I’ve just begun to plan a two-week trip (July 2020), to the Netherlands and Belgium. As step one, I’ve purchased my Rick's guides to both. In the guide to the Netherlands, Rick (and Gene) lay out both big city and small town/village visits; while, the guide to Belgium, with the exception of Flanders Fields, simply discusses the four “large” cities of Belgium which I’ll be visiting for three - Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp. I’m hoping that Forum members will be able to recommend small town/village visits as well as other destinations (castles, monasteries, breweries, etc.) away from the large cities. By the way, we’ll have a rental car and bikes at our disposal. Thanks!
First of all, a rental car is probably a waste of money. Benelux is a very densely populated area and frequent trains and buses will take you almost anywhere worth going. In contrast, the major roads can be very congested and the towns and cities are not car-friendly even by European standards.
I'm not sure what the guide book mentiones, but I presume Brussels is the fourth city. Many visitors to this forum seem to be of the opinion that Brussels is not worth that much time, but I'm not sure I agree with them.
In The Netherlands, make sure you visit Leiden, a university town where the Pilgrims spent ten years before sailing to North America. It is small city filled with canals. Near Delft and The Hague which you should also include.
Thanks @suki! I appreciate your suggestion. Rick's guide includes the following destinations: Amsterdam, Delft, Haarlem, Edam, Volendam & Marken, Rotterdam, museums near Arnhem, The Hague, Leiden, Keukenhof & Allsmeer, Lfevoland, Alkmarr & Zaanse Schans, and Hoorn & Enkhuizen, and Leiden will be is a MUST see. The fotos are beautiful plus I've always found University cities to have a special charm, for example Coimbra and Salamanca.
Check out the town of Dinant in Belgium about 56 mikes southeast of Brussels. Very scenic. It is on the banks of the Meuse River. The day we visited there were lots of folks biking alongside the river and kayaking, paddling in the river. The town is not big, easily walkable. Very pretty church and a strategic citadel that can be reached by cable car or steps. The views from the citadel are panoramic and there is a museum at the top that explains its historic role. I have read that there are caverns nearby but we did not visit them. We went as a daytrip by train from Brussels and it ended up being one of our favorite days on that trip. It sounds like the type of place you are looking for.
In Belgium I have once used Mechelen (also known as Malines) as a base. Untouristy it offers everything you expect of a Flemish city in a peaceful atmosphere, and has excellent rail connections to both Antwerp and Brussels, with train running several times per hour and taking less than 30 mins.
Thank you for the list. If you enjoy university towns you might want to consider Groningen, home to the 2nd oldest university in the Netherlands..
You could do worse than visit Kortrijk. It is where the Flemish go on vacation. Thus, you'll find plenty of places to stay an eat, but you won't hear a lot of English chatter around you. They have some good museums, and it's a fun place just to walk around.
We stayed a week in Antwerp and did day trips to Ghent and Bruges. Then moved to Haarlem for 4 days including day trips to The Hague and Amsterdam. All day trips done by train.
Antwerp was a great base for Belgium. We loved the city itself and found some nice restaurants. We stayed at Hotel Rubens which was one block away from the main square and cathedral.
Haarlem was a highlight of our trip. Canals, cobbles and a working windmill! Having stayed in Amsterdam on previous trips, Haarlem was a nice change as it has no drunk/druggie backpacker culture. Just walking around was really relaxing and we went on a canal tour also. In Haarlem we stayed at Brasss Hotel Suites one block back from the river.
Thanks to all of you for sharing your suggestions. I wish everyone wonderful and safe travels. Craig
I would just note something about transportation in Belgium. The cities are mostly well-connected by the national rail network, but if you want to explore any smaller towns, you either need to figure out the bus network (usually a spoke and wheel model around a city), or rent a car.
I found Tournai to be a very under-rated little city, although it doesn't take particularly long to see. For sentimental reasons, Hasselt and Leuven are two of my other favorite small cities. Leuven is very easy to reach from Brussels, but Hasselt is a little bit of a longer ride.
The hilly, fruit-growing region of Haspengouw, roughly between Tongeren and Hasselt, is absolutely beautiful in the spring and summer, but you would need a car to explore.
Since there are no pre-war wooden villages left, you might consider the historic structures moved to the open-air museum in Bokrijk. It has its own train station, and some cafes inside.
Antwerp has a special real village, Lillo, that was closed for building the new Port, but it's only open on Sunday.
Worth to visit around Bruges are Damme and Lissewege, in both places you can climb the church tower during season for a nice panoramic view, the one in Damme is to prefer. Most tourists bike along the scenic canal to Damme, you can go further to Oostkerke and even Sluis just across the Dutch – Belgian border. Lissewege is easy to reach with a direct train, but for visiting the medieval tithe barn Ter Doest a car is needed. You can do also a castle tour by bike or car, most are 19th century rebuilds, the one of Wijnendale has guided tours and interesting history.
Along the coast north of Oostende De Haan for it's Belle Epoque houses and at the southside Atlantikwall Raversyde. Closer to France nearby the coast Veurne has a very lovely main square.
Belgium has a high number of castles, google or buy a good guide book to find them, but I like to mention a few.
One of the most beautiful castles of Belgium is Ooidonk Castle south-west of Ghent. Visits only on Sundays and Holidays from April 1st until September 15th, garden open all year around. http://ooidonk.be/en/visit. Between Hasselt and Maastricht Alden-Biesen Castle, only seen it once from the outside and no idea about the interior, nevertheless lovely place. https://www.alden-biesen.be/en Nearby Brussels worth to mention are Beersel and Gaasdonk Castle.
South of Brussels ofcourse the battlefield of Waterloo with it’s Mémorial 1815 and Lion’s Mound.
Another big thank you goes out to Andrew, Tom, Tim and Will for adding to our list of suggested smaller cities and villages in Belgium that may be worth a visit.
It's not precisely what you asked about, but I just thought about the turn of the century Art Deco/Art Noveau townhouse district of Antwerp. It's quite an exceptional pre WW I district, if URBAN. It's good for two hours of EXTERIORS ONLY walking around, there are over 100 unusual townhouses. It's called the Cogels Osy Lei. This old post (you'll have to dig around a little) describes it:
@Tim from NJ. Wow! The Cogels Osy Lei neighborhood in Antwerp looks fantastic - we’ll definitely plan on spending some time and to stroll. Thanks so much.
PS- Bokrijk might be the single best open-air folk museum that I've visited in Europe, and I've been to plenty of them.
@Tom from VT - Thanks!