Ghent, Bruges, and Antwerp are Belgium's best-known fairy-tale cities, and even Brussels has its charms. But have you heard of these other gems? These 9 towns are a must on any trip through the low-lying country.
Belgium's fourth-largest town was one of the first coal mining cities in Europe. As a result, it's a hodge-podge of architectural styles covering everything from the 11th to the 20th centuries. But although it lacks the gingerbread-esque quality of Bruges or Ghent, it still has enough to offer any curious tourist
The Museum of Walloon Life, once a 17th century monastery, exhibits everything from folk art and traditional clothing to the varied religious history of Wallonia and its many festivals. Liege is also home to many churches, such as the bright red-and-white Church of Saint-Barthelemy, first built between the 11th and 12th centuries. The Meuse River rolls through the city, and its promenade is the perfect place to get a sense of Liege's bustling, industrial history.
Replete with Flemish architecture and charming churches, Mechelen was home to the supreme court of the Low Countries in the late 15th century, and was the start of continental Europe's first railroad in 1835.
It doesn't take long to stumble upon the city's storied history. There are at least eight churches full of Flemish Baroque art, and St. John's Church is even home to a triptych by Peter Paul Rubens, one of the masters of Flemish painting. The Grote Markt is the town's main square, where architecture across epochs of Flemish history blend together.
Besides art and history, Mechelen boasts stylish boutiques and hip riverside bars. The Toy Museum on the outskirts of town holds one of the largest toy collections in Europe, and hosts interactive exhibitions of games dating all the way back to the time of Napoleon.
Ypres is for those with a keen interest in the weird and the wonderful. The city is most commonly associated with the trauma of the First World War, and it now proudly wears the title of "city of peace." It was a thriving center for the textile trade in the 13th century, and the massive Cloth Hall, a replica of the original that was destroyed during World War I, is a testament to the city's success.
The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing is a tribute to the soldiers of the British Commonwealth who were never found after the myriad batles that took place on the outskirts of Ypres during World War I. Here, every evening at 8 PM, traffic stops around the gate and the mournful sound of the Last Post plays under its arches, a tribute to those who never returned.
Ypres is also home to the Festival of Cats, which takes place every three years in May. During the festival, a clown stands in the belfry of the main square, tossing toy cats onto the crowd of onlookers below. Festival-goers dress in medieval garb, as witches, as cats, or even as mice and parade through the city. Throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, cats were often associated with witchcraft and evil, and the tradition is thought to be connected to a medieval ritual in which live cats were tossed from the belfry.
Founded in 877 CE as an extention of the Saint Bertin Abbey in Saint-Omer, Veurne became an official city in the 12th century. It managed to remain intact during the First World War and the architecture of the market square can still be enjoyed in its original splendor. Full of Gothic and Renaissance buildings, Veurne also boasts an excellent food market with local products from the region. It's off the beaten tourist track, making it perfect for avoiding the crowds but still getting a glimpse of Belgian history.
The Boeteprocessie takes place on the last Sunday in July, as religious individuals in hooded garments carry crosses across the city, reenacting the passion of Christ.
Dinant strikes quite the pose on the banks of the Meuse River. With craggy hills in the background and lovely architecture facing the water it's impossible not to be intrigued. The city is full of quirky Saxophones, thanks to the fact that Adolphe Sax, the instrument's inventor, was born in Dinant. The Maison de la Pataphonie is a 15th century house turned interactive museum that allows visitors to play instruments made of common materials like bicycle gears. Dinant is also the home of Maison Leffe, one of Belgium's most iconic beers, and the brand's brewhouse offers tastings and tours. There are even options for hiking and other outdoor activities, thanks to the rugged terrain surrounding the town.