Image credit: Luc.T
Known for its luxury chocolate, indulgent beer and status as capital of the EU, this 10th-century fortress town has more than enough charismatic culture and historical sites to tide you over for a lengthy trip. But cast a glance over Belgium as a whole, and you’ll soon find that treats extend well beyond the reach of Brussels’ bureaucratic centre.
Laeken Botanical Gardens
One for those who don’t want to travel too far but still need that ‘get out of the city’ fix, the Laeken Botanical Gardens offer a smashing chance to get outside amongst some of the best kept gardens in Europe. Initially built as an orangery by William I, the Winter Gardens were later developed by Leopold II and inter-connected to around thirty ornate pavilions, each housing an impressive collection of tropical and subtropical plants.
Like many stunning historic attractions, the gardens have a very limited opening period and are accessible to the public for only three weeks of the year, usually in late April. Fortunately, this exclusivity only serves to make their beauty that much more extraordinary.
Located between Zenne and Zoniën, this vast stretch of forest is stunning all year round, but truly comes into its own in the spring with the arrival of a vast sea of bluebells – the name ‘Hallerbos’ literally translates to ‘Blue Forest’ in honour of this colourful carpet. The best time to visit is mid-April to early May, in order to see the flowers in their initial bloom, and early attendees will also get a chance to witness the blossoming of the beech leaves in the first week. On a sunny day during this season, you’ll struggle to find anywhere in the world as magnificent.
The atmosphere of the forest is truly fairy-tale-like, with near silence being occasionally broken up by the sound of the wind in the trees and various bird calls. It is the ideal stop off for a young family looking to bring the children’s bedtime books to life.
The home of Stella Artois combined with 25,000 students might lead most travellers to expect a less than desirable party atmosphere, but Leuven is a different kettle of fish entirely. Flanders’ oldest university town has an air of creativity about it and, similar to towns such as Bologna in Italy and York in England, its history works seamlessly alongside a mass of industrious students just starting out in their lives to produce a positively electric environment.
The town, aesthetically, is nothing short of spectacular. Cheap (but lovely and lively) restaurants and pubs full of character mean you can head here for the weekend and not worry too much about cost – a nice change from the more expensive wine bars of Brussels. A must see of the stay would have to be the town hall; its gothic, detailed spires resembling the Duomo di Milano itself. All in all, a great chance for a family photo and slap-up lunch in the surrounding market square.
A bright summer’s day is the perfect time to visit this fine example of Cistercian architecture and walk in the footsteps of 12th century monks in your own time and at your own pace. If you remain unimpressed that you are able to witness a building well over ten centuries old, perhaps the fact that it has endured more than its fair share of destruction over the years – surviving the wars of Louis XIV and devastation by the Austrian Imperial Army during the Brabantine Revolution of 1789 – will sway you. All of this has only served to add to its crumbling and unique character.
Should you be lucky enough to be making the trip in late August, the abbey becomes host to an annual choir festival ‘Nuit Des Choeurs’, with various vocal ensembles gracing the ruins and an impressive fireworks display scattering light across the original arches and surrounding acres of forest.
The name Dinant comes from the Celtic Divo-Nanto, meaning ‘Divine Valley’, a name this small town in the heart of Wallonia justly deserves. It’s location in the Upper Meuse valley meant it became a sought after strategic point in the Middle Ages, with the surrounding region having more medieval fortresses than anywhere else in the Low Countries. Luckily for the modern day explorer, this means lots of converted châteaux to treat yourself with a visit to and gruesome stories of battle to uncover.
Music lovers simply have to head to Sound City. The small museum isn’t normal by usual museum standards, and is located on the site of the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of (you guessed it) the saxophone. Visitors have the opportunity to interact with everyday objects and learn what makes instruments produce music; the perfect day out for a future jazz legend.
1 hour 20 minutes