10 of the best things to do in Belgium: readers’ travel tips
Winning tip: See-through church, Borgloon
This chapel/art installation by Belgian architects Pieterjan Gijs and Arnout Van Vaerenbergh is modelled on the traditional village church, but constructed from horizontal steel plates so that from some angles, it appears solid, while from others it dissolves into the landscape. We visited on a bitterly cold December day, with snow still on the ground, but were awed by the beauty and tranquillity of the spot (in Limburg province). A quasi-religious experience, or simply a very pretty hidden treasure.
Kayaking in the Ardennes
The river Lesse is shallow and safe but the downstream current carries you along with minimal paddling effort. The hire stations are accessible by bus and train, and the route passes through sun-dappled woodland, past chateaux and cliffs to the confluence with the Meuse, where refreshments await. On a hot afternoon in summer the whole of Belgium takes to the river – a hilarious regatta of kids, grannies, sedate couples, stag parties and even the odd pooch.
Woods on wheels, near Brussels
Sonian Forest is an expansive green playground that’s perfect for exploring on two wheels. The ancient forest has well marked, smooth, flat cycle routes criss-crossing through tall dense beech trees and beautiful old oaks. Bikes can be hired from De Woudpoort (Forest Gate) at the entrance to one of the most scenic cycle paths. This old forest ranger station also has a good stock of maps and refreshments including local micro-brewed beer. It’s only 11 miles to either Brussels centre or the airport and the friendly staff at De Woudpoort will call you a taxi back to your hotel if you end up drinking a few more beers than planned.
Well toned, Brussels
The Musical Instrument Museum is in a stunning art nouveau building in central Brussels, which was built as the Old England department store. This former shop now showcases hundreds of instruments from all over the world, including a seven-belled trombone from Belgium (one of Adolphe Sax’s inventions), a 12-stringed yatga from Mongolia, a Korean janggu drum, and an electronic theremin from Russia (lauded by Lenin and Led Zeppelin). Use the infrared headphones and listen to the often bizarre instruments on display. Enjoy homemade treats in the rooftop cafe, plus spectacular views of the capital from the terrace. Entry to this musical extravaganza is €8 with concessions.
Bowel hotel, near Antwerp
At the CasAnus Hotel visitors can stay in a gigantic replica of the human bowel, complete with huge rectum (and all mod cons), in the middle of Belgian countryside about 15 miles from Antwerp. Not sure of a better way to spend €120 a night! The price includes breakfast and entry to the amazing Verbeke Foundation’s other exhibits in the sculpture park.
House beer, Bruges
It can be tricky somewhere as touristy as Bruges to describe anything as hidden – even the wonderful bar De Garre, concealed down a narrow alleyway with scant lighting and next-to-no signage. And while it’s not a complete secret, it does evade being packed, particularly if you’re prepared to climb the rickety stairs to the top floor. Be warned though: they may be easy going up – less so coming down after you’ve been on the delicious yet lethal house beer staminee de garre which clocks in at 12%. It’s so strong yet so drinkable that they’ll only allow you a maximum of three. Don’t blame me if you fall.
Remembering the first world war, Ypres
For anyone like me who has a family connection to the first world war I recommend taking a battlefield tour. I spent a few days based in Ypres where many battlefield tours are found. The place was destroyed but the town plans were kept safe in Bruges and “Wipers”, as the British soldiers called it, was meticulously rebuilt. The In Flanders Field Museum located in the old Cloth Hall is excellent; visitors are given a personal poppy bracelet on arrival with a microchip that sets the language choice enabling you to discover four personal stories. And back outside, every night no matter what, at the Menin Gate the Last Post is played and there is a service of recognition and remembrance. Few could be unmoved.
Great Mexican food, Leuven
Donki is an affordable Mexican restaurant amid the bars and cafes of the beautiful medieval town’s Oude Markt. You can sit outside and enjoy the view of the life-size statue De Kotmadam (the Landlady) resting on a bench in front of the restaurant. The staff are really nice and speak multiple languages. You can create your own burrito or taco. There are multiple ways you can have your tacos or burrito; you can choose what ingredients you want and how spicy you would like. You can get a burrito with homemade lemonade for €10.
Antwerp’s most authentic brown bar
If Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks came to life then it would surely feel a lot like a brown bar. The moody neon-lit spot casts a glow over Wolstraat’s cobblestones – patrons on a fag break feeling the breeze from the number 10 tram clattering by just inches away. It’s not exactly fancy – there are a couple of beers on tap, plus red wine or the “good wine” – but its piano, tiled floor and mahogany decor speak of more sophisticated days. Refreshingly resistant to hype (though there’s now a fitfully maintained Facebook page) it’s the sort of place that feels wholly out of time. It’s far from old-fashioned though: women have owned it for more than a century.
The Ardennes with kids
Celles is a great base for a family trip. Hotel Saint Hadelin has cosily modern rooms (doubles from €90 B&B) and a superb restaurant offering French/Belgian dishes with a warm welcome for children. There are also self-catering cottages (from €80 a night) and an excellent pizzeria, Le Chapelain, in the village. The Ardennes’ villages, hills and valleys are popular with walkers and cyclists but there’s also plenty for young families who need more structured activities. We enjoyed the animal park at Han-sur-Lesse (from €19 adults/€13 kids), observing wolves, bears and other wildlife, and Domaine de Chevetogne (€10) where landscaped paths, playgrounds and a kids’ farm allow visitors to enjoy the rolling countryside alongside child-friendly facilities.