Roam Guide / Belgium
Kat Leys is a Belgian expat currently living in Deephaven, MN with her husband and two young boys. She works as a freelance Graphic Designer who specializes in fashion and lifestyle. Kat went art high school in Ghent and studied architecture and design at Simon Stevin College of West Flanders. Both her Mother and sister still live in her hometown of Antwerp and she travels home often to spend quality time with them, shop and revisit her beautiful country.
Belgium / Cities of Antwerp, Ghent, & Bruges
Most people take the train from Amsterdam to Paris and don't stop in Belgium, but they should. These three cities are roughly 30 minutes away from each other, walkable and full of history.
"Save Brussels for another time and focus on these gorgeous Flemish cities."
When to go?
Year-round. The weather is mild like Seattle and you can be rained on at anytime. I avoid winter because it is a bit cloudy, however Antwerp is quite festive during the holidays. I often go in May, because it works well with my break.
How to get there?
You can fly from Minneapolis direct to Amsterdam and take the train to Antwerp, about a two-hour journey. From all other major cities you can fly direct to Brussels, then take the 30 minute train ride to avoid traffic. The Antwerpen-Centraal railway station is considered to be one of the prettiest in the world.
"Belgium is a small country, 2 hours border to border, 3 hrs East to West."
Where did you stay?
In Antwerp, I stay with my family but I have a friend who owns the cozy, Hotel Les Nuits which means "night" in French. Another option is The White Lily (De Witte Lilie) a famous boutique hotel.
In Ghent, there are two hotel recommendations I would make, both in the city center. The first being the larger, Ghent River Hotel inside two historic buildings, one a renaissance house dating back to 1518. My second suggestion is Hotel Onderbergen which is smaller and caters well to families.
"Two nights in each city is ideal, one is okay, three is too much."
What should we do?
In Antwerp, I love to people watch in the square near the high end shops on Wapper street. I always suggest you take a walking tour and R&R has created a printable version of my favored approach to walking Antwerp in a day. It's incredible to just explore alley after alley as you head towards the river, through the historical city center called, Grote Market Square. This center is famous for the historic buildings that flank the Renaissance-style city hall, as well as the Brabo fountain and statue. In the Winter this is where you can browse the holiday craft and food stalls, or just sit alfresco and people watch. When you hit the river you will find a number of new art museums. Belgium fashion designer, Diane Von Furstenberg is a donor and advocate for the Red Star Line Museum, where you can follow the path of emigrants from Belgium to North America beginning in the late 1800's. Also while visiting Antwerp, I'd recommend touring the De Koninck Brewery. It is a bit of a drive but worth it as Belgium makes some of the best beer in the world. When my kids are along, we head to the storybook, art deco Zoo near the train station. Built in 1843 it's well designed and you can visit the animals on a smaller surface. Another fun thing to do with the kids is take them to the pedestrian tunnel under the river. It's a very long subway tiled pipe with beautiful wooden escalators built in 1933.
In Ghent, visit the one-of-a-kind medieval castle Gravensteen, inspired by Middle Eastern architecture and discovered by crusaders. its something you would see on Game of Thrones. Roam around in the surrounding narrow streets in the neighborhood of Patershol. Take a guided boat trip on the beautiful canals and discover the cities rich history. There are also world renowned paintings on display int he many churches, just stop and take a peek. If you would like to get a glimpse of the city panorama, go tot the top of the Belfry Tower. Make sure you take in the beautiful waterfront "Graslei" from one of the many patios.
In Bruges, we shop. There are two main shopping streets Steenstraat & Noordzandstraat. These streets run parallel and depart from the market square, so once you've made the loop you've done them all. Some of my favorite stores include Massimo Dutti (high end Zara), Villa Maria (all brands of clothing for everyone) and Callebert Design, where afterwards we swing around the corner to Chez Albert for the best waffles. If you're in Bruges with kids, be sure to challenge them to climb the Belfry of Bruges, a medieval bell tower in the city centre. Afterwards grab a beer on any patio in market square opposite the Belfry. They charge more for a pint in that area, but it's worth it for the view.
Where should we eat?
In Antwerp, the family staple is Désiré De Lille for delicious waffles. Get a waffle, sit on the patio and watch the people. Besides the waffles, you must search out some fries. Frituur No. 1 is a delicious french fry stand for any class of people (order it with mayo). Alternatively, Frites Atelier is a chain of fancy fries with locations in all three cities. For great food and more beer, try De Arme Duivel which translates to "poor devil" in Dutch.
In Ghent, have drinks or dinner at the top bar in Belga Queen on the Graslei. The building stems back from the Roman Era. Also, a famous restaurant with very impressive decor is "Het Pakhuis" a remodeled warehouse from back in the day. For a more kid friendly option go try the spaghetti or grilled sandwich with spaghetti sauce on top at the De Kastart. Or a couple doors down have dinner at the old monastery, fittingly called "t'Out Klooster" a more intimate, charming setting (also kid-friendly).
In Bruges, stop for a beer at Cafe Brugs Beertje on a small side street off of Steenstraat. For dinner I like Restaurant Cafedraal. It's got great basics, seafood, meat and pasta although it's a bit fine dining for kids. Sit on the patio if you can.
What is the one can't miss item on your itinerary?
Just walk, walk everywhere, that's far more enjoyable than any museum.
If you have extra time, visit the seafront town of Knokke - Heist. Just up the coastline from Bruges towards The Netherlands; the shopping, beaches and dining on the Flemish coast, deserve a post of their own.
Tell us something we don't know?
These three cities speak Flemish - think Dutch with made-up French words. The dialect can change across only a few miles. For travelers, it's helpful to know that they speak English very well in Northern Belgium. Although less so in the Southern part of the country, near Brussels, where the people stayed under French leadership longer. Here they speak French almost exclusively and it's much harder to communicate.
What should we shop for, or bring back with us?
What should we take on the trip?
Pack a sophisticated, street style outfit and comfy, stylish shoes for touring Antwerp, it is a fashion hotspot after all. While in Ghent and Bruges, anything goes, you can be an all-American tourist.
Click here to see everywhere Kat suggests to put in your Belgium itinerary.