of them – by late morning, the line waiting to get on becomes rather long.
Another popular form of entertainment is taking an excursion boat ride ♥♥. There are many boat stations along central parts of Brugge’s canals, and a trip lasts for about half an hour. The lines get long as well by late morning, and if you end up on a full boat, you are likely to have to sit in very intimate proximity to the people next to you. The skipper will conduct the tour in several languages, checking with the passengers beforehand which ones are needed (French, Flemish, and English are given for a mixed crowd; Dutch, German, and Spanish are commonly heard as well). Despite its obvious drawbacks, it is a pleasurable experience.
Of several beautiful churches in the city center, we ventured inside only the Church of Our Lady; there is a Michelangelo’s sculpture of the Madonna and Child, but overall the church interior is unremarkable. We also briefly stepped into the courtyard of Begijnhof, the Béguines’ convent, without exploring its house museum. Basilica of the Holy Blood, one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in town, is likely a must on our next visit.
The curious Diamond Museum ♥ provides insight into the history of the diamond trade. Other museums worth considering are Gruuthuse (a 15th-century rich merchant’s house stocked with a collection of fine and applied arts), Groeninge (which holds a reputedly good collection of Flemish and Dutch masters), Brewery Museum (hardly possible to visit with kids in tow), and the Stadhuis (whose interior is supposedly just as exquisite as its intricately carved façade). A newer – and seeming more kid-targeted – attraction is Historium.
In the “memorable stays” category, Absoluut Bed & Breakfast (link) is located on a quiet street just five minutes away from the bustle of the main town squares. The family loft, on two levels, was the perfect accommodation for a family with children. The breakfast selection was beyond reproach, served in a large dining-cum-sitting area on the ground floor that opens into the back garden; in good weather, you can eat there.
As far as eating out is concerned, whether you reserve a table in advance based on online ratings or just pick a restaurant at random, it is hard to have a truly disappointing meal in Bruges. I personally prefer local vibes in less touristy areas, but sometimes sitting down in an eatery on a crowded square can have its rewards.
More similar to Brussels than to Brugge in terms of the overall ambiance, Antwerpen is nonetheless a pleasant town to explore.
The main town square, Grote Markt ♥♥♥ is stunning, with the magnificent Town Hall on one side and the row of Houses of the Guilds on another. The Brabo Fountain in the center of the square is quite unusual in that it is not enclosed in a basin; the water seeps through the cobblestones into the underground reservoir.
Handschoenmarkt ♥♥, in front of the Cathedral, is an atmospheric triangular square. There is also a tiny peaceful cluster of pedestrian streets centered on Hendrik-Conscienceplein ♥♥. Overall, though, strolling around the city yields a middling mix of both attractive medieval and rather plain post-industrial buildings.
Rubenshuis ♥, the house of the most famous native son, Peter Paul Rubens, does not present a lot in terms of furnishings that would provide insight into the lifestyle of its owner but is full of paintings by both Rubens himself, his pupils, and his contemporaries. There is a pleasant garden to linger for a few minutes.
The Cathedral of Our Lady ♥ is spacious and bright, with a number of brilliant stained-glass mosaics and a beautifully lighted chapel to the left of the nave. The vaulted ceiling and tiered dome add to the feeling of vastness. There are also several important artworks on display, including four Rubens altarpieces.
The broad Meir and the more upmarket Schuttenshofstraat are the main shopping streets.
The other sights worth consideration for future visits are the Museum of Fine Arts, with a supposedly good collection of Flemish painters, the Maritime Museum, located in the outwardly impressive Steen citadel, Plantin-Moretus Museum of Printing, and a couple of churches.
A horse-drawn car tour ♥♥ is offered from Grote Markt. It takes you around the city center in about 45 minutes. No commentary, but the experience is rather fun. We “lucked” into the rain, and braved it on the upper deck under an umbrella, the benefit being that we were the only people on the deck; in good weather, it may get tight with just a dozen seats.
A visit to Kulminator ♥, on Vlemincksveld 10 minutes away from the city center, is recommended for beer enthusiasts. A pub of medium size, it is truly a beer mecca, whose menu reads like an encyclopedia of all sorts of beer, with over 600 varieties. I advise you to stick to the ones you at least have an inclination you’d like, in order to avoid being served something that you can’t drink. Also, don’t attempt to say what you want – instead, point to the item on the price list; otherwise, you risk being brought something altogether different, the name of which sounds similar to what you pronounced. It’s a lot of fun to experiment with that, though!
Ghent is often overlooked in favor of Bruges, which is not entirely wrong on balance but should not prevent you from enjoying this gem of a city on its own merits.
The historic center of Ghent appears slightly more spacious than that of Bruges, on account of several large squares. Among them are central Sint-Baafsplein ♥, guarded by the Cathedral on one side and the bell tower on the other; the vast Korenmarkt ♥, which allows for a good look at some of the most impressive structures in the city; the lively Vrijdagmarkt ♥, which is often home to various markets. One place where you definitely want to find yourself during your strolls in the city is Sint-Michielsbrug ♥♥, not because it is remarkable in itself, but because it offers remarkable views in any direction, including all of the major spires of Ghent in one snapshot.
The riverside of Korenlei and Graslei ♥♥♥ is positively Venetian, and reputedly gets very busy in nice weather in summer. You can take a boat excursion from landings on the quays.
For aimless wandering, there is also a nice area of narrow streets, full of restaurants, called Patershol ♥.
Belfort ♥♥ offers magnificent views of Ghent from above. Most of the way up is by elevator, although there are still about a hundred steps to climb. The exposition inside the tower reviews its history and that of the city.
The Great Butchers’ Hall, the cozy garden of the House of Alijn (which houses a museum of folklore), and the imposing Sint-Niklaaskerk are all worth stepping into.
Museum voor Sierkunst ♥ is alternately known as the “Museum of Design” or “Museum of Decorative Arts”. Part of its collection is the display of furnishings in various styles of the 16th-19th centuries. The other part consists of various utensils, decorations, vases, etc. from modern artists.
Other attractions worth considering are St-Bavo Cathedral, whose van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb is often cited as a must-see painting all by itself, or the Castle of the Counts, although an exposition of medieval torture instruments would always be quite low on my priority list. The town’s “Art Quarter“, near Sint-Pietersplein, has a couple of potentially interesting museums. There are also three béguinages.