Belgium is a remarkable little country. Not only is it the seat of powerful global organisations like the European Union and NATO, but it’s also home to spectacular examples of Renaissance architecture, medieval towns that offer a glimpse into history, and elegant Art Nouveau buildings.
It’s also one of the most eclectic countries on Earth as it contains very distinctive regions, such as Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and French-speaking Wallonia in the south.
With so much to offer in terms of culture and fascinating towns and cities, Belgium is a popular tourist destination, attracting over 6 million visitors per year. If you’re planning to visit Belgium soon, keep reading to discover this tiny country’s hidden secrets.
While tourists may flock in their droves to Ghent, Antwerp and Bruges, there’s a lot more to Belgium than diamonds and chocolate.
Take the picturesque town of Spa in Lieges. Renowned for its natural mineral springs and spa water that’s shipped worldwide, Spa is also home to a palatial casino that once made history for helping to develop a certain infamous casino game. According to research, Trente et-quarant, a precursor to modern blackjack, was popularised by the venue in 1780.
Spa’s influence on global entertainment doesn’t end there, however. The town also happens to be the place where the world’s first official beauty pageant – Concours de Beaute – was held, way back in 1888.
If you’d appreciate checking out some of the medieval buildings Belgium is known for without having to wade through the crowds, Veurne is another interesting neighbourhood to visit.
Situated in rural West Flanders, this idyllic town contains some impressive medieval architecture. In Grote Markt, there’s a variety of baroque, Rennaisance and late Gothic structures, including the Belfort Belfry and Saint Walburga Church.
Captivating Street Art
When it comes to visual arts, Belgium’s artistic traditions date all the way back to the middle ages. The country’s influence on artistic practices has, for centuries, been great. Back in the middle ages, monasteries across Belgium were the seat of production for Ottonian and Carolingian art, while the development of Flanders into one of the wealthiest cities in Europe brought about Early Netherlandish painting.
The country isn’t exactly short on museums, where you can take all of this in and more. For something a little less mainstream and rather undiscovered, you need to explore the streets of Belgium.
Make no mistake, Belgian street art is no ordinary spray-painted graffiti. Artists like Kitsune, Wieste and NOIR are creating works that wouldn’t look out of place adorning the walls of modern galleries. You can find their captivating works and more on the sides of buildings in Ghent, Mons and Oostende.
So far we’ve erred on the side of the mainstream. There are, however, hidden worlds across Belgium that even the locals may not be aware of. How do you fancy exploring the Belgian Sahara or getting lost in a Belgian chateau? If that sounds right up your street, here are some fascinating oddities you simply must encounter.
Lommel ‘Sahara’ – One of the most unusual ecological spots you’ll likely ever encounter, the Lommel Sahara is a must-see. This strange landscape begins with serene pinewoods before opening out onto sandy plains. Add in a crystal-clear lake too and you have the perfect Sci-Fi setting.
Chateau Miranda – AKA the Castle of Noisy, is an abandoned 19th-century neo-gothic chateau that stands in faded glory in Celles, Namur. Located as it is in the forestry of the Ardennes, you would be forgiven for believing this to be a film set, but the chateau was once the summer retreat of the Leidekerke-Beaufort dynasty before falling into ruin in the 20th century.
Spiennes Flint Mines – Belgium’s association with medieval history is well known, but did you know the country has a prehistoric mine hidden away within its borders? Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the prehistoric flint mines of Spiennes (found just outside Mons) comprise the oldest and largest collection of mines in Europe. Stretching out underground across 100 hectares, some of the caves here date all the way back to 4,000 BC.