Traveling to Belgium and only seeing Brussels is, in my humble opinion, a wasted opportunity. Though the Belgian capital mixes art, impressive buildings like the European Parliament, and nightlife, there are more representative areas of the country. Also, being such a small country with excellent train connections, getting around Belgium is very easy.
Flanders, located north of Brussels, is a region with some of the most tourist cities in Belgium such as Bruges. This region stands out for its influence on art, being the birthplace of the Flemish school of painting. The school stood out for mixing late Gothic with Renaissance and Baroque. Some of the most recognized Flemish artists are Jan van Eyck, Rubens, and Rembrandt.
But Flanders is much more than art. Each of the cities that make up this region has its charms. For example, it is impossible not to feel inside a painting walking through the narrow streets, and medieval castles of Bruges. Ghent, on the other hand, mixes scenic canals and spectacular sunsets with a more lively city atmosphere.
In this post, I’ll share a one-week itinerary to Flanders, starting from Brussels. I’ve included suggestions for places to eat, information on transportation, and attractions of this picturesque Belgian region.
One-Week Itineray to Flanders, Belgium
Recommended time in Brussels: 1-2 days
Brussels is not part of Flanders. But, being the capital of Belgium and the European Union, this city will likely be your gateway to the region.
Therefore, I’m including Brussels in this itinerary to Flanders. Besides, no matter how often you’ve been in the city, you will always find things to do and see in Brussels.
Among the must-see places in Brussels is the Grand Place, the most important square in the city. The Grand Place is also one of the most beautiful squares in the world.
Located in the heart of Brussels, the Grand Place (Grote Markt) is home to a series of beautiful 17th-century buildings. Among the main buildings on the square are the Town Hall of Brussels and the Hotel de Ville, the oldest building on the Grand Place. The Maison du Roi, once a monarchical residence, is also on the Grand Place and today houses a museum.
Another attraction in the historic center of Brussels is the Manneken Pis. This bronze sculpture’s name translates to “little man peeing” and it is very descriptive. The Manneken Pis has become a quintessential Belgian landmark.
Walking through the city center, one of the best areas to stay in Brussels, you will find also iconic street art. Many of the most famous characters of comic strips, the ninth art, were created by Belgian artists. As such, you will see walls dedicated to Tintin, Asterix, and Spirou, to name just a few.
Also, when visiting Brussels, you have to taste the mussels from traditional restaurants such as l’Ancien Bruxelles. And don’t miss the waffles and fries (which, by the way, were actually invented in Belgium, not France).
Since Brussels does not belong to Flanders, spending one or two days in the city will be more than enough.
Suggested time in Antwerp: 2 days
From Brussels, you can take the train north to the first official stop on this Flanders itinerary: Antwerp. This 45-minute journey costs less than 8 euros. But, please, take a good look at the Antwerp train station, with a beauty that will leave you speechless.
Antwerp is about 15 kilometers south of the border between Belgium and the Netherlands. This city is known for its importance in the diamond industry and for having the second-largest harbour in Europe.
But Antwerp has much to offer beyond the harbour and diamonds.
As far as artistic legacy is concerned, Antwerp is home to the Rubenshuis. Once the residence and studio of Peter Paul Rubens, this mansion now serves as a museum. Besides housing works by Rubens, this museum attracts attention for its style, inspired by Italian architecture, and its gardens.
Another great activity is to visit the Chocolate Nation in Antwerp, an interactive museum dedicated to chocolate. In this museum, you will learn about the making process of Belgian chocolate, one of the nation’s most successful imports. Likewise, at the end of the tour, you will be able to taste different types of chocolate, one more delicious than the other.
Suggested time in Ghent: 1-2 days.
After Antwerp, we’ll continue this route through the Flemish Region of Belgium by moving southwest. Taking another train, we’ll be in Ghent, my favorite city on the whole itinerary, in less than an hour. Although many say that Bruges is their number one city in Flanders, I think Ghent feels more authentic.
Ghent’s biggest attraction is inside St. Bavo’s Cathedral. This 14th century temple houses the “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” a famous polyptych by the Van Eyck brothers. This work represents the sacrifice of Jesus for everyone’s redemption.
The Mystic Lamb is impressive because of its detail and symbolism, something that would be typical of the Flemish school. However, the history of this altarpiece is even more fascinating, being the most stolen work of art in history. The first reported theft was in 1800 when Napoleon’s troops seized the altarpieces as a war trophy. The troops would leave the central altarpieces in the Louvre and sell the side ones. Later, the lamb would return home, but some pieces were sold and stolen many other times over the years. The theft was in 1934, when the alterpiece of the Just Judges, whose whereabouts are still unknown, was taken from the cathedral.
Another attraction of this Flanders city is the bell tower of Ghent, also known as Belfort Tower. The bell tower was built between 1313 and 1380 as an observation tower to alert of fires or any threat. Today, you can climb the bell tower of Ghent to get some of the most spectacular panoramic views of the city,
Street art is another of Ghent’s attractions. The walls of the city center and the neighborhoods of Ghent showcase murals made with different techniques, in color or black and white. Likewise, Ghent is so devoted to graffiti that there is a street where anyone can “leave their mark” with aerosol.
Need more reasons to visit Ghent? The thrift stores, postcard-worthy sunsets and art centers are sure to convince you.
Recommended time in Bruges: 2 days.
Taking a train northwest, we will arrive at the last stop of the route in half an hour: Bruges.
Bruges, a city full of fairytale-like corners, is a very good way to end this itinerary through Flanders.
Brugge is the capital of the province of West Flanders and its historic center is a World Heritage Site. It is the best-preserved medieval city in Europe. The historic center of Bruges invites you to wander through its cobbled streets surrounded by beautiful canals.
Among the attractions to see in Bruges highlights the Church of Our Lady, a medieval building of the thirteenth century. This temple has the second-highest brick tower in the world. The tower is also the tallest structure in the city, at 122 meters. Another must of this Flemish city is the Madonna of Bruges sculpture. The sculpture, created in marble by Michelangelo in 1504, is next to the church. This sculpture represents the virgin with a child and is the only one by Michelangelo that left Italy during the artist’s lifetime.
To continue getting to know the art of the city, you can visit the Groeningemuseum. The museum’s collection includes works like The Last Judgment by Hieronymus Bosch and The Virgin of Canon van der Paele by Jan van Eyck.
Like Ghent, Bruges has a bell tower where you can get great views of the city. The Belfort is 83 meters high and is one of the most emblematic buildings in Bruges.
Something to keep in mind is that Bruges is the most touristic city in Flanders and Belgium. So, you could benefit from waking up earlier to take pictures without so many visitors. Also, as expected, weekends and holidays are busier in Bruges.
Other Cities to Visit in Flanders
If you have more than a week and your budget allows it, you could visit other gems of Flanders.
For example, in Leuven, you can visit breweries and go on tasting tours. Leuven is located east of Brussels, 25 minutes by train. This university city, called Leuven, has a botanical garden called Kruidtuin, the oldest in Belgium, which opened in 1738. Yet, the most popular attraction in Leuven is the city hall building, whose facade displays 236 sculptures of famous personalities of the city.
Likewise, Mechelen is part of the province of Antwerp and is halfway between Antwerp and Brussels. Mechelen has attractions such as the cathedral of St. Romuald and its 97-meter tower, which is a World Heritage Site. Mechelen is a good city for outdoor activities such as, for example, sailing on the Dyle River (Dijle in).