Fancy a spur of the moment break with the kids before the summer holidays to come an end?
If so, how about Flanders? Most of it can be reached in less than two hours from Brussels so it’s an easy choice as a short break option.
Belgium may be relatively small in size but as the fabulous attractions listed below demonstrate, it still has plenty to offer – and a few surprises too.
So, focusing on Flanders and in no particular order, we’ve compiled a “Top 10” list of “must dos” to keep you (and the kids) entertained this summer (and the rest of the year too).
A good starting point are Flanders two great art cities of Antwerp and Gent.
Let’s start in Antwerp, as Rubens did.
The city is now famous for another reason: a museum dedicated to chocolate, that well known and loved Belgian tradition. Chocolate Nation features multimedia exhibits on the history of chocolate-making, plus hands-on workshops and tastings.
Located directly opposite Central Station, it’s the largest Belgian chocolate museum in the world, entirely devoted to Belgian chocolate. It’s entirely appropriate the city houses such a place as Belgium’s very first chocolate factory opened in Antwerp in 1831 (the Port of Antwerp is also the world’s largest storage site of cocoa beans).
The museum, which has 14 thematic rooms, tells the story of Belgian chocolate and is packed tales of chocolate brands and chocolatiers.
A great base for a short stay in Flanders is right next door to the museum: the Radisson Blu Astrid Hotel (also within a stone’s throw of the main train station and city zoo) which has been described as one of Antwerp’s most iconic buildings. As such, it’s well worth a visit on its own, if just to marvel at the stunning and unusual architecture.
The city’s comic and diamond connections inspired Michael Graves, its American architect, and this can be seen throughout.
This well-equipped and pleasant hotel, first opened in 1993, is notably located within a remarkable and quite striking building, located at the heart of the city’s world famous diamond district. Ideally situated, it boasts a wellness centre with an indoor pool and also operates a shuttle bus to and from Brussels Airport. Parking is also available though it is worth remembering that Antwerp is now a low emissions zone.
While in Belgium’s 2nd City, you should try to grab another great tradition: fish and chips (though it could be argued this is more British than Belgium).
A great local spot for this is Bia Mara, situated at the heart of Antwerp’s historic old quarter, which has, since its launch by two Irish chums, cleverly spread the word about this lovely British tradition to a wider audience here in Belgium.
But Bia Mara is also a fish and chip eatery with a slight but innovative difference, offering a great alternative to the British version, with its “spicy” fish.
It’s a relatively short menu and two (among several) to recommend include the “classic panko”, along with the lemon basil infused tempura, the main difference between the two being the thickness of the batter but both are very good.
The owners take particular pride in using, where possible, only seasonal fish and none of the fish used here has travelled far most comes from the nearby North Sea. Combined with some great Belgian beers, it’s easy to see why this place has elevated eating fish and chips to a totally new level. It seats about 50 (with a terrace) and there are also three other ‘branches’ of Bia Mara in Belgium, two in Brussels and one in Leuven.
Another option, close by, is a boat trip with Riverstar, which operates out of Antwerp with sailings mostly on the Scheldt, Rupel and Dijle. There are tourist tours for individual passengers, but a group can also hire a ship for an event on the water.
Our next stop on our tour of Flanders is Gent, a stylish laid-back port city with an illustrious heritage that still has plenty of natural, green filled spaces to relax in.
A great way to while away a few hours is one of the boat trips organised by the excellent Minerva Boat Company where you can rent a boat for different periods, be it an hour, half a day or whole day. You don´t require a boating license or experience so anyone over 18 years of age can take advantage of this terrific attraction which is great fun and also very good value for money.
The company, well established in Gent, can now boast a major honour, having been given a European tourism award in recognition of its contribution to local tourism. In the company’s easy-to-navigate and well-appointed boats, you´ll peacefully pass beautiful gardens as well as the painter´s villages of St Martens-Latem and Deurle, as well as the historic centre of Gent itself. This is a wonderful – and very relaxing – way to explore parts of the city and, notably surrounding countryside, hat you may otherwise not get a chance to see.
While in the city check out another attraction well worth a visit: the splendid (and very large) Rozebroeken sports and swimming complex, on the outskirts of Gent and without doubt one of the best of its kind in the country.
It was built in 2012 on the site of Park Rozebroeken in the Ghent borough of Sint-Amandsberg while, at the same time, a vision for the renewal and redesign of the outdoor space was drawn up. The park has been given a contemporary design and is once again a place for sports, games and relaxation in the middle of green space.
A very good base for exploring the city is NH Gent Belfort. This four-floor hotel, located at the heart of the city and in Art Nouveau style, is close to St Bavo’s Cathedral, the Belfry, the Castle of the Counts and the opera, has 174 rooms, a gym with an exercise room and sauna and a terrace.
If you visit by car the good news is there’s an underground car park, which has 120 dedicated parking spots and 10 electric charging stations. It is also outside Ghent’s pedestrianised area and can be reached without permit. There is a bus stop 100 m from the hotel, and a tram stop 300 m away.
A nice spot for a bite to eat is Du Progres on Korenmarkt which should be on your radar whatever time of the year. Located in an enviable position, on the main square and very close to the cathedral, it is popular both with locals and tourists. The main reason it often has to turn people away, certainly on a Friday and Saturday night, is simple: excellent food and equally excellent service.
While in Antwerp and Gent try to make use of a very useful “City Card” which is available in both cities.
The Gent card gets you into all top attractions and access on public transport at a ridiculously low price. Easy to use, the card includes a handy, foldable city map and all relevant info. You can choose a card for 48 or 72 hours. More info here: https://visit.gent.be/en/good-know/practical-information/citycard-gent
The Antwerp city card, meanwhile, offers free entry to 16 top museums, four historic churches and three attractions. The card, which also gives discounts on everything from boat trips to sweets, is “activated” when you show it (scanned) at the first attraction you visit. It then runs for 48 hours from the first activation. Be warned that due to the pandemic, museums are currently allocating specific time slots so it’s best to buy tickets online in advance of a visit. The card also allows free travel throughout the city on De Lijn buses and trams.
In Antwerp you could use the card, for instance, for a fascinating tour of the underground tunnels that criss-cross this fine city or to access the wondrous cathedral which features works by Rubens, arguably Antwerp’s most famous son. In Gent, a card, among many other things, could be used to hire a bike for the day (there’s a good choice of bikes, available at various locations), a good way to get around this lovely city.
A sometimes overlooked part of Flanders is Limburg but this is also well worth a visit this summer, not least as it too boasts some fantastic things to do during the vacation.
These include a wonderful activity locally is TODI, a unique indoor diving and snorkeling centre at BE-Mine in Beringen, a former coal mine in Limburg, which is the eastern most province of Belgium.
The whole site is constantly being redeveloped as a tourist attraction, breathing new life into what used to be a very rundown area, and creating jobs. The centre is unique as it offers a chance to dive, swim and snorkel alongside some of the world’s most exotic fish.
Still in Flanders, Bruges has extended its annual Triennale arts festival until the autumn. It is well worth checking out, not least as it takes you parts of this famous city that you might otherwise not see or experience.
Yes, the pandemic may still be with us (and the rather unseasonal weather as well, sadly) but the good news is that tourism in Flanders is very much again up and running and there’s plenty to keep you occupied and entertained if you choose to holiday at home this year.
So, there you have it: our Top Ten of the best things to do in Flanders during the holidays. If you are among the many who were fed up being stuck at home during the crisis, you might welcome such great places to visit.
Despite lockdowns, various restrictions (and even flooding) all these fantastic Belgian attractions are ready to welcome back visitors – and that can only be great news for all of us.