If you are visiting Belgium for the first time and are not sure where to start with planning your trip, then this post is for you. I made two sample three- and four day itineraries that bring you to the most beautiful places in Belgium.
Since I know that many people don’t have a lot of time to explore Belgium deeper, here are my very best recommendations for a short trip to Belgium. Even if you are visiting for just one or two days, you will be able to use some tips. But if you have the time, I recommend spending at least 3 or 4 days in Belgium.
My recommended three day Belgium itinerary includes the capital city Brussels and the most beautiful towns of Flanders – Antwerp, Ghent, and Bruges.
If you have four days in Belgium I also strongly recommend visiting the WWI battlefields near Ypres.
TIP: The distances in Belgium are not big and there are good railway connections between all major towns. Therefore you can base yourself in any city and make day trips from there – that way you don’t have to pack/unpack all the time. But you can, of course, stay in a different town every day as well. Find out!
Since most of the main highlights of Belgium are towns, you can visit Belgium in any season.
Day 1: Brussels
Brussels is the capital of Belgium and a city every tourist has to see at least once. In my opinion, one day is plenty of time in order to see the main highlights of Brussels. If you want to visit museums (Musical Instruments Museum is my favourite) and less centrally located areas you will of course need more time.
Here is my suggested itinerary for Brussels in one day:
In the morning make a walk in the town centre and don’t miss the following places:
- Grand Place and the Town Hall. The central square of Brussels is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most beautiful town squares in the world. Surrounded by the decorative 17the century guild houses, the impressive City Hall and the Maison du Roi (now the Brussels City Museum) it’s a place not to be missed. My favourite time to go is in the evening when the crowds are smaller and the buildings are nicely lit.
- Manneken Pis. The little ‘peeing boy’ is said to have saved the city from the fire and is an ultimate symbol of Brussels. The iconic bronze statue will surprise you with its small size. Depending on the day you visit, you might see him naked or dressed. Manneken Pis has over 960 costumes for all kinds of different occasions. The little guy even has his own website.
- Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert. The 19th-century pedestrian gallery with numerous boutiques and restaurants is not to be missed.
- St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral. Finished in the beginning of the 16th century, the impressive Gothic cathedral took over 300 years to build. It is here that all significant Belgian monarchy’s celebrations take place: coronations, weddings, and state funerals.
- Royal Palace of Brussels. The official palace of the Belgian King in the centre of Brussels is used for all kinds of official events and can be visited from the end July till beginning of September. The Royal family itself lives in the Castle of Laeken, on the outskirts of Brussels.
- Mont des Arts. This ‘hill of the arts’ is a nice garden overlooking the Sablon area and the City Hall of Brussels.
- Brussels Stock Exchange. Impressive architecture.
In the afternoon take a metro to the Heysel area and visit the Atomium. If you have an hour to spare, you may want to see Mini Europe as well. It’s one of the nicest family-friendly attractions in Brussels. Combination tickets are available for both attractions.
In the evening head back to the city centre of Brussels, see the nicely lit Grand Place and check out the famous dining area – Rue des Bouchers. I don’t advise dining here as the restaurants are real tourist traps, but this street has such a unique atmosphere that no visit to Brussels would be complete without passing by here. A bit hidden out of sight, the ‘sister’ of the Manneken Pis – Jeanneke Pis can be found in a small alley next to the Rue des Bouchers.
Some practical tips for visiting Brussels:
- Brussels is a good base for exploring Belgium. There are direct train connections to all the major towns.
- Where to eat. Like in many cities, there are many good restaurants in Brussels, but there are real tourist traps as well. One of our favourites for traditional Belgian food in the centre of Brussels is ‘t Kelderke located right on the Grand Place. Despite its central location, this restaurant managed to maintain high quality standards for many years. Last weekend we discovered a really nice Italian restaurant – Spago that I would also recommend.
- Where to stay. If you decide to use Brussels as your base for exploring Belgium, I would advice to stay close to the Central Station (e.g. Hilton Grand Place, Novotel Grand Place or Ibis Off Grand Place) – from there you can easily get to the airport and to the other towns. Here you can find the best deals for accommodation in central Brussels.
Day 2: Antwerp
Antwerp is my personal favourite Belgian town. It’s not as big as Brussels, not as touristic as Bruges or Ghent and therefore has more authentic feeling. I strongly suggest that you spend the whole day in Antwerp. Since we live nearby, I have quite a few more detailed blog posts highlighting best things to do in Antwerp with kids, exploring Antwerp by bike, etc.
Below are my suggestions for the main places you have to see in Antwerp. Here you can find more detailed information about the best things to do in Antwerp including suggested city walk with the map.
- Central Station
- Antwerp Zoo
- Rubens House
- Cathedral of Our Lady
- Grote Markt
- Steen Castle
- MAS rooftop terrace
- The New Port House
Some practical tips for visiting Antwerp:
- Antwerp is very well located and has excellent connections to Brussels Airport and Brussels city centre (35-40 min), but also to Ghent (50 min) and Bruges (1h30).
- In my view, Antwerp is as good a place to base yourself for exploring Belgium as Brussels. Depending on when you visit, it’s likely that it will be somewhat cheaper to stay in Antwerp than in Brussels. You can find the best deals for Antwerp accommodation here.
Day 3: Ghent and Bruges
While some people choose to spend the whole day in each Ghent and Bruges, you can see the very best these cities have to offer in just half a day as well. So if you are short on time, you can visit Ghent and Bruges on the same day. The train between the two towns only takes 35 minutes. Alternatively, you can take an organised day trip from Brussels – they will take you to the most beautiful spots of these two must-see Flemish towns.
I suggest that you go to Ghent first (you’ll see why later). The Dampoort Railway Station is the one closest to the old historic town centre.
Here are the main places not to be missed in Ghent:
- Gravensteen. The 10th century castle is worth a short visit.
- Leie river. Take a walk along Graslei and Korenlei and past St Michael’s Bridge. A great way to explore Ghent is by taking a short boat trip.
- Saint-Bavo’s Cathedral. Inside you can opt to visit the famous Ghent Altarpiece, aka the Mystic Lamb painting.
- Belfry and Cloth Hall and St. Nicholas Church are also worth a short visit.
Have lunch in Ghent, then head back to the Dampoort Railway Station and take a train to Bruges.
I always advise to visit Bruges towards the evening because it’s crowded with tourists during the day. Bruges is a fairytale-like place, but it’s difficult to truly appreciate it if you have to squeeze your way through the crowds. However, only a very small percentage of tourists actually stay in Bruges, so in the evening the city is completely deserted, and you can have the whole place to yourselves. If you come by train, plan to stay late in the evening and explore the beautiful canals after all the day tourists have left. It’s my very best tip for anyone visiting Bruges for the first time.
Here are the main things to do in Bruges for the first-time visitors:
- Lake of Love – Minnewater.
- The old beguinage Ten Wijngaerde.
- Belfort – you can climb this medieval tower for beautiful views.
- Market Place – the central town square of Bruges.
- Burg Square is really beautiful too. Take a narrow passageway left from the City Hall towards the Vismarkt (Fish Market), then go right (South) and follow the canals in the direction of the Church of Our Lady.
- A real must-do in Bruges is a boat ride on the canals.
- If you have some time left, you could visit one of the breweries – De Halve Maan brewery or Bourgogne des Flanders brewery.
Have dinner in one of the many restaurants in Bruges and head back to the canals. As I said, it’s a very different atmosphere in the evening.
TIP: if you are planning to visit the WWI battlefields (see below), then it’s best to stay in Bruges to avoid driving up and down too much.
Day 4: World War I Battlefields near Ypres
To many, WWI battlefields is the main reason to visit Belgium. But the majority of tourists never even consider it. I have to admit that it took us many years to get there (and we live in Belgium), but it was so worth it! There is so much history in those war cemeteries, fields and trenches! We visited Ypres and the WWI battlefields with our kids and it’s an experience I would recommend to everyone.
Here are the main places not to miss when visiting the WWI battlefields:
- Ypres: In Flanders Fields Museum and the Menin Gate
- Tyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial
- Langemark German War Cemetery
- Yser Tower – IJzertoren Diksmuide
- Trench of Death, Diksmuide
- Essex Farm Cemetery
- Vladslo German War Cemetery
Some practical tips for visiting the WWI battlefields:
- You will need a car to get there, or you can join an organised day tour from Bruges or a day tour from Brussels.
If you only have three or four days in Belgium, then this itinerary is all you need. If you have more time and are looking for ideas on what else to see, check our other blog posts about Belgium for more inspiration. You could also consider visiting the French-speaking part of Belgium with the beautiful places like Namur, Dinant, Durbuy, etc. And then there are also the WWII memorials like Bastogne.
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