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Ghent, Bruges, Antwerp, Mechelen... The Beautiful Cities of Belgium

As much as seeing Brussels is essential to see when you visit Belgium, you also need to see some of the other great Belgium cities too. These are four of them…

Ghent (Gent) is an old Flemish city around 60 Kilometres from Brussels, less than an hour by train or car, so it is easy to do a day trip from Brussels or stay in Ghent  or in Bruges, which is a further 50 kilometres distance away.

Ghent has a population of about 250,000 people and it is located where the River Leie and Schelat River join, the city being located next to the Rivers and Graslei and Korenlei Canals.

The old medieval centre of Ghent has many heritage buildings beside the canals, and with small bridges and boats on the canal, it makes the city centre very attractive. The city was once at the heart of the industrial revolution with weaving and cloth making the main industry.  These days it is very much a University City.

Ghent has a very walkable city centre too and just wandering and stopping at a café or looking into a shop, taking a photo or taking a small boat cruise will all be fun activities during the day, with the city lights focused on the buildings adding another added attraction at night.

Just some of the main sights to see are –

  • Cathedral of St Bavo – a brick and granite church that dates back to the 13th Century, with the tower added in the 15th century. It is located on 15 Sint Baafsplein (note the use of Flemish names and not French language).
  • The Belfry Clock Tower – is 91 metres high and is also located on Sint Baadsplein. Look up to the top and you will see a dragon up there. The Belfry is also next to the Cloth Hall.
  • Gravensteen Castle – This is a real castle and it is modelled on a Syrian Crusader Castle and built in the 12th century, quite different to the other castles that you see in Europe. If you look at the way the outside walls are constructed you can well imagine that this castle would have looked right at home in a desert setting. It has the moat and turrets and inside you can also see an actual Guillotine and even a pit used as a prison at one time.
  • Ruins of Sint-Baafsabdji – located at 2 Goashuizenlaan also has a Museum of stone Objects - ( Museum Voor Stenen Voorwerpen)
  • Flemish Houses – head to Kraanlei – where you will see a number of traditional Flemish houses.
  • Town Hall (Stadhaus) – this is located on Botermarkt , the old market area.
  • Vrijagmarkt Square – this is a market square where executions were also once carried out.
  • Miat Museum -  this is a big museum covering 5 floors of exhibits that relate to Ghent’s past as a centre for textiles with working weaving equipment to see. It is located at Minnemeers.
  • Botanical Gardens – these are located in Kruidtuin
  • Museum of Contemporary Art – the SMAK Museum – in the Citadelpark (Park)

These are just some of the main sights to see, but you will find others, and the main attraction of Ghent is just the feeling you get from wandering the small laneways like Oude Begijnhof in and around the canals and market squares. 

Bruges (Brugge) – this is one of the most picturesque cities in Europe and even in winter when it snows or the summer time, it has a fairy-tale magical beauty to it with its small canals, churches, old buildings, laneways and cobbled streets. The city is very much loved by tourists, and tourism is now its biggest industry, but it was once a rich walled city of traders.

The city can trace its history back to the City’s Charter in 1128AD when a wall was built around the city as protection. Some 360 years later the Wall would be demolished in 1488 by invading Austrian forces. Only four of the massive stone gateways can still be seen, with a moat roughly following where the wall once stood. Look to see one of these called the ‘Kruispoort’ with its twin towers and central arch doorway. The other three are the Smedonpoort, Gentpoort and the Ezelpoort.

For centuries, Bruges was one of the wealthiest cities in Europe, trading, banking and manufacturing textiles and other goods, it being a port on the River Zwin that connected Bruges to the North Sea and traders from as far away as Venice and Portugal. In the late 1400’s the River Zwin silted up making it difficult for ships to sail upriver, and the powerful Hansa (Hanseatic League Merchant Trade Confederation) moved its trade from Bruges to the bigger port of Antwerp.

With the trade diminishing, Bruges went into decline and its population fell too, leaving Bruges as almost a time capsule, only for its beauty to be discovered in the late 1800’s by wealthy travellers.

Bruges today is linked by the Boudewijnkanaal (Canal) to the North Sea Port of Zeebrugge and while it now has spread out beyond the old city walls, it is the old city that most attracts Tourists to visit here.

The main attraction is just the ambience of the old Medieval City with its laneways, canals, small shops and buildings.

Things to see include –

  • Markt Square – Like many European towns the Central square is where markets were held and other times were the centre of activities, with traders and shops located around the Square.
  • The Belfry Clock Tower – is beside the Markt Square and if you are lucky you will hear the 47 Bells in the Carillon that plays here.
  • Stadhuis (Town Hall) -  is located on Burg Square, one block away from Markt Square.
  • Canal tours – are mostly in the summer, but are well worth doing to get a glimpse of Bruges from the water while you pass under Bridges and listen to a commentary.
  • Groeninge museum -  This is an Art Museum Gallery with a number of Flemish paintings including works by Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling.
  • St Saviour’s Cathedral  (Sint Salvator’s Kathedraal ) – on Koorstraat . This Cathedral partly dates back to the 12th century, with the 99 metre high Romanesque Tower designed by English Architect, Robert Candrell. There are also beautiful stained glass work inside too.
  • Church of our Lady – on Mariastraat – This church and its 122 metre high steeple was built between the 13th and 15th century. Inside there is a Carrera Marble statue of Madonna and Child created by Michelangelo. The Church and steeple are lit at night.
  • Diamant Museum (Diamond Museum) – this is located at 43 Katelijne Straat. Here you can see and learn about Diamonds and diamond cutting and polishing.
  • Begijnhof  Houses -  these are off the Minnewater, not far from the Train Station. These houses date back to the time of the 12th century Crusades when the women left behind joined a religious order as ‘Lay sisters’ keeping their independence and wealth, creating their own community. The nuns of the Order of St Benedict run the convent and Begijnhof now, and it is worth seeing and just enjoying the atmosphere – of the houses, swans on the canal, small parkland and the museum that is here.
  • Beer, waffles, crepes, Frites, lace, chocolates, coffee, horse -drawn carriage rides,   – these are all here in Bruges to buy and enjoy.
  • Tours from Bruges – there are other villages outside of Bruges, and one of the prettiest is Damme – that you could cycle to, take a canal trip or drive to. There are also some castles near Bruges too, and the coastal towns are not far away either including the port city of Ostende.

Antwerp  (Antwerpen) -  

Antwerp (Population 500,000) is Belgium’s second biggest city and a major port, next to the Scheldt River, best known for it being the centre for diamond trading, with around 80% of the world’s uncut diamonds traded here. Close to the impressive main railway Central Station, you will find many diamond, gold and jewellery shops along Appelmansstraat, Vestingstraat and Hoveniersstraat Streets. What gives it such a unique atmosphere to this section of Antwerp is seeing the number of Orthodox Jewish men with their curls and wearing their traditional black coats and wide brimmed hats almost scurrying about their business here. You will also see Indian Bank premises too, a reflection on the fact that most diamonds are cut and polished in India. There is also a Diamond Museum located on Koningin Astridplein where you can find out more about the diamond trade.

While the diamond trade is very big business, with the first Stock Exchange in Antwerp established in 1555, there are many other sides to Antwerp, which now has a reputation for art, fashion and style along with lots of history too.

There are almost two sides to Antwerp – the ancient city and residential areas and the Port and all of its cranes, containers and other warehousing and transport facilities. From a tourist perspective, it is the old city and its centre that are the main attraction, but there is one building that you might see here that is quite amazing – The Port House – a new structure that looks like a giant bird (maybe a crane) that has landed on top of an Old Fire Station Building. It is located at Zaha Hadidplein 1.

To see the sights of the city, buy a 24, 48 or 72 Hour Antwerp City Card, which you buy to give you access to a number of tourist locations, transport and also discount vouchers to see around the city.

The centre of Antwerp is the Grote Markt Square with the Brabo Fountain in its centre and surrounding the square are old Guild Halls and the Town Hall (Stadhuis) built in 1565. It is a beautiful square both day and night with the main Tourist Office located here too.

Dominating the City’s skyline however is the Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal  (Cathedral) with its 123 metre high steeple.

Antwerp’s most famous son is undoubtedly the painter, Pieter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and you will see his paintings in Antwerp museums and also be able to see his house (Rubenshuis) See www.rubenshuis.be . The house is located at Wapper 9-11. Other historic houses to see include the Rockoxhuis at 10-12 Keizerstraat where there are also paintings by Rubens and the Museum Mayer Van den Bergh located at 19 Gasthuisstraat . There are many other classical houses in Antwerp, just one of the places to see some of these being near Berchen Station called Zurenborg.

You will also see a statue of Rubens, along with other statues on the main shopping street, Meir Leystraat and the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten located on Leopold de Waelplaats. Here in this Royal Museum you will find paintings by Rubens as well as by Van Eyck, Vn Dyck, Magrite and others. There are also other galleries too.

There is also a large sculpture park called Middelheim  where there are over 300 statues some by Rubens but also Henry Moore is represented here too. – see www.middelheimmuseum.be

Antwerp’s most famous Museum is the UNESCO World Heritage Plantin-Moretus Museum which houses some of the world’s first printed books from the 1500’s and printing presses that date back to 1600.

Antwerp also has a Zoo and Aquarium but the most interesting site to see is the Het Steen Castle that was built between the 9th and 12th century with later changes in the 16th century, although you can only see it from outside. The original museum collection that was here is now in the multi storey MAS  (Museum Aan de Stroom) Museum  located on Hanzestdenplaats next to the River. It has a large collection and changing exhibitions and the building itself looks like a number of children’s playing blocks stacked on top of each other. 

Seeing museums, churches, shopping can be exhausting, so if you fancy getting to know a bit more about beer and Belgium Beers, then head to the De Koninck Brewery Tour where you can see how it is produced and also enjoy a ‘Boleke’ (a special glass) of De Koninck Beer. The Brewery is located at Mechelsesteenweg 291.

Mechelen

The city of Mechelen has a population of about 80,000 people and it is north of Brussels and south east from Antwerp.  If you like seeing Churches then Mechelen is the place to head to, with St Romboutsk Cathedral probably the highlight and located on Grote Markt Square. It also has carillon Bells too as well as the steeple and stained glass work.

If Toys are your fancy, then there is a large Toy Museum too – the Speelgoed Toy Museum located at 21 Nekkerstraat  and a Train Museum – De Mijipaal – located at 30 Leuvensesteenweg.

For beer lovers, you can also see Mechelson’s own Brewery that dates back to the 1500’s – Het Anker Brewery located at 49 Guido Gezellelaan. They also have a whisky distillery here too and a brasserie.

There is also a Museum of Mechelen – the Museum Hof van Busleyden – located at 65 Frederik De Merodestraat  in a great old merchant house that dates back to 1505, and for people who like Tapestries, there is the De Wit Royal Manufacturers that is the world’s most foremost authority on the cleaning, valuing and restoration of tapestries, including the sale of them too. They also run tours but you need to check to see when they are happening. See www.dewit.be  They are located in the 15th century old Abbey of Tongerlo.

While most travel involves seeing places of beauty and learning more about the world, there are also places that are quite confronting too and one of these is the Kazerne Dossin Memorial, Museum and Documentation Centre on the Holocaust and Human Rights here in Mechelen.  It is located on 153 Goswin Stassartstraat. This place is a former Barracks from World War I that was used by the German SS in World War II to hold Belgium Jewish and Roma (Gypsies) before sending them on Trains to the Death camps of Auschwitz. Between 1942 and 1944 some 28 trains of Box cars transported some 24916 Jews and 3510 Roma to Germany Concentration camps where most would die.

Just to the 15 kilometres west of Mechelen at 57 Brandstraat near the village of Willebroek the Germans also had a concentration camp too called Fort Breendonk – see www.breendonk.be  This Fort held up to 600 prisoners at a time and today you can see where the prisoners lived and where executions took place.

There are of course many other cities, towns and villages in Belgium but hopefully in seeing the cities above you will gain an insight into Belgium and take time to see other parts of Belgium too.

Happy Travels

Geoff Stuart

www.FlightsHotelsInfo.com

www.HappyTraveller.com.au

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