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Belgium By River Cruise


For a different experience of Belgium, venture away from the big cities and onto its famous waterways.

Belgium is a fascinating country. A diminutive enclave of Western Europe wedged between Germany, France and Holland, it’s famous for exquisite chocolate, triple cooked “frites” with mayonnaise, and coriander-spiced wheat beers. When it comes to bucket list trips to Europe, however, many people tend to overlook Belgium, but that’s just one of many things which makes the country one to visit. While it has a reputation for being dull and riddled with Eurocrats, Belgium is rich in rewards, and has fewer tourists, especially if you venture beyond Brussels to some of the medieval cities and villages straddling the country’s scenic waterways. The best way to explore them in style on a river cruise; here’s our top pick of highlights.


Brussels is a sumptuous city in which to begin a river cruise. It has a fascinating history dating back to the 11th-century, and is a place of contrasts where modern buildings soar just feet away from historic cobbled streets and graceful Art Nouveau architecture. Top of you “must-see” list here is the Grand Place, a UNESCO World Heritage Site teeming with ornate baroque and gothic guild houses, and one of the most beautiful squares in Europe. The striking gothic Town hall with its beautiful façade, and the Neoclassical Royal Palace, the official home of country’s monarch, Philipe of Belgium, are essential photo-ops, along with the city’s most famous landmark, the statue of a leaky little boy called Mannekin Pis. Brussels also has many many museums including the Magritte Museum, located in the building of the Royal Museums for Fine Arts of Belgium, which is home to the largest collection work by the celebrated surrealist painter, René Magritte. In between sightseeing, Brussels is a great place to try “golden frites” as a snack with a beer, or at a restaurant with local mussels cooked in creamy garlic and white wine. And when it comes to the amber brew, beer is to Belgium what Bordeaux is to France for fine wines, with more than a hundred breweries dotted across the country, and hundreds of varieties to try.

Wallonia And Antwerp

Namur is close to Brussels, the capital of Wallonia and the place where most ships depart on a Belgian river cruise. Its claim to fame is a location at the confluence of the Meuse and Sambre Rivers, along with a gently picturesque old town, and a commanding military citadel with origins dating back to the 3rd-century. Further upstream on the River Scheldt. Antwerp is often on Belgian itineraries. It’s the country’s second city, its biggest port, and the de facto capital of Flanders. In recent years Antwerp has been transformed from drab to a capital of cool, luring artists, writers, intellectuals, actors and fashion designers, and although it was badly scarred by WWII, it has fascinating architectural styles from different historical periods, many dating back to the 16th-century, and the city’s golden era. Antwerpen-Centraal, the city’s train station, is a premier city landmark famous for a Neo-Gothic façade, and a vast main hall topped by a huge dome. Antwerp is also a one-time home of the painter, Peter Paul Rubens, who lived there in the early 17th-century, with Rubens House a place to enjoy some of his work. And if you’re into nautical history, the Red Star Line Museum tells the story of how immigrants were processed on their way to the New World. 


Venturing into Ghent you’ll quickly understand why it is one of Europe's greatest discoveries. This small riverside town enjoys the quiet atmosphere of a provincial town, with modern daily life playing out against a striking historical backdrop. It’s a place of canals and picturesque embankments, medieval structures, quirky bars and cafés, and interesting museums, with a historic quarter packed with listed buildings. There’s plenty to fill your day with “Kodak moments” exist at almost every turn, including the Belfort en Lakenhalle, its soaring 14th-century belfry topped by a large dragon, and Het Gravensteen, a 12th-century stone castle resplendent with a moat and turrets. Some of Ghent’s museums include Huis van Alijn, a restored children's hospice complex which tells the story of daily life from the 1890s to the 1970s, while Sint-Baafskathedraal is famous for a magnificent 24-panel altarpiece completed by the Flemish painter, Jan van Eyck, in 1432. If your river ship stays late, capture Ghent’s photogenic towers and gables from Grasbrug at sunset.


Further west in Eastern Flanders, the city of Ypres was an important cloth making town in the Middle Ages, but during WWI it became the site for many key battles, reducing the quaint city to rubble, and claiming the lives of some 300,000 allied soldiers. Post war Ypres’ medieval core was painstakingly rebuilt, and today, dominating the Grote Markt, the reconstructed Lakenhalle is one of the most spectacular buildings in Belgium, famous for a soaring belfry with dramatic views across the entire region. The city has also retained extensive sections of its many fortifications, brick-faced walls topped by gardens along which to enjoy a stroll; a popular route is from the Menin Gate to the Lille Gate, and the Ramparts Cemetery, one of Ypres most attractive military graveyards. 

For great luxe-for-less holiday ideas featuring Belgium, or river cruises, visit our sister site

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