Belgium is brimming over with its medieval cities, each featuring a grand belfry. Medieval cities, built between the 11th and 17th centuries, showcase the Roman, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles of architecture. For such a small country, it ranks high on architectural gems.
In fact, 13 places are designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites. Places recognized for their natural, historic and cultural significance, selected by representatives of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a way to preserve and protect for future generations. So, let’s learn more about some of the best ones to visit while in Belgium.
The Best UNESCO World Heritage Sites
The Belfries of Belgium
Under the category of The Belfries of Belgium and France, one of the 13 sites listed, there are a whopping 33 belfries that have been inscribed. They form part of Belgium’s cities architecture, acting as a symbol. Belfries are large towers in the central part of the city representing the influence of a council, or the people, rather than the church. They are often decorated ornately reflecting the culture and history of that time.
Belfry in Ghent
The Belfry of Ghent is one of Belgium’s most beautiful bell towers. What makes it extra special is its height. At 91 metres, it’s the tallest belfry in the country. It also has significant historical value dating back to the Middle Ages. The construction began in 1313 and finished in 1380.
The Belfry of Ghent served many purposes over the centuries. It held the town records and acted as the city’s watchtower. It still remains the city’s most important and impressive landmark. Visit it and you’ll learn about the history. And the best part, take the elevator to the top for amazing 360 views over the city.
Belfry in Leuven
From an architectural and cultural point of view, Leuven is one of the best cities in Flanders to visit. It holds two UNESCO World Heritage Sites – the Flemish Béguinages (called Groot Begijnhof) and the Belfry at St. Peter’s Church.
Located just across Leuven’s iconic Town Hall in Grote Markt, St. Peter’s Church was initially meant to have three towers that would reach 170 metres. It would have been the tallest building in the world during the early 1500’s. However, the construction was stopped and today the towers are only slightly taller than the roof of the church. The church is also the setting for “The Last Supper” – an art masterpiece by Flemish Master, Dieric Bouts. Six centuries later, it continues to hang here for all to see.
Belfry in Mechelen
St. Rumbold’s Cathedral, and its belfry, can be seen from almost everywhere in Mechelen. Taking more than 300 years to build, it was finally finished in 1520. Climb the 538 steps for fantastic views, not only of Mechelen, but on a clear day, to Brussels and Antwerp. Mechelen is a perfect holiday destination for families, as well as a couple’s weekend getaway.
The Belfry is at the centre of one of the most legendary tales about this city. It’s where the townsfolk got their name as ‘moon extinguishers’. In 1687, a resident emerging from a local bar, believed he saw St Rumbold’s Cathedral on fire. Only it was actually the moon shining on the tower. He raised the alarm and the residents rushed to take buckets of water to the Cathedral to put out the fire.
Historic City of Bruges
Grand-Place in Brussels
Stepping into the Grand Place in Brussels you will immediately see why this impressive central square is named one of Europe’s finest. The Grand Place, or Grote Markt, is surrounded by opulent buildings, edifices and museums.
Dating back to the 10th century, the square has been the very heart of the Belgian capital for commerce and city life for hundreds of years. The gilded townhomes and the Town Hall still stand proud on the edge of this bustling square. The square is packed with history and is a wonderful place to explore as a family. It ranks as one of the best things to do in Brussels with kids.
Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, the Grote Markt hosts many of the city’s best festivals. From the Belgian Beer Weekend to the biennial Flower Carpet where the entire square is covered in over a million begonias set in colourful design.
Art Nouveau Town Homes in Brussels
Contributed by me
Brussels is well-known for its Art Nouveau architecture, and some say, it’s where it all began. It was here, where architect Victor Horta lived and worked. He is credited with designing the first Art Nouveau building in the world. More than 1,000 buildings, from private homes to public spaces, were built in this style in Brussels during 1890 and 1910. Unfortunately, only about half of them remain today.
Art Nouveau design is characterized by its use of materials associated with the turn of the century. Iron, glass and exposed brick were heavily used. It’s all about the curved lines, diffused light and often the inspiration of nature you will see in this style.
There are four major town houses – Hôtel Tassel (1893), Hôtel Solvay (1894), Hôtel van Eetvelde (1895), and Horta House (1901) – all designed by architect Victor Horta, are considered classic examples of this architectural style. As such, they were added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2000. Why not take your own Art Nouveau walking tour to see these, and others throughout the city.
Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp
Christophe Plantin was born into a poor family in France and moved to Antwerp in the middle of the 16th century where he started a successful publishing business. He went on to become one of the most influential figures of Antwerp society. As a deft diplomat, he achieved something relatively unheard of in his time – the printing of scientific books.
His former mansion and printing plant is today the Plantin-Moretus Museum. It’s a sumptuous atmospheric look inside the world of Antwerp’s high society. Early scientific books are on display in all their dusty leather-bound glory alongside the original typesets that were used to print them.
The architectural value of the building and the importance of the archives on display, from what was once the most prolific publishing house in the 16th century, earned the museum a UNESCO World Heritage listing in 2005. Strolling around the lavish mansion looking at the artefacts, including paintings by Rubens, is one of the best things to do in Antwerp.
While most people who visit Belgium are likely to spend most of their time in Brussels, there are many more wonderful cities to visit that are just as spectacular. Beyond Brussels, here are 5 others that make for an amazing day trip that you don’t want to miss.
As a holidaymaker…
Although a small country, Belgium offers an immense amount of diversity. From its dual languages to its UNESCO sites to its varied cuisine of beer, chocolate, waffles and frites. Belgium offers a little something for everyone who visits this beautiful country.
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