Belgium may be small but it is full of sights.
UNESCO-acclaimed sites in the capital city of Brussels range from the 14th-century Guildhall around the elegant Grand Place to Victor Horta’s early 20th-century Art Nouveau townhouse.
Bruges is a major attraction for tourists, with its well-preserved medieval streets lined with quiet canals that attract flocks of travelers every year.
Although Bruges is the most popular place to visit in Belgium, many other cities in the country – notably Ghent and Mechelen – also retain excellent examples of medieval architecture.
This small nation is at the forefront of European history, with many of the continent’s most important events taking place in its countryside.
It was in Belgium that Napoleon faced the Battle of Waterloo, and Belgium found itself at the forefront of World War I and World War II.
The World War I battlefields of Ypres are now important pilgrimage sites and today one of the country’s highlights.
Whether you’re here for ancient or modern history, Belgium offers a wealth of European heritage.
1. Grand Place, Brussels
La Grand Place (also known as De Grotte Markt), is lined with finely preserved guildhalls and other magnificent buildings that showcase the best of Belgian vernacular architecture.
One side is dominated by the ornate medieval town hall, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture.
The Grand Place was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its outstanding representation of late 17th-century architecture .
The square is busy with tourists and locals at all times of the year, but especially in August of alternate years, when the center is filled with a 75- by 24-meter flower carpet made of more than 700,000 cut begonias.
Tip: You get the best full view of the beautiful designs from the balcony of the Town Hall.
2. Canals of Bruges
Bruges began on the banks of the River Rhee, and as it grew, a series of waterways connected it to the Zwin estuary and the North Sea.
Today, the canals are a beautiful reminder of Bruges’ history, and sightseeing along them is one of the most popular ways to explore the city.
Sightseeing boat trips, departing from five docks dotted along the main canal in the central city, run half-hourly from March to November (and less frequently in winter) along the length of the main canal.
This is a great opportunity to get photos of Bruges’ famous canal-side terraced house architecture and some of its finest buildings.
Tours run rain or shine and umbrellas are provided by the tour boat operator in case of rain. No reservations are taken for public sightseeing boat tours – you simply arrive at the dock and purchase your ticket as you board.
3. Battlefield of Flanders
For many visitors, Belgium’s role on the frontlines of World War I, and particularly the battlefields of Flanders around Ypres, is the main reason to travel here.
Not only historically important, the battlefield is a major pilgrimage site. Protected trenches run for kilometers around the town of Ypres, while the area is dotted with vast cemeteries for the thousands of soldiers who died here.
Tyne Cot Cemetery (British) and Langmark’s German War Cemetery are both grim reminders of the brutal fighting that took place here during World War II.
4. The Belfry of Bruges
Among the most recognizable sights in Belgium, this beautiful belfry (officially known as the Belfort Met Bayard) dominates the main square of Bruges.
Dating back to the 13th century, this medieval tower is attached to a building that once served as the main town market hall and has been wonderfully preserved, giving visitors a true taste of the architectural power of the Middle Ages.
Climbing the 366 winding and narrow steps of the belfry to the observation deck sitting at a height of 83 meters is one of the most popular things to do in Belgium for tourists.
Once at the top, views of church spiers and steeple-roofs provide one of the most famous panoramas in the country.
5. Ghent’s Gravenstein and Old Town
This hugely impressive castle was once the stately home of the Counts of Flanders, who drew inspiration from the larger castles built by the Crusaders in Syria.
Today, Gravenstein is one of the best surviving examples of a moated castle in Europe and is surprisingly well preserved.
Its strong and impressively thick and high walls rise above the waters of the River Liv in the heart of Ghent’s old town, above the rooftops of the surrounding streets.
Inside, vast arched halls and chambers house displays of medieval life, but the castle’s architecture is the real star of the show.
Climb the rooftop stairs for panoramic views of the entire city before strolling Ghent’s charming cobbled streets.
6. Basilica of the Holy Blood, Bruges
If you’re going to visit a church in Bruges, make it. The Basilica of the Holy Blood is impressive not only for its blend of Romanesque and Late Gothic architecture, but also for the holy relics housed inside.
The upper chapel houses the famous vial for which the church takes its name; Said to be a drop of the blood of Jesus Christ brought back to Belgium after the Second Crusade.
The interior of the church is a dazzling riot of gold work completed in the 16th century and is reason enough to visit even if you are not interested in holy relics.
7. Meuse Valley
The Meuse Valley , south of Brussels, is one of the best places to experience the Belgian countryside.
The Meuse River offers one of Belgium’s most scenic river cruises, with densely forested countryside dotted with rugged hilltop castles and fortress ruins and small waterfront towns backed by limestone cliffs.
Head to Namur or Dinant to plan your river cruise . Both these small centers serve as gateways to the region.
The Meuse Valley has many hiking and cycling trails for travelers who want to add some activity to their vacation.
8. Canals of Ghent
Many companies offer sightseeing tours on Ghent’s waterways (both public and private options), which wind through the city’s medieval old town district, past the canals, its medieval harbor and some of Ghent’s monasteries and churches, with its famous Guildhall facade.
Most canal cruise options are either 40 minutes or one hour. Departures are regular throughout the day, usually between March and November, with fewer departures in winter.
Along with sightseeing cruises, some companies offer kayak rentals, so you can explore the canals at your own pace.
Yes, history buffs, that’s Waterloo; The place where Napoleon was defeated in the famous battle.
Today, the countryside where the battle once roared is a bucolic landscape of agricultural fields, but an artificial hill rises from the surrounding plains with a monumental lion sculpture at the summit to commemorate the day Napoleon’s army finally stopped.
From the top, there are excellent views across the countryside. For anyone interested in the history of Belgium and greater Europe, Waterloo is an important travel stop.
10. Grand Place (Grote Market), Antwerp
Right in the heart of Antwerp, the city’s stunning Grand Place (also known as the Grote Markt), contains some of Belgium’s finest examples of guild house architecture with their typical steeple-roofed shape.
The town hall here is a well-preserved example of 16th-century architecture, and the interior is worth seeing for its collection of paintings that depict Antwerp’s history.
Yet the guild houses that rim the plaza are the main reason to visit the Grote Market.
The best facades are Cooper’s House and Grocer’s House but they are all well-preserved examples of this Belgian style of architecture.
11. Semois Valley
A nature lover’s delight, the Semois Valley provides a much-needed dose of green countryside after a historic tour through Belgium’s towns and cities.
Here, in the southern corner of the country, the winding Semois River cuts through farmland, which overlooks gently rolling forest-covered hills.
This is Belgium’s main hiking region and a good place for a riverboat trip after the river bends.
Villages like Membre, Laforet and Alle offer great accommodation options from mid-range guesthouses to camping in the region.
To see the valley at its most beautiful, come in spring, when the wildflowers are in bloom.