Belgium- It’s so much more than just Bruges
The country of Belgium is one that is often overlooked. It is sandwiched between France, the world’s most visited country, and the Netherlands, home to Amsterdam. Many people who visit Belgium often only go to the beautiful city of Bruges. I want to make it clear that I also think that Bruges is certainly worth a visit, but it should not be the only place that you visit in Belgium. The country has so much more to offer than that.
To start with my favourite city to visit in Belgium is Ghent. This city is by no means unknown to tourists, but it is certainly less busy than Bruges. One of the reasons that people flock to Bruges is its scenic canals and historic buildings that line them. Ghent also has these, albeit on a slightly smaller scale. There are still boats that run up and down the canal providing tourists with opportunities to see the city, each lined with the traditional buildings of the Flanders region.
The most ridiculous place to visit in the city might just be the castle, or Gravensteen as it is known. It is an imposing building with a long and complicated history. However, what really sets it apart and makes it a must visit is the audio tour. Unlike many tourist attractions which have an audio tour created by the curator of the museum or a historian, the Gravensteen has one read by a comedian. I struggle to find words to describe the audio tour other than it is completely bonkers. All of the way around there is interesting information interspersed with ridiculous facts or comments. It really adds something different to a castle visit.
That is not everything that Ghent has to offer. If nightlife is something that you look for in your destinations, then Ghent has it in bucketloads. There is a really big range in what is on offer. Ghent is a massive Belgian student town, so if you are looking for cheap nights out and nightclubs then you will not be disappointed. Most are a short walk out from the historic centre, but given the student nature of the city, any night you go, there will certainly be a party somewhere.
If nightclubs are not really your cup of tea, there are also quirky bars scattered around the city. Two of my favourites are ‘t Dreupelkot and Barrazza Café. The former, ‘t Dreupelkot, is a jenever bar right in the heart of the city near to the Gravensteen. Jenever is similar to gin but must be made in only a select few regions of the Netherlands or Belgium in order to carry the name. ‘t Dreupelkot stocks tens of different flavoured varieties of jenever ranging from passion fruit right through to chilli. The bar itself is very small. I went with a group of 6 people and there was probably only space for another 8 in the whole bar. However, that adds to the charm of the place. Everything is very reasonably priced, and the barman Chris will be happy to give you recommendations as to which jenevers you should try.
The second, Barrazza Café, is definitely somewhere to visit during the summer months in Ghent. I went on a very hot August evening and enjoyed some drinks in their outdoor seating area overlooking the canal. Again, the outdoor area is not large, but it is down a secluded side street right on the edge of the canal. If you are after Belgian beers, then this is a good place to visit. There are over 100 different beers on the menu, so you are sure to find one that you like.
So, whilst Ghent might be, in my opinion, the best city to visit in Belgium, it is not the only one that deserves recognition. Leuven and Brussels are two other cities that somehow manage to fly under the radar.
Brussels is obviously the capital of Belgium. It is home to the major international airport, yet many people don’t give it enough credit as a tourist attraction. Two of its best known sites are the Manneken Pis and the Grand Place, both situated around 5 minutes from each other in the historic region of the city. The Grand Place is very impressive, but I think that it is very touristic. Many of the shops and restaurants there operate purely off the tourist trade. Likewise, the Manneken Pis is a cute little statute that looks even better on one of the many days that it is dressed up, but it is not worth wrestling with the crowds of tourists trying to get a photo.
Instead, the best bits of Brussels that I discovered were slightly away from the Grand Place. My favourite of all were the EU institutions in Brussels. There are many different parts of the EU that you can go and visit as a tourist. I personally went to see the European Parliament and the Parlamentarium which is the visitor’s centre. The Parlamentarium itself is fascinating. It provides both the history of the EU and an insight into how the European Parliament functions. I am someone who is quite interested in all of these things anyway, but the Parlamentarium was so interactive in every different stage that I felt as though I got to understand the whole concept of the EU much better.
I also mentioned the city of Leuven. This is another student city in Belgium, but it is very different to Ghent. Whilst Ghent is quite large and certainly worth a visit of a few days, Leuven is much smaller, and you can see quite a lot in a single day. The highlights are undoubtedly the town hall and university library. Both cost a small amount to enter but are definitely worth it. I had a guided tour around the town hall. The building is incredibly ornate on the outside. Lined with gothic windows and various statues of people with links to the city. Inside is also worth a visit. It contains an array of artwork and sculptures as well as some decadently decorated rooms.
I will also never forget the Leuven library. This is not because it is a beautiful building, it very much is, but instead because of the drama that I experienced when visiting. One of my friends that I went to Leuven with managed to lose her wallet at some point during our visit to the library. The wallet included all of her important documents as well as all of her bank cards. After noticing that it had been lost, a panic lasting about an hour ensued. This involved running around the library and the square next to it franticly searching for the wallet. Ultimately, the lady who found the wallet was able to send a message to my friend on Facebook and it was reunited with its rightful owner. We were then able to celebrate the relief in the traditional Belgian way: beer and pommes frites.
Belgium is certainly more than just Bruges. There is no doubt that Bruges should still be on everybody’s list of places to visit in Belgium, but it definitely should not be the only one. The city of Ghent has so much to offer in both places to visit and food and drink available. However, even then there is so much to explore in the country of Belgium and even in this piece I have only been able to scratch the surface of the places that you can, and should, visit. Just remember, it’s so much more than just Bruges.