There are eleven UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Belgium. If that surprises you, then you’ll be even more surprised when you read that the actual number of UNESCO sites in Belgium exceeds fifty. That’s because, even though the thirteen Flemish béguinages are spread out across Flanders, Belgium’s Dutch-speaking northern part, they count as only one world heritage site.
It's the same with the 32 (!) Belgian belfries that dot the country. Despite being situated in 32 different cities or towns, they are considered to be just one UNESCO World Heritage Site, officially known as the “Belfries of Belgium and France”.
Belfries are unique to the northwestern European region that encompasses Belgium, northern France, and the southern Netherlands. Unlike in, for example, England, Germany, and Italy, medieval cities in this particular region chose to focus on building belfries, rather than city halls. They came to symbolize the power of autonomous cities, their prosperity, and their economic influence.
Contrary to city halls, a belfry used to have several purposes. Other than serving as the seat of the city council, it also served as a prison, kept the city charters and treasures, had a watchtower, and housed the communal bells.
Generally speaking, the cityscape of an old Belgian city features three major towers: the keep, which was the home of the lords; the bell tower, the symbol of the church; and the belfry, showcasing the influence of the local government. Sometimes the bell tower of a church was the city’s belfry, as is shown in a couple of examples below.
The following list of UNESCO World Heritage belfries in Belgium includes not only belfries but also a couple of church towers that, in addition to being significant religious buildings, served as alarm bell towers or watchtowers.
10 Impressive UNESCO World Heritage Belfries in Belgium
1. Belfry and Market Halls, Bruges
The belfry in Bruges is the city’s most striking architectural feature. It dominates the medieval town square, which forms the heart of the historic city center of Bruges, a gorgeous city center that is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The 83-meter-high belfry was used as a watchtower to spot dangers, such as oncoming storms, fires, and possible attacks. Now, after paying an entrance fee, people can climb the 366 steps to the top of the tower and enjoy absolutely spectacular panoramic views of the city. The belfry is open to the public every day of the week, from 9.30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
2. Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp
Technically not a belfry, but a church tower that also served as a watchtower, the Cathedral of Our Lady is one of the major attractions in Antwerp, Belgium’s second city. The church, however, was never completely finished.
Originally designed to have two imposing towers, only one of them has been completed. Nevertheless, reaching 123 meters toward the sky, that one tower is still the tallest church tower in the Benelux.
Inside the church, visitors can admire paintings by world-renowned Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens, a former Antwerp resident.
3. Belfry and Cloth Hall, Ypres
In the Middle Ages, the cloth hall in Ypres was one of the biggest commercial structures in the world, providing space for the selling and distribution of cloth and fabrics – cloth making was a hugely lucrative business in Flanders at the time.
The building was constructed in the 13th century but was completely leveled during the First World War. After the war, it was reconstructed beautifully and now looks exactly like the former medieval building. Nowadays, the cloth hall houses the exquisite In Flanders Fields Museum that exhibits the history and horrors of World War I.
4. Belfry and Aldermen’s House, Aalst
The Aldermen’s House in Aalst used to be the city hall and is, in fact, one of the oldest remaining city halls in Belgium and the Netherlands, dating back to 1225. It is a beautifully ornate structure, the appearance of which only improved with the addition of the belfry tower in 1460.
The combined structure now dominates the town square of Aalst, a rather quiet city that comes to life on the days before Ash Wednesday, when the Carnival of Aalst takes place. This three-day event features parades, processions, music performances, and street entertainment and, according to UNESCO, is a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
5. Belfry, Namur
This historic building in the city center of Namur was built in the late 14th century and was originally a part of the fortified city walls. After the church of Namur, which also served as the belfry, was burned to the ground during a 1745 battle, the powerful tower became the belfry of the city.
Still protecting one of the main city gates, from then on, the tower and its bell would also warn the people of Namur of imminent danger.
6. Basilica of Our Lady and City Tower, Tongeren
The majestic bell tower of the Basilica of Our Lady is 64 meters high and overpowers all other buildings in the city center of Tongeren. Dating from the mid-16th century, this massive Gothic tower may just be one of the most imposing structures in Belgium.
Additionally, excavations underneath the basilica have unearthed several significant archeological artifacts while the building’s treasury holds one of Belgium’s most comprehensive collections of religious art.
7. Towers of the Saint Peter’s Church, Leuven
Located right across the marvelous Gothic town hall of Leuven, arguably one of the most beautiful Gothic structures anywhere in the world, the huge Saint Peter’s Church was initially (in 1505, that is) meant to have three enormous towers; towers that would ambitiously rise 170 meters high, making it the tallest building in the world at the time.
For several reasons, the project was dropped, and, now, the central tower is only slightly taller than the roof of the church, while the two side towers are not even close to being finished.
Although they were never finished, the towers of the Saint Peter’s Church in Leuven are still a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
8. Saint Rumbold’s Cathedral Tower, Mechelen
The Saint Rumbold’s Cathedral in Mechelen is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archbishop in Belgium or, in other words, the most significant church in the entire country. The church’s phenomenal tower is 97 meters high and served as a church tower, belfry, and city archive. The 514 stairs to the top can be climbed, a strenuous activity that’s done by many thousands of visitors each year.
A couple of facts to illustrate the significance of this tower and church: there are no less than 98 carillon bells; and people like Louis XV, Napoléon Bonaparte, and a few Belgian Kings and Queens have climbed its steps.
9. Belfry and City Hall, Lier
The belfry and city hall stand proudly in the middle of the main square in Lier city. The belfry tower dates from 1369 and is the sole remainder of the city’s former cloth hall.
Like any other medieval city in Belgium, Lier’s economic autonomy and influence were shown in the building of this beautiful belfry. The city hall is much younger and was constructed in the mid-1700s. A beautiful Rococo building, it is still the seat of the city council and now houses the visitor center as well.
10. Belfry and Cloth Hall, Ghent
Ghent’s belfry tower was constructed in 1313 and has undergone several modifications and alterations up until 1913. With a height of 91 meters, it is one of the tallest belfries in Belgium and one of three prominent towers in Ghent.
The belfry has played an important role in the history of the city, announcing the time, warning of dangers, serving as a watchtower, and keeping many a valuable document. The cloth hall, which adjoins the belfry, was where the cloth trade took place in the Middle Ages. This was an economic activity that, just like Ypres, made Ghent a fabulously wealthy city.
(Sofie: I visited the Belfry in Ghent during a day trip there!)
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Bram is a freelance writer, translator, and travel photographer. He was born and grew up in a small town in Belgium and currently lives in a small town in Vermont, USA. He likes to try different travel styles and he has backpacked across Australia, cycled from Belgium to the North Cape and back, spent three months emerging himself in the Irish culture, hiked across England, climbed numerous mountains in New England, and visited many European cities. You can follow him at his blog Travel. Experience. Live.