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Recommended things to do in Ghent, Brugges, Antwerp and Brussels

We will be spending about 4 days in Belgium around Christmas this year. There are 3 of us and we are looking recommended things to do in the short time we have. Any suggestions would be helpful.

Ghent 1/2 day - Dec 22 (night in Ghent)
St. Michael’s Bridge ,Walk along the Canal by Graslei and Korenlei, St. Nicholas’ Church, Cathedral of St. Bavo (Sint-Baafskathedraal), Belfry ,Old Market Area, canal cruise

Bruges 1 day - Dec 23 (night in Ghent)
Market Square or Grote Markt,Belfry tower,Canal Boat Tour,Basilica of the Holy Blood,Explore the Hansa Quarter, Visit the Church of our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk), Burg Square and Historium Bruges

Antwerp 1 day - Dec 24(night in Ghent)
Central Station, Shopping in Meier Street,Rubens House (Rubenshuis),Cathedral of our Lady, Groenplatz,Grote Markt - christmas market,Antwerp Ferris wheel, Het Steen Castle and MAS Museum Aan de Stroom.

Gent 1/2 day - Dec 25
Town Hall (Stadhuis), Gravensteen

Brussel 1/2 day - Dec 25 (night in Brussel)
Grand-Place, Manneken Pis, Atomium , Place du Luxembourg and EU Headquarter

Posted by
9577 posts

Travelbug, I'd skip the Historium in Bruges and do Jerusalem Chapel instead. This fascinating little church and the estate it sits on is still in the hands of the 17th generation of the Adornes; an influential family in the Bruges story.

https://www.visitbruges.be/en/jeruzalemkapel-brugge-jerusalem-chapel
http://www.adornes.org/en

I believe the boats quit running in mid November...
https://www.visitbruges.be/en/bruggemetdeboot

... so I'd definitely do Sint-Janshospitaal instead. Aside even from its very interesting history, you'll see some wonderful Flemish primitives so don't miss the collection of Memlings!

https://www.visitbruges.be/en/sint-janshospitaal-saint-johns-hospital

Posted by
248 posts

I just did a trip that included your 4 destinations.
Good lists of what to see can be found in Rick's guidebook and other websites. There are really too many to list here, for the 4 destinations you mention.
And you've already had good advice from Kathy.

For only 1/2 day in Ghent, you will want to rigorously prioritize.

The Bruges Michelangelo is at the Church of our Lady. Kathy's advice is good re passing on the Historium, I did it but had 4 nights in Bruges.

Re Brussels, the Atomium is not going to be conveniently located considering the 1/2 day you have, it's significantly north of the historical centers.

Posted by
1867 posts

Like Curious traveler, I visited those cities in March. My wife and I do few museums, so I can’t comment on those. Believe what you have listed will occupy the time you have. What’s nice is each of the towns’ main attractions are in close proximity to each other. In Brussels, in addition to the manneken pis statue, there is also a Jeanneke pis statue. It’s not as easy to find as the manneken pis statue and is smaller.

In Antwerp, Het Steen castle is a short stop since it’s really only a castle front that remains. For a couple off-the-wall things to see, there’s Het Bootje art nouveau building. There’s also a 1930s wooden escalator. It’s located by the tunnel one can walk through to the other side of the river.

We spent a couple hours in Gravensteen castle. If you like graffiti, then visit Werregarenstraat/graffiti alley in Ghent. If you had extra time in Bruges, you could walk over to one or two of the windmills. Also, check the hours when the holy relic is on “display” at the church of the Holy Blood since it isn’t out all the time.

Posted by
248 posts

Re Brussels, consider that it will take significant walking to walk from the "Lower" part of the city (e.g., Mannekin Pis and Grand-Place) to the "Upper" part of the city (Royal Palace, EU "headquarters")--this was not tiring to do with a full day, but with only a 1/2 day is something you should probably consider (that is, the walking time required).

And in walking from Lower to Upper parts of the city you'll be ascending arguably one of the highest elevations in central or western Belgium. Just kidding, the elevation difference from Lower to Upper Brussels is a mere 200 feet, but Upper Brussels arguably is one of the higher elevations in central Belgium).

Posted by
3395 posts

Liked Bruges but did NOT like the Historium - for the price (15 euro then, which was about $25 Cdn), I thought it was a bit silly and wish I'd did a chocolate walking tour instead. Mind you, everyone likes something different, but it was basically walking thru rooms, there was a video/story of a guy which had something to do with art and I remember an annoying bird (we did this in Apr '17). I did enjoy the view over the square, and that was it. I was thinking it would be like a museum with items from the past. Had it been cheaper, I would have been OK with it.

We did enjoy Gravensteen in Ghent!

Posted by
9577 posts

In Antwerp, Het Steen castle is a short stop since it’s really only a
castle front that remains.

Additionally, MAS Museum Aan de Stroom is closed on Mondays (Dec. 24th) as is Rubens House:
https://www.mas.be/en/visit/practical-information
https://www.rubenshuis.be/en/visit/practical-information

Gravensteen is closed Christmas Day (Dec. 25th), and I would imagine all you'll see of Stadhuis is the exterior on Christmas Day as well. The interior can only be toured with a guide.
https://visit.gent.be/en/see-do/ghent-town-hall

And I recommended the Jerusalem Chapel in Bruges before checking dates/hours: it's closed on Sundays (Dec. 23rd) so scratch that one.

The Groeningemuseum is excellent and might be a consideration? Open on Sundays:
https://www.visitbruges.be/en/groeningemuseum-groeninge-museum

Or Sint-Salvatorskathedraal:
https://www.visitbruges.be/en/sint-salvatorskathedraal-saint-saviours-cathedral

In light of the above, I would check the opening hours/days of other attractions on your list that you intended to see more than just the exteriors of?

Posted by
3788 posts

Thank you for posting a proposed itinerary, which many questioners don't do. It tells us your interests, and that you have done some study about the city. On Antwerp:

Although it's nice to say that you visited Rubens' home, they don't have a "collection" of works by Rubens. But the KMSKA museum (which is not a private home ... ), which has dozens, is still closed for years of renovation. While it's a matter of taste, I prefer different historic mansions for someone with your time pressure. Look into the Van Den Bergh museum, the Rockox (sp.?) House (a patron of Rubens), and the foundling hospital (Maagdenhuis), which have leather wallpaper rooms and maybe more to see than the Rubenshuis. However, Rubenshuis is convenient to the Meir street. But who needs to shop for the same merchandise sold in every major city? I would enter only two buildings on Meir, the Palais (which is almost never open), and the big historic indoor shopping space Stadsfeestzaal. I never ride ferris wheels, they're just tourist magnets. The Steen castle is, AFAIK, closed. But walk around it to read the thanks to the Canadian regiment that liberated the port and the city. The exhibits in it moved to the MAS. Antwerp has many fine museums, and I'm sure at least one more would appeal to you. (Many Monday closures.)

Edit Additions: Many town halls in Flanders are open to tourists only for a single tour (arranged at the T.I.) on Sunday. Otherwise the interiors are for government business only. (Turnhout and maybe Lier are smaller cities where they may still be open to poking around.) Your plan to stay in one place is good, but research busses/trams if you need them to get to the train station each morning. Local rail is very important to daily life in Flanders, and you may find ticket lines during rush hour. A recent report here stated that American chip cards now work in the automated ticket machines, I don't know myself. Note that the bus/tram company (i.e. your stored-value ticket) is the same EXCEPT in Brussels.

Because I don't ride ferris wheels, I would not be caught near the Atomium. There are a lot of lovely smaller church interiors in Brussels, as well as scenic walks. Their art (and other) museums are quite famous if you have time and its not Monday. The Bozar may be open on Monday, I forget. I assume you have to book in advance to enter the Euro Parliament, assuming they are not in session. I don't dispute their importance, but I don't put that high on my tourism list. You didn't mention Galleries Royale (historic indoor mall), the Baker's street restaurants (reported danger of cheating on bills, not recommending you EAT there, just walk and refuse the touts), Coudenberg Palace historic cellars, History Museum (does not pull punches on King Leopold), Square/Park du Petit Sablon

I found the Gravensteen castle (without children) to be a letdown. Maybe you can walk more of the scenic parts of Gent. Probably no boat ride in the winter. Note that there may be some restoration work being done on the "Altarpiece" at St. Bavo's, which is the main reason for going there.

I have no experience with Belgian Christmas Markets, but I have found a lot of imported low-budget stuff sold at year-round flea markets, like Polish-made casual clothing and so on.

Posted by
70 posts

In Bruges we walked over to see the windmills. It was just a short walk from the town center. We also climbed the clock tower.

Stop by Chez Albert's for waffles, you order from the window and choose your toppings...amazing!

Also, we stumbled into a great beer bar. it was called 2be. I don't even like beer, and I discovered Belgian Lambics there. They had a lively atmosphere and an outdoor seating area over the canal.

Posted by
65 posts

Thanks everyone (Kathy, Curious Traveler,jaimeelsabio, Nicole P,Tim and kerri10) for the wondefrul input. I moved my days based on the times some of the places I wanted to visit and added a few good places I didnt have in my list.
This is my rough plan - lets see how much I achieve - being winter

Ghent 3 day - Dec 22 Saturday (3night in Ghent)

  1. Ghent City Center
  2. Graslei and Korenlei
  3. Sint-Michielsbrug --St. Michael’s Bridge
  4. Sint-Baafskathedraal -- Cathedral of St. Bavo – Ghent Alterpiece (10.30 am until 4.00 pm.)
  5. Het Belfort van Gent – Belfry (10h – 18h)
  6. Gravensteen Castle (10:00 AM - 5:15 PM)
  7. KorentMarkt – Christmas market (open from 11:00 to 22:00)
  8. Sint-Niklaaskerk -- St. Nicholas’ Church
  9. Graffiti Street
  10. Ghent Town Hall(Stadhuis)

Antwerp day trip - Dec 23 – Sunday (night in Ghent)

  1. Central Station,
  2. Cogels Osylei
  3. Cathedral of our Lady (13.00 - 17.00)
  4. Groenplaats
  5. Grote Markt - christmas market,
  6. Antwerp Ferris wheel,
  7. Het Steen Castle and
  8. Rubens House (Rubenshuis) (10:00 AM - 5:00 PM)
  9. MAS Museum Aan de Stroom. – top of the deck for view

Bruges day trip - Dec 24 - Monday (night in Ghent)

  1. Historic Centre of Brugge
  2. Burg Square
  3. Rozenhoedkaai
  4. St Bonifacius Bridge
  5. The Markt - Provinciaal Hof (Provincial Palace)
  6. Stadhuis – city hall
  7. Belfry tower - Belfort van Brugge (09:30 - 18:00)
  8. Basilica of the Holy Blood - Basiliek van het Heilig Bloed (9h30-12h30 and 14h00-17h30)
  9. Jerusalem Chapel - Adornesdomein - Jeruzalemkapel (10:00 - 17:00 h)
  10. Sint-Janshuismolen - Windmills
  11. Church of Our Lady, Bruges
  12. Saint Saviour's Cathedral - Sint-Salvatorskathedraal (10:00 - 13:00 h / 14:00 - 17:30 h)

Brussel 1 day - Dec 25 (night in Brussel)

  1. Grand-Place,
  2. Manneken Pis
  3. Guildhouses
  4. Town hall- Hotel De Ville
  5. Royal Palace of Brussels
  6. EU Headquarter
  7. Atomium - 12pm until 6pm (the ticket office closes at 5.30pm)
Posted by
3788 posts

One note about Cogels Osylei in Antwerp in winter: It's great that you're going, it's one of the best architectural experiences I've ever had. (See my review on TA if desired.) Because the homes (100 +-) are privately owned, it's an OUTDOOR visit. So look for the few bars and restaurants you might see (for example if you get off the tram at Draakplaats, where there's a cafe) to get out of the cold and use the bathroom. One approach is to arrive from Berchem and leave from Draakplaats, but you can do less walking by arriving and leaving from Draakplaats. There are multiple streets to look at.

The Berchem long-distance rail station is a refuge, perhaps, but the bus and tram stops there are at outdoor platforms.

It is POSSIBLE that the MAS roof view terrace (ONLY) is open at a time when the museum itself is closed. That would be on their website, I think.

Posted by
1336 posts

As Antwerp is the diamant capital of the world a walk through the Diamant District next to Central Station (Hoveniersstraat) is worth to consider too, there are guided tours but will need some two hours. Further the Moretus-Plantin Museum, a historic printing office / publishing house on the UNESCO list. https://www.museumplantinmoretus.be/en

Posted by
7934 posts

Google "Les Beguinages" (the Beguines) in Bruges to see if you want to add it to your list for Bruges. We found it charming.

Posted by
65 posts

Thanks Tim , Wil , Andrew and Norma. I have firmed up my list - happy travels...

Ghent 3 day - Dec 22 Saturday (3night in Ghent)
1. Ghent City Center
2. Graslei and Korenlei
3. Sint-Michielsbrug --St. Michael’s Bridge
4. Sint-Baafskathedraal -- Cathedral of St. Bavo – Ghent Alterpiece (10.30 am until 4.00 pm.)
5. Het Belfort van Gent – Belfry (10h – 18h)
6. Gravensteen Castle (10:00 AM - 5:15 PM)
7. KorentMarkt – Christmas market (open from 11:00 to 22:00)
8. Sint-Niklaaskerk -- St. Nicholas’ Church
9. Graffiti Street
10. Ghent Town Hall(Stadhuis)
11. Strolling around in the Patershol neighborhood

Antwerp day trip - Dec 23 – Sunday (night in Ghent)

  1. Central Station,
  2. Cogels Osylei - arrive from Berchem and leave from Draakplaats or arriving and leaving from Draakplaats
  3. Cathedral of our Lady (13.00 - 17.00)
  4. Groenplaats
  5. Grote Markt - christmas market,
  6. Antwerp Ferris wheel,
  7. Het Steen Castle and
  8. Rubens House (Rubenshuis) (10:00 AM - 5:00 PM)
  9. MAS Museum Aan de Stroom. – top of the deck for view
  10. Diamond District tour
  11. Plantin-Moretus Museum (10:00 AM - 5:00 PM)

Bruges day trip - Dec 24 - Monday (night in Ghent)

  1. Historic Centre of Brugge
  2. Burg Square
  3. Rozenhoedkaai
  4. St Bonifacius Bridge
  5. The Markt - Provinciaal Hof (Provincial Palace)
  6. Stadhuis – city hall
  7. Belfry tower - Belfort van Brugge (09:30 - 18:00)
  8. Basilica of the Holy Blood - Basiliek van het Heilig Bloed (9h30-12h30 and 14h00-17h30)
  9. Jerusalem Chapel - Adornesdomein - Jeruzalemkapel (10:00 - 17:00 h)
  10. De Halve Maan brewery (11:00 - 14:00 h)
  11. "Les Beguinages" (the Beguines) in Bruges (06:30 - 18:30 h)
  12. Sint-Janshuismolen - Windmills
  13. Church of Our Lady, Bruges
  14. Saint Saviour's Cathedral - Sint-Salvatorskathedraal (10:00 - 13:00 h / 14:00 - 17:30 h)

Brussel 1 day - Dec 25 (night in Brussel)

  1. Grand-Place,
  2. Manneken Pis
  3. Guildhouses
  4. Town hall- Hotel De Ville
  5. Royal Palace of Brussels
  6. EU Headquarter
  7. Atomium - 12pm until 6pm (the ticket office closes at 5.30pm)