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Best destinations in Belgium for medeival history

Hi -
We're traveling from the US to Amsterdam in March with plans to spend a few days there, then traveling by train through Belgium to Paris. We were considering stopping somewhere in Belgium for a few days. I'm very intersted in medeival history, especially the history of the Burgundians. Are there any particular locations of interest in Belgium/north-eastern France? I thought about trying to get to Dijon, but it's pretty far out of our way. We were thinking of staying in either Brussels or Bruges, but have also considered Ghent. Thanks!

Posted by
956 posts

We stayed in Antwerp. The cathedral has some medieval architecture and wall paintings. It was also a very easy day trip from Antwerp to Ghent and (separately) to Bruges. We decided on Antwerp as we were visiting locations associated with the Hanseatic League and Antwerp fit the bill.

Posted by
1382 posts

If you’re interested in the history of the Burgundians then Mechelen is a must visit as it used to be the capital of the empire of the Burgundians. You can still see and visit some buildings from that time.

Posted by
7483 posts

There are a lot of cities in Belgium with a lovely medieval core preserved. But some of those cores are very small - you can't visit every one of them. And it can be hard to (with the eye only) distinguish true Medieval from "really old." When you stand inside a cathedral in Belgium today, you can see "work" from 1400 to 2023, often.

I agree about Antwerp, Mechelen, and Bruges. After the cloth trade in Bruges fell off, Mechelen was the largest city in mainland Europe for some time, because of Catholic church offices. But except for the main square (superb town museum with many Lives of the Saints paintings), Mechelen is highly modernized. Lonely Planet says you can visit the same courtyard where Charles V played as a child. (It's a small yard, and the buildings around it are nothing like medieval. I noticed the jug-Sangria brand in Flanders is "Quint", as in "V")

Antwerp has many isolated old buildings, as well as the two excellent squares with many. The two museums with the most old paintings would be KMSKA (a world-class museum), and the Mayer Van den Burgh Museum. The Maagdenhuis (foundling) museum might be of interest to you, too. Although much of the Beguinage in Bruges (UNESCO WHS) is authentic, many of the non-multiple-dwelling places are highly modernized, luxury-condo-like today. After Bruges, I like the Leuven beguinage the best. But Turnhout has a nice one too. In Gent, the Mystic Lamb paintings are open seven days, advance reservation probably necessary.

Turnhout has a "famous" playing-card museum, which is related to medieval history in that worn-out playing cards were the Post-It notes of the era when paper was rare and valuable. Mothers cut a playing card in a jagged pattern as a 2-part ID token to leave with the child at a foundling home.

Posted by
14150 posts

"In Gent, the Mystic Lamb paintings are open seven days, advance reservation probably necessary."

I visited the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb last April and the days I was available for the visit were completely sold out. For March I'd recommend you follow the ticketing site for whatever day/s you can work it in and if it looks like some of the times are filling, go ahead and book. DO get the Augmented Reality portion. Virtual Reality programs make me a little vertiginous but the Augmented Reality glasses you can see through so I had a better experience with them. Going down the crypt for the AR program was very cool. If you have binoculars bring them so you can look at the detail in the altarpiece.

Posted by
2004 posts

Things to see or visit in Belgium about the medieval period:

First to begin with Bruges as it was the most wealthy and well developed city north of the Alps, or in other words outside northern Italy at that time.
-St John’s hospital with museum / collection of mediaval art / Hans Memling paintings.
-Cloth Hall with Belfry.
-Groeninge Museum with van Eyck, Gerard David paintings and more medieval art.
-Gothic town hall with adjacent Basilica of the Holy Blood.
-Gruuthuyse Museum, mansion of a very wealthy medieval merchant.
-Huis ter Beurze, regarded as the place of the first stock exchange in history.
-Jerusalem Chapel.
-St. Salvador Cathedral.
-Church of Our Lady with ofcourse Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child (not medieval btw, but not to miss.) and for you important the tombs of Mary of Burgundy and her father Charles the Bold. She has very interesting links with European history like her son was the brother in law of Catherina of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII of England. Their devorce initiated the English Reformation that changed the English and with that European history for good. Her grandson was Charles V and her grandfather Philip the Good was involved with the betrayal of Joan of Arc.

-Outside Bruges:
-Castle of Wijnendale where in one of the forests Maria of Burgundy died caused by a hunting accident.
-Ter Doest, huge well preserved medieval tythe barn north of Bruges. Nearby Lissewege is lovely but not so much medieval.
-Damme: medieval town hall and church. Uilenspiegel museum about a medieval folkloric character.

Second Ghent, medieval are there:
-Count’s Castle.
-Cloth hall with belfry.
-St. Nicolas Church, gothic.
-St Michaels Church, gothic.
-St. Jacobs Church.
-Buildings along Korenlei (?), Graslei and Korenmarkt.
-City hall, gothic.
-Sint Jorishof, where once Mary of Burgundy stayed.
-Gerard de Duivelsteen
-Meat hall
-St. Bavo abbey
-St. Pieter abbey, buildings mainly from later periods but some parts are medieval.
-STAM, museum about the history of Ghent.
-Beguinage St. Elisabeth and Our Lady ter Hoyen.
-Last but not least St. Bavo Cathedral with not to miss as already noticed absolute masterpiece The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by both Jan and Hubert van Eyck. Gallery of painted crests of members of The Order of the Golden Fleece founded by Philip the Good of Burgundy. One of Europe’s most prestigious and still excisting orders.

I am not so familiar with Antwerp, but think there is lesser to see about the medieval period as it had it’s heyday during Renaissance, but nevertheless.
-Het Steen, medieval castle.
-Cathedral of Our Lady.
-Beguinage, hard to find, small but lovely.
-St. Paul Church.
-Mayer van der Bergh Museum with among other medieval paintings the Dulle Griet by Breugel.

Same for Brussels,
-Town hall at the Grand Place.
-St. Michael’s Cathedral.
-Royal Museum of Fine Arts with works by Pieter Breugel and Jeroen Bosch.

Further Mechelen the reason Tim describes. Lier southeast of Antwerp was the place of the marriage between Mary of Burgundy’s son Philip the Handsome and Joanna of Castille. She arrived with her household of 20.000 men and women, a fleet of 130 ships, 85,000 pounds smoked meat, 50,000 herrings, 6000 eggs, 1000 chickens and 400 barrels wine. That is what I call a party. They were the parents of Charles V. Lier is nice but there is not so many medieval buildings to find except for instance the gothic St. Gummarus church.

Leuven with it’s spectacular gothic town hall and St. Pieters church is nice too. And like Tim already noticed the beguinage there is as nice as the one in Bruges to my opinion.

More in my next post.

Posted by
18 posts

Belgium's best city for medieval architecture is Bruges. Lots of gothic and neogothic buildings in the city centre. March is a great time to visit the city as it is not too busy!

When visiting Bruges, I can totally recommend buying a Musea Bruge Card, it gives you free entry for lots of medieval buildings / museums.

Posted by
7483 posts

I remembered there is a fairly authentic medieval courtyard in Antwerp, called the Vlaeykensgang. There's a gourmet restaurant along the alleys today. Nearby is a touristy cellar restaurant called something like Pelgrom, which may or may not have some authenticity!

Add Museum Vleeshuis to possible visits. 1500 ish.

Posted by
2004 posts

There are many neo-gothic buildings in Belgium and date back mainly from the 19th century. So the Provincial Palace at the Main Square in Bruges is neo-gothic for instance. The city hall at the Burg however is authentic, a trained eye can see the difference. Many buildings look medieval but are actually from the Renaissance period. As it was a cheap building material most houses of John Average were made of wood and could cause huge urban fires and got later side walls of masonry to prevent this. At the very end of the Middle Ages replaced by houses completely made of stone. As wood doesn't last for ages buildings made of it are extremely rare, you can always question if homes made of stone are really medieval. The gothic building style remained in use also after the Middle Ages. Money was usually no object for medieval churches and other public buildings and were made of stone to last for ever.

Dukes Palace or Prinsenhof in Bruges is not authentic and nowadays a hotel but the medieval version much in use by the Burgundian court. Finally another historic link with Mary of Burgundy is that her son Philip the Handsome marrying Joanna of Castille became the son in law of Isabella I of Castille and Ferdinand II of Aragon, they were the sponsors of Christopher Colombus voyage, discovering the “New World” has to become a serious game changer.

Ypres or Ieper in Flemish. The hugely impressive cloth hall to medieval standards with belfry. As far as I know the largest commercial building of that period in Europe, or at least north of the Alps. This city was almost completely destroyed during WW1 and rebuild in it’s (more or less) former glory, but despite that worth a visit.

Kortrijk well known for it’s Broel towers. It has a belfry too, a gothic town hall and a small but nice beguinage. But this place is most famous for it’s for the Flemish anyway iconic Battle of the Spurs of 1302. It was actually a revolt of workers in the textile industry against the army of French king Philip IV and managed to defeat the latter’s much stronger army. Spurs of the french knights were collected and displayed in the nearby church of Our Lady, hence the battles name. In recent history this event much used and abused by politicians There is a museum about it.

Doornik or Tournai in Wallonia (french speaking part of Belgium, opposite of dutch speaking Flanders) was once a very influential religious centre. Famous for it’s Cathedral of Our Lady in roman and gothic style. The St. Kwintens church is also roman style. Medieval bridge Pont des Trous.

Castle of Beersel south of Brussels. One of the oldest and most authentic moated castles in Flanders according it’s website.

Binche in Wallonia south of Brussels too, famous for it’s carnival dating back to 1394 and also on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It has still remains of it’s medieval walls.

Bouillon with a huge hill top medieval castle, once home to Godfrey of Bouillon, leader of the first Crusade.

Belfries are also on the UNESCO World Heritage List and can be found in other cities also in northern France and there is only one in the Netherlands, in Sluis just across the border north-east of Bruges.