Bruges is a truly fairytale place (thanks, In Bruges). Quaint canals are lined romantic facades, graceful weeping willows, cosy cafés and lovely quays. Canals are crossed with romantic bridges – of which each one is different from the same as the next. Like Venice, they function as streets, a unique way to get around the city. In fact, Bruges is sometimes nicknamed the “Venice of the North” (though it is not the only city to hold the name – see below). The historic centre of Bruges (a UNESCO world heritage site) is a small, quaint, romantic place. Compact enough to comfortably walk the whole city, Bruges still has a lot going on, not to mention, it is eye candy for art and architecture lovers! From the Belfort (belfry and its famous bells) to the Provincial Palace, Ghent Port and City Hall – not to mention all of the churches, gates, bridges, administrative buildings and even ordinary houses – there is no shortage of historic and beautiful sites upon which to feast your eyes on this spectacular medieval city.
Pro tip: Bruges is a busy, busy place. Therefore, try to visit in the off season. To make the most of your visit, be sure to stay over at least one night – many of the tourists are day trippers from Brussels. After the day crowds thin out, go for a wee nighttime stroll – with the city all glittering and reflecting, it adds a new layer of magic to this place! Also, Belgian fries and Belgian waffles are more than just stereotypes – they are perfection and delicious. Best place to get both are often the wee food trucks and hole-in-the-wall chippers!
While oftentimes some of the most splendid castles are generally found in rural areas far from city centres, this cannot be said about the massive medieval pile that is the Gravensteen Castle in Ghent. Plopped on the canal bank in the centre of lovely Ghent – one of Belgium’s most fascinating and underrated cities – the spires of the Gravensteen reach for the sky and its walls crumble into the moat. This fortress was built around 1180 by Philip of Alsace, which he modelled after castles he encountered while fighting in the 2nd crusade. Threatened with destruction in the 19th century, the owner of the Gravensteen decided to make the originally medieval castle ‘even more medieval’ — thereby commencing a lengthy restoration project. In some ways, this caused experts to question its authenticity, but this is the nature of continually-inhabited buildings: they evolve. As the Gravensteen is located in the middle of the city, modern objects such as power lines, asphalt roads, and cars criss-cross the castle grounds with roads encircling its walls. Yet the real-fake medieval castle sits in the Place Sint-Veerleplein, unaffected, steadfast and silent, watching as the modern world whizzes by.
Pro tip: Full admission is €10, and your ticket also gets you a virtual guide at the Abbey St Peter. The castle is open daily from 10-6pm. While in Ghent, poke around the lovely second-hand and antique shops and walk along the gorgeous canals. For the other end of the history spectrum, hit up Graffiti Street – an alleyway constantly painted by local artists so that it looks different upon each visit!
The clipp-clopping of hoofs ringing on rounded cobblestones, coupled with the wistful creaks of wagon wheels and the high-pitched laughs of a merry group of people fill the ancient square, enough to work time-machine magic on anyone. Diving out of the way of the impending carriage, your thoughts wander back to another time, another era. Once upon a time, this vehicle was both a means of transportation and of merriment to those rich enough to afford it, and a means to an end for those in charge of driving it or tending its horses. Modern times may have left the horse-and-buggy an antiquated element of a romantic past, but there are still some places in the world – many of which that are in Europe – that refuse to accept this, and continue, without trepidation, to insist on the important use of horse-drawn carriages in the transportation of tired guests across a city centre. Aside from Flemish cities, Warsaw, Vienna, fairytale towns in the French Alps, and paths in rural Ireland come to mind as a few. Bruges is another place that is lost in time, a city that tries so hard to cling to a past long gone – though where other places have failed, Bruges has succeeded. Bruges is, to use Harry’s words from In Bruges, “It’s a fairytale town, isn’t it? How can all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and those churches, all that beautiful fairytale stuff, how can that not be somebody’s f*****g thing, eh?”
Ghent again, I know. But it’s hard to resist such a wonderfully tempting city! Ghent is one of those places that few people have heard of and no one really thinks about – and turns out to be a hidden treasure trove for those who do somehow wind up here. The Flemish city of Ghent (or ‘Ganda,’ as it was once known, meaning ‘Confluence’) did indeed start as a settlement at the confluence of two local rivers, the Scheldt, and the Leie, though Ghent’s glory days were really in the Middle Ages, when mercantile trade and agriculture from the rich green fields outside the city caused Ghent to become one of Europe’s richest and most populous cities of the time (50-60,000 citizens), leading to the explosion of building projects. In particular, the wool industry was an important generator of wealth for the city-state, even going so far as to create one of Europe’s first successful industrialised zones. But history aside, Ghent’s lucrative Middle Ages left an important mark on the city, particularly in architecture. In more recent times, perhaps owing to the fact that Bruges and Brussels are more influenced by tourism and international politics than the overlooked Ghent, Ghent was left to its own devices to find its individual core – which turns out to be pure hipster! The Art Nouveau style took off in Ghent, as did many unique-concept ideas such as the ‘Wasbar,’ a local dish called ‘Balls & Glory,’ and an art project that constructed a hotel room at the top of the train station’s clock tower (read this post for more info). The student atmosphere is strong here, cafes are popular and numerous, bookshops and antique stores dot the city, trees line the canals and the possibiltles for enjoyment are really endless.
Hipster Ghent. Quirky Ghent. Fun Ghent. Ghent is a place to forget who you are, kick back, and live in the moment. Whether you like studying Art Nouveau architecture (see more regarding Art Nouveau here), finding funky graffiti, hanging out in hipster bars, following quaint canals lined with weeping willows, curling up in snug coffeehouses and bookshops, rooting through the hodgepodge of antique shops, visiting ancient castles like the Gravensteen or exploring the cobbled alleys in search of hidden treasure, there’s a good chance that Ghent is for you. Ghent is a city like no other – it is something of a mix of Brugges‘ charm and heritage, Berlin’s nightlife, Prague’s quirky attitude, Riga’s unique architecture, and Montpellier’s youth. Though little-known, Ghent will surprise and amaze you on any trip to Belgium! (oh and yes, there are Belgian fries, beer, waffles and chocolate…this is Belgium after all).
Ghent, part of the Flemish part of the county, is often overlooked in favour of its more famous cousin, Bruges. Yet, both cities are incredibly beautiful and deserve a visit! In Ghent, you will find canals draped in weeping willows, Gothic and Neo-Gothic architecture, art nouveau designs, cheerful students sipping coffees in colourful cafes, food trucks and tiny restaurants selling fries and gaufres (waffles) in the streets, couples strolling down the cobbled streets. It is a hipster city, and those tourists who decide to visit this beautiful city relish in striking off the beaten path. Visit Gravensteen Castle, take a boat tour of the Ghent Canals, and admire the intriguing Art Nouveau architecture. Here, it is easy to mingle with the locals. Simply stroll along one of Ghent’s many canals until you find a cozy cafe, cheerful restaurant or lively bar – and strike up a chat with the locals. You won’t regret it!
Antwerp is a diamond in the rough. No, seriously–this little Belgian town is Europe’s diamond capital. Fun fact: supposedly, the amount of diamonds in the world isn’t as small as they’d want us to believe–diamond epicenters like Antwerp apparently limit the number of available diamonds in order to keep prices high and create the illusion of supply and demand. But even outside the diamond shops, (in the area around the beautiful, art nouveau train station) Antwerp is worth a quick stop when already in the area to visit beautiful Bruges and hipster Ghent! It’s funky, full of chocolate and Belgian waffle shops, and downtown walking the cobbled streets under the shadow of the cathedral spire, one can find plenty of charming places for a Belgian beer. Unusual meets traditional here in this little-known Belgian city otherwise known as the European diamond mine.
When most people hear the words “canal” and “Europe,” Venice immediately springs to mind. And while Venice is certainly the most famous and probably the most beautiful, the continent has many beautiful canals flowing through equally beautiful cities, such as Annecy, Amsterdam, Bruges, and, as evident from the above photo, Ghent. Hipster Ghent has seemingly endless quaint waterways streaming through the medieval town. While it’s less “Disney world/honeymoon-paradise” than its neighbour Bruges, Ghent is no less beautiful, and no less short on canals. A simple boat trip will take you on a relaxing trip around the city’s watery arteries, providing a new perspective of the beautiful buildings lining the canals. And not only that, Ghent’s innate and adorable quirkiness will leave you just as much in love with this small city as all of the locals!
Trains whistle as they slowly puff to a halt inside the light and airy station. People hurry to and fro, a newspaper or novel tucked under one arm, a cup of coffee or sandwich in the other. Like any major train station, everybody is either hurrying to board a train or waiting listlessly for their train to arrive. There is an air of travel about the air, as everyone in the station is either coming or going. You, the intrepid traveler, can’t help but feel nostalgic in this slightly old-fashioned station, reminiscent of bygone times when steam engines were chic and classy. What makes Antwerp’s station special is its sheer beauty. The Belgians regard it as the highest quality of railway-related architecture in their country. If you don’t think that that’s impressive enough given the small size of Belgium, how about this? The world-renowned American magazine Newsweek named Antwerpen-Centraal “the world’s fourth greatest train station” in 2009, and just this year, the Anglophone magazine Mashable ranked it the number one most beautiful railway station in the world! With not only its gorgeous facade but also this massively beautiful clock presiding overhead, I think we call agree that it’s one heck of a place to catch a train!
Known as Belgium’s ‘hipster city’ (though of course the Ghentians? Ghentiles? will never admit to this label), Ghent is a very cool place. Nowhere near as famous as its neighbour, Bruges, it’s just as ancient, beautiful, untouched and medieval–but the best part is that it’s relatively undiscovered. Perhaps this is what draws the hipsters the city is so known for? Not only is the city peppered with funky art nouveau buildings, local cafes, chic galleries, vintage shops, and hole-in-the-wall bars, there are also gems such as the ‘Wasbar’ (laundromat meets bar), a cafe known for its bizarre meatballs with the amazing name “Balls & Glory.” In 2012, as part of a city-wide public display of art in which 41 artists took part all over Ghent, artist Tazu Rous constructed a “hotel room” around the the clock tower of the train station, so that “guests” would in fact be sleeping next to the enormous clock-face…how’s that for an alarm clock!? Ghent is, undeniably, a ‘weird’ city–but in some ways, that’s the best kind of city. Perhaps there is some truth to Lonely Planet’s statement that this bohemian, nonconformist city “might just be the best European city you’ve never thought of visiting.” So maybe you should start thinking about it!
Of all forms of transportation, trains and trams are certainly the most romantic. Visit any city that still uses its old-fashioned trams, and you can’t help but smile at them, reminded of black-and-white films and all that they come with. In the evening light, old-fashioned trams are even more picturesque and romantic – and downtown Antwerp is no different. While the central square of Antwerp is both beautiful and well-populated with tourists, most of the old town is quiet and empty, the kind of streets where one can hear the rustle of leaves and tap, tap of shutters against walls. You walk along the tram tracks, lost in a zig-zag of backstreets lined with brick houses, searching for a restaurant or perhaps just going for an evening stroll, when suddenly in the dim haze, you see a small light in the distance. No more is all quiet; you can hear the clacking of the tram’s wheels against the iron, you can see the swaying motion of the carriages as the tram takes the bend. Flattening yourself against one of the buildings, you watch as the round headlight grows bigger and bigger until finally, the tram chugs by you, disappearing around the next corner–leaving you alone on the street once more with nothing more than the rustle of the wind to keep you company.
For reasons unknown to me, Belgium gets a bad rep, mostly from the Brits. There seems to be a running joke that Belgium is boring and useless, which is difficult to understand for any tourists who visit this small European treasure! The Fairytale Town of Bruges is most certainly the nation’s crown jewel. It has everything a traveller would want: Belgian waffles and fries sold every 10 steps (though not together!), oh-so-much chocolate, beautiful buildings, old Gothic-style halls and belfries, canals, cobblestones, fantastic beer, not-s0-terrible prices (in comparison to its neighbours, the UK and France!), and cheap, easy connections to other Belgian cities such as Ghent, Antwerp and Brussels. If you’ve seen In Bruges, you’ll see the foreigners’ “dislike” of Belgium in general and Bruges in particular, but at the same time, the boss (minus the swearing) hits the nail on the head while bewilderingly responding to his employee’s response that “Bruges isn’t his ‘thing’: “It’s a fairytale town, isn’t it? How can a fairytale town not be somebody’s thing? How can all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and those churches, all that beautiful fairytale stuff, how can that not be somebody’s thing, eh? How can swans not be somebody’s thing, eh? How can that be??!” How indeed?
Certainly one of Europe’s prettiest squares is Antwerp’s central Grote Markt—even though outside of this small “island” forming the Old Town, Antwerp is less beautiful, having been swept up by kebab stands and littered streets. But the old town centre is still…perfection. Standing amongst these amazing Flemish guild houses is enough to take one’s breath away! Not only that, but Antwerp’s market square rivals with those of Eastern Europe—which is where you find some of the prettiest squares in Europe! (Note: Poland, Prague, Budapest, Tallinn etc. If you don’t believe me, check out some of the archives). Regardless of the unfortunate Invasion of the Kebab Stands (a very contagious and ugly virus spreading throughout the continent), Antwerp’s Grote Markt is as pretty as it gets!