Several countries feature on my list of places I'd like to live for several months or several years, if given the opportunity. Among those countries are Ireland, Scotland, France, and Belgium - not necessarily in that order.
Read On to See six of Our Favorite Cities in one of Our Favorite Countries.
Belgium's relatively peaceful history, its three distinct cultures, and its hearty cuisine make Belgium one of my favorite countries in the world. Its train system which connects cities to each other and connects Belgium to the rest of Europe make it the best way to explore this beautiful country.
This small country, with a total population of just over 11 million (approximately the population of the state of Ohio and roughly half the population of the city of Beijing), is divided into three sections, each with its own official language - Dutch in the north, French in the south, and German in the east.
All of the cities I will talk about here are located in the region of Flanders in the northern part of Belgium.
No other city embodies the spirit of gratitude like Ypres. Not only is it one of the most beautiful cities in Belgium, but its deep connection with World War 1 makes it a favorite of history buffs all over the world. Ypres' main attraction is the In Flanders Fields Museum, a museum dedicated to the fallen of World War 1. The museum tells the tragic history of Belgium in the 1910's, with personal stories of real people, from soldiers and nurses to civilians, and with maps and a moving collection of war memorabilia throughout.
The poppies growing in the fields of Belgium became a symbol of those killed in the war, and poppies can be found throughout the city, on signs, on crosses, in store windows, and at the various memorials.
Climb the 231 stairs to the top of the museum bell tower to enjoy stunning panoramic views of the city below.
Amble along the wall surrounding this medieval city, explore the parks and various cemeteries, and listen to the gurgle of the Ieperlee River below.
At the end of the day, stroll over to the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing to see the names of thousands upon thousands of soldiers, from Canada and the U.S., Australia and England, and more. Then stay for the Last Post Ceremony honoring those who fought on Belgium's behalf to stop the invasion of Germany. The ceremony, which the city has conducted every day for nearly 100 years, rain or shine, starts at 8:00 and lasts only about 10 minutes, but is easily one of the most moving ceremonies I have ever witnessed.
With a population of just 85,000, Aalst may not make it to many lists, but this small city with its gorgeous medieval architecture and its small town feel makes it one of my favorite towns in Belgium.
Visit the town square, Grote Markt, to see De Zwette Maan and Belfort en Schepenhuis, the former town hall with a large belfry, as well as the architecture of other surrounding buildings.
Enjoy a nice typical Belgian dinner at T'file Puurke. After dinner, stroll over to Vredeplein ("Peace Square"). It's the perfect area for after-dinner drinks and people-watching, as the restaurants spill over into the outdoors.
If you are fortunate enough to visit Aalst during the days leading up to Ash Wednesday, don't miss the 3-day carnival celebration in this hidden gem in Belgium!
This university city packs so much activity and so much history into its 60 square miles! The town center features cobblestone streets and beautiful buildings.
One of the main attractions and definitely the highlight of a trip to Ghent is definitely Gravensteen Castle, or "The Castle of the Counts." This Medieval fortress castle was built in 1180 and, because of its history of torture, it is now a museum of torture. Some of the displays are somewhat gruesome, but the views from the top outweigh the horrors inside.
Dine at The Great Butcher's Hall (Groentenmarkt 7, 9000 Gent), take a boat ride on the Lys River, explore St Nicholas' Church and St Bavo's Cathedral, see Graffiti Street, and splurge on drinks at 1898 The Post, an old post office turned boutique hotel and restaurant.
Ghent has so much to offer, and we can't wait to go back to this picturesque city!
No trip to Belgium would be complete without a visit to Brussels, the capital city of Belgium. Brussels is not only the largest city in Belgium and the capital of Belgium, but is also the NATO World Headquarters and the capital of the European Union. With some 104 languages spoken in Brussels, it is the second most culturally diverse city in the world.
The very first place a visitor to Brussels absolutely must see is Grand Place. Grand-Place de Bruxelles is a market square surrounded by some of the most stunning guild buildings I've ever seen, with the Town Hall being the crown jewel of Grand Place. Construction of the oldest part of the building began during the Middle Ages in 1406. Construction continued and various expansions were undertaken, and in 1454 the tower was completed, with a guilt metal statue of Michael, patron saint of Brussels, standing atop the spire. The tower is conspicuously and notoriously off-center. Legend has is that Jan van Ruysbroek, realizing his "mistake" climbed the tower and jumped to his death, though this is most likely (hopefully!) just an urban legend.
Nevertheless, Grand Place is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a rich history, and it is absolutely worth a visit.
One of Brussels' most famous landmarks and best things to see is Manneken Pis, the Peeing Boy Fountain. The Fountain pays homage to the guild of tanners, who had young boys urinate on the hides, as the urea in urine turns into ammonia and breaks down the material to make the hides more supple.
Brussels has a distinctly punk-rock, avant-garde feel to it, while keeping the integrity of the old structures intact. The city is alive with music, dancing, and great food. Definitely visit the popular attractions, but don't be afraid to get off the beaten path to discover new bars and restaurants.
I visited Antwerp as a teen and have a strong desire to return to this historic city. Antwerp (Antwerpen in Dutch) is a beautiful city and Antwerp's Central Train Station is considered one of the most beautiful train stations in the world, making it a great place to visit.
Spend a day or two visiting the animals at Zoo Antwerpen and exploring the collections at Museum aan de Stroom (MAS).
Another city I visited as a teen is Bruges (Brugge in Dutch), and what I remember most is the shopping! Wander around the Grote Markt, Bruges' historic center, and amble along the surrounding streets, popping into the cute boutiques and souvenir shops.
Visit Choco-Story, the Chocolate Museum, revive your spirit at the Church of our Lady, and climb the 336 stairs to the top of the Belfry of Bruges for panoramic views of the city below. While there, travel the seven miles to the northern coast to dip your toes in the North Sea. It's the perfect place for sun-bathing and a picnic on the beach.
As you travel through Belgium, do not miss out on a tasty Belgian waffle, refreshing Belgian beers, like Stella Artois, and a sweet Belgian chocolate (or two or three!). Your foodie, history buff, and beer lover are sure to enjoy their family vacation in Belgium! I hope this list of the best cities in Belgium inspires you to visit Flanders and see the historic sites and medieval buildings I have come to know and love.
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