Flanders, the northern Dutch speaking region of Belgium, is conveniently located just a short drive from the main coastal ports of Dover and Folkstone via the French ports of Dunkirk and Calais. Further to the north, direct access to Flanders via Zeebrugge is possible from Hull. With such ease of access via the UK seaports, it is not surprising that thousands of British holidaymakers find themselves “Flanders-bound” every year. The cities of Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Leuven and Mechelen all sparkle with their own respective allure, whether it is gastronomic specialities, beautiful architecture or even centuries-old art and culture. Historically, Flanders enjoyed many golden eras, revelling in prosperity, great cultural appeal, and its reputation for fine arts. Today, its appeal continues to fascinate, and visitors can look forward to a hearty welcome and fulfilling travel experience. Here’s a guide to discover some of the regions’ best hotspots and what to do when you get there!
Antwerp is the second biggest port in Europe and was home to artist and diplomat Peter Paul Rubens. Today it is a thriving metropolitan city with contemporary and classical museums and galleries. Young, multi-cultural, today the city is as famous for fashion and style but its artistic roots have been beautifully preserved. No visitor should leave without a visit to Rubens House. Now a museum, it was the home to the Master Painter. But to see his paintings in all their glory, head to the Cathedral of Our Lady , just off the Grote Markt square in Antwerp. For something more modern, head to Antwerp’s diamond museum DIVA. Today, a major player in the diamond industry, the city has devised a clever Diamond Walk, offering an insight into the bustling diamond district, where most of the world’s diamonds pass via its Diamond Bourse, before they are created into something more sparkly. Venture out to the beautiful Art Nouveau district of Zurenbourg. A true hidden architectural gem of the city and home to some great street art too!
TIP: Make your way to the top floor of the MAS museum. It is free to visit and open until late at night. By day the museum also houses temporary exhibitions about Antwerp’s history as a port city.
Bruges: A pocket sized city with plenty of cultural appeal and home to Master Painters Jan Van Eyck and Hans Memling. Easily navigable on foot, you only have to turn a corner to find an undiscovered street oozing with charm and character. “Must-see “places include the Beguinage with its gothic church adorned with quaint white painted houses around a beautiful green central yard , swaying with tall trees. One of Bruges’ most picturesque spots. Find out about the golden age of Bruges, head to the Historium for a tour of seven special rooms offering an experience of what life was like in Bruges via sounds, film footage and special effects. Don’t forget to take a tour in the De Halve Maan Brewery and get a snapshot of the world’s longest beer pipeline which delivers beer to the brewery and outside storage. For a delve into something more cultural, a must see in the city is the Groeninge Museum for medieval and early modern art, including a notable collection of Flemish Primitives.
TIP: Pop into the Crown Plaza Brugge Hotel and ask to see their cellar. The modern hotel was built on top of the site of the old St. Donatian church, which was destroyed in 1799, St Donation was also where master painter Jan van Eyck was buried.
Ghent: A Thriving university town in the heart of Flanders, teaming with churches, museums and culinary treats. In 2020, the city celebrates the life of Jan Van Eyck who depicted the city in the triptych The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, which, after much restoration, will be returned to the city’s St Bavo’s cathedral. The Fine Arts Museum Ghent (MSK) is a highlight but the city boasts other compelling visits such as its beautiful Design Museum in the centre of the city.
The city prides itself in its annual Ghent Festivities, held every July when the population of the city swells by thousands to the beat of jazz, blues and great music celebration. Its backdrop is the beautiful guild houses at the junction of the Leie river canal which meets the Scheldt river. A canal boat ride along the rivers is highly recommended to get a great orientation of the city and watch how life goes by for the busy locals.
On a culinary note, look out for Ghentish sweet speciality, the Cuberdon, conical shaped sweets with syrup centres – sold on street vending stalls, or take a visit to the old Tierenteyn-verlent shop for speciality mustards from Ghent. Don’t forget to try the local speciality, Waterzooi – a classic Flemish stew made with either chicken or fish.
TIP: For a typical local lunch, head to the Old Butchers Hall Groot Vleeshuis – a great place for a casual lunch and local foods. See Ganda ham being air cured in a warehouse dating back to the 15th century and purchase some delicious local foods in its special store.
Mechelen : Situated half way between Antwerp and Brussels, Mechelen was once the Capital of Burgundian Flanders and home to the monarchy. In fact, this compact city has a very distinct culture of its own with plenty to see and do.
For a potted history of Mechelen’s Burgundian roots, head to the elegant Hof van Buysleyden Museum. This city museum offers interactive displays, beautiful artwork and some fascinating facts about the city. Don’t forget to visit the intriguing and fragile “Enclosed Gardens”, created by nuns with some of the most ornate and intricate detail.
Mechelen also houses a great collection of museums. For those with children in tow, a visit to its Toy Museum is as popular for adults, as well as children but the city lays claim to some great child friendly activities.
Food, of course, features heavily on the list of things to indulge in, during a visit to this former Burgundian hotspot. A meal at the Het Anker Brewery restaurant is a treat to tuck into. As well as tours around this characterful brewery, try their beer infused recipes such as the delicious beef stoofvlees made with the local brew. So, there’s only more thing to do, its to climb Mechelen’s iconic St Rumbold’s Tower. Towering 97 metres, visitors can join a special walk to its skywalk at the top and, on a clear day, get clear views of both Brussels in the south and Antwerp to its north.
TIP: If you are visiting on a Saturday, take the time to take the Royal De Wit Tapestries guided tour. This prestigious institution, housed in a stunning building with beautiful gardens still makes, repairs and restores many of Europe’s most famous tapestries.
Leuven: A picturesque city, east of Brussels and home to one of Europe’s prestigious Universities. A city of knowledge, innovation and style.
To arrive in Leuven for the first time, the first view of its late gothic City Hall is quite simply breath-taking. Ornate statues adorn all aspects of the walls and it has sometimes been said to be Europe’s most beautiful City Hall. During term time, Leuvens population expands with a burgeoning student population from all over the world, which adds to the city’s appeal and buzz.
Leuven is also well known for its beer history. Obvious brands such as Stella Artois originate here and it is still possible to see the original brewery De Hoorn in its full glory, complete with gleaming brass beer tanks, now a trendy café.
Easily navigable by foot, Leuven’s beguinage is one of Flanders most enchanting and a walk to this scenic quarter of the city, is well recommended.
TIP: Take a cycle ride and venture out to Park Abbey , just out of the city. The grounds are a haven for tranquillity and the beautiful Abbey has undergone some amazing restoration work recently.
For more information visit www.visitflanders.com