The economic and political hub of the country, Brussels has a much different feel from any other Belgian city. In fact, its role as the capital of the European Union has provided an influx of culture from across the continent and is perhaps why the city’s selection of restaurants and cafés is so diverse and plentiful. First-time visitors often make the old town’s Grand Place (Grote Markt) their first stop, home to historic guild houses (Gildehuizen), followed by a walk along Rue de l’Etuve to the city’s most famous landmark, the Manneken Pis.
The old city of Ghent is rife with beautiful historic buildings, many of which are the guild houses and markets that run along the Graseli Canal. The oldest of these buildings is the Romanesque Koornstapelhuis, built around the year 1200. The House of the Masons (Gildehuis der Metselaars) and House of the Free Boatmen (Gildehuis der Vrije Schippers) date back to the early 16th century, and the Customs House (Tolhuisje) was built in 1682. The Korenlei Canal is lined with more fine examples, most of which once served as private homes to the city’s elite merchants.
The Dutch-speaking city of Antwerp has long been known as a center for craftspeople and artists, as well as an active trade port. Visitors can explore the old town’s Grand Place (Grote Markt) to see the historic guild houses and the old Town Hall (Stadhuis), and just a block north is the ornate Butcher’s Hall (Vleeshuis). More historic buildings can be found nearby, including the Plantin-Moretus Museum and the Rubens’ House (Rubenshuis), both of which have collections open to the public.
The distinctly medieval old town of Bruges is one of Belgium’s most romantic destinations, full of narrow cobblestoned streets and sleepy canals. Bruges’ main squares, the Markt and Burg Square (also known simply as “the Burg”), are located at the heart of the historic district. This is the ideal area to start a day of sightseeing, with plenty of historic buildings and landmark sights. The Markt’s most famous feature is the Belfry (Belfort van Brugge), a medieval bell tower with a carillon of 47 bells that sits atop the Halle. Ambitious tourists who want a panoramic view of the city can climb the 366 steps to the top.
Although Liège may not be the most picturesque of Belgian cities thanks to an industrial heritage that promoted function over flourish, it has plenty to offer tourists. The city’s most famous landmark is Montagne de Bueren (Bueren Mountain), a series of 374 steps, which are set at a staggering 30-percent incline. The steps once provided the soldiers with a direct route from the Coteaux de la Citadelle to the city center, and today they provide tourists with spectacular views if they can make it to the top. Tourists visiting during October should be sure to check it out at night, when the entire stairway is lined with candles.
Despite a great deal of destruction during both World Wars, a good number of Leuven’s most impressive historic buildings still stand. Tourists will want to start in the center of the old town at the Grote Markt, an area that is still the hub of the city’s social activity. Towering above the head of the square is St. Peter’s Church (Sint-Pieterskerk), an impressive example of Brabant Gothic architecture that houses the Museum of Religious Art (Stedelijk Museum voor Religieuze Kunst). The old City Hall (Stadhuis) also sits on the square, showcasing its ornate facades complete with 236 figures.