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Beyond Brussels: discover the real Belgium

Helen Alexander

Senior Contributor

There’s much more to Belgium than its capital city. If you want to get a real feel for the country, head to one of these inviting destinations – from fashionable Antwerp with its high-end boutiques to Mechelen’s handsome buildings.

Fashion-forward Antwerp

Sharing a city with ModeNatie – one of the world’s leading fashion museums – it should come as no surprise that the locals have good dress sense in their DNA. Put on your best outfit and head here to learn more about iconic pieces of apparel and the inspiration behind some of the most cutting-edge clothing, as well as to enjoy a jam-packed schedule of temporary exhibitions, before checking out the sparkling DIVA diamond museum for its truly breath-taking bling.

Then kick off a retail-therapy session by familiarising yourself with the Antwerp Six. This influential collective graduated from the city’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts in the 1980s and spent the next few decades turning heads around the world with their catwalk creations. Most have standalone stores – a visit to Dries Van Noten’s stunning art deco boutique Het Modepaleis (Nationalestraat 16) is a must – and their legacy continues to live on as more and more Royal Academy alumni open their own places, for example, Christian Wijnants’ flagship store (Steenhouwersvest 36). And to really embrace Antwerp’s style, combine clothes with cosmetics and home accessories at one of the city’s concept stores, such as Stay (Nationalestraat 49). 

Grote Markt in Antwerp

Credit: Mapics

Explore Ghent’s culture-packed canals

Who needs Amsterdam when you have Ghent’s pedestrianised city centre and its picture-perfect canals to walk or cycle alongside? Follow the Leie river as it runs through Graslei, Korenlei and Kraanlei canals, which are lined by historic gable houses and quays, or take in the sights from the water as part of a boat tour. One of the best spots to stop and admire Ghent’s waterways is from St. Michael’s bridge, from where you can also spot the Castle of the Counts (Sint-Veerleplein 11) in the distance.

Take time out from your waterside explorations to soak up some of Belgium’s best cultural attractions, such as the strikingly modern art gallery SMAK (Jan Hoetplein 1), which has quickly gained a reputation for hosting some truly quirky and creative exhibitions, the Design Museum (Jan Breydelstraat 5) that’s dedicated to 20th-century and contemporary creativity, and STAM (Godshuizenlaan 2), where you can learn more about Ghent’s fascinating history and find out exactly what makes today’s city so interesting.

a canal in the old town of Ghent

Credit: Mapics

Enjoy a feast with Leuven locals

Sitting on the banks of the Dijle, this university town ensures its students are never in danger of going hungry or thirsty thanks to its thriving restaurant and brewery scene. Start at De Smidse – this former forge has been given an incredible food-focused makeover, and is now home to artisan produce stalls – from a coffee roasters to a bakery – as well as a yoga studio and a hairdresser. Order from a choice of kitchens and tuck into your lunch at one of the communal tables. Then there’s HAL 5, another newcomer that is winning over locals’ hearts and stomach with its co-working spaces and street-food style stalls. Housed in former railway storage sheds, it’s an always-buzzing culinary complex.

When it comes to sampling something from one of the city’s renowned breweries, head to Domus Brauhaus (Tiensestraat 8) – this small-scale brewery pairs its house beers with traditional Belgian dishes in the adjoining café and recently renovated medieval cellar.

While Grand Café De Hoorn (Sluisstraat 79), the birthplace of Stella Artois, is also worth checking out for its beer-based cooking. And to have something to boast about when you get home, pull up a chair at the longest bar in Europe in Oude Markt. It’s not actually one bar, but due to the sheer number of drinking establishments in this picturesque public square, the outdoor terraces all blur into one. 

Outdoor eateries in the Central Square of Leuven

Credit: Manos.Ch

Photograph Mechelen’s attractive architecture

One of the Flanders region’s best-looking cities, Mechelen’s skyline is dominated by St Rumbold’s, which is the 97-metre-high tower attached to the cathedral. Climb more than 500 steps for sweeping views of several other Belgian cities, including Brussels, Antwerp and Leuven, from the sky deck. Built in the 15th Century, the cathedral’s grand baroque interior is also home to some incredible paintings, including The Crucifixion by the famous Flemish artist Anthony Van Dyck.

Marvel at the attractive architecture that can be seen from the Grote Markt (the central square), snap the famous trio of colourful 16th and 17th-century houses at Haverwerf and, for more beautiful buildings, head to the Beguinage area around Nonnenstraat, which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A community built within the city with its own bakery, brewery and church, beguinages were built all over Europe to house women who had lost their husbands in as a result of war or had never married. Nowadays, the cobblestone laneways offer a tranquil escape from city life. 

Grand Market Square of Mechelen

Credit: Santi Rodriguez

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