Between quirky castles, secret sculptures, and cities which weren’t yet on your radar but totally should be, Belgium has no shortage of hidden gems you’ll soon fall in love with. Visit the country and you’ll soon discover that there’s much more than just the beer! Here’s your ultimate guide to the best-kept secret spots in Belgium that you simply must visit!
Why you must visit Belgium on your next Europe trip
Off the beaten path in spite of its geographical position between the countries of Germany, France, and the Netherlands, Belgium is a delightful country which boasts exports such as Audrey Hepburn, French fries (yes, really!), and Hercule Poirot but is missed by many travellers in favour of more famous destinations such as Amsterdam, Paris, and London!
However, if I could give you just one Europe travel tip, it would be to not make the mistake of missing this stunning country off your European itinerary. After all, Belgium is generally cheaper than its neighbouring countries but offers just as much in terms of its fantastic foodie scene, world-famous chocolates, fantastic beer, mind-blowing architecture, and much, much more!
You should also know before you go that thanks to its tiny and compact nature, getting around Belgium by bus or train couldn’t be easier (I use this site to compare the best prices and times for buses/ planes & trains). Otherwise, read on to discover the most unique and unusual things to do in Belgium…
The underrated city of Mechelen
Situated somewhere between the capital city of Brussels and Antwerp, the city of Mechelen is often overlooked in favour of more popular destinations. However, scratch beneath the surface and you’ll soon discover a beautiful Belgium settlement that’s more than worth your time while in the country and definitely one of the most unusual places to visit.
After all, asides from the ornate 13th-century St. Rumbold’s Cathedral, there’s plenty of more highlights which the city has to offer. While Noen offers the best coffee in town, the best food (especially for those who enjoy seafood-inspired cuisine) is to be found at Vismarkt, a former fish market turned square where all kinds of restaurants can be found!
Secret small and great Beguinages, Leuven
Before visiting Leuven, I had no idea as to what I should expect. It was an unusually warm spring day and I was visiting with a few friends in tow. Soon enough, we discovered that there’s something for everyone when it comes to enjoying the best of Leuven; from the best of foodie experiences to hidden gems to historical excursions, Leuven really is a gem worth discovering.
However, if there were two of Leuven’s attractions that impressed more than any other, it was the beguinages. After all, throughout the low countries (i.e. Belgium and the Netherlands), there are a plethora of ‘Beguinages’ (begijnhofs in Dutch) which are typically almshouses which would have once housed those in society who needed it most.
Today, the city of Leuven is unique in that it boasts two sets of almshouses; the ‘Grand’ beguinage is now owned and operated by the university, though it’s been in existence since the 13th-century. The other beguinage is the smaller and secluded Klein Begijnhof and consists of a single street populated by pretty brick houses, all lying in the shadow of the Keizersberg Abbey.
The sugar town of Tienen
If you’ve ever enjoyed a sugar cube alongside your fresh coffee or warming cup of tea, then no doubt it will probably have been processed in the tiny town of Tienen, a tiny city not far from Leuven. Off the beaten path and in the very heart of Flemish Brabant in Flanders, this settlement was once at the heart of Roman ceramics and glass-making,
Visit today and you’ll soon discover that there is little more to do in Tienen than seeing the main churches, soaking up the ambience, and sampling some of the local cuisine (traditional Flemish cuisine includes many meat-heavy staples such as stews, meatballs, and mussels).
Much of town life is focused around the central square, which itself is centred around Sint-Germanuskerk, a remarkable Romanesque church topped by a UNESCO belfry and dating back to the 13th-century. During July and August, carillon concerts take place every Wednesday.
MAS Museum Rooftop, Antwerp
For those who wish to experience one of the best views that Antwerp has to offer, there is perhaps no better place to enjoy than the free-to-visit MAS Museum rooftop. Easily one of the best-kept secrets of Antwerp, this terrace offers 360-degree panoramic views of the city. There are even small camera holes in the surrounding glass which allow you to take picture-perfect photos from the top!
Swap a shoe for a beer, Ghent
Hands down, one of the most unusual things to do in Belgium is to hand your shoe (either foot is fine!) over, as well as some cash, in exchange for a beer! Welcome to Dulle Griet, one of the quirkiest pubs in Belgium. Step inside during opening hours (the Ghent bar is open every day of the week) and you can expect to find a warm ambience, plenty of beer, and some pretty decor.
Dulle Griet can be found along Vrijdagmarkt, a pretty square that’s just steps away from the most famous of Ghent Canals and a communal space where weekly markets are held. The drinking establishment itself sells house pints where the glass is unable to stand on its own and is reminiscent of something that’s come straight out of a science lab. For the privilege, you’ll have to hand over a shoe for the duration of your drink!
Kasteel van Arenberg, Leuven
Situated on the fringes of Leuven and now operating as a University Campus, the stunning Kasteel van Arenberg gives visitors an easy glimpse into the world of Belgium castles, châteaux, and fortifications. After all, Kasteel van Arenberg can be reached on foot in just a twenty-minute walk from Leuven’s historic city centre.
Though the brick Castle van Arenberg can only be admired from its exterior (and you can, of course, wander through the open central courtyard), the nearby parkland is free to visit and provides the perfect spot in which to enjoy picnics during the summer months.
Liège-Guillemins railway station, Liège
Situated close to the borders with Germany and the Netherlands and located in the Wallonia region of Belgium, a train station may not be the first thing which springs to mind when considering the best of Belgium’s hidden gems.
However, step inside this feat of modern engineering on the fringes of Liège, the third-largest city in Belgium, and you’ll soon discover that there’s much more to this transport hub than meets the eye. Used by over 15,000 people on a daily basis, the station spans 160 metres in length and stands at 32 metres high. A fantastic blend of steel, glass, and white concrete, this Belgium hotspot is a must-visit for any keen architectural photographer.
The off the beaten path city of Hasselt
Though less frequented than many of the other large towns and cities in Belgium, Hasselt more than deserves a place on your Belgium bucket list. After all, every year in the springtime, a plethora of blossom trees bloom, including the ever-so-pretty cherry blossom.
During this time, a cherry blossom festival is held (full details here) and visitors and locals alike are treated to the chance to sit together or enjoy a picnic with friends beneath a stunning canopy of pink blooms. Otherwise, some of the best things to do in Hasselt include a medieval town centre and several museums, including one dedicated solely to Jenever!
Vlaeykensgang, a secret street in Antwerp
Known as Antwerpen in Flemish and Anvers in French, the beautiful port city of Antwerp is often overlooked in favour of more famous Belgian destinations such as Bruges or Brussels. However, scratch beneath the surface of this sprawling settlement and you’ll soon discover plenty of hidden gems worth seeing.
One of my favourites is steps away from the cathedral and its entryway is tucked away in plain sight. The secret alleyway of Vlaeykensgang dates all the way back to the 16th-century and comprises of tiny, leaning brick houses, quaint courtyard, and even a hidden restaurant; ‘t Hofke is a charming and romantic date night venue where you go for the ambience as opposed to the food!
Enjoy lunch in a former church in Ghent
Though the city of Ghent itself is by no means a hidden gem of Belgium, there’s much more to discover should you opt to dig beneath the surface of this delightful settlement. After all, did you know that in the Holy Food Market, a former church turned food court, you can sip on cocktails, snack on takeaway, or enjoy romantic date nights?
Reading Between the Lines, Limburg
Set deep in the heart of the Limburg countryside, an area best-known for its flowering fruit trees and rolling green hills, Reading Between the Lines is a fantastic secret spot that will charm architecture enthusiasts and nature lovers alike.
Best reached if you have access to a car (transport links in the area are limited), then you’ll soon discover that one of the best secrets spots in Belgium is that of this unusual sculpture. Inspired by the pretty stone chapel that can be spied in the distance behind the installation, the art piece was installed by the pair in 2011, together with art museum Z33.
Abbaye de Villers
Nestled deep in the heart of the Walloon-Brabant countryside, the former Cistercian Abbaye de Villiers can be found in the town of Villers-la-Ville. Founded mid-way through the 12th-century, the Abbey was then an important seat of power in the region before eventually being abandoned at the end of the 18th-century.
Today, the romantic ruins of the Abbey can be visited in the French-speaking region of Wallonia and even be seen as a day trip from Brussels. While a car will offer you more flexibility with your schedule, taking the train from Brussels to Villers-la-Ville will deposit you just a couple of kilometres away from the abbey. Check here for further information about visiting Abbaye de Villers.
Photo by Karen from Wanderlustingk.com
The picturesque town of Dinant
Though less of a Belgium hidden gem these days than just a few years ago, Dinant still remains a must-see for those who are looking to enjoy the best that the country has to offer. Located alongside the banks of the River Meuse, the same river which wends its way through French settlements such as Verdun and Charleville-Mézières, this colourful town has something to offer for every budget.
After all, between boutique stays and sampling the local cuisine, there are plenty of attractions worth checking out. All in all, some of the best things to do in Dinant include touring the Renaissance Castle of Freÿr, marvelling at the views from the Dinant Citadel, and being amazed by the Grotte La Merveilleuse. Check here for further information about visiting Dinant!
The fishing town of Nieuwpoort, Northern Belgium
Tucked away in the Northern part of Belgium, the charming town of Nieuwpoor is easily one of the country’s best-kept secrets. Boasting highlights such as a beach complete with marina, other things to do in Nieuwpoort include a beach walk promenade, beach sailing, and the Nature reserve of De IJzermonding.