Flanders travel guide
With fantastic food, beautiful architecture and stylish shops, the cities of Flanders provide perfect weekend getaways. And they're all just a short hop across the Channel.
This extraordinary region, otherwise known as the Flemish-speaking half of Belgium, offers something for everyone: gorgeous architecture, a cutting-edge arts scene, stylish shopping and vibrant nightlife ... and we mustn't forget the food!
Aside from world-famous chocolate and beer, Flanders boasts a thriving (yet affordable and pretension-free) restaurant culture, including more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than France.
Best of all, after taking the short journey across the Channel to Dunkirk in France, it's only an hour away by car- so it's practically on our doorstep.
One of the most stunningly well-preserved cities in Europe, full of winding cobblestone streets and serene canals, and yes, it's famous for its crocheted lace and medieval churches. But let's be frank, the real reason to visit is the chocolate.
Known as “the chocolate city”, Bruges is home to literally hundreds of chocolate shops, as well as a museum dedicated to the sweet stuff.
If you're a true connoisseur, you must visit this autumn: from 6 November to 8 December, a city-wide gastronomic event called Choc' in Bruges involves special chocolate-focused walking tours and workshops – even spa treatments are on offer.
Big enough to boast a great cosmopolitan vibe yet small enough to feel like a friendly village, Antwerp is Belgium’s second-largest city.
Renowned for its artistic heritage, the city’s most famous son, Peter Paul Rubens, is celebrated at the Rubens House, which this autumn is exhibiting the painter's lesser-known architectural work.
Shopping is also first-rate: as a hub of the world diamond trade there's a whole district devoted to the gems, and thanks to the influence of the Antwerp Six, a group of celebrated fashion designers who graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in the early 80s, the city has blossomed into a style paradise.
Don't leave without visiting Antwerp’s new MAS museum, housed in a striking building with an impressive panorama from the rooftop.
For what was one of Europe's most powerful cities in the middle ages, Ghent has certainly seen its cachet fade. That's a pity because the city is a gem; a picturesque jumble of medieval architecture kept lively by a large student population.
Cultural highlights include St Bavo's Cathedral, the interactive STAM City Museum and the international film festival, taking place this year on 11-22 October.
On the food front, Ghent's gastronomic claim to fame is waterzooi, a creamy stew that pairs fish or chicken with local vegetables. For a great bowl head to trendy Patershol – this previously rundown district has morphed into a culinary hotbed.
The capital of Belgium and de facto capital of Europe, Brussels is a cosmopolitan metropolis, home to world-class art, architecture, shopping and gastronomy. Cultural riches run the gamut from gothic cathedrals to renaissance art to a comic-strip museum.
If your credit card needs a workout, the glamorous Antoine Dansaertstraat is where the fashion cognoscenti head, and for a hearty Belgian feast Beenhouwersstraat will spoil you for choice.
You’ll have a particularly magical visit between late November and January, when the city hosts one of Europe's best Christmas markets on one of Europe’s most beautiful squares, the Grote Markt.
Only 25km from Brussels, Leuven is a relaxed, friendly place dominated by its university, among the oldest in the world. Cultural attractions include the Groot Begijnhof, a Unesco world heritage historical quarter, and the collections of historic and modern art at the M Museum.
As befits a university town, there is no shortage of affordable eating and drinking opportunities, many of which cluster around the Oude Markt and pedestrianised Muntstraat. If you're a beer drinker (and you should be in Belgium), Leuven is heaven: InBev's main Belgian factory – where the likes of Stella Artois and Leffe are brewed – is located here.
Mechelen was an important production centre for lace and tapestry in the middle ages – so important that it briefly enjoyed a stint as Belgium's capital. Those days are long gone but it's still a lovely town, the perfect mix of charm, culture and comfort. Try one of the suggested walking tours to get an overview of the main sites, stopping to take in one of the regular carillon concerts at St Rumbold's Cathedral.
Mechelen's best-known speciality is liquid: the Het Anker brewery offers tastings of its delicious Mechelse Bruynen and Gouden Carolus beers, and even has accommodation so you can fall straight into bed afterwards.
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