Things to Do in Flanders
Spearheading the rejuvenation of the once derelict Willemdok harbor area,Museum aan de Stroom (MAS) (which translates as ‘Museum on the River’) opened in 2011 to great acclaim – as much for its stellar architecture as its thoughtful, well-curated exhibitions paying homage to the city of Antwerp, its history and culture. Sitting just north of the city center on a dock commissioned by Napoleon in 1811, the museum was designed by Dutch architects Neutelings Riedijk and towers 60 m (197 ft) above the harbor. It is comprised of layers of bright-red sandstone bricks held together with glass and steel; the five themed floors of interactive and entertaining displays make use of nearly half a million artifacts – including anything from Old Master paintings to model boats, newsreel, penny farthings, model ships and personal accounts on video – to showcase Antwerp’s development into one of Europe’s largest ports, a diamond capital and a multiracial center of learning and culture. On the ninth and top floor an outdoor terrace gives views stretching over the city to the River Scheldt, where the Antwerp story began. Unusually for a museum, MAS also has the double-Michelin-starred restaurant ‘t Zilte, presided over by chef Viki Geunes. Outside is the MAS Boulevard, with a couple of small temporary exhibition galleries and pretty views over the bobbing boats in the harbor.
One of Belgium’s best-preserved medieval fortresses, Gravensteen Castle (also known as the Castle of the Counts) boasts thick stone walls, crenellated towers, and a history laced with intrigue and torture. Today, the landmark is a historical gem in the heart of Ghent; stop by to learn its often dark history firsthand.
The medieval-style Markt (Market Square) is the setting for Bruges’ most photogenic landmarks, including the belfry (Belfort) and the Provinciaal Hof. At its center stands a statue of Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck, who played leading roles in the Flemish resistance against the French in the 1302 Battle of the Golden Spurs.
Surrounded by a park that’s long been known as a romantic place for a stroll, Minnewater—also known as the Lake of Love—is a great place for anyone looking for some quiet time in nature. Swans are a common site on the lake, and the traditional Belgian brick houses around it make the park particularly photogenic.
Bruges often tops the list of Europe’s most picturesque cities, and its Historic Center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, abounds with photo opportunities. A warren of cobbled lanes and scenic canals opens out onto grand medieval squares framed by colorful old buildings and dramatic Gothic facades.
Forming the backbone of Antwerp’s artistic heritage, Rubens House (Rubenshuis) is a top draw for travelers. The former home of Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens, who lived in Antwerp for most of his life, is decorated with marble Roman busts and antique furniture that reflect the sumptuous lifestyle enjoyed by Antwerp’s most illustrious son.
Between the late 19th century and World War II, the historic Red Star Line carried more than two million passengers across the Atlantic Ocean to start new lives in the United States, and this compelling museum was opened in September 2013 to tell the story of the migrants and showcase the backstory of the shipping company. Housed in the red-brick former company sheds, washrooms and waiting rooms in Eilandje, north of the city center, the museum buildings themselves are protected monuments. Here medical examinations took place, luggage was disinfected and would-be emigrants were assessed for suitability to enter the US. The museum’s permanent collections include a touching number of letters, faded photos and multimedia presentations of personal interviews, all displayed cleverly against a colorful, well-curated selection of posters, model ships and Red Star Line souvenirs; individuals seeking out family histories can do so in the Warehouse, where the shipping line’s records are computerized and available to all. The newly built lookout tower replaced an earlier chimney that was pulled down in 1936; it haspanoramic views across the waters of the River Scheldt and surrounding quays.
The brick spire of the Church of Our Lady is visible across the city. Home to several important artworks, including Michelangelo’s marble Madonna and Child, the restored interior of the church is a must-visit for fans of European architecture.
With its maze of cobbled streets and squares, striking old buildings, and network of scenic canals, the UNESCO-listed Historic Centre of Bruges is undeniably picturesque. A boat trip down the romantic canals of Bruges is at the top of the bucket list for many Belgium visitors, and there’s no better way to experience this beautiful city than from the water.
Set back from a main street in a small park behind a medieval gate, the Groeningemuseum is one of the finest art museums in the country. It holds a collection that covers around 600 years of Flemish and Belgian painting, from the 14th through the 20th century, with 11 rooms arranged in chronological order.
More Things to Do in Flanders
Antwerp’s main railway station, nicknamedSpoorwegkathedraal (Railway Cathedral) by locals, features glass-and-iron vaulted ceilings, an ornate central dome, and hundreds of gilded flourishes. An extensive restoration of the station was completed in 2009, when a shopping mall and two further platforms were added to the complex.
The In Flanders Fields Museum is a World War I museum is located in a famous cloth hall in the center of Ypres, Belgium. The major theme of the museum is the consequences of war. Mirrors are used to inspire visitors to examine how we look at the past, how and why we remember, and how we view the nations involved in World War I. The museum encourages visitors to reflect on the major historical events as well as the personal stories of individuals. Visitors will learn about how the war affected the lives of thousands of people of different nationalities who were involved in the war. The museum also has a heavy focus on how the war affected West Flanders and the city of Ypres.
Visitors receive a poppy bracelet for a one euro deposit when they enter the museum. The bracelet has a microchip in it which tells the stories of four individuals, in the language you choose, as you walk through the exhibits in the museum. You can also climb 231 steps to the top of the bell tower for views of the city and the Ypres Salient battlefields.
The medieval quays of Graslei and Korenlei face each other across the canalized River Leie and originally formed part of Tusschen Brugghen, the city’s thriving harbour. Their banks are lined with a rare architectural treat – the loveliest gabled guild houses and warehouses in Belgium, built between the 1200s and 1600s by rich merchants and guilds whose wealth came from trade. The streets are united by St Michael’s Bridge, from where their gabled delights can be seen at best advantage, and although considerable restoration work has taken place, these distinctive townhouses have maintained their allure.
Graslei is lined by canal-side restaurants blessed with a graceful backdrop of gabled gild houses; the oldest is the Het Spijker (Stockpile House) at no. 10; other ornate façades once contained the guild houses of the stonemasons, the free boatmen and the grain measurers as well as the former customs house. Across the river from Graslei, Korenlei offers many surprises of its own, including imposing step-gabled, red-brick 16th-century houses. No. 9 is of particular interest for the gilded swans adorning the facade; in its time De Swaene has been both a brewery and a bordello. The pink-and-white Gildehuis van de Onvrije Schippers (Guild House of the Tied Boatmen) dates from 1739 and is a masterpiece of Flemish Baroque architecture.
By day, tour boats leave from the quays of Graslei and Korenlei; after dark the district morphs into party central and restaurants, cafés and bars sprout along the quaysides.
Dominating the city skyline from all angles, the striking, 83-meter high Belfry (Belfort) is one of Bruges’ most iconic landmarks, standing proud over the central Market Square. Dating back to 1240, the historic bell tower has undergone a number of changes over the years, damaged by fire in the late 13th-century and hit by lightning twice. Today, the Belfort is both a UNESCO World heritage site and one of the city’s top tourist attractions.
A popular pastime for visitors is climbing the 366 spiraling steps to the top of the 83-meter-high tower, from where the panoramic views look out over the entire city and it’s possible to peek inside the carillon with its 47 bells and impressive clockwork mechanism. Along the way, a number of small rooms are also open to the public, including the old treasury, where the city’s rights and charters were once kept, and an exhibition on the tower’s bells.
Owner of the oldest of the three great spires that dominate the pedestrianized heart of Ghent, the St. Nicholas’ Church (Sint-Niklaaskerk) was constructed between the 13th and 15th centuries in an eye-catching mixture of Romanesque and Flemish Gothic architectural styles. Built of Tournai limestone, its lovely exterior is adorned with flying buttresses and spiky spires as well as an imposing central tower; all this grandeur was paid for by Ghent’s wealthy medieval merchants to signal their wealth to the rival Flanders trading cities of Bruges and Antwerp. It’s probably more beautiful inside than out, but nevertheless all eyes lead to the Baroque high altar with its twisted side columns, floodlit through stained-glass windows high above. The church is currently under restoration but faint traces of fresco can still be seen on the supporting pillars of the nave. For the best view of St Nicholas’s flying buttresses, head for the viewing platform of the Belfry a few steps away.
Burg Square sits on the former site of a castle, which was originally built to protect the area from invading Vikings and Normans (and remained the seat of the Counts of Flanders for more than 500 years). The castle is now gone, but the charming public square that replaced it, the Burg, has been the heart of Bruges ever since.
One of Europe’s major World War I landmarks, the Menin Gate Memorial (sometimes known as the Ypres Memorial) commemorates more than 54,000 British and Commonwealth troops who perished in the Flanders region. Many of these soldiers were never formally buried, and their names are inscribed on the historic gate in a lasting tribute.
Bruges City Hall (Stadhuis van Brugge) is Belgium’s oldest building and arguably Bruges’ most beautiful. Constructed between 1376 and 1420, the flamboyant, Gothic-style building was one of the first grand town halls in the Low Countries. The city has been governed from this building for more than 700 years.
Bruges’ Princely Beguinage Ten Wijngaarde is one of the most famous and best preserved of Belgium’s UNESCO-listed Beguinages. One of the town’s most-visited attractions, it offers a glimpse into the European Beguine movement of the Middle Ages.
Fronted by a Romanesque, baroque and Gothic facade, Ghent’s cavernous cathedral serves as a repository for a valuable collection of art treasures, including works by Rubens and Laurent Delvaux. Its showpiece attraction is the Van Eyck brothers’ world-renowned 24-panel altarpiece,The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.
About 84 percent of the world’s uncut diamonds pass through Antwerp’s Diamond Quarter, an enclave of side streets just west of Central Station. Every year more than £32 billion in polished, cut diamonds pass through the four trading exchanges, regulated by the Antwerp World Diamond Centre and bringing massive wealth into the city. Although today the Diamond Quarter is also home to Indian, Lebanese, Russian and Chinese gem dealers, creating a vividly multicultural atmosphere, most of the city’s diamond trading is still run by the Hassidic Jewish community; more than 8,000 people are involved in the industry and there are even kosher banks exclusively dedicated to financing diamond deals. The nondescript shop fronts on the little tangle of streets centered on Hoveniersstraat hide diamond dealers, cutters – world-renowned for their skill – and polishers as well as kosher butchers, bakeries and synagogues. Some of the biggest, glossiest salesrooms offer tours of their workshops and expert advice on buying; the free ‘Antwerp Loves Diamonds’ map is available from the tourist information offices in Grote Markt and in Central Station, while the Antwerp Diamond Bus runs hop-on, hop-off services around all the areas of the city associated with the trade.
Book-ending the square of Botermarkt with St Bavo’s Cathedral, the ornate UNESCO-listed Belfry and the Cloth Hall at its feet stand testament to the great wealth of Ghent in the 14th century; built with money from members of the wool and textiles guilds, they are in striking Brabant Gothic style. The Belfry is topped with a gilded copper dragon and holds a carillon of 54 bells that have rung for more than six centuries; take the elevator to the viewing gallery at 66 m (217 ft) above Sint-Baafsplein to see the bells and take in panoramic views of gabled facades, St Bavo’s Cathedral and the Gothic ornamentation of St Nicholas’ Church. A small museum displays models of the church, a few pieces of armor and the original dragon from atop the tower.
The Cloth Hall dates from 1425 and was built as the storehouse for textile produced in Ghent; every piece had to be inspected here for quality before it could be exported. The hall still has its original carved wooden ceiling and a Baroque extension added in 1741 served as the city’s prison until 1902. Like Graslei and Korenlei, the Belfry looks spectacular when floodlit at night.
The Battle of Passchendaele in summer and fall 1917 was one of the bloodiest and most futile of World War I; in just over 100 days more than half a million soldiers were killed and in that time Allied troops advanced on the Germans by a mere five miles (eight km) amid the trenches of the Ypres Salient in Flanders.
The museum dedicated to the fallen victims of the battle is found in a small chateau in the village of Zonnebeke, the scene of heavy fighting south of Bruges. It was opened in 2004 and the main exhibition follows the sorry story of the battle; a new display entitled ‘Remembrance’ focuses on the aftermath of the war for the soldiers, local civilians and the beleaguered Flanders landscape. Along with black-and-white images, weaponry, uniforms and heart-rending personal letters, the museum has a reconstructed dug out and a replica line of trenches constructed in the chateau grounds in 2013, where a series of lakeside memorial gardens are dedicated to all the nations who fought at Passchendaele.
Many people combine a visit to the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 with visiting Tyn Cot, the biggest Commonwealth cemetery in the world with 12,000 graves, and attending the ‘Last Post’ ceremony in nearby Ypres, which was left in ruins after the Battle of Passchendaele. The ceremony takes place daily at 8pm at the Menin Gate memorial.
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