Explore Belgium this summer with our guide to some lesser-known highlights
From one-off places to stay and striking outdoor art to family-friendly museums and a wealth of heritage, these are some of our favourite places to visit around Belgium this summer.
Have you ever booked such a unique place to stay that you were torn over whether to go sightseeing or just stay put all day? You’ll have the same “problem” at the Landgoed de Kievit in the northernmost part of Belgium. A tiny house, impeccably appointed, sits alone on the expansive property. You’ll find a covered terrace, wooden hot tub (heated with firewood) and a sauna inside an old winemaking vat. Over in East Flanders, you can spend the night in a tent perched on a raft floating in the picturesque Donkmeer lake (pictured above), rowing boat included. On the edge of a nature reserve in Limburg, meanwhile, visitors sleep high among the trees in cabins of wood and glass at the Warredal site, which is also home to an equestrian centre and adventure park.
A museum apart
With its extremely limited opening hours and rural location, Shoes or No Shoes sees few visitors, but it’s one of Belgium’s most exceptional – and uncommon – museums. It started when artists around the world were asked to send one of their shoes to collectors. The results – and this extraordinary building – must be seen to be believed. The tiny village of Doel, meanwhile, has become an open-air museum of street art. The mostly abandoned town, saved from the wrecking ball, has become an offbeat tourist attraction. Another open-air site well worth the trip is the Hugo Voeten Sculpture Garden in Geel. It’s part of an impressive private collection of local and international art, the rest of which can be found at the Hugo Voeten Art Center in nearby Herentals (pictured).
West Flanders is an endless discovery trail. Leave the city behind in the “land of hills”, a sparsely populated area made up of eight villages fused under the name Heuvelland (main image). Walk through First World War trenches in the Croonaert forest, visit one of 15(!) vineyards or quaff a brew with a view at ’t Hellegat (The Hell Hole). Further north is Diksmuide (pictured), which most Belgians know only from the road sign they pass on their way to the coast. Stop off for a look at its lovely main square with town hall, belfry and charming golden statuette. Damme is also often overlooked, usually by visitors to nearby Bruges. It has equally impressive medieval architecture, a climbable church tower, a beautiful 19th-century windmill and boat trips along its sublime canal.
Public art is everywhere, but the largest concentration of it in Belgium is at the seaside. This is thanks to art triennial Beaufort, which stages such fantastic monumental works up and down the coast that some municipalities choose to keep them forever. Worth seeking out is Touching to Sea You in De Panne, a giant octopus emerging from the sands. Walking along Nieuwpoort’s riverside promenade will bring you to Family Module, a touching sculpture of two mums and their son. More artworks retained from editions of Beaufort can be found online. One beloved sculpture in Ostend has nothing to do with the triennial: The Lioness is the only remaining vestige of an exhibition staged in Leopold Park in 1888. Lurking in the bushes, she can be a rather surprising sight.
Listen to the gentle lapping of the water at secluded Aqualodge (pictured) near Eermeton-sur-Biert in the Molignée Valley. Six wooden cabins with contemporary rustic decor and log burners are perched on stilts in a fishing pond. Another rural and lofty getaway is La Cabane du Bois Dormant near Spa. The forest retreat comes with all modern comforts. While breakfast is hoisted up in a basket, you may be tempted down from your eyrie to explore the neighbouring High Fens national park. The high-spec Cabanes de Rensiwez shacks are a perfect base camp in the Ardennes. Located in Houffalize on the banks of the river Ourthe, the log hideouts boast wood burners, hot tubs and saunas. Immerse yourself in rural life at the Notre-Dame du Vivier Abbey Cistercian domain near Namur, where two gîtes provide an ideal base for a trip down the Mosane valley.
Vistas and valleys
While away a day or two exploring river life along the valley of the Meuse. Running from Namur down to the French border, this natural beauty spot is brimming with heritage sites, sporting pursuits and pretty villages. For a more leisurely journey, river cruises ply the waters near Namur and Dinant. The citadels of both historic cities provide panoramic vistas and insights into their former military prowess. Between the two lie the beautiful 18th-century gardens of Annevoie (pictured), combining English and Italian styles and elaborate water features, including waterfalls and fountains, plus a children’s playground. Among the many castles dotting the tree-flanked valley is the outstanding Domaine de Freÿr, near Hastière. Overlooking one of the most idyllic stretches of the river, the stately home was recently restored and transformed into a sustainable estate.
Among the catalogue of Unesco world heritage sites on our doorstep is a slew of often overlooked places. The city of Tournai boasts the oldest belfry in Belgium. It’s also the starting point of the Unesco heritage trails cycle route, which leads you through Wallonia’s former industrial heartland. The scenic tour incorporates a litany of exceptional sites: the belfry of carnival town Binche, the Grand-Hornu museum complex, the former coalmines of Bois du Luc and Bois du Cazier, and the Neolithic caves at Spiennes. Another Unesco highlight is the Strépy-Thieu boat lifts (pictured), the largest hydraulic lifts in Europe and the second largest in the world. They’re an architectural feat that was designed to maintain the integrity of Belgium’s waterways, and the site is home to museums, boat trips and other activities.
Combine a countryside ramble with a tour of art installations that reflect their natural surroundings. In a 140km circuit through the villages of the Condroz and Marche-en-Famenne region, some 50 artists have created this series of works for the annual Sentiers d’Art summer display (pictured). Contemporary artworks currently grace the terraced hanging gardens of Thuin. The fortified town is famed for its steep south-facing terraces that were cultivated in the Middle Ages as vegetable patches because of the lack of green space. The area’s microclimate gives rise to a fertile floral show.
Photos: Heuvelland © Westhoek Tourism; Donkermeer; Village hopping, Diksmuide © Benoit Brummer; Fun finds © Lisa Bradshaw; Hugo Voeten Art Center; Aqualodge; Annevoie Gardens; Strépy boat lift; Sentiers d'Art
This article was first published on the Expat Time site of ING Belgium, July 2022