THE LOW DOWN
When people hear Belgium, most can only summon up images of beer, mussels and a certain enthusiastic boy reporter. Apart from this, not much else is known about this green and pleasant land of 10.5 million people, tucked neatly between the Netherlands and France – and almost no one in Europe can even name three famous Belgians (if you’re asked, just say Jean-Claude Van Damme, Brian Molko from the band Placebo and 16thcentury artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder).
However, one thing is for sure, it’s a place you’ll definitely want to explore. North of Brussels is the Flanders region, home to three amazing cities, all clean, efficient and full of red-cheeked Belgians whizzing around on bicycles. Maybe you’ve heard of the romantic canals of Bruges, whose beautifully preserved medieval setting has earned it a place on Unesco’s coveted World Heritage list. Then there’s Antwerp. For those in the know, this port city and fashion capital is one of the coolest places to be in Europe – a design hub that’s brimming with boutiques, diamonds, bars and B&Bs so luxurious you’ll never set foot in a chain hotel again!
The third of Belgium’s northern stars is Ghent. Built on the banks of two rivers, this buzzing student city also offers a wealth of history to explore and the best in Flemish cuisine. It’s arguably the centre of the beer universe, too – some barmen even refuse to serve the tourists Leffe, as one puts it (only half-jokingly): “That’s not even a beer, mate!”
Better still, the towns are easy to reach by train, direct from Brussels Charleroi – so maybe you’ll want to visit all three!
ANTWERP 45mins from Brussels city centre It says a lot about the hedonistic nature of Antwerp that trains should drop you off in the middle of the world’s most famous diamond district. A hotbed of fashion design talent, this city is shopping heaven, with a host of stylish museums, bars and restaurants to boot.
Kick off your tour of Belgium’s second city at the flamboyant home and studio of 17thcentury Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (9-11 Wapper), where you’ll find numerous works of art. Rubens is a local star, and his masterpieces can be found throughout the city, best of all at the baroque church of St Paul (14 Veemarkt) and Antwerp’s stunning gothic Cathedral. The Royal Museum of Fine Arts (Leopold de Waelplaats) has some inspired Flemish art, alongside the likes of international names, notably Jean Fouquet and Frans Hals.
The trendy Het Suid quarter is home to most of the big museums and here you’ll find more of the city’s creative buzz, with cutting-edge modern art at MUHKA (31 Leuvenstraat), and contemporary exhibitions at the FotoMuseum (47 Waalse Kaai), which has a great bookshop to browse afterwards.
Chill with cocktails and chopsticks at trendy Japanese-style lounge bar Stereo Sushi (6 Luikstraat), or if you’re on the move, head around the corner from the FotoMuseum to Haute Fritture (66 Vlaamsekaai), whose lucky
The city’s status as a fashion destination was established back in the 1980s, by the Antwerp Six, a group of groundbreaking designers from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Although not all the group are as influential as they once were, Walter Van Beirendonck, Ann Demeulemeester, Dries van Noten and Dirk Bikkembergs still draw shoppers from all over the world, and the “generations” that followed have continued to impress on the catwalks.