Belgium. A country that is especially beautiful in the sun, and astoundingly delicious any time of the year, thanks to its best-in-the-world beer, waffles and chocolate (according to, well, everyone).
But what really sets Belgium apart is its unique culture. It’s a country that prides itself on good quality living, as the French do, possesses excellent working ethics, like the Germans, and understands the subtleties of dry humour, like the English.
It’s a liberal, multicultural, and a historically rich beacon of Europe, offering some incredibly rare experiences if you look close enough. Here are some of the best off-the-grid highlights that are well worth a visit in conjunction with Belgium’s holiday hotspots, to see another side of this beautiful country away from the tourist throngs.
The Blue Forest (The Hallerbos) - Brussels, Halle
As if it were picked out of a fairy tale book, the Blue Forest is an enchanting, serene space nestled twenty kilometres away from Brussels, just outside of Halle. Explore the forest in spring (late April), and be captivated by a dreamlike carpet of bluebells blanketing the woodland floor. Beech trees are the keepers of the forest, and their emerald green leaves contrast spectacularly with the bluebells; the Hallerbos is a photographer and nature lover’s dream, and well worth travelling further afield to see.
Royal Greenhouses of Laeken - Brussels
Built between 1884 and 1996, the Royal Greenhouses of Laeken embody King Leopold’s lavish tastes, influenced by his travels in central Africa. Situated within the Royal estate’s ground, the exquisite glass dome shelters the rare beauty of the Congo: stunning tropical plants native to the area, such as the richly coloured azaleas and geraniums. This sight harbours bittersweet thoughts, that such beauty is linked to King Leopold’s grim exploitation of the native people of the Congo during his reign. But there’s no doubt of its historical intrigue. If you plan to visit, the greenhouse is open for just two weeks per year in late April and early May.
Caves of Remouchamps - Remouchamps
Visit this natural marvel that was once used as a shelter during World War II and 8,000 years ago by Palaeolithic hunters. Walk along a mysterious path encompassed by stalactites and stalagmites, towards a ‘grand Cathedral’ deep within the caves. A boat ride begins from here, leading up to the main event. These caves are home to the longest subterranean river in the world and are open to visitors who can float along the waters to admire the Remouchamps caves’ rare beauty. You may also be able to spot the local bats, and if you look carefully into the river, you could see Niphargus: blind, translucent shrimp illuminating the water’s surface.
Gravensteen - Ghent, Belgium
Gravensteed is an enchanting castle with a bleak past that will stir the darker side of your human curiosity. In the middle ages, the castle was a tomb of torture and injustice, made so by Count Philip of Alsace. Recognised for its use of atrocities, in the 19th century, a pledge emerged to take the castle down. However, a preservation group stepped in to save what you can see today: an albeit historically gruesome but hugely important part of Belgium's history, and one of the most spectacular castles standing today.
Coudenberg Palace - Uptown Brussels
Sadly, the Coudenberg Palace had no such support and was ripped down in 1731. What remains of this grand Palace that seated Counts, Dukes, Archdukes, Kings, Emperors and Governors is an archaeological maze of vestiges and buried foundations. Go beneath its modern replacement, the Palace Royal, and transport yourself into the 11th century, exploring Coudenberg’s complex cellars hiding underground. The floor you can walk along once belonged to Rue Isabelle, an entire street that was vaulted in the 18th century. The basements inside are the streets remnants, a bizarre concept that’s fun to get your head around!
Dinant - Namure
On your first visit to Dinant, you’ll be perplexed at how this picturesque municipality is rarely discussed as a highlight of Belgium. Discover a stunning (small but suitably so) town which sits on the edge of the River Meuse. The contrast between the red and white ornate buildings, reflecting against the blue, sparkling river is a sight to behold. And there’s a huge amount of things to do and see, from strolling along the river by foot or by cruise, exploring Dinant’s striking gothic architecture at the Collegiale Notre Dame de Dinant, learning about the beer-making process (because Belgium) at Maison Leffe, or taking the perfect holiday shot at the incredible Rocher Bayard.
Comic Strip Route
Explore the city of Brussels, and you may discover a very colourful secret. Splashed against the city's historic buildings are over fifty masterfully painted comic murals; a nod to the rich history of Franco-Belgian comics within Belgium. Tours provide the perfect opportunity to understand how the Franco-Belgian comic movement has influenced Brussels, and insight into how the unique artform is continuing to flourish, unlike in other Western countries. Comic fans and lovers of art will be talking about the experience for days, especially after seeing some notable characters, from Asterix and Tintin to Assassin XIII
Which secret will you choose to uncover?
Whether you’re looking to enjoy Belgium’s underground beauty, its picturesque towns, the hidden marvels of its capital city, or the fairy tale landscapes concealed by ancient forests; this country has is all, and more.
Have you been to Belgium before? We’d love to hear about it, and better yet, share your own secrets and help us add to the list.