Welcome to Belgium! A country brimming over with medieval cities, each featuring a grand belfry. Those medieval cities were built between the 11th and 17th centuries, showcasing 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 were 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.
Best UNESCO Sites in Belgium
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
Contributed by: Cecilie of Worldwide Walkers
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 its history. And the best part, take the elevator to the top for amazing 360 views over the city.
Belfry in Leuven
Contributed by Antoine and Marielle of Offbeat Escapades
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 1500s. 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
Contributed by Lucy of Family Hotel Expert
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
Contributed by Lyubomira from Bulgarian On The Go
The beautiful city of Bruges is a wonderful mix of medieval and gothic architecture dating back to the 12th and 15th centuries. Its historic centre, together with the Belfry, has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site due to the well preserved medieval heritage. Bruges was a major trading port in Europe, as well as, an important hub of art and architecture during the Renaissance period. The Belfry of Bruges, built in 1240, is worth the climb up the 366 steps to enjoy a panoramic view of the city. Bruges keeps its religious and cultural traditions alive. One of the most famous celebrations is the Procession of the Holy Blood, which takes place every spring on Ascension day, 40 days after Easter.
Grand-Place in Brussels
Contributed by Nichola of Global Mouse Travels
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 designs.
Art Nouveau Town Homes in Brussels
Contributed by me
Brussels is well-known for its Art Nouveau architecture. Well-known architect Victor Horta 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 between 1890 and 1910. Unfortunately, only about half of them remain today making them the hidden gems of Brussels.
There are four major townhouses considered to be classic Art Nouveau architectural work. Hôtel Tassel (1893), Hôtel Solvay (1894), Hôtel van Eetvelde (1895), and Horta House (1901) all designed by architect Victor Horta. 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
Contributed by Paul of Anywhere We Roam
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 in 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 house. 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 and looking at the artifacts, 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.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites by Country
If you found this article interesting, maybe you would like to read more like these in other destinations.
As a holidaymaker…
Although a small country, Belgium offers an immense amount of diversity as you can see through its designated UNESCO World Heritage sites.