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Week in Belgium

I'm trying to plan a one week getaway trip to Belgium for my partner and I in May, and could use some advice on an itinerary. We are early 30's; enjoy beautiful cities, history, great food, Belgian beer, local culture.

Here's my thoughts:

Arrive on Saturday evening at Brussels Airport from United States; train to Ghent

Sunday: Ghent

Monday: Day trip to Bruges (including bike rentals to Damme); night in Ghent

Tuesday: Day trip to Belgian Coast (Ostende, ride the tram back and forth to De Panne); night in Ghent

Wednesday: Day trip to Ypres World War I sights and back to Ghent; then train to Antwerp for evening. Would we need to rent a car to see the Ypres salient?

Thursday: Antwerp

Friday: Day trip to Baarle Nassau (the town split between Netherlands and Belgium); night in Antwerp

Saturday: Train to Brussels in the morning; Day in Brussels

Sunday; Fly home from Bussels airport
Does this itinerary sound doable by public transit? Is Bruges okay on a Monday, when many places are closed?
Is there any part of Wallonia that shouldn't be missed? I'd appreciate any advice!

Posted by
2487 posts

You might find both the coast and Baarle Nassau/Baarle Hertog not live up to your expectations. There is not much faded seaside glamour on the Belgian coast. It is more or less a continous ribbon of built-up areas, a lot of them filled with apartment buildings. And while the idea of the bizarre and complicated border situation in what otherwise are more or less civilised countries sounds attractive, on the ground there is not much to remind you of this historical aberration.
Both Antwerpen and Brussel deserve more than one day. You might consider to stay nicely between the two in Mechelen (aka Malines). A small place with everything you expect from a historical Flemish city and a good market place for your afternoon beer and dinner. The connections to Antwerpen and Brussel are very frequent and both take half an hour or less.

Posted by
3340 posts

It's been 7 1/2 years since we did a bike tour in Belgium, starting in Bruges/Brugge and ending in Brussels. We made it as far south as Ypres/Ieper, but we were on bicycles and took several days to get there. A car might be useful, although I believe there are tour companies that can take you by minivan or other means, and even give you a guided visit, if that's worth considering.

The ride out to Damme is always open, of course, and you should be able to find a place (or two) to pull over for a well-deserved beer (or two). Saturday is when all the locals hit the roads and paths on their bikes, in full racing kit. Otherwise, the locals didn't seem to favor wearing helmets, but protecting your lid is always a good idea.

Posted by
2487 posts

the locals didn't seem to favor wearing helmets
It's easy to pick out the foreigners among the cycling masses in the Low Countries: they - and small kids - are the only ones wearing a helmet...

Posted by
3544 posts

I recommend more time in Brugge. It is extraordinary and beautifully preserved.
Maybe stay in brugge and visit Ghent for day instead.

Posted by
4702 posts

You need to do more internet research on Ypres. I think TripAdvisor Belgium Forum has had some threads on "Ieper" by public transportation. I've never been there. I haven't read the word bicycle in a Belgium post here recently, so you need more work on that as well.

You can't appreciate how good the local trains are in this section of Belgium until you've used them. Most of your plan is very practical. I agree that Oosteende is underwhelming reinforced concrete, but with good seafood. It's also early for the season.

I'm a big fan of Antwerp, and would never spend the night in Brugge. But there are divergent opinions on this, especially in the UK.

Saturday is market day in Mechelen, but it's not a must-see-despite having, long ago, been the third largest city on the continent, after the cloth trade faded. Gent is very nice, but so close to Antwerp that I'd rather stay there. A better town than Mechelen could be Leuven, on the way to the airport.

I wasn't familiar with Baarle Nassau, but Wikipedia doesn't give me any reason to spend a day there. Belgium is filled with magnificent medieval town centers and historic Beguinages. Who cares about a town with a border line through it? (opinion BTW, Lille, France is much more worthwhile! I suspect you're coming from the UK, which means a stop in Lille on the train. Check on Walloon restaurants there, too. I went for the Art Museum.) Just to pick two pretty places near your other choices, Lier and Turnhout are nice half or full-days. There are a few attractions in Antwerp, like Cogels-Osy Lei and the MAS museum where you could spend three hours in each. The main art museum in Antwerp is closed for renovation. I prefer the Leuven Beguinage to the more famous one in Brugge. The Turnhout Beguinage is a small gem, with a significant museum of its own. I haven't been there in years, but I found a senior-center with a modest cafe, inside the beguinage, where I had cake and coffee with the old folks. The most important museum in Turnhout is the museum of playing cards, which is not a joke. It turns out to be a great subject for doctoral dissertations ... Exceptional wood carvings in the Turnhout cathedral, which you will enjoy all alone! (The porter gave me some advice last time I was there!)

Brugge has some famous museums, but they have limited, very specific religious art. I like the idea of going there on Monday, because, say, Antwerp has ten or more very fine museums. And Brussels has some fantastic art, like "The Death of Marat", and whole museum just of Magritte. Even the city history museum in Brussels teaches a lot about the history of the kingdom, and the misadventures of Congo.

Posted by
185 posts

Jordan: Welcome to the 50-50 vote between Bruges and Ghent. We recently spent four nights in Bruges and two in Ghent. If we did it again, we would have staying the entire time in Bruges and done Ghent in a day trip. For us, the only real appeal of Ghent is the Altarpiece. We loved Bruges and enjoyed walking the city and enjoying the architecture and history. Note that Bruges can get a bit busy with tourists during the day, but is a truly lovely town once the tour buses leave. We found far more enjoyable restaurants in Bruges than Ghent--Trip Advisor is a fantastic tool to find great restaurants. So, put us firmly on the Bruges side of the controversy. For what its worth, our sense is that Ghent, being a university town, appeals more to a younger crowd with its urban chic mood; while Bruges attracts a more relaxed crowd with its architecture, history, and laid-back ambience.

While in Belgium, we discovered a new favorite beer: Tripel Carmelite. It is very similar to Duvel and is a truly enjoyable beer.

Whatever you decide, have a wonderful trip.

Posted by
12040 posts

There's probably bus tours that can transport you around the Ieper salient, but without some kind of wheels, it's impossible to see anything other than the town center. Even though it was almost completely destroyed in WWI, it was rebuilt fairly faithfully, so it looks much older than it actually is. But if you want to see any of the countless memorials and a few of the semi-preserved battle remnants, you'll need to arrange transportation.

I disagree with the description of the Belgian coast as "more or less a continous ribbon of built-up areas, a lot of them filled with apartment buildings." That describes Oostende, Blankenberge and Knokke-Heist pretty well, but the coast also has some very pleasant, more low key towns. I particularly like De Haan, and I was impressed with what I saw of Middelkerke.

By the way, if you're in your 30s and you want a little nightlife, Ghent is a good base. It hosts a large university and a sizeable population of young professionals, so unlike Brugge, which dies after the sun goes down, or Antwerp, which attracts a rougher crowd, Ghent offers a pretty decent after-hours scene.

Posted by
565 posts

Definitely Ghent over Brugge, speaking as someone very close to your age.

The trip to Ieper is easier from Ghent. Only 90 min each way on the train. I second the recommendation of Flanders Battlefield tours. Get to Ieper earlier in the day and go to the In Flanders Fields Museum, take a lunch break, then start your battlefield tour at 1.

Posted by
1464 posts

If you like to visit the coast you can take the train to Blankenberge and look around a bit. From there with the coastal tram to De Haan and further to Ostend. De Haan is halfway between the other places which have easy train connections with Ghent. To my opinion Blankenberge has the least to offer, no reason for high expectations.

De Haan is also the place where Einstein spended his last half year on the continent before moving finally (with a stop in the UK) to the US. There is a 4km walking tour, info at TI in the tram station. Ostend can be interesting for Raversyde Antlantikwall and seafood restaurants.

On Monday in Bruges many museums are closed, however other things to visit see:
https://bezoekers.brugge.be/museumsplacesofinterestattractions

Posted by
1326 posts

Jordan, one thing I've figured out from time spent on this forum is you will never get a clear consensus about how to break up your time in any area of Europe. I've seen this to be especially true in Belgium. Not to diss anyone (I've gotten some much appreciated advice here), but I've pretty much given up on using this forum as a place to help me decide on my itinerary.

The fact is you can have a great trip whatever you decide. How you divide your time between various locales in Belgium is not as important as enjoying the time you have wherever you are.

I'm going to Belgium and the Netherlands next May, and I went to Rick Steves Europe up in Edmonds (convenient for me as I live in Seattle) and got a trip consult to help solidify my itinerary. Not that Rick Steves' employees don't also have differing opinions, but paying $50 for some expert advice was well worth it for me.

Posted by
100 posts

Jordan-
Why keep returning to Ghent for the night when you visit Bruge and the coast? Move to Bruge Monday morning for two nights. Bruge is great. I stayed there 3 nights last year, and did a day on the coast and enjoyed getting off the tram 2-3 times, the main attraction being the old German Atlantik Wall.

Posted by
5 posts

My husband and did a similar trip about 8 years ago, with a focus on the spring classics (including the Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix). We spent time in Ghent, Yrpes, Ostende, Brugge, and Brussels (not in this particular order). We did everything by train and bus. Assuming you're fit, I see no reason for renting a car unless you really want to go someplace off-the-beaten path.

Random thoughts:

  1. I liked Ghent but I agree with the other commenter that it is clearly a university town. That means there are plenty of cheap, uninspiring places to eat...so you have to search out the better places...which exist, but not where all the students are located. (This is a universal phenomena, I think!) It's beautiful and we found great things to do, but I probably wouldn't spend more than two days there.

  2. I think we took the train to Ostende from Brugge or maybe it was from Ghent (it's all a blur...too much beer drinking during the bike races!) I agree with others that Ostende is not quite what we thought it would be....huge port, huge ships. That being said, one of our best memories was biking along the windy coast, walking by the food vendors and ordering some herring only to have a seagull swoop down and grab a herring out of my husband's hand as he was making a point while talking. (You are warned not to feed the seagulls and we tried to be careful. The gulls are aggressive!) There are a lot of people, but if you have the right mind set (as with anything), it can still be enjoyable.

  3. We spent a long day in Ypres and went to the World War I museum. It was hauntingly beautiful and thought-provoking. To get myself in the right mindset, I read "All Quiet's on the Western Front" before heading to Belgium for a deeper understanding of what it was like to fight in WWI.

  4. For some reason, I wasn't a real fan of Brussels. We spent 3 nights there and I just never got "into" it. Our good friends loved, loved, LOVED Antwerp, so if I ever went back to Belgium, I'd want to head there for several days and just use Brussels as our transportation hub.

  5. If you get a chance, watch a local bike race. Not sure of your schedule, but it was incredible. Cycling fans are intense and so fun. Beer tents are set up near the race course, the rush of spectators watching as the cyclist race by is incredible, and it's highly entertaining to watch the bets that old-timers place on the young cyclists. And of course, watching a local sporting event in a local pub is not to be missed.

Enjoy!

Posted by
1 posts

Hi Jordan, I live in Antwerp and being a belgian here are some thoughts ;)

Skip Baarle Nassau ( nothing to see ;)
Skip the coast, besides the sand and the sea. not worth your trip is such limited time
Do a big city on Sunday because smaller are mostly dead on Sundays..

SO as a suggestion

Saturday night (book nice place in brussels 2 nights)

Sunday Brussels

Monday Ghent ( 2 nights)

Tuesday day trip Bruges ( sleep in ghent, bette restaurants less touristy, Bruges is besides tourist more a place for old folks, Ghent is such more lively due to all the students))

Wednesday Ypres last post is at 8pm and take a train back to Antwerp last one is at 10:15 PM (ANTWERP 2 Nights wednesday-thursday- friday)
Thursday: Antwerp
Friday : Antwerp
Saturday: train to Namen or Charleroi stay overnight or take train back to brussels..

If you need insider tips on any let me know..what your looking for...

Regards

E

Posted by
504 posts

If you are interested in military history, I would not skip Ostende. Its Atlantikwall open air museum is a well preserved example of coastal defenses. The Germans fortified the area in both world wars, and the complex of tunnels and bunkers is still there. Many of the chambers are equipped as they would have been during the wars. It is different from the dank empty concrete shells that you often find in similar sites.

Posted by
616 posts

I would not bother going to Charleroi unless you are interested in coal mine history.
In Wallonia, Namur (or Namen in Flemish), Liege, Andenne, Huy are interesting.
If you have to choose only one; chose Liege.