So, you’re thinking of traveling to Belgium – fantastic! You probably have a pretty concrete image in your head of what you imagine the country to look like. Meandering canals, medieval city squares, grand gothic mansions, and medieval cathedrals. Not to mention the waffles and beer! You’re right, you’ll find all of that in the cities listed below. But you’ll also be surprised by the range and diversity of Belgium’s many cities.
The country is split roughly across the middle by Flanders in the north (the Flemish-speaking part) and Wallonia in the south (where people speak French and, in a small region, German). This makes it a melting pot of culture and gives each city a totally unique flavor.
8 of the Best Cities in Belgium
Bruges, the capital of West Flanders, is at the top of most people’s lists for must-see cities in Belgium. Sometimes known as the ‘Venice of the North’, Bruges owes its rich past to the medieval wool trade.
This city has a charming network of picturesque canals that you can explore – best in midweek to avoid the crowds. Together with its cobbled streets and historical churches, you’d be hard-pushed to come away without a bunch of dreamy photos of this fairytale-like city.
The UNESCO World Heritage-listed medieval town center is home to the famous béguinage. This is an important feature of many Flemish cities. It’s basically an enclosed area and community of buildings where “béguines” (religious women) used to live. The Bruges béguinage is from the 13th century, painted white with a tranquil convent garden that is filled with daffodils in the spring.
The main square is the Grote Markt, a lively hub dominated by the impressive 83 meters (272 feet)-high Belfry tower. This dates back to the 13th century and has 366 steps in total! You get amazing views of Bruges from the top, as well as a glimpse at its carillon bells.
Bruges is all about getting a flavor for the town in general rather than specific sight-seeing. That said, make sure you visit the dramatic Gruuthusemuseum, the ancient Saint John’s Hospital, and the Halve Maan Brewery – birthplace of “Brugse Zot” beer.
Leuven’s known as one of the youngest cities of Belgium, with students making up around a third its population. The university is one of the world’s oldest, and part of the student campus occupies the ancient UNESCO-recognized Grand Béguinage Leuven. However, although this makes it lively and fun, you’ll find the city much calmer at the weekend when most students have gone home.
It’s remained a bit off the beaten track so it is not too touristy. At just a 13-minute train journey from Brussels, Leuven is one of the top cities in Belgium for a day trip.
There are some beautiful buildings to visit such as the Arenberg Castle just outside, the striking town hall and St Peter’s Church’s belfry. Like many major cities in Belgium, the center is pedestrianized – bike travel is popular here. If you’re looking for a social spot, pull up a chair at the Oude Markt, known as “the longest bar in the world”!
Not far from Leuven is the small city of Mechelen, sitting between Brussels and Antwerp. Picturesque and historic, Mechelen is a good alternative town to Bruges if you can’t face the tourists.
It might not be one of the largest cities in Belgium but Mechelen is an underrated city with a checkered past and there are plenty of things to do in Mechelen. It was once the capital of the Netherlands, and it used to be a hub of art during the Northern Renaissance. Its Baroque and Gothic churches, old-world béguinage, and medieval market square are totally beautiful.
Today, the Toy Museum is a popular attraction, as well as Het Anker, which is one of Belgium’s oldest breweries where Lucifer and Gouden Carolus beers are made.
St Rumboldt’s Cathedral has the oldest and largest Carillon bell-ringing School on earth, which attracts students from all over the world. The tower is worth climbing for the view alone. The people who live in Mechelen are jokingly known as “moon-extinguishers”. This is because of a legend that the people thought the cathedral tower was on fire one night, and climbed to the top to put the fire out, when it was in fact just moonlight!
If you go to Mechelen early or decide to turn your trip into a weekend getaway, make sure to go to one of these fun cafes for breakfast and brunch in Mechelen.
In a country split down the middle geographically and culturally, Brussels brings all corners of Belgium together. It’s one of the most important cities in Belgium and the whole of Europe, being the headquarters of the EU and many other international institutions. It’s a total hive of culture and diversity, home to an amazing range of neighborhoods such as Turkish, Portuguese, Moroccan, Congolese and Brazilian.
As well as the famous business district with its iconic modern glass buildings, Brussels has a beautiful artistic medieval center that is perfect to explore by foot. It's great for architecture lovers – brimming with buildings designed by Art Nouveau founder Victor Horta.
The stunning Hotel de Ville on the Grand Place is surrounded by early 18th century guildhalls – a lovely spot for an early beer in the sun.
Brussels boasts an array of top galleries and museums, from the Royal Museums of Fine Art, to the Magritte Museum, to the landmark Atomium, to the Belgian Comic Strip Center! Also keep your eye out for the famous peeing statues dotted around the city center, that sometimes get dressed up in costumes on special occasions.
If art’s not your bag, Brussels is one of the most popular cities in Belgium for shopping. The glass-topped Galeries St Hubert is a good place to start.
All this will probably make you very hungry, and luckily Brussels is one of the best Belgium cities to visit for food too! Waffles, cookies, and chocolate are among the favorites. You can find typical Belgian food at these places.
Brussels is big so I highly recommend spending a few days there. Not sure which neighborhood to pick for your accommodation? Check out our post on where to stay in Brussels.
Dinant is the definition of a hidden gem. It’s smaller in size but utterly breathtaking. The town itself is based on the banks of the river Meuse in the beautiful province of Namur, in the French-speaking part of Belgium. It makes a great day trip or a launchpad for exploring the Ardennes.
Directly behind the city is a colossal cliff-face that frames the town, and together with the river stretching out in front of the colorful houses makes a striking photograph. At the top of the rocky outcrop is the Citadel of Dinant, the site of an ancient fortress with a fascinating past.
You can climb the 408 steps to the top for stunning views across the Meuse valley, or if you don’t fancy the hike – take the cable car.
There is also an incredible underground cave network here called the Grotte La Merveilleuse where you can take a guided tour and find stunning waterfalls.
Dotted throughout this Belgium city are references to the saxophone. This is because Dinant was the birthplace of Adolphe Sax who invented the instrument. Other things to keep an eye out for are the onion-shaped dome of the Collegiate Church of Notre Dame, and Leffe Abbey which is where Leffe beer was first brewed by the monks in 1240!
Antwerp definitely wins the competition for being the coolest of the cities to visit in Belgium. With its hip nightlife and thriving fashion scene, this port city pulls in an eclectic mix of people.
It’s not the most beautiful city of Belgium because it was heavily bombed during World War 2. However, there are some wonderful sites to visit such as the 14th-century Cathedral of Our Lady, the Gothic and Baroque features of Saint Paul’s Church, the stunning street of Cogels Osylei, the Grote Markt, and the spectacular central train station itself.
Antwerp is the second-largest city in Belgium, and also known as Diamond City because of its roaring diamond trade. Over 70% of all the diamonds in the world are sold here.
Art and fashion have a large legacy in this town, with the MoMu Fashion Museum and star-studded Antwerp Fashion Academy. You can’t go far here without hearing the name of the legendary painter Rubens, who continues to be ever-present throughout the city even now, over 400 years after his birth.
Make sure to check out some of Antwerp’s amazing museums (including Rubens’ own house) – there are loads!
Ghent lies halfway between Brussels and Bruges, at about a half-hour train journey from each. A charming mix of medieval buildings, art nouveau architecture, hidden cafes, numerous churches, and world-class museums, there are lots of things to do in Ghent and the city scores high on our list of best cities to see in Belgium.
Ghent was once a very powerful and rich European city because of the old Flemish cloth trade, and evidence of this is everywhere in its sumptuous architecture. The medieval Gravensteen Castle is totally breathtaking, as is the modern masterpiece of the City Pavilion – a striking asymmetrical building full of natural light.
Ghent’s St Bavo’s Cathedral is also worth a visit. This is where you’ll find the famous 15th-century polyptych altarpiece painting The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by the Van Eyck brothers.
For getting a general feel for Ghent, however, it would be best to wander along the Graslei waterfront area, which is bursting with a chilled and social atmosphere. It’s one of the largest car-free areas in the country, so it’s a good idea to hire a bike for the day, or maybe even take a boat ride on one of Ghent’s canals.
Beautiful Tournai is one of the oldest tourist cities in Belgium with a history dating back 2000 years as it was founded by the Romans in 50 C.E. The city has a really enthralling history, with ownership passing from hand to hand over the millennia, with Romans, Franks, Normans, Dutch, English, Spanish, Germans, and Austrians all taking the lead at some point!
The city of Tournai is easy to roam about by foot and take in the atmosphere. There is a gorgeous church with the oldest belfry in the country, with an impressive 257 steps.
The Notre Dame Cathedral has five towers, built over the 12th and 13th centuries, and a famous Romanesque nave. Inside you can find art by famous Flemish painters Rubens and Jordaens and an amazing range of statues.
For more art, you can visit the Museum of Fine Arts which houses the likes of Van Gogh, Campin and many more.
Tournai is also one of the closest towns to the French border, so visitors often plan to coincide a visit to the city of Lille which is just a short train ride away.
Belgium might only be small but it is also the sixth most densely populated country in Europe. This means that what it lacks in surface area it makes up for with some of Europe’s most exciting and beautiful cities. There are so many more wonderful cities to visit but that’s eight to get you started!
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