My husband and I will be traveling to Belgium for four nights in early July to visit Brussels, Bruges, Antwerp & Ghent. Our key interest is in art, but also in history and spending time in these beautiful locations. Each seems to have about the same number of museums in each that we want to visit. We are inclined to stay in one location and visit the other three on day trips. Which of these cities would you recommend staying in? Any other suggestions for our trip are also most welcome.
For daytrips you can think about Ghent as it has the easiest train connection with the three other cities. Ghent to Bruges or Brussels takes an ½hour in each direction, to Antwerp will be 1hour.
But what you will like most attractive to stay, that’s very hard to say, opinions differ. Like the recent post of lwortzman, he stayed in Ghent, but afterwards wished he had stayed in Bruges. So collect enough info to know which place appeals most, you can already start reading that post ofcourse. In this thread opinions will be given soon also.
My own opinion is that Bruges is the most beautiful and romantic, but I don’t always like the crowds.
For travelling convenience I'd initially pick Gent, as it's roughly in the centre of the other three (there are direct trains from Gent to Antwerp, you won't need to go via Brussels).
On the other hand, Brussels may be worth staying in, as in my opinion the worthwhile sites are dotted around quite a large city, and a day trip might include too much time on trams or metro.
If you like nightlife, in decreasing order of preference to stay would be Gent, Anwterp, Brussels and Brugge last.
In terms of art, Brussels has the largest collection in its Royal Museums of Fine Arts. There is a group of three museums--the Fin de Siecle has a great collection of Art Nouveau and the Magritte Museum is a trip. If you like Rubens, Antwerp is your place--lots of his paintings are here as well as his studio. If art was my focus, I'd probably divide my time between these two major cities. However, if I was also looking for charm and a historic Old Town, I'd consider Bruges and/or Ghent.
We prefer staying in the more charming towns of Ghent or Bruges, although they often require a bus or tram connection between the train station and city center/hotel area.
I've stayed in all four cities and liked Brugge the most. Gent would be my second choice, but as stated earlier, Brussels has so much to see that an overnight there might be worth the packing/unpacking.
I've only stayed in Ghent, but I was very happy with my choice. I took a day trip to Bruges and found it very touristy in comparison - but also much more photogenic. Ghent after dark is wonderful - the Gothic buildings and bridges are floodlit.
Because the most important art museum in Antwerp (which has many other fine museums) is closed for renovation, the most important collections you may see are in Brussels and Ghent. But do not miss the tiny Mayer Van Den Berg museum in Antwerp. That does not mean that I love Brussels, I'm only reporting on "art museums".
The "museums" in Brugge are sort of, specialty museums, with a small number of rare pieces that might not warrant the trip if they weren't in a UNESCO WHS medieval town. (OPINION) Cheap rail connections between the four, nearby places are excellent, although it can be maddening to stand in line every morning at the train station. I'm not positive you can buy day-round-trips in advance, but that would be a nice idea if it can be done. You can use the same bus/tram card except in Brussels, which has its own agency. (The long walk from the train station isn't worth doing in Ghent and Brugge, but Antwerp's is a little shorter, and more scenic.
As another poster implied, it's impossible to see even half of Antwerp or Brussels in one day. I recommend you research what's most important to you before you get there. Both have a lot of attractions. Also note if you are in one of them on Monday, closing day.
Ghent is well-located for visiting the other cities, and staying there would make it easier for you to get to St. Bavo when it opens, to see the (stupendous) Van Eyck altarpiece before the crowd gathers. OTOH, all of Bruges is pretty much a beautiful open-air museum, but it was seriously touristy already in early May this year; so staying there would allow you to enjoy it in the evening, without the crowds. You might consider staying in Ghent, with one night in Bruges.
Thank you to all of you for your thoughtful points. We decided to stay in Ghent for three nights and Antwerp for one (only because our chosen hotel in Ghent could not accommodate us on the last night). I'll submit a post when we return.